By Phaedra Mintun
Far below the emerald green of the rainforest's canopy was lost in gray swirls of clouds. Scottie stood leaning his tall form against the rail, as the wind pushed his sandy hair back off his face. It was his turn at watch and he was glad to have the time to think and scan the clouds that boiled beneath them, they fit his mood. Something about this excursion didn't feel right. Everything had been too easy. Captain Jim Daniels was so well known for taking on and escaping complicated capers that he was dearly dubbed "Stickywicket" by all that knew him. But this excursion went down so simply that Scottie was uneasy. The ship had caught strong winds all the way down to the jungles of South America and it was nothing but a quick jump in the squirrel suits to the ground. Not a soul had been waiting for them, but there in the clearing right where they landed were ten giant plants sitting on a platform. The ship dropped lines and he and the twins secured the platform and up they had gone.
The vision of those flowers floated in Scottie's mind. Easily six feet tall, they spread like massive wings, opening from dark pink centers out to the most delicate white ruffles at the edges. Scottie thought back to walking a slow circle around the platform and taking them in. He had never seen anything like them. Each plant bore one thick stem and a single flower backed by three thick waxy leaves. The flowers were transfixing, but Cook's strict orders not to touch them kept the curiosity at bay.
The memory of the elusive pull of the flowers made Scottie shake his head to dispel the urge to slip into the cargo and get a closer look, but even the draw of the curious flowers could not convince him to risk evoking the anger of the ship's cook and cargo master. Scottie had once seen Cook unconscious and hung by his wrists when one of their adventures got complicated and he looked so much like a side of beef that Scottie had never been able to shake the image. Cook looked after everything that came on to or off the ship and Scottie knew what happened when a member of the crew didn't follow orders when it came to the cargo. A young Skyman in training had taken a peek inside a crate they picked up in Peru and cook appeared out of nowhere and without a single word he had seized the young man, carried him to the upper deck and tossed him over the edge from full flight. No one ever said a word about it but not a single member of the crew would ever consider disregarding Cook's orders.
It was rare that anything kept Scottie from his work and he scolded himself for letting his mind wander when he should be keeping watch. His well trained eyes scanned the horizon. He paced the planks to the stern, checking ties and sweeping the skies with his eyes. There was another ship off in the distance, a two-ballooner like them, but smaller. He watched for a moment, they hadn't seen much traffic but he knew that this route was commonly used by drug traffickers. This ship didn't seem right for that. A ship owned by the drug lords would be flying low and heavily armed. He knew the rainforest was a popular destination for scientific excursions. His bet was that this was a small crew running a tourist trap for that purpose. The ship was a little close not to be communicating, but it didn't seem to be a threat so he hallooed to the twins, the ships Balloonmen, and saw a series of quick flashes from the crows nests. They had signaled the other ship and he could move on with his rounds.
Once he came round starboard Scottie could see two more small ships, and they were moving fast. One small ship was non threatening, three all bee-lining for them meant trouble! Scottie jumped to the rigging and swung his way up toward the twins. As soon as the pair of red moppish heads came into view he shouted, "Stern and Starboard incomin'! Are we gettin' signals?"
Dylan and Edwin had their hands full, they were furiously flashing their lamps as well as working the complicated controls trying to get the balloons prepared if they needed to do some fast maneuvering. Dylan repeated his signal for friendly identification, "Not even a puckering!"
"Tell the crew to lay ready. We're gonna nobble or nommus!" Edwin added as the twins switched from friendly requests to out-and-out warnings as the ships quickly closed in. Scottie hit the deck and pointed his feet toward the helm. The small ships were coming up fast. If there had been time Scottie could have stopped and stared. Behind them, looming up like bloated corpses surfacing from some putrid river, were four large ships rising from flying low and weighed down with heavy artillery.
Scottie added speed and burst into the helm room. Rick, the pilot was already holding fast to the wheel and Finn, the navigator was splayed out over his maps and charts.
"We 'ave company stern an' starboard, they aren't tellin' us the plan, be ready to fight or avoid!" The words were still dangling from his lips when the view in front of him sunk in. Scottie's eyes widened. Another small ship was bobbing up directly in front of them, only a stones throw away! It must have snuck up from directly below and it would soon be in the company of another large heavily armed ship that was gaining air and swinging around to face them.
Scottie spun on his heels and was making his way below deck, their cannon man had taken night watch and was getting some rest below, but they would be needing him. Scottie pounded on the walls as he made his way down the cramped passage into the room. If the ship weren't in dire and immediate danger he would have gaped at the sight of the three hundred pound Samoan curled up in his hammock draped with a tattered patchwork blanket, clutching an even more tattered teddy bear in the crook of his elbow. He blew a dainty foam of spit bubbles around his thoroughly sucked thumb. "Get up! We need you at the guns. We're under attack! S'more! Get up!" Scottie was sure that at some point the hulking mass that was the Samoan cannon man belonged to a mother and also that she had tried to give him a suitable name, but Scottie couldn't imagine anyone, not even a loving new mother, seeing merely the front of him and not gasping in stunned horror, "There's s'more!"
A giant flat foot swung out from the hammock and hit the boards. Followed by another and then the planetoid body was charging toward the upper deck. Scottie swept along in his wake before spinning off in the opposite direction when he reached the passage way. He pressed through the doors of the kitchen. "Prepare for all accounts. We're under attack with no communication!"
The ham-like face of Cook screwed itself into a look of annoyance, "Hash and taters! Wake Sticky and I'll see to the cargo!"
Scottie was off down the dark narrow corridor to the captains quarters. The door was jammed shut. Scottie stepped back as much as he could in the limited space and put his broad shoulders to good use. He slammed into the door and felt it give a small amount. Two more rams and the door gave way, sending Scottie staggering into the room. The ship made a sudden movement and Scottie took a few quick steps to gain his balance. The empty bottles scattered around the floor jingled as the room shifted. Scottie could hear the inebriated snores of the Captain, and his eyes adjusted enough that he could make out the form of a man sleeping curled beneath the small, built-in desk lovingly canoodling with his right boot. Scottie grabbed the man and pulled him from his place of slumber. Stickywicket was tall and lanky and he unfolded like a pair of wrinkled footsie pajamas as Scottie set him on his feet. Scottie cringed as he saw that the right boot was the only item of attire that the captain was in current possession. "We are under siege captain!"
The Captain opened his sparkling, if somewhat bloodshot, green eyes, "You are the son of a finny dollymop and I'll have your balls as my juggling stones!"
Scottie gave him a good shake, "The ship is under attack!"
The Captain's head snapped forward. "Then we will save the juggling for later," He turned away from Scottie and moved for the door, "right now we fight!"
Scottie made a grab for his shoulder. "Captain, pants first!" But the Captain careened away.
"First we fight!" The captain paused in the doorway and looked back over his boney shoulder. "They won't be the first groupers to get a good look at Stickywicket and turn tail!" With that he was out the door and into the fray.
The ship shuddered as S'more let loose the first of the cannon fire. Scottie shook himself and ran up the stairs.
All around them ships were growing nearer. Again the air was torn by their cannon. Scottie could see that S'more was aiming at the closest ship. Blasting them with huge balls of air trying to push them back. With this many ships so close it seemed strange that no one was firing. Scottie pulled himself up into the rigging and took a good look around. The attacking ships were all maneuvering to be as close as possible, but he could see no signs that they were communicating amongst themselves. He wondered how they could all be working together. His question was answered when there was the worse sound any Skyman could hear. Two of the on-coming ships had been setting a direct course for them and intersected. Wood splintered and balloons collapsed and burst into flame. They fell from the sky. Scottie had been flying since he was 16 and and not once seen two ships collide. His stomach wanted to claw its way out of his body. A great ruckus broke out on the starboard side. Scottie dropped to the deck and rushed in that direction. All along the bulwark hooks were caught in the wood and ropes were pulling taunt as he reached them. They were being boarded!
He whipped his sturdy knife out of his belt and started hacking the ropes. There were probably ten of them. He worked fast, but by the fourth one he could see the bodies climbing up the next lengths. There was something weird about the people, their faces weren't showing signs of strain or even interest, they were like the blank masks of those in deep and peaceful slumber. He cut the next line and watched the intruder fall, even to the last the man was still trying to climb the rope.
Another ship was now close enough to throw grappling lines over. Scottie chopped as fast as he could but there was no way he would get to them all in time. He glanced aftward, fingers were clutching at the edges. The captain, in all his glory, was wielding one of the ancient cutlasses from the helm room wall, shredding in equal parts rope, intruding fingers, and the ship itself. The wounds didn't seem to be discouraging the enemy at all. They continued to pull themselves on board.
The rope Scottie was working his knife through brought up its climber. The man was wearing a skyman's uniform and his hair was neat and trim, his face showed no sighs of awareness. Scottie tried to push him away but the man clung to his arms and pulled him off balance. Scottie had the choice of being pulled overboard and falling to his death or pulling the man into the ship and fighting. Scottie gave a huge yank and a pulled the man over the wall. Using the momentum, Scottie threw him onto the deck. The invader flailed at him scratching a deep gouge in his face. Scottie punched him and the man's head snapped back and came forward, his nose was bleeding and his lip was split, but his eyes seemed glazed and blank. The man made a strange growling sound and landed a blow to Scottie's jaw. More of them were clawing their way over the edge and all around him Scottie could hear the sound of fighting as they tried to defend their ship.