1635 – The Papal Stakes — Snippet 37


“There’s the Laguna Veneta.”

Klaus nodded at his copilot’s announcement. He measured the Jupiter Two’s sideways drift again, then began the long, lazy bank that would bring the four-engined aircraft 180 degrees about. When the turn was completed, they would be set up at the head of a landing run that would end near the litter of small islands that sheltered Mestre’s far western warren of docks and warehouses.

As they started over the lagoon, well to east of Venice itself, Klaus called for a wind check. Arne was a little slower in making his reports than most junior copilots, but he was never wrong; he would have been typecast as the tortoise in any staged rendition of Aesop’s fable of that creature’s race with the rabbit. “Two knots from the southeast. Very steady.”

“Good.” And it was. Landing the Jupiter in Venice was, in some ways, very easy: the lagoon was a large, calm body of water which made it particularly friendly to the immense plane’s unusual air-cushion landing gear. But if the winds were running in off the Adriatic as they often did, and were strong, then it was safer touching down from the north approach; a nose wind increased lift and was a little more forgiving with the air-cushion landing gear.

And Klaus Kohlbacher was happy for any little advantage. Having started his aviation career flying on smaller craft with conventional, wheeled landing gear, he had never taken to the ACLG. Of course, he had always kept his misgivings to himself; there weren’t a lot of jobs for pilots, to put it lightly. And being a pilot had become his dream the first time he saw one of the up-timers’ wondrous aircraft: to make his living among the clouds as a “knight of the air,” as his enthusiastic young nephew put it. So Klaus had resolved never to voice any reservations that might reduce the confidence his employers placed in his abilities.

But sometimes, it had been hard to contain his misgivings about the Jupiter — or more particularly, its landing gear. Flying the aircraft was, admittedly, the aerial equivalent of piloting a river barge; it was ponderous and did not respond well to frequent or abrupt course changes. But the Jupiter was strong and steady and surprisingly reliable for such an ambitious multiengine design. So what if she wasn’t a high-spirited and agile Arabian mare? She was a sturdy and strong Percheron.

“Surface conditions?” Klaus asked as their turn brought them around to the south of the island of Venice itself, where galleys and noas and carracks and billow-sailed sloops jockeyed for berthing positions in what, at this altitude, appeared to be a graceful but very slow dance.

“Water surface is smooth,” answered Arne. “Nothing more than wind ripples.”

Which meant all signs were good for the southern landing approach, which would put them just a few hundred yards away from the shallow ramp leading up to the new hangar and shop facilities. “Excellent. We will be landing from the south. Test the blower motor.”

Arne nodded. “Testing blower motor.” He checked that subsystem’s dials, and threw the starter switch with the choke set wide open.

A faint, thin vibration added itself to the customary thrums, growls, and jiggles of the immense aircraft.

“Blower motor tests as ready; shutting off.”

The blower motor, which had started its up-time existence spinning the blades of a lawn mower, slept again; the faint vibration disappeared.

“Confirm bearing for final approach.”


Klaus nodded and brought the plane out of its long banking turn, nose pointed north toward the low, rambling wharves of Mestre. As soon as the level indicators settled, he checked the slight leftward drift and started easing the four-engined biplane down toward the blue-green water scudding past below.


Although Tom was the one who had asked for the meeting, he arrived twenty minutes late. Miro rose to greet him.

“Hey, Estuban; you’re here early. Or am I late?”

“I don’t really know,” Miro lied.

“Oh, damn. So I am late. Sorry. Seems I’m always running behind now.” Tom looked out over the Laguna Veneta, which seemed to gather itself to the foot of the belvedere-crested villa upon which they stood. His eyes got dreamy, the way Miro noticed they did when he hovered on the edge of an up-time reminiscence.

“Y’know,” Stone drawled, turning his whole body toward the water, almost as if he were addressing it, “I used to hate wearing watches. Seemed that everywhere you looked, up-time, there was a clock. Telling you how many minutes you have left before you have to do this, or do that, or wake up, or go to sleep. No freedom, man; slaves to the clock. But when we got here –”

He raised his wrist; the up-time watch upon it looked like a strange bracelet with a cheap inset stone of grayed onyx. “This thing used to tell the time, do simple math like a computer, record notes: everything. Funny. I hated it, only wore it occasionally. Mostly to please my boys, since they were the ones who gave it to me. But when I got here — it was like a treasure.” He looked at the face of the watch, which Miro knew was made of the unusual up-timer material known as plastic. “But now it’s dead. No batteries for it. Never will be, either. And still I wear it. Like a gift from the ancient astronauts; like I’m a cargo-cultist of my own making.” He realized even before seeing the carefully blank and patient expression on Miro’s face, that he had lost the down-timer in the dense verbal thicket of his own esoteric references. “Sorry. But look, here’s lunch” — cheese, loaves, and sausages were arrayed on the table — “and we’ve got the best seat in the house.” He pointed out over the lagoon. “Have you ever seen one of these Monsters land?”


“Quite a sight, even from this distance. There it is now.” Tom pointed to the south, where a cruciform speck was easing from a long sweeping turn into level flight.

They were both silent for a time. Tom looked at his shorter companion and smiled, a bit crookedly. “Aren’t you going to ask me?”

“About what?”

“About the balloon project we were talking about.”

Miro shrugged. “I presumed that if you wished to discuss the matter, you would bring it up. There is no reason to rush.”

“See, Estuban, that’s what I like about you. One of the things I like, anyway. You’re not like other businessmen. Here in Venice business is all very cordial, all very careful, and always in play. You never talk about anything without talking about business, too. ‘And your family, are they well?’ sounds like someone just being friendly and concerned, but it’s also a way of finding out if you’re distracted, if your focus on some upcoming deals is wavering, if you’re contemplating pulling back from commerce for a while. But with you, it’s different.”

Miro shrugged. “I am not Venetian. And I am not here as a businessman. Except opportunistically, peripherally.”

“See, they don’t have any ‘peripheral’ business, here. In Venice, you may not even be in business — but you still are. You’re a soldier, a judge, a scribe, a navigator? Fine, but that’s not just your profession; that’s also your basis of barter. Everybody is looking for a little fee if you want access to what or who they know. Seems to be the Venetian way.”

Miro smiled. “It does indeed.”

“Guess you’ve dealt with it a lot over the years, huh?”

“Some,” Miro understated mightily.

“So about the balloons…”


Klaus watched the airspeed indicator fall slowly, felt the slight increase in leftward drift even before Arne reported: “Wind rising a little; now at three knots. And coming about. More from due south.”

Of course. Intermittent sciroccos and the Adriatic’s own peculiar weather and currents were adding to the fun. Nothing stayed very steady very long over the springtime waters of Venice.

The drift diminished, but the right-rear tailwind was now starting to boost the Monster’s airspeed, even as her leftward drift decreased. Just what you want during a landing: shifting winds.

He throttled back the engines a tiny bit, brought the nose up a degree — a little earlier than he’d intended, but he had to counteract the accelerating effects of the tailwind.…