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…]