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Nailer is part of a crew that breaks up tankers that are no longer in use. Because he's small, he's able to access smaller places in the ship. As he's working with a crewmember, Sloth, though, he falls into a vat of oil. Sloth decides to leave him to his fate (not super nice), and Nailer eventually finds his way out and tumbles into the ocean. He doesn't get off scot free, though; he has some metal fragment stuck in his shoulder.
When he returns to his crew, Sloth has to face the consequences of her betrayal: She's thrown off the light crew. That night, Nailer and the remainder of his crew celebrate his luck and talk about the choices they have and the consequences of what Sloth has done. When Nailer returns to his shack, his father, who is high, threatens him, so to avoid a confrontation, Nailer offers the remainder of the booze he and his friends shared on the beach. Finally, both fall asleep.
In the morning, when Nailer wakes up, a major storm has started. He considers leaving his father behind as he flees to seek higher ground, but his conscience gets the better of him. So Nailer runs to Pima and her mom's shack. Sadna (Pima's mama) goes to help Richard (Nailer's pops), and Pima and Nailer find shelter from the monster storm.
Two days later, everyone congregates on the beach, which the storm has swept clean; they begin to collect and bury the dead, some of whom are members of Nailer's light crew. Nailer and Pima find Richard and Sadna alive, and as people are putting their lives back together, Nailer and Pima scavenge for food.
While searching, they find a downed clipper ship, a fancy ship owned by rich swanks, and they realize that this clipper scavenge is their ticket out of ship breaking. While searching for salvage, they find a girl who is almost dead, and after much debate, decide to rescue the girl instead of killing her. The girl, once she regains consciousness, says people will reward them, and Nailer and Pima reluctantly decide to trust her.
Then Richard and his crew enter the camp. Cue the minor key music. Richard and his crew take Nailer, Pima, and Lucky Girl (Nita) hostage. That's right, Richard sort of takes his own son hostage because he's a classy dude like that. Lightning round: Richard threatens Nita, Pima attacks Richard, Richard breaks Pima's fingers, Nailer gets a horrible fever and becomes delirious.
After Nailer recovers, thanks to some antibiotics his dad procured for him, he realizes that Lucky Girl is doomed unless he acts. So he attacks Blue Eyes, Sadna joins the fight, and Nailer ends up killing Blue Eyes to save Sadna. After the skirmish, Nailer realizes that his father will never forgive him. So he, Tool (the half-man), and Nita decide to make their way to Orleans to try to find Nita's people.
The trio hop a train to Orleans, and, while on the train, they have deep arguments… ahem, we mean discussions… about who Nita is running from and why, the effect nature has on the civilization in which they live, and class differences. You know, the usual small talk. Once at Orleans, they find work and keep an eye on the dock for people Nita knows she can trust. Nita and Nailer come to trust one another. And perhaps young love is in the smoggy air?
One day, though, Nailer sees his dad in the crowd and hides with Nita. Searching for Tool, they see two of Richard's half-men attack him; Nita pulls Nailer away from the battle, though Nailer wants to help. Back at the docks, Nita has found a ship whose captain she can trust, so Nailer swims to the ship and tells Captain Candless about Nita. But when Candless's crew searches for her, all they find is Tool, who tells them that Richard has taken her. Ugh.
When Nailer decides to crew up with Candless, Tool gives him some pretty good advice and leaves. (For more of Tool's story, read The Drowned Cities.) Aboard ship, Captain Candless interrogates Nailer about his intentions in getting Nita back, and Nailer explains that she's worth it to him, not in a romantic way, but in a human way. As everyone readies for the inevitable fight, Nailer practices with a gun and knife, starts to work on the hydraulic systems, and Knot—one of the half-men—starts to teach Nailer how to read.
A few days later, the Dauntless catches up with the ship that they think holds Nita. But… they're wrong. Instead, a warship called the Pole Star surprises Dauntless, and the battle on the high seas is on like Donkey Kong. The captain realizes that they're near Bright Sands Beach, and Nailer tells them that they can set a trap for the Pole Star by navigating the Teeth, buildings underwater due to the rising sea levels. Despite the storm, Dauntless bypasses the Teeth, and the Pole Star gets hung up on the buildings.
The crew from Dauntless boards the warship, and Nailer finds himself searching desperately for Nita. His father confronts him with Nita, who is tied up, and a machete. Nice to see you, too, Dad. Nailer and his dad fight, and Nailer kills his father to survive. After Nailer frees Nita, they make their way out of the belly of the clipper ship and into the raging seas; Nailer is hurt, but Nita has his back and helps get him to the Dauntless.
A few days later, Nailer reflects on the fact that he killed his father and the emotions that come with it. Fortunately, Sadna calms him down. Candless is getting Dauntless ready for voyage, and Nailer's going to set sail with them. It seems as if he's found a way to escape his fate after all.