1635 – The Papal Stakes — Snippet 39

Suddenly. Just like that. A calm cell, courtesy of the unpredictable marriage of the sirocco and the Adriatic.

Without the tail wind, the airspeed dropped: not much, but quickly, and at the penultimate pre-landing moment. To compensate, Klaus juiced the engines, brought the nose up a little more. But he couldn’t hold that attitude for long, not with the Monster’s long tail stretching so far aft of the air cushion skirt and center of gravity.

“There will be a real bump now,” he commented with a thin smile.

“Yes,” agreed Arne, just before they made contact.

Or should have. Instead of the breathy flounce of coming down on a fully inflated bag, there was a hiss, a burbling, and a lurch to the left rear. The Monster’s tail section veered closer to the water, the left horizontal stabilizer almost grazing the surface.

“Bag failure!” snapped Klaus.

To his credit, Arne reacted without delay, helping maintain trim as Klaus re-gunned the engines, not quite rising off the surface of the water, but not coming to rest on it, either.

“Still dropping on the left,” observed Arne.

“Give me a little more thrust from the outer portside engine.” Klaus cheated the stick and pedals, giving a little more lift to that side.

Meanwhile, the burbling and complaining beneath them increased.

“Klaus…” began Arne.


“Oh, hell,” breathed Tom as the Monster landed, shuddered, pulled up, seemed like its nose was no longer in precise alignment with its direction of travel.

“What has gone wrong?” Miro managed to swallow after he asked the question, realizing how terrible it was to watch a flying machine in such obvious peril. Particularly one as large and powerful as the Monster, which, if it truly crashed —

“Don’t know. Wind maybe. But no, it seems calm. Probably that damned air cushion gear.”

Miro was surprised at the vehemence with which his normally calm companion invoked the name of the landing gear. “I was not aware you had such misgivings about…”

But Tom wasn’t listening; he was watching what might well be a disaster approaching. And if it didn’t slow down soon, the disaster might well land straight in their laps.


“Distance to the land ramp?” Klaus did not dare take his eyes off the instruments or his senses away from the delicate balancing act he was maintaining between the pitch and yaw improvisations that kept the Monster moving forward.

“Five hundred yards. Maybe six hundred.” Arne’s voice was taut.

Klaus knew they weren’t going to make it; every time he backed off the engines, let the Monster settle a little more, he could feel more of the skirt shredding, felt the lift diminish from the already crippled leather-bound plenum chamber that was his landing gear. Besides, the underside of the Monster would bottom out on the ramp even if he could get that far, possibly ruining the airframe. But if he cut the speed down far enough for a stop, he’d bite the water, possibly digging in the nose — and again, ruin the aircraft.

He glanced up to take his own bearings, saw the villa that the USE had purchased for the support of its Venetian air operations dead ahead, the smooth water that surrounded it on three points obscured on the left by the weed-choked shallows.

The weed-choked shallows…

“Arne, I want three, short, evenly pulsed revs from the starboard engines.”

“But Klaus –”

“Just do it.”

The roar to the right increased and died as quickly as it had risen. The plane tilted to the left again, but Klaus cheated the controls, kept both the tail and left wingtip from digging in — and the craft had altered its course by five degrees or so to the left, pushed in that direction by the lopsided engine thrust that also helped them maintain altitude and extend the time they were airborne.

Another momentary roar of the engines on the right. Then a third and longer pulse —

“Arne, bring it back!” Klaus shouted, as he struggled to keep the Monster’s nose up, its tail out of the water, and its wings level — more or less.

“Klaus, we’re almost into the weeds!”

Klaus nodded tightly. “Because that’s where we’re going. Depth here is about — what?”

“Less than three feet.”

Klaus started easing off the engines, started to let the nose down ever so slightly.

“Airspeed looks good,” Arne gulped out.

— Just as the remains of the skirt made contact with the water. A high-pitched burbling rose beneath them. Klaus gauged what resistance was left in the compromised plenum chamber, let the Monster travel forward another few seconds, and peripherally watched the passing weeds begin to slow in their rearward rush, enough so that he could start to make out individual fronds and stems.

“Two feet of water, no more,” Arne rasped.

Klaus sighed and let the Monster settle down on what was left of her air cushion landing gear, cutting the engines.

For a moment, the leather held — a last moment of increased pressure in the bag as the fuselage came closer to the water’s surface — and then it let go with a blast. A wash of sharp slaps and bumps announced its tattered chunks flying up against the fuselage.

Without power, the nose came down more quickly — but at just the same moment, the tail’s horizontal stabilizers slid slowly into the water, and the lower wing kissed down as well. Arne killed the blower motor a moment before its spinning blades snarled into contact with the weed-choked swells of their landing zone.

Klaus watched the weeds and rushes collect before his slowing craft like an impenetrable wall —

And then realized that the Monster had come to a stop. And was sinking.

Before stopping at a depth of fifteen inches.


Tom’s mouth was still open. “Did you see that?” he murmured at last.

As if I could have missed it? “Er…yes. This catastrophe makes our plans quite –”

“No, no — did you see that piloting? Man, whoever that guy is deserves a medal. Hell, if Mike or Ed or someone doesn’t give him a medal, I’ll make one especially for him. That was incredible. That plane should have crashed at least three times. Maybe four.”

Miro was perplexed. “But it did. Crash, that is.”

Tom turned. “That was not a crash. I mean, yeah, technically, I guess it was. But it was a crash landing, and a damned good one. A real crash is — well, you’d know it if you saw it. The pilot loses control, and the plane goes in. There’s a big blast from the impact alone, even if there’s no explosion. Pieces everywhere. Usually not many survivors. If any.”

Miro looked at the plane, sitting in the shallows, half-hidden by the weeds, which were already still again. “Very well. But unless I am much mistaken, that plane is not going to be useable any time soon.”

Tom nodded, then looked sideways at Miro. “Eh, Estuban, about that balloon of yours –”

Miro smiled. “I learned, while masquerading as a Christian plying the trade routes of the Mediterranean, that one should always have multiple contingency plans. I have now learned that the same is true when one is an intelligence officer overseeing a field operation.”

Tom smiled back, relieved. “So your balloon is already back in Jena?”

“Actually, I had it return to Grantville, where it is now being refitted and loaded. There were personnel there I thought we might have need of. As well as equipment. And now, I suspect, repair parts for the Jupiter.”

“How soon can it be back here?”

“That is always weather dependent, but on the average, not more than two weeks’ travel time.”

Tom nodded. “Now let’s hope something doesn’t break on your balloon.”

“Yes, indeed. Although, it must be said: there is far less to break on a dirigible than an airplane.”

“No lie,” breathed Tom with a nod, and another glance at the Monster’s vertical stabilizer, sticking up from the weeds like a large, dull-colored shark’s fin. “I also hear you can burn just about any fuel in your balloons. Including fish oil.”

“Yes, although I will not vouch for the downwind appeal of such a ride.”

Tom’s grin was very wide. “Might as well tell you, I’m pretty much sold on the whole balloon thing. Even given the fact that someone — well, everyone, probably — is going to use it to drop bombs. I thought about that a lot, but I still think airships are going to do more good than harm.”

“Often, that is all we can ask for in life.”

“Oh, we can ask for more; we just don’t get it, usually. So what do these balloons cost to build? About a hundred thousand USE dollars?”