By Robert Lynch
The smoke billowed from the chimney, fought with the cold air briefly, then began to journey down to Earth’s surface and join the permanent smog layer. The sun was just hitting the horizon, Julie’s favourite time of day, when the sky filled with colours. Purple and orange played across the sky like a visual symphony. It might last only a few minutes each day, but Julie always made time to be at the lookout post by sundown to enjoy the one-off display. Her mind travelled to how it might have looked a thousand years ago when people still lived on the surface; when there was such a thing as a ‘wild animal’ and a flock of birds might have added to the magic of sundown. What a world it must have been.
From the lookout post, the ninth tether obscured some of the view of the sunset as it reached up to cling to the Western Balloon. The Western Balloon was one of four great silver balloons that held the city aloft. At that moment, during that sunset, the ninth tether snapped.
The sound was greater than any thunderclap. Windows for half a kilometre exploded from the blast; then the tether began to fall. The break had been 30 metres from the balloon, allowing 700 metres of two-metre steel cable to fall on the city. It moved slowly at first, but the immense weight of the cable immediately began crushing houses. It took 12 seconds for the tip to reach the ground as the tether thrashed like a giant headless snake.
Julie watched the disaster in disbelief. The whole city shook as the Western Balloon strained against it’s 11 remaining tethers. To Julie’s horror, the seventh tether snapped under the strain.
The seventh tether snapped close to the ground, then swung the 134 million kilos of steel across the city. The pendulum of the tether tore through the highest layer of houses into the sublevels below, all the way through until the tether came to rest dangling from the Western Balloon straight through the city and down into the smog below.
The other tethers could not bear the shock, and in quick succession, all gave in to the tension. Forty-five seconds ago there had been a lovely sunset. Now Julie watched as the Western Balloon slowly lifted away from the city; a gigantic silver jellyfish drifting in the current. The other tethers broke in various lengths, some coming down, some lifting away from the platform. The seventh tether dragged against the hole it had made in the city as the city tipped down in the west.
Seeing the brief opportunity, Julie jumped into action. The emergency system would be clogged with calls, but the Areonaught channel wouldn’t be.
“Any Aeronaughts below the city need to attach to the hanging cable and pull to the west.” She screamed into the receiver. “If we can reattach that cable we can stop from losing the Western Balloon!”
In theory, the city could stay aloft with only the three remaining balloons, but if their tethers were as vulnerable to shock as the Western Balloon’s tethers, the city would be in free fall in minutes.
Ramming their ships into the seventh cable and adding constant pressure, the Aeronauts below the city were able to create a kink in the cable that caught and pulled the city back towards level. Buildings were falling all around the city, the shocks of the tethers and now the swaying of the city platform itself was more disruptive than any earthquake.
Julie ran to an engineering pod and flew off towards the seventh cable, a streak of black smoke trailed behind her as she raced the pod as fast as it would go. As she approached the hole, she flew straight into it. The crab-like arms of the engineering pod fossicked for any place where the cable came close to the steel of the lower levels, every place that came close to touching Julie fed a welding rod to close the gap and reattach the tether. Showers of sparks dripped down the hole and fell into the abyss below. Emerging out the bottom of the hole, Julie brought the engineering pod to a hover.
“If we can bend the cable and touch it to the bottom of the platform I can get a weld on it.” She told the open Aeronaught channel. In a complex ballet, the Aeronaught ships coordinated to bring the cable 90 degrees until it touched the base of the city’s platform. Julie flitted back and forth tacking weld after weld until the pod had run out of welding rods. By then others had followed in engineering pods. Julie moved back and let them take over the welding and begin to add makeshift patches over the cable to increase the purchase of the welds.
Hovering between the city’s base and the smog layer below, Julie looked up at the aging city. The city let out a groan as stressed metal all over the city eased. What the papers would name a ‘close call,’ had killed thousands of people. They had managed to stop the collapse this time. Would they be able to stop the next one?