Grim Tuesday

Page 19


‘Aye, aye, sir!’

Arthur hurried over, knelt down and gripped the ring. He looked up at Tom, who was staring intently through the portholes and moving the wheel in quarter turns, continually to the right.

‘Heave!’

Arthur wrenched back on the ring. It came clear of the floor, and a brilliantly sparkling chain that seemed to be made of crystals or perhaps even diamonds came rattling out behind it. Arthur staggered backwards, pulling on the ring. Yards and yards of the glittering chain emerged, spreading all over the deck.

‘Mind you don’t get caught up!’ Tom shouted.

Arthur had already realised that, but it was easier said than done. There was chain spreading everywhere, at least a hundred yards of it, and Arthur had to go down the gangway to avoid it, while still pulling on the ring. Suzy retreated to one corner, eyeing the chain with suspicion.

‘Hold there, Arthur!’ Tom called out. He suddenly stepped away from the wheel, looped the chain around the register on the floor, sprang back to the wheel, and shouted, ‘Let go!’

Arthur let go. The ring shot away from his hand, and the chain rebounded back to wherever it had come from. The loop around the register tightened. For a few seconds, the chain stopped, and the register stayed stuck to the deck. Then as Arthur leaped back up the gangway, he saw the register screech across the floor, deep scratches in the floor testifying to how hard it was fighting the pull.

‘It won’t go through there!’ Arthur shouted, pointing at the saucer-sized chain hole. But when the large bronze-bound book reached the hole, it did go through, though not without a final, ear-splitting scream that sent Arthur tumbling down the gangway again, his hands pressed against his ears.

A moment later the ship ran into something. There was a thud and a groan from the hull. The deck rocked from side to side.

Arthur dragged himself up to the bridge, shaking his head from side to side, his ears ringing.

‘It had to be a surprise,’ Tom was saying to Suzy. ‘The register would have defended itself better if it knew I was going to wrap it in the anchor chain. I trust you were not too disturbed?’

Suzy looked up at him, tapped her ears, and shook her head.

‘Good!’ declared Tom, not realising that Suzy was shaking her head to try to clear her ears. ‘We’ve docked, in a manner of speaking.We’ll swing on the chain a little and should be able to see –’

The white light in the porthole changed. Arthur stared as he saw lush green trees drift into view. Trees hung with vines and dense green leaves, interspersed with bright white flowers.

‘It looks like a jungle!’ he cried out, surprised.

‘It is, of sorts,’ replied Tom. ‘A tropical island, preserved in a bubble of Immaterial Glass, here in the heart of the sun.’

‘How do we get across?’ Suzy asked, much too loudly. Her hearing hadn’t fully come back.

‘We’re beached on her sandy shore, broadside on through the Immaterial Wall,’ said Tom. ‘So we can wade in. But we need to wait a moment, to make sure the anchor has taken bite. It wouldn’t do to drift back into the sun’s embrace before we’re back aboard.’

‘What are we going to wade through?’ Arthur asked.

‘A patch of sea, caught with the island,’ Tom replied. ‘The Immaterial Glass that encloses this place knows to let the Helios impinge. Any other vessel would just bounce off.’

He bent down and gave the anchor ring a few heaves. A few yards of chain came out, but then snagged. Tom gave a few more steady heaves, then let the ring go.

‘She’s fast,’ he declared, ‘unless a storm comes up. But now – let’s go ashore!’

SIXTEEN

ARTHUR HALF-SHUT HIS EYES and pulled his hands up into the sleeves of his brightcoat as Tom opened the portside hatch. But as Tom had promised, the hatch opened onto clear blue water, with a sandy beach only yards away, with the jungle verge beyond. A small surf o one- to two-foot waves swept around the sunship’s hull and crashed onto the beach.

Even though he’d seen it through the porthole, this was not what Arthur had expected. He’d thought there’d be some indication they were in the heart of a sun. Brighter light for example, or a ring of fire in the distance.

There was normal sunshine overhead and the air was warm and humid. Arthur poked his head out the hatch and saw ocean stretching out to the horizon, broken a mile or so out by a long line of what must be coral reefs.

All in all, it looked good enough to become a postcard from an unspoiled tropical holiday destination.

‘Where do the waves come from?’ Arthur asked Tom as they jumped down. The sea was warm, but the waves were bigger than they looked from the ship, and as the beach shelved away steeply, the water was deeper. Arthur had to jump up to keep his head out of a passing wave in order to hear Tom’s reply.

‘It is unlike the other bottles, in that this place is both here and there, in a manner of speaking,’ said Tom. He grabbed Arthur and Suzy by their coat collars and lifted them up as an even larger wave swept past. ‘But the only way for us to get to it is here. If we went to where it is on the old Earth, we wouldn’t see it and would turn away – or, in unlucky circumstances, we would wreck and drown some way off. You should be able to wade now.’

‘Thanks,’ muttered Arthur as Tom dropped them in the wash and strode up the beach. The boy picked himself up clumsily, his lame leg stuck in the wet sand for a moment.

‘Hey, I’m dry!’ exclaimed Suzy after one step up the beach. She’d been sodden and dripping a moment before.

‘So am I!’ said Arthur, patting his coat. There was some steam rising off it, but otherwise the coat and everything else he was wearing had dried the instant he left the sea.

‘This is a great coat,’ said Suzy. ‘I hope I can keep it. And these shoes keep the sand out and they’ll be great for kicking Nithlings. Immaterial Boots are proof against everything you know, even Nothing. For a while, anyway.’

‘You’re cheerful,’ Arthur observed wryly. But he felt much better himself. The clean air and the sunshine were very heartening, and with Tom’s help he felt sure they would soon find theWill. Once they had Part Two, then it could sort out Grim Tuesday and all would be well.

This moment of optimism was slightly spoiled as he stumbled in the sand, his shortened leg betraying him once more. He kept trying to walk like he always had, but he couldn’t. He had to learn to take different steps and think ahead to where he’d put his left foot.

Tom had already gone into the jungle, following a rivulet of fresh water. The trees and undergrowth thinned out a bit on either side of this narrow stream, making it the next best thing to a path.

‘Too green for me, and too damp,’ remarked Suzy with distaste as they splashed up the stream. She looked up at the canopy of leaves and vines and shuddered. ‘Could be anything hiding in the shrubbery. Give me a nice street any day.’

‘What about your old place with the dinosaurs?’ asked Arthur. ‘That had trees.’

‘Only a few, and it was inside the House . . .Where did Tom go?’

Arthur and Suzy stopped and looked around. Tom had been only a little way ahead. Now they could neither see him nor hear him splashing. There was only the gentle burble of the stream and the soft noises of the wind rustling the upper levels of the jungle canopy.

‘Tom?’ called out Arthur. ‘Captain?’

Paranoid thoughts began to creep into his brain.

Maybe Tom had somehow seen the telegram from Grim Tuesday after all? Or maybe he’d always planned to get us here. He’s brought us here to trap us. He’ll leave us here, on this jungle island in the middle of the sun.We’ll never escape –

‘Up here!’ Tom called out.

‘Where?’ Arthur shouted back. He could hear Tom, but couldn’t see him. There was only the jungle all around, and Suzy next to him, slowly scanning the trees.

‘Here!’ called out Tom again, and this time Arthur saw a hand thrust down through the thick mass of leaves, waving. ‘You can climb up on the other side.’

Arthur and Suzy left the stream, pushed their way between some vast bushes with pale yellow flowers and odd elongated seedpods, and came to the trunk of a large spreading tree. The trunk was wrapped in vines that grew in all directions, making a natural ladder up into the jungle canopy. Arthur and Suzy climbed easily, manoeuvred through the leafy canopy, and emerged out into the sunshine.

Tom was waiting for them, perched on a thick spreading branch next to something that could only be described as a nest. A circular platform of branches and vines wove together in a haphazard fashion to make a cross between a balcony and a treetop bed.

In the middle of it, apparently asleep, was a small bear. It was a sleek black in colour, apart from a lighter muzzle and a bright yellow crescent-shaped blaze across its chest. It also had a tail, which Arthur wasn’t sure was normal for bears. If it was a bear. It wasn’t that big, about half Arthur’s size, though it was plumper around the middle.

‘That’s it,’ said Tom. ‘Part Two of the Will. And, if I recall from one of my journeys to the Spice Islands, in the shape of a sun bear.’

Arthur climbed across to look at the sun bear more closely. It didn’t stir, but the slow rise and fall of its chest suggested it was merely asleep. Arthur leaned closer still and looked at its fur. Sure enough, when he was only an inch or two away, he could see thousands of tiny letters swirling about, rather than actual fur or flesh.

‘What’s wrong with it?’ he asked, as the sun bear didn’t awaken or show any sign of being aware of its visitors. ‘Is it asleep? Or hibernating?’

‘Sun bears –’ Tom began to say, but he got no further, as the sharp crack of an explosion sounded from the beach. Arthur, Tom and Suzy snapped around to look and saw a huge geyser of steam spout into the air – from where the Helios was beached.

‘Uh-oh,’ said Suzy. Her hand fell to her cutlass hilt. ‘Is that Grim Tuesday arriving?’

‘No,’ Tom replied. ‘Apart from the Improbable Stair, there is no way to reach this island but the Helios, and Tuesday wouldn’t dare use the Stair. It is more likely we have woken a guardian or watcher. I will deal with it.’

All of a sudden, Tom’s harpoon appeared in his left hand, glittering with its strange mix of light and darkness.

‘But what about the Will?’ Arthur asked. He prodded the bear with his finger, keeping a wary eye on its long, sharp-looking claws. A faint golden glow spread over Arthur’s finger, but the bear didn’t move. ‘What do we do with it?’

Tom had begun to climb down, but he stopped and looked back up, his forehead furrowed in thought. He kept glancing back towards the beach, where the steam continued to spout a hundred feet into the air.

‘What did you plan to do with it?’ the seafarer asked.

‘I don’t know,’ replied Arthur in exasperation. ‘I thought it’d be like the first part of theWill. You know, it would tell me what to do. Not just lie there.’

‘Bring it, then. We should not linger here,’ said Tom. Then he was gone.

‘You reckon we can lift it?’ Suzy asked Arthur. ‘Pretty solid-looking bear. Even if it is made of words.’

‘I don’t know,’ Arthur snapped, showing his irritation. ‘Why can’t it just wake up and be useful?’

Making sure he had a good foothold on the branch, he bent down and tried to lift the sun bear under one arm. But he could barely raise its front legs an inch off the nest. It was extremely heavy, heavier than any bear of real flesh and blood.

Suzy tried to lift it too, but could only get its rear legs up, while its round midsection stayed firmly planted on the woven leaves. Even lifting together, they could only bend it into a U-shape. It still didn’t wake up.

‘It’s too heavy!’ Arthur conceded.

‘The Captain could carry it,’ said Suzy. ‘That steam’s stopped . . . oh . . . smoke.’

She pointed. The steam geyser had gone, but in its place there was a dense column of smoke. Then they heard a strange crackling noise, and a soundless vibration passed through Arthur and Suzy, making them shiver. It was followed by an inhuman, very high-pitched scream – and a triumphant shout from Tom.

‘Reckon that was the Captain’s “friend,”’ whispered Suzy as she felt her teeth with one dirty hand. Arthur’s teeth felt odd too, kind of fuzzy. But the sensation passed quickly.

‘As long as it gets used on the right side, I don’t mind,’ said Arthur. He cupped his hands over his mouth and shouted, ‘Captain! Captain! We need you to carry the Will!’

‘Aye, I hear you!’ came a returning shout. ‘I’m coming back!’

Tom followed his shout several minutes later, emerging through the canopy, once again without his harpoon. ‘We must speed on. That was a Sunsprite. There are others trying to drag the Helios off. They have some means of getting in through the Immaterial Glass.’

‘I thought you said there was no way in except the Stair and your sunship,’ Suzy said as Tom picked up the sun bear and slung it over one shoulder as easily as if it were a pillow.

‘So I thought, lass, so I thought,’ Tom muttered. ‘I wonder . . . but this is no time for wonderings. Quickly, to the ship!’

‘What’s a Sunsprite?’ Arthur asked Suzy as they hastily climbed back down into the cool shade of the jungle. Tom easily outdistanced them into the greenery, even with the sun bear on his shoulder.

‘Dunno exactly,’ replied Suzy. ‘There’s a mort of different Sprites, and I never learned ’em. Basically they’re Nithlings that got out of the House and into the Secondary Realms.’

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