Ahead of the paperback coming out next month we have a thrilling extract from Francesca Haig’s The Forever Ship – the final instalment in the enthralling Fire Sermon Trilogy…
And so it did end in fire, after all: the flame bursting from its white centre. The blast opening like an eye. I’d seen that shape in my visions so many times that the explosion felt like coming home.
The water sealed over the boat’s wake, erasing all trace of us. The sea had always been good at keeping secrets.
There was a song that bards used to sing, about ghosts. I’d heard it when Zach and I were children. Leonard and Eva had sung it, too, the night we met them. In the song, a man had strangled his lover and then been haunted by her ghost. He’d fled across the river to escape her, because ghosts can’t travel over water.
As I sat in the prow of the boat, I knew better.
‘Stop looking at me like that,’ Paloma said.
‘Like what?’ I said.
I turned my face back to the fire, squinting against the smoke. I couldn’t deny that I’d been staring. I watched her all the time. Sometimes I woke and half expected that she would be gone – that she had never come at all, or that she’d been nothing but a shape we had conjured out of our longing for Elsewhere.
But she had come: pale, like somebody seen through mist. Not the blondeness of Crispin, or of Elsa, who had hair with gold in it, and pink-flushed skin. Paloma’s hair was so blonde it was nearly grey, like driftwood – as if she’d washed up on the beach instead of sailing here on The Rosalind. Her skin had a bleached-straw whiteness, and her eyes were light blue – barely a colour at all.
‘Like I’m some kind of ghost,’ Paloma said. She leaned forward to prod the fire.
I met her eyes. ‘Sorry.’
She swept her hand in the air, brushing away my apology. ‘It’s not your fault. You all do it.’
She was right. After we’d found The Rosalind, in the few days I’d spent aboard I’d seen how even the sailors who’d travelled with Paloma for months still paused in their conversations when she passed them on the deck, and followed her movements from the corners of their eyes as they worked on the ship’s repairs. Piper and Zoe stared at her too. And since we’d left the ship, and headed inland towards New Hobart, I found myself watching her all the time. She was a rumour made flesh. A person from Elsewhere. A person without a twin. Both of those ideas were so outlandish that it felt strange, sometimes, to see her picking out fish bones that had stuck between her teeth, or trimming her fingernails with her dagger. These were everyday things, and I wasn’t prepared for her to be so real.
‘We’re just curious,’ I said.
‘I know,’ she said, her accent making unfamiliar shapes from the familiar words.
She had her own curiosity, too. As we spoke she stared at Piper and Zoe. A short distance from the fire, they were patching a water flask, using a glue that Zoe had made by rendering pine resin over the fire until the whole clearing was sharp with the stink of pine pitch. Paloma watched as Zoe stretched the leather of the flask flat on the ground, while Piper applied the patch.
‘When I see those two together—’ she gestured to Piper and Zoe ‘—it’s like something from a bard’s song come to life. An old story, so old you can’t be sure it was ever real.’
We were sitting together on the ground, close to the fire, looking at each other across a gulf that was wider than the miles of sea that lay between here and her homeland. Untwinned and twinned, each of us had stepped out of the other’s myth.
The first days of our journey inland had been hard, snow thick on the mountain passes and turning to grey slush as we descended. Now the Spine Mountains were behind us, the snow had sunk into the ground. The days were starting earlier, and at night the sun refused to go down, lurking for hours on the horizon before sinking beyond the mountains in a red haze. Spring was coming.
When I was a child, I used to long for spring. It meant an end to the cold, and to the annual floods that swallowed the low-lying fields. It meant summer was nearly here: there would be swimming in the river with Zach, and long days out of the house, and away from the scrutiny of our parents.
Now, though, there were so many changes, so quickly. The tanks. The bomb. Elsewhere. Paloma. This spring’s dawning – wildflowers returning colour to the land, thistles forcing their prickly stalks above the earth – brought with it only fear of what would follow.
Paloma was still watching Zoe and Piper.
‘My grandmother claimed to have seen twins,’ Paloma said. ‘In Elsewhere?’ I asked.
‘It’s not called Elsewhere,’ she snapped. She’d already corrected me several times – I knew that in her homeland they called it the Scattered Islands – but it was hard to adjust a lifetime of habit. ‘Anyway,’ she went on, ‘nobody’s had a twin there for hundreds of years. Except for way off on some of the Northern Isles. Our expeditions only found them a century ago, so they didn’t get the treatment until then. There are people from there who say they can remember twins. My grandmother was born up there. She said her mother had a twin. But I don’t even know if that’s true.’ She gave a small shrug. ‘My grandmother was always a bit of a storyteller.’
There were only the four of us now, heading south-east towards New Hobart: me, Piper, Zoe and Paloma. Thomas and his crew had remained on the coast with The Rosalind, to continue the repairs and to keep her away from the Council fleet’s patrols.
Each night, around the fire, we brought our questions to Paloma, like offerings. She did her best to answer, but whenever we asked her about how they ended the twinning, she ran out of words.
‘I don’t know the details of how it works,’ she said. ‘The doctors are in charge of all of that stuff. Nobody else is allowed to deal with it. The doctors come around and give out the medicine: an injection for all new babies, and a booster at twelve for anyone on the outer islands, where the radiation’s worse.’
‘And here we are—’ she looked down at her right leg, missing from just below the knee ‘—all of us, with some-thing like this. No more twins. And nobody like you.’ She gestured to Zoe. There was naked curiosity in her eyes as she stared at Zoe, and her unmarred body, Alpha. The end of the twinning came with a price, as the dwellers of Elsewhere and the Ark had discovered. Without the twins, every single person shared in the mutations brought about by the blast. No more of the intact bodies that the Alphas prized above all.
Paloma spoke of Elsewhere’s doctors in the same way that many here spoke of the Council: with a mixture of awe and fear. ‘There isn’t a central government – just a loose confederacy of councils from the different islands. But all the islands get the medicine from the doctors on Blackwater. And I think even the Confederacy obeys the doctors, really. They’re the ones who ended the plague of twins, and keep it from coming back.’
‘And other machines?’ Piper asked. ‘The Electric?’
She shook her head. ‘We had purges, too, like you did here.’ We’d told her about the taboo: the fear that had grown out of the blast, as surely as the mutations of the survivors’ bodies. We knew little about the blast, but we knew that it had been created by machines. Those few machines that survived the blast were destroyed in the purges. Even now, four hundred years later, people shuddered away from any remnants of machines from the Before.
‘At home,’ Paloma continued, ‘they call it the Scouring. All the machines that couldn’t heal us, or serve us – that was the law. Most of it was gone already, in the blast, or went to ruin without the power. They ran on fuel that we don’t have. People used to dig it from the earth – a kind of oil. But in the blast . . .’ She shrugged and raised both hands, empty. ‘Everything that could burn, burned. The oilfields kept burning for more than eight years. And there’s a coal seam north of Blackwater that they say burned under-ground for more than fifty. They say there was nothing they could do to stop it.’
‘And now?’ Piper said.
‘There’s not a lot of machines left. The comms machines stopped working a long time ago. Maybe the Confederacy didn’t bother to keep them going – not after centuries of transmitting messages, and hearing nothing back. The only ones who have machines these days are the doctors. They work on things like this—’ she looked again at her leg, the false limb neat in its socket. ‘And they do what they can against the plagues that come most winters.’
‘How many people are there, living in Elsewhere?’ Zoe asked.
‘Counting the Northern Isles? About a million. Hard to know exactly. Like I said, it’s hundreds of islands, some of them days’ sailing from Blackwater – and for the Northern Isles or the Southern Archipelago it’s a voyage lasting weeks.’
She tugged the blanket that we were sharing a little closer to her side, and leaned forward to take off her false leg. It unfastened just below her knee with a firm click. Her trousers were rolled to her knees, and the tip of a pole protruded through the skin, like a steel bone emerging from the flesh, onto which the false leg fitted. There was scarring around the pole, but not the thick battle-scarring of Piper’s arm and hand; instead, it was a neat line, pink on her white flesh. The scar wasn’t raised; so smooth that if you ran a finger over it, I doubted that you would be able to feel it. It made me think of Kip, and how cunningly his scar had been hidden, so that even my curious hands had never discovered it.
The first few times Paloma had taken her leg off, and laid it near her on the ground, I’d found it disconcerting. I’d seen limbs severed before, and the sight of the leg tossed onto the ground made me wince at memories of the battle on the island, or of the wreckage of bodies in the snow outside New Hobart. But there was a sterile neatness to her false leg: no blood, no hair, no toenails. Just the precisely contoured surface.
She saw me looking at it. ‘You can touch it. I don’t mind.’
I leaned forward and picked it up. It looked like flesh but was hard and cold to the touch. It was lighter, too, than flesh would be.
‘Does it hurt?’ I asked, looking at the steel pole below her knee. ‘No,’ she said. ‘It did when they fitted it. It was a big operation. My parents took me to Blackwater, where the doctors are. We knew there were risks. But it’s been worth it. I can walk more easily. The old false leg, the one I used to strap on, used to hurt me. I’d get ulcers here—’ she touched the end of her stump. It felt strange holding her limb. If I were to toss it on the fire she would feel nothing. It was less a part of her than Zach’s body was a part of mine.
That night I dreamed of him. Zach stood facing me. It was dark, barely light enough to see, so I reached out a hand to his face. When I trailed my thumb across his forehead, I felt a burn: a blistered shape, hot and fat with fluid, precisely where my own brand sat. I could smell the cooked flesh.
‘It hurts,’ he said, flinching from my touch.
‘I know,’ I said.
I woke, my hand on my forehead, where the Omega brand had left its mark, a puckered, pinking scar. I could still remember how it had felt, the day that Zach had finally exposed me as the Omega twin, and watched me being branded. In the twenty-something years of my life, I’d learned a little of the vocabulary of pain. The pain of a burn has a unique urgency, the whole body recoiling against it, the same way a finger jerks back from a hot skillet. When I remembered the branding, I could still feel the Councilman’s hand on my neck, holding me in place as he forced the brand against my forehead.
All through that day’s travelling, I thought of Zach, and the brand he had worn in my dream. It had felt so real – I could feel the blister’s texture under my fingertips.
‘Better than your usual nightmares, at least,’ Zoe said, when I told her what I’d dreamed. ‘Zach being branded makes a nice change from the end of the world.’
I laughed, but I knew that the two were connected: Zach’s branded face, and the blast he was trying to unleash.
When Paloma talked of Elsewhere, there was so much that I couldn’t recognise. The twinless people. The scattering of islands, spread over hundreds of miles. The mysterious doctors, and their medicines. But there was one thing that was all too familiar: the blast.
She didn’t call it that – instead, she called it the bomb. But she spoke of it in the same way that it was spoken of here: the same silences, and the same gaps, where words faltered on the brink of the flames.
‘It wasn’t just the fire,’ she said. ‘It was the force of the explosion – that’s what they say. Entire islands just disappeared: the bomb shattered them. My mum showed me an old map – there are whole islands on it that just aren’t there now.’
The bomb had made the map into nothing but a story: a careful rendering of islands that didn’t exist any more. Merely outlines on paper, meaning nothing in our scorched world.
‘They say that there was a wave, afterwards,’ she said. ‘So high that any low-lying islands that had survived the bomb were swept clean. Nothing left at all.’ She exhaled slowly. ‘Imagine that: surviving the bomb somehow, and thinking that you might be OK, and then seeing the sea coming for you.’
She was quiet for a few moments.
‘Some survived both, though – the fire and the water. Not many, and for years it was nearly impossible to keep going. Not just the darkness, and the lack of food – all the babies were horribly sick. Even if they managed to live, they could barely walk when they grew up, let alone farm, or fish. And all the fish were dead, anyway. For months after the bomb, and after the wave, the dead fish were washing up. Piles of them, rotting on the beaches, and floating in the shallows.’ She gave a short laugh. ‘It’s funny – in all the stories that come down to us, that’s one of the things they always mention: the stink of all those fish. You’d think, after the bomb and the wave and everything that had happened, that somehow it wouldn’t matter – but so many of the stories mention it. How the world stank of dead fish, for months.’
Paloma told us stories of how, when the fish finally came back, they’d changed. They had bulbous growths on them, or more fins, more eyes. Some that had been striped or silver were pure white after the blast, as if even underwater they’d been bleached by the flash of the bomb.
And on land, too, the children were born into new bodies, in shapes that their parents didn’t recognise. Babies who looked half-formed, and refused to live. Then came what Paloma called the plague of twins: the doubling, the flaw-less babies paired with those who carried the burden of the mutations. The ones who were born together, and died together.
‘Nobody could believe it, at first,’ she said. ‘Even when they knew it was real, nobody fully understood how it worked, despite all the doctors’ research. But it only lasted a few generations. Then the doctors found a way to treat it, eventually, and it was over: no more twins.’ She spread her hands wide. ‘Finished.’ It seemed such a casual thing – a single word, to describe the end of everything that we knew.
Late into each night, we swapped stories; we told her about the deadlands, the stretch of land to the east, where nothing grows, and nothing moves but lizards and the drifts of ash. She told us about a place called the strike zone, an area to the south-east of Blackwater, where most of the islands had disappeared altogether. ‘And not even the birds will land on the few islands that are still there,’ she said. ‘On the Southern Archipelago, closest to the strike zone, the mutations are worse than anywhere else. Some of them can’t have children, even after the injections.’
‘Have you ever been there?’ Zoe said. ‘To the strike zone?’
Paloma shook her head. ‘But my father anchored off there once, when he went out that way, crewing on a seadog hunting ship. There were no fish in the water around it, and an oily sheen to the surface. Dad and the others rowed ashore for a few hours, just to look. In the south of the island there was a crater, miles and miles wide. He said it might have been a dried-up lake, or it might be from where a bomb hit. The ground was covered with grey sand.
‘He brought back a handful of it, in a jar, to show us. Mum said it was disgusting, made him throw it out before it frightened me and my sisters. But I went through the bin, that night, and found the jar. There was a tooth in it, and tiny pieces that might have been stone, or bone.’
Despite the hush in her voice when she told us stories of the strike zone, of the wave and the fire, Paloma nonethe-less spoke of the blast as something long gone. It had been six days since we’d left the coast to head towards New Hobart, but our warnings about the Council, and the blast machine that they had dug up from the Ark, didn’t seem to have penetrated.
‘She still doesn’t understand,’ I said to Zoe and Piper. We were whispering, drawn apart from the fire where Paloma was resting. ‘She asked again, yesterday. She still wants to try to set up a meeting with the Council.’
Zoe rolled her eyes. ‘Might as well tie a bow around herself, if she wants to hand them Elsewhere like a gift.’
There was a sound in the scrub behind Zoe. She jumped, spinning away from me, a knife already drawn. Piper had echoed her movement, pushing me behind a tree as he crouched next to Zoe, knife raised.
Paloma gave a yelp, raising her hands as she stepped out of the cover of the trees.
Zoe stepped back, slipping her knife back into her belt.
‘Be careful creeping around like that,’ she said quietly. ‘You didn’t come all the way across the sea just to get yourself skewered.’
‘I heard what you were saying,’ Paloma said. Her chin was tilted at a bold angle, but her hands were clenched to stop their shaking. ‘I’m not an idiot.’
‘Nobody said you were,’ said Zoe. ‘But you need to understand what you’re dealing with.’
‘I’m not afraid of your Council,’ she insisted.
‘You should be,’ Piper said.
‘Let me meet with them,’ Paloma said. ‘If I explain the trade terms that the Confederacy’s willing to negotiate, they’ll see the benefits.’
‘You’re not listening,’ Zoe said. ‘The Council will—’
‘I’m an emissary,’ interrupted Paloma. ‘Empowered by the Confederacy to make contact, establish terms for trading negotiations and mutual cooperation.’ Her voice grew faster and higher, as she repeated herself. ‘I’m an emissary, on a peaceful expedition.’
‘Not here, you’re not,’ I said. ‘Here, you’re the enemy. They’ll hunt you down.’ I had known Zach since birth, but even I was afraid of what he had become. And I had seen how much he feared The General, who ruled the Council. Together, with the blast in their power, they would have no mercy towards Elsewhere. There was no if or perhaps or maybe about the flames that I’d seen in my visions. They were real, and they were coming.
I hadn’t thought it possible for Paloma to grow more pale, but now her lips seemed blue-tinged, the freckles standing out more conspicuously on her white face.
Piper threw down his dagger. He lifted his shirt, pulling it over his head and tossing it to the ground beside the knife.
‘Look,’ he said, turning his back on Paloma. He reached his single arm across his body to point over his left shoulder. There, on the brown skin below his shoulder blade, was a cluster of horizontal scars, white and raised. I had seen them before, during the months of travelling together, hunching together over streams to wash, but Piper wore so many scars that I hadn’t noted these ones in particular. I stared along with Paloma: these scars weren’t like the skirmish of scars on his hand and arm, or the nicks and scratches on his face. They were faded, and unlike the jagged slash that striped his shoulder, they had a uniformity to them, all of them parallel, perfectly straight.
‘That was a whipping I got when I was eight,’ he said. ‘A patrol came through our village, and Zoe and I had been playing a game with a few of the other kids. There was a song we used to sing: Jack was strong and Jack was brave—’
Zoe joined in, speaking the next words with him:
‘He sailed away to Elsewhere, across the mighty waves.’
‘It was just a kids’ song,’ Piper said. ‘But the soldiers heard it, and made an example of me. Of course it was me they chose. Even out east, back then, when it wasn’t so unusual to be split late, they were always going to pick the Omega for the whipping. I got ten strokes.’
I saw Zoe’s jaw tighten at the memory of their shared pain.
‘That was just for a mention of Elsewhere in a kids’ song,’ Piper said again. He picked up and pulled on his shirt, eyes fixed on Paloma. ‘If they find Elsewhere, they will have no mercy. Do you really think they’ll leave Elsewhere in peace, when they know what your medicines can do?’
‘You don’t know what the Council is like,’ said Zoe, stepping closer to Paloma and speaking in a voice that was gentler than I was used to hearing from her. ‘No matter what you do, or what you offer them, they’ll see Elsewhere’s very existence as a threat.’
Zoe was right. Elsewhere was everything that the Alphas feared. I had seen how our mutations repulsed them – heard the cries of freak and felt their spittle on my skin. I knew how hard they would fight to defend their own unmarred bodies. They ruled because they thought they were better than us. They were perfect, and we were broken, reflections in a warped mirror. That was how they saw it. To take away that difference, and their perfection, undermined everything they stood for. Especially now that they’d discovered how to eliminate the risks of the fatal bond: Omegas preserved in the Council’s tanks, trapped indefinitely in a hellish half-life, until each Alpha’s own life had run its course.
‘Even if we could put you on a boat tomorrow, and if Elsewhere never helped us – never shared the cure, or sought us out again,’ Zoe said, ‘the Council will keep seeking. They found the message from Elsewhere in the Ark. They know Elsewhere exists, and that it has the technology to end the twinning. We found you. Sooner or later, they will too. And they’ll destroy you all.’
Paloma had expected to return home at some point with news, a message. What message could she carry now, even if we could get her safely home? The only message that counted now was Xander’s warning: Forever fire.
‘Even if we had a ship fit for the journey,’ Piper said, ‘we can’t take you back, or warn Elsewhere, until the weather clears – you’ve seen for yourself what the storms are like.’
I saw Paloma’s lips tighten. She’d never discussed the storm that had almost sunk The Rosalind. But I’d seen the chunks hewn from the ship’s hull, and I knew that Paloma’s fellow emissary from Elsewhere had died, as well as two of Thomas’s sailors. There was a reason it had taken this long for contact to be made with Elsewhere: the sea didn’t deal in mercy. Zoe’s partner Lucia, too, had been lost to a storm, years earlier.
Piper went on, relentless. ‘Not to mention the ice sheets further north. And the spring northerlies would mean slow progress, battling the winds the whole way. Early summer will give us the best chance.’
‘We can’t force you to stay,’ I said to her. ‘Nor to try to help us. If you want to go, we’ll do our best to protect you until we can get a ship ready. Nobody would blame you, if you wanted just to go back, and forget everything you’ve learned here.’
‘Even if I wanted to run away,’ Paloma said, ‘it won’t make a difference.’ Her voice cracked. ‘There were forty of us on our ship when we spotted The Rosalind in the spit. Caleb and I were the ones chosen to come aboard as emissaries, but our captain and all the crew know where you are. Thomas gave them the coordinates. The Confederacy will send ships.’
She swallowed before she went on. ‘We spent two days moored alongside The Rosalind while her crew refilled their water barrels at a lake on the largest outcrop, and Thomas told us about the situation here: the twins; the Council; the Omegas. My captain, Rue, and her ship will have brought the news back to the Confederacy.’
The Rosalind’s mast, spotted in the distance amongst the uninhabited and bleak islands of a spit. Maps and words exchanged on a stony shore. Such a small thing, to change the shape of the world. But it couldn’t be undone.
‘They’ll have to wait until the ice sheets melt,’ Paloma said, ‘before they can send ships south. But they will come, and the spring winds will be with them, not against them. They’re coming. A ship, or a fleet. Maybe forty people, maybe hundreds. They might not all make it, but they won’t let it go, now that they know what’s here.’
For so long, that had been a fantasy: that ships from some distant place might reach our shores. Now it was the nightmare. They would come to us, and their world would burn.
‘Why will they be so keen to come?’ I asked.
She looked down, shaking her head. ‘You assumed we could help you. Maybe you were right – we can do some things that you can’t. But we’re not some magical haven. We have our own problems. Plagues that pass through, most summers. Bandits raiding villages in the outer islands, pirates picking off ships. Failing harvests, especially closer to the strike zone.’
She looked up at me. ‘Do you really think we’ve sent ships out, year after year, because we want to help you?’ She paused, and spoke more quietly. ‘You were meant to have all the answers that we don’t have. We’re looking for help ourselves.’
The Forever Ship is out in paperback on 25th January 2018