Jingo Page 29

'You would be better employed considering the state of your immortal soul than making jokes,' said Constable Visit severely. 'It's the state of my immortal body that's worrying me,' said Reg. 'I have a leaflet here which will bring you considerable–' Visit began. 'Washpot, is it big enough to be folded into a boat that'll save us all?' Constable Visit pounced on the opening. 'Aha, yes, metaphorically it is–'

'Hasn't this ship got a lifeboat?' said Cheery hurriedly. 'I'm sure I saw one when we came on.'

'Yeah... lifeboat,' said Detritus. 'Anyone want a sardine?' said Cheery. 'I've managed to get a tin open.'

'Lifeboat,' Detritus repeated. He sounded like someone exploring an unpleasant truth. 'Like... a big, heavy thing which would've slowed us down... ?'

'Yes, I saw it, I know I did,' said Reg. 'Yeah... dere was one,' said Detritus. 'Dat was a lifeboat, was it?'

'At the very least we ought to get somewhere sheltered and drop the anchor.'

'Yeah... anchor…' mused Detritus. 'Dat's a big thing kinda hooks on, right?'

'Of course.'

'Kinda heavy thing?'

'Obviously!'

'Right. An'... er... if it was dropped a long time ago, on accounta bein' heavy, dat wouldn't do us much good now?'

'Hardly.' Reg Shoe glared through the hatchway. The sky was a dirty yellow blanket, criss–crossed with fire. Thunder boomed continuously. 'I wonder how far the barometer's sunk?' he said. 'All der way,' said Detritus gloomily. 'Trust me on dis.'

It was in the nature of a D'reg to open doors carefully. There was generally an enemy on the other side. Sooner or later. He saw the collar lying on the floor, right by a little fountain of water trickling from the hull, and swore under his breath. Ahmed waited just a moment, and then pushed the door back quietly. It rattled against the wall. 'I don't intend to harm you,' he said to the gloom of the bilges. 'If that was my intention, by now you'd–' She wished she'd used the wolf. There would have been no problem with the wolf. That was the problem. She'd easily win, but then she'd be nervy and frightened. A human could stay on top of that. A wolf might not. She'd do the wrong things, panicky things, animal things. She pushed him hard as she dropped down from above the door, somersaulted backwards, slammed the door and turned the key. The sword came through the planking like a hot knife through runny lard. There was a gasp beside her. She spun round and saw two men holding a net. They would have thrown it over the wolf. What they hadn't been expecting was a naked woman. The sudden appearance of a naked woman always caused a rethink of anyone's immediate plans. She kicked them both hard and ran in the opposite direction, opened the first door at random and slammed it behind her. It was the cabin with the dogs in it. They sprang to their feet, opened their mouths – and slunk down again. A werewolf can have considerable power over other animals. whatever shape she's in, although it is largely the power to make them cringe and try to look inedible. She hurried past them and pulled at one of the hangings over the bunk. The man in the bunk opened his eyes. He was a Klatchian, but pale with weakness and pain. There were dark rings under his eyes. 'Ah,' he said, 'it would appear that I have died and gone to Paradise. Are you a houri?'

'I don't have to take that kind of language, thank you,' said Angua, ripping the silk in two with a practised hand. She was aware that she had a slight advantage over male werewolves in that naked women caused fewer complaints, although the downside was that they got some pressing invitations. Some kind of covering was essential, for modesty and the prevention of inconvenient bouncing, which was why fashioning impromptu clothes out of anything to hand was a lesser–known werewolf skill. Angua stopped. Of course, to the unpractised eye all Klatchians looked alike, but then to a werewolf all humans looked alike: they looked appetizing. She'd learned to discern. 'Are you Prince Khufarah?'

'I am. And you are... ?'

The door was kicked open. Angua leapt towards the window and flung aside the bar restraining the shutters. Water funnelled into the cabin, drenching her, but she managed to scramble up and out. 'Just passing through?' the Prince murmured. 71–hour Ahmed strode to the window and looked out. Green–blue waves edged with fire fought outside as the ship heaved. No–one could stay afloat in a sea like that. He turned and looked along the hull to where Angua was clinging to a trailing line. She saw him wink at her. Then he turned away and she heard him say, 'She must have drowned. Back to your posts!' Presently, up on the deck, a hatch closed. The sun rose in a cloudless sky. A watcher, if such had been out here, would have noticed a slight difference in the way the swells were moving on this tiny patch of sea. They might even have wondered about the piece of bent piping which turned with a faint squeaking noise. Had they been able to place an ear to it, they would have heard the following: '–idea while I was dozing off. Piece of pipe, two angled mirrors – the solution to all our steering and air problems!'

'Fascinating. A Seeing-Things-Pipe-You-Can-Breathe-Down.'

'My goodness, how did you know it was called that, my lord?'

'A lucky guess.'

' 'ere, someone's re–designed my pedalling seat, it's comfortable–'

'Ah, yes, corporal, I took some measurements while you were asleep and rebuilt it for a better anatomical configu––'

'You took measurements?'

'Oh, yes, I–'

'What, of my... saddlery regions?'

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'Oh, please don't be concerned, anatomy is something of a passion with me–'

'Is it? Is it? Well, you can stop being passionate about mine for a start–'

'Here, I can see an island of some sort!' The pipe squeaked around. 'Ah, Leshp. And I see people. To your pedals, gentlemen. Let us explore the ocean's bottom...'

'I expect we shall, with him steering–'

'Shut up, Nobby.' The pipe slid down into the waves. There was a little flurry of bubbles and a damp argument about whose job it should have been to put the cork in, and then the patch of sea that had been empty was, somehow, a little bit emptier still.

There weren't any fish. At a time like this Solid Jackson would have even been prepared to eat Curious Squid. But the sea was empty. And it smelled wrong. It fizzed gently. Solid could see little bubbles breaking on the surface, which burst with a smell of sulphur and rotting eggs. He guessed that the rise of the land must have stirred up a lot of mud. It was bad enough at the bottom of a pond, all those frogs and bugs and things, and this was the sea He tried hard to reverse that train of thought, but it kept on rising from the depths like a... like a... Why were there no fish? Oh, there'd been the storm last night, but generally you got better fishing in these parts after a storm because it... stirred... up... The raft rocked. He was beginning to think it might be a good idea to go home, but that'd mean leaving the land to the Klatchians, and that'd happen over his dead body. The treacherous internal voice said: Funnily enough, they never found Mr Hong's body. Not most of the important bits, anyway. 'I think, think, I think we'll be getting back now,' he said to his son. 'Oh, Dad,' said Les. 'Another dinner of limpets and seaweed?'

'Nothing wrong with seaweed,' said Jackson. 'It's full of nourishing... seaweed. 's got iron in it. Good for you, iron.'

'Why don't we boil an anchor, then?'

'None of your lip, son.'

'The Klatchians have got bread,' said Les. 'They brought flour with them. And they've got firewood.' This was a sore point with Jackson. Efforts to make seaweed combust had not been successful. 'Yeah, but you wouldn't like their bread,' said Jackson. 'It's all flat and got no proper crust–' A breeze blew the scent of baking over the water. It carried a hint of spices. 'They're baking bread! On our property!'

'Well, they say it's their–' Jackson grabbed the piece of broken plank he used as an oar and began to scull furiously towards the shore. The fact that this only made the raft go round in circles added to his fury. 'They bloody move in right next to us and all we get is the stink of foreign food–' Why's your mouth watering, Dad?'

'And how come they've got wood, may I ask?'

'I think the current takes the driftwood to their side of the island, Dad–'

'See? They're stealing our driftwood! Our damn driftwood! Hah! Well, we'll–'

'But I thought we agreed that the bit over there was theirs, and––' Jackson had finally remembered how to propel a raft with one oar. 'That wasn't an agreement,' he said, creating foam as the oar thrashed back and forth, 'that was just an... an arrangement. It's not as if they created the driftwood. It just turned up. Accident of geography. It is a natural resource, right? It don't belong to anyone-' The raft hit something which made a metallic sound. But they were still a hundred yards from the rocks. Something else, long and bent at the end, rose up with a creaking noise. It twisted around until it pointed at Jackson. 'Excuse me,' it said, in a tinny yet polite voice, 'but this is Leshp, isn't it?' Jackson made a sound in his throat. 'Only,' the thing went on, 'the water's a little cloudy and I thought we might have been going the wrong way for the last twenty minutes.'

'Leshp!' squeaked Jackson, in an unnaturally highpitched voice. 'Ah, good. Thank you so much. Good day to YOU. The appendage sank slowly into the sea again. The last sounds from it, erupting on the surface in a cloud of bubbles, were,'... don't forget to put the cork in– You've forgot to put the cor––' The bubbles stopped. After a while Les said, 'Dad, what was––?'

'It wasn't anything!' snapped his father. 'That sort of thing doesn't happen!' The raft shot forward. You could have waterski'd behind it. Another important thing about the Boat, thought Sergeant Colon gloomily as they slipped back into a blue twilight, was that you couldn't bale out the bilges. It was the bilges. He was pedalling with his feet in water and he was suffering simultaneously from claustrophobia and agoraphobia. He was afraid of everything in here and everything out there at the same time. Plus, there were unpleasantnesses out there, moving past as the Boat drifted down the wall of rock. Feelers waved. There were claws. Things scuttled into the waving weeds. Giant clams watched Sergeant Colon with their lips. The Boat creaked. 'Sarge,' said Nobby, as they looked out at the wonders of the deep. 'Yes, Nobby?'

'You know they say every tiny part of your body is replaced every seven years?'

'A well–known fact,' said Sergeant Colon. 'Right. So... I've got a tattoo on my arm, right? Had it done eight years ago. So... how come it's still there?' Giant seaweeds winnowed the gloom.

'Interesting point,' quavered Colon. 'Er . . 'I mean, OK, new tiny bits of skin float in, but that means it ought to be all new and pink by now.' A fish with a nose like a saw swam past. In the middle of all his other fears, Sergeant Colon tried to think fast. 'What happens.' he said, 'Is that all the blue skin bits are replaced by other blue skin bits. Off'f other people's tattoos.'

'So... I've got other people's tattoos now?'

'Er... yes.'

'Amazing. 'cos it still looks like mine. 's got the crossed daggers and “WUM”.'

'Wum?'

'It was gonna be “Mum” but I passed out and Needle Ned didn't notice I was upside down.'

'I should've thought he'd notice that...'

'He was pissed too. C'mon, sarge, you know it's not a proper tattoo unless no–one can remember how it got there.' Leonard and the Patrician were staring out at the submarine landscape. 'What're they looking for?' said Colon. 'Leonard keeps talking about hieroglyphs,' said Nobby. 'What're they, sarge?' Colon hesitated, but not for long. 'A type of mollusc, corporal.'

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