1635 – The Papal Stakes — Snippet 38
Miro watched the speck wobble a little as it seemed to settle itself into a straight run, growing slowly larger as it drew closer to the surface of the water.
“First I had to find out which people might be interested in balloons here in Venice. Turns out there are a lot of them, and all with different reasons for wanting to get involved. It also seems there have been foreign agents here, nosing around.”
Miro nodded. “There’s a great deal of foreign interest in balloons. Hardly surprising since nations without up-time engines can start a blimp-building program and still hope for a reasonable chance of success.”
Tom nodded. “From what I hear, you even helped the authorities in Grantville nab an informant. An industrial spy, as we used to call them.”
Miro raised an eyebrow. “And where did you hear that?”
“Oh, the Venetians are pretty well informed. And there were some follow-up inquiries made down here. The authorities thought it was pretty strange that although the spy you found in Grantville was Venetian, and was returning here, he was not working for any local factors. That worries them.”
“As it should. If either the Mughals or Ottomans were seeking access to balloon technology, they would move it through the Mediterranean. Given the disruption in the rest of Italy, Venice is the most likely conduit. Particularly given its unofficial, arm’s-length trade relations with Istanbul.”
“Yeah, I think that’s what they were fretting over. That, and having too much competition in building the balloons. Although a lot of the locals aren’t envisioning airships for transportation, but for coast-watching and mapping.”
Miro nodded. “Logical.”
“So you saw this coming?”
“It was a distinct possibility. And those activities don’t require large, or even powered, dirigibles. Just a stationary one-man rig, tethered to the ground.”
“Yeah, that’s what they were saying. Given the piracy problems all along the Adriatic, they’ve already got potential interest and permissions from Ravenna, Rimini, and Ancona and are talking with communities on the Dalmatian coast. I suspect they’d send some out to their island possessions in the Aegean, as well.”
Miro nodded. “And I’m glad to see that someone obviously read the letter I wrote them about mapping.”
Miro smiled. “I just sent along some observations. Specifically, that given the low cost of its operation, and its stationary position, a balloon is vastly superior to a plane when serving as a cartographic platform. This is not the case when one has much ground to cover, of course. And given your photography, perhaps this was not so true in your up-time world. However, here, and in terms of constructing a detailed map of a limited region, a man in a balloon will be far more accurate and can easily recheck his measurements.”
Tom rubbed his chin. “You know, I was talking to some of my advisers –”
— Which, Miro knew, probably meant his very business-savvy down-time wife, Magda —
“– and they say there could be a lot of money in this cartography business. A very lot of money.”
Miro nodded. “Naturally. The Venetians I corresponded with already understood the military advantages of having precise maps with topographic renderings. And it only took a little extrapolation for them to foresee the balloon’s wider benefits in regard to surveying, prospecting, land and water management, road development, and engineering. And the uses to which they put the balloons will not only prove their utility, but whet the similar appetites of other nations.”
Stone watched the Monster growing larger. “Yeah, before long, everyone is going to want high-quality maps. Of course, the big countries will only buy a few balloons each, with one held back as a prototype for copying. But by then, we’ll have sold dozens.”
“Sure, ‘we.’ You don’t think I’m going to sit on the sidelines, do you? My wife — er, advisor — speculates that we might make even more money by offering tutoring on aerial mapping methods.”
“Strange.” Miro rubbed his chin. “I was under the impression that you were not overly concerned with making money, Tom.”
“I’m not, but how else are we going to fund the first airborne ambulances and antiepidemic airships?” He smiled. “The Venetians like that idea, too.”
“I was not aware the Council of Ten had adopted such humanitarian attitudes.”
“Oh, they haven’t. But they realize that after the first few models are flying, almost every country is going to want at least one of their own. Probably a lot more, over time. And then I showed them your map of how to link the major cities of Europe together with flight legs of less than one hundred miles. Man, their greedy little eyes lit up like sparklers on the Fourth of July. They’re pretty eager to have a business meeting. But I put that off. I hope you don’t mind.”
Miro nodded, understanding. “Of course. First things first. And getting your son and daughter-in-law back is the first thing.”
Tom nodded and looked out over the water, clearly working at keeping the worry out of his voice and his eyes. “Yeah. And now that the Monster is here, we should be one giant step closer to achieving that.”
The tailwind was holding steady, at least: no significant changes in speed or direction. Klaus made a last inspection of the stretch of water leading to Mestre: cleared of traffic, as arranged earlier, and no sign of large debris, new obstructions, or choppy cross-currents. Perfect.
“Arne,” he said, watching the rpms of the four tachometers, “inflate the bag.”
Arne flipped the switch to the blower motor.
In the belly of the Monster, the blower’s old lawnmower engine growled into life. But the blades it spun now were those of a big attic fan, designed to move air, not cut grass.
The sudden rush of air pushed the leather “bag” out from the small, front-lipped recess in the Monster’s fuselage. Spared the constant wear of flapping in the air-stream by this small windbreak, the tough, heavily-stitched and reinforced leather now extruded from the Monster’s belly, and in doing so, revealed that it was not so much a bag as it was a skirt. But, rather than rustling like the fabric of a skirt, it creaked and clunked: the typical sounds of its deployment, heard only faintly in the cockpit.
So neither Klaus nor Arne had any way of discerning the slight change in the skirt’s behavior as it entered the air stream. Although frequently restitched and painstakingly watched for wear, the repeated soakings and dryings of constant salt-water landings had cost some of the pleats most of their flexibility. Like the spines of old men forced to jump up to attention, several of the most desiccated pieces of leather resisted. The sustained pressure on the stitchings, which struggled to keep the stiff pleats in trim with the flexible ones, lasted a moment too long: two of the desiccated lacings snapped. That gave the rushing wind a gap, which it exploited ruthlessly; a few more lacings weakened, and a bronze restraining rivet popped free, allowing the tearing to continue, almost up to where the skirt attached to the belly of the Monster.
With no further resistance to the varied buffetings of the air stream, the leather plenum bag, which resembled a half-donut when inflated, now moved freely, flexibly, in the wind. But it was no longer the prim, conventional skirt it was supposed to be; a provocative slit now went from bottom to top at its back.…
Arne looked up. “What was that?”
“You mean that little tug?”
Klaus shrugged. “Once a bag has been in use for a few months, they start doing that when you push them out into the air stream.”
Arne nodded. “Yes. Okay. This is the leather-wear the instructors talk about?”
Klaus nodded. “It’s been taking more and more maintenance hours to keep the bags within safety limits.” He didn’t add that he had now heard three different ground crews muttering about those limits, wondering if they were really cautious enough.
Arne looked at the airspeed indicators again. “That bump seemed a little longer, though.”
Klaus thought so too. “Probably nothing,” he said, reassuring himself as much as Arne. “Probably the bag was just a little stiff coming out. That cold alpine headwind on take-off could have made everything a little less flexible.”
Arne nodded. Klaus couldn’t tell if the young junior copilot was genuinely convinced by this explanation, or was just being polite and agreeable. Like everything engineered at — or beyond — the limits of the currently available materials, the air cushion gear was quirky, finicky. Sometimes it made odd sounds; sometimes it got a little temperamental. But so what? It worked, didn’t it?
Klaus cut the airspeed a little more, brought the nose up, watched the water come closer…
Just as the wind indicator dropped to zero.