Storms and floods and fires and quakes. That was how Mother Nature rolled when she was in one of her destructive moods.
Crashes. Well, you couldn’t pin those on her.
Not when it was foolhardy ships sailing where they weren’t meant to go. Faster than they ought to sensibly be going. You might as well cross the border into a strange land and whip your chariot around narrow foreign streets with reckless disregard for local traffic laws. You’d expect to land in a jail or a gutter. Your leg in a splint or your head through a wall. And of course you’d complain and grumble about your lot. That was human nature. But you’d have no grounds to blame the laws of the realm.
Ben locked eyes on the face of the Moon and Her Majesty stared back.
Her realm. Her rules.
Her previously serene expression grew stonier and stonier. Like the sternest of mothers letting her children know they were in for it when they got home. Her ancient visage was pitted and pocked, scored and scarred. And Ben wondered if that was due to other objects striking her in the face at high speed.
Not other vessels, obviously. But flotsam, maybe. Seas had their share of flotsam and surely this dark ocean had its share too. Well, it certainly had some now that the Walrus had scattered portions of its cargo adrift on its invisible waves. But perhaps there were rocks and the like, cannoned from the mouths of volcanoes to shoot clear of the world’s blue skies. Left to tumble hither and thither through this vastness, gathering no moss but picking up speed. Flotsam turning to jetsam. Jetting along their random trajectories until their paths intersected with the Moon.
It wasn’t beyond possible, he supposed. Then again, very little was beyond possible once you had soared so high the heights began to feel and look like depths.
“We shouldn’t be here,” he murmured. “We’ve no business being here.”
He glanced at Chloette. She stood statue-still, in her own staring contest with the Moon. Except, unlike him, there was a firmness to her posture and stance to suggest she believed she was winning. She offered no answer, prompting Ben to remember that she couldn’t hear him without the aid of the speaking trumpet. As much as he would have welcomed a word or two of comfort, the soft metallic reverberation of her voice around the inside of his helmet, he was grateful she hadn’t heard the tremble in his throat.
He straightened, set his shoulders as broad as they’d go. Manned up.
The basic components of a simple spell available to every man. Stiffen the spine, harden the heart. And there it was, a potent force conjured from not very much at all:
Ben glanced once again at Chloette, discreetly borrowing some of her resolve. And doing his best not to feel like he’d dipped a hand in a lady’s purse and filched some small change.
The Moon loomed larger and larger. Like a Queen or an Empress rising from her throne to bear down on defiant subjects. Professor Chloette Quatrechamps did not so much as curtsey or bend a knee. Ben copied her example, albeit both his knees wobbled somewhat within the chunky trouser legs of the boiler suit.
The Moon swelled with indignation, fuller than the fullest of full Moons Ben had ever seen. Shades of disbelief brooded in every pit and crater at the continued approach of these two rebellious souls.
Slap an Empress in the face and you’d best brace yourself for the harshest of punishments.
Slow and steady, Chloette drew her flintlock. Patient and precise, she wadded a bullet down in the barrel and charged the pan. A fine dusting of gunpowder escaped to sprinkle the air. She ignored it, raised the pistol and took aim.
This time at the proud front of the balloon.
Ben blinked at the flash and puff of the firearm. Then again at the fiery cough like a blast of dragonbreath from the balloon’s muzzle.
The Walrus lurched. Ben must’ve been readier for it this time because he managed to control his stagger some. To the extent that it almost felt like a dance step he’d fully intended. Although anyone planning to tap dance, no matter how briefly, would likely choose more appropriate attire and footwear.
Still, as he grabbed a rope and steadied himself, he as though he’d grasped a handful of the science at work. For every giddy-up, there was a whoah! A flick of the reins to drive Equinox and George on, trying to catch up on a lagging delivery schedule; followed at some point later by a tug on said reins to ease them down from gallop to trot. Professor Quatrechamps was applying a similar principle here. For every bullet in the balloon’s backside, there had to be an equal and opposite bullet in the nose.
Ben flushed with modest pride at having understood so much. Chloette smiled from inside her helmet while she attended to a reload. She rocked her head a little, appearing to size up the Moon. Before she fired again.
Another shot. Another puncture. Another burst of flame. Another lurch.
Wait. Wait. Wait.
Shot. Puncture. Flame. Lurch.
This she repeated a fourth time and then planted the pistol in its holster. Which was odd, even if four was an even number. Because Ben was sure he remembered her shooting the balloon’s rear end five times.
She tugged at his arm and all but towed him towards the deck hatch, gesturing semi-urgently. Ben glanced at the Moon. Her regal but pock-marked visage bore down on the Walrus at a more stately rate, but by now she was frighteningly bloated. Puffed up with silvery importance and fearsome majesty.
Ben was suddenly on board with the notion of getting below. Where he had some hull between him and the Moon and no longer had to look her in the eye.
Bending awkwardly in the suit, he wrenched the hatch open and stood chivalrously aside for Chloette. She gave him a tender push towards the opening and Ben reluctantly did the ungentlemanly thing and proceeded before her. On balance it was probably just as courteous to do as he was told as to allow for ladies first.
Ben descended the ladder and hopped off the last rung to make way for Chloette, who pulled the hatch shut behind them.
As soon as her feet touched the interior deck, she grasped her helmet and applied a firm twist, unfastening the cumbersome cauldron and lifting it from the collar.
“We’ll want to strap ourselves in for the final phase of our voyage,” she advised, nodding in the direction of the armchairs over in the Walrus’ comfortably-appointed lounge. Her tone was chirpy and semi-breathless, excited.
Ben was sure he would have found her mood infectious. If only she hadn’t used the word ‘final’.
[To Be Continued…]