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…]