Desert Crystals Part 42 – It’s A Long Way Up
With a strangled bellow, Tosser finally laid a sweating hand on the solid deck of the Viper. Her other hand snatched the looped rope from Guldwych’s outstretched arms and tied them off on the Viper’s railing. She let her trembling fingers tap out their exhausted rhythm on the rough steel while she recovered enough of her strength for the next step of actually achieving the deck. Her legs dangled over a thousand feet of air. Between them hung the rather scrawnier legs of Guldwych Ryme, still firmly clasped around his waist by Tosser’s thighs.
Ryme clung to the rope will all his inconsiderable strength. It did at least make him feel like he was contributing a little to Tosser’s staggering feat of hauling them both up hundreds of feet of rope. His weak, office-bound physique had done him no good that night. Hanging onto the rope was the limit of his ability, and in all honesty his quivering arms would not even allow that little effort. Instead Tosser had taken on both their weights (something Ryme could certainly contribute to) by the relatively simple expedient of looping their lines together and gripping him about the waist with her legs. Their rather intimate connection had long since ceased to offer any hint of embarrassing excitement. That had transformed into a crippling ache which felt like Tosser had crushed his pelvis. The idea of standing on his own two feet felt like an outlandish childhood dream.
“Ready? Last one Guldwych,” Tosser gasped.
She took his mute nod for enthusiastic assent. She wrapped both fists around a rail and took a deep breath. Bracing her feet against the hull, in a single violent thrust forwards and up she surged up and onto the rail. Ryme was pinned with his back to the rail, bent over almost double. Tosser shifted the balance of their combined weight far enough and Ryme fell backwards onto the deck only to be flattened by Tosser landing on top of him. She rolled away, allowing the professor to refill his lungs. They both lay there gasping for a while.
They were bathed in the yellow glow of lanterns hung by the main cabin door and around the edge of the deck. The night was quiet.
“Where are the crew Tosser?” asked Ryme as he regained his breath and managed to sit up. There was no one on deck, and no tell tale bang or clangs from inside the wingship. “I thought they would be up here.”
Tosser opened her eyes. “So did I. If they’re aren’t busy they should have been hard at work winching us back in.”
The life ring held only their tethers tangled together. The deck was a mess of broken crates and splinters of tooth. Of Chall himself there was no sign, and nor was there any of the rest of the crew. A patch of drying blood was the only evidence that Captain Flame had been struck by one of Chall exploding tooth fragments. The rest of the crates that Flame had stolen from the other vessel were gone, and with them all the poisons and deadly substances stored in the Meriodonal University’s deepest hoards.
“It must be Chem,” declared Ryme, “he took the first crate, and then he came back for the rest.”
“And the crew?” asked Tosser. Ryme had no answer for her.
Tosser cautiously opened the cabin door and made her way into the still-lighted ship. Doors were smashed in, and the walls themselves had hunks torn out or indented.
“Looks like they fought their way inside,” she murmured. Ryme nervously followed.
The main storage area below the deck appeared to be untouched, except for a bright slash of blood extending from within to halfway down the hall.
“A fatal blow. For someone.”
“The cargo seems untouched,” remarked Ryme, “they did come for the poisons then. But why take the crew?”
“Who’s to say they took them at all?” Tosser rounded on the man, “Why not just fling them overboard?” she demanded, and then stalked off down the ship, opening cabin doors until reaching the cockpit.
Ryme was as yet unused to the prospect of brutality in the lives of the pirates. Though he’d seen another captain killed in cold blood and their ship emptied of goods, that still felt a world away from it happening to the ship he was on. Unfortunately his former faith in Eslie Chem, long time associate and fixer had been eroded throughout their journey. The other man’s contempt for him had undermined the relationship that Ryme had thought they had. Ryme was no longer confident that Chem acted in his interests, or even that he could guess at Chem’s own interests. The shocking revelation that Chem was not even the man that Ryme thought he was had barely registered on the professor yet. In fairness he had been either unconscious, spinning in terror or being squeezed to death as they ascended.
They reached the cockpit and found that it too was empty. It was as if Captain Flame had just stepped out for a moment. Their course was still fixed, travelling toward the Razor Ridge at a leisurely pace. Tosser halted their drift, bringing them to a full stop.
“If they’ve gone overboard-” she began, “if they’re over the side we won’t see them this high.”
“Tosser,” tried Ryme gently, “if they went over the side there will be no saving them. We’re too high.”
Tosser ground frustrated tears out of her eyes.
“They’re my friends Guldwych. How can I not seek them out?”
“That spray of blood from the hold. Can we know to whom it belonged?”
Tosser shook her head.
“But it would have been a fatal wound. Why throw the dead overboard too and then just abandon the wingship?”
“Ryme, you’re a genius!” cried Tosser, grabbing him by the shoulders, “that means they’ve all been taken. Which means some of them must still be alive.”
“But taken where?”
“If they could fly the wingship they would have taken it, not just left it to drift away. There’s no airship to seek – they must be travelling on the ground.” Tosser beamed with hope.
“It’ll be dawn soon. I suggest we get some rest and pursue them in day light,” Ryme said.
Tosser nodded wearily, the toll of the climb finally showing on her face. She staggered off to their cabin and crashed out. Ryme, to his surprise felt very sore but not yet tired. He walked back out onto the deck, clipping himself back onto the life line as he went. He felt oddly stimulated, his mind filled with whirling thoughts. Uppermost in them was the desire to regain his crew mates, a group to whom he owed little, but who had also been betrayed by his old associate Eslie Chem. Ryme wanted to know why, and in particular why a Chiverly Hermit Beetle had been masquerading as his aide for years only to reveal himself while stealing the university’s most lethal substances. The world, it appeared, was not how it had seemed to be from his old office.
Coming Soon: Part 43 – Screaming Trees