Drummond could see far too much from his vantage in the basket of the hot-air balloon. His car and the secondhand trailer hitched to it looked like toys 40 meters below him. Even so, they looked as bone-breakingly hard as the bedrock. He saw the deadly boulders posing as pebbles all across the desertscape. The real fear, though, came from seeing too much of the wicker basket’s inner sides. The whole basket tilted 45 degrees with the horizon, and Drummond had to press his back against the floor which practically served as a wall. He trembled every time he let go of the tied-down flagpole spanning the basket’s upper rim. Most of the pole’s length extended from the handrail like an arm reaching out to the sky. On the flag end, the satellite dish weighed everything down even more. The dish still pointed mostly upward, though, and the rope bundles kept it secure despite adding another 20 pounds.
Another rope tethered the handrail to the rear bumper of his car. Drummond watched the one square knot squeeze itself tighter under the tension from the wind. The mold-spotted instruction manual had told him how to make proper knots, but it also told him to essentially never go hot-air ballooning. Sadly, the beam from space wouldn’t wait for Edenlike conditions.
Drummond smelled of car upholstery and filth in general. The wind, it seemed, detoured around him to keep the stench from blowing away. In his rush to prepare, he had forgotten to buy a pocketknife on his final drive to town (and possibly his final drive anywhere). He brought a few disposable razor blades in his pocket, however, and he shakily took out one of them. He reached up and slashed the tether at the precise second his high-school physics calculations dictated. The rope snapped when only half cut, and the balloon shot eastward. It soared mostly straight up, peaking at 400 meters. Drummond didn’t dare move to look, but he heard the rope slam onto his car’s windshield, breaking it. The red balloon drifted east like a giant, escaped clown nose.
His laptop would have flung around the basket, maybe even slipping right over the tilted side, if he hadn’t duct taped it to the floor. The jolt from the rope cutting tore the tape off from one corner. Gazing up, Drummond’s eyes stung from the brightness of the cherry-red nylon, the flame from the burner, and worst of all, the four o’clock sun. If the ’Goyle tyrant had chosen a sanctum further north, the balloon could have set course in the cool bliss of nighttime. As the fate of both planets would have it, the dish apparatus would only get one chance for a snapshot of the worship zone—and it had to happen at 4:08. The century’s last glimpse of the ’Goyles would come at a cost of petty jail time, for the day-shift guard liked to pace and look outside. Each day he made shadows cross the observatory’s one window. Even Drummond liked to break away from the monitors to look at the sky.
The hot-air balloon flew directly over the little observatory. Both the wind’s direction and velocity today had agreed with the weather forecast, yet Drummond felt no relief. He could barley move through his fear. He merely turned his head and saw the speck of his car and trailer which he had so carefully positioned a day ago. What did the odds of intercepting the beam matter compared to the greater odds of dying?
All his senses attacked him. He felt the busyness of caffeine and adrenaline running their laps through his body. The cold seemed to freeze his bony fingers to the flagpole. He smelled a freshness and dryness, a forbidden simplicity in the desert wind. He couldn’t tell if it came from the heightened air or his heightened senses, a last desperate grab at life before death. Even the wind felt amplified. It chilled his suit jacket and shirt and went right through to his heart. The wind slapped his face since it couldn’t quite flick him out of the basket. The burner overhead bellowed out a fireball which fought upward through the mouth of the balloon’s skirt. None of the heat or fumes reached Drummond to warm him while he huddled by the propane cylinders.
He checked the dipping flagpole. The dish cables which spiraled around it rattled in the wind but held. They plugged into four different adapters duct taped to the basket floor. Drummond’s eyes could only jiggle until they settled on the ripples in the red balloon. The nylon caved and flapped on the whims of the atmosphere. He pictured the da Vinci poster, which he had left on the observatory wall, rippling in the wind too. The guard—surely by now—would have left the door open to gaze up. He would see a contraption far dumber than any failed flying machines da Vinci had ever doodled.
Only one view from the basket gave Drummond any comfort at all: the GPS readouts on his laptop. He still had a chance, a wild grasp at data from the beam just eight meters ahead of the dish. In seconds, the wind would sail his balloon right through the beam itself.
He rose into a half crouch, still gripping the flagpole like a terrified monkey. He slammed his crumpled body repeatedly onto the pole, rocking the basket. The dish end barely swayed, but he did lever it slightly toward the center of the beam’s four-meter diameter. Staring at the readouts for guidance, he heard four rifle blasts below him.
The warning shots came from the sheriff’s department or possibly from an overambitious security guard. Drummond kept his head up and in the wind anyway. He couldn’t look down anymore without reeling. The bullets could kill his balloon, kill him even better, but they could never get close to the stars. The ’Goyles would live on no matter what happened, far above the squabbles on Earth.
According to GPS, part of the balloon passed through the beam, but the smaller basket had missed. Drummond ducked and checked his laptop. The data coming in suggested that the dish had swung and pierced the beam like a ridiculous lance. The ramshackle equipment could never match Mathias’s, but the world didn’t need alien life in high definition. Billions worldwide would devour the grainy mess he had snatched from the heavens.
Drummond’s fingers stopped shaking as though the wind had frozen them stiff. He channeled each tremble downward, delivering the keystrokes the world so needed. More gunfire ripped through the air around him while a full second of staticky video played on his laptop. It ran just long enough, even with its missing frames, to show one beat of the ’Goyles’ wings. A circle of them knelt, barely fitting in the borders of the screen. In the center of their innermost ring, a massively pregnant ’Goyle lay supine on an octagonal bed of sand.
Her abdomen swelled, as did her hips. The womb must have held over a dozen fetuses, more if they came out smaller than humans. Her taller build defied every other ’Goyle form caught from the cosmos and studied. Her thicker legs lay crossed, as though comfortable. Although the grainy image made her look even more like a mythical creature of stone, the static couldn’t hide the softness of her skin. The endless circles of males fanned her, blowing the harsh world’s heat off her body.
The numbers shot into Drummond’s eyes again, his altitude in particular. The balloon dropped fast. He broke his trance and looked up at the rippling red envelope. It sunk in where the bullets had torn through. He hunched over his laptop like the most dutiful ’Goyle onscreen. He quickly uploaded the footage to three different video-sharing websites. A one-second clip didn’t take long to process. His username, Galactic Stalker, would attract no real attention for a while. In time, however, Earth and all her pupils would notice.
Despite some muffled yelling through a bullhorn far below, Drummond reached up and pulled the trigger on the blast valve. He hanged off it with all of his 136 pounds. The balloon climbed somehow higher until the flame died out. Most jails probably served coffee with breakfast, and jailhouse coffee beat no coffee at all. If his skull and spine didn’t break in the crash, he could relish the bitter brew with his senses forever heightened.
Mainly, though, he needed the height. He needed the most damaging drop possible. Drummond released the trigger and tore the laptop free from its wires and duct tape. Mathias would wrest it from the police, of course, and Hefferman would get a new contract just to search through its files. But Hefferman didn’t deserve such fun. At 440 meters, the balloon started to plummet again. With too little time to delete the hard drive and with fingers too cold to break it, Drummond threw the laptop over the side. It shattered on the bedrock below.
A short time later, so did the basket.