“Kytes Ahoy! Kytes Ahoy!” The look-out cried. “To lahboahd, kytes to lahboahd.”
We had just cleared a series of billowing ridges, and were treated to the vast expanse of a near level valley, its bottom formed by gentle cotton-like undulations.
About twenty kytes were gliding serenely over the centre of the valley. About fifteen feet long, their oblong bodies tapered into vast triangular wings to either side of their streamlined rumps, with a long, muscular tail trailing behind them, ending in caudal fins.
As we closed in, it became apparent just how gigantic the beasts were. I began to discern eyes, a long row of them, just above the front edge of the flat circular head, and then another row below, enabling the creatures to look both up and down simultaneously. When their wings moved, they did so with slow grace, displaying all the elegance of a dancer.
Entirely oblivious to the busy activities of the crew all around me, I stared at the majestic kytes…spellbound. I would have never dared to dream that such magnificent creatures could possibly exist. What an enchanting sight to behold!
The closest kyte regarded us curiously, making no attempt to distance itself from the skyskiff, and lazily flapped its tail, as if wagging it in a friendly greeting.
“Aren’t they grandiose?” I asked dreamily, turning to the crew member nearest to me.
To my shock, I now saw that the crew had mounted numerous harpoon guns all along the railing, and were bent over them, sighting and aiming…
“No…no…” I began to say.
“FIYAH!” The skipper thundered. “HAHPOONS AWAY! FIYAH!”
The first harpoon sped towards the kyte, trailing a rope. Others followed.
I watched in horror as they plunged into the kyte, penetrating its hide and burrowing deep into muscle and flesh beneath. The kyte uttered screams of pain, and started to trash its body left and right, in an attempt to dislodge the harpoons.
“Bind those ropes!” The skipper commanded, and the crew tied the ends of the harpoon ropes to belaying pins.
“Get ready for the ride of youh life, Mistah,” one of the crew advised me. “Better hold on tight.”
“RELOAD,” shouted the skipper.
Clutching at the railing once more, I focused my attention on the kyte again. Instead of dislodging the harpoons, its wild movements had ensured that the harpoon’s barbs had found firm purchase, caught behind sinew or bone. In that process, the kyte’s wounds had been ripped wider, and blood gushed out of them, running down in rivulets until falling into the nothingness of the sky, a steady drizzle of bright red drops, like a macabre, ruinful rain.
The kyte stopped shrilling its pain, snorted, and then barked angrily.
“Hee-ah we go!” the skipper exclaimed. “She’s gittin’ ready to run.”
On cue, the kyte lurched forwards, its tale circling in a corkscrew motion to propel it forward with all of its might. All the grace of its former dance-like movements was gone, this was now a desperate struggle of life and death. The ropes attaching us to the kyte grew tauter in an instant. When they reached full rigidity, the kyte was momentarily jerked back, more blood gushing from its wounds. It screamed again, drawing concerned calls from the other kytes, which began to circle our skyskiff at a wary distance.
Roaring frustration, the kyte redoubled its efforts, gaining the necessary momentum to move forwards, dragging the weight of the skyskiff with it. Having gained enough speed, it suddenly nosed down into a steep dive, dragging the skyskiff into its plunge, bow pointed steeply down, and once more we hung on for dear life.
The skipper shouted at the crew manning the harpoon guns. “Let’s tiyah the beast out, fiyah at will!”
More harpoons sped towards the kyte. When they struck, the creature bucked wildly, uttering desperate sobs. Possibly in a vain attempt to escape the harpoons, it came out of its dive and banked to larboard, before turning starboard in a steep ascent that turned into a loop.
“You’s kyte dancin’ now, Mistah,” one of the crew shouted at me.
I didn’t have the breath to answer. My fists clutching the railing had turned white, and most of my concentration was on anticipating the next sudden twist or turn…gut-wrenching motions as my body tried to adjust to being jerked sideways, up, down, and even, during particularly hair-raising moments, upside-down.
“Cease fiyah! Cease fiyah!” The skipper shouted, as we eased out of one such loop. “We git it wheah we wants it.”
He strolled casually across the heaving deck to join my side. “The trick is not to kill the beast. If it dies on us, it releases the gas that keeps it afloatin’. They-ha’d be a lot of dead weight plummetin’ down towahds the island, draggin’ us with it!”
I nodded, not caring to contemplate the impact of a skyskiff barrelling down into solid ground.
The stricken kyte, weakened no doubt by the loss of copious amounts of blood, started to slow, its evasive moments now sluggish, and almost bereft of power. Its screams, barks, and roars diminished into pitiful cries.
“That’s it!” The skipper hollered at the crew. “Start haulin’ her alongside.”
He helped, grabbing one of the harpoon ropes, and soon all six of them were straining at the ropes, hauling them in.
With reluctance, I too, grabbed one of the ropes and begun the struggle of pulling the defeated kyte towards our starboard railing.
When the creature was closely abeam, the ropes were tied to the belaying pins. The crew grabbed boat hooks, and used these to arrange the kyte’s body in such a manner that one of the wings draped over the railing, spilling onto our deck.
The kyte began to struggle again, beating the tip of its wing against the deck with forceful thumps, powerful enough to shatter a man’s leg, should it be in the way. Using smaller harpoon guns, the crew, shooting at point-blank range, pinned the wing to the deck. Then, grabbing axes and long meat cleavers, they began to hack wildly at the wing, cutting and cleaving at flesh and muscle.
I retreated to the bow, horrified. The kyte’s blood sprayed everywhere, covering the crew in so much gore that they resembled demons more than men as they carried out their bloody business.
The other kytes were still circling us, although their anxious calls had changed to deep, melodious, bass sounds, almost as if they were singing a resigned dirge of loss and mourning.
The kyte’s screams of pain mixed with pathetic mewls that cut through my soul. Some of its eyes were frantically looking in each and every direction, others staring aghast at the bloody ruin the crew were making of its wing. A few stared straight at me…I shuddered…the eyes focused on me seemed to convey a desperate plea for mercy. I recognised at that moment, the soul of a deeply-sentient being, in anguish at uncountable pains, fully aware of its imminent demise…even longing for it…wanting an end to the pain…begging it to end…
I wanted to look away, but those eyes wouldn’t release me.
“FOUND ONE! FOUND ONE!”
I willed my eyes away. One of the crew was holding his hand up, clutching a small object the size of a walnut, dripping with blood.
The skipper took it from him, then strode towards me through the gore on the deck.
“You ah-wight, Mistah?”
I managed a weak: “Why?” Indicating the butchery on the deck, I added: “Why this?”
The skipper opened his hand, to reveal the small item retrieved from the kyte’s wing. It was almost perfectly rounded, with the texture of an orange skin. “A genodus.”
“Ayuh. Similah to a tumah. As kytes grow oldah, they-ha staht growin’ in they-ha wings. All of ‘em have a few, some of ‘em as many as half-a-dozen.”
“What…does it do?” I asked, staring at the genodus in his hand.
“Ah!” The skipper grinned. “They-ha’s some folk what believe that a genodus, dried and powdeh’ed, enhances and sustains noctuh’nal activities, if you git my meanin’.”
He sighed. “They-ha’s plenty willin’ to pay good money foh just a scrit pinch of this stuff, in brothels from Bangah and Pawtlan, to Bahstan and even New Yahk.”
I stared at him, flabbergasted. “What about the meat? Can you…”
“You cahn’t eat it, Mistah, tastes like mummified bog lemming hide.”
He looked at me expectantly, and I realised he was measuring my reactions. When I said nothing, he continued: “Ole Ted was insistent you’d be paht of our fihst hunt.”
“Ayuh. Told me to tell you this…” The skipper briefly shut his eyes, as if searching his memory, and then continued. “If you’s feelin’ squeamish now: Do. Not. Go. To. Hopeless.”
I stared at him. I was strengthened by a sudden, granite conviction: No matter what awaited me down on Hopeless, no matter what manner of creatures I would encounter there…nothing could possibly equate the brutal savagery mankind was capable of.
“I’m fine,” I said. “Ready to touch down on the island.”
The skipper nodded resignedly. Something in my altered bearing changed his attitude. He became apologetic as he gestured at the mess amidships. “I git an invalid fathuh, a dementin’ muthah, a widowed sistah, a harried wife, and a total of five li’l uns at home. Ten mouths to feed altogethah, Mistah. Same such tales foh the rest of the crew.”
“I understand,” I said, sincerely. “Tis much of the same in Sussex for working folk.”
He nodded again, then made his way back amidships. Most of the wing had been shredded, one more genodus found. The skipper supervised the crew, half of whom, using boat hooks, began to turn the kyte’s feebly struggling body about to get at the intact wing. The other half of the crew began gathering chunks of flesh and strands of sinew to throw overboard, into the sky where gulls and other feathered scavengers I didn’t recognise wheeled around screaming frantically, nose-diving after the plummeting remnants of kyte, or contesting ownership of a seized titbit.
The utter barbarity continued when the other wing was in place on the deck, its soon demolished ruin yielding three more genoduses, much to the crew’s delight.
When the kyte was released from our bonds, it seemed barely alive at first, but somehow still contained enough strength to attempt to beat at the air with the stubs of its wings as it began its free-fall to the ground. To Hopeless.