1637 – The Polish Maelstrom – Snippet 27
Approximately 7,000 feet in the air over the Tuscan countryside
First Lieutenant Laura Goss was proud of herself. She’d managed to keep a grin off her face–not even a smile–ever since they’d lifted off from the airfield at Linz. The straight face had lasted all the way to their landing at the Venice airfield on the Lido sandbar. Once her passengers had deplaned and gotten on the boat that would take them over to Venice for their various diplomatic and other meetings, she’d finally broken into laughter.
Nothing uncouth; more of a giggle, really. She’d then enjoyed herself for the next three days, staying in the small tavern that serviced the airfield and (mostly, because there still wasn’t much air traffic) the local fishermen.
Now they were on the second and final leg of the journey, which would end at the newly built airfield at Florence, capital of the duchy of Tuscany. She’d put the straight face back on when her passengers returned from Venice and had kept it on it ever since.
For someone with her insouciance about flying, it was a bit of a struggle. All pilots tended to be relaxed about the so-called perils of aviation, but Laura was carefree even by those standards. Quite unlike the man sitting in the aircraft’s right front seat next to her, whose white-knuckled grip on the armrests and face woodenly devoid of any expression at all were sure signs of acute aviophobia.
You’d think a former prizefighter, former prime minister, current commander of an army division, a man who’d gotten into a gunfight the same day as the Ring of Fire, and had been in several pitched battles since, would be casual about something as comparatively safe as air travel. (Okay, it wasn’t as safe as flying had been up-time. But it was still pretty safe, as far as Laura was concerned. She’d never crashed once. Never come close.)
Fear of flying wasn’t rational, of course, which she knew perfectly well. In a moment of empathy, she smiled and said: “Hey, Mike, relax.”
She pointed with a forefinger at the window on the passenger’s side. Beyond, clearly visible, was one of the Dragonfly’s two engines, securely attached to the lower wing of the biplane. “This plane’s got two engines, you know, and it can fly just fine if either one of them goes out. It’s quite a bit safer than the single-engine planes Colonel Wood’s put you on before.”
Mike Stearns pulled back his lips in a rictus that bore precious little resemblance to a smile. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe this plane is a new model, made by an upstart manufacturer whose owner is a down-timer–that is to say, has hardly any experience building airplanes.”
“Oh, hell, it’s not that new. The first Dragonfly came into service a year and a half ago. This is the fifth one they’ve made.”
From the rear came Rebecca’s voice: “It’s slightly new, because it was modified for the needs of the State Department. But Lt. Goss is right, Michael. You really should try to relax a bit.”
“As far as the rest of it is concerned, General,” said Laura, “it’s true that Ziermann Flugzeugwerke was founded by a down-timer, but the aircraft itself was designed by Kitt and Cheng Engineering–and they didn’t suck it out of their thumbs. This beauty’s closely modeled on an up-time airplane that saw a lot of service, the De Havilland DH 90 Dragonfly. They even named it after her.”
Mike Stearns glanced out the window. “I noticed right from the start that it was a biplane. That is to say, an antique. When did the original see service?”
“Mid-30s. Mind you, that’s the mid-nineteen thirties. Three centuries from now.”
Mike’s tight lips tightened further. “Swell. Three hundred years from now means it was built thirty years before I was born. Like I said, an antique–and this particular one was built three centuries before that.”
He closed his eyes. “I appreciate the effort, Lt. Goss. But I didn’t even like to fly in Boeing 737s.”
Behind him, his wife clucked her tongue reprovingly. “You really should try to keep up with the times, Michael. The days when you could count the number of aircraft in the world on the fingers of one hand–even two hands–are long gone.”
“Two years gone, anyway,” said Goss. “These days you’d need all your toes also. Even that might not be enough.”
The only response made by the former prime minister of the United States of Europe, former professional boxer and now Major General Stearns, was: “How soon will be landing, Lieutenant?”
Sitting in one of the back seats next to Rebecca was Mike’s quartermaster general, David Bartley. He hadn’t been paying much attention to the conversation because he’d been engrossed studying the landscape below. They were passing over the Apennines now, and the scenery was pretty spectacular. Unlike up-time commercial jets, which typically flew at an altitude between thirty and forty thousand feet, far above the land they were passing over, the Dragonfly seemed to be grazing the mountains.
That was mostly an optical illusion, David knew.
“What’s the ceiling for this aircraft, Lt. Goss?” he asked.
“Twelve thousand, five hundred feet. But there’s nothing to worry about, Major Bartley. The northern Apennines aren’t very high. The tallest peak is Monte Cimone, but that’s sixty miles northwest of us–and it’s only seven thousand feet or so.”
She tried to keep the smile on her face seraphic rather than sly, but suspected she was failing. It didn’t really matter, though, because Stearns still had his eyes closed. “The reason it seems we’re flying pretty close to the ground is because we are.” She glanced out of her window. “About half a mile, thereabouts. I’m doing that because we’re not too far out from Florence. We’ll be landing soon.”
“How soon?” asked Mike, without opening his eyes.
The Dragonfly was a six-seater. The two men in the very back were both radio operators–and repairmen, if need be–who’d be staying in Florence along with the equipment they were bringing. Both of them were down-timers, but their disparate reactions to the experience of flying for the first time showed once again that fear of flying had little rhyme or reason. The one on Mike’s side, like Mike himself, had his eyes closed and a death grip on his arm rests. The one on the other side shared all of David’s interest in the view–and then some.
“Oh, look, Heinrich!”
But Heinrich kept his eyes closed.
Florence, capital of the Duchy of Tuscany
“My hosts keep urging me to move into one of their bigger and newer palaces. I lived in one of them for a time, in my first exile. The Palazzo Medici, they call it.”
Fakhr-al-Din waited for the translator to finish, before continuing. The emir’s Italian was excellent, but unfortunately Mike’s was mediocre. If Rebecca had been present, she could have done the translating. But the customs of the Levant were such that his host would have deemed it very improper for her to be present.
As Fakhr-al-Din proceeded to demonstrate. “But I much prefer this older palace, the Palazzo Vecchio. Yes, the rooms are small, as you can see”–he waved his hand about–“but there is much more privacy. That is very important for the women. Here, they can move about outside, because there is an enclosed garden. In the larger and more recently-built palaces–“
His expression grew stern. “It is quite scandalous, the way the Florentine boys try to get a glimpse of our women. It is very hard to prevent them from doing so, in a place like the Palazzo Medici.”
Mike kept his expression as bland as possible. He couldn’t quite bring himself to nod in a gesture of agreement, though. Some impish part of him was tempted to explain to the emir than the customs in the German lands he now called home included public baths, which were not segregated by gender. So far as he could tell, there was no significant moral decay caused by this practice, compared to that which prevailed anywhere else in the world, including the Near East.
He glanced at David Bartley, who was sitting next to him. The young man’s own expression indicated a certain degree of reproof. Hopefully, Fakhr-al-Din would interpret that as David’s disapproval of young rascals rather than his disapproval of old male chauvinists.
“But I grow tiresome, I fear,” said the emir, after another pause for translation. “You did not come all this way to hear an old man grumble about the sinfulness of young men.”