Part 5: Lab Rat Balloon
I sat on a grass verge, looking out into the blackness of night.
“Dreams,” I answered.
Lady Una glided out of the shadows, moving noiselessly over the cobblestone path. “Nightmares?” she asked.
I shook my head. “Memories.”
She smiled lopsidedly – a strange gesture for her delicate features. “Same thing these days. May I sit with you?”
“Trouble sleeping yourself?”
“Always,” she answered, and then folded up in a peculiar and graceful motion that found her seated on the ground beside me, her high-necked, hoop-skirted dress uncreased.
“I think, perhaps... you should consider wearing more practical clothes once we leave the city,” I suggested.
“I know about the Select Committee,” Lady Una responded.
I was unsure how to respond. “Excuse me?”
“I've mentioned that my uncle's library carried copies of files from the Imperial Society, have I not? They really were surprisingly detailed – although, of course, they could say nothing of what is presumably known only by yourself among all humans.”
I shifted uncomfortably. The ground beneath me seemed to have suddenly become hard and uneven.
Lady Una studied her fingernails in the moonlight. “There's no need to squirm doctor. You did what you thought was right. There's no shame in that. I trust you.”
“I'm really not sure why.”
She turned her pale face to look at me. “Will you trust me in return, doctor?”
“Are you doing this to the others as well?”
She frowned. “What do you mean?”
“I can't see why you'd single me out for special trust, given what you know. So I suspect you're doing this to Thurlow and Phenice as well, maybe even EON-4. Taking us aside one by one and making an agreement of mutual trust?”
“Maybe I am. Would you like to be the one to turn me down?”
“Well then, I'll trust you to help my uncle in his quest. And you'll trust me to dress myself. Okay?”
“Okay,” I said, uncertainly.
She leaned back on her gloved hands. “Now perhaps you'll tell me exactly what it is about this view that you find so appealing?”
I looked out into the darkness. There was almost nothing there, just faint gas lamps, moon-silvered rooftops and a sprinkling of stars. “I'm not sure. I just felt the need to get some fresh air and look out to sea. I think I can almost hear it at times, but maybe it's just the blood in my ears.”
She shivered. “It just looks desolate to me. A lot of dirty rooftops and the unfriendly depths of space.”
I laughed. “Country girl.”
She looked a bit bemused at that. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“I like the rooftops. It's nice to know there are people behind them, sound asleep. It feels surreal. Like the world behind me is a dream, or this is, and I don't know if I'm awake or not.”
To my great surprise, Lady Una reached over and pinched my arm through my shirt.
“Awake,” she stated. “They're both real.”
“Bit too literal. That hurt.”
“I don't know my own strength. But you'll live, I'm sure. How is your rat?”
“Relocated, at least. Still alive, I hope. Certainly finding life harder outside the city than within its walls.”
“Did Prometheus react at all?”
“No. The thing hasn't moved since I first saw it. There's no way to know if it'll react the same way to a hot air balloon with humans in it as it did to a rat tied to a helium balloon. The wind is moving in the right direction, at least. Surprising...” I met her eye. “Surprising that EON-4 managed to get the balloon from Kirkham, don't you think?”
She said nothing.
“I can't keep my eyes open much longer,” I admitted.
“Must be the company.”
“Hardly,” she repeated, then, with a twist of her mouth: “I've never flown before.”
“Me neither. There's nothing to worry about though. Flying is perfectly safe.”
“Exactly what are you basing this confidence on?”
“Nobody was ever killed flying through the air,” I answered. “It's falling you have to worry about. Specifically: hitting the ground.”
She smirked. “I should have guessed that was coming. Sweet dreams.”
With another strange and elegant motion, she stood up and offered me a gloved hand to help me to my feet.
The following morning we five assembled on the observation post on the top of Fortress City's keep – a rusted, paint-flecked structure that rattled in the wind. Lady Una clutched the railing with one hand, her hoop skirt billowing like a sail. She met my eye and smiled.
When Kirkham's men finished loading the balloon with supplies, they helped us into the basket one by one, and then untied the tether. For a lurching moment, the balloon dropped. And then it buoyed back up, floating on the wind.
Thurlow leaned over the edge, looking down at the charred ruins of no-man's land. “Well, that didn't take long.”
Below us, Prometheus began to extend its jointed legs. With patient deliberation, its inexpressive face turned upwards.
TO BE CONTINUED...
Next week: Will our heroes survive the attentions of Prometheus? What horrors lurk beneath them in no-man's land? Check back in a week’s time for the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!