Authors: Tom Banks
âOh, cod liver oil,' cursed the pink one. Ranterson or some such, wasn't it?
âHello, Able Skyman Abel,' said the furry blue one with the absurd little horn sticking out of its head.
âHello, Able Skyman Abel indeed.' Abel stepped out of the harness, and pushed his way through the circle of people to stand in front of the two small Gallooniers. âI'm terribly sorry, Mr Clamdigger, but it turns out that you will simply have to gird your loins and abseil into the boats yourself â I cannot be expected to do every little thing. Screw your courage to the sticking place, as they say, and get down there. It looks like I must take Strangely and Rallentando to see the Captain.'
âYes, sorry, Clamdigger, we need to go straight away,' said the scruffy girl-child sincerely. âYou'll have to make do without Skyman Abel's help.'
âSorry?' said Clamdigger, who was halfway over the rail. âOh dear. We'll have to get by somehow. Abseiling party, take the strain, lower me gently, two tugs for faster, three to bring me back up, follow in pairs, on my call, three, four, go!'
The group of onlookers, now looking even to Abel's eyes like a well-drilled work party, had their backs to them, and were calmly going about their business.
âWorry not!' called Abel. âI shall be back to oversee the towing later!'
No-one responded. Probably awestruck, Abel decided.
âWell then, Stumpy and Razmatazz, what's this nonsense you've made up about listening in to the Sumbaroon? It won't do, you know, making things up just to get in the Captain's good books.'
And with the warm feeling that something could surely be made of this to help ensure his promotion, Abel put an arm on each child's shoulder, and led them towards the Captain's cabin.
âGood grief,' said the blue one.
Down in the Captain's cabin, Stanley and Rasmussen were locked in. On the way there, they had told Abel all about the Sumbaroon, and the Great Brown Greasy Rococo River. Once in the cabin, he had sat them down, and pretended to go off to the toilet. As he had left, he had locked the door behind him, and called through the keyhole.
âLet's see who gets promoted now then, eh?! I don't know how you know it â I won't be repeating all that poppycock about hearing the Sumbarooners talking! Ha! But I can't wait to tell the Captain where his brother is going!'
Rasmussen had shrugged, put her feet up on the Captain's desk, and helped herself to some ship's biscuits out of the Captain's personal biscuit barrel.
Stanley was a tad more concerned.
âI don't care who tells the Captain where the Sumbaroon is heading, as long as
does, and soon,' he said.
âAbel will,' said Rasmussen, spraying crumbs across the Captain's desk. âHe thinks he'll get promoted.'
âWhat to?' said Stanley. âAble Skyman isn't even a thing, he just made it up. What next, Squadroon Leader? Bloon Leftenant?'
âMajor Gasbag,' said Rasmussen, idly flicking through a big book on the Captain's desk. âWhat's an “Atlas”?'
âBook of maps,' said Stanley, searching round the doorframe for any hidden key, or secret handle.
âUrgh!' said Rasmussen. âBeen there, wiped my feet on that!'
âMaps! Not mats!' said Stanley.
Stanley heard the shuffle and rattle of paper as Rasmussen began to look through the big book she had found.
âDo you think that's really the Grand Sumbaroon we keep hearing on the Examinator?' asked Stanley. âIt's never let me hear anyone but Mother before.'
âDon't know â it could be. But it could be a dastardly trick of some kind. Whatever it is, it's one of the two important things we need to get to the bottom of.'
âWhat's the other?' said Stanley.
âThis biscuit barrel. Have a Mustard Cream.'
âErr, no thanks. What else is there?'
Rasmussen delved deeper.
âSalted Milk, Indigestives, Farty Rings, Witch Tea, spare door key â¦'
âYuk,' said Stanley. âGrown-ups like weird biscuits.'
âYup,' said Rasmussen. âLook here â the Great Brown Greasy Rococo River.'
She was poring over a page in the atlas. Stanley, absent-mindedly taking a Dead Fly biscuit from the barrel, leaned over to look. He saw a great double-page spread of a beautifully coloured map, hand drawn and covered in the notes and scribbles of a number of previous owners. Here and there were little inscriptions such as âHere Be Dragons', which some stickler had struck through and replaced with âThere are dragons here'. Elsewhere were equally worrying labels such as âThe Lost City of El Bravado'. Most of the page was coloured dark green, and labelled âThe Uncharted Forest'. Through it ran the wide brown ribbon of the Rococo River.
âThis,' said Rasmussen, âis more useful than a doormat.'
âYes,' agreed Stanley. âUnless you want to wipe your feet.'
Rasmussen gave him a Look.
âIt's got the sea on it too,' said Stanley. âLook, we must be here.'
He pointed to a line on the map that said âThe Dumps' in a curly script. Underneath it in bolder writing: âHere Goes Nothing'.
âI think the Captain would like to see this!' said Rasmussen. âBut we're stuck in here, at the whim of Skyman Abel, unable to get to him, with no way out and no idea where he is! What are we to do?'
âUse the Squeaking Tube to find out where the Captain is, then unlock the door with the spare key from the biscuit barrel, and go and see him to save our good names?' said Stanley.
âOh, okay,' said Rasmussen, holding up a little brown stick. âI always say that stopping for a biscuit is the best way to get things done. Chocolate Toe?'
Up in the crow's nest, Cloudier was looking at the world. The sea was still mirror-calm. Above the Galloon was a cloudless sky. Beside her, the Captain was scanning the horizon with his long brass telescope.
âHmmm,' he said. âI'm disappointed, Cloudier. I felt sure that with the sea this calm, we'd be able to see the Sumbaroon if she broke surface anywhere between here and Horizon Island. Maybe she's better at staying under than we thought.'
Cloudier was disappointed too. With a hand over her brows, she squinted pointlessly all around.
âWhat next then, Captain?' she said.
âWell, I wonder,' said the Captain. âUnhook the tube, would ye, and hail the towing party?'
âI'm not sure how to “hail” anything â¦' said Cloudier, feeling young and ignorant.
âOh, by Cripes, I'm sorry. “Hail” in this instance just means “talk to”. I don't know why I didn't say that in the first place.' The Captain smiled at her and went back to scanning the horizon.
âErr â¦ crow's nest to towing party?' said Cloudier, uncertainly, into the cone.
Immediately a distant voice came back up the tube.
âTowing party standing by, sir. All boats fully manned and womanned. Skyman Kollick reporting.'
âOh, er hello, Mr Kollick. How's Jemima?'
âFine, sir. Thank'ee for asking.'
âI'm not a sir, you know. I'm â¦'
âMiss Cloudier Peele. I know that, sir. Awaiting instructions, ma'am. Miss.'
âWell, they're not instructions as such, but I believe there may be a little job or two â¦'
âOf course, ma'am, sir, miss. May I say that it would be an honour to take instruction from the Conqueror of the Northern Ice, the Kraken's Friend, the Lookout to Watch, The One Who Flies into Fire, ma'am, sir.'
âErr, yes, well he's right here by me, so â¦'
At this point, the Captain put a hand over the end of the Squeaking Tube.
âHe means you, Cloudier. Your voyage into the volcano is a thing of legend among the crew. Do not be surprised if you are treated as a master skymariner nowadays!' he said.
He smiled, and took the tube from Cloudier's hand.
âMr Kollick, tell the towing party please to take the strain. We must get out of the Dumps as soon as possible,' he said.
âAye, Cap'n. Which heading, sir? Which way would you like us to tow the Galloon?'
âWell, I should think â¦ that is â¦' said the Captain, the telescope to his eye again. He seemed to Cloudier to be searching for any reason to choose one direction over another in this featureless world.
âI was damn sure we'd see something by now â¦' he muttered.
âSorry, sir?' said Kollick at the other end of the tube.
âCloudier, do you have a preference? North, Thataway, Roundabout, Windwards or Pell Mell?' The Captain was looking at her, almost hopefully, and holding up the small pocket compass on which these directions were etched.
âI think â¦' began Cloudier, who had decided to choose âPell Mell' for no other reason than that she liked the sound.
But she didn't need to choose anything. At the end of the tube, a kerfuffle was occurring. She heard Kollick saying âjust wait your turn, you jumped up â¦' and then the voice of Skyman Abel piped up.
âCaptain! This man is resisting a superior officer!'
The Captain, to his credit, did not tut or roll his eyes. Cloudier did though.
âAbel,' said the Captain. âMr Kollick was just awaiting our ideas on which way to go â¦'
âNever mind that!' yelped Abel, apparently still scuffling for control of the tube. âI know which way we should go! The Grand Sumbaroon is heading â¦ For the Great Brown Greasy Rococo River, over!'
There was a pause. Cloudier looked at the Captain, who seemed to have found something interesting in his ear.
âEr. Right,' he said, pulling whatever it was out of his ear and flicking it away.
âThe Great Brown Greasy Rococo River!' said Abel. âThat's Left-by-Your-Left of here! Towing party, set course immediately!'
âNo,' said the Captain quietly. âDon't do that. Cloudier, what do you think?'
Cloudier was, as ever, astonished to be asked, but did her best to formulate a sensible opinion.
âI've heard the Rococo River is hugely wide, Captain, but I'm not sure it would be deep enough for the Sumbaroon.'
âIt is! They're blinking going there, you stupid girl, over!' said Abel's tiny voice.
âAbel,' said the Captain. âThat's the last time you'll use that word to any member of the crew.'
âYessir,' said Abel, suitably chastened. âBut it's the truth! I know it to be true, over!'
âI suppose it's possible,' said the Captain. âBut it's mighty dangerous territory around there. The Uncharted Forest has barely been mapped, the river is treacherous â¦ we lost passenger Perky Luffington there, of course. And then there are the rumours â¦ over â¦'
âNever mind the rumours! Your brother is heading there now, with your bride-to-be in his evil clutches! Please, Captain! For Isabella! Over!' squeaked Abel.
This seemed to galvanise the Captain slightly.
âI need no persuading to put myself in danger for her sake,' he said. âBut many times now have I endangered the lives of those around me. I would not do so again without very good reason. Why do you suspect they are heading that way, Abel, over?'
âI â¦ just â¦ think â¦ they are â¦' said Abel, as if trying to talk while lifting up a filing cabinet full of lies.
âWell, if it's no more than a hunch â¦' Cloudier heard herself saying. The Captain looked at her appraisingly, and then at the tube.
âYes. Skyman Abel, thank you for your thoughts. But if you have no further proof, then I cannot â¦'
âI heard Stanley Crumplehorn and Marianna Rasmussen talking about it, over!' he admitted, almost hysterically.
, thought Cloudier;
so you know their names when it really matters.
âThey heard someone talking on the boy's infernal long-distance listening machine. Over,' said Abel, as if it was the hardest thing he'd ever said.
Immediately, the Captain raised his voice to what Cloudier thought of as âcommand level'.