In retrospect, I wish I’d continued recording, for what I saw in that instant is difficult to describe, even now. Suffice it to say that it had a body like that of a manta ray—upon who’s tail the balloonist had been impaled—or a manta ray combined with a bat, albeit huge, and that it was covered with a kind of camouflage which reminded me of pictures I’d seen of Jupiter—just a roil of purples and pinks and browns. I suppose that was when it first hit me: the possibility that there might be a connection between this thing and the Jupiter 6 probe. That the probe might have brought something back, even if it had just been a sprinkling of microbes on its surface.
And then there was an explosion somewhere above us, the concussion of which rocked our balloon, and we all looked up to see Gas Monkey—my God, it was like the sun!—on fire; and yet that wasn’t all we saw, for as it dropped it became evident that there were more of the bat/manta ray things attached, suckling it as it fell, crawling upon it like flies. Then it passed us like some kind of great meteor—its occupants shrieking and calling out—and was gone below, the heat of it still painting our faces, its awful smell, which was the smell of rotten eggs, filling our nostrils.
And then we were just drifting, all of us crouched low in the basket … and the only sounds were those of Karen sobbing and my own pounding heart.
BY THE TIME KAREN HAD maneuvered us to a hard landing at the edge of the playing field, the first of the sword-tails were already circling the Excelsior—just circling and gliding, as though carefully sniffing the zeppelin out. As for myself, I knew we’d have but seconds before security responded—violently, I was sure—and so was scrambling with t……