Path: physics insights > misc > Felix Resilleserre > The Iemy Papers >

First Pickup

The following is the eleventh installment of the tale which began with Takeoff, and continued with Shopping Trip Parts I. through IV, The Test Flight, and Back To Square 1.  All prior installments should be read before this page, as that may help to render the following events marginally less obscure.

This installment was also very kindly provided to us by Professor Johann Schnarchhund of Miskatonic University.  Johann again assures us that this first person account, narrated by Isis Resillechat, is very much as it was received by his daughter, Taurina.  For additional information please see the Iemy Papers.

Previous Installment: Dreams of Darkness

Star Date 35.41

Hello again, Taurina!

Since I last wrote, I've learned a whole lot about the Russian telephone system.

It was a lot of work, but Mince and I -- and Dad and Nim-nim -- patched our cell phone through Erfout-Eetjney's communications and into the phone network. And then we all sat here in orbit and cooled our heels while Dad spent days making phone calls. I listened for a while, but I don't know much Russian, so it really wasn't exactly gripping. And besides, even if they'd been speaking English, there wouldn't have been much to listen to.

Phone: Ring ... Ring ... Ring ... Hello?

Dad: Hello, I'm trying to reach Boris.

Phone: He's not here, can I take a message?

Dad: Tell him Felix Resilleserre would like to --

Phone: Felix Resilleserre!? No way! Click

For some reason most of Dad's contacts didn't seem to want to talk to him. And the few times he got through to someone, they weren't very helpful:

Dad: I'm looking for some lithium deuteride.

Phone: You're looking for what? HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA! <Click>

But persistence pays, and Dad finally found a source. Later tonight, we're supposed to pick it up, somewhere in the hills of Chechnya.

Star Date 35.75

Mom had us stopped, hovering, about twenty miles up over the rendezvous point. It was an open field, surrounded by trees, with a mountain road leading to it. Mom had a close up view of the field on the screen in front of her. The surrounding territory, including the roads (such as they were), were on various other screens around the bridge.

The whole "bridge crew" was present, including Snidly, who was sleeping on a cushion under one of the control panels. Skritch was standing on her back legs, front feet on the panel in front of her, staring into a screen which showed a section of the road leading to the clearing. She was under strict orders to use none of the weapon systems, no matter what happened -- they take energy, lots of it, and we were very low on fuel.

I'd been told that the plan was to land Erfout Eetjney in the field after the truck with the fuel arrived. At that point, Dad was supposed to exit the ship with the payment, give it to the driver, we'd load up the fuel, and that'd be it.

But it was almost time for the rendezvous, and there was still no sign of the truck.

"It's no good," Dad said, suddenly.

"Why not? What's wrong?" Mom asked, sounding totally surprised.

"Too cheap -- 'way too cheap."

"Cheap? It's practically bankrupting us!"

"And easy -- 'way too easy."

"Easy how? It took a week to set this up!"

"Yes, exactly. Not nearly enough time -- should have taken much longer. And taking a bank check for payment -- that's nuts."

"So -- do you think they won't show?"

"I don't think it -- I'm sure --"

But at that point I interrupted.

"They're here!"

I was looking at the road away down the hill, a few miles from the field. And on my screen, a huge tractor trailer had appeared. It was hard to tell from above, but it sure looked like a Dunkin' Donuts truck, laboring slowly up the steep hill. And an 18 wheeler full of donuts had no business on that road, which led nowhere near any place donuts were sold. It had to be our delivery truck.

"Felicia, take us down! Treetop height -- land as soon as they get to the field!"

"Captain, wait!" Dad looked worried. "We don't have any idea what's in that truck!"

The Captain glared briefly at Dad, then meowed, "Felicia, hold us here. Nim-nim, what's in the truck? Can you scan it?"

Nim-nim, in her best Mr. Spock voice (which wasn't much like Spock's voice at all, really), said "Activating sensors," and pressed several buttons. A hole opened in the panel in front of her. She immediately jammed her head into the hole. I heard her sniffing.

"Well? What's in the truck?"

"I smell ... donuts ... lots of donuts..."

"What about the front thing?"

"You mean the cab?" added Dad.

Nim-nim sniffed some more. "Driver doesn't smell so good -- sweaty -- needs shower. Smells ... scared..."


"Smells like other person there too -- more than one -- at least four in cab. Smell something odd -- oil, metal -- smells like those AK 47's we had..."


The truck had arrived at a steeper section of the road, and had slowed to a crawl. It was belching clouds of blue smoke from in back of the cab. It seemed unlikely that a truck full of donuts would be having such a hard time climbing the hill.

"What else?" from the Captain.

"Scanning trailer again..."  Sniff, sniff.  "Something else -- donut smell very strong, but smell men, too -- in back, I think. Smell nervous. And smell more guns."

"Doesn't sound like what we ordered," observed Dad, dryly.

"Chance the fuel's in there too?" asked the Captain, his tail switching faster than ever. "Check again!"

"Don't smell it." Nim-nim sniffed, and sniffed, for at least another half minute. "Truck exhaust stink over everything. But ... something else, too"

"The fuel?"

"Another truck -- some kind of truck -- smell diesel fuel, rubber tires -- hot metal --"

"Where? There's no other truck on the road!"

"Truck inside trailer -- in back."

Nim-nim took her head out of the hole in the panel and looked up at the Captain. "There's no fuel. It's just a trap."

Skritch hissed, and her paws flashed briefly over the controls. On the screen, I saw a bright flash at the front of the trailer, and the top suddenly peeled back like one of those old sardine can lids, the kind you rolled up on a "key". So much for Skritch's strict orders!

The sides of the trailer blew off, and boxes of donuts flew in all directions. The cab, relieved of the heavy trailer, shot ahead up the hill and off my screen. As the remains of the trailer stopped dead in the road, some kind of army truck, hidden until then in the back of the trailer, skidded forward through the piles of donuts and remains of the trailer, and lurched onto the road. A gun on top of it started firing wildly in all directions, but of course there was nothing there to shoot at, save for lines of boulders which served as guardrails on either side of the road.

The captain screeched "Stop!" at Skritch, as Sniggles appeared in the middle of the room, below his perch.

"Fuel very low, best not use weapons much," she announced.

There was a sudden yowling, and an image of an extremely skinny cat flashed briefly on all the screens in the room. "Low power! Do reduce power use! Fuel warning!" meowed deafeningly across the Bridge.

This was a first! Every alarm we'd run across previously had sounded only after the event it was supposed to warn against was all over.

"Sniggles!" called Dad, as soon as the echoes of the voice died away. "Can we use any other fuel? Can we burn plain water?"

"Yes!" was the surprising response. "But not ideal. Not even good. Not like."

"Why? What's wrong with it?"

"One can't --" and Sniggles suddenly froze and started flickering, as the yowling voice came on once more: "Power loss! Computer not! Power loss! Reduce pull! Power loss! Reduce push! Power loss! Warning, please place craft in a stable location now!"

Sniggles stopped flickering and vanished, as the lights went out, the rumble of the engine suddenly went silent, and my stomach turned a somersault -- the artificial gravity had apparently quit.

The dome, which had been transparent, had once again turned opaque. The lower row of screens were flickering spasmodically, and the upper row seemed to have gone back to being plain windows. Since the sky at this altitude was awfully dark, though, it was hard to tell. So much for the warning having been given in advance.

"Felicia!" yowled the Captain, "Get us to water! Come down on the sea, nearest sea!"

"If I can bring us anywhere..." Mom muttered, frantically pressing buttons. "We need Sniggles..."

But there was no Sniggles, not with the main computer off line.

"The Adriatic?" I heard Dad say, as he fiddled with the controls.

"Black Sea," Nim-nim meowed.

A silence followed, during which I started feeling heavier again. I guess the air was getting thicker as we fell -- and, of course, we were falling faster now...

"Felix! Do something!" the Captain screeched "Find us some power!"

Dad said nothing; he was too busy.

Nim-nim suddenly added, "Found some power. Not totally gone yet." Mom's screen abruptly lit up.

"Here we go..." she said, and there was a sudden roar as the engines started -- and the air was filled with flying cats, as we accelerated sideways without the assist of the artificial gravity.

I gave a yell as Nim-nim crash landed on may lap. "Mind the claws!"

"Sorry!" meowed Nim-nim, but she went right on digging in to keep from sliding off.

Luckily, Mom and I were strapped in place; Dad, who hadn't strapped in, was hanging onto the base of the Captain's perch.

"Gravity! Felix, get some!" the Captain contributed.

"Nim-nim, can you find us some gravity?" Dad called.

"Hold onto me!" added Nim-nim.

"Gladly, if you'll stop holding onto me!" I took a firm grip on Nim-nim, who finally extracted her front claws from my leg. Her paws flew briefly over the keys, and the screen in front of me flickered and showed an outline of the ship. Nim-nim tapped it a few times, and my stomach lurched again as "down" suddenly went back to pointing down.

With several fading hiccups, the sound of the engines vanished.

"Now what?" I heard Mom ask. She fiddled with the controls a bit. "That's odd -- it just shut down..." she hit the blue button again. There was a belch from below decks, and my stomach suddenly tried to climb down through the floor as the engines started up again -- and the gravity shut down.

"Oops!" said Dad, as he fell over; he'd been walking back to the controls when the gravity quit.

Nim-nim made a puzzled noise and pushed a few buttons. My stomach suddenly lurched back up from the deck as the gravity field came back -- and the sound of the engines died away.

"Oops!" said Dad, as he again lost his footing; he'd just gotten back on his feet after the previous jolt. Then, just as Mom was restarting the engine, he yelled "Wait!"

There was another belching noise and another lurch as the engines started -- and the gravity quit.

"Nim-nim, wait!" Dad added. "Don't turn gravity back on! Not enough for both!"

Nim-nim made a funny little questioning noise, like a tiny, puzzled organ pipe, but didn't do anything further -- and this time the engines continued to work.

Mom seemed to be having trouble, though. She was making constant adjustments. "Felix," she asked, "Where are we? I've been working to keep us going, but I'm not sure how far we've gone."

Before Dad could answer, there was another belching noise, and the engines quit once more. Mom called, "Nim-nim, can you help here, We're still kind of high up..."

Nim-nim did something, and the engines started again with a sickening jolt. the world seemed to twist around me, as I heard Mom say, "Gyros don't seem -- uh, oh..."

"Can you balance it down just on the rockets?" Dad asked, softly.

"Trying..." The deck started bouncing, like it was practicing to be a trampoline, when a sudden "Meow!" cut across the bridge. "Power loss! Power loss! Place ship on stable surface! Shutting down NOW!" followed by silence.

My stomach tried to climb my throat as we were suddenly weightless.

The lower screens were dark; the upper screens, now just windows, showed blue sky -- then suddenly showed something dark and watery -- then sky again -- we were tumbling.

"Uh, oh!" I heard Dad say, just as the Captain yelled, "Felix, do something!"

Dad was hanging onto his unfastened "seat belts" with one hand. With the other, he pressed several buttons -- and the screen in front of him lit up, showing some sort of schematic. So the ship wasn't quite dead! But it went dark again a moment later.

Splash!   Now that's what we call a hard landing
Before he could do anything more, we hit the water, upside down. There was a terrible noise, and I thought for one awful moment that the belts were going to succeed in holding just part of me on the deck -- and then I was free. The belts had pulled loose from the floor.

And I was flying through the air in sudden darkness -- a complete absence of light.

I had just enough time to think I was going to be smashed like a mosquito on a windshield when I hit the ceiling ... and then I hit the ceiling. Or, rather I hit something -- but it felt more like smashing into a trampoline than a windshield.

I thought for a moment that I was going to lose my lunch, as I wobbled madly back and forth, caught in the something I had hit. It was something I couldn't see, since everything was dark -- but I sure could feel it. Lumpy, kind of soft, but really tight -- it was like being squeezed by a giant who was wearing rubber gloves.

And then the banging started -- or I started to notice the banging. It sounded like small explosions -- fireworks? Somebody shooting? Was the giant who was squeezing me with one hand making giant popcorn with the other hand?

The rubbery stuff which was holding me was trembling like frightened jello in response to the banging. It started to loosen, and the darkness started to lift; it was replaced with a rapidly growing beige glow.

And then, just as I felt myself starting to slip down through the rubbery stuff, I realized what it was. I was in the middle of an enormous pile of balloons -- balloons which were all the color of stale vanilla ice cream. It was as though I'd been trapped in the world's largest Century 21 open house.

Even as I wondered what had happened to the ship, the pile shrank around me. The banging noises continued, erratically -- it was the sound of popping balloons.

As the balloons loosened their grip on me, I started slipping down between them. After a few minutes being alternately squeezed and dropped by the shifting pile, I landed on a slightly soft slightly curved floor. The light here was much worse than it had been up toward the top of the balloon pile; I could hardly see anything.

From somewhere nearby, the Captain's voice broke out in a yowl of annoyance, and just as suddenly I knew where I was.

"Felix! Get rid of this stuff! Do something!" This was accompanied by the sound of more bursting balloons.

"Like what?" I heard, from somewhere overhead. "I can't reach anything but a bunch of balloons."

"Felix, where's Isis?" I heard Mom's voice from somewhere farther up in the pile. She followed that up with, "Isis, are you OK? Where are you?"

"I'm fine, Mom!" I yelled, as I heard the Captain pop another few balloons.

"Felix, get down here!" he suddenly yowled.

"How?" Dad answered, reasonably.

"I don't care how, just do it! Snidly, get him down here!"

"Hoooow?" came a sleepy sounding reply from somewhere up in the middle of the air.

"Break the things holding him up!"

"Don't like the noise."

"Do it anyway!" the Captain howled, and there was a barrage of bursting balloon sounds from his direction. The pile shifted noticeably above me.

I heard a "pop" from somewhere above me, and then another, and then a grumbled "Not like!" from Snidly. Then nothing for a moment -- then an annoyed growl from somewhere overhead, which sounded like it might have been Skritch. This was followed by a cascade of bursting balloon noises. It sounded like Skritch was firing a machine gun up there.

Moments later, there was an "Oops!" followed by a nearby thud. I couldn't see anything under the mass of balloons, but it sounded like Skritch had succeeded in getting Dad down from the pile.

But I didn't have a chance to think any farther about that. I screamed as something heavy and very sharp clobbered me on the head. Skritch, too, had hit the deck -- or rather, would have hit the deck had I not been on her flight path! She jumped off my head without a word -- but not without consequences; her back claws were every bit as sharp as her front ones. I yelled again as blood started running into my eyes.

"Isis! Are you OK?" Mom called from somewhere overhead.

"Isis! Are you OK?" Dad called from a few feet away. I heard him floundering through the balloons, coming my way.

"Isis! Are you OK?" I heard, from somewhere far overhead. It sounded like Auntie's voice. I wondered how she'd gotten to the bridge, if the whole ship was stuffed with balloons, as I suspected.

"No!" I said. Blood was dripping off the end of my nose. Getting landed on by Skritch had not been my idea of a good time; my scalp felt like it had been lacerated. Something was dripping off my left ear. I was afraid to reach up and feel the top of my head, for fear it might peel off.

"Felix! Can you do anything about these annoying things?" the Captain's voice came from somewhere behind me.

"Can't reach the controls" ... followed by a disgusted noise from Skritch, and more machine gun sounds. The pile suddenly opened up around me. Not that I cared -- the room was starting to spin and everything seemed kind of blurry.  Getting hit by Skritch had been a more serious accident than I realized.  In a confused sort of way, I looked up from what was now the bottom of a conical pit in a mountain of balloons, and saw Auntie "surfing" down the side of it. She'd wandered onto the bridge, somehow, and now she was an aunt caught in an aunt trap, I thought, blurrily, but then it must be a trap dug by an aunt lion, and what does an aunt lion look like? Does it look anything like Skritch? And then I must have fainted, because I can't remember anything more.

I don't suppose I was unconscious very long. The first thing I noticed was that there wasn't any blood in my eyes, but my head still felt like I'd been scalped. The next thing was that I was lying on the floor looking up at the ceiling, and everything I could see looked pretty seriously wrong. And the third thing was that lots of people (term used loosely) were shouting at each other.

The Captain, Skritch, Snidly, Nim-nim, Auntie, and my parents were standing or sitting around me, and all of them except Auntie seemed upset. The gist of it seemed to be that we didn't know where we were, nobody was sure what to do about the balloons, the controls were out of reach, and everyone was mad at Skritch for lacerating a fellow crew member. Auntie seemed to be the only calm one; the first thing I heard her say was, "Hello, dear, are you with us again? You got a few cat scratches but I've patched up the worst of it -- I don't suppose it's as bad as lots I've seen after fights, after all, and I don't suppose you won't be as good as new again in not too very long, after all. You only needed a few stitches and a dab of glue and a bit of plasma, and what's more both your ears are still in place. Much better than most who've tangled with Skritch, I might guess."

I was totally puzzled. "How did ... did you... but where'd you get the stuff to do stuff with? Are we still on the Bridge?" I asked, a little incoherently.

Auntie laughed. "It's all in my bag, dear. I'm a vet, after all. We're on a ship chock full of cats, and only one of them's domestic. I've been expecting to need to sew up somebody ever since I came aboard."

I sat up. I had to practically yell to get a word into the ongoing argument, but that was easy, as I felt like yelling from the pain in my scalp as soon as I moved. "Mom, Dad, I'm fine! Skritch only scratched me a little, and I really am OK! But where are we?"

Everybody looked at me. "We don't know" was Dad's reply. "And I can't get to the controls which makes it all more awkward."

I looked around, and everything looked just as wrong. Limp, broken remains of balloons were everywhere. Skritch had been busy! Off to the sides there were still some heaps of intact ones, but the piles were too small to obscure my view of the room. I was sitting on the ceiling of the bridge, right in the middle of the dome. Far above me, the Captain's perch stuck out of the floor. The control panels were ranged around the walls, entirely out of our reach in the inverted ship.

"Oh, mrrrph" said Nim-nim. "Easy enough to get to controls. But what can we do when we get there?"

"See if there's any power left, figure out where we are, clear balloons away -- and then see about refueling."

I looked up at the windows. Blue light was shining in through them. Just before the balloons appeared -- from wherever -- and blocked my view of everything, I remembered we'd been falling into the sea. "Are we in shallow water?" I asked. "That looks like daylight coming in."

"Don't know." Dad's concise reply. "Sure didn't float last time we hit the water, so don't suppose we did this time, either."

By this time Nim-nim had scaled the wall (claws are good for something other than lacerating scalps) and was fiddling with one of the control panels. "Floating!" she announced. Then, "I think. Not sure. Need fuel, right away."

"Need to get out."

"Felix, are you nuts?" exclaimed Auntie. "We're under water -- what do you mean, we need to get out?"

"Get out and get water."

"But Nim-nim says we need fuel, not water!"

"Water is fuel. Can use ordinary water in an emergency -- Sniggles said so."

"And this is certainly an emergency," added Mom.

"So you need to get topside -- or bottomside -- or anyway outside -- which will be a lot wetter than inside, which seems wrongside, since we're downside up, and way down below the ocean..."

"But no -- rather, floating," added Dad. "For whatever reason." And then, "But how we get to the hatch with all these balloons in the way..."

"Where'd they come from, anyway?" Auntie asked, and looked Dad in the eye. Apparently she saw something, because she exclaimed, "Aha! They're your doing, aren't they, Felix?"

"Don't know..." Dad replied, slowly and thoughtfully, while staring fixedly over Auntie's right shoulder. "Just before the crash, I tried to -- " but we never heard what he had tried to do, because at that point the Captain broke in.

"Doesn't matter. How will you rid of them again? And how will you get out to get water?"

Dad looked puzzled. Mom looked thoughtful. I looked like my head hurt (which it did). The silence was finally broken by Snidly, who was acting out of character by actually staying awake during a planning meeting. "How did Auntie get to bridge?"

"Snowshoes!" she said, and pointed at a pair of what were, unmistakably, snowshoes lying on the deck.

I laughed. "OK, that's it, now I know, I'm just dreaming all this, or it's all just somebody's silly story. It can't be for real. It just doesn't make sense -- nobody carries snowshoes on an interstellar adventure, and nobody just keeps snowshoes in the car in case there's an emergency, not in Scotland, they don't."

"But of course they do, dear. I did, and there's your proof. Or, rather, Herbert did; it's really his doing; when he was planning his expedition to Snaefellsjokull, he got a bunch of sets of folding snowshoes, and stored a few pairs in Aftershock. He said it's the emergencies you never think of which can get you, and since he'd thought of this one, we no longer had to worry about being unexpectedly snowed in, whether or not the Koreshans were right. Not that I ever worried much about being snowed in in Scotland to start with -- or France, for that matter. But the climate's pretty mild in most of France, except for a few of those mountain duchies where they raise wine and role cheese wheels. At least you don't have to worry about avalanches caused by the bagpipers when you're in Alsacia, I shouldn't think!"

And so it came to pass that Dad strapped on the snowshoes, Nim-nim climbed onto his shoulders, and the two of them climbed up the hills of balloons still remaining in the corridors and disappeared. And the rest of us waited.

And waited.

And waited some more.

And gradually, we noticed that the air was smelling a bit stale.

And still we waited...

Meanwhile, down in the hold

Dad told me what they'd done after he got back; here are some of the high points...

Getting the bucket was pretty tedious, and the most interesting thing that could be said about the trip to the bottom of the ship is that it took a long time. The real excitement only started when they got to the hatch at the bottom of the ship. They still didn't know for sure whether the ship was really floating, or if it was sitting on the bottom of ... whatever it was we were sunk in.

The snowshoes allowed Felix to walk, slowly, over the piles of balloons, only occasionally slipping down between them and dumping the two of them in a heap. To start with, Felix had had to crawl over the piles in some of the lower corridors, where they were too close to the ceiling for him to stand up, and that was even slower than walking on them. They'd tried to use only the largest corridors, where the going was easier.

But the balloons had been deflating, slowly but surely, and by the time they made it to the bottom hold of the ship (now located at the top), Felix was standing up with space left over above his head. And at last the hold appeared before them, stretching out below their feet like a strange dimly seen desert, covered with dunes of balloons instead of sand. And it was, indeed, below their feet, as the corridor on which they entered was at floor level ... or in the current state of things, at ceiling level. The wall stretched straight down from their feet into the shadows. Aside from Felix's flashlight, the only light came from a row of what appeared to be windows along the far wall of the hold.

The hatch they were heading for was in the floor ... which is to say, it was in the ceiling in the current configuration of things. And that, in turn, meant that it was going to be about twenty feet over their heads. How they'd open the hatch was not at all clear.

None the less, they slid down the wall, and soldiered on across the dunes until they were directly below the hatch they'd hoped to use. They looked up at it ... far up. Nim-nim could have climbed up a wall and gotten to the hatch, had it been next to a wall ... but it wasn't. Cats aren't flies; walking across the ceiling was beyond Nim-nim's abilities.

But they had another option: They could climb to the ceiling (er, floor), if only they had something to climb on. And they did ... they could climb on the balloons. So, they set about moving the dunes, piling up the balloons ever higher in an attempt to reach the hatch. And after each new effort to raise the pile, Felix would clamber up the heap, and the balloons on top would kind of squish down into the pile, and it wouldn't be as high as it had seemed from the floor ... and they'd go back to piling up balloons.

Eventually, Nim-nim observed that the air didn't smell so good.

"Hmmmm .. it's been how long without ventilation, and life support's probably a mess..." Felix replied. "If we could find Aftershock we could push -- plough -- the balloons into a big enough pile, maybe."

"Run Aftershock, with the air already not so good?"

"Maybe just on batteries -- don't need to go very far."

But it was a moot point. While the balloon dunes may have been too deflated to get them to the hatch, they were more than heapish enough to conceal the truck.

Back on the Bridge

Snidly was sleeping on a pile of broken balloons not far from me, and his breathing didn't sound good.

I was awake, and my breathing sure didn't feel good. Something was going seriously wrong with the air.

The captain was clinging to the wall, staring out one of the windows, and switching his tail. Switch ... switch ... switch... like a metronome, one switch per second.

"Snidly!" the Captain suddenly called. "Find out what's keeping Felix! And why is the air so smelly?"

"Mrrrmmmmrgg" replied Snidly.

Mom added, "The ventilation's off, and the lights are off in life support, and the whole thing's turned upside down -- I imagine that has a lot to do with what's wrong with the air."

"Snidly! Go check on life support!"

Snidly finally woke up. "Crew can handle it."

"Crew isn't handling it -- obviously! Take Skritch and go fix it. And take Isis, you may need some hands. And take Mince -- there's nobody to communicate with so she's useless here."

And so we climbed up the pile of balloons and struggled along a corridor. As soon as we left the bridge, it was totally dark, save for the beam of my flashlight. I hoped the batteries would hold out; even cats can't see with no light at all. The worst part, though, was the noise.  Our progress was deafening, as Skritch slashed the balloons, clearing the corridor in front of us. I could catch silvery flashes now and then in the beam of the flashlight. I think Skritch must have been wearing those switchblade things on her claws. That would certainly explain what she had done to my scalp when she landed on me.

In the hold

"Give up?"

"And do what?"

"Find another hatch."

And so they did -- after finding a corridor opening part way up the wall, one which they could actually get to, they headed off to one of the other hatches in the bottom of the ship.

This time, the corridor wasn't too high, the balloons were still reasonably inflated, and the ceiling was within reach.

"What do you think's outside?"

"Air, I suppose."

"Not water?"

"Well, we need water."

"But not too much..."

"Whatever -- we need both, we need them now," and with that, Felix hit the buttons that opened the hatch.

He was rewarded with a waterfall on his head.

In a corridor somewhere

I was totally lost. I hoped either Snidly or Skritch knew where we were. We were working our way along a low corridor, just high enough for me to crawl through. It was totally plugged with balloons; we were moving exactly as fast as Skritch could break them to clear the way for us.

The one good thing was that the air here was much fresher than it had been in the bridge. Apparently, the balloons were inflated with clean air, and most of the air in the corridor now came from the broken balloons. I hoped they were OK back on the bridge -- it had been getting pretty foul when we left.

At the hatch

Luckily, the waterfall on Felix's head didn't contain the whole ocean, and it stopped almost immediately, leaving him drenched, and the bucket about half full.

"Ooops!" he yelled, and "Pfauuugh!" and "Ooouuuuch!" as he rubbed frantically at his eyes with a soaked tissue.

"If you're trying to clear your eyes, something dry might work better," observed Nim-nim, less than helpfully.

"What is this stuff? Not sea water, that's for sure!"

"Yes it is" from Nim-nim, who was licking a few spots off her fur. "Just stronger than usual."

"Oouuuu! A lot stronger! Since when can sea water be any stronger than sea water??" Felix was on his knees, half sunk in the balloons, as he rubbed at his burning eyes.

"When it's from someplace else."

"Someplace else -- like the Great Salt Lake? That's silly, halfway around the world..."


"So maybe the Dead Sea? ... No, impossible, too far away."


"Aral Sea?"


"Boy were we off course!"


There was a pause while Felix continued dabbing at his eyes.

"Need help? Lick eyes for you, make them clean?"

"No, that's OK, thanks very much..."

"Would save time."

"That's OK, almost done here, I think..."

Tears eventually did the job that the wet tissue couldn't. Felix's eyes, though streaming, no longer stung too much for him to keep them open.

"If you're through with that, we should move on."

"Yes, yes..."

Felix got back onto his feet, on the snowshoes, on top of the balloons, and, with a bit of bouncing, reached the cat ladder in the hatch. Soon both of them were outside, standing on the bottom of the ship.

The sun had set during the trek to the hatch, leaving a smear of orange, like a highlighter mark from God to remind everybody which way was west. The rest of the sky was fading from gray toward black. No stars were visible anywhere -- apparently it was overcast on the Aral Sea, if that's where we were this evening.

The deck was wet, but not submerged -- lucky for all of us! The waves of the sea were dimly visible in the gloom, waving sluggishly a few dozen yards away, over the edge of the hull. Apparently the hull was riding high enough so that the waves weren't breaking over it.

As they set out for the edge of the hull, however, it became clear that the Erfout Eetjney wasn't riding as high as all that, after all: A taller-than-usual wave loomed dimly in the gloom near the ship, broke over the edge of the deck, and rolled onward, straight toward them.

"Here comes water -- how convenient!" exclaimed Felix, as he bent over to scoop up a bucket full.

"Yaawwrk!" replied Nim-nim, as she launched herself from her spot next to him on the deck. She most decidedly wasn't one of those cats who enjoy a little swim now and then -- particularly when the water is so salty it's almost more like mud than water.

"Ouch -- watch the claws!" Nim-nim was back on Felix's shoulders, and the perch was none too stable as he was inundated almost to his waist by the wave rolling by. After swaying a bit, Felix suddenly sat down, which act was accompanied by yells from Nim-nim (who got wet) and Felix himself (who got held onto, very tightly, by Nim-nim).

In a corridor, somewhere

We'd been working our way slowly along interminable identical corridors for what seemed like days. They were all too short for me to stand up, and as I crawled along, all I could see of them in the beam of my flashlight was a patch of blank off-white wall and a floor covered with broken balloons.

Skritch was leading the way, ears laid back flat on her head, bursting balloons as she went. Snidly was at her shoulder. I was following the two of them, and Mince was somewhere behind me. My whole head seemed to be ringing with the deafening sound of hundreds of breaking balloons, echoing in the narrow corridor. I was not feeling too good -- my head was hurting as well as ringing, I could feel something wet behind my left ear (stitches opened up?), and I was starting to feel dizzy as well (good thing I was crawling, I couldn't very well fall over!). I was feeling kind of glazed -- like there was a sort of a glass panel between me and everything. It was all starting to seem unreal (even more unreal than things had been on this trip).

And then Scritch and Snidly vanished around a sharp corner, and the sound of balloons bursting stopped. In the blessed silence I hurried forward to joint them. And then several things happened at once.

I heard Mince say, "Oh, hello!" to someone, and I heard Snidly say, "Careful -- bit of a drop," and I put my hands down on ... nothing.

And then I was falling into darkness.  High ceilings are really annoying when they arrogate to themselves the role of the floor.

In the hold, in the auxiliary bridge

And so there they were, with a bucket, an inverted ship, and a pressing need to pour the water up into the fuel tank.  Water ignores needs, however, and it stubbornly insisted on falling down, not up.

But now, after a second trip to the ocean to replace the bucket of water which was now distributed in random puddles around the room, and after locating a hose and a little more patience, things were looking up.  (Or down, seeing as how up was down.)
The last of the water disappeared into the hose.

"Now let's see what we've got!" said Felix, and hit the blue button next to the fuel tank hatch. Nothing happened.

Felix turned off the flashlight, and waited, in the dark. "How long did it take, the first time?"

"Not sure -- 12 minutes, maybe."

And they sat in the dark, and they waited. After what seemed too long, Felix looked at his watch.

"Bad news -- it's been 15 minutes. Nothing."

But as he was speaking, there was Something: A screen set in the wall lit up.

But the image on the screen was not what they'd expected. It wasn't a POST pattern, and it wasn't the first paragraphs of the Book of Iem. It was an image of a cat -- and the cat was barfing. A voice sounded on the intercom: "Fuel quality wretched. To avoid spraying, insert proper fuel."

"Proper fuel," repeated Felix. "Haven't got any. What now?"

"Didn't say proper fuel needed, just said would spray. Whatever that means." Nim-nim climbed partway up the wall and tapped several buttons. "Gyros started OK -- maybe all OK."

"Let's get upright -- first let's get some gravity -- flipping with no gravity not so good --" Felix started pressing buttons.

"Wait -- " said Nim-nim. "Slow -- not all at once --" but Felix was already hitting the blue activate button. There was a brief gagging noise, during which the barfing cat reappeared on the screen ... and then the gravity cut in.

In Life Support

It was a total mess. Plants everywhere, bare roots in the air; very few seemed to have stayed in their trays. The work of getting everything back together was slow and painstaking, and my head was sluggish and painful.

Snidly's crew of orange cats were working about as hard as I've seen cats work, for whatever that was worth, which wasn't much. Snidly was nowhere to be seen, and I suspected he was sleeping somewhere. Half a dozen of his cats had quartered the area, picking up all the broken catnip plants they could find. They'd gathered them together in a heap and now they seemed to be engaged in testing the plants to see if they tasted OK.

Another little group seemed to be playing "tag" on the inverted racks, chasing each other up and down the stacks and leaping from one rack to another far over my head.

A number of cats were climbing around the edge of the room, slinking over the racks as though searching for intruders. (There were certainly none that I could see!)

On the floor not far from me, a few cats were earnestly scratching the spilled dirt into heaps, which was about the closest any of them were coming to doing anything useful.

Auntie had come with us after we ran into her in the corridor.  Or after we fell on her, to be more precise.  I sincerely wished a few more humans had joined us, though.

The only light was from my flashlight, which didn't help.

And then, with no warning at all, the "floor" I was crawling on picking up dirt was once again a ceiling, and I was falling head first into the darkness. I barely had time to think "Gravity's back!" before my head hit the newly nominated floor, and that was the end of the chapter for me.

To be continued...


Page created on 16 April 2017, from text written several years earlier