Fahrenheit 52

We Built a Blimp

“...and we’re flying it to the Empire State Building!”

Penny glanced at her viewers count and grimaced before catching herself.

“So, uh, that’s right, tell everybody you know. Everybody! I mean it. Right now. Cause we’re live, on the air — in the air — headed to New York City in our homemade dirigible. Dir-ig-ible… isn’t that a neat word? I think so, cause it sounds a lot like durable, which our blimp sure is. That's the thing about blimps, they're always...”

Something over Penny’s right shoulder buzzed.

“Penny - hey! Dex’s alarm! Can you stop livecasting for a single second of your life and start pedaling?”

“Sorry, Riv. And sorry, everybody. I’ll be… right back with our livecast of TADPOLE II’s inaugural flight. If you’re new here and wondering what the heck happened to TADPOLE I, don't ask. Just check out our backcasts for the full story of that disaster. I mean, hashtag learning opportunity, right? For now, enjoy this weird electronic song I wrote with my dad last summer. Back in a jiff!”

Penny flicked her phone’s screen to enable the livecast placeholder layer.

Riven groaned at the rising arpeggiated loops. ”How is this still your waitsong?”

“Cause it’s awesome, and my fans — I mean, our fans — dig it. It’s part of our brand, Riv. Our livecast persona. Now, what’s the big deal?”

“The big deal is, Penny, you’re not pedaling.”

“Yeah I am!”

“Well, not fast enough. We were drooping and spinning sorta. I swear we almost hit a tree.”


“Back there!” shouted Riven. “A tall one. Okay? We’ve gotta stay steady at 105 RPM or we’re toast.”

“Riven - if not one watches this flight, then we’re toast. You know this is our only chance of getting accepted. We need everyone to see this.”

Penny and Riven nodded at each other from their respective bicycles, which they’d welded to their makeshift bamboo and chicken-wire gondola. Each bike’s back wheel was wrapped with a rubber belt, which was connected to a series of box-fans that they’d pilfered from their attics. Each downstroke of their bike pedals whirred the box-fans enough to provide forward propulsion to their 64-foot long blimp - a former hot-air balloon that Penny bought at the flea market with her grandpa. The guy who sold it to her looked like he’d been to Oz and back again. She told her grandpa they needed the balloon for a school project, which was technically true. A few months later, after a whole lot of Googling and electrical-fire mishaps (see Penny's backcasts on TADPOLE I), Penny and Riven’s science fair project was aloft.

Penny ran through the flight plan in her head again - dock at the top of Empire State Building in their homemade blimp, take the elevator down all the way to 34th Street, buy a knish from a street vendor, then take the elevator back up and fly back home to Vinetown, knish in hand. She could smell its fried-dough sweetness now. Oh, and she needed to deliver a letter to the front desk guards, she remembered. Apparently, the only successful blimp landing at the Empire State Building had been a mail delivery, and Penny wanted to honor that important blimping tradition.

“Hey DEX - how much farther?” asked Penny.

“At our current velocity, we will arrive at our destination in two hours, thirteen minutes, six seconds. Five seconds. Four seconds.”

“Ha-ha, DEX,” said Riven. “We get it. Can we get there any faster?”

DEX’s LED lights flashed in a rainbow pattern along his small rectangular frame, illuminating the gondola in the darkness - he was thinking.

"You worried about police?" asked Penny.

Riven scoffed. "No, the FAA. We gotta stay off their radar, at least until we hit Manhattan. By then, hopefully your livecast will get everybody on our side."

DEX beeped. "There is an cold air front thirty feet above us, heading north, which improves our arrival time by twenty-eight minutes, nine seconds. Eight seconds. Seven--"

"Got it!" said Riven. "Let's do it. Penny, I'm going to add some more balloons. Keep pedaling, okay?"

Penny nodded and flicked back to her livecast.

"And we're back! My partner -- aka BFF-forever -- Riven Ortega is currently adding some more balloons to our blimp. Ah, the Halloween variety pack. Great choice, Riv."

Riven waved at her phone in a hurry and got back to filling balloons with helium, and then releasing them carefully into a small opening at the base of their blimp.

"He's shy, folks. But there's never been a faster balloon filler than Riven. Hence -- balloon duty. Now, you may be asking your self, how the heck does this blimp even work? The answer? H-E. Not he. Helium. Now, let me pull up my notes... good. So, according to Wikipedia, helium is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, non-toxic, inert, monotomic noble gas. What else? It's lighter than air! And it's non-flammable. Meaning? Blimps! Also - helium makes your voice hilarious. Riv.. do the funny voice thing?"

Riven shook his head.

"Come on! Everyone's waiting!"

Their livecast view count was creeping up. Penny smiled.

He shook his head again.

"I would do it, if I could, Penny," said DEX.

"Thank you, DEX. You're a real friend, you know. Not like Riven."

"Hey!" shouted Riven in a teeny voice.

Penny cheered. "You did it! Now was that so hard?"

By now, Riven had filled at least three dozen new balloons, and their blimp began drifting up into the cold air front. Riven steered slightly with the canoe-oar they'd rigged up as their tailfin.

"I think we're good now," said Riven. "DEX, are we in the front?"

DEX beeped positively.

Penny returned focus to her livecast.

“So, our flight plan. I know we've been over this a million times before, but we're nearly at a thousand livecasters right now and it's worth explaining. We're landing our blimp on top of the Empire State Building. Who even knew that was possible? But, it's true! Really! The upper deck was built to be a blimp landing dock. They tried it a couple times, and then just gave up. Can you believe that?"

DEX blorped in solidarity.

"Exactly, DEX. It's wild. No one really believes in blimps anymore. Sure, sometimes blimps fly over dumb football games. But those are probably zeppelins TBH, with rigid inner structures, like rib-bones of a blue whale. Not like our real-deal blimp here. Powered by good old element #2, thanks to Riven's hook-up at the local party store."

”I can see it!” shouted Riven.

"See what?" asked Penny.

"The city! The Empire State!"

Penny turned her phone on its mount to face forward.

New York City loomed ahead of them. The sun was only just starting to break over the Atlantic horizon.

"We're almost there!" shouted Penny. "Can you believe it?" She spun the phone back to face her. "No one did. No one believed us. Not our parents. Or classmates. Or even our physics teacher, Mr. Gates. Look, you're great, Mr. Gates, loved the egg drop project we did last fall. But you said we'd never get our balloon to fly. And here we are! In fact, the only people who believed in us were all of you, watching our livecasts as we built our blimp."

DEX beeped.

"You too, DEX. Sorry. You always believed in us."

The former pocket calculator beeped again, angrily.

"Are you mad at me, DEX?"

"No, I think it's something else," said Riven. "Something's coming in fast."

An FAA drone appeared alongside their gondola.


Penny said nothing, but spun the camera towards the drone.


Riven stuttered. "Uhh, we're students and..."

Penny whispered into her phone. "Hey everyone. We knew this moment would come. They're trying to stop us. Seems like my partner might have this under control, if he can just stop stuttering... otherwise, I'll have to try Plan B. And I don't have Plan B just yet. If you've got a Plan B or C, please leave it in the comments now."


DEX buzzed a pattern in Morse code.

“Drone C-102F," said DEX. "I am Rolodex DEX-090a. This vessel is flying under FAA Drone Reg 85bx-iic. I am transmitting our registration number and flight plan to you now.”

The Morse code buzzing resumed.

The FAA drone hovered for a moment. Penny and Riven held their breath.


The drone lowered and flew away, heading towards the harbor.

"DEX! That was amazing!" cried Penny. "Did you see that, everyone? DEX - you're the best robot ever!"

"Yeah, wow, DEX, what was that whole registration thing?" asked Riven.

"I purchased a drone registration number last week," beeped DEX. "We are not technically a drone, as you know, but this should confuse them long enough for us to make it into the city."

“Nice one, DEX,” said Riven.

DEX beeped happily. “I told them we're flying to Bear Mountain. They’ll find out soon enough that we're flying to the city. You’d better start pedaling faster.”

Penny looked at her livecast count - the number had spiked to over sixty-thousand viewers.

"Riv! We're over 60k viewers! It's happening!"

"No way," said Riven. "They must have liked that little encounter."

"Hello - new friends," said Penny. "Let me get everyone up to speed."

By the time TADPOLE II crossed the Hudson, news helicopters fluttered like lightning bugs alongside their craft. Riven manuevered the oar to take them up Fifth Ave, drifting like a little storm cloud.

Three million livecasters were now watching as they neared the Empire State Building.

“It's time for the rope,” shouted Riven at Penny.

Penny whistled at the sight of the limestone skyscraper filling the sky. “Already got it!”

“I’ll steer us close!”

Penny checked the hitch again on their tether rope, which had formerly been the climbing rope in their high school gym, plus nearly four-hundred other jump ropes Penny bought at local garage sales and the flea market. They'd woven it together using a friendship bracelet pattern that Penny knew was pretty darn strong. She and Riven had tested the rope extensively, pulling each other on a skateboard in the church parking lot. But this would be the real test.

Penny whirred the end of their tether like a cowpoke, ready to lasso the Empire State Building.

She let go and her rope sailed towards the spire.