Consider a journey of eight miles. One could walk it in less than an afternoon, in a carriage it would take an hour, or one could conquer the distance in one of Stephenson's steam trains in fifteen minutes or less. Set two towers eight miles apart, and a signal may be transmitted by flashing mirrors in less time than modern science is able to measure. Eight miles is not all that it used to be, yet seek to travel eight miles straight up and you come to a frontier more remote than the peaks of Tibet's mountains or the depths of Africa's jungles. It is a frontier that can kill.
My journey of eight miles began in London, in the spring of 1840. At that time I was the owner and operator of a hot air balloon. It was reliable, robust and easy to fly, and I provided flights to amuse the jaded and idle rich. It was a fickle income, but when I had clients, they paid well for novelty.
Lord Cedric Gainsley was certainly rich, and when his card arrived I assumed that he wished to hire my balloon to impress some friends with a flight above London. I kept it packed aboard a waggon to launch from wherever the clients wished. Its open wicker car could carry six adults, indeed the idea of six people of mixed sexes packed in close proximity seemed to add to the allure of a balloon flight.
My first moments in Gainsley's London rooms told me that he was no ordinary client. The walls of the parlour were decorated by maps alternating with sketches of mountain peaks and ruins. The butler showed me into a drawing room completely lined with books. This was nothing unusual, for many gentlemen bought identical collections of worthy books to display to visitors. At that time it was also fashionable to collect, so Gainsley collected. In and on display cases were preserved insects, fossil shells, mineral crystals, old astronomical instruments, clocks dating back to the Fourteenth Century, lamps from the Roman Empire, and coins from ancient Greece. Seven species of fox were represented by stuffed specimens.
As I began to look through Gainsley's library, however, I realised that many books had been heavily used, to the point of being grubby. They were mainly concerned with the natural sciences.
"Does geology interest you?"
I turned to see a tall man of perhaps forty handing a top hat to the butler. He wore a black tail coat with a fashionably narrow waist, but was just slightly unkempt. A rich man who did not want to draw attention to himself might look that way.
"Geology - you mean the books?"
"Yes, they made me rich. I learned to tell when minerals were present, in places where other men saw only wilderness."
The butler cleared his throat.
"Lord Cedric Gainsley, may I introduce Mister Harold Parkes," he improvised, not entirely sure of the protocol when the baron had opened the conversation first.
"Thank you Stuart. Now have Miss Angelica ready and waiting for my summons."
"Very good, my lord."
Once we were alone, Gainsley waved at a crystal brandy decanter and told me to make myself at home. He paced before the fireplace as I poured myself a glass, and showed no interest in a drink for himself. I took a sip. It was very good, far better than I was used to.
"How high may your balloon ascend, Mister Parkes?" he asked.
"I take pleasure seekers a mile above London," I began. "My rates -"
"Your rates are not a problem for me. Could you ascend, say, two miles?"
"At two miles the air is thin and cold, sir. Besides, the view of London is not as good as from a lower altitude."
"Two miles, and hold that height for six hours."
I blinked again. Pleasure flights seldom lasted more than one hour. People got bored. More to the point, the balloon needed to carry fuel for its burner to maintain the supply of hot air. That was a constraint.
"I must ask some questions, sir. How many passengers, what weight will they total, and what weight of food and drink will they carry? You see, to stay aloft for so long, the balloon must carry some fuel to keep the air heated. With the weight of fuel for six hours, I may not even be able to get off the ground."
"Yourself, myself, a young woman of one hundred and forty pounds, and food and drink not exceeding ten pounds. Nothing more."
"Then it is possible, but not certain."
"Nothing in ballooning is certain. Above us is a dangerous and unforgiving frontier."
Gainsley thought about this for a time.
"You are a man of science, Mr Parkes, like me. You invented the mercury ascent barometer, and you calibrated it to five miles."
"With the help of Green and Rush, yes. They took it on their record breaking flight some months ago."
"Yet you are in difficult circumstances."
"There is not big market for ascent barometers. Many of my other inventions turned out to be impractical, but proving them impractical nearly bankrupted me. Pleasure flights are not my preferred career, but they are lifting me out of debt."
I had once had visions of becoming the George Stephenson of the skies by inventing the airborne train, and I spent all my money installing a purpose-built Cornish steam engine with small windmill blades beneath a hot air balloon. Alas, although it did drive the balloon in any direction on a calm day, in wind it was useless. As I found out, a balloon is effectively a huge sail, and the wind was more than a match for any steam engine small enough to be carried aloft.
"Mr Parkes, my flights are to be no pleasure jaunt, and I need an innovative balloonist, one who can solve technical problems as they arise," Gainsley now explained. "I intend to study the effects of extreme altitude on a very special person. I will pay you fifty pounds for each ascent, and I shall also pay for the fuel to inflate your balloon with hot air. My condition is that you work for nobody else while in my hire, and that you exercise absolute discretion regarding the flights and the nature of my research."
His rates were certainly better than I was currently making from pleasure flights, in fact as a business proposition it was too good to be true. Once I had agreed, he pulled at a red velvet tassel that hung beside the fireplace. The butler appeared within moments.
"Stuart, fetch Miss Angelica now."
Angelica was a young woman a little below average height, with a delicate, angular face. She was wearing a dark blue woollen cloak and close fitting bonnet, but I could see nothing more of her attire. There was something odd about her eyes. They were listless, almost lacking in life.
"Miss Angelica has been in my service for some months," said Gainsley. "I named her Angelica because she comes from very high altitudes."
"A fallen angel?"
"Quite so, it is my little joke. Now then, put your glass down, make sure you are seated comfortably, and prepare yourself for a shock."
Gainsley unpinned her cloak and let it fall to the floor. Such were my expectations that it took some moments to realise that she was neither clothed nor naked. Angelica was covered in fine, dark brown fur, except for her face. She had three pairs of breasts, each no larger than that of a girl in early pubescence. Her chest was surprisingly broad and deep, however, and I would estimate that her lung capacity was greater than mine. Her ears were pointed, in the manner of a fox. I sat staring for some time.
"Well?" asked Gainsley.
The young woman showed no sign of shame, which was a very strong clue. She was probably used to being on display.
"I have seen the like before," I replied uneasily.
"At fairgrounds, in the novelty tents. Women with beards, boys with six and seven fingers, I have even seen a child with two heads. By some accident of birth the human template was not applied to them correctly by nature. For this young lady, it is the same."
"You are wrong," said Gainsley. "She is a werefox, for the lack of a better word. She speaks no language, sleeps on the floor, and is not familiar with clothing."
I managed not to make a reply, which is just as well because it would surely have been sarcastic.
"You clearly do not share my opinion?" he prompted.
"Indeed not sir."
"Then how would you account for her condition?"
"A feral child, abandoned by her parents. She was born covered in fur, so they cast her out. Perhaps wild beasts raised her."
"I thought that too, at first. I did indeed find her in a fairground. Her manager said she had been bought from a dealer, who also sold dancing bears. When she was captured in India's northern mountains she had been more active and entertaining, she could even do little tricks. At low altitudes she became very lethargic, however, and was only of value as a passive curiosity. It was not until some days later that I realised the truth. I returned to the fair and bought her."
"And what is that truth?"
"The girl is adapted to very great altitudes. At sea level the richness of the air overwhelms her, much as a diet of that brandy would overwhelm either of us. I believe there is a whole race of humans who live on the highest of mountains, adapted to the thin air."
The idea was fantastic. I looked back to the girl. Her lungs were certainly large in proportion to her body, and the fur would have protected her from the cold.
"I am not sure what role you have planned for me," I said at last. "I know nothing of mountaineering."
"Ah, but your balloon will be a substitute for the mountains. A trip to India would take years, but my business interests do not allow me to leave England for more than days. Your balloon can take us two miles high in ... how long?"
"Twenty minutes, perhaps thirty. It depends on the load."
"Splendid. We can do the flight above my estate, north of London, and be down in time for dinner. At two miles I can observe how Angelica reacts to thin air and cold. If it restores her senses, I might even be able to speak with her, to question her about her people."
Gainsley helped Angelica back into her cloak, then rang for the butler to escort her away. Once we were alone again he walked over to the window and gestured to the crowded street outside.
"Look upon my prosperous neighbours, Mister Parkes," he said. "Merchants, bankers, financiers, landed gentry. What do they do, other than grow rich and live well?"
"Visit the theatre, attend the races, go to balls?" I guessed. "Some take balloon rides above the races, that is all the fashion just now."
"Theatre, balls, races," Gainsley muttered, shaking his head. "Within a year of their deaths such people are all but forgotten. I want to be like Isaac Newton, James Cook or Joseph Banks, I want to be remembered for discovering something stupendous. Miss Angelica will make my name."
"You have lost me, sir."
"I have a theory, Mr Parkes. In my theory of adaptive morphology I assert that humans take other physical forms under extremes. For example in polar regions they may become seals if they dwell there too long."
"The silkie legend of the Scots: people turning into seals."
"Yes, and I think that extreme altitudes might render us into a form like that of Angelica."
Gainsley's estate was not far to the north of London, and he sent his draught horses to draw my transport waggon there. Kelly and Feldman were my tending crew, and they spent most of the night setting the frame, and unpacking and checking the balloon itself. I was up two hours before dawn, adjusting my altitude barometer and installing it in the wicker car.
Inflating a balloon on the ground is not a problem. One has unlimited fuel to supply the hot air, and to keep that hot air maintained. Once aloft, it is a different matter. The little furnace in the wicker car is fuelled by lamp oil that the balloon must carry, so this oil must be used sparingly. It was the work of a half hour to inflate the bag sufficiently that it stood up by itself, then I sent word to the manor house that we were ready to ascend. Gainsley emerged with Angelica, leading her by a chain attached around her waist. She was dressed in the manner of a boy.
We rose very rapidly, drifting right over the roof of the manor house. The wind was southerly and very light, and the sky was clear. At first Gainsley made a big show of looking over the side and exclaiming at the sight of his estate, far below. He almost seemed to forget why we were there, and chattered about ascending with an artist next time, to have his lands painted from above. I had the barometer calibrated to display altitude in quarters of miles. At a mile and a half Gainsley suddenly remembered why he had paid for the ascent.
"A mile and one half, almost eight thousand feet," he said, peering at my barometer.
"We are ascending slowly, at about five miles per hour," I reported.
"Six minutes from the prescribed height," he replied. "Angelica was apparently found at eleven thousand feet. Can you hold that altitude?"
"That I can, sir. Bleeding a little hot air from the balloon will reduce our buoyancy and stabilise our height."
I released some hot air, and we continued to ascend but at a much slower rate. According to my barometer, we settled at twelve thousand feet. By my estimate we were drifting north north east at three miles per hour. The direction of the wind was different up here.
It was at this altitude that the visions began. Actually the term visions does not do them justice, they were more like memories that were not mine being implanted in my mind. I seemed to have walked beside canals built across deserts of red sand beneath an unnaturally dark blue sky with a pale and tiny sun. In the distance I could see a city, but it was more of a metropolis of immense crystals of saltpetre, feldspar and quartzite than like London.
I had paid Angelica no attention until now, being occupied with tending the furnace, checking the barometer, and monitoring the direction and progress of our drift relative to the ground. It was Gainsley who took me by the arm and pointed to her. Angelica had begun the ascent sitting on the floor of the wicker car, paying no heed to what was going on around her. Now she was on her feet, looking over the edge of the car. As I watched, she turned away and scrutinised my altitude barometer. For a full minute at least she stared at the mercury, then she raised a hand slowly before making a horizontal chopping motion.
"Sign language," said Gainsley. "She is telling us that she understands what is happening. We have been rising, but now we have stopped."
"More than that," I said with a very odd prickle in my skin. "She understands my altitude barometer on first viewing."
In London, at sea level, Angelica had showed not the slightest interest in the machines and furniture that surrounded her. Even the mechanics of doors were beyond her. Now she was able to read a barometer, and that ability was beyond ninety-nine in every hundred of my fellow Britons.
I noticed her eyes. For the first time they were alert, calculating, even intelligent.
"Angelica, can you hear me?" asked Gainsley.
At the sound of her assigned name she turned her head.
"Angelica, speak to me," urged Gainsley. "Speak. Speak English, French, Hindi, anything."
He put a hand to his ear, to signify that he expected an answer. Angelica did not reply.
At the pace of a slow walk we drifted over the countryside. Far below I could see farmhouses and other manors. Gainsley continued to coax and question Angelica. She proved disappointing. He showed her pictures of mountains, foxes and even a sketch of herself. She displayed vague interest, but did not speak.
"How long have we been aloft?" he asked me.
"One hour and thirty minutes."
"And what endurance have we?"
"Very little. The seal of the bag is imperfect, some hole that my crew missed, so hot air slowly leaks out. I balance that by stoking up the furnace and working the bellows, but the air is cold and thin up here, and it is using too much lamp oil."
Gainsley scowled, but did not argue. This was a ship, after a fashion, and I was the captain. He returned to his questioning of Angelica. The wind swung around and began to blow us back towards London. There was little for me to do, other than feed in hot air every so often to maintain height. I watched as Angelica became even more alert. She examined the magnetic compass, Gainsley's pocket watch, and even the furnace. After studying the last-mentioned for some minutes and watching me at work, she gently pushed me aside, bled in some lamp oil and applied herself to the bellows.
"Astounding," I gasped. "She deduced its operation, merely from watching."
"Very high intelligence," said Gainsley.
"And an understanding of machines."
Now Angelica scrutinised the barometer, where the mercury indicated that we had risen another quarter mile. To my complete astonishment she touched her finger to the new level of mercury.
"She understands the operation of this balloon as well as the altitude barometer," I said. "Very few of my passengers could claim that."
"Up here, in rarefied air, she is transformed," Gainsley observed.
"How can this be?"
"Remember my theory, adaptive morphology? I think she comes from a civilization in very high mountains. Ascending into cool, thin air frees her mind from the effects of the sludge that we breathe."
Finally I declared that we would have to descend. By then Angelica had not spoken a single word, but she had demonstrated awesome intelligence. My balloon was one of the most advanced vehicles of the time, yet she understood its workings and instruments.
"Only four hours of exposure to the thin air, yet her brain cleared," said Gainsley in triumph.
"She did not speak."
"Yet she understood the balloon's workings."
"Her werefox race must have its own language," I suggested.
It was at this point, just as we began our descent, that Angelica began tapping at the altitude barometer and making upwards movements with her other hand. The part of the scale that she was indicating was for eight miles. This part of the scale was where I had marked uncalibrated altitude projections. She looked to me, her eyes alive and full of pleading. I held up the empty lamp oil barrel and shook my head. She seemed to comprehend, for she now sat quietly on the car's wicker floor and closed her eyes, resigned to the oblivion of sea level.
Using the varying directions of the wind at different altitudes, I managed to steer us back over Gainsley's estate, then bring us to earth just a mile from where we had ascended. Kelly and Feldman presently arrived with the waggon, then Gainsley's groom brought a light carriage. He was quick to get Angelica into the carriage and away from sight, but with this done he returned to speak with me as I helped my men pack the balloon away.
"How high may we ascend?" he asked, "and how long may we stay there?"
"Hot air has its limitations," I explained. "My balloon must carry its own fuel. Going higher means using more fuel. Using more fuel means less is left over to sustain the hot air and maintain our height."
"Could you build a balloon to reach eight miles?"
I almost choked on my own gasp. The question was akin to asking whether a new type of gun could shoot a duck even more dead than dead.
"There is no point," I replied. "Above five miles the air is so rarefied that one may not breathe."
"But could you build a balloon to do it?"
"Using hydrogen, yes, but to what end? It would be our dead bodies that achieve the feat."
"Then how high may we go?"
"I think you mean how high in safety. Four miles is my answer."
"Remember, the air thins as we ascend. I have ascended three and one half miles. It was distressing, but endurable. My lips and those of my companion turned blue, and fatigue set in very quickly. Four miles is double what we achieved today."
"Have others gone higher?"
"Yes. Some months ago the aeronauts Charles Green and Spencer Rush reached five miles. They found it near to impossible to breathe, however, and consider themselves lucky to have survived."
"Five miles. The height is comparable to the highest of mountains to the north of India."
"So I have read."
"So we too could do it?"
"Yes, but it would be appallingly dangerous."
"I fought Napoleon, just a quarter century ago. How can this be more dangerous than trading volleys with his soldiers?"
"Death is death, whatever the cause. Why ascend five miles in search of it?"
"Because at four or five miles we may well clear Angelica's mind to a greater degree. She may even be able to speak. Begin planning for another hot air flight tomorrow, but also draw up plans for a balloon filled with hydrogen."
"Do you realise that hydrogen is even more volatile than gunpowder?"
"Of course, Mr Parkes, I am a man of science. Send the bills for whatever you need to me.
"So am I to be kept in your employment?" I asked.
"Yes, yes, board and lodging for you and your men, plus double our agreed rates for the flights because of the increased danger."
That night I dreamed, and my dreams were lurid. My mind was filled with visions of vast, gleaming things that glided through blackness, and blossoms of fire that became twinkling clouds of glitter. I awoke, not so much distraught as puzzled. The dreams had become part of my memory. What was more confusing was that I had other memories that were not part of the dreams. There were splendid cities full of graceful crystalline towers and wide promenades, yet all of them were strewn with dead creatures. At first I thought that the bodies were of vermin, but many of them were wearing straps and belts, gold braid, ceremonial swords and even helmets. Perhaps they had built the cities, these creatures that wore no clothes but fur. They closely resembled Angelica.
We made another dozen hot air ascents while the hydrogen bag was being fabricated. We did not manage much more in communicating with Angelica, but the visions continued to pour into my head every time we ascended. I said nothing, because practical men are not meant to have visions and I wanted to keep Gainsley's trust. Would you travel on a ship whose captain said that he could see water sprites, mermaids and harpies? I can only compare my visions to leafing through randomly chosen books in a library. I saw nothing of the whole picture, just snatches of fragments.
A gas works at the edge of London provided the hydrogen, which saved the cost of buying a hydrogen reactor, and chemicals to fuel it. The first hydrogen flight saw us ascend from the city in the half-light before dawn. We remained at four miles for only a quarter hour, because Gainsley quickly weakened, then lost consciousness. I descended rapidly, and when he revived he confessed that his lungs had been weakened by some childhood disease. On the other hand Angelica had been vastly improved by even the brief exposure to the thin air, and had even scrawled some characters and diagrams on a notepad. Alas, we could make no sense of them.
On the way down I had a number of ideas. Gainsley had been complaining about his lungs preventing him from staying at four miles. I offered to take Angelica to five miles without him and report what she did, but he would not hear of it. Whatever she did, he wanted to be there to see it.
"If only I could make the ascent myself," he sighed.
"Impossible. Even at four miles we are on borrowed time. You especially."
"Green and Rush did it."
"Only briefly. They were on borrowed time too."
"Yet they lived."
"They lived because they descended in haste. People must acclimatise slowly to very high altitudes. Mountaineers I have spoken to say that it takes weeks."
"Find a way. Two hundred pounds, and I will pay for whatever you need."
"Two hundred pounds, you say?"
"I do pledge that."
"Then there may be a way. I have been reading about the nature of air, my lord. You may have heard of the experiments with glass jars and candles. Burn a candle in one, and it will go out when the oxygen is exhausted. Introduce a mouse to that depleted air, and it soon suffocates."
"Suffocation interests me, being a balloonist. I performed this experiment, then I piped some pure oxygen into that depleted air. The mouse revived."
Gainsley thought about this for some time, smiling and nodding every so often.
"How heavy is the mechanism for supplying oxygen?" he asked at last.
"I need a bigger reactor to supply enough oxygen for humans, but it need not be very heavy. Just a tank, some pipes, spigots, and a sealable chute."
"Then build it, build it! I shall pay for the materials and labour."
"And the two hundred pound bounty?"
"It is yours."
The problem of staying alive at extreme altitudes occupied my mind a great deal in the days that followed. Oxygen is the essential ingredient of air that gives us life, yet it occupies only one part in five of air's volume. Provide air that is five parts in five oxygen, and one might well survive in much thinner air. I paid a visit to Darkington and Sons, Pneumatic Systems and Valves of Sheffield. Jeremy Darkington was about Gainsley's age, but he was dressed as a tradesman and spoke with a hybrid Yorkshire-Cockney accent. He was a skilled metalworker who had made good by supplying valves for steam trains.
While he sat behind his desk, I unpacked my chemicals. I uncorked a bottle and poured a little solution into a glass, then opened a jar of dark purple crystals. I dropped one into the glass, where it began to bubble with great vigour.
"Permanganate of potash added to peroxide of hydrogen will release oxygen," I explained as we watched the reaction turn the liquid to a greenish purple froth.
"I know t'reaction," he replied.
I now laid out drawings before him.
"I wish to have a reactor built. Peroxide will be fed in here, potash here. Oxygen will be released into this pipe as they react, and when they are spent, the solution will be vented through this tap before fresh materials are introduced to give off more oxygen."
He examined the drawings, scratching his head from time to time, but generally nodding. At last he looked up.
"Can be built, but what end for it? There's oxygen all about."
"I have an application that calls for pure oxygen. An industrial application."
"How much to build it, and how long?"
"Summat busy for present ... thirty pounds. Just now there's batches of valves for Mister Stevenson's new engine fleet ... a fortnight?"
"Done! Put my contract on your books."
My reactor looked viable in principle, but the only way to test it was by means of a flight. That was risky. Still, it was worth the risk.
My father had two sayings that I lived by. Luck is opportunity recognised, was sensible enough, except that opportunity generally eluded me. That which is too good to be true is never true, was a little less positive, yet it had kept me out of trouble on many occasions. Gainsley and his schemes seemed too good to be true, yet he paid generously enough.
I was returning from Sheffield, and was within ten miles of Gainsley's manor house when a rain storm swept over the countryside. Because it was late in the afternoon, I decided to spend the night at a small inn on the edge of a hamlet. I was dining on a pork pie when a bearded man approached me. He was dressed as an itinerant labourer, but that illusion vanished as soon as he began to speak.
"So, you are Gainsley's latest balloonist," he said in a soft, almost conspiratorial voice with a French accent.
"I do not know you, sir," I responded warily.
"My name is Norvin, and I know you to be Harold Parkes."
Clearly he had something serious to discuss. I gestured to a chair.
"You said I was Lord Gainsley's latest balloonist, yet the baron never flew before I took him aloft."
"He has had four balloonists. Routley, he died in a mysterious duel in 1831. Sanderson died of food poisoning, two years later. Elders fell from the carriage of a train in1837, and was found beside the tracks with his neck broken. I would wager my last pound that it was broken before he fell."
I felt a stab of alarm, but the stranger showed not a trace of hostility.
"You said four balloonists," I prompted.
"I was on a fishing boat, supposedly being taken back to France. One mile out to sea, I was padlocked to a length of iron rail and heaved over the side."
"Yet here you are, alive."
"When on hard times I supplemented my income by liberating goods guarded by padlocks. Thus my pickwire is always upon my person. It was a near thing, picking a lock in darkness, under water."
I was aware that those balloonists he had named had died, for we are a small fraternity. Now I speculated.
"The balloonist Edward Norvin was French, and a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars. He vanished in 1836."
"So I did, Monsieur Parkes. The seventeenth day of July at one hour before midnight. One does not forget days like that in a hurry. I grew a beard and developed a new identity."
"Can you prove that Gainsley was involved?"
"Can you prove that Gainsley and yourself have had any business dealings?" he asked in turn.
I raised my finger and opened my mouth to reply ... but said nothing. All of our dealings had been in cash. My men Kelly and Feldman now lived on the Gainsley estate, as did I. Nobody knew. The colour quite probably drained from my face. Norvin smiled and took a sip from his tankard.
"You are having dreams and visions, Monsieur Parkes," he continued. "The visions begin to tumble through your mind when ascending with Gainsley and Angelica. They begin at about ten thousand feet, the altitude at which the fox woman's mind becomes more clear. It is as if she were emerging from a drunken stupor, raving randomly."
"But she has never said a thing."
"She is not like us. She speaks with her mind, her words are images of thoughts. I would say that you have said nothing of this to Gainsley as yet."
"You are still alive."
I did not want to hear any of this, yet it seemed true.
"I saw landscapes that were all red and green under a violet sky," Norvin continued. "There were cities of silver crystal, their streets strewn with bodies although the buildings were intact. It looked like a scene of plague. My perspective was odd. It was as if I were being dragged about, being made to look at the bodies. The only moving figures were wearing helmets and coveralls that resembled a Siebe diving suit - except that the helmets were made of glass and had no air hoses."
Now I began to feel really frightened. Norvin was describing precisely what I had seen, both in the ascent visions and in my dreams. I decided to be honest, in order to gain his trust.
"I have also had dreams filled with vast, gleaming things that floated in blackness against constellations of unfamiliar stars," I confessed.
Norvin nodded. "I have had similar dreams and visions. Tell me more."
"I - I cannot describe the gleaming things because they are like nothing in my experience, yet they moved with the stateliness of huge ships. They blossomed into white fire that yellowed, then became twinkling, gleaming clouds of fragments."
"Warships of the air, perhaps, fighting at night. I saw great crowds cheering Angelica. There had been a battle. She was a hero. She was their leader."
"A woman as leader? Preposterous."
"Why so? The young Queen Victoria is currently monarch of your vast empire. In the Sixteenth Century Queen Elizabeth ruled you, and she was indeed a warrior queen. In France we had Joan of Arc."
Again we sat in silence. By now I was in a cold sweat, in spite of the fire roaring in the hearth.
"It is my opinion that Angelica came from somewhere very, very high," Norvin speculated. "Perhaps from Tibet, in regions that have never been explored. Regions that cannot be explored, because we cannot breathe there. I have studied maps, such as they exist. I have read accounts by the explorers Celebrooke and Webb. They reported mountains five miles high. I think that our visions are of cities high in those mountains. It is a region the size of France of which we know nothing. What of the bodies in the visions? What is your thought on them?"
"A plague. Angelica fled for her life. Down, out of the cool, pure air. Down into the thick, warm, soporific atmosphere of humans. For her it would have been like lying in a bath of warm whiskey. Her brain is permanently addled by the dense air. Back in the mountains she would be restored, but in my balloon, four miles above this tavern, her mind also begins to clear in the thin air."
"No plague," said Norvin. "I have had four years to think about the content of my visions. Angelica was not fleeing a plague, she was exiled. There was a war. She was their Napoleon, and she lost."
"That is just too fantastic -" I began.
"Gainsley hopes to learn the secrets of her people's weapons and crafts by listening to the babblings of her mind. As her mind clears, she speaks delirious visions in the minds of all those nearby. That is why he employs you. He wants to learn secrets that could change the world. He has sketched machines and weapons that he does not yet understand, and each flight allows him to gather more fragments from her mind. His problem is that he must always have a balloonist with him, because he is prone to faint in thin air. That is why he killed the others. He does not want anyone to accumulate as many of Angelica's visions as he has. You told him nothing about the visions, so perhaps he assumes you have a deafness of the mind."
Now I laughed.
"This is preposterous! What would Napoleon or Wellington know about metalworking, cannon manufacture, flintlock mechanisms, or even weaving cloth for uniforms? It is artisans who know those things, not generals."
"Really? How do you make gunpowder?"
"Why, take sulphur, charcoal and saltpetre, and mix them in proportions suited to the usage. Sixty percent saltpetre ..."
Suddenly I realised what he meant. Some important secrets were very, very simple. Again I shivered in the warmth of the room.
"One single breakthrough can change a world, Monsieur Parkes. Simple ideas, simple enough for even generals and monarchs to understand. Gunpowder can win wars. Invent the bond market, and you can finance wars more easily. Have you ever thought about how accounting changed the world? What about replacing a ship's steering oar with a rudder? All of those things can be comprehended by any idiot - or politician."
"But surely not all of those things lead to war."
"Think again. Suppose you were a governor of some colony, and you were brought word that the local natives were being taught to cast cannons and build warships. What would you do?"
"Why send a fleet of gunboats before any ship was launched."
"Precisely. Angelica's people will not take kindly to us if we catch up with their sciences. They will put us back in our place, make no mistake, and they will destroy our civilization to do it. Good day to you, Monsieur Parkes."
He stood up to go. I stood too.
"Wait! What are you proposing?"
"To you, sir, I am proposing nothing."
"Then why speak with me?"
"Why, Monsieur Parkes? Because when I do what I have to do, I want at least one person to know that I acted out of honour."
I had not told Norvin everything. I was actually the first balloonist in the employ of Gainsley to use an altitude barometer. On no other flight had Angelica been able to point to eight miles on the scale, because my predecessors did not have barometers. Eight miles. Much of the Earth is unexplored, but we do at least know that mountains do not rise to forty two thousand feet. Not on our world, anyway. If Angelica were adapted to such a height, it meant that she had once lived on another world. Mars, perhaps. It was a small planet, so its air might be thin.
I did a lot of research in libraries. Polar caps and seas had been observed on Mars in the mid-Seventeenth Century, and in 1665 the Italian astronomer Cassini had measured its day to be not much different to that of Earth. It was a world like our own, I quickly established as much. Now I turned to the literature of the fantastic. Godwin's The Man in the Moon had been published over two hundred years earlier, introducing us to the idea of travel between worlds, and the great Voltaire made use of the idea in Micromegas. Clearly planets were other worlds, possibly with inhabitants. If a suitable ship could be built ... but perhaps it already had.
For me the conclusion was inescapable: the whole of our planet was Angelica's island of exile, her Elba.
We had been to half of the height that she was adapted to. Her mind had cleared, but not to any great extent. What might she reveal when fully conscious, with a mind as sharp as a newly wrought cavalry sabre? Eight miles. It was a very long way up. The balloon could do it, but I could not. Not without my new oxygen reactor. My oxygen reactor that had only ever been tested at sea level.
Then there was Gainsley. Had Norvin been telling the truth? Had Gainsley killed those other balloonists? Anyway, what to do about Gainsley? Eight miles was double the altitude that was causing him distress. Even with pure oxygen, I would be pushing my own powers of endurance to the very limit. Gainsley had no place on the flight, and I told myself that I was excluding him for his own good. In case he was as dangerous as Norvin had said, I decided to take my father's old Tower flintlock pistol on the next flight.
The day of the next ascent began perfectly. The air was calm, and the balloon stood tall and stately above the gasworks. The first flights had all been from the privacy of Gainsley's estate, and had been in hot air balloons. Our initial flight from the gasworks had been done unannounced, and had taken everyone by surprise. This time we had crowds, and the newspaper people were there. Gainsley announced to the public that he would ascend alone, so Angelica and myself had been hidden in the wicker car during the night. We remained crouched down as the balloon filled and the sky lightened.
The people of northern London seemed determined to make a big occasion of the flight. Gainsley had declared that the ascent was purely scientific, and that he intended to chart the properties of the atmosphere at extreme altitudes. He would measure wind direction, temperature, barometric pressure, humidity, and even the intensity of sunlight. A band began to play, and people cheered. As Gainsley began speaking about the importance of science and progress, I heard two workmen nearby say that the balloon was full, and that the hydrogen lead should be tied off.
Gainsley had had the balloon tied down to the roof of the gasworks. One of his trusted men was ready beside a release lever, and pulling upon this would send us on our way. The rope passed through the base of the wicker car, however, and was secured to the main ring at the base of the gas bag. Unknown to everyone, I had brought a butcher's cleaver aboard.
Three blows severed the rope.
The balloon ascended with the speed of a sprinting man. For some moments the band struck up a triumphant march, but above the music I could hear Gainsley's cries of outrage. A large part of the crowd seemed to think that the launch had gone according to plan, so cheering erupted. I remained crouched down, out of sight. Angelica was as passive as ever.
So far luck was with me, and that had me worried. I preferred to have my bad luck at the beginning of a flight, and the good at the end. I had feared that the outraged and frustrated Gainsley or his men might shoot at me, but the huge crowd of witnesses meant that this was not an option. I monitored my watch, and at thirty minutes I stood. The barometer indicated that we were at twelve thousand feet and climbing rapidly. Looking down, I saw that we were above the edge of London, but drifting northeast very slowly, out over fields.
We rose through the first four miles in fifty minutes. Angelica began to take an interest in her surroundings again, and to gaze over the side. As expected, visions were flickering in my mind, but this time I paid them little heed. At five miles I activated the oxygen reactor. I had left it rather longer than was probably safe, but its efficiency in thin air was unknown, and I wanted the chemicals to last as long as possible.
We were now at the same height as the mountains at the northern frontier of India. If Angelica was from there, this would be her preferred altitude. As I expected, however, her mind did not clear completely. This was bad tidings for me.
I knew that I would not last long, even with the oxygen. We were at a height that I should have allowed weeks to adapt to. By moving very little I tried to conserve my vitality, but my condition was definitely deteriorating.
There were new visions that were not from my mind. I was at a balcony, and thousands were cheering. All around me stood werefox people, wearing no clothing, but decorated with gold braid, studded straps, ceremonial swords, and belts that glowed with tiny lights. Some had apparently dyed their fur in green, purple, blue and yellow patterns. Angelica stood next to the barometer, still tapping the scale at the eight mile mark.
Not of this world, that was for certain now. At this height she should have collapsed without the oxygen tube, yet she now looked the most alive and vibrant that I had ever seen her. By rising so high into the atmosphere, we were definitely simulating the air of her own world.
Her images kept flooding into my mind. Angelica was in something like a courtroom, presided over by judges whose fur was dyed black. Many werefoxes gestured and pointed at her. I understood the wordless trial, I cannot say how. Earth's air is thick and laden with oxygen, so she was sentenced to exile on our world. Here there was too much oxygen, too much pressure, too much heat. At sea level she walked in a stupor, aware of who she was but unable to put words together. It was a subtle punishment, like being perpetually, helplessly drunk.
Now another thought reached me. At a certain height, freedom. The barometer indicated that we were in excess of six miles altitude when her random thoughts ceased to flood through my mind. It was a distinct relief, as I was now having trouble operating the oxygen reactor that was keeping me alive. I was again lucky, for the device was functioning precisely as it had been designed. When next I checked the barometer, we had passed seven miles.
It is difficult to convey the sense of serenity seven miles above the English countryside. There were no birds or insects, and even the cloud tops were small, remote things far, far below. Those sounds that I could hear were muted in the thin air, and were no more than the creaking of the wicker car and the bubbling of the permanganate of potash and peroxide of hydrogen. It was very, very cold. Although I was dressed in heavy furs and woollens, riding gloves over dress gloves, and sea boots over all my socks, the chill still passed through everything like needles of ice. Being at that height was like a plunge into an icy lake: I would only survive the cold if I did not stay there for long.
The light was like nothing I had ever seen, and I was aware that I was the first human ever to see the sky from this altitude. Every breath was an effort, in spite of the pure oxygen from the tube in my mouth. Angelica's thoughts began to trickle into my mind again. These were not the random scatter of memories from her mind as it emerged from the fog of sea level breathing, but sharp, precise, focussed thoughts. She was communicating with me. The trickle became a deluge.
My last glance at the barometer was at eight miles. We went higher. How high, I shall never know, but it might have been in the vicinity of forty-five thousand feet. Thoughts flooded into my mind: specifications, philosophy, principles, tolerances, laws, limits, battles, honours, defeats. Angelica now tended the oxygen reactor as I lay on the floor of the car, holding the tube to my mouth. One last jar of peroxide was left when she looked down at my face. A corona of light seemed to blaze around her head, and tendrils of purple discharge crackled around us. I was wondering if the electrical sparks might ignite the hydrogen in the bag above us when there was a flash of the most intense and pure white light imaginable.
I opened my eyes to a sky of deep violet in which a small, pale sun was shining amid thin, scattered clouds. In the distance was a gleaming white crystalline city of spires, columns, buttresses and arches, a city that was a work of art in itself. Before me was a canal lined with stone in which purplish water flowed. It stretched straight, all the way to the horizon from the city. The fields to either side of this canal were filled with low, bushy trees on which yellow fruit grew.
"This is not real," I said aloud.
Angelica materialised beside me.
"Of course not, we are in my mind."
"Then where am I?"
"Beneath a balloon, eight miles above the countryside. If we do not descend in another minute you will die, but minutes can become hours in the mindscape, so do not worry."
"You can talk."
"No, I cannot. I have merely imagined that I can talk. It preserves your sanity."
"Then ... what shall we talk about?"
"People that I can see in your memories of history books and lessons. Napoleon, Wellington, Caesar, Alexander, Hannibal."
"Edward Norvin says you are like Napoleon in exile on Elba. He says you must not be allowed to escape, or you will start new wars and cause unimaginable suffering."
"He did not discuss Hannibal."
"No. Should he have?"
"Were he being fair, yes. Hannibal fought bravely and cleverly for his Carthaginian people against the Roman state. He lost, after a long and devastating war. His defeat was more due to the stupidity of his government than Roman supremacy in the battlefield. He fled into exile. Rome despoiled Carthage and annihilated its people so completely that the entire civilization ceased to exist. Even its fields were poisoned, so that no city could ever be built there again."
"I know the story well."
"So let us go back two millennia."
The landscape dissolved, then we were somewhere on Earth, at night, in a town that reminded me of paintings done in Egypt. I was sitting with an imposing, dynamic looking man, in some sort of outdoor tavern. He looked tired, even haggard, but by no means defeated. He smiled at me and raised an eyebrow.
"Angelica?" I asked.
"Hannibal to you. Look behind me, what do see?"
"A man with two mugs on a tray. He is adding powder to one of them. Poison?"
The assassin came up to us, bowed, gave us our drinks, then hurried away. He had Norvin's face.
"Remember, I am Hannibal," said Angelica. "If you reach across and fling the contents of my mug into the dust, I may live to raise another army of Rome's enemies. This time I may defeat Rome. Think of what would be gained and lost."
I thought. Rome had many accomplishments, but it also had a lot to answer for.
"But Hannibal suicided to avoid capture and humiliation."
"You think so? Victors write the histories. I should know."
"Will it be any better under your rule?" I asked.
"I would like to think so. The Carthaginians were more merchants than conquerors."
The figure of Hannibal began raising the poisoned wine to his lips. Without being entirely sure why I did it, I reached across and struck it from his fingers.
The scene dissolved into a modern workshop. We were standing beside a workbench, upon which an unusual piston assembly had been dismantled.
"Powered by a very ordinary steam engine, this piston and valve system can slowly withdraw air from a chamber the size of a small room. It can reduce the atmospheric pressure to one tenth that at sea level."
"The pressure at eight miles?"
"Yes. I could dwell within it, and have full control of my mind "
"Do you want me to build it?"
"That is the wrong question, Monsieur Parkes. Do you want to build it? I have pleaded my case, now you are my judge. What is my sentence?"
Once more the scene began to dissolve, but this time only blackness followed.
We were at four miles when I revived. Breathing was not easy, but a trickle of oxygen seemed to be still issuing from the reactor. Angelica was back to her old vegetative self, sitting on the floor.
In my haste to plan the abduction of the balloon, I had made no real plans for the return to earth. While still a few yards from the ground I released the rope and grapple. It snared a tree in a windbreak, then the car came to earth gently in what was actually one of my better landings. I helped Angelica from the car, and pausing only to discard my heavy coat and gloves, I hurried her to a nearby stand of trees. We had come down in a field not far from the edge of London, and I estimated that we had travelled no more than fifteen miles laterally. Gainsley and his men would arrive soon, to fetch Angelica back and have me dead. My thought was to hide until a large crowd had assembled, for he would not want to kill me in front of witnesses.
A pair of farm labourers arrived at the balloon after a few minutes. Although fearful of the huge gas bag at first, they soon began striking poses in front of the wicker car. One even put on my heavy fur coat, as if he had been the aeronaut.
It was now that Gainsley arrived, riding hard with his butler, groom, and two other men. My worst fears were justified when he shouted an order and all four of his men produced rifles and fired at the man in my coat. He fell to the ground. His companion raised his hands. It was clear that Gainsley had mistaken the two men for myself and Angelica. He soon realised his error.
"The man and woman, where are they!" he screamed, dismounting and seizing the surviving labourer by the smock while pressing one of those tiny American percussion cap pistols between his eyes.
"Dunno sir," the man answered. "Me an' Fergus, we found the balloon 'ere. We thought we'd guard it until the owner got back."
"My balloon was stolen by the man who owns that coat. Where is he?"
"Dunno sir, the coat was on the grass when we arrived."
The temptation for Gainsley to kill him was probably near to overwhelming, but by now another horseman was approaching. One death could have been a mistake. A second would send Gainsley to the gallows, baron or not. He ordered his men to dismount and reload as the rider drew up.
"Ho there, sir, we are pursuing dangerous criminals who stole this balloon," was as much as Gainsley managed to say before the rider produced a pistol and shot him between the eyes.
It was at this point that I recognised Norvin. Gainsley's four men had not yet managed to reload their Enfield rifles, so they attempted to mob him. They had not realised that he was armed with one of the new pepperbox pistols by Cooper of London. It could fire six shots from six barrels in as many seconds, so at close quarters it made one man as effective as six. Two more men were shot down before one of the others used his rifle butt to club Norvin from the saddle. He fell, but shot a third while lying on his back in the grass. The survivor raised his hands.
"Mercy sir, you'd not shoot an unarmed man would you?" he cried.
"How much mercy did you show me, Monsieur Garrard?" asked Norvin, who then shot him down.
By now the farm labourer had got to his feet and was running for his life. Norvin calmly took a percussion lock rifle from his saddle, aimed with smooth, professional style, and fired. The side of the man's head burst open as a ball seven tenths of an inch across did its work. Even at distance I could see the gleam of tears on Norvin's cheeks. He was a good man, being forced to kill. He was a Frenchman killing a Napoleon for the greater good. He probably thought he was saving the world. Knowing only what he did, which of us would not do the same?
I lay absolutely still. True, I had my father's flintlock, but I am no flash shot, and would have trouble hitting a steam train from the platform. Norvin had killed a man with every shot, and still had one bullet remaining in his six-barrel pistol. Apparently satisfied that he had killed Gainsley and his men, and that Angelica and myself were the dead farm labourers, he mounted and rode away. We remained hidden in amid the trees until more people arrived at the balloon and discovered the massacre. When the authorities arrived I emerged and played the part of a yokel who had come late to the scene, and of course Angelica was quite convincing as a village idiot. It was no great effort for us to slip away and walk back to London.
That was two years ago, and since then I have prospered. I have my own workshop, where a steam engine chugs night and day to maintain the world's only altitude chamber. It is the size of a small room, and within it lives Angelica, in conditions of pressure that can be found at eight miles. Otherwise, it is furnished very comfortably in red and green leather upholstery, Regency furniture, a small library, a desk where she draws diagrams of things for me to build, and a workbench where she builds tiny, intricate metal machines like surreal insects with wings of blue and silver lace. Food and drink passes in through an equalisation chamber. What comes out is mainly diagrams.
I am building a voidcraft. The thing resembles a streamlined steam train with no wheels. It stands on grasshopper-like legs driven by pistons plated in gold. In place of a cabin there is an airtight double chamber with portholes. One side is for Angelica, the other is mine, and they are at very divergent atmospheric pressures. I tell the artisans that help with construction that it is a new type of armoured balloon, and in their ignorance they believe me.
The parts were made at a thousand different workshops in Britain, continental Europe, and even America. It is a beautiful thing, with a body of brass pipes, steel tubes, crystal mechanisms mounted in gaslight enclosures, and rivetted boilers in which nothing boils. Even in its incomplete state, it is awesome in its performance. Last night we rolled back the moveable roof of the workshop, ascended into the night, and looked down upon the gaslit, smoky haze of London in comfort ... from eight miles. How easily the frontier becomes the commonplace. Angelica spoke within my thoughts, asking whether I wished to fly on to the moon, but I was not ready for that. Like lungs acclimatising to the air at great altitudes, my mind needed time to adjust to such wonders.
Currently I am having four quite different engines built to add to our craft. To me they make no sense, but Angelica insists that they will work. The clever and industrious Mr Brunel has contracts to make some of the parts. If only he knew that he was really building boilers to confine matter more black than soot that has no real existence as we know it. The electrical experimenter Faraday is supplying many of our electromagnetic and electrostatic controls, while the jewellers Pennington and Bailey fabricate crystals to almost-conduct electricity, and Harley Brothers Watchmakers build control clockwork that they do not understand.
The voidcraft of rivets and iron plate will be able to travel to the stars, even though my mind cannot comprehend the distances in any more than the most general sense. It will be armed with a tube being built in two sections in the workshops of Glasgow and Sheffield, a tube that will one day enclose a fragment of a star's heart. With it one can vaporise a warship at ten miles using not one thousandth of the power available. Angelica will be the captain, navigator and gunner, yet when she leaves, I will be with her. After all, what engine can work without a humble stoker and oiler?
Norvin was right in a sense. Angelica is a Napoleon from an unimaginably advanced race, and Earth is the Elba where she was exiled. Norvin also feared her, but in this he was mistaken. It is with worlds too distant to comprehend that Angelica has her quarrel. After all, why would a Napoleon want to conquer a little Elba when so much more is within reach?