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The Invisible College

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The Aquarius Code

An occult / sci-fi thriller in the style of The Da Vinci Code. More...

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Museum of the Future

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The Balloon Factory

Originally published in the webzine Fortean Bureau, August 2003

 

Copyright 2003 by Andrew May

 

I descended from the upper deck of the omnibus, barely managing to alight before the impatient driver geed the horses and the 'bus clattered off towards the Edgware Road. Hunching my shoulders against the chilly London smog, I threaded my way along the crowded pavement towards my place of work.

 

Arriving at my wonted hour, I went through the gate at the side of Mr Dobson's haberdashery store and around to the rear entrance. As I reached the stairwell there was a low rumbling noise and the ground shook for a few moments. The disturbance was a rude reminder of the tunnelling work going on a hundred feet below-the burrowing machinery had nudged a few yards further toward its goal. The aim was to extend the Bakerloo tube line from Baker Street through to the main-line terminus at Paddington... or at least, that was the official explanation. Others detected more sinister motives for the tunnelling; secrets the government would prefer to keep to itself.

 

I ascended three flights of stairs-the first two floors occupied by Mr Dobson's shop and the third by a small architectural firm-and finally arrived, somewhat out of breath, at the door of my own office on the top floor. CLARION OF THE TRUTH, the sign read. A Weekly Journal for Discerning Readers. Proprietor Quincy Solomon, Esquire.

 

I unlocked the door and went in, shedding my hat and coat. I struggled for a few seconds with the window sash, finally persuading it to open. Cool, smoke-laden air wafted in from outside, carrying the busy sounds of trains puffing in and out of the main-line station below.

 

I opened the safe and transferred a pile of papers to the desk, eager to get started on the day's work. I had a great deal to accomplish in a short time. From the scribbled notes made the previous evening, I had to transcribe the substance of my interview with Madame Kaminsky, collate the resulting manuscript with the rest of the issue's copy, and take the whole lot to Mr Ramsbottom in Praed Street for typesetting and printing. What a joy journalism would be, if it were not for deadlines!

 

Anna Kaminsky enjoyed a deserved reputation as London's foremost clairvoyant, as well as being an accomplished astral traveller. She had recently been in contact with certain etheric intelligences on the planet Mars, and it was on this subject in particular that I had focused the majority of my questions. There were certain similarities and consonances between what she had to say, unearthly as it was, and mysterious events on our own planet that had been reported in the Clarion of the Truth over the last few months.

 

No sooner had I put pen to paper than a knock came at the door. Irritated, I hurried over to answer it, with the intention of getting rid of whoever it was as precipitously as possible.

 

I opened the door to see a bird-like little man, twitching from one foot to another with scarcely concealed anxiety.

 

"Mr Solomon, sir!" he exclaimed. "I'm sorry to impose on you like this, but I must speak to you as a matter of urgency."

 

"It's really not a very convenient time," I replied. "Perhaps you..."

 

The man glanced around to check that no-one else was listening. "It concerns the Martian sky-ship that crashed on Eelmoor Plain," he said, his eyes flashing with intensity.

 

"You'd better come in," I said, ushering him inside. I swept some papers off a chair and bade him sit down. As he did so, he handed me his calling card. Hand-written in smudged ink, it bore the name George Fripp, together with an address in Aldershot.

 

"It's an honour to meet you in person, sir," Fripp said. "I'm a regular reader of the Clarion, and have been so from the very beginning. It's a great service that you do-cutting through all the lies and hypocrisy of the so-called establishment."

 

I thanked him for his kind words, and urged him to proceed with his story as swiftly as possible. By way of a hint I removed my watch from my pocket and glanced at it meaningfully. My chief concern at that time was still to rid myself of Fripp and resume the business of the day as quickly as possible.

 

Once underway, Fripp's words came out in an excited rush. "Obviously I've taken a special interest in all your reports concerning the Martian flying vehicles, living down Aldershot way like I do. We've all seen them, buzzing around the sky like huge mechanical birds."

 

I turned to the filing cabinet and began rummaging through a drawer. After a few moments I pulled out a recent issue of the Clarion and placed it on the desk-top, facing Fripp. It was dated the third of August 1909, and the headline read: Martian Sky-Ship Crashes on Eelmoor Plain... Army Denies Knowledge, Removes Evidence.

 

Eelmoor Plain is the name given to a stretch of common land between the towns of Aldershot and Farnborough, in rural Hampshire thirty miles south-west of London. Although the event had gone virtually unreported in the mainstream press, I had uncovered ample evidence to prove that something very strange had fallen to the ground there three months ago.

 

"It makes me angry, it does," Fripp said. "The contempt our so-called government has for its own citizens. They tell us there's no such thing as Martians, that anyone who sees flying machines is either mad or lying. Well I've seen them, and lots of local people have seen them. So there must be Martians."

 

I nodded solemnly. "It's certain that no machine made on Earth will ever fly," I said. "Lord Kelvin has proved it scientifically."

 

"Unless it's made by our Mr Cody, of course." Fripp laughed without much humour, and I joined in. Sam Cody was an American entertainer, who had come over to England when his Wild West show fell on hard times. He'd established a small business in Farnborough making kites and other flying toys, but only the weak-minded believed his claim to have flown in one of them himself. At bottom Sam Cody was nothing but an illusionist, a clever showman, like his fellow countrymen the Wright Brothers that he strove to imitate.

 

"Anyway, I started to wonder what the army did with the wreckage they took away." Fripp felt inside his coat and pulled out a much-used map. Carefully he unfolded it on the desk.

 

"There's one obvious place." His finger came down on the north-eastern corner of Farnborough Common. On the map it was simply marked Military Zone-Restricted Area.

 

"The Balloon Factory," I said. "So-called, of course. Obviously a rather feeble cover-story for God-only-knows-what sinister activity they're keeping secret from the British public." It was a truly preposterous idea, that the Army should have any interest whatsoever in a childish toy such as a balloon.

 

"The story locally is that they're preparing for a big war against Germany," Fripp said.

 

"I've heard that story, and it doesn't hold water," I said. "The Germans have no grievance with us-if they go to war with anyone it will be the Froggies, looking for retribution after the thrashing they got back in the Franco-Prussian war. The Germans are our friends-after all, their Kaiser is our King's cousin. What fools the government takes us for, if they think we will believe that all their secrecy is motivated by an impending war with Germany."

 

Fripp looked thoughtful. "They must all be in league together," he said. "Our government, the Martians and the Germans. That Dr Einstein is German, and his ideas on space and time are beyond the capability of any human mind to think up."

 

I nodded in agreement. "Quite so-it is inconceivable that the theory of Relativity could have originated on our own planet." I thought about Madame Kaminsky, and what she had told me the previous day about Mars and its etheric intelligences. She had explained how they dwelt on a higher vibrational level than human beings, and the language she used to describe them was, to my mind, remarkably similar to that of Dr Einstein's theory. Suddenly there was no doubt in my mind that Relativity was a Martian concept.

 

Thoughts of Madame Kaminsky brought me back to the present, reminding me that I had a deadline to meet. I glanced at my watch and then looked up at Fripp. "But we are digressing-you were saying something about the Balloon Factory on Farnborough Common, I believe?"

 

"Yes. The place is surrounded by barbed wire fencing, and the whole perimeter is patrolled regularly by an armed guard. But by patient observation over many consecutive nights, I deduced that I had a clear period between one-thirty and two in the morning during which I could gain access with relatively minor risk. Even so, I had my share of heart-stopping moments, although I shan't bore you with the details now. The gist of the story is that I eventually succeeded in gaining a brief glimpse inside the cavernous building euphemistically referred to as Balloon Shed Number One. And as long as I live I shall never forget what I saw."

 

"You saw the wreckage of the Martian flying machine?" I asked with eagerness. This was starting to sound like the scoop of a lifetime.

 

"No, I saw no wreckage, but that is of little consequence in light of what I did see," Fripp said. Just at that moment there was a deep rumbling sound and the building lurched. Another few yards' progress had been made in the tunnel below-but the effect also served as dramatic counterpoint to Fripp's words.

 

"An unimaginably vast sky-vessel, shaped like a cigar and at least a hundred yards long. It appeared to be made from some unearthly silvery fabric, and had smaller side-pods that I can only describe as looking like windmills."

 

"Windmills?" I echoed.

 

"That's what they looked like. I can't even speculate as to their purpose. The whole thing defied terrestrial logic-there is no doubt in my mind that this was a ship from Mars."

 

I thought for a long moment, gazing out of the window. The sky was darker than it had been, and it had started to drizzle. "I can see only two alternatives," I said slowly. "Either the British government is indeed in league with the Martians, and their vessel is being harboured within the Army facility on Farnborough Common. Or else the machine you saw was genuinely made on this planet..." I waved aside Fripp's objection as I struggled to coin an appropriate phrase. "...Reverse-engineered, as it were, from the wreckage they recovered from the Martian crash site. Whatever the situation, you may rest assured this will be on the front page of next week's issue. The public have a right to know the truth."

 

I thanked Fripp again, and showed him out. Then I sat back and mused on what I had just heard. Crashed sky-ships, vast flying machines, feats of engineering beyond the wit of man...

 

To which could be added, of course, Madame Kaminsky's psychic insights into Martian civilization, Dr Einstein's strange unearthly theory of Relativity-and, to top it all, this infernal secret government tunnel-digging beneath the streets of London. What did it all mean?

 

Of one thing I was sure-something this big could not be kept secret indefinitely. Before long there would have to be an official announcement. I gave it five years at most-say until 1914.

 

And what would the announcement be? Contact with Martians, as I had been saying all along, or some Great War against the Germans, as the scoffers and sceptics would have it? Only time would tell.

 

THE END

 

Copyright © 2010-2018 Andrew May