Balloon Science – Part Nine

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Close enough to initiate a waltz, Chloette reached up and planted her tiny tinny trumpet on the side of Ben’s helmet.

“This is fantastic progress! We are well on our way!” Her voice sang around his head as though echoing up from a very deep iron well. It was odd, having her reverberate around his skull, a strange sort of intimacy for which he’d been totally unprepared. But her mood, her spirit, was irresistibly encouraging. Ben began fiddling awkwardly with his trumpet-hose, eager to attach his communication device so that he could return a positive reply. Before he was finished, Chloette had more to add. “Next,” she said. “Next, well, suffice to say, things get a little trickier from here on.”

Ben suspended operations with his trumpet attachment.

That was almost completely the opposite of what he’d wanted to hear.

As well as being stuck for an answer, he was no longer sure he’d be able to maintain his shanty-singing through the next phase of this journey if it was going to involve additional unspecified difficulties.

“Um, trickier how, if you don’t mind my asking?” he managed at last.

She pointed with her free hand at the device dangling loosely from his fingers. “I can hear you, Ben, but really the acoustics are much superior if you use your own trumpet.”

“Oh, ah, sorry.” Ben got busy fiddling with the hose and attaching it to the spare spigot at his collar. He was not usually one to blow his own trumpet, much less speak through one. But superior acoustics sounded like something that would help when it came to communicating his concerns. While he fussed and fumbled with the finicky fitting, Chloette proceeded to address some of those concerns with a calm he didn’t entirely feel. Calm perhaps not a thing that travelled well through intervening helmets, hoses and tin trumpets.

“Now there is no cause for alarm, Ben, but the truth is I miscalculated. The distance between the world and the Moon is greater than I estimated. All my formulae were based, it seems, on erroneous data.” Ben could hear her with resounding clarity but had trouble understanding her with anything like. “In short – well, short is the problem. My calculations and therefore my preparations were founded on the premise of a Moon that was smaller and closer.”

“Hmm,” said Ben slowly. He’d finished affixing the trumpet and had pressed it to the side of the Professor’s helmet. But for now the communication device seemed surplus to requirement if that was all he could think of to say. Chloette’s explanation appeared to imply that the Moon was in fact larger and more distant than she had anticipated. This, to his untrained mind, suggested the problem was more a matter of long than short. But he trusted her to enlighten him further.

There was a pause, where only silence churned around his helmet’s insides. Punctuated by her breaths, which he imagined were fragrant and minty, in contrast to the metallic and sweaty aroma trapped in here with his nose.

Her spectacled gaze was wide and solicitous, studying him through the visor, perhaps appraising his level of understanding. Her lips parted an enticing fraction. Their proximity and the sound of her breath in his ears wove a potent spell. But for the helmets he might have been so bold as to lean in and kiss her. He felt light-headed, a sensation similar to the dizziness he’d experienced when his ill-placed boot had cut off his air supply.

“Air,” she said. “That is the essence of our problem. You will recall how I told you we were drawing up air like water from a well.” Ben nodded. It was not something he’d thought about again until he’d stepped on the hose. “Bon. Well, the air being pumped to the both of us is conveyed to this vessel via two miles of hose that is currently trailing below us.” She dangled her free arm, letting it swing limply by way of illustration. If her arm equated to two miles then even by Ben’s sluggish estimates they were several arms short of the Moon. He began to see the problem. “Now I am not so foolish as to neglect to bring an auxiliary – in case our first air hose failed or became untethered or some such. And we might feasibly extend our reach by joining the two hoses, yes? That would necessarily involve a rather hazardous operation under the hull, but I need not alarm you with this prospect.” She had alarmed him already, as it happened, but Ben did his best to hide the fact. “As I fear this will be moot. Four miles will fall as short of our destination as two, in effect. So.”

So. Ben nodded. He completely understood. Without sufficient length of hose, they would sooner or later reach the end of their air-supply tether. They had ventured a courageous effort and he had no doubt they had risen higher than anyone else in life. But now they had no choice but to return. He allowed some of his preceding alarm to surface, so as to appear dismayed. Choosing to hide his relief where he’d previously kept his alarm. He quietly looked forward to hearing the details of the Professor’s plans for their descent.

She wagged a finger. “So, we are obliged to rethink. Many an obstacle can be circumvented. Hurdles are there to be hurdled, yes?”

“Um, yes, I suppose they are at that.”

“Bon,” she declared.

She patted his arm happily. Then withdrew several paces, almost backing into the umbrella stands and urns that were among the items awaiting off-loading. For the first time Ben noticed she was wearing her gunbelt outside her cumbersome suit. What drew his attention to the flintlocks, in fact, was the way her hand flitted to one of the weapons.

She drew the pistol and aimed.

Aloft and astern.

The barrel puffed. The bang was dulled and muffled, walled out by Ben’s helmet.

Ben was knocked off his feet as surely as if she’d shot him.

His heart galloped like Equinox and George going flat out. He flailed, flying backwards.

Eyes wider than the Moon, he looked up at the mass of balloon. And stared and stared and stared at the flame jetting from its rear end.

 

 

[To Be Continued…]

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Balloon Science – Part Eight

balloonscience

Time didn’t exactly fly when you were singing shanties. But it tripped and skipped along with the rhythm of your choice. Ben’s own composition was upbeat and a resounding improvement on the dutiful tick and tock of a standard timepiece.

Not that he’d seen nor heard a clock in ages. Ordinary clocks had disappeared overboard back with the rest of the ‘c’s and a few special clocks, deserving of their own titles, such as grandfather and mantel, had followed in line with their alphabetical placement.

He wondered if he might find some watches further astern among the ‘w’s. But Professor Quatrechamps had amassed few enough items of small size. There had been a set of weights, but they had been filed alongside their accompanying kitchen scales under ‘s’.

Forty verses into his labours, since clambering into the suit, he was into the ‘t’s.

Many of his verses were repeats, Ben having found the limits of his spur-of-the-moment musical creativity, but they echoed around the inside of his helmet like a choir of seafarers in a tin cavern. And every time a familiar set of words came around again he tried to sing it better than before. Helped a great deal to take his mind off the fact that the suit was far more cumbersome than any of the items he carried to the rail. He clunked to and fro across the deck, feeling like Equinox or George pulling the wagon. Or perhaps more like he was wearing a carriage with the wheels removed. Or maybe like one of those steamship engineers who’d foregone the boiler suit in favour of donning the boiler instead. Head in a metal bubble, he carried on in his own little world of tune and toil, toil and tune.

The shanty’s buoyant tempo seemed to progressively lighten his load on each trip and he lifted or shouldered many a bulkier, weightier item with surprising ease. Perhaps just getting more and more into the swing of things. And his singing was accompanied by the soft hiss of air from the hose at his collar, like a snake blowing on his cheeks. The circulating coolness was welcome, but even so the suit made it feel like a long afternoon of hot, hard graft.

Even so, it seemed to involve a lot more heave than ho.

Tabards, tables, table-cloths, tambourines, a tandem, tapestries, targets (archery), target shields, tarpaulins, teddy bears, telescope, tennis racquets, tents and tentpoles, thresher, tipi, a toboggan, a toilet, totems, tower shields, trestle tables, a tricycle, tridents, a triptych, trombones, trolleys, trumpets, trunks, tuba, tureens and a typewriter.

Surely it was coming up on time for a ‘t’ break.

Phew. He paused to wipe an arm across his forehead. The suit’s padded sleeve brushed the front of his helmet without troubling the beads of perspiration collecting like warm dewdrops in his eyebrows. He blinked. Saw stars.

Stars.

He blinked and blinked again.

The stars didn’t dance and swirl in his vision. They seemed content to just hang there like diamonds sewn into a curtain of night.

Where was all the blue? When did night fall? How had he missed that?

Ben looked to the bow. Where the Walrus figurehead leaned forward, almost eye-to-eye with the Moon. The Moon, brighter, rounder, clearer, with no intervening blue. An enormous silver lantern, its light less ghostly somehow. Shadows marred its surface like expired moths and flies trapped within a spherical paper lampshade. But the light wasn’t shining through anything flimsy as paper. It was reflecting off something solid. Something real and something closer than it had any business being under normal circumstances.

Ben lumbered to the side and peered overboard. Dizziness seized him and he planted both hands on the rail, in case his helmet actually rendered him as top-heavy as he felt. He swayed uneasily, tea and biscuits stirring in his stomach.

There was all the blue. Below them. Trapped in a giant glass marble. Along with expansive swirls of green that were ragged at the edges as though they’d been nibbled by creatures with a taste for huge shapeless green biscuits. Except they weren’t precisely shapeless. They described shapes Ben had seen before. On the wall map in Mr Mulbarrow’s office, for instance. Supplementary to the local maps for delivery purposes, Mr Mulbarrow liked to keep a chart of the known world. “Because,” he always said, often speaking past the fat cigar obstructing his lips, “you never know…”

Night hadn’t fallen. They had risen to meet it.

You never know…

Ben had certainly never known he’d be looking down on the world one day. This day. Today. If indeed it was day. The surrounding sky resembled night in all the essential details. Ben wondered if this was a permanent state up here in – where was here? – the heavens? Yes, he supposed this must be the heavens to which the priests and clerics alluded. Were the heavens subject to eternal night? Or would the blue of day wash over everything at some divine-appointed hour? Would he, in short, ever see another dawn?

His head reeled. There were more questions than stars.

And a sudden shortage of air.

Gasping, he staggered back from the side. His breathing recovered as he stepped off the hose and the pump hissed into his ears, blowing cooling breezes around the insides of his helmet once more. His brass boot-heel clunked against something even more metallic. He whirled and looked. At the deck-hatch.

It opened. A cauldron-helm, similar to his own, rose slowly like a solid copper sun.

The faceplate angled up and Professor Chloette Quatrechamps smiled from within. Her eyes had an added sparkle, possibly courtesy of the combined refractive powers of the glass faceplate and her spectacles.

Consternation temporarily forgotten, Ben proffered a hand to help her up. She clambered out to stand beside him.

Turning slowly, she appeared to survey the clear deck all the way to the stern and the remaining clutter between here and the bow. She studied the Moon, framing it with her hands and gauging perspective with a thumb like an artist sizing up a landscape prior to applying brush to canvas. Keeping her thumb up, she signalled to Ben, approving.

Then spread her hand, signing wait.

She unclipped two lengths of hose from her suit’s belt and presented him one as an odd sort of gift. He flexed it and turned it over in both hands, thoroughly unsure what to do with it. The tubing had a tiny tin trumpet affixed to one end.

Chloette attached her hose to a spare spigot at her collar and approached him, trumpet raised.

It really was only a tiny tinny device but Ben instinctively retreated. Suddenly fearful of whatever else she had in store for him.

[To Be Continued…]

Balloon Science – Part Seven

balloonscience

With a heave and a ho!

It’s higher we go.

Throw it all over the side!

Not a day past age ninety-seven

Grandpa flew quicker to heaven

But only on the day that he died!

We’ve all kinds of stuff

More than enough

To take us up over the clouds!

The higher we go

With a heave and a ho!

We’ll make our old Grandpappy proud!

We sail through the blue

But we won’t get wet through

To the silvery Moon we are bound!

With a heave and a ho!

It’s higher we go –

Ben suspended his sky shanty as he heard the hatch clank open somewhere under the warren of clutter, heralding Professor Quatrechamps’ return. Ahead of her actual appearance, he brought his song to a rousing finish:

At least there’s no danger we’ll drown!

Originally, his intended lyric had run thus:

With no way of coming back down.

But he really didn’t want to go disappointing the Professor by airing and sharing his fears any further. She’d been that nice to bring him tea and biscuits. Luckily, after an hour or two of composing sky shanties to spur along his hard slog, he’d developed the quick-thinking skills of a freestyling bard.

As though getting into the musical spirit of things, Professor Quatrechamps chimed in, figuratively speaking, with an improvised percussion section. Thunks, clangs and scuffles accompanied her progress through the jumble pile. Sounding like she was hauling something cumbersome and clunky from below. Thanks to Ben’s labours, she had a shorter distance to negotiate but he couldn’t believe she’d come lugging more up on deck after he’d cleared more than half their ballast.

This, of course, he remembered now, would have to be the thing she promised to fetch for him. It didn’t sound at all biscuity or indeed edible in the slightest.

The Professor’s head poked out from under the occasional table, not far from Ben’s right boot. She smiled up at him, but her face blushed and shone and her fringe slicked to her brow. She perspired – or, being a lady, glowed – heavily despite the chilly air. Although Ben noticed she’d furnished her shoulders with what appeared to be an extra thick knitted cardigan. Anyway, she grimaced as she yanked something past some hidden obstruction.

After a final resistance, it shot loose a bit too obligingly and fetched her a passing bump on the noggin as it tumbled out onto open deck. Ben stuck a leg out to stop it rolling too far.

It looked like a big copper cauldron with a porthole set in one side.

While Ben studied the artefact with a measure of mistrust, Professor Quatrechamps dragged herself clear and tugged the rest of her gift into the open.

She stood back, recovering some breath, rearranging her skirts and tidying her cardy. Nudging Ben, she gestured, inviting him to appraise his present.

All in all, to go with the cauldron, she appeared to have brought him a canvas suit and some lengths of rubber hose.

‘Thank you’ and ‘It’s what I always wanted’ were the two most popular customary responses in these situations, but Ben wasn’t sure he could apply either with any conviction. He nodded, mopping his brow and pretending to be too breathless for words.

The suit called to mind the engineers who worked the steamers out of Tortenschloss harbour. He’d hear them and other sailors singing their competing shanties in the taverns and inns along the harbourfront, the sailmen crowing from their alto nests about salt winds and true loves left behind, the steamermen bellowing in their bass about soot smoke and wives who’d left them. And rum. Both factions sang plenty about rum, by the glass, by the tankard, by the barrel. Whether powered by wind or coal, Ben got the impression that song and drink were what fuelled a ship’s crew.

Anyway, this suit was very like the boiler suits worn by those steamer engineers, minus the grease and grime but plus the extra accessories of cauldron-helm, hoses, a big metal collar and brass boots attached to the ends of the trouser-legs. Being as how steamer engineers were differently clad to sailmen, he supposed he shoudn’t have been too surprised to discover that balloon scientists had their own specialist attire.

“For me?” he managed at last, aware he’d been staring at the suit for some time now and feeling pressure to say something.

“Of course, for you. I have my own, but your need is more immediate. The air is growing chillier and thinner.” Chloette rubbed her gloved hands. “The suit has a lovely thick wool lining and you can wear it over your clothing for added warmth.”

Good. Ben didn’t like the idea of getting undressed out here in the open. Even though, once the Professor popped below, there was nobody but clouds and passing albatrosses to see him. And the clouds were growing scarcer and he hadn’t seen a bird in hours. You knew you were in dangerous territory when you’d strayed higher than birds dared to fly. And one thing it was best not to do in dangerous places was get undressed.

He plonked himself down on a nearby pouffe and yanked off his boots as there was no way he’d get the suit on over those. He picked up the suit and started pulling it on. It was quite an operation, but not the sort of heavy repetitive labour that demanded a shanty.

“Bon bon bon!” said Chloette. “Attach the hoses to the valves there and there.” She pointed to spigots on the suit’s collar. “When you don the helmet, give it a twist and make sure it is good and tight. When we have acquired a little more altitude I will go and start the pump.”

“Pump?”

Ben wriggled and wrestled the fabric up his torso.

“Of course! The air is growing thinner, yes? We will draw air up from below like water from a well.” Ben blinked. With all his composing of sky-shanties and offloading of furniture and assorted articles, he really hadn’t given the question of breathing much thought. Clearly, there was more to this balloon science than he’d considered. “Here, let me help with that.”

He’d stooped to lift the helmet but uncertainty stalled him halfway. Chloette grabbed the big copper cauldron from him and lowered it over his head as he straightened up.

It was strange. Like, he supposed, sticking his head in a large round bucket. Which was not something he’d ever done.

On a whim, he sang softly to himself:

 

With a heave and a ho!

It’s higher we go.

There was a nice reverberation, almost an echo, as though he’d become a small choir, accompanying himself. His voice was stronger, at any rate.

That was a kind of courage.

He gazed up at the Moon.

No larger. Not appreciably closer. But somehow – and maybe it was only the distortion through the helmet’s window – the ghost-silver disc looked rounder, more solid. More reachable. Like a shiny pale apple he could reach up and pluck.

“Right then,” he said. “Best get back to work.”

He strode past the Professor and grabbed hold of the occasional table, carried it to the railing.

 

With a heave and a ho!

It’s higher we go.

Throw it all over the side!

[To Be Continued…]