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CHAPTER NINE: AIR DISASTER
Two minutes later, I was standing on the roof of the Benway, scratching my head and looking up into a clear, blue sky that was empty of everything but a few fleecy clouds. There was nothing up there that even remotely resembled a dirigible.
But there were several columns of dense, oily smoke rising toward the sky from various spots in the downtown area, accompanied by the anguished cries of a distressed citizenry. I could hear several sirens, large and small, coming from every direction.
I opened up my senses and let them probe the world around me. Almost immediately, I picked up some unusual vibrations. They seemed to be coming from several distinct sources, very similar to each other, but not quite the same. The pitch varied subtly from one source to the next. I was able to isolate six different sources of the vibrations. They were mechanical, most likely produced by large and powerful engines of some sort. And they were coming from above.
There was something up there, alright. Several somethings, in fact, and they were large and invisible-- much like whatever it was that had treated my expensive and lovingly-tended decor so brutally and made off with Anonymoushka.
J. Alfred Prufrock stuck his head out of the doorway in the side of the roof cupola. "Is everything alright?"
"Proofy, my lad," I said, ignoring his idiotic query, "please nip back downstairs and fetch me the item in locker 221."
His eyebrows went up. "You mean the..." His voice trailed off.
"Yes," I said firmly. "I mean the. Quickly, now, before my opportunity vanishes. Time to eat the peach, old boy! And be careful with it! We don't need any more holes in our walls."
He darted back down the rabbit hole, reappearing four minutes later, accompanied by Gregor Samsa. Strapped to the giant insect's broad, chitinous back was a curious-looking contraption-- a metal tube, approximately four feet long, fitted with hand grips and a trigger assembly.
Here was a very interesting little toy I had in my possession (never mind how it got there), a device developed by Dr. Robert H. Goddard for the army during the First World War. He called it a Rocket-Powered Recoilless Weapon-- a precursor to the modern bazooka. I had made a few modifications of my own on Goddard's original design-- which, now that I think of it, arguably makes me one of the world's earliest rocket scientists.
The thing was loaded and ready for action. I loosened the straps and hefted it up onto my shoulder. It had a complex sighting apparatus affixed to the upper side, which would be useless right now.
I closed my eyes and focused my other senses on the vibrations. One of the six sources had broken off from the others, and seemed to be headed out over Zenith Bay. Perfect! Blindly, I aimed the bazooka in that direction and fired. Opening my eyes, I watched the projectile streak across the last few city blocks and on out over the open water of the Bay, and started a silent countdown. Six... five... four... three...
That's the best I can do in the way of onomatopoeia. It didn't actually sound like that at all, but you get the point, I'm sure. I had scored a very palpable hit, and was rewarded with a spectacular explosion. I had been two seconds off in my calculations, but the invisible dirigible-- which had just become spectacularly visible-- was still far enough out that there were no inconvenient bystanders dawdling around beneath the explosion to be buried under flaming junk.
And there was plenty of it. I saw the actual explosion first, then large chunks of burning debris became visible. Whatever was making the airship invisible had just been vaporized. Among the falling wreckage-- twisted, flaming bits of metal and canvas-- were some thirty or forty flailing figures. Oh, the humanity! It was possible that some of them would survive the plunge into the Bay. It was probable that none of them would.
I hoped Anonymoushka was not among them. There was no genuine enmity between us. She had only been obeying the dictates of whatever the hell it was that dictated to her. She was an intriguing individual, and she made me look normal, which I could appreciate, as I occasionally fell prey to doubts about my own sanity. And, of course, she had seemed to know things I very much wanted to learn. The world and I would be poorer for her absence, it seemed to me.
"Get back to the phone," I said to Prufrock, "and ring Stanley again. Tell him I got one, and he should send the Harbor Patrol out to have a look. If he asks any questions, tell him you don't know anything."
"I don't know anything, sir."
"Then you won't have to prevaricate. Tell Stanley I'm on it, and I'll give him a full report after I've done some more fact-finding."
Proofy nodded and scurried back into the building. I closed my eyes and turned around in a circle, stretching my senses to pinpoint the rest of the dirigible fleet.
Sadly, the other airships had moved inland, and I didn't dare shoot them down. But, under the circumstances, one out of six was pretty good. It would give somebody something to think about. I set the bazooka down.
"What will you do now?" Gregor asked. I still found it somewhat disconcerting to hear human language coming out of that very inhuman mouth. It wasn't exactly a voice-- rather, it was a multi-layered sequence of clicks and pops that somehow managed to form intelligible words. A native speaker of Czech and German, Gregor had been studying English with a will, and could converse more effectively than most Americans, even those not hampered by having been transformed into enormous insects.
"I don't know," I replied forthrightly. "I can't shoot any more of them down. Civilian casualties are more trouble than they're worth. I'd sure like to know how they make themselves invisible."
"I'm sorry?" Gregor said, cocking his head. "What do you mean, invisible?"
"I mean they can't be seen."
"You don't see them?"
I gave him a look. "You seem to be implying that you do," I said.
Before he could respond to that, a small commotion invaded the roof. Proofy had returned, followed by Stymie, Patience and Prudence. Prufrock and young Master Beard were chattering away, while the girls raked everything around them with their identical steely glares. They were like a couple of tightly compressed metal springs, looking for a reason to break loose. A fierce, implacable energy radiated from them, and I sensed that they were more alert than I had ever been in my life-- ready for absolutely anything. I was surprised to note that each of them held a small pistol; I had never seen them handle firearms before. It just seemed superfluous, somehow.
"What are you doing up here?" I demanded.
"We wanted to see what was going on," said Prufrock. "I thought it would be alright, since the airships are gone."
"We wanted to have a look," Stymie chimed in. "I never saw a dirigible before."
"Nor will you now," I said. "That doesn't mean they're gone, though." I turned back to Gregor and repeated the last remark I'd made to him.
"Certainly," he said. "I suppose my eyes are sensitive to portions of the light spectrum outside the range of human perception." He reared up on his four hindmost legs and waved the two front ones toward the rest of the city, in the direction opposite the Bay.
"There are five of them out there," he said, "moving further inland. Less than half a mile away, I would say. They're spreading out rapidly."
"Five of them, you say?"
"That's right," the bug said, nodding his sleek little head. "And, of course, the much smaller one right above us. I didn't know if it counted or not."
"Well, of course it... WHAT!?!"
"The one right up there." He pointed a feeler at a spot almost directly over our heads. "You don't see that one, either? It isn't a dirigible. More like a small passenger balloon with a gondola slung underneath."
Looking up, I saw something that was not at all typical. A hand and part of an arm, with nothing else attached to them, apparently hanging in midair some twenty or thirty feet above my head. The hand was holding a metal cylinder. I didn't like the looks of this.
"What in the world is that?" I wondered aloud.
"You see the arm?" Gregor said. "It must be outside of whatever is making the rest of the thing invisible to you."
"What is it holding?" I said.
"Things being what they usually are around here," said Prufrock, "that metal thing is probably some kind of compact infernal device. Explosive, I shouldn't wonder."
"We can't know that," I replied, "but it's probably safe to assume we should... Everybody get back downstairs!"
My sudden sense of urgency was inspired by the fact that the disembodied arm had twitched, and the hand had released the cylinder. It was tumbling end over end and would strike the roof in a matter of seconds. Glancing at my companions, who were too confused to carry out my command, I knew there was no way they would ever get off the roof in time. Patience and Prudence seemed unperturbed, but even they could not circumvent the laws of physics. Probably. As far as I knew.
Displaying remarkable presence of mind, not to mention the selfless valor that is my hallmark, I ran toward the edge of the roof-- a section where the safety railing had collapsed, probably when the wall below it had been knocked out-- watching the object's descent and making a few quick calculations. When the trajectories converged, I jumped up and snatched the thing out of the air.
Now came the tricky part. I was moving forward at a pretty good clip, and would run out of roof before I ran out of momentum. So I did the only thing that hidebound old bore Sir Isaac Newton would permit me to do.
I plunged right over the edge.
The closest piece of solid ground was 71 stories below me, and it was rushing up to say hello. I had no clever gadget on my person designed with such a situation in mind. I pride myself on my extraordinary preparedness, but I mean, really...
It wasn't tricky at all, I reflected. It was quite simple. The Black Centipede was going to end his days as a grease spot on the pavement. That is, of course, if the bomb didn't go off before he got there.
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