Balloon Science – Part Fourteen

balloonscience

Ben fell backwards, locked in eye contact with the eye. He bumped into Chloette, who cushioned his shock somewhat and soothed his panic with a lightly trilled, “Quest ce que?” Ben couldn’t guess at her precise meaning but it sounded like a question, one he could only answer by pointing dumbly at the scar in the hull.

The eye blinked again. Expressing apparent surprise and displeasure at having fingers pointed at it. Ben supposed he, in a similar position, might have taken similar offence. But for the time being he found himself powerless and unable to lower his finger.

Chloette leaned in beside him to sight along his levelled digit.

“Ah! L’oeil!” she said. Which sounded like ‘le wheel’ – but Chloette was a learned professor and unlikely to be that badly mistaken. And Ben’s command of languages other than his own was sorely limited, but he’d wager a week’s wages that Francan for ‘wheel’ was something other than ‘le wheel’. So he knew it had to be one of those funny words where the ‘o’ and ‘e’ married and he remembered delivering furniture items with facades decorated with optical illusions. A painting style known as trompe-l’oeil. Something to do with trumping the eye.

As Ben’s thoughts completed their circuit, the eye blinked once more. And vanished. Perhaps finally tromped, although Ben doubted it. He lowered his finger slowly. And looked up at Chloette who was shaking her head.

“This cannot be right. Oh, Master Simple, I fear I have been guilty of too many miscalculations. This is the ultimate straw. The one to finally take the biscuit.” Ben puzzled briefly over how anyone would take a biscuit with a straw. He guessed if you sucked really hard you could lift a light wafer, but realistically speaking you’d find it tough to sustain the intake of breath long enough to transport the biscuit much further than an adjacent plate. “It is one thing to underestimate the distance to the Moon. But to be beaten to our destination by others, that is inexcusable. I have read and studied every scientific journal from the greatest of minds of every nation and there has never been mention of any similar undertakings.” She stamped her foot and produced a heavy unladylike clunk. “Come. We must confront these pioneers and demand answers. If we are to have our thunder stolen, Ben, we must at least discover how it was done and by whom.”

Taking biscuits and stealing thunder. The lady was a mine of colourful expressions. Ben stood straight, shored up by her determination and spirit and generally feeling like he had conquered his initial shock of encountering the eye. Of course, it was commonly accepted that the Moon had been around longer than the oldest of civilisations so it wasn’t all that improbable to learn that someone else had been mad enough to try reaching it before. And Professor Quatrechamps, for all her razor-sharp intellect, had overlooked one simple nugget: namely, even if prior pioneers – priorneers? – had judiciously recorded everything in their scientific journals and what-not, they might not have found any means of returning themselves or their notes to the world at large.

He opened his mouth to share this suggestion, but Professor Quatrechamps had turned and clomped away behind the screen in the far corner. Vigorous wrestling and rustling sounds eventually culminated in the boiler suit being draped over the screen and Chloette emerged in her more customary blouse and bustled-skirt ensemble. She fastened her belt with the holstered flintlocks, then adjusted the perch of her spectacles on her nose.

Ben struggled with his own suit, feeling like a caterpillar fighting his way out of a particularly awkward cocoon. After a short age, he emerged without wings and looking no more beautiful than before, although perhaps with a shade more red to his cheeks.

“Ready?” inquired Chloette.

Ben patted his ruffled shirt-front into more presentable shape. “Ready.”

Professor Quatrechamps marched to the exit. Ben stepped up behind her. She cranked the wheel and opened the door onto a narrow sliver of Moonscape.

It looked green. Green as Farmer Scollop’s alfalfa fields.

Ben had often heard it said that the grass was greener, but that tended to be on the other sides of fences. No-one to his knowledge had ever said it of the Moon.

Chloette stepped down, skirts rustling deep in gently swaying grass. The air around her was a swirl of feathery buds of fairy-fluff like dandelion seeds and the Professor cupped a hand to catch a few, studied them close – then puffed them back to rejoin their random dance. She brushed her glove clean, then turned to survey the condition of the Walrus.

As he followed her outside, Ben licked a finger and held it up straight as a church spire. The test result came back positive for breeze. No more than a soft susurration with a delicate edge of chill, like a ghost blowing on hot food. It left a faint patina of frost on his fingertip, which wasn’t something you’d want in the core of your pasty.

He revolved slowly, taking in the state of the Walrus, but also wanting to search for the owner of that eye.

There were figures of sorts dotted about in the more distant grass. Pale spindle-limbed things with stick-insect torsos, stalking through the fields and dipping oversized heads below the green to graze like cattle. Ben couldn’t tell from this far removed, but he supposed such heads could accommodate a large cow-eye such as the one that that had stared at him through the crack in the hull.

The Walrus, for its part, was in one piece. Well, two, if you counted the dragonlung balloon and hull as separate components. Luckily all the tethers appeared intact and the two had not been separated by the crash. The balloon did look a little crumpled and deflated here and there, like a jester’s pig’s-bladder that had bopped too many heads. The vessel had ploughed a broad furrow through miles of this savannah, exposing a rugged, rocky soil that, as much as it resembled a crude road, would have been the ruin of his wagon’s wheels and probably George and Equinox’s shoes as well.

What was truly odd was the scattered herds of Mooncows, with their reedy legs and bodies splayed and flailing, floating in balletic disarray like the fairy-fluff above the turfed and barren ground. Even at this distance, Ben could tell their eyes were indeed gibbous, perhaps swelled with alarm at their flight. Some of the animals kicked with all six of their stick-limbs and propelled themselves out over the grass, where they began to descend. Ben watched a couple of them gracefully touch hooves to ground.

“Strange,” he remarked, which was barely a prologue to beginning to cover it.

Fascinating as the scene was, he was drawn by a sudden noise from the Walrus. A clunk and clatter, as of someone – or something – rummaging through the remaining ballast up on deck.

Ben beat a quick retreat from the hull, straining for a better view. He had to go quite a number of strides back for a good look at the deck. Where one of the Mooncows was chomping through tethers and hauling out items as if it was on some mission of liberation, releasing imprisoned furniture and assorted bric-a-brac.

“Hey! Hey! Stop that! Get down from there!”

It pricked previously floppy ears and looked at Ben. Its head was rather bovine and its eyes were big and curious. It paid him the sort of blank attention that most cows would if yelled at. Then returned to rescuing items. Digging in with its forelimbs, it worked a cumbersome artefact loose from the pile and tossed it overboard.

A wheelbarrow dropped into the grass with a thump.

“Hey!”

Ben looked to Chloette. She merely scrutinised the creature, her brow crinkling in one of her attractive frowns. Ben bent low and felt around in the grass, coming up with a hefty dollop of Moon rock. That ought to do.

He flung it at the cow. With its reedy body, there was only one sufficiently sizeable target to aim for and the stone donked off its skull.

The animal blinked and shook its head. Then reached down with its right forelimb and launched itself from the deck of the Walrus.

It landed close to the wheelbarrow, with a graceful four-fold footfall that Ben scarcely heard.

But it wore an ugly expression like a grit-tooth scowl.

And, perhaps more significantly, it brandished a spear.

[To Be Continued…]

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Balloon Science – Part Thirteen

balloonscience

The Walrus struck the Moon.

Not with a whimper. Nor with a bang.

Well, there was a faint whimper emanating from somewhere. And Ben swore he heard many a bang in the midst of the cacophony. But they were the least of the ordeal. They were no more than accompaniment, like the clash of cymbals and pounding of drums deep in the percussion section of the orchestra pit of hell. Other demonic musicians scraped and strangled and scrangled away on a host of indescribable instruments, strung not with catgut but with the bowels of the Walrus. Carving the ship, it seemed, into ragged shards of noise. Hurling each serrated scrap of sound like daggers at Ben’s head.

From the comfort of his armchair, all comfort was forgotten. Suppressed behind a stiffened spine and under a numbed bottom. In addition to the restraint afforded by the safety straps, Ben had locked himself into place with his hands on the armrests, his fingernails practically taking root in the polished wood.

The chair, for its part, was fixed in place, bolted to the deck. But it managed to rattle, translating every quake and tremor suffered by the Walrus for the benefit of Ben’s bones and stomach. He imagined the bolts working loose and himself still strapped to the chair while tossed rudely about the finely decorated interior. Ultimately adding further decoration the deck, walls and ceiling. Splashes of colour that would be far from pretty.

Balloon science involved unhealthy quantities of terror.

Seated opposite, similarly belted into her own armchair, Professor Quatrechamps exhibited only mild concern and curiosity as she observed some of the less secure fixtures shaken from their appointed positions. Had she any expectations of such a violent landing, she might not have hung pictures on some of the wall panels. Many crashed to the floor, frames breaking, while a few clung to their hooks, but not a single landscape maintained a level horizon.

Ben dug deep, into the armchair and into his reserves of courage. Every batter, buffet and bump, every jarring jolt and jerk ricocheted around his clenched teeth. Making Ben long for the tortures he’d endured on his last visit to the dentist. Cutlery aside, metal was not meant to come anywhere near teeth and the noises jangling his nerves were metallic enough to feel like a full melee of armoured knights clashing swords in his mouth, making a battlefield of his tongue.

The whimper, Ben gradually realised, came from him. His voice had taken cover at the back of his throat and clearly wanted someone to know it was there, in hiding, although it would not emerge again until this ordeal was over.

The demonic orchestra continued to abuse their instruments, however, dredging up the evilest of sounds into a nightmarish crescendo that was like the death of music. Long, drawn-out and painful for anyone within earshot.

Finally, peace.

Ben’s eyeballs continued to rattle a while in their sockets, but despite his vibrating vision he was reasonably sure the Walrus had come to rest at last. Stillness moved in like a new owner of a rickety house that was going to need plenty of attention. Ben poked a finger in his ear and wriggled it, making sure his ears weren’t actually shot and this wasn’t in fact deafness posing as stillness.

No. The Walrus rocked one final time, creaked and groaned. The craft settled and Ben’s vision gradually followed suit.

It seemed an opportune moment to let out a weighty “Phewwww.” Ben was slow to realise his teeth were still tightly clenched and the bulk of his relief escaped as a menacing, almost feral hiss.

Chloette did not appear to take it personally. She merely blinked with some surprise, then launched straight into Professor mode. Analysing with swift, surgical glances as she unstrapped and hopped free from her chair.

“No bones broken. The Walrus, she seems reasonably intact. I could wish we had possessed some more precise means of controlling our deceleration, but it is not as though one can fire a fraction of a pistol shot. So, all things considered, yes, I think we’ve fared better than fair. Any landing that leaves you and I in one piece each, I would call a safe landing, hmm?” She inhaled, once, twice, then toned her smile down to a mild frown. It was quite the subtle transformation, but one which Ben felt dramatically. His heart accelerated. “The air is thin. Very thin.”

That made a small speck of sense to Ben. The air was thinner higher up. Everyone knew that and he’d learned more than most on the subject during the balloon’s long climb. The Moon was a great deal higher than mountain tops so a scarcity of good breathing was to be expected. On the other hand he’d had the impression the air had thinned to nothing between the world and here. At some point around where the sky turned from blue to black.

So, did that mean there would be blue sky out there, perhaps the lightest of blue canopies cast over the Moon’s landscape? He supposed he could call it a landscape. Professor Quatrechamps had referred to their crash as a landing and at the speeds involved the land struck Ben as at least as hard as most worldly varieties.

He started to unfasten his restraints, feeling a need to stand and stretch his legs. Maybe some blood flow down to his feet would help reinforce the idea that they were on solid ground. It might also help drag down his rising panic.

Professor Quatrechamps sniffed like a feline tracking down a scent. Her eyes were catlike too, wide and bright behind her spectacles as she searched. Her movements, as she clumped across the lounge, were rather more elephantine. But even the most adept ballet dancers would have struggled to exhibit any grace in the brass-booted boiler suit.

“Here!” she declared. And she leaned over a crack in the wall and tutted and clicked her tongue. “Well, no bones broken for us, but our poor lady Walrus has a nasty gash in her side.” She cast a gaze ceilingward, her expression more worried than Ben would have liked. “I do hope the balloon sustained no similar wounds.”

Ben sauntered over, pretending casual interest while anxious to examine the damage for himself. He was accustomed to attending to a few repairs at home, as well as replacing wheels on the delivery wagon and so forth. There was an outside chance he might be able to mend a hole in a ship, as long as the harm wasn’t too grievous.

“Um, won’t the balloon heal itself?” It had patched itself up neatly after each bullet.

“Oh yes, of course. Of course. But it is a question of leakage, you see?” As was often the case with balloon science, Ben didn’t. But Professor Quatrechamps was, as ever, a willing teacher. “With every puncture, she vents vologen gas, yes?” Ben nodded. “Now, the dragonlung regenerates and regenerates more of the gas, but it needs air to breathe in and replenish its supply.”

Ben nodded slowly. He bent to the gash in the wall, touching gloved fingers to the edge of the wound. The wall panel had splintered nastily and sawtoothed stretches of metal jutted through here and there making it look worse. He supposed he might be able to borrow some metal and fashion a patch from some of the artefacts still tethered in place up on the deck – assuming they hadn’t all been torn loose in the crash.

“We vented quantities of vologen in our acceleration and then more in our deceleration. It is good news to know there is air here on the Moon, but its thinness, well, it could affect the balloon’s ability to regenerate more gas.”

Right.

In other words, Ben understood, it might not be able to gen any volo.

No lift. No flight. No way home.

Ben peered gloomily into the tear in the hull.

Deep in the scar, an eye blinked back at him.

[To Be Continued…]