Fish Stocks Limited by Michael Summers - HTML preview
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Chapter 8 – Caught
The ground shook. Small twigs and leaves fell from where they had been resting amongst the creepers and vines that interlaced the air above Ambrosius. His bowels churned with the presence of danger before his eyes had chance to open. A familiar clank and terrifying hum echoed around him. He sat upright, breathing heavily. It was coming for him. He scrambled to his feet and his legs moved automatically, propelling him through the night, branches and vines whipping and clinging to his clothing. Blind panic enveloped him, and suddenly all his lesser woes were forgotten. How he wished he had stayed in the safety of the land above the clouds, free from the threat of mist and monsters. But here he was, now stumbling, now running, now gasping for breath, and all the time the terrible noise getting closer. He snatched a look behind him and there it was: Fish Stocks Limited. He plunged headfirst through a thorny bush, his skin puckering as the cruel needles pierced it. He didn't even notice the pain. He skidded over the slippery leaf mulch that blanketed the floor, weaving between the trunks that loomed like tombstones in the foggy air. On and on he sped. Now he knew what it felt like to be hunted. Suddenly he was nothing but an animal, his higher mental faculties dissolving in panic. Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim'rous beastie...
When it happened it happened fast. Hurtling along at top speed, Ambrosius' foot got caught on a tree root and he was sent sprawling to the ground. He got to his feet, but before he could move something struck him from behind, taking his legs from under him. Everything went very slowly. He struggled with his arms, but something entangled them. He kicked with his feet but they were similarly ensnared. He felt himself being pulled towards the yellow beast. Blackness swallowed Ambrosius and, cowardly as he was, he fainted.
Odd noises filtered through Ambrosius' faint to reach that thin sliver of mind that his perception occupied. There was the all-encompassing chugging of the monster, but, sounding small and tinny compared to it, there were voices:
“Aha, matey, we seem to have caught a right strange bass today! Come on, get him untangled from the net.”
“Let's make fishmeal of 'im, nobody'll notice.”
“You're only half joking aren't you Mungo?”
“Har, har, only 'alf!”
“You ever heard of a catch like this?”
“Aye, I heard a skipper down the Cannery Arms once tell of a monkey man caught in his nets. He was a cruel 'un that skipper, gave 'im a knock for messing up his nets and threw 'im kicking and screaming back overboard. Some say that there's a whole load of 'em living in the trees a few clicks east of here, past the desert, like. It's true I reckon – I was over there once with some crazy skipper who thought the fishing was better there. There were all these hooks, like, that dangling from the trees. I even saw a fish bite and get hauled aloft.”
“This one must have fell out of his tree or such like, then. Hairy little urchin, I'll warrant. What say you we put him on the end of a pole and swab the deck with him?”
“Har har, we could do an' all.”
“But I'm not such a bad man as that, a real softy I am. We could cast him back overboard but he's not going to last long in that jungle. There's things in there that'd have you for breakfast. No, I say we take him back to the City and leave him there.”
“He'd probably be as well in the jungle, Jerry; the City's as dangerous as it for the most part. Har, har, a funny lookin' thing like 'im - he's got a tail and all.”
“You felt your back end recently, Mungo? No, on second thoughts don't answer that. What I'm trying to say is that stump is there for a reason. I reckon we were like this bloke once.”
“Monkey men? Har, har, you reckon? It'd explain my fleas I suppose.”
“Again, you're only half joking, aye, Mungo.”
“Look, he's opening his eyes.”
“Where am I?” Ambrosius croaked. “I don't feel too good.”
“Mist sickness, that'll be. The names Jerry,” said Jerry.
Through Ambrosius' swimming vision he discerned a man of about forty years, skin grizzled by long contact with the mist and an air of simple wisdom about him. “This here's Mungo.”
Mungo gave a slovenly salute, raising one grimy hand to his red-spotted bandanna and then back down to his waist. He was a short, paunchy man of about thirty who looked like... well, lets just say the name “Mungo” oddly suited this jolly, hairy, swarthy fellow.
“Ambrosius,” said Ambrosius. “How did I get here?” he asked, sitting up.
Ambrosius surveyed his surroundings anxiously and saw little to reassure him. Below him were roughly hewn planks, full of knots and splinters. These rude floorboards were awash with condensed mist and something else more disturbing: blood. The deck was pooled liberally with this watery red mixture, and it scared Ambrosius.
“You were caught in the nets,” said Jerry. He saw Ambrosius eyeing the gore beneath him. “Nothing but fishblood, don't worry yourself. You get used to it in our line of work. We gut some of the bigger, better quality fish on the way back to the City, that way we can put them onto the market whilst they're still extra fresh.”
“What? You stress the word like its something holy. We're fishermen, yes.”
“So this is what the yellow monster is for? You catch Fish with it?”
“There you go again, stressing your words odd. We catch fish. Nothing special about them. This yellow monster is a mist boat. Yes, if you can call that there mis t a pea-soup then this is a yellow sub-tureen. Uses fish swim-bladders to keep it floating.” Jerry stamped his foot on the deck. “That and a petrel engine to drive it forwards.” (Yes, petrel as in the bird. These poor creatures are driven beak first into the stern of the ship, so that when they flap their wings they drive the ship forward. They are controlled by a throttle – a piece of rope like a lead that can be pulled tight round their necks to cause them to fly forward.) “So that's what the noise is?”
“The noise? That's the rendering plant we got down below. Smug-panel powered, very efficient. We use it to process some of the smaller, lower grade fish as we go.
That way we can get rid of all the waste fishguts and keep the stock, the profitable stuff. Means we can fit more on board and don't have to return to port for longer.”
“The City,” put in Mungo. “You really 'ave lived up a tree all your life aven't you?”
Ambrosius nodded. He didn't know what to make of these two fishermen. There was something rough about them, murderous even, yet a peculiar goodness was there too. “What's a city?” asked Ambrosius.
“Har, har. Your as green as young kelp, you are, lad. A city? Lots of houses, plenty of people, more than enough vice. Anything you want you can finds there, pretty much. A lot more besides.”
“I want to be alone,” said Ambrosius. His misery and self-loathing, forgotten temporarily when he was in perceived danger, were back again.
“Well, that's the one thing you can't 'ave in the City. You seem a bit down, lad. What you doing on your own out in the middle of the jungle? You could 'ave been killed.”
“I'm an outcast, a misfit, a loser.”
“Har, har, join the club matey. You'll fit right in 'ere.”
“Have you ever considered a job as a fisherman, son?” asked Jerry.
Ambrosius snorted. “I hate Fish.” He stopped for a second. Now he thought about it, he really was saying the word as though it were sacred. “I hate fish, even,” he corrected. “I'm a useless fisherman.”
“Useless? There's nothing to it,” Jerry grinned. “You just cast your net and trawl along. You catch everything in your path and then haul the nets in and process what's there. Sure you catch loads of squiggly things, but you just throw them back overboard. Anyone can fish.”
“Anyone,” said Jerry. “Say, I can ask the skipper if he needs another pair of hands if you want.”
“No, thank you. Is the skipper the boss?”
Jerry nodded. “Aye, and don't you forget it. He's not one to cross, our skipper. He's as crazy as they come, crazy and dirty. He'd se ll his own mother for half a ton of hake, mark my words. Best damn captain around, with it. Fishmael is his name.”
“Where is he?”
“Below, matey. He always stays below. Hates the Smug, he does. Only comes above decks when we moor up in dock, and then he slinks out at night to indulge his habits in the City. I've never known a man hit the stone so hard as he, but he seems none the merrier for it. Always a grim look on his face, that Fishmael, like a storm's brewing behind his forehead.”
“I better not disturb him, then,” said Ambrosius. “You say the City is big?”
“You could walk all day through it and not come clear.”
“Big enough to get lost in?”
“Aye, if you like.”
“Good,” said Ambrosius. “Then take me to this City.”