The Skyskiff was much the same as Free Traders use back in Sussex. It was open to the elements, barring the small engine house at the stern, with two small funnels rising from its low roof. The steam engine within powered the propellers, one each attached to outriggers on either side of the stern. An oblong inflatable was rigged to two low masts, and there were dorsal, caudal and pectoral sails attached to booms operated from the deck.
The craft was crewed by six men, all wearing oiled canvas breeches and anoraks. After hauling aboard my suitcase and a knapsack, which the innkeeper had kindly filled with ample provisions, I was kitted out in one of the protective suits as well.
“Expecting rough weather?” I asked.
I got the village-idiot-said-something-numb look, which the locals seem to reserve for outlanders – or flatlanders as they call them.
“Expectin’ wildlife,” the skipper told me, with a knowing grin.
“I see,” I said, not understanding at all.
I waved at Ole Ted as we took to the sky, engine thudding erratically, propellers whirring, and plumes of smoke spitting from the funnels.
“He’s something else,” the skipper said. “Ole Ted is.”
“How did he lose his eye? And leg?”
The skipper chuckled. “Old Ted was a kyte huntah, just like us. Best skippah in Mewton by fah. Then one of the kytes he netted put up a scrid of strugglin’.”
It began to dawn on me that the skies over Hopeless might be fraught with potential hazards, and I hoped that the skyskiff crew would descend to the safety of the ground within a reasonable time. Whatever they were up to high over Hopeless wasn’t really any of my business. I needed to find Salamandra, and as far as I knew, she was mostly groundbound.
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The sky was clear, apart from that strange cloud formation I had noted the day before. The dark band hadn’t shifted an inch since then, it appeared to be oddly stationary. When the skyskiff headed straight towards the murky mass, I began to wonder if the dirt-coloured gloom was somehow related to Hopeless…
§ § § § §
The crew seemed content to ignore me, and I was familiar enough with skirring a skyskiff to know how to stay out of their way. Leaning over the railing, happy to rediscover the sheer thrill of riding the wind, I hummed a song from home.
Oh my love, you have a cosy bed
Cattle you have ten
You can live a lawful life
And live with lawful men
I must make do with nothing
While there’s foreign gear so fine
Must I drink but water
When France is full of wine?
As we approached the band, it began to assume a more distinctive shape, it’s upper half forming expansive landscapes, the dark clouds billowing up to form high ridges and towering peaks, between which were broad valleys, glens, or ravines. Ere long we were skirring through this surreal scenery, the helmsman taking care to stay clear of the various cloud formations. It all looked remarkably solid, even though I knew the mighty mountain ranges were naught but unsubstantial illusions.
The skipper joined me. “This hee-ah, is Uppah Hopeless.”
“Upper Hopeless! So the island lies below?” I asked eagerly.
One of the crewmen quipped: “You can tell the scribblah is a smaht fellah. I’d have nevah guessed that.”
“Well it ain’t Japan or Iceland below our keel,” the skipper said. “That should be about as cleah as the cause for yellah snow.”
I watched a creature emerge from behind a foul cloud. A bulbous head the size of our skyskiff, with multiple eyes so large they should have been terrifying to behold, but there was a merry twinkle to them, and they conveyed so much amiable warmth that it made the creature appear endearing, like an old childhood friend come out to play. I felt an urge to get nearer, to reach out for it, and stroke its salmon coloured skin.
I pointed. “Is that a kyte?”
The skipper’s eyes bulged. His mouth fell open in horror for a moment, before he regained his composure and shouted: “CHOUT! CHOUT!! SKYSTINGAH ON THE STAHBOAHD BOW. EVADE! NOW! NOW!”
“Evah-body HANG ON TIGHT!” the helmsman bellowed in response.
He spun the helm, and I clutched the railings tightly with both hands. The skyskiff lurched to port.
“FULL SPEED AHEAD!” The skipper hollered.
“Aye-Aye, Skippah! Full speed ahead!”
I looked astern, to see that the skystinger had now fully emerged from its cloudy concealment, revealing a long trail of pink tentacles, writhing in a most obscene manner. The creature’s giant eyes had lost all sense of implicated kindness, narrowing as they beheld our attempt to manoeuvre away, the look in them now one of chilling malevolence.
The skystinger followed us in pursuit, but to my relief, seemed unable to match our speed. One of the longer tentacles rose high in the air, before whipping in our direction. To my horror I realised that we were in reach of the tentacle’s furthest extremity.
“CHOUT!” a crewmember shouted. “INCOMING TENTACLE!’”
“SHIELD!” The skipper commanded. “SHIELD!”
“Aye-aye, Skippah! Shield!” The helmsman spun the helm again, and the skiff lurched once more, this time keeling over so far that we had to hang on for dear life.
The incoming tentacle now swept towards the copper-plated bottom of the hull. I braced for the shock of impact, but it never came. Instead, there was an insistent staccato, as of hail stones striking a window.
The skyskiff straightened out again, engine chugging at full speed, and fast moving away from the skystinger and its fearsome tail of tentacles, including the long one which had so nearly swept us all off the deck.
I rushed to the side and looked down along the hull. It was peppered with dart-like quills, the size of a porcupine’s, but far tougher because they had punched right through the copper sheeting. Most were firmly embedded, but a few hung partially loose, and I could make out ridges of vicious barbs.
I reached out for one of the quills, but a crewmember grabbed my arm.
“You don’t want to be doin’ that, Mistah,” he said. “They-ha’s poison in them barbs, one tiny scratch and you’s as dead as a Tommyknocker.”
I quickly drew my arm back up, feeling foolish and out of place. “I can’t wait to get to the ground, away from these confounded skies,” I confessed.
The crew man laughed. “Suh-ely somebody told you Uppah Hopeless is by fah the safest paht of the island?”
I stared at him. He laughed again. I recalled the haunting cries from the sanatorium the previous night, and for the first time, began to doubt the wisdom in seeking Hopeless.
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