High Road to Venice

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Merton Smith rolled his wheel chair over to the phone and called up the weather service. "Hi, Dan. How's it look for a flight to Venice?"

"Not horrible. The reports from the weather stations are mostly in. There is a warm front that was moving in from the west but it seems to have stalled. We don't know why, but we suspect that something is going on in the east. I wish we still had the stations in Saxony and Brandenburg."

"Politics." Merton snorted. "They screw up everything. So what do you figure is out east that Saxony and Brandenburg aren't reporting?"

"It's a cold front, Merton. We just don't know how big it is."

"Okay. How's it look on the south side of the Alps?"

"That's the good news. Clear and sunny all the way to Rome. Bolzano is reporting light winds through the pass and wants to know when you guys are coming."

"Looks like today's a go," Merton told him.

****

Johan did the walkaround. He was the pilot, Merton the co. Besides, Merton couldn't walk, at least not all that well. Merton had gotten new fiberglass prosthetics but wasn't all that used to them yet. Honestly, Johan wasn't all that comfortable with Merton. A man who was missing both legs to above the knee shouldn't be piloting an airplane even if he was an up-timer and familiar with the engines. Johan checked the bag for leaks. It was double thick canvas with tar between the layers and oiled leather at the bottom where it contacted the ground, where the greatest wear would occur. He wiggled the flaps and the rudders. Checked for dings in the wings, body and tail. Checked the bag fan, then climbed the stepladder and went aboard the plane where Merton was already in the right seat. By tradition, the left seat in a fixed wing was the pilot's seat. Johan headed back and checked the cargo. "So what do we have?"

Merton turned in his seat and read off the passenger list. "Eight passengers plus the cargo has us traveling a bit heavy, Captain. We have two Venetian bigwigs that were in Grantville for shopping and business. Lucco Ricci and Alberto DeLuca. DeLuca is the redhead. There's a little boy that was sent here for surgery on a deviated septum. His dad is some sort of muckety-muck or something in France, so they sent him to Grantville by way of Venice. He's five, and I've been calling him Frankie. His nanny, Mademoiselle Babin, isn't crazy about that, lemme tell you."

Johan caught sight of a really differently dressed stranger. "Who's the guy in the robes?"

"Magdalena said he's a sultan or something from Algiers, or North Africa anyway, who wanted a look at the library in Grantville. Can't pronounce it right. Hafsid Bey Sidi Uthman, that's it. Peter back there is a certified electrician the sultan hired to wire his palace. The blond guy is Matthew Howard, English kid on his grand tour."

"I heard about him," Johan said. "He cut quite a swath through the young women in Grantville. Good thing he didn't stay more than a month."

"Yeah, he's headed to Rome, he said. And the last is David Bartley, who's going to Venice for a week on some business."

"About standard," Johan said. "Half a million in cargo and five million in ransoms." Then he waved to Magdalena that they were ready and the passengers started to board.

****

"Welcome aboard, sir, ma'am." Johan got the passengers settled in then headed up front for the usual speech. "Folks, we're not having box lunches this trip. Nürnberg is only eighty-five miles away and we have to stop to refuel, since the trip is about four hundred miles. TransEuropean Airlines will have a catered lunch waiting for us when we get there. There will be snacks and drinks for the long leg of the trip, which is the one to Bolzano, where we refuel again. Then it's just a hop, skip and jump to Venice. We should be there before sundown."

Sidi Uthman asked, "This lunch? I did explain my dietary requirements . . . "

"I'm sure our office sent word ahead, sir." Johan made his way back up front, resenting a bit that it was him acting as greeter. He wished again that they could afford the weight of a stewardess. But these weren't up-time passenger planes. They were more like an air-going stagecoach in the amount they could carry. They were roomier per pound or passenger they could carry than an up-time aircraft would be, which made them pretty luxurious stage coaches. But that was because they had less lift for their size.

About a quarter hour later, they were in the air and headed south.

****

"Stop that squirming, Francois!" Mme. Babin snapped. "Can't you just look out the window?"

Francois tried but he really had to go. He'd been too excited to visit the restroom before they took off. Then Mr. David Bartley leaned over the seat in front of him and said, "I need to go use the facilities. I'll take him, if you like."

Mme. Babin gave Mr. Bartley a measuring look. Francois knew that she was uncomfortable with airplanes, and the idea of getting up and walking around in them made her even more nervous. He squirmed some more. "I really need to go."

"Very well. But be careful."

The young Englishman stood up and headed to the can, just beating Mr. Bartley and Francois. "Don't push the red button!" Mr. Bartley said and Francois looked up in time to see that Mr. Bartley was grinning.

"No fear," Matthew said. "I've been told all about the red button."

Francois looked up at the two men. He hadn't been told about the red button. He wondered what it did. He knew enough to know that red buttons did bad things.

"Just not till we get out of range of Grantville," Mr. Bartley explained. "You don't want your poop landing on the head of someone who'll complain to the mayor, do you?"

Francois felt his eyes get even wider. Then Matthew came out and agreed. "Yes. The red button opens a hole in the bottom of the plane. Then poof! Everything that's, ah, collected during a flight will fall down out of the sky. Best to do that over a forest or something, so you don't drop it on someone's head."

Francois went in and spent some time looking for the red button but didn't find it. He became convinced that Mr. Bartley and the Englishman were playing with him. Then he spent some time giggling about how it would work. He was still giggling when he got back to his seat. His nanny, after he told her the story, turned around and gave Matthew and David a very stern look. They glanced at each other, trying to hold back the laughs. It wasn't true, of course. The toilet in the Monster was emptied on the ground by much more conventional means. But it made a fun story for Francois.

Shortly after that Francois got to visit the cockpit where they steered the plane. It was big, almost as big as the cabin. There were cabinets and things where they stored stuff for the plane. There were two chairs. At first Francois thought they weren't locked to the floor like the seats in the cabin were. But they showed him the little rails that let the seats be moved then be locked down again. So that the copilot could be navigating when he wasn't copiloting and the pilot could handle the radio and stuff. But the chairs were still attached to the floor.

It was while Francois was down on the floor looking at the rails that he saw the copilot's feet. Now Francois was greatly impressed with the medical know-how of the doctors in Grantville. They had fixed his deviated septum. The idea that they could make legs that were real legs seemed to him quite likely. Besides, these didn't look at all like the peg legs he had seen. They had feet. It also seemed quite a neat thing to have. "Did the doctors fix your legs like they fixed my seppum? Did they hurt after they sewed them on?"

"No, I'm afraid not. The guy who designed the Monster had more to do with my legs than the doctors did. They aren't sewn on; I take them off at night like shoes," the copilot explained. "They are made of a composite, the same as the airplane."

"Why not just use wood?"

"Wood is heavy and artificial legs don't have muscles in them. Well, these have springs in them which help, but they aren't really the same as muscles. So Georg used composites to keep the weight down. I'm still getting used to them but they are better than sitting in a chair all the time." They didn't explain to him that Merton the copilot had been in an accident at a machine shop a couple of years ago and had lost both legs above the knee. The loss of his legs had been especially hard on Merton and the Ring of Fire had made it harder still, because it had turned back the clock in the field of prosthetics. It had never occurred to Merton before the accident that the switch from "disabled" to "physically-challenged" had been anything but political correctness. The difference between a peg leg and an up-time prosthetic limb was the difference between a disability and a challenge. At least in Merton's case. It was, for all practical purposes, impossible to walk on a couple of peg legs that started above the knee. That was not true with up-time prosthetics.

The composite legs that Georg had made for Merton at Farrell's request fell somewhere in between an up-time prosthetic and a peg leg but rather closer to the up-time product. They allowed Merton to walk with the aid of something to hold on to. He'd been told that once he got a bit more used to them he might even be able to get by with a couple of canes instead of a walker.

Francois spent the rest of the hour and a half flight to Nürnberg looking out the window, mostly at clouds. When that got old he looked at the passengers. Francois was a child of nobility. But for most of his life he had been a hidden-away child. Not that his parents didn't love him. They did. Still, he had been sick most of his life, so he hadn't been able to play much. He had met more people in the hospital than in France. All he really knew of France was Mama, Papa and Mlle. Babin . . . well, and a few doctors that Papa had had look at him. Not being sick was quite a novelty in itself. So was being able to breath through his nose. During his recovery from the surgery he had gone from shy to curious, perhaps even overly curious.

****

"Ah." Sidi Uthman pushed his chair back and burped delicately. "Most interesting, indeed."

The meal had been leg of lamb with mint jelly, not something Merton much cared for at the best of times. But, he figured, whatever it took to make a passenger happy. Gods knew, they paid enough for this treatment. For him there was a large pot of coffee, which he appreciated.

"More please," Frankie said. David Bartley poured himself and the kid another cup of cocoa, while his nanny enjoyed a glass of wine with the Italian merchants. Peter Hartz stuck to beer.

"Merton," Johan called, "time to preflight."

****

Back in the air, Johan pointed the nose a bit west of south. "That cold front must be weaker than they predicted," he said. "We came in a bit farther east than I thought we would."

****

"What is taking you to Venice, Herr Bartley?" Alberto DeLuca asked. He was a portly man in his late thirties or early forties.

David looked at him then smiled. "Ships. OPM has been asked to invest in a shipping concern, so I'll be looking at ships. And talking to people about what it should cost to refit them with some up-time devices which should allow smaller crews."

"What sort of devices?" asked Lucco Ricci.

"Electric winches, batteries and a drag generator."

"What is a drag generator?"

"It's what Brent Partow calls a small generator that you drag behind a sailing ship. It uses the motion of the ship through the water to charge the batteries. The idea is that a ship rigged with the system would be able to use the wind indirectly to raise the sails and a few other things, decreasing the crew size from a third to half. We're not entirely sure it will work or how big the units would be. I'll also be pricing glass and silks."

The conversation went from there. With David talking about silk and glass while DeLuca and Ricci tried in vain to move the discussion back to the availability of the shipboard power system. Every once in a while David would let slip some tidbit about how the initial investment would be significant but the savings in crew cost would probably pay for it in the course of a single journey, then go back to talking about the price of silk. All in all David thought it was going very well.

****

About an hour and a half later, Merton started getting worried. "Shouldn't we have seen Munich by now, Johan?"

"It's the damned clouds," Johan muttered. "Can't see properly half the time."

"Point it a bit further east," Merton said. "It can't be that far."

****

"Still no Munich," Johan whispered.

"Maybe we better land and ask?" Merton suggested.

"Not in Bavaria." Johan shuddered. "You don't want to set down in Bavaria. Not ever."

****

"We can't be that far off course," Merton said.

"Far enough that we don't know exactly where we are," Johan said. "Keep looking."


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