Ben dragged his heels through the grass. It was, he was sure, a combined effect of his reluctance to be shepherded along by be-weaponed bovines and the weight of heavy thoughts. But it felt like the ground pulling at his limbs.
One of his captors chose to nudge him along with a thrust of a spear to his lower back.
Whatever form any trial took, he was convinced the sentence would be harsh. Whether he or Chloette would be able to understand it was another matter.
The Professor brushed the tips of the grass blades as she walked in front of him.
“Do you think, maybe, they want us to pay for damages?” he murmured to the back of Chloette’s head, taking care to keep his words free of rhythm so the natives wouldn’t mistake his speech for an incantation. “To their fields, I mean.”
“C’est possible.” Chloette nodded, but only turned her head far enough for a measured survey of the terrain. The Walrus had really chowed down on the ground, churning up a long narrow sea of rubble and soil across the otherwise serene savannah. “C’est possible. But what would we pay them with, hm?”
A fluffy dandelionesque seed drifted into Ben’s face, tickling his nostrils. He brushed it away quickly before it vanished up his nose. “Well, that one, um, ‘Moon Elf’ seemed pretty fired keen on some of our spare ballast. Assuming we can patch up the ship we can always load up with Moon rocks for the journey home.”
“True enough. Although I will have to assess the density and mass of locally sourced materials. And there are other factors to be calculated before we even attempt a return flight. I would not care to subject us to quite such an accelerated descent back home.” Their path crossed a bald patch in the grass. Sparse distributions of grassy clumps chomped to within an inch of their lives were all that remained as evidence that anything had ever grown in this grey bowl of dirt. Rugged and bumpy like hardened porridge, strewn with Moon rocks ranging from miniature boulders to oversized shingles, it was remarkable that any grass seeds had taken root in this stony ground. “Besides which there is much to study here and – ”
Ben stubbed a toe and stumbled over one of the Moon rocks to which his thoughts had recently referred.
He pitched forward, threw his arms out and planted a foot down to steady himself. Firm ground was firmly out of reach though.
He had taken flight.
“Huh – ?”
The throb in Ben’s big toe went quickly forgotten as he flapped his arms. His flight was that of a graceful swan struck with a poacher’s arrow. Somehow he stayed aloft.
Appreciating that his broken wings and ineffectual wings were only exacerbating his predicament, he quit flapping and surrendered to a slow spin and tumble.
His wheeling view occasionally took in upside-down glimpses of Chloette, her face an attractive picture of surprise that he might have found quite captivating if he was in any position to gaze on her for any length of time.
Unfortunately, his third or fourth glimpse of her was interrupted by the sight of a Moon Elf coming at him like some wingless bovine Pegasus. And if his similes and metaphors were a mite confused then he considered that entirely forgivable as the native barrelled into him. The collision was exactly what he’d expect from a charging bull. Not an impact he’d ever experienced but expectations of what it might be like were vivid enough and a key reason why he’d spent his life avoiding being charged by bulls.
Wingless and now windless he tumbled and rolled, now locked in unsolicited embrace with a bug-eyed Mooncow. Airborne wrestling would not take off as a sport, Ben decided, and the Moon Elf appeared to agree as it grappled him to the ground. They pitched down in grass but despite their patient descent the ground butted Ben’s back with a vigour to rival any bull.
The battering expelled the vacuum left in his lungs from the previous impact.
The cow on top of him squeezed the last remnants of life from him and he offered no resistance as he slid like a snail into hibernation.
Somewhere on the edge of a dimming universe he heard Chloette’s voice calling his name. “Ben! Ben!” She was getting closer and further away at the same time.
Vague images assaulted his dazed senses: mostly of the Moon Elf grabbing clumps of grass and stuffing them into his mouth, force-feeding him the local vegetation.
Ben assured himself it was just a random part of the dream from which he would awake in due course. Perhaps come springtime.
Yes, springtime. That would be nice.
Ben kicked out in panic. Jolted awake, like he’d fallen in a dream.
Phew. He’d landed on a mattress and was looking up at a bedroom ceiling. A smooth duck-egg blue ceiling with no trace of cloud.
It had all been a dream.
Falling off the Moon might’ve taken all night. If the night had chosen to entertain him with other dreams, he couldn’t recall any. Slightly disappointed that Chloette hadn’t featured, Ben sat up and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. The remains of the dream fell away in dusty flakes. He threw aside the blanket and jumped up from the mattress. Ran through a few knee-jerk and elbow-jerk stretches, then plodded to the window.
His footfalls seemed heavy, even cushioned by bedsocks. They had every day since his return to the world.
Dreams were all very well and good. But the reality of his actual journey home was not so easily rubbed from the eyes.
The window lacked for curtains to throw aside so he stood there and blinked into the early morning sunlight. Outside, Equinox and George grazed on dew-dropped lawn, near the For Sale sign Ben had hammered into the ground yesterday. The animals maintained a respectful distance from the bulk of the Walrus, parked somewhat askew across the driveway. Ben hadn’t managed to set her down inside the warehouse. Frankly it was only Chloette’s precision calculations that had delivered him to the right continent and whatever minor adjustments he’d had to make during the final approach, well, he guess he owed those to years of experience driving a wagon. But a fellow might as well harness a whale as attempt to steer a beast like the Walrus back into its kennel.
He waved to the horses and commended himself once again on the landing.
Breakfast. Then on with the day.
There was a great deal to be done. A great deal, in fact, had already been struck.
From the moment he’d regained consciousness on the Moon, events had gone surprisingly smoothly. As though the gods had buttered their feet.
But there was more steering to be done before he was properly home.
Home, as his Mum used to say in between prodding him to get out and get a job and find a place of his own, is where the heart is. Which was the reason he’d relocated here to Quatrechamps Manor.
To feel a little closer to home.
Tender velvet-gloved slaps had roused Ben.
A trip on the Moon could transport you far, it seemed, but being away for a while just made the return all the sweeter. Chloette leaned over him, her face shining like a bright bespectacled moon.
Ben produced a series of groggy sounds until some of them coalesced into words. “Um, how long was I out?”
“Oh, perhaps a day. Nothing more.”
He sat up so fast he almost bumped foreheads with Chloette. “A day!”
“Calme, calme. You had the wind knocked from your sails, Ben, c’est tout. I prescribed rest, but while you slept I have not been idle.”
She sat back and gestured with a sweeping arm, inviting his eyes on a slow tour of the interior of the cave.
He was in a cave. Okay, that was news.
Dim light flickered from one of the lanterns from the lounge aboard the Walrus, glinting in multiple bovine eyes. Numerous Moon-Elves had crammed themselves into this natural hovel, most of them pointing and lowing like over-stimulated cattle at a pantheon of hieroglyphics chalked on the cave walls. A few bickered over lumps of calceous Moon rock and whenever an individual won the squabble he would immediately begin adding to the hieroglyphs with his own scribbled stick figures.
Ben scanned the walls, struggling to decipher any meaning in the pictograms. Although many were a lot neater than those being scrawled right now.
“Pictures paint a thousand words, non?” Chloette flashed a smile that flickered like the lantern light. “Here, I think, we must have a few million words. And in my endeavours to establish communications I believe I have introduced the locals to ‘art’. See, they all want a turn at drawing now.”
Ben nodded slowly, encouraging comprehension to settle. “Right. So you managed to reach an understanding, then? With drawings?”
“Precisement! The art of communication.” She wagged a finger and pointed at the more sophisticated sketches. “It would appear your surmise was correct. They have very little here, as you can see, and live simple lives. So naturally they are rather fascinated by our possessions. So I have promised them more.”
“More?” Ben wondered at the Professor’s wisdom. Had she received a blow to the head while he’d been out of it? They were low on ballast at last recollection and if she intended to dupe them into believing there were more treasures in the hold, well, deceit was dangerous work.
“Yes, yes. We are short on supplies – I made certain to explain that. But I emphasised that there was always plenty more where our modest collection came from.” She indicated a circle with several landmasses mapped out within its circumference. The world, as viewed from above the sky. Some of the Moon-Elves were trying to duplicate this simple masterpiece but their freehand circles were wonkier than the coastal outlines. “It is only a matter of fetching it and delivering it here. And that, Ben, is where I would like you to come in.” Chloette tipped her head, arched an eyebrow. “You are the delivery man, are you not?”
“Um, I guess. Yes, I suppose I still am.”
“It will be tough, a great deal of work. And I must remain here.”
“What, as a hostage? No, I won’t allow – ”
A velvet-gloved finger shushed him with a gentle press to his lips. “No, no. A guarantee, of course. But I remain of my own free will. There is so much to study, so much to learn from these people – and the Moon herself, she has much to teach me.”
Ben grumbled under his breath. He would much rather be dumping the ballast and hightailing it from this blighted surface with Chloette safely aboard. The prospect, apparently to be denied him, brought to mind logistical difficulties such as how they might actually launch the Walrus without ballast, let alone achieve anything approaching a landing assuming they traversed the star-sprinkled desert between here and home.
“Listen,” said Chloette, and Ben had a feeling she was about to answer all his questions. Of course she was – she was the Professor. He believed, ultimately, she could explain anything. “It is a matter of gravity. The force of attraction possessed by any body.” Huddled so closely in this cave, Ben believed he understood perfectly. “The Moon is small, so she has little gravity, despite her other attractions. Our world is larger and rich in gravity. I am sure you feel her pull even now.” Ben had thought that was homesickness, but it made sense that there would be a scientific foundation for something so irrational. “Here, observe, the Moon-Elves are all slight of frame. An effect of minimal gravity. And as you discovered, you are capable of far greater leaps and bounds here. But what keeps them from flying away, hm?”
“Homesickness?” ventured Ben.
“Non. Grass! The grass. Moongrass possesses some form of organic force of attraction, keeping them rooted. Ruminating lends them gravity, you might say.”
Funny. Ben had never heard of greens being a key to putting on weight.
“So…” No. He didn’t have anything to add to that.
“So we have our solution to all our difficulties.”
“We do?” Ben perked up, if only because Chloette’s smile persuaded him this was his cue to perk up. “Good.”
Ben wandered out to the horses and interrupted their grazing. They looked a little miffed but came along passively as he led them along and harnessed them to the wagon.
He empathised some, but having been on a diet of grass for the entire journey home he was reasonably sure he would’ve welcomed a respite from feeding. Moon-grass, for all its greenness, had a sort of silvery taste. Like he was eating cutlery. And although he acquired no mass, he’d found his movements growing more sluggish and it had been increasingly difficult to haul himself out of his hammock every morning.
But there hadn’t been much to do beyond the gardening and throwing Moon rocks over the side for propulsion.
Moon-grass grew with an enthusiasm and pace not shared by most other grasses Ben had encountered. So it was a simple matter of planting seeds, nurturing them to maturity and, as the Walrus neared her destination, dining on increasing quantities of the stuff. Throughout he tried to tell himself it was as tasty as lettuce and that lettuce was something he thoroughly enjoyed.
Today, the Moon-grass effects had worn off, but he guessed his heart was a shade heavy as he hauled himself up onto the wagon and urged the horses onward with a fatigued flick of the reins. The wagon trundled past the For Sale sign. He would have to spread word about the property in town today. One of the major items on his To Do list.
Thanks to the Moon’s modest gravity, the Walrus still boasted a healthy supply of Moon rock on deck, ballast to assist the next take-off. Funds from the house sale would purchase numerous fancy items with which to delight and fascinate the Moon-Elves. Fair trade for the grass-seed and the rocks. And Ben looked forward to strolling into the office, accounting for his absence to Mr Mulbarrow and announcing that they could now include the Moon on the company’s delivery rounds.
There was one other minor item, one other minor purchase to make.
He’d dip into his own meagre savings for that one. Wouldn’t be gentlemanly at all to spend the lady’s monies on a thing such as that.
He pondered long and hard as he drove. He’d never shopped for jewellery before.
His mind, or his heart, was made up. But they’d both play games, imagining all the myriad responses he might expect from Chloette. When he showed up on the Moon and declared those four little words:
“Delivery for Professor Quatrechamps!”
A ring was a small thing. Unlikely to interfere with a balloon’s flight trajectory or whatever. But a potent disruption to the course of two lives.
Not for the first time, he wondered if his mind and his heart were mistaken in being so firmly decided to go through with this idea.
He couldn’t swear for any certainty that it was love. But it was something.
It was complicated. It wasn’t balloon science.