‘Open it up,’ Sir Mormus ordered.
Col crouched, turned the handle and heaved. The hatch came open with a great blast of heat. The noise from Below was like a million pounding hammers.
Sir Mormus lowered himself in through the hatch and onto a ladder. Col saw a pulsing red glow and billows of smoke …
Then the smoke got into his eyes and blinded him with tears. He climbed down after his grandfather.
It was like one of his old childhood nightmares, when floors gave way beneath him and he went tumbling down to the depths below. So many times he had woken in terror, clutching the sheets in desperate hands as nameless horrors rushed up to overwhelm him. But he couldn’t show weakness now. He clenched his jaw and kept going.
The smoke had a foul smell like rotten eggs. He fought down an urge to cough and concentrated on the rungs of the ladder.
When the ladder came to an end, he found himself standing not on solid floor but thin wire mesh. The mesh shuddered to the rhythm of the engines as if shaken by giant hands. Col reeled and nearly lost his balance. He planted his feet wide apart and felt the vibrations drumming up through his bones.
Rubbing the tears from his eyes, he saw that the viewing bay was a kind of cage. About fifteen feet square, it hung suspended from the bottom of Bottom Deck. He stared down through the mesh and glimpsed huge dark shapes and glints of fire, like lava from a volcano. Insubstantial strands of wire were all that kept him from falling into the vast pit of Below.
He looked away in a hurry. At the other end of the cage, Sir Mormus was talking to the officer on duty. They were little more than silhouettes in the smoky murk, but Col caught fragments of Sir Mormus’s booming speech.
‘Stop sweating, man … fasten yourself up … remember who you are …’
It seemed he was angry that the officer had loosened his collar in the heat. The officer mopped his brow and fumbled at his top button.
Col went across to the side of the cage, hooked his fingers through the mesh and looked out.
He could have been looking out over a boiling black ocean. There were no walls or bulkheads, only endless cavernous space. The echoes of sound suggested dimensions as wide and as long as the juggernaut itself. Tremendous metal wheels and beams rose and fell through rifts in the smoke, looming and vanishing. Sometimes, the nearest beams came scything towards the cage, until Col thought his last moment had come—but always they swung away again. More threatening were the sprays of hot oil that flew through the air and spattered the roof.
He gritted his teeth and hung on. Reason told him that officers stood on duty here for hours at a time. He had to block out instinctual reactions.
He was just starting to relax when something new started up. Far below, in some deep gulf, a screech of metal rose above the general pounding din. Then showers of sparks, shower after shower, casting an eerie yellow glow through the smoke. The screech grew louder, a jagged, see-sawing sound.
Sir Mormus turned to the duty officer. ‘Give them some steam … aisles five and six …’
The officer reached for a row of levers that angled down from the roof. He pulled on one, then another. A roaring, jetting sound added itself to all the other noises in the pit.
Down Below, a cloud of white vapor appeared and spread. Surging and turbulent, it filled the depths where the sparks had been. Col couldn’t guess what was happening, only that it involved steam.
After two minutes, the officer returned the levers to their original position. The cloud continued to expand, but now with a lazier drifting motion. The roaring, jetting sound had gone, and so had the screech of metal.
But what was that other sound? Straining his ears, Col heard a multitude of voices. It must be the Filthies! Were they howling abuse or crying out in pain?
For a moment, he thought he glimpsed a mass of bodies at the bottom of the pit. Gleaming skin and waving arms …
The image of Riff flashed into his mind. It could have been her down there, writhing in agony, swearing and cursing. He let go of the mesh and backed away.
Sir Mormus turned and saw. ‘Hold firm, Colbert! Be a man!’
‘It’s the Filthies, sire!’
‘Of course it’s the Filthies. They shovel the coal and feed the engines.’
‘But the steam …’
‘Gingers them up when they start slacking off.’
He was staring at Col with heavy frowning brows. Col knew exactly what he was thinking. So the son is like the father after all.
Col stiffened. He would not be like his father! Never that smell of failure! Never!
He drove the image of Riff out of his mind. The Filthies are not like us, he told himself, not sensitive to pain and suffering. Not like us, not like us.
He repeated it over and over, and as he repeated it, stepped back to the mesh. Once more, he took up his position and looked out.
The massed bodies must have existed only in his imagination. And even the cries … the Filthies were cursing because they hadn’t been allowed to slack off. That’s all, nothing more, he told himself.
After thirty seconds, he knew he was going to make it. Besides, the white cloud blanketed out more and more of the view, and the cries of the Filthies grew more and more muffled.
Sir Mormus kept him there for another ten minutes. Col concentrated on working out the pattern of the beams as they rose and fell. He studied the cage itself: the bolted door in the side of the mesh, the metal poles and other equipment clipped to the roof overhead. There were dozens of ways to occupy his mind without falling into unwanted thoughts.
Finally Sir Mormus was satisfied. His hand descended on Col’s shoulder. ‘Very good, my boy. A true Porpentine.’
They went back up the ladder to Bottom Deck. Col felt shaken and numb, but triumphant.