The Great Galloon and the Pirate Queen (5 page)

Cloudier felt elated, and even here made an effort to suppress it, for the look of the thing. She slouched along for a couple of steps, her long dress dragging on the floor, before breaking into a run. She could now see the floor was slightly spiky, like the burrs that stick to clothes when you walk through the woods. It began to curve upwards after a short while, but it was, bizarrely, no harder to run. As she reached the first of the internal spurs, she looked back and saw that she had travelled partway round the curve of the balloon, though she still felt like she was standing on the ground. Ahead of her the Captain was now singing in a loud basso profundo.

‘Let's go fly a balloon, up to the bally moon,

Let's go fly a balloon, and catch my broooothhheeerr!'

Cloudier smiled, and ran faster to catch him.

‘What are these … animals trotting about?' she asked him, as she pulled alongside.

‘Ah! The Bloondeers? A gift from the Sultan of Swoop, many years ago, when the Galloon was new. They usually live inside a gigantic flower called the Gasblossom. But the Galloon suits them well, they've thriven. Throve. Thrived?' said the Captain. He seemed as jolly as Cloudier had ever seen him, though she was sure it wouldn't last.

‘They take no looking after. They eat this stuff, the Liken. Grows like billy-o, helps make the gas that keeps the place afloat. It's not just hot air, you know – this is a delicately balanced ecosystem.'

‘Wow,' said Cloudier. ‘I had no idea.'

‘No. Only your mother and I know about them, really.'

‘And Isabella?' said Cloudier.

‘No,' said the Captain as they walked. ‘I never got round to telling her all about the Galloon …'

‘I'm sorry!' said Cloudier, and her chalk-coloured cheeks reddened slightly.

‘Tish! I've thought of a few things I didn't talk to Isabella about. Odd, really.'

He clapped his hands, as was his way when he wanted to change the subject. Nearby, a couple of Bloondeers scampered away.

They walked for a good while longer, and talked about many things. Cloudier was astonished, as she had been once or twice before, to find that the Captain was actually quite talkative, when time and duties allowed. She learned a lot about the ecosystem inside the balloon, and how it was in danger of getting out of balance because there was no-one with the time and expertise to manage it. She also learned a little about the Galloon itself, and what the Captain intended to do with it once his quest to find his lost bride was complete.

‘There's people in this world who need a bit of fun, Cloudier, not to mention a square meal and a comfy bed. I've got plenty of each of those here, through no fault of me own. I feel perhaps I can help.'

After what felt like an age, the Captain pointed ahead. They were out of the forest of beams and spurs, and ahead of them Cloudier saw another great bundle of poles, like the mainmast, coming up through the floor of the balloon.

‘What's that?' she asked. ‘Are we back where we started?'

‘Ha! No,' said the Captain. ‘We've come halfway round the inside of the balloon. This is where the mast meets the top of the balloon. I don't often get a chance to show off something new about the old Galloon nowadays, so I hope you don't mind the detour.'

‘Not at all – but how can this be …?' asked Cloudier.

They were now standing by the mast, and Cloudier's mind whirled as she looked up. The mast was straight and true, and receded into the misty distance as she stood staring up at it. A long way up, it was obscured by Liken and the balloon's supporting struts. She simply couldn't get her head round the idea that she was somehow on the top inner surface of the balloon, standing upside down.

‘It's the gas,' said the Captain. ‘We need it for a balloon this size to be able to support the Galloon, but it has some odd effects on perception, gravity, time and so on. And the sticky canvas of course – if you were to jump now, you would come back to rest where you are. But once you get outside, you'll see the truth of what I say.'

The Captain reached down to where the canvas met the mast, another rubber seal making the join tight. He heaved on it, and Cloudier felt a rush of cool air on her legs.

‘So – get ready for your mind to whirl a little,' said the Captain. ‘And, Cloudier – thank you. I rarely get a chance to talk to such a good listener.'

‘But … I feel we've wasted time … the Sumbaroon …' mumbled Cloudier.

The Captain put a hand on her shoulder, and looked her in the eye.

‘We have to get up top to look out for the Sumbaroon, and this is the only way to do it, with the weather balloon out of operation and all the flying machines needed elsewhere. And if we cannot talk as friends while we walk, then what is the world coming to, eh?'

Cloudier felt a little lump of pride and sadness in her throat, as she often did when with the Captain. But immediately he was down on his knees, heaving once more at the point where the balloon hugged the mast.

‘Go through, Cloudier, and watch your step. Everything's a bit knees over noses out there.'

Cloudier bent down and squeezed through the gap, as when they had entered the balloon an hour – or two – or three – ago. Outside the air, almost as still as the inside, was bitingly cold. She pushed a leg through the tight gap, and found a rung.

‘Hold on tight!' said the Captain. Cloudier's last image from inside the balloon was of him smiling and holding back the canvas for her. Then the world flipped around, and she had to hang on for all she was worth to keep from falling up into the clouds and out into space forever. No – down. She would have fallen down. But she could tell from the weight on her arms as she clung to the little metal rungs, that down was now, somehow, above her head. The canvas closed around the mast, and Cloudier clung crazily to the tiny little handholds, now on the section of the Great Galloon's mighty mast that stuck out of the
top
of the balloon, hundreds of feet above even the crow's nest. Like a kitten stuck in the curtains, she gingerly manoeuvred herself round until her feet were down by the balloon and her head was in the air. Above her were just a few feet of mast, topped with a long, flowing pennant, in bright orange and yellow. Above that was a bright figure, an eagle with wings outstretched, standing in a golden nest. The Captain emerged behind Cloudier, like a massive grogram-clad baby being born, and righted himself as she had.

‘To the eagle's lair!' he cried, and carried on climbing. ‘You can see the world from up there!'

Cloudier followed him.

‘And, perhaps, your bride-to-be in the Sumbaroon!' she added.

‘Yes! Yes, of course. Onwards!'

Able Skyman Abel was, not for the first time, a tiny bit ashamed of himself. He had spent most of the stormy days deep inside the Galloon, keeping a vital eye on the warmest, comfiest, least wind-battered places he could find, such as the kitchens, his own bedroom, and the space between the funnel and the bakery, where you could lie still and listen to the throb of the boiler, with the smell of new buns in your nose.

So now Abel was doing what he did best, which was overseeing. Overseeing, on this occasion, involved standing at the very front of the Great Galloon, where the starboard rail met the larboard rail. (Abel prided himself on being about the only person on board who knew that ‘starboard' and ‘larboard' meant ‘left and right', although he was also relieved, because he wasn't sure which was which and he didn't want some smart alec pointing it out to him, thank you very much.) So he stood at the pointy end of the Galloon, one foot to larboard, one foot to starboard, or possibly vice versa, and oversaw the tiny flotilla that was going to try and tow the Galloon out of the Dumps.

He fought off a strange urge to tell everyone he was king of the world. Abel could hear voices, a long way off but audible in the utterly still air, that told him someone was, for once, doing as he had asked. The splash had been made by a boat being lowered from a pulley on the sta … right-hand side of the Galloon, a short distance behind Abel. He watched it pitch a little on the sea, and then settle.

‘Easy there!' he cried, through his megaphone, more out of a need to be involved than anything else.

‘Skyman Abel, sir!' came a voice that Abel recognised as that of Jack Clamdigger, the cabin boy who was, in his opinion, getting ideas above his station.

‘That's Skyman Abel,
sir
to you!' he called back.

‘Erm, that's what I said,' called Clamdigger.

Abel ran the conversation through his head again, and rallied well.

‘With the
italics
next time, please! I can tell, you know. Anyway – out with it, lad. What is it?'

‘Will you be leading the towing party,
sir?
' called Clamdigger.

‘Ha! Will I ever!' cried Skyman Abel, who hadn't thought about it until just that moment. But yes – this could be the way to show his mettle. To lead the party which would pull the Galloon out of the Dumps and back into the reliable Winds of Change. And into the Captain's favour.

‘I should coco, young man! Not many like me for putting my back into some honest toil! Away boat three, by the way.'

Now Abel had hopped down and was making his way towards the short wooden crane which was lowering the boats. A small crowd of Gallooniers was standing around it, watching boat three receding.

‘Already gone, sir,' called Clamdigger.

‘Wait for orders next time, Clamdigger. Guessing 'em is just showy.'

‘Aye aye,
sir,
' said Clamdigger, with a roll of the eyes that Abel only half noticed. One of the other Gallooniers let out a little laugh. Abel assumed he was intimidated by the presence of such a senior officer.

He spun round on one shiny boot-heel, and carried on spinning by mistake. He grabbed a rope to steady himself, but sadly it was the one that was currently lowering boat three to the sea. It dragged him with remarkable speed up and over the pulley, then slammed him on the deck at Clamdigger's feet. The Gallooniers laughed again. Abel leapt up, and cracked his head on boat four, which was being readied for lowering. The small knot of men and women gave a small round of applause, and stood around as if waiting for more entertainment.

Abel gathered himself, and spoke forcefully through teeth gritted against the pain of his bumped head.

‘I shall pilot goat free,' he said, his clenched jaw perhaps taking some of the power from his words.

There was a slight snigger, but not from Clamdigger – he was now standing to attention, something Abel thought he did all too rarely, and then not well.

‘That is to say, I shall …' he began again.

‘Pilot boat three, sir,' said Clamdigger.

‘I don't need your help!' snapped Abel. ‘But yes, I will pilot boat three. I think we need some experience at the … sticks …'

‘Oars, sir,' said Clamdigger helpfully, as he continued to wind the lever that was lowering boat two.

‘Oars,' said Abel. ‘I think it fitting that I should be the first into the boats, where I can lead the towing operation and oversee the operation to tow the Galloon out of the Dumps …'

‘Well, it needs doing, sir, but I don't mind …' began Clamdigger, whose face had coloured up.

Shame at his naked lust for glory being exposed
, Abel thought. He snatched a rope from Clamdigger's hands, and the little circle of onlookers widened slightly as everyone took a step back.

‘Well, my boy, you're not the only one who can abseil into unknown seas, with the fate of the ship in his hands …'

Abel was trying to clamber over the taffrail as he spoke, and was aware that his ceremonial sash, sabre, baldrick, bugle and staff of office were getting in the way.

‘And all for no reward except the knowledge of a job well done …' he continued, absent-mindedly. He was astride the rail now. He peeked over the edge, and was aware that the sheer size of the Galloon meant there was still a long way down.

‘… your elders and betters, I shouldn't wonder …' he rambled automatically, wondering now if this was a good idea. Clamdigger was tying ropes into a complex safety harness, and trying to attach it to Abel as he lay splayed along the rail.

‘Are you okay, sir?' asked a crewman.

‘Of course!' snapped Abel. ‘I'm pefectly at home, man. I've been doing this since before I was born. Er, you, that is. You've been doing this …'

Again Abel was conscious of losing the thread. He looked at Clamdigger.

‘So I just climb over the edge into nothingness, and half clamber, half fall, carefully paying out the rope as I go, hoping that nothing goes wrong, and trusting to my crewmates to save me if it does?'

‘That's it, sir,' said Clamdigger, testing the harness he had tied, ‘and back in time for tea.'

Abel swallowed. He had begun to wonder whether there was a way to hand the job back to Clamdigger without losing face. He was just about to pretend to faint, when that way presented itself.

From one of the little funnels that protruded from the decks around the Galloon, a small blue face appeared, followed by the attached small blue person, and then a pinker person. As Abel paused in harnessing up, he watched them run towards him.

‘Ah!' he said. ‘I fear perhaps I am to be prevented from leading the expedition …'

But as the two figures arrived at the circle of Gallooniers, the blue one with the fur was already talking.

‘Clamdigger! Are we glad to see you! We need to find the Captain!'

‘We heard the Sumbarooners talking!' said the pink one, which Abel knew was related to the Countess, and so should be treated with grudging respect. He dropped the harness to the ground, and stamped a foot to get their attention.

‘I am the superior officer here!' he barked at the children.

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