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.
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…]