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.
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.”
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…]