chpt#2: All aboard the chronic agro
Shrieks of metal against metal, the pitched song of valkyric missiles, thundering of boots on metal deck and voices at the back of all, which swelled and burst without forming into speech.
It took three attempts for Skarry to clear the thick red light from his vision when he opened his eyes. His neck ached in a particular hot-spot that screamed ‘tranquiliser dart’ to his awakening consciousness and several choice names for his sister stuck in the back of his parched throat.
He rubbed his eyes. Good. At least they were not tied up like turkeys here, at least they could…
“Wiz preserve us!” he yelled, leaping to his feet and causing the enormous cage to sway like a Watcher’s lantern. He grasped the bars, dizzied by the height at which they were now suspended, like a lure, above the deck of the Chronic Agro. Beside him, the Last Witch of Pendle lay crumpled in a heap, still cradling her brandy bottle. Mercurio was sprawled on his back a few feet away, snoring like a pig, his Botticellian curls splayed out around him, giving him the appearance of an inebriated angel. Skarry shook his head in mild disgust and the metal bars in frustration, causing the cage to sway again.
He gazed around in awe. Above him, the sails of the Agro towered like the wings of some ancient beast and, despite his desperate situation, Skarry couldn’t help but marvel at the beauty of the ingenious Tinker design work. Unlike the few other landships he’d seen, the Agro looked like a ship – a sleek, silver vessel wrought from gleaming plates of metal, and its serpentine tail (“Oh, Wiz! It has a tail?!”) thrashed from side to side as it careered crazily down the narrow cobbled street on four ferociously clawed and scaly metal legs, mercilessly thrashing the sides of the feeble mortar dwellings, as it struggled to carve its own passage. Skarry spun around (“Then where there’s a tail, and legs, there must surely be a head? – Yes!”) The prow of the ship rose, swan-like, sculpted from more elegant silver plate work, which turned at last to intricately layered scales (“No – feathers?”) forming a sleek mane around the stately head of a hook-beaked, beady-eyed gryphon.
Skarry gaped. Never in his life had he seen anything like it. Up through the deck, protruded a multitude of metal mechanisms, which thrust and pulsed like jointed limbs, connected to a structure of pin-wheel sails at both the rear and sides of the Agro. Beside these structures, towards the rear, an intricate menagerie of leather bellows, like a set of prosthetic lungs, heaved and sighed out great gusts of air which, directed through a labyrinth of copper pipe work, kept the pinwheels carting and filled the sails to constant billow.
“Thisss isss insssanity Jack! Tisss dashhhed to ssssmitherinesss we will be, laddie!” The gryphon ended its sentence with a piercing metallic screech which knocked Skarry to his knees, hands plastered over his ears and cursing the day his sister was ever born.
“Scarlet! Scarlet you she-devil, where are you?” he yelled, not hoping to be heard over the racket of thundering mortar and screaming ship-beasts.
He peered back through the bars of the cage; at the helm, if it could be called such, stood an unusually slight young man wearing, quite probably Skarry reflected, the most inappropriate garb for the post of Pirate Captain purchasable within the Seven Counties: His thigh-length boots, turned down at the top, might possibly have served him well, had they not sported spindly, six-inch heels. Certainly, Skarry told himself, he must be running a risk of serious injury from opportune blade or flying missile, revealing such a vast quantity of flesh between the sparse material coverings afforded by his choice of mutilated and grossly over-embellished tail-coat. The garish garment barely reached his waist and beneath it he seemed to be wearing little more than a pair of, ludicrously short, leather breeches and some sort of vari-strapped, sleeveless leather… (for his own peace of mind, Skarry decided to call it a doublet). His snow-white hair was streaked with riots of coloured dye, braided with an ostentatious variety of beads and trinkets over his back and shoulders, and cropped short on top so that it rose in aggressive-looking spikes like the plumage of some bellicose parrot. So this, Skarry thought despairingly, was Jack Diamond; captain of the, disturbingly sentient, Chronic Agro and in whose, evidently less than capable, hands their fates had come to rest.
“Pipe down, Aggie!” the captain sang cheerfully above the uproar. “Where’s my Scar? SCARLET! Where’s my first mate? Where is she?” He staggered backwards suddenly and, gasping for breath, clutched a hand to his chest, laughed manically, and made a desperate grab for the ship’s rail as he collapsed sideways onto the metal deck.
“Pipe down yer self, y’fool! I’m atcher elbow!” Scarlet bellowed, helping him back to his feet.“You, there; Biddie, fetch Rowland with his kit will yer? And some more meths, the captain’s dryin’ out!” She flung a hip-flask to someone masked from Skarry’s view within the writhes of smoke snaking like enraged cobras from the roofs of some of the thatched buildings, onto which many of the lighted gas lamps, which lined the narrow street, had fainted under the weight of the Agro’s advances.
“You’d no need fer all this, y’daft peacock!” Scarlet shrieked. “Thirty minutes, Jack! Can yer not count t’thirty?”
“Oh, thirty, ten, what’s the difference, Scar? I’ll tell you – thirty minutes, to a mind as industrious as mine, is like an eternity. Thirty minutes and you’d return to find me at the mercy of insanity. I was not made for waiting. And neither was Aggie – was you old bird? She was getting restless, wasn’t you, my pet?”
The gryphon let out another smoke-splintering shriek, “Ressstlesss, aye, firrra a smoothh drink of oil and a rub down, Jack, not a dessssent into the jawssss of the abyssss. Thisss missst playsss hell with my jointssss.”
“Nonsense! She caught the scent of the old Plunder Bus, didn’t you, pet? Her hackles went up and she was straining for the kill!”
“Insssolent whelp! Can y’not put a leashh on him, Missss. Sssskarry?”
“Save us all if I did!” Scarlet shook her head. “We need t’go back, Jackie, the Bus is blocking our exit and Bill’ll go spare if we lose one of his ships over naught but a bit o’fun. Y’understand me, Jack? Are y’listening, yer raving nutcase? We need t’back her up!”
“Retreat?” Jack cried, tightening his hold on the metal harness, which seemed to serve the function of a steering wheel, as the gryphon tossed its silver head indignantly. “Run from a stand-off? With the Brothers Crim? Never! Stout heart and onward, My Lady Fair, we will see this through to the very last!” He swayed violently on his feet again and almost pitched headlong over the side of the vessel. Scarlet made a skilful lunge, caught him by his coat tails and hauled him back.
“You’ve sprung a leak again, Jack, d’yer hear me? Yer valve is leakin’ and the meths is addling yer brain – y’re not thinkin’ straight! Listen t’me – we cannot go ‘onward,’ we’re out of space!”
“Bah! I didn’t come through the jaws of death still kicking, only to be thereafter subjugated by the meagre laws of so-called ‘time and space’. Fate smiles on the reckless, rewards the endeavours of the impetuous, and flings her blessings like stars to light the universe of the relentless rogues aboard the Chronic Agro!” He seized the harness with both hands, hauled himself to his feet again, and raised his voice in a sudden, boisterous burst of song above the pandemonium:
“All hands to the deck, me loves, hands to the bellows,
fill up the sails, me loves, onward we goes,
let Fate bring us home again, wither she whethers,
hands to the deck, me loves, onward she blows.
Come death to us all, me loves, I’ll not be grieving,
our Eldorado waits, heaven to me,
city of gold, me loves, waiting to welcome,
all the relentless rogues home from the sea.
All hands to the deck…”
“BIDDIE BONES!” Scarlet hollered. “Curse y’girl where are yer?”
Within seconds, the erstwhile mysterious personage that was Biddie Bones, came skidding out of the smoke-cloak across the slick metal of the deck, accompanied by two other crew members, and Skarry’s eyes widened in horror. The oddity that was Jack Diamond paled suddenly to the commonplace, when compared to these bizarre creatures and, although he was one of the few civilians privy to the truth of the situation, Skarry found himself suddenly able to sympathise with the general public opinion that Billy Blythe and his team of Tinkers had manufactured a race of ‘tons to crew their fleet of landships.
Scarlet hurried over to them and there followed a rather frenzied discussion in hushed tones which gave Skarry time to shut his mouth and take careful note of the ‘gifts’ each Land Pirate had been bestowed by their king.
Biddie Bones herself, bore a weight of muscle that would put most men to shame. Her dark skin gleamed like polished tourmaline – plum and smoke beneath the lamplight sheens of gold – and, beneath her shirt, the contours of her femininity gloated in startling compliment to the terror induced by her obviously formidable strength. Skarry was tempted to guess that the ‘Bones’ element of her title had been earned in reference to the number of these she had managed to crush with her bare hands, both of which were prosthetic and attached to murderous-looking mechanical arms which ended at her elbows, above which her natural biceps bulged menacingly. That was fine. Just fine, Skarry thought. Prosthetics he had seen before, they were not commonplace of course, but certainly not so rare, amongst those who could afford to commission them, that the sight of them would cause a man to blanch. No. But the tail; the scorpianic tail that rose elegantly, from Wiz knew where, to curve like a grim parasol above the girl’s head, complete with three-foot barb at its tip – Skarry shuddered and moved his gaze to the next member of the group.
The sight did nothing to console him. Here was a man with no arms at all. Limbs he had a-plenty but these, apart from the legs he was standing on, were all rope-like tentacles made of minute strands of ingeniously braided metal so that they coiled and writhed with perfect fluidity, giving him the appearance of a Kraken that had lost its way.
“You’ll have t’hold him down, Giddy,” Scarlet was saying, “while The Kid swaps the valves over. We’ve got to be fast this time, I’ve no idea how long it’ll be before Archie Crim realises Jack’s down and gives his crew the order to rush us.”
“I’ll hold the helm, Miss. Skarry,” Biddie growled. “They’ll not get past me n’ my boys.”
Scarlet frowned. “Good. But just th’same, we don’t want t’ fight if we don’t ‘ave to. When Jack gets his senses back he’ll want t’get straight back t’London. We’ve got what we came for, Aggie’s the fastest Land Ship in the Seven Counties and she’s got us here in good time, but if we stick around now there’ll be more of these loons showin’ up – the last thing we want is t’get hemmed in from behind.”
“An’ if any crew decides to board us, we’ll have no chance of keepin’ that Wyrd Web thing.” Giddy added, balling one of his tentacles into a fist and the other into a flat palm to pound it against.
“And of course, Bill made it perfectly clear that he doesn’t care tuppence who brings him the thing – the first ship back with it will get the reward. He certainly won’t be listening to argument and conjecture that it was us who risked our necks getting it out of the house in the first place.” The last shipmate in this conspiracy was a much older gentleman, with a voice like the grumbling groan of shale being churned through a spring tide. His short, curly black hair was bleaching to silver and through it Skarry could see two gleaming copper horns ‘obviously added to compliment that fetching pair of mechanical goat’s legs he has,’ Skarry told himself, fighting to retain his composure.
“Aye, Kid.” Scarlet nodded. “He’ll reward whoever puts it in his palm. An’ I’m damned if that’s not gonna be us! Right. Let’s do this.”
“Come death to…us all, me… loves, I’ll not be grieving,
our Eldorado… waits, heaven to me,
city of gold, me loves… wait…waiting… to welcome,
all the re…eh? Ah! What’s this? Mutiny?”
Jack flailed uselessly in the grip of Giddy’s tentacles as the huge man hauled him effortlessly down onto the deck and held him there.
“Sorry about this, Cap,” he said, uncomfortably.
“Sorry?” Jack replied faintly, his eyes beginning to roll in his head as he continued to gasp for breath. “Oh yes…you’ll all be sorry…worthless…bunch of…blackguards…I…”
“Oh pipe down, y’daft turkey!” Scarlet scolded, though her tone did not match the severity of her words as she stroked his forehead in an uncharacteristically maternal fashion that Skarry found very disturbing. “Rowland’s gonna fix yer valve, me love, that’s all.”
“Valve?” Jack’s eyes slid shut. “I’ll fix that old goat…I’ll fix the lot of you…”
“Get out of my way!” Rowland ‘The Kid’ snapped testily, brushing Biddie and Scarlet aside as he opened his large leather case and took out of it a thin metal implement that resembled a fountain pen. “The continuous distillation mechanism, which removes any traces of methanol that may find their way into his bloodstream, has failed due to the overload produced by the breach of the valve. Before I can attend to replacing the seal on the valve in his throat, which allows the meths to travel directly to his heart without leaking into his bloodstream, I must magnetically activate the shunt in his brain that will release the superfluous spirits into the overflow chamber and feed them back into his heart – contamination is minimal, though he may experience some fatigue for a short while afterwards, it is vastly preferable to having him vomit all over the deck.”
“JUST GET ON WITH IT!” Scarlet shrieked.
“JACK DIAMOND!” A sinister voice suddenly resonated through the miasmatic veil of smoke. “What’s wrong, Little Jack? Isn’t Billy Blythe’s pretty little parrot gonna favour us all with another song?”
“Crawl out of your stinking little hole an’ say that, Archibald Crim, you filthy bellows-rat!” Biddy roared, leaning over the rail, but her rage was met with a chorus of jeers and cat-calls from the crew of the Plunder Bus.
“Perhaps he’ll do a request?” someone yelled. “I’m sure we can all think of a tune we’d like to hear him squawk!”
“Or perhaps he needs us to come over there and ring one out of ‘is scrawny little neck?” More whoops and jeering followed.
“Ho, Jack!” the first voice crowed “Why don’tcha flap over here, little birdie? We’ve got a very fine cage all ready and waiting for you! How’d you like the sound of that then, eh? I wonder how much old Bill would pay us out of his hoard, to stop his precious little pheasant gettin’ plucked?”
“That’s mutinous talk!” Biddy bellowed. “Threaten the Pirate King would you? You’ll regret that jest before this night is out, Archie!”
“Hurry up with that damn valve, Kid,” Scarlet muttered. “Any minute now, old Arch is gonna realise Jack’s out of action. And when he does…”
“All, right, all right!” Rowland snapped. “There, the fluid is feeding back into his system. Although this next bit will be a lot easier if he doesn’t regain consciousness in the middle of it.” He reached inside his bag again, took out a tiny brass key, and pulled back the rakishly high, collar of Jack’s tail-coat to reveal a metal lock plate seamlessly inserted into the side of his neck. He turned the key in the hole and the little hinged door swung open. “Not long now, Captain. Just let me seal this off…ah, there it is, just as I thought, completely worn away. Still, all we have to do is replace it with this one…”
“What’s the matter Jack?” Archie boomed. “Not coming out to play today?”
“HURRY UP!” Scarlet hissed.
Jacks eyes suddenly snapped open and, even from his distant viewpoint, Skarry was amazed by the sudden shrewd alertness they reflected. “Scarlet?”
“I’m here, Jackie.”
“What happened? No. Damn that, what’s the situation?”
“We’ve got the Wyrd Web, Jack, the Plunder Bus is ahead of us, all guns blazing, we need to back up, me love, and set sail for home.”
“The Plunder Bus?”
“Aye. They’ve been goading us on all night, Cap. Now they’re threatening mutiny against the Pirate King.”
In a breath, the captain was on his feet. He scanned the street with a critical eye and his crew waited, with obviously bated breath, for his instructions.
“Pipe.” Jack held out his hand, expectantly, and Scarlet dutifully handed him a strange contrivance of copper tubing, which he puffed at thoughtfully before holding out his other hand. “Flask.” He took a long draught of meths from the hipflask, handed to him by Biddie Bones. Still they waited, while the steam from the pipe mingled with the smoke from the submissive rooftops. “Home?” he mused, his eyes narrowed in machinistic contemplation. “Home, yes, home with a good catch…did I hear old Archie Crim say something about a bird cage?”
“Aye, the impudent dog!” Scarlet spat.
Jack puffed his pipe again, ignoring a missile which sailed so low above their heads that the rest of the crew ducked and breathed loud sighs of relief when it struck a nearby rooftop. His gaze travelled up the mizzen mast to meet Skarry’s and he grinned suddenly and waved “Hello there! I’m sorry I didn’t realise we had guests! My sincere apologies, but I’m afraid we are going to have to relieve you of your penthouse accommodation. You see,” he turned back to his crew, “we will shortly be entertaining a far more eminent guest!” The Agronauts let out a raucous cheer, and then scrambled to keep their feet as a nearby building finally gave up its stand and collapsed into the street, sending the ship reeling to one side as the gryphon shrieked and tried to steady itself.
“Tammy Rhymer!” Jack cried, “my beautiful little siren, and Angel D’Morte, gorgonian goddess that you are, where are you both? To the podium, please ladies. Rowland, you crotchety old goat, man the treacle cannons with Tross and keep those bottles coming. Hoist up the Spratapult, and the Mangonel. I want the Chicken Trebuchet up here as well. All idle hands to the bellows, keep the sails filled and the ship steady. Scarlet, other half of my once-beating heart, kindly prepare to make Captain Crim as uncomfortable as he deserves to be.”
“With pleasure, Captain.” Scarlet growled, and stalked off into the smoke, barking orders.
“And now, Giddy my friend, if you will accompany me to the helm, we will prepare to indulge ourselves in a spot of fishing.” Gideon grinned and flexed his tentacles as Jack moved to take the reins once more. “Gas masks on, me loves!” he cried, pulling his own, beautifully beaked, silver breathing apparatus from a small cubby to his left and hoisting it over his head. “Now, when you’re ready, Miss. Rhymer, let us show these contumelious curs why we are called THE CHRONIC AGRONAUTS!”