“I see,” von Höllenteufel said, looking up from his newspaper, “that some fool is going to try and make another record balloon ascent.”
I paused in the act of pouring out a glass of juice and glanced at him. Von Höllenteufel spoke only rarely, and when he did, it was usually in generalities. I’d never heard this particular note in his voice before.
“Why do you say ‘some fool’, Herr Doktor Professor?” I asked. “Don’t you think he’ll succeed?”
“Oh, he’ll succeed in getting up there, I have no doubt.” Von Höllenteufel rattled his newspaper for emphasis. “But whether he’ll get down again, that is what I am not so sure about.”
“Get down again? But surely modern ballooning is pretty safe, isn’t it?”
“You think so, do you?” Von Höllenteufel looked at me with contempt. “Do you have the slightest idea what lies in the sky up there? Do they?”
“You mean, air currents and storms and so on and so forth? I suppose they can be dangerous to a balloon, but...”
“I do not mean air currents and storms.” The big man slapped the table for emphasis. “That’s nothing at all. The fools!”
He seemed genuinely angry, the scar on his cheek twitching with emotion. I looked around to see if anyone else had noticed. But on this rainy afternoon, the clubhouse room was almost empty. Only the two of us sat near the radiator, while winter rain beat on the windows and washed the grey street. And then I remembered something someone had told me once about him.
“Doktor Professor,” I said, “weren’t you, once, a balloonist? And didn’t you try for a height record?”
Von Höllenteufel nodded slowly. The flush of anger left his face, and he looked only upset and worried. “I did,” he said. “And that is why I know exactly what I am talking about.”
I remembered something else I’d heard. “And it was after that attempt that you swore off ballooning and never went up again, is that right?”
“That is correct.” Von Höllenteufel hesitated. “Let me ask you something. You have contacts, right? Contacts in the media? People you can trust?”
“Well, yes, I suppose so.” It was my turn to hesitate. “Why, Herr Doktor Professor?”
“Because if I tell you the story of what happened when I went up that time, you will contact the media people and try to have them call this record attempt off – that’s what I want. Will you?”
“I’ll do my best,” I said. “It depends on what you’ve got to tell me, of course.”
“All right.” Von Höllenteufel carefully folded and put down his newspaper, polished his spectacles, and sat back. “Listen, then, and remember that everything I’m going to tell you is nothing less than the truth.”
I still remember exactly (von Höllenteufel said) my feelings as I strapped myself into the capsule that day. It was not yet dawn, and the new day was a faint flush in the east. Though dressed in a heavy flight suit and helmet, I was shivering; with excitement, not with cold or fear.
The balloon in which I was about to make the attempt was of my own design. The envelope, of plastic-coated paper, was strong enough to withstand a knife, yet light enough so that a man could carry it without effort. The gondola comprised a capsule of high-strength metal alloy, consisting of a frame and a seat with a harness to strap myself in. I had attempted to save weight in every way I possibly could. Comfort was not a factor in this flight, altitude was.
In front of me, mounted on a bar that swung to lock into place, was a pod with the simple instruments I would need: a compass, so I could tell the direction; a ground speed indicator, so I could have a rough idea how far I’d come from my launching point; a clock, so I’d know how long I’d been aloft; a small thermometer, and, most important of all, an altimeter, to measure the altitude I reached. I was determined to go higher than anyone else had before in a balloon; higher, I hoped, than anyone might ever go again.
This flight had been the culmination of years, decades, of effort. I’d been fascinated by balloons since I’d been a schoolboy, and in college I’d studied aeronautics with one aim in mind only; to know as much about balloons as I could, to become the world’s greatest expert in the field if possible. I had joined a ballooning club early on, and as I grew more experienced, I became convinced that there was only one thing really worth doing. Others could have the endurance and long distance records; I’d go for height.
Of course, to do this, I’d need a special kind of balloon, one specifically made for altitude. I designed it myself, and, with the help of the inheritance I got from my parents, I constructed it. After several test flights, I was ready for the big day at last. As I strapped in my parachute, an unfortunate but necessary additional weight and precaution, my fellow balloon club members pumped the translucent envelope full of hydrogen gas. It would of course have to be a hydrogen balloon; helium was too heavy, and I couldn’t even think of taking up the additional weight of a hot-air burner and cylinders. That I had to take an oxygen cylinder and mask up with me was already more weight than I could really afford, but like the parachute, it was a necessity.
My friend Oskar, who had been almost as fascinated by my project as I, and had helped in every way he could, checked me over one last time, testing the buckles of my harness and my parachute. “Are you quite sure you won’t take a radio?” he asked for the sixth or seventh time, as he helped strap me into the seat and locked the bar into place.
“I told you,” I replied once again, “I can’t afford the additional weight. And any radio I could take up wouldn’t have much in the way of range anyway.”
Oskar looked up at the envelope, which was now a billowing lighter patch against the pre-dawn sky. The capsule surged, straining against the ropes holding it down. He nodded. “Well, let’s hope there isn’t any emergency.”
“Why should there be?” I asked. “The weather forecast is perfect, there’s next to no wind, the balloon is in excellent shape, I’m as fit as I’ll ever be, and we aren’t anywhere near the sea or something. Stop worrying, it never does any good.”
“You’re probably right,” he said, sighing, and handed me the map on a clipboard he’d been carrying. “Ready?”
I nodded. The ropes fell away, and with a lurch the balloon rose into the air.
It’s impossible, for anyone who’s never been up in a balloon, to imagine the thoughts that go through one’s mind as one makes an ascent like mine. As the ground fell away below, the sky to the east brightened dramatically as I rose above the line of the horizon. Then, with a flash, the rays of the still-hidden sun turned the balloon’s envelope into a huge teardrop of gold. I imagined that Oskar, who would undoubtedly be following me through binoculars, would be able to see it too.
The silence, in a balloon, can’t be imagined. Not only is there no engine noise; since a balloon moves exactly as fast as the wind, there is not even the rustle of a breeze. The slightest sound below, the crowing of a cock as the sun rose, might be clearly heard, if one were flying low, with ballast bags tied on; but I was rising straight up, and so quickly that long before the sun painted the roofs of the town I was wrapped in silence.
As the balloon rose, the capsule turned slowly, spinning in a great circle taking in the horizon. I wasn’t very high yet, but it was already distinctly colder, despite the sun. I was glad of my heavy gloves and boots, and of the thick flying suit. The sky was clear, except where, very high above and well to the north, a few strands of cirrus lay like ripples on the sand of a beach. It was going to be a great day, I thought; the perfect day for my attempt. I felt like laughing.
The earth underneath fell away into a flat sheet of brown and green. I had to concentrate on the instruments, plotting my position on the map with the help of the compass and the speed indicator. According to the readings, I must have encountered an unexpected stream of wind, for I was further south than I expected. Not that I could do much about it; and, as I rose further, I must have passed through the wind stream, for I no longer drifted south according to the instruments.
I began to imagine, with a sudden rush of regret, what I might do once my flight was over. I’d absolutely no doubt at all that I’d achieve the record I was aiming for; but then what? It was all I’d dreamt of for years, an obsession that had shaped my life, that had even precluded serious relationships. More than one young lady had told me that they might have liked me but for the fact that I had only time for one thing, balloons. I hadn’t cared particularly, for what was a transient love affair compared to my name in the record books, to stand for the ages?
Well, then, today would be the culmination of all that effort; and once it was over, what then? Would I even ever want to get aloft again, knowing that I’d already done all that I’d set out to do?
I must have fallen into a brown study as I ruminated on this, mechanically checking the instruments, because I was surprised when I suddenly discovered that I was being forced to draw in increasingly deep breaths. The air had become thin, so I strapped on the oxygen mask and turned the valve on the cylinder. I’d been forced to skimp on that, too, to save weight; so I had only one cylinder, and had to make it last as long as I could.
From a balloon, at that height, the world looks like an ocean. Far below, the land is a green-brown smudge spread in all directions, interrupted on the horizon by the rising reef of a mountain range. The sea of air, pressing down on all this, deepens from a light blue near the horizon to a darker hue above, until overhead it’s an aquamarine, interrupted only by ruffles and flurries of cloud like the spume of waves breaking on the surface.
I’d just done checking the instruments again, and was plotting my position on the map, when a shadow fell over the paper for an instant, and whisked away again.
I did not, at first, even notice it. It wasn’t much of a shadow, merely a momentary darkening of the sunlight, gone almost at once. When it came again, larger and longer this time, I thought to myself that it was just some of the cirrus cloud I’d noticed earlier, passing overhead.
And then I frowned as I recalled something. The cirrus I’d noticed had been well to the north, and since launching I’d drifted to the south; so what exactly had cast the shadow? Abandoning the plotting for the moment, I looked up.
High above me bulged the familiar teardrop shape of the translucent envelope. Something shimmered in the light beside it, something so faint that I thought for a moment I was just seeing those specks which float in our eyes. Then the balloon rotated slightly, and the thing came into clearer view.
Even now, all these years later, I can’t describe it adequately. It was almost totally transparent; I only saw it from where the sun glinted, ever so faintly, off its surface, and where part of it passed between me and the envelope, I could see the faintest stain in the air, like the remnants of a whiff of smoke.
But I can tell you this: it was enormous. More and more of it came into view, and I realised I was climbing up its side, the balloon brushing its almost invisible and intangible surface. In basic form it was, as far as I could see, like a colossal collection of transparent soap bubbles, each of which was many times larger than my balloon, under which trailed long tentacles like the arms of a jellyfish. It was one of these tentacles which had case the shadow that had flicked over my head and cast the shadow I’d noticed.
I was so amazed at what I was seeing that I’d have rubbed my eyes if my hands hadn’t been covered by thick gloves. As it was, I blinked several times, and then squeezed my eyes tightly shut.
The balloon lurched slightly. My eyes flicked open. The glittering surface before me seemed not to be moving. Then the balloon lurched again, and I looked at the altimeter. The needle, crawling along the scale as it had been doing since I’d launched, moved slower and slower, as though elastic bands were holding me down. And then it stopped.
I hung suspended in the air, held fast by that titanic thing.
And then I realised that it was not alone. Turning my head, I saw another to my right, drifting in my direction, directing itself with slow pulsing contractions of its gigantic surface. Another was coming from the left, exactly like a jellyfish propelling itself through the water. A moment later, and they had come together all around me, and I was surrounded by a million flickering rainbows.
In other circumstances, I suppose it would have been beautiful beyond belief. But I had no sense of beauty; I was consumed by a far more primal emotion: fear.
Not only did these impossible things exist, not only had they trapped me, tens of thousands of metres above the ground; they were aware. They were thinking. I felt their thoughts, like the heat of a banked fire. And the most frightening thing about their thoughts wasn’t that they were curious about the balloon, which they were; the frightening thing was they knew I was there, and they were filled with a cold, implacable anger towards me.
Fumbling like fingers in a darkened room, the tentacles came looking for me. Insubstantial as a brush of breeze, one touched my knee, hesitated for a moment, and moved on. It probably couldn’t feel me through the flight suit. But another came, trailing a gossamer tip across my chest, which made me reflexively strain backwards as far as I could in my confined seat. It felt the movement, and an instant later it had whipped itself round me.
Seconds later, I found myself pulled half out of the capsule, the oxygen mask ripped off my face, the tentacle round my chest joined by another round my left arm. The bar with the instrument pod was all that was holding me in place. The tentacles jerked impatiently, eager to have me, and pulled hard against the restraint. I felt the agony on my lower torso and hips as the straps and bar bit into me. At this rate they’d pull me in two, unless...
My hands grasped at the emergency release of my seat harness, and then at the bar. If I could use the momentum of their pull to get me out of the capsule before they could hold me tight, then I might still have a –
I must have blacked out for a few seconds, because when I came to, I was falling through the air, the wind slamming past my face like a wall. Between my feet, I saw the teardrop shape of my balloon, and around it, something that shimmered and glittered, at the very edge of visibility. I was falling head first, and as I watched, the balloon shrank to a tiny white dot and vanished.
I don’t know how long I fell like that, head first, down towards the ground. I felt a great sense of lassitude, as though I should just let myself fall. Only little by little did the thought come to me, that I had something to do. And it took even longer before my brain finally came to the realisation that what I had to do was open my parachute.
And then I might have fallen for quite another minute while my brain worked out, step by step, how I should manage the feat of opening the parachute. Only when the line of the horizon had already crept into the line of sight of my eyes did my hands finally fumble for my ripcord. And as the parachute slammed open and jerked me the right way up, I saw the ground rushing up only a short distance below; fields, with a village in the distance. I had only enough time to prepare myself for the impact before I struck. Falling over, I struck my helmeted head hard against the ground and nearly knocked myself out.
As I lay on my back, looking up, far, very far above, I seemed to see a speck of glitter.
And then it was gone.
“Nobody ever found my balloon again,” von Höllenteufel said. “I let it be thought it had been caught in a high altitude wind stream and swept away, and that I’d parachuted because I’d lost control. After all, you could hardly blame me for not telling the truth. Who would have believed me? Would you?”
I opened my mouth and closed it again.
“That’s what I thought,” von Höllenteufel said, nodding. “I’m sure Oskar suspected I was holding something back, but he never asked and I never told him. I thought I’d never have to say anything at all. But then I didn’t know that some idiot would be stupid enough to try for another of those height records.”
“I, uh,” I began. “Your account, it seems...unlikely, surely? Are you saying that aliens from some other planet live in our upper atmosphere? That would be...”
“Bah!” von Höllenteufel raised an imperious hand. “Did I say anything about aliens? Never.”
“Then what are these...things...you say you met?”
Von Höllenteufel stroked his chin while he gazed at me for almost a minute. “I told you,” he said at last, “that the air, from up in a balloon, looks like an ocean. In fact it is an ocean...an ocean of gas, pressing down on the earth, and we’re bottom dwellers crawling along the sea floor. That’s all we are.
“But oceans have currents, too, warm and cold currents that flow like rivers through the body of the water, and which rise and fall as they hit undersea mountain ranges and trenches in the sea floor. And on land we have currents of warm air, which rise like mushrooms from the heated land and the sun-warmed sea, up to the freezing heights far above, where they cool and spread out, and, slowly, slowly, sink down again. Over aeons, how many times have they made that journey? And how many times have they carried up tiny organisms – bacteria, single-celled animals, or even more complex creatures like spiders – up into those heights?
“And, given time enough, and time enough they have had, who can possibly say what has evolved up there? Surface dwellers of the ocean of air, like the surface dwellers of the oceans of water? Feeding, perhaps, on the energy of the sunlight, warmed by the cosmic rays?
“And, given time enough, and time they have had, how can we say they have not evolved thought, intelligence, feelings – and the ability to anger, and to hate? The desire for revenge?”
“To hate?” I frowned. “But why would they hate? Revenge for what?”
“Think,” von Höllenteufel said. “Just think. All these ages, these giants have floated above the earth, undisturbed, living their placid lives. All these days, nothing touched them, nothing hurt them, they floated along serenely. But then...suddenly...something came along, something that they could never have imagined, something that they had no defence against. Can you tell me what that was?”
I swallowed. “Aeroplanes.”
“Of course. Aeroplanes wouldn’t even notice their existence. They would slice through them as though they weren’t there, scattering their substance to the winds. Aeroplanes, monster machines from the depths, rising to their world, with just one aim, they would think; to find them, and to destroy them. Of course they’d seethe for revenge, but be unable to take it...until a very, very high rising balloon blundered into their grasp, a raft drifting on the waves, as it were.”
I looked out into the rain washed street, suddenly unable to disbelieve. “But...” I said. “Doktor Professor, I can tell the people you suggested about all this, but they won’t believe me. You know this as well as I do.”
In the windowpane, I saw his reflection nod. “I know.”
“And you still want me to tell them about it.”
“Yes, for two reasons. In the first place, they need to be warned about what lies up there, the danger they’re headed for. And also...” in the reflection, his hands moved on the table, twisting the newspaper. “And also,” he said, “these creatures, whatever they are, animals or plants or something else altogether – they are, as I said, intelligent. And they can communicate in some way, some way that even I could pick up. Surely if we try, we can communicate back with them, make them understand that we mean them no harm. Surely we can try and reach a modus vivendi between our two species.”
“But since nobody will believe you, Doktor Professor,” I said, turning back to him, “what do you propose to do?”
Von Höllenteufel sighed. “I’ve been up there before. I’m the only one who knows anything at all about them.”
“Yes,” he said. “I want to go up, too.”
Copyright B Purkayastha 2015