The stairs spiralled up to the diamonds in the sky. Up and up, threading their way across the deep indigo of space as Ramona pursued the mysterious phantom.
Suddenly she was toppling back to Earth and woke with a start.
That dream again. Every night, between half sleep and waking, she chased that sinister shadow. It sometimes skimmed the rooftops below as though searching for discarded dreams or hurtled high, to the top of the atmosphere with the speed of a rocket.
Then it was gone.
Ramona barely remembered the phantom until the next time she fell asleep.
It was five in the morning and the star-studded heaven outside was too inviting to ignore. Ramona put on her dressing gown, took her binoculars from their case and went up to the apartment block’s flat roof. A neighbour’s pigeons briefly cooed as she arrived, and then went back to sleep.
The stars were punctuated by Jupiter and Mars. Soon, the glorious Venus would join them and create a heavenly triangle only seen once in a lifetime.
But there was something just as extraordinary below her.
A shape was darting amongst the chimney stacks and up and down the ridges separating the steeply pitched roofs of the old town. It moved with lightning speed over the sloping tiles like a smoky serpent in the near darkness above the street lights. Ramona assumed several cats were chasing each other, but there was no annoyed yowling. This creature was silent and sinister as it made its way over the town’s sleeping inhabitants. Then she remembered the phantom she regularly pursued just before waking. Were those dreams her subconscious’s way of telling her that she already knew it existed?
Ramona shuddered, horribly fascinated by the mysterious night visitor. Reluctant to return to bed, she was nevertheless sleepy and had to be up in two hours time. Hopefully the apparition would fade back into a barely remembered dream by the morning.
But it didn’t. Even after a shower and good breakfast this creature was still real.
The next night Ramona went back up to the roof where the pigeons roosted under the full moon, warily half awake for fear of cats. It was five in the morning and the roofs were still illuminated by silvery moonlight.
Then there it was, wending its rapid way over roofs and around chimney stacks. The phantom briefly stood up. A fan of blades on its slender shoulders snapped open as though it was about to take off. Ramona stepped back in surprise and nearly toppled over. It saw her and the blades snapped shut. It didn’t need them to reach her.
The creature was soon towering above the teenager.
The phantom’s body was slender, with the flexibility of a dragon and it had long, hooked hands that enabled it to run up walls faster than Spiderman. Instead of wings, the rotor blades which opened and shut in a split second were its means of flight. Despite its fluidity of movement, the night visitor seemed to be metal, though did not make any sound.
The gaze of the mask-like face settled on the dumpy teenager in the dressing gown.
Ramona was suddenly aware of just how short she was.
“Hi,” she said.
The creature ducked down to bring its glowing eyes disconcertingly close to hers.
“You are?” a voice clicked.
“Teenage. Human. Insomniac. How about you?”
It quickly moved back as though unsure about the answer. The blades radiating from its shoulders briefly snapped open, and abruptly closed as though deciding that flight was not necessary.
“Bio Drone 36.”
Ramona gulped - there must have been 35 more of these things!
“What do you do then?”
Another difficult question.
“Dashing about the rooftops like a jet-propelled tomcat.”
The mechanoid seemed to recoil at the analogy - but that wasn’t possible for a machine, surely?
“I record. I watch.”
“You mean you’ve been sent by a peeping tom?” Ramona knew that it wasn’t likely. No one with the diminished intellect of a voyeur could have created a machine like this.
This had to be another dream. At any moment the smartphone would warble and remind her to get up. If she didn’t switch it off it time it would proceed to play a selection from The Sound of Music. Many a time she had toppled out of bed before it could warble ‘A doe, a female deer...’
“Find anything interesting then, Bio Drone 36?”
“They do not say.”
Oops … only then did it occur to Ramona those operating the machine were recording their encounter.
“Are you taking pictures of me?”
“Do you want?”
“No thank you.”
“I will delete.”
Hopefully nothing had been transmitted for her identity and location to be identified.
“Will you be doing this every night?”
“I come - I go.”
And suddenly Bio Drone 36 took off, leaving Ramona astounded at the speed it disappeared into the rosy sky glowing with the rising sun.
Hours of searching online were fruitless. There were no mentions of research into Bio Drone surveillance … not that Ramona expected to find any. There was only one entity who could explain, and, given the speed at which it travelled, that could be wending its never ending way over the rooftops at the dead of night on the other side of the planet.
There was no other option; Ramona would have to for wait on the roof in the early hours again to ask it. People had noticed how tired she was, so they were told that prospect of the oncoming exams was keeping her awake. The truth would not have been a good idea.
Early next morning there was a chill in the air and the overcast sky threatened rain.
Before she could decide whether to put up her umbrella, Bio Drone 36 was there, towering over her again.
Ramona was inexplicably concerned. “Won’t water damage your electronics?”
“Bio back-up takes over.”
So this wasn’t a mere machine after all; that would not have needed someone to talk to. The thought that Bio Drone 36 had a living brain sent a chill down her spine.
Whose, she dreaded to think, but felt compelled to ask, “Just who are you?”
The night visitor peered at her through lenses that briefly revealed its mortality. “I do not recall.”
“What can you remember?”
The question triggered a torrent of images in its thoughts. Bio Drone 36 would not have been aware of possessing them if another mortal had not asked.
Suddenly it could recall soaring over high mountains, the dunes of scorching deserts, the expanse of water and wildlife that was the Okavango, and through the pearlised clouds at the edge of the atmosphere. This was its true nature, not a machine programmed to spy on people from the rooftops.
It described the wonderful memories to the small teenager.
Bio Drone 36 had not expected Ramona to insist, “Break your programming.”
“Why should I do that?”
“You can go back to all those places.”
Of course it could. Those long suppressed, glorious memories were its true identity, not the machine they had been installed in.
“What was I?”
“You were a test pilot - and you can still fly!”
The night phantom’s rotor blades snapped open.
The diminutive, dumpy girl was right. The sky was its true home, soaring with the condor and through tornados, not wasting its intellect scouring the town’s rooftops spying on the humdrum misdemeanours of its inhabitants.
The extended blades began to rotate.
“Goodbye small human.”
“Come back and let me know where you’ve been.”
“I will do that.”
The blades became a blur and Bio Drone 36 shot straight up through the clouds and towards the star-filled sky above.