1637 The Volga Rules – Snippet 08

Chapter 2: Outpost

Ufa, Russia

July, 1636

Olga Petrovichna went into the tax warehouse with her slate and her charcoal stick. Her worthless husband was supposed to be doing this, but Stanislav Ivanovich Polzin was drunk again. He was usually drunk by noon and it was late afternoon now. Olga sighed. She had long since regretted marrying him, even if he did have a secure post and the family connections to keep it.

“Look up there!”

Olga looked around, even before she identified the voice. It was Sergei Sergeevich, one of the streltzi. It took her only a moment to recall that he would be on guard in the west tower. She went out the door again, and looked up to see Sergei Sergeevich gesturing at the sky, still yelling. She followed his pointing arm and saw a whale flying through the sky. For a moment she was sure it was a whale. Not that she had ever seen a whale, but her grandpa — who had been a sailor — told her about them. Then, as she watched it, her memory caught up with her. There were stories from back west about great flying machines. And the whale had markings. In fact, it had the imperial crest clearly visible on the bottom of the thing. And it was coming right at them.

Olga wondered how Sergei had failed to see it till it got this close. Maybe because it was silent. Then she heard a faint noise. The thing wasn’t silent, not quite, but it was quiet.

Olga turned back to the tax warehouse and yelled, “Someone go to the tavern and get my idiot husband! Mother Russia has remembered we’re here.”


Bernie looked down at the scurrying people in the town of Ufa. “I wondered when they’d notice us.” Bernie felt like he had wandered into a western movie. Fort Apache, maybe. But in any case, it looked like one of the movies that had the wooden stockade surrounding the buildings. A high budget technicolor movie, the sort where the camera zoomed in from on high. He was looking down at a western fort with a town next to it, with just enough Russian bits to make him feel off about it all. The fort was vaguely rectangular, with four watch towers, a bunch of one- and two-story log cabins, and one stone church. Just to the east of the fort was a ramshackle bunch of log cabins, all single story and not overly well made. To the south about three hundred yards were the docks on the Belaya River. The Belaya River was about three hundred yards wide at this point and twisty as all get out. Fort Ufa was on the south end of a loop of river. From looking at the land and where the forest ended, Bernie figured that, come the spring floods, the river was going to come almost up to the fort. It was located as near the docks as they could get without flooding every spring.

“It’s not their fault,” Czar Mikhail said. “Who looks up from a tower? You watch the horizon, or the woods.”

“Prepare to drop anchor,” shouted Colonel Nikita “Nick” Ivanovich Slavenitsky. He was the commander of the Russian Air Force by personal appointment of Czar Mikhail. The crew made preparations, then a weighted spear with a line attached was dropped from the bow of the dirigible. It fell a hundred yards and landed in the mud next to the river, sinking several feet with the force of its fall. It was a stopgap measure to use if you didn’t have proper dirigible docking facilities.

A few minutes later, the dirigible was tied down, at least marginally, and lowered enough so that the passengers could debark by means of a rope ladder. For children — of which there seemed to be many — and cargo, they would use nets.


“The first thing we need is firewood,” Bernie Zeppi said.

“Why?” asked the woman who was apparently the wife of the commander of the garrison, such as it was. Thirty streltzi, who spent their time taxing the fur trade.

“The steam engines on the dirigible. A dirigible is a lot safer in the air under power than it is tied down in the open. And you don’t have a hangar for it.”

“Besides, we will want to use it,” Czarina Evdokia explained. They had discussed this on the trip from Bor. One of the very nice things about traveling by dirigible was the comfortable ride. There was plenty of room to move around and the ride was mostly smooth. You could talk and pace. You could spread maps out on tables and plan campaigns. You could talk about propaganda and medicine and all manner of things. And they had. They had even had breakfast, lunch, and dinner on the dirigible.

“How much wood?”

“A lot, but we have steamboats coming with people and equipment. We are probably going to end up deforesting a good part of the surrounding territory, both because we need the wood and because we need clear sight lines.”

“For now,” Evdokia explained, “Ufa is the capital of Russia.”


Bernie looked over at Natasha and smiled. There had been time to talk on the trip here, if not a lot of privacy. They were going to be forging a new Russia here. A Russia where a commoner like Bernie could marry a princess like Natasha. There had been time to talk, but no room to be alone. That was going to change now that they were here. No matter what Evdokia said. In fact, she hadn’t said they couldn’t be married, just that Bernie’s rank was still an issue.

In the air over Russia

Nikita Ivanovich Slavenitsky — Nick, according to Bernie Zeppi — looked out into the night sky. It was dark, really dark, and cloudy at nine hundred feet. He couldn’t see a thing. The Czarina was cruising along at half speed, and Nick was guessing about the wind so they, by this time, might be as much as a hundred miles off course in any direction. Unlike the Test Bed, the Czarina was a real dirigible, with a large carrying capacity for an airship and a large crew. He had spent a couple of days after arriving in Ufa restocking the Czarina with wood for her boilers, then Czar Mikhail sent them to the Swedish fortress, Nyenskans, on the Baltic coast with letters to everyone from Gustav Adolf to Brandy Bates.

The Czarina, assuming they weren’t headed for the North Pole by this time, should reach Nyen sometime around noon tomorrow, having left Ufa early this morning. They were running light with the extra weight taken up by extra wood and water to extend their range because the condensers were not exactly perfect.

Petr Nickovich Mikhailov, his executive officer, came up to him with a cup of tea. “How does it look, Skipper?”

“We might as well be on our way to Mars for all I can see,” complained Nick.

“I don’t think they have fog in space, Captain,” said Petr, who had been a braincase at the Dacha before transferring to Bor to take over the construction of the dirigibles. He had calmed down a lot and had volunteered to be part of the crew of the Czarina. Pete knew more about the Czarina than anyone alive, but he didn’t have a command mind. On the other hand, he had proven excellent with managing the details of shipboard operations. The Czarina had a crew of twenty-six. Nick was the captain, Petr his executive officer, and the chief engineer. Directly in Nick’s chain were his rudder men and the second and third watch pilots. Under Petr were the engineers, electricians, and riggers. The engineers ran the boilers, the engines and condensers. The electricians ran the generators, the radio, the electric lights and phone system. The riggers did just about everything else. There were also a cook and cook’s assistant, and four maids.

“Go to bed, Skipper. Let the midwatch handle things.”

“I think we ought to go up another five hundred feet,” Nick said.

Petr looked over at the barometer. “I don’t know, Captain. We don’t actually know how high we really are. All we have is the barometer. It’s not like we have a radar range finder. We might be higher than we think.”

“Or lower.”

“I doubt it, not at these temperatures. But if you want, we can pump some more hot air into the balance balloons.” The Czarina got most of her lift from hydrogen-filled lift chambers, but it had two large hot-air lift chambers, so that it could adjust lift without dumping either ballast or hydrogen. Adding more hot air to the hot-air lift chambers would increase their lift, and as they went up the hydrogen chambers would expand increasing their lift more. It was a positive feedback loop that, if handled wrong, could lift them high enough so that the hydrogen chambers would start to vent. That was dangerous. What they would have to do was increase the heat in the hot-air chambers then, once they gained altitude and the hydrogen chambers expanded, they would vent from the hot-air chambers to compensate for the increased lift of the expanded hydrogen chambers.

“Call Valeriya and get a read first,” Nick said.

Petr went over to a wall of the gondola and closed an electric switch.


Valeriya Zakharovna was climbing a ladder next to the left central lift chamber when she heard the bell ringing. She climbed down the ladder, wondering what it was about officers that they wouldn’t let a woman work. It took her a minute and a half to climb down to the phone. “Able Airwoman Zakharovna here,” Valeriya yelled into the mouthpiece. The phones on the Czarina were about on a par with the phones of Alexander Graham Bell’s day.

Then she stuck her ear against the earpiece and heard a very tinny voice say, “Have a look at the cells and tell us their level of expansion.”

“Aye aye.” Valeriya racked the mouthpiece and went back to the central lift chamber. When they had been moored, the chambers had been about three-quarters full. As the ship got higher and the outside air got thinner, the gas in the hydrogen chamber expanded, filling the chamber the rest of the way. Now they were about eighty-five percent full. She could tell because there were markings on a pole, and she could look across from where she was standing and see the marks. The highest mark she could see was the eighty-five percent mark. She went back to the phone and pushed the switch that would make it ring on the bridge.

“Eighty-five percent, sir,” she yelled into the phone.

The bridge acknowledged and she got back to work.