The Great Galloon and the Pirate Queen (8 page)

The Captain was striding up and down, his second-best hat bumping against the low beams, his brows knitted in concentration.

‘Shall we begin?' asked the Countess, brightly.

‘Yes, yes, I think so,' said the Captain. He turned to the assembled throng.

‘So – my brother seems to be heading into the very heart of the Uncharted Forest. I have reason to believe that he does not know what he faces – my maps show that we are almost at the base of a waterfall known as Lethal Force, which his Sumbaroon will be unable to traverse. We have the advantage of flight, and so such obstacles do not concern us. When he next surfaces, he must surely realise that all hope is lost. The question facing us is this – why is he risking so much, when it seems inevitable that he is trapping himself in a corner? And what does he hope to gain from heading this way at all? Why not stay in the open sea, where he can evade us much more easily? And when he surfaces and finds himself trapped, how do we proceed to rescue Isabella?'

Stanley, munching a slice of melon, realised that, for once, he probably knew more than many of the assembled grown-ups about what they were facing. He raised a paw, intending to tell the small crowd about what he and Rasmussen had heard on the Examinator about the Pirate Queen. But before he could do so, the door to the mess opened a crack.

‘Who's this? Yes?' snapped Abel in the direction of the door, irritably. ‘This is a crew-only meeting, I put a sign on the door. Why can't you just wait a few …'

He trailed off as a hand appeared in the crack, and pushed the door open further. ‘Hand' was the word that came to Stanley's mind, but it was not a hand like any other. It was a great, shaggy, long-fingered thing, with knuckles like walnuts and jagged, grubby claws where the nails should be. Stanley felt himself tense up, and heard Rasmussen whistle appreciatively as the door opened fully, and the owner of the hand squeezed through the doorframe. It was the only member of the crew who was hardly ever seen in the mess – though as he pushed his way through the door and into the room, he did stop at the great tea urn to fill a cup that looked like a thimble in his mighty grasp. As if unaware that everyone was watching him, he took a genteel sip from the cup, and turned to face them all.

‘Oh, don't mind me,' said the Brunt, his voice slightly muffled by the three scarves, balaclava and high-collared coat that he was wearing. ‘Please carry on talking.'

There was a moment of pause, as everyone readjusted to having a nine-foot-tall, orange-furred creature in their midst, wearing at least three layers of clothes in the sweltering heat. Then Ms Huntley spoke.

‘Welcome, the Brunt! I assume the hot climate, which we all find so oppressive, means that you can move around more freely away from the boilers?'

‘Yes, Harissa Huntley.'

Rasmussen whooped quietly, and said, ‘Hurrah for the Brunt!' Stanley punched the air. The Captain gave the Brunt a big bear hug, looking for a moment like a little child as he was lost in those great hairy arms and many layers of clothes.

‘Well, it's a great pleasure to see you, I must say,' said the Captain once the chatter of welcome had died down. ‘We were just discussing our next move.'

‘That is why I am here, Captain. I was listening to the drums.'

‘Are they distressing you?' asked the Countess. It was well known that the Brunt could not abide loud noises.

‘No, the Countess. But I looked out of my little window to see if I could see who was playing the drums.'

‘And did you, old friend?' asked the Captain.

‘No. But I saw the waterfall.'

‘We were just discussing the fact that it will be our friend in trapping the Sumbaroon, when Zebediah makes it this far upriver. We will have him in a corner.'

‘No, Captain,' said the Brunt, in his matter of fact way. ‘The Sumbaroon is already here.'

‘You saw it!?' said the Captain. ‘I'm a fool! I should have had someone looking out!'

‘You had me,' said the Brunt.

‘Yes of course, I meant …' fluffed the Captain.

Abel chipped in, irritably: ‘Of course he'll be trapped! He's in the Sumbaroon, a fifty-ton metal beast – he can't leap up the blessed river like a migrating salmon, or change into a gecko and scamper up the cliff face!'

The Brunt turned calmly towards Abel as he spoke. Despite his calm expression, the great yellow tusks, gigantic curled horns and deep dark eyes had a disquieting effect on anyone who saw them.

‘Er … can he?' finished Abel.

‘Why not come and look?' said the Brunt.

‘Yeah!' said Rasmussen. ‘Why not come and look!'

The crew did not need to be told twice that if the Brunt thought something was important enough to make him speak in front of a room full of people, it was probably very important indeed. As one and with no discussion, they stood and followed the Brunt out of the mess
.

Down in the depths of the Great Galloon, about fifty-five people were cramming themselves, or trying to cram themselves, into the Brunt's tiny little room. The room was right beside the gigantic furnace that made all the hot air the Galloon needed to stay afloat, and so it was an incredibly hot and fusty place at the best of times. With so many people in it, the atmosphere was almost unbearable. Stanley had managed to get to the front of the throng, where the Brunt was pointing out of his tiny, soot-covered window, at something below them in the forest. The Captain was also at the window, and everybody else was doing their best to see what it was they were looking at.

‘What is it!?' called Rasmussen, from the back of the crowd. The tone of her voice told Stanley that she was not at all happy about being so far from the action. Stanley tapped the Brunt on the leg, and he picked Stanley up in one hand as if he were a cupcake.

‘What can you see?' cried Rasmussen. A few other voices – Stanley recognised Crivens, Tump and the Sultana of Magrabor – echoed the sentiment.

‘Ye Gads!' cried the Captain, his voice booming around the little room.

‘WWhhaaaaaaaatt!?' yelled Rasmussen.

‘Marianna,' said the Countess, quietly.

‘Sorry, Mum, but really! Tell us what you can see, Mr Pumplecorn!'

Stanley ignored the slight on his name, and began to describe what he could see.

‘There's some sooty old planks, a slightly rotten windowframe, a rusty lock that's been painted over …'

‘Oh, sorry, Stanley,' said the Brunt. He lifted Stanley slightly, so he could now see out of the window and down to the forest below.

A groan emitted from the crowd, but the Brunt spoke again, as if he and the Captain were the only people in the room.

‘I saw the Grand Sumbaroon of Zebediah Anstruther come up the river, and then it stopped in the pool there below the waterfall. I was going to come and tell you, but then I saw that it was beginning to … change.'

‘Change, the Brunt?' asked the Captain, his steely glare focused on something way below and in front of the Galloon. Stanley followed it, and took a breath. There, only half submerged in the shallow pool at the base of the great waterfall, was the Grand Sumbaroon. It looked battered, rusty, as if it were on its last legs. He told the assembled throng as much over his shoulder.

‘It doesn't have legs! It's an underwater craft!' said crewwoman Neela.

‘Ermm …' said Stanley, who was nothing if not a slave to the truth. ‘That was true … until now.'

As he watched, sitting on the Brunt's great hand, he was almost unable to believe his eyes. The Sumbaroon, which as far as he was aware was merely a metal vessel riveted together clumsily, began to split along its seam, like a dragonfly emerging from its pupa. First, the back of the great ship began to split. Although they were still a long way away, Stanley could see the rivets popping off, and the great steel plates cracking like an eggshell. He described what he was seeing to the throng.

‘Do you mean pupa? Or larva?' said helmsman Monty. He got a stern look in return.

Stanley continued to narrate, as the two halves of the Sumbaroon's shell continued to split apart. From within something newer, shinier, and somehow, bigger, began to emerge. First, a small appendage, like a millipede's leg, appeared from within the broken shell of the Sumbaroon. Then another, and another, until an entirely different craft could be seen. It was long and thin, like a metallic eel, but lined along each side with small jointed legs. It pushed and heaved its way out of the old shell of the Sumbaroon, which was almost literally trodden into the mud. The audience in the Brunt's little room was speechless, listening to Stanley's description of events. The only interjections came from Rasmussen, who occasionally helped with words that Stanley couldn't put his finger on, like ‘appendage' and ‘unctuously', though Stanley didn't really need that one.

‘It's just … waiting!' said Stanley. ‘Standing in the wreckage of the Sumbaroon just waiting.'

‘Not waiting. Growing,' said the Captain.

And he was right. Inside the craft, some kind of pump or hydraulic system was making the machine grow, in rhythmic pulses, as if it were taking great breaths. Sliding plates in its sides took up the slack.

‘It must be twice as big as the Sumbaroon now!' said Stanley, to gasps of consternation.

‘Why is it doing this? Who has made it so?' asked a woman who was carrying a small child on one hip.

‘Isabella,' said the Captain, quietly.

‘Nonsense!' cried Abel, who clearly thought he was being supportive. The look the Captain threw at him was perhaps the angriest look Stanley had ever seen him give.

‘I do not speak lightly, Mr Abel,' he said, that word ‘Mr' holding more displeasure than a tirade of abuse from a lesser man. ‘She is an engineer beyond compare. My brother took years to create the Sumbaroon, a pale imitation of my own sweet Galloon. Only Isabella could improve it so in a few short weeks. She must be working under duress.'

There was a silence, during which the Brunt laid a great hairy hand on the Captain's shoulder.

‘Look!' cried Stanley, to which Rasmussen's irritated voice replied, ‘We can't!'

‘The new vessel seems to be … to be standing up, on its dozens of little metal legs!' said Stanley. ‘It's rippling them, like an insect would. And now it's … yes, it's swimming to the riverbank!'

‘It will never make it through the dense forest!' cried the Sultana of Magrabor. ‘Surely?'

‘It's not heading for the forest,' said the Captain. ‘It's heading …'

‘For the Lethal Force waterfall, Captain Meredith Anstruther,' said the Brunt.

Stanley watched, and commentated, as the machine hauled itself out on the rocks, making the assembled crocodiles scatter like so many tiny mice. The great machine, part military tank and part slithering creature, then threw out from its front end a couple of whippy cables with hooks on. They seemed to penetrate the waterfall itself, which was barely more than steam by the time it reached the pool, and cling to the wet rock behind. The thing, which Stanley was already thinking of, and describing, as the ‘FishTank', then seemed to be able to climb up the rockface behind Lethal Force. Its legs rippled and moved in waves. Its pair of cables repeatedly threw themselves forward, finding a hold and pulling the craft inexorably upwards.

‘What's “inexorably”?' said Kollick, the Captain's no-nonsense steward.

‘Er, “unstoppably”,' said Stanley.

‘Then say “unstoppably”. There's no glory in baffling your audience!'

‘Sorry,' said Stanley, and continued his commentary.

The FishTank was now a few dozen feet above the pool, and the battering it was receiving from the waterfall seemed to be doing it no harm at all. Down below, the broken parts of the Sumbaroon, so long the Galloon's entire aim and focus, were being dispersed by the mighty current. It was no more than so much scrap iron.

‘How quickly can you stoke us up, the Brunt?' said the Captain, sharply.

‘Quickly, Captain Meredith Anstruther. The furnace is still hot.'

‘Then I have but one thing to say.'

‘Woop woop!' cried Rasmussen, in anticipation. ‘Oh – we should tell you about what we heard on the Examinator!'

‘Not now, Ms Rasmussen,' said the Captain. ‘First this – ALL HANDS TO ACTION STATIONS, IF YOU DON'T MIND HELPING ME OUT ONCE MORE IN MY HOUR OF NEED, THANK YOU KINDLY!'

The great voice filled up the room they were all in, and filled Stanley's head with fear and excitement. The Brunt plopped him carefully on the ground, and loped over to the corner of the room where he kept his tools. The room was already emptying, as the Captain's command/ request was obeyed/ fulfilled.

‘While the craft is on the cliff face we have the advantage,' said the Captain to Ms Huntley, who was listening intently. We must try and press that advantage home. If I am not mistaken, at the top of the falls we will find a landscape that even the Galloon will find it hard to fly over.'

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