Beyond the Worldwall, Chapter 2: Dr. Phlogiston

balloon

Reverently, Dr. Philippe Joubert placed his hand against the unyielding surface of the Worldwall. It was perfectly smooth, perfectly even, and in the midday light revealed their reflections readily; but up close it had a translucent quality – a smoky gray depth not apparent from a distance. “Like glass,” he breathed.

“Some say it’s made of pure diamond,” Durmoth reflected.

“A diamond ring around the world,” said MacMillan. “To mark what union, I wonder?”

Sykes laughed. “Ever the poet. It doesn’t look like any kind of metaphor to me.”

“And you, madame?” Joubert asked Bisette, who had pulled off a glove to stroke the wall delicately with her fingertips. “Are you impressed?”

“Impressed, yes,” she allowed, craning her head back at its nearly inconceivably height. Withdrawing, she pulled her glove back on. “But undaunted.”

Joubert clapped his hands once in admiration, laughing. “Bravo! Just so! Our patroness shows us the spirit, gentlemen. Onward and upward!”

A fine woman indeed, he mused as they rode back down to the camp on their mules. Such poise, such carriage, and that fine head of golden hair… bound beneath an ermine hat today, in deference to the cold, but one could so readily imagine it spilling down upon suddenly bare shoulders, her nipples pebbled from the cold…

Enough, you lecherous fool, he chided himself. You’re too old for her anyway. But that was equally nonsense – he’d known many men his age to take a woman in her middle thirties to wife, especially men of means –

Which he was not, alas. A man of weight, to be sure – a few stone too much weight, if he were honest – a man of science, internationally renowned for his work in physics and chemistry; but never wealth. To the contrary, it was she who was largely funding this extraordinarily costly venture.

On the other hand, Bisette’s reputation was hardly unstained. By all accounts she had come by her fortune the hard-fought way, beginning as a mere seamstress and ending as an importer of fine silks (hence her connection to this venture, so dependent on that same silk). But there were those who murmured that she had had additional help in her business, funding obtained by more sordid connections than the stock exchange.

Likely mere jealousy, but… didn’t Durmoth act awfully familiar with her, at times?

Now who’s jealous? You really are an old fool. And with that he dismissed it, thinking of the thousand preparations awaiting them back at the camp.

***

First came the silk itself. Due to concerns that it might degrade on the long journey from Port Royal, it had been left untreated prior to packing. Now they pinned out the pieces on several large round frames, not dissimilar to the yurts used by the Wanilats, and brushed on a rubberizing solution of Joubert’s own invention (created by laboriously shredding large yellow blocks of natural rubber and dissolving the material in turpentine). The silks were a cheery sight in that mountain meadow, the red, blue and yellow visible for miles around.

Once the pieces were reasonably dry, Bisette began joining them with needle and thread, aided by MacMillan and some others in the camp handy with such materials. Lastly, the new seams would also be applied with the solution. Meanwhile the next set would be undergoing the rubberizing process.

This took eight days, and for most of it the weather held, sunny if cool. But on the seventh day, the sky turned worrisomely gray. Joubert mentioned his concerns to Durmoth, his authority on such matters. “Boleti says we should be all right,” the explorer replied, having consulted with their guide. “The real storms don’t usually come for a month or two. But we shouldn’t delay.”

“You think he’s correct?”

“If he doesn’t know, no one does.” Durmoth squatted on his heels and lit a cigar with a match, cupping his hand against the breeze, the setting sun turning his already heavily tanned skin a deep red-brown. “Incidentally, I’m still trying to convince him to come with us.”

Joubert made a face. “You really think we need a … what, a tribesman with us? You and Sykes together have seen more of the world than any of these folk.”

“True enough. But not more of this part of it.”

It rankled a bit, to think of a simple savage – a man who added rancid yak milk to green leaves steeped in water and called it tea – to be included among the names of those about to make history; but then, he supposed it would be merely a footnote anyway. “As you say.”

On the ninth day, the balloons were finally complete, though Bisette held up red and swollen fingers. “I confess, I haven’t done that much actual sewing in years.”

The aircraft’s cabin had been ready for days, and carefully provisioned. Its base was a wooden platform, just eight feet by eight feet, with an iron stove at its center; hard to believe they intended to fit six individuals, with all their supplies and fuel, inside, but so it was. Around the platform was a four-foot high rail, supported by posts at the corners and rope bands around it.

More ropes streamed from all points of the basket, part and parcel of the great net that would envelope the two balloons key to Joubert’s design. “The top balloon holds the phlogiston,” he explained to the expedition for the thousandth time, “which provides much of the lift for the total mass. The bottom balloon will receive the heated air from our little stove, here. This allows us to easily control the lift, along with any ballast we carry.” Though in fact there was no real ballast, as such – just their equipment, and their bodies. “If somehow it becomes necessary, there is also a valve sewn into the upper balloon, to release the phlogiston. This is opened by pulling on the rope with the red ribbon tied to it.”

“Why would we need to release the gas?” asked Sykes.

Joubert hemmed and hawed, stroking his white goatee. “Well, in the case of a fire, for instance.” At their concerned expressions, he raised a hand in a calming gesture. “The danger is remote. The upper balloon is separated from the stove by the whole lower balloon. There is very little risk. And without the phlogiston, the fuel requirements, especially for a return journey, become immensely more challenging, even if we were to radically reduce the size of our party. The gas is the key to the whole venture.” Not coincidentally, it was also Joubert’s prime contribution to science, he having proved the gas’s existence; thus his nickname in the papers.

Early the next morning, they began the laborious process of inflating the upper balloon. Out came the crates of scrap iron filings, the lead-lined barrels of oil of vitriol, and the lead-lined pipes, so laboriously carted up the mountains by their long-suffering mules. Combining the vitriol and the iron produced the gas, which passed through the pipes to the balloon; and slowly it filled – it rose, it rose! – and his heart rose with it. At last, shortly past midday, it was perpendicular above the basket, the lower balloon dangling slack beneath it.

Dimly Joubert had been aware of the rest of the party making their last-minute preparations; had seen Durmoth talking intently with Boleti, and later taken particular notice of Bisette, also, walking off with Boleti to one of the yurts. The basket, meanwhile, was heavy with supplies, first and foremost the coal they would need for the return, in four stacked crates; otherwise they would take little but themselves, a small amount of tools and trade goods, four rifles, and on Durmoth’s insistence, a pistol and ammunition for each member of the party. In addition they had the warm clothes they wore, food for perhaps three days, and MacMillan’s case of surgical supplies.

Now the iron stove was filled, the coal lit; the heat passed through the chimney, through the copper ring at the base of the balloon; and the lower balloon too began to inflate.
“Come, my friends,” Joubert called, round face lit with joy. “Come, come!” Obediently the expeditionary party gathered, and the natives too, though few could understand what he said, however he raised his voice. “Here we are at last! Like a bird about to leave the nest, and the whole world – or half of it, ha ha! – at our feet! Have you ever seen a sight so grand? And now, MacMillan, the champagne!” The surgeon handed over the bottle they had saved for the occasion. “To the Voyager!” proclaimed Joubert, and smashed it on the rail to a few thin cheers from the northerners.

Then in the six crowded: Joubert, Bisette, Durmoth, Sykes, MacMillan and Boleti. The craft settled beneath them, and then rose again as the balloon filled out, expanding above them in a glorious sphere, until at last the whole aircraft strained against the pegged ropes that held it to the ground. “On three, now,” Joubert called, voice filled with delight. “One, two, three!”

Together they pulled the pegs holding the ropes to the corners of the basket, and up, up they went! He laughed, and laughed still louder at the exclamations of terror rising from the porters gathered below, who until now had scoffed at Boleti’s claims regarding the purpose of the balloon. The lead guide himself, Joubert observed, was crouched down, gripping a corner post of the basket like the world was falling apart, eyes bugging from his head. “Incredible, isn’t it!” cried the scientist.

The ground dropped away, and eagerly Joubert instructed Sykes in feeding the stove. The camp and its inhabitants shrank to mice, and then to ants, as the landscape grew and grew. Yet still to the north the Worldwall paralleled their rise, up and up. He was glad now of his decision to locate the camp some miles from the wall, realizing the wind might conceivably push them directly into it. Now, as it drew nearer, he wondered if in fact they shouldn’t have gone out further still.

“You can see the jungle,” said Bisette, her cheeks pink with excitement and the cold air. “You can see the sea!”

Joubert looked, saw she was correct – the landscape spread before them – they were like birds, like angels, like gods! – but realized also that, higher up, the southward wind had actually increased, was driving them toward the wall at a quite surprising rate; and they were also rapidly approaching the cloud layer. “More fuel,” he said quietly to Sykes.

“Aye aye,” said Sykes, and shoveled it in with the little hand spade. All of them could feel the heat pouring from the little stove; you had to be careful not to touch it. Then they were in the clouds, swirling mists enveloping their sight.

“How will we know when we’re above the Wall?” asked Durmoth suddenly.

“The clouds themselves have a limit in height,” Joubert replied. “ And in any case, if the wind remains constant, then after an hour or two we can presume we are safely past. There’s nothing wrong with our compasses.” And he showed them the one he held.

He was not altogether wrong. In ten minutes the mist thinned, and they did see the Worldwall again, not two hundred yards distant. And its very crest was just above them – in sight – but were they leveling off, here at the very cusp?

“More fuel,” he rasped, looking up nervously at the sparks pouring from the chimney of the stove into the lower balloon. The stove’s top was nearly glowing.

Collectively they held their breath; and then they were above it – above the Worldwall! – looking down at its summit, which had a flat surface the width of a alleyway – an alleyway around the world! Suddenly Durmoth whooped, and the whole party joined him, cheering and laughing.

And beyond? Together they strained their eyes southward, but they saw only clouds, clouds, and more clouds: an impenetrable gray blanket, and the Wall already disappearing behind them.

“We’ll see plenty soon,” he called encouragingly. Thinking thusly, he shut the flue to the chimney to begin the descent, looked up – and froze. No!

By and large the others were still looking out at the cloudscape. “Sykes,” he whispered urgently.

The other man looked up, and by his expression clearly did not comprehend the significance of the light playing on the side of the balloon. He quirked his head at Joubert. “Something wrong?”

“It’s on fire, man,” Joubert said hoarsely. “The balloon.”

Understanding dawned, Sykes’s eyes widening in fear as the others caught wind of the panic in their voices. “Christ. Oh Christ. What do we do?”

“Put it out! Put it out! Water, smothering, however you can!”

“What are you saying?” Durmoth asked. “Are we falling?”

“No, no, the phlogiston balloon alone should let us retain enough lift to –” Joubert stopped mid-sentence. Dear God, the phlogiston!

He lurched for the red-tagged rope that would open the valve to the upper balloon, and froze. Open it too early, and with the lower balloon also destroyed, they would fall to their deaths. Too late, and it would ignite.

Sykes and Durmoth were climbing the rigging to the balloon, one slip to their certain deaths. Boleti passed Sykes a water gourd he had – funny, because Joubert had instructed them to bring little water, as they couldn’t afford the weight – and Sykes was flinging it, to limited effect, through the inner aperture. But the balloon was enormous; if the fire spread far up the side of the balloon, there was simply no way they could contain it.

As these efforts grew increasingly desperate, they were still descending. They passed through the cloud layer and Joubert glimpsed endless greenery below them, rivers – was that a building of some kind in the distance, or some natural pinnacle?

The men were cursing, nearly crawling directly into the balloon, flailing at the flames with their coats, but to no avail; the glowing coruscation was climbing the balloon’s side, the lower parts blackening, splitting. The rest of the party were half-frozen, looking desperately for some way to be of aid, but to no avail; more people couldn’t even fit up there, and several times Sykes slipped and almost fell.

Down they went, down, and Joubert held out as long as he could, the fire clawing its way up the balloon’s side, clearly out of control now. But the earth was drawing closer, an unending canopy of forest. Finally the flames were nearly to the top of the balloon, the whole side of it visibly alight; and he could wait no longer. “I’m sorry,” he said, and pulled the rope.

Nothing happened. It barely moved at all. He tugged it again. It was stuck. Dear God. He pulled harder, craned his neck outside the basket, glimpsing where one of its grommets, low on the balloon’s exterior, had turned. He stretched out – failed to alter its position – climbed onto the railing of the basket itself – felt the valve give and uttered a sigh of relief. Then it exploded, still a hundred feet in the air.

He fell, his meager grip torn instantly free, he flew: a bare moment where he might indeed have been bird, an angel, a god, soaring above the green. Then the earth reclaimed him.

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