1635 – The Papal Stakes — Snippet 32
“Not quite, and between up-timer defectors and all the down-time radio operators you have trained that have since left your service, the Spanish could easily gather the resources necessary to get an initial sense of the embassy’s final hiding place if it sends radio transmissions. Which reminds me; might I have the list of new safe houses compiled by Giuseppe Cavriani?”
Tom took a sealed scroll from his desk and handed it over to Miro. “Just what Nasi asked for: three locations, all vetted and brokered by Giuseppe Cavriani himself. I haven’t broken the seal; no one other than he knows the locations.”
“Excellent. And the arrival of your large airplane, the Jupiter?”
Tom slouched in his chair and picked distractedly at threads that had come loose from the upholstery on the armrests. “Next few days. Maybe next week.”
Miro tried to keep the frown off his face. “I see. Problems?”
“Seems so. That damn Monster’s landing gear are turning into maintenance pigs. Or so they tell me.”
Miro wasn’t quite sure he had parsed all the slang correctly. “I beg your pardon?”
Tom uprooted one of the threads abruptly, seemed to regret it. “The Monster — which is what most of us call our big, four engine transport, the Jupiter — has got air-cushion landing gear. It was the only approach that seemed workable when we were building it, and it also allowed us to use any body of water as an airfield. Cool idea, huh?”
“Huh,” agreed Miro, trying not to sound confused.
“Yeah, well it was great until this ‘ACL gear’ started failing maintenance checks. Every time that happened, they had to take it off-line — they had to ground it — and fix the problem. Now, it’s grounded more than it’s flying. Not that I see why the Monster is needed down here.” He cast an appraising glance at Miro.
Miro smiled. “I’m not allowed to talk about that, at this point. Compartmentalization of information, I’m afraid.”
Tom grumbled but smiled back. “Yeah, I figured. Although I figure maybe you’ll use it to get the pope out of Italy. And I figure that maybe, once Harry springs my kids, it would be a lot easier to fly away from Rome than elude overland or maritime pursuit.”
Miro merely nodded. Well, so much for having any major operational surprises up their sleeves. Although, truth be told, if he were the Spanish, he would be expecting these gambits, anyhow.
Tom was still staring at him. “You know, I hear rumors that you have a balloon. That that’s how you came over the Alps.”
“There are so many rumors, these days, it’s hard to know what to believe.”
“I got this rumor from some folks here in Venice, folks who are thinking of trying to build one of their own. Seems someone’s ex-seaman son has given up sewing sails and has instead been stitching seams for an airship’s envelope up in Grantville for the past eight months. Seems the guy paying him is one Don Estuban Miro.”
Miro sighed. “It seems that we live in a very small world, indeed.”
Tom smiled. “Sorry to pop your balloon, so to speak.”
Miro’s stomach growled again. So audibly that Tom Stone noticed. Miro waved away any concern. “That was merely distress at your unforgivable pun, not hunger, Mr. Stone.”
“Very well. Tom. And I am simply Estuban.”
“Great.” Tom rang for breakfast before Miro could object — who silently blessed him. “Listen, Estuban, I was thinking. If the Monster doesn’t get here on time, or gets gummed up or something…well…”
“Well, what about your balloon?”
Miro shook his head. “I am sorry, Tom, but no, my balloons are completely insufficient for any of the tasks you are envisioning.”
“Whaddya mean? They got you over the Alps, didn’t they? You and the Wrecking Crew, who usually come pretty heavily armed.”
“Yes, the balloon got us over the Alps, but at a rate of only one hundred miles per day, and only thirty miles per hour.”
“What? Why so slow?”
“Tom, these are hot air balloons. They consume fuel at a prodigious rate. Most of our cargo space is fuel tankage for the burner, so that we can keep the air in the envelope hot enough.”
“And why so slow?”
“Hot air has much less lift than the other balloons you were familiar with, such as the Hindenburg and the others which used hydrogen. So hot air balloons can’t afford the weight of a full internal frame. Without that frame, the balloon deforms at higher airspeeds; it begins to flatten at the nose, buckle, veer off course. It is an inherent limit of the technology, Tom. I am sorry.”
“Well, can’t we build a better balloon? Something like the Hindenburg?” Seeing the look on Miro’s face, he added, “But smaller, of course.”
“I’d like to, Tom. But hydrogen is a dangerous substance. As I’m sure you’re aware.”
“You’re not talking about the flammability issues, are you?”
“Not directly. From what I’ve read, and from the up-timers I’ve talked to, the real danger is the brittlization.”
Tom nodded. “So, you’ve done your homework.” He considered Miro for a long moment. “I get it. This balloon of yours: this is just Phase One, isn’t it?”
Miro tried not to start in surprise. He rarely misgauged people, but he had mistaken the profound informality of Tom’s thought processes as diagnostic of the classical “narrow genius.” That kind of prodigy who was a wonder in regards to his own field, but disengaged from others. Now Miro saw this was not the case with Tom Stone: there were simply a few areas in which this up-timer was profoundly disinterested — or that he found downright aversive — and so he avoided them. But the idea of ballooning was apparently of interest to him, at least enough to leap ahead and see where Miro was going, what he intended. “Yes, going to hydrogen balloons is indeed my next plan. The hot air balloons are simply the first step. They will get a network of mooring towers and aerodromes established, will acclimate people to the notion of flying. But after that –”
“Sure,” said Tom with a lazy, but also canny, smile. “Everyone will want to sail in the clouds: the ultimate, natural trip.”
Miro felt, from the emphasis Tom put on the word “trip,” that he was not simply referring to a journey. “You sound interested, Tom. Personally.”
Tom rocked his feet from side to side. “Yeah. When I was just a kid, I was cruising through the Southwest. Doing my Jack Kerouac thing. Saw a bunch of balloons go up. Drove over. Traded some strictly medicinal cannabis for a ride. Man, oh man.” Tom’s eyes looked out the window, but were clearly seeing another time and place. “The colors, the shapes, the desert. Like another planet. Didn’t need the weed, you know?”
“Uh…no, I’m afraid I don’t.”
Tom blinked out of the recollection, sat a little straighter, grinned sheepishly. “‘Course you wouldn’t; how could you?” His eyes became very intent. “Listen, Estuban. I’ve been watching my friends in Grantville build planes, and I’ve been amazed, just amazed, at what they’ve been able to do. But no matter how many they build, there’s always a need for more air transport. Any kind of air transport, even if it’s slow and with limited range. And the people here — you down-timers — can’t really get in on the airplane-building action, not for years, anyway. But balloons are simpler, and they can be made here.”
“Which is why I built one, Tom. And why I’m building more.”
Tom smiled. “See? It’s like synchronicity; you were meant to be here, for us to talk about airplanes but wind up talking about balloons. I’m going to talk to the people trying to build them here in Venice, if it’s okay with you. Your people have the experience now, but this city has money — lots of money — and resources. And I’ve got some myself, you know.”
Miro smiled. “Yes, I’ve heard.”
Tom nodded. “You and me, Estuban, we’re going to help people sail in the clouds. And we’re going to rescue lives while we’re at it.”
“You mean quick responses to medical emergencies?”
“I mean more than that, Estuban. Think of it: my drugs carried on your balloons. We learn of an outbreak of plague, of typhus, and BANG! –” Tom hammered the desktop with the flat of his hand; Miro almost jumped “– we’re there, with drugs in hand. If the epidemic is in a single town, we surround it and wipe it out. If it’s coming at us like a wall of fire, we land in front of it and build a fire-break of immunity. Estuban, we could save thousands — millions! — of lives before we get to the middle of this century.”
Miro nodded. “Yes. But do remember this, Tom: balloons could carry payloads other than life-saving drugs. Much more unwelcome payloads.”
Tom’s eyes darkened. “Yeah. There’s that.” He rocked his big feet back and forth again. “I like that you brought that up, Estuban. A guy just in this for the money would have tried to leave that under the rug. Not you. You’re okay.” The feet rocked one more time and were still. “Listen. After you’ve sent that scroll on its crooked way to Sharon, you have some business in town, right?”
“I do.” Miro’s breakfast was borne in by a young man so discreet as to be almost soundless and invisible.
Tom nodded approvingly. “Good. Hang out a bit. See the sights. Lemme think on this balloon business a little. We’ll talk soon, okay?”
“Okay,” repeated Miro around a mouthful of eggs.
“Hey,” remarked Tom, “breakfast! That’s a great idea you had.” Tom jumped out of his chair, calling after the young attendant who had delivered it.
Miro, mouth still full, was unable to point out that it had been Tom’s idea, after all.