Balloon Science – Part Twelve


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.

And fired.

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…]

Balloon Science – Part Eleven


Wine racks and xylophones leaped from the deck to dance in the dark. They waltzed away together, gradually drifting apart as they vanished in the depths astern. The Walrus left a trail of assorted relics in its wake, littering the nothingness with prizes that, while unlikely to compete with the stars, would doubtless be declared a valuable find to anyone else who sailed this course.

To the fore, the Walrus figurehead seemed to thrust proudly forward, like a beast leaning into an imagined wind. His carved wooden nose sniffed at the Moon. The Moon, for its part, bloomed with the patience of a budding silver rose. Mother Nature was disinclined to rush anything. Ben was sure he could stand here for a short forever, watching the Moon grow over Chloette’s shoulder. He couldn’t see the speed, but he felt it as any mariner would, ploughing across an endless sea at a rate of knots.

Through the bulk of two padded boiler suits, Chloette’s heart beat faster time like a muffled metronome. Ben’s heart joined hers in a drum duet. Thumping away like fists in warm woollen mittens.

Chloette eased from his embrace and looked for’ard. Forward, to landlubbers. For reasons Ben never properly understood, sailors shared a superstitious aversion to the letter ‘w’, at least in the word ‘forward’. They dropped letters like anchors and plumb lines in other words, such as fo’c’sle. Now the Walrus dropped ‘w’s and ‘x’s and ‘y’s and ‘z’s as other artefacts slowly disentangled themselves from the pile and taking to the air like dodos suddenly blessed with the grace of swans.

Professor Quatrechamps gestured urgently and touched the tin trumpet to Ben’s helmet.

“Vite! Vite! Tie down what you can!”

The Walrus figurehead was plump as ever, but the vessel was losing ballast fast. Ben dashed forward. Chloette hopped his air hose like a skipping rope. He grabbed some spare line from the collection of rigging and began tossing lengths over the stacked items, weaving it in and around , tugging it tight and hunting for fixtures where he could secure the tethers. He worked quickly without really knowing why they might need the remaining ballast. No doubt there were sound reasons all to do with balloon science, but there was no time for questions when questions had to be voiced via the application of tin trumpets to copper helmets.

While he worked, Chloette fired – once, twice. With a carefully judged delay between shots. The balloon’s bloated derriere deflated explosively each time, shooting fiery plumes. And the Walrus lunged again and again.

Each pistol shot to the Walrus was like a flick of the reins to Equinox and George. The vessel accelerated like the wagon. Ben fastened his knots at a rate of knots and at last no more cargo was dislodging and tumbling away into the ether. As he tied the final line into place, Ben watched Chloette raise the flintlock for a fifth blast.

He grasped the rigging and braced himself. The fresh healed patch of balloon ruptured once more and gushed flame. The Walrus lurched again, hungering to sink its wooden tusks into the Moon.

Ragged ribbons of balloon flapped a while in the burning stream before folding closed and knitting together. Scales meshed with scales. The wound healed and for the first time Ben worried over whether the balloon felt any pain. He was about as versed in medical matters as he was in balloon science, but he was fairly sure that lungs in general were insensate to pain once removed from any creature’s body – and yet, this dragonlung, breathing fire and healing as it was, did strike him as being a tiny bit alive.

Listening to the Professor’s explanation, he’d not thought once of the dragon. But now, well, he had pause to wonder over the details of how such a mighty beast came to donate such a crucial organ to the Professor’s scientific cause.

Chloette turned and signalled a thumbs-up. Ben had to assume she was satisfied with their increased speed. And perhaps also with his efforts to lash down their cargo.

She holstered her pistol for now anyway and picked her way across the deck towards him.

She moved like she was creeping up on him, even though she was in plain view. Planting her boots with deliberation and care, arms spread for balance, Ben might have read an air of menace in her approach had he not known there was a petite feminine frame inside that bulky suit with the cauldron-sized head.

At close range, she peered up at him like a particularly attractive goldfish enjoying life in her bowl, and raised her trumpet to re-establish verbal communications. “It’s difficult to gauge our velocity with precision, but based on the pressure of the vologen gas contained within the balloon, the size of the wound and the length of the burn, I would say our acceleration will prove sufficient, yes?”

Ben nodded. Mostly because he didn’t want her shooting the balloon again. To the untrained eye, it seemed as though it ought to be impossible for the vessel to fall in this star-specked sea of night, but having observed the loose articles that had strayed overboard he understood that falling was all anything did in this strange and boundless realm. With no ground, there was no up or down and the only question was the direction of your fall. A question to which wine racks and xylophones had no answer and one over which, he gravely suspected, people would have only limited control.

“Look,” she declared. Smiling brightly, she pointed past Ben’s shoulder.

He turned and looked. And eventually saw.

The Moon.

Eminently visible, of course. Impossible to miss.

But now she visibly grew.

Where before she had bloomed with grace and serenity, her face swelled perceptibly. Some of her glow diminished, revealing more detail. Phantom shine giving way to shadows and cracks and pock-marks and other ruinous blemishes, like a regal visage ageing before Ben’s eyes. Spirit turning to stone. Princess to crone.

Speed, as Professor Quatrechamps had said, was difficult to gauge with precision. But according to Ben’s very rough estimates they were rushing up or down or whichever way on the Moon a mite too fast. Indeed, it struck him as very like falling. Falling with resolve and intent and purpose. But still falling.

And it occurred to him that for all her patience there was one thing that Mother Nature did like to do in a bit of a hurry.


[To Be Continued…]

Balloon Science – Part Ten


Ben flew.

Technically, he supposed, he’d already been flying for some time what with the Walrus having climbed and climbed and climbed into a realm where the sky had bled itself from blue to black. But it hadn’t felt like actual flight with his feet on the deck.

He sailed backwards, arms flapping for some level of control, with time to count the scales in the balloon’s curious fabric if he was so inclined. It was less like flying, he imagined, than like falling. Like that one occasion Equinox and George had drawn up sharply at an unexpected tree across the road and Ben had been thrown from his seat. Falling from the wagon. Not in the same sense as Mr Mulbarrow did when he came into the office after a stressful time at home. But no, just plain old falling off the wagon and hitting the dirt, hard, down among the horses’ hooves.

Except that had been over in a second. He’d barely had time to think whoooa! before the ground struck. Here, he’d managed to count up to forty two scales without really meaning to, as well as recall his wagonfall and compare the experience with his current predicament.

Maybe a man fell faster in blue air.

He might ask Professor Quatrechamps about the science of that when he came back down. After he’d inquired as to why she’d put a bullet into the stern of their balloon.

A violent jerk, not unlike a sudden tug on the reins from an equine perspective, arrested his flight and he began to descend. He looked forward to see Chloette reeling him in, pulling and pulling on the air hose. Behind her, several articles – an umbrella stand and a viola, to name but one random pair – tumbled free, thrown loose from the deck. With no tether to recover them. They rolled and rambled, senseless of direction or their fate. Adrift in an ocean of black under the Moon’s impassive silver-grey gaze.

A poetic way to go, if you were an umbrella stand.

That could have been me, thought Ben. Convinced it would feel less poetic for a humble delivery man.

The Moon appeared to swell, like a huge ghostly eye widening and widening at the sight of the Walrus approaching. Whether it was pleased to see the vessel or alarmed, it was impossible to tell. The Moon’s face was strangely beautiful but difficult to read.

Finally, Ben’s boots touched down. His heart floated in a panic for quite a few moments more, but gradually settled. Then cantered softly faster as Chloette grabbed him and patted his shoulders and arms, as though making sure all of him had arrived back on deck.

She examined him at length through her spectacles and helmet visor, her brow crinkled with fetching concern. She mouthed something.

“I’m all right,” he assured her. And signalled a thumb up. He couldn’t say the same for the umbrella stand. Or the viola or other stray objects. They might reach the Moon, he supposed, or tumble all the way to the stars.

The stars. Well now, they were something to think on. Because if the Moon could grow so much larger and rounder and more substantial the closer you approached it, well, he had to reason that the stars were similar. They were something more than needlepoint pinpricks in a curtain of black. So many tiny glimmers and yet far too vast a thought for his brain to accommodate right now.

As he set the stars aside, Chloette pressed her little talk-trumpet to the side of his helmet again. Once again her voice echoed around his head like the dulcet chimes of a bell. “Sorry about that, I had the idea and acted on it. Inspiration, you understand, it struck and I fired while the notion was hot. I should have warned you. We are in undiscovered territory but certain earthly principles still apply. Acceleration and deceleration, not the least of them. For example, if your wagon was to start or stop too suddenly – ”

Ben nodded. Not feeling the need to share the full story of Equinox, George, the wagon and the felled tree. It was enough to convey that he knew something of what she was talking about. He felt around for his own speaking tube, pleased to find it still attached.

He touched it gingerly to the side of Chloette’s helmet, hoping it wasn’t an ungentlemanly infringement on the lady’s personal space. “Um, if you don’t mind my asking, well, why? I mean, was there a reason to shoot the balloon and how are we going to get up there to repair the damage?”

There was an arrangement of cables and ropes securing the balloon to the vessel, of course, perhaps enough of them to qualify as ‘rigging’ but he did not especially fancy clambering up any of it in order to patch the bullet hole.

“Oh, she will mend herself, do not worry on that account.” Chloette smiled. Science, Ben was beginning to appreciate, had great potential to mystify but could be very convincing when explained so prettily. Although he didn’t grasp who ‘she’ was – while most sailors referred to their ships as females, he’d assumed the Walrus was male. Walrus was no complimentary name to give to a lady, after all. “Her material is dragonlung, you see.” Ben frowned. The metallic echo had distorted Chloette’s words and he could swear she’d said dragon lung. He listened carefully, sure it would all become clear as she explained further. “It generates a gas I choose to call ‘vologen’.” Vol-au-vent, that almost sounded like. A Francan pastry, if Ben’s memory served. “I did consider calling it pyrogen, based on its other primary property, but it is so very much lighter than air, you understand. More than the dragon’s wings, that is what gives the dragon lift. And the lung material, she has tremendous healing powers. That is where the dragon’s flame is cooked, so to speak, so the lungs are constantly repairing.” She pointed upwards and aft. “Maintenant. See.”

Ben didn’t see. But he looked.

The jet of flame from the balloon’s rear had abated and the fabric was knitting together, the scales meshing and patching over, faintly discoloured by the burn but otherwise mending invisibly. Miraculously.

Maintenant. Maintenance. Repair.

Balloon science was a lot like magic.

“Pardon me,” said Chloette. “It is time for another boost. Hold on to me, this will be gentler, i think.”

She let her tin trumpet drop and pulled her pistol. Resting her arm over Ben’s shoulder, she sighted again at the balloon. Ben took hold of her waist, the bulk of her suit thankfully preventing the contact from being over familiar.

She fired. And the Walrus lurched again.

It nudged Ben into an embrace with Chloette.

She was right. It was gentler that time.

[To Be Continued…]