No Ship for Tranquebar, Part Four

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Over the Indian Ocean

September 27, 1636

The airship sparkled in the early morning light. There was only darkness below, as shadows still shrouded the earth. At almost two miles above the surface, the airship could see the sun rise much earlier than they would see it on the ground. Even now the crew watched as the sunlight spread across the water below.

Marlon was in the observation dome. He had his binoculars, and was examining the coast they were passing. "I can't tell where we are just by looking. I used to think that all India was a jungle, but so far I can only see more of the same desert we've been passing over since we left the Mediterranean." He handed the glasses back to the lookout, and started climbing down from the dome.

By noon, they could see the western edge of the Indian peninsula. Frode, the navigator, stood beside Marlon, with his own spyglass. "It's kind of hazy but I think I can see almost the whole southern tip of the Indian subcontinent."

He closed up his glass, and picked up a chart. "According to my sailing instructions, Tranquebar is just up from the point across the narrow strait to what your maps call Sri Lanka. What do you think they're going to say when this airship comes over the horizon?"

Marlon chuckled. "Whatever they think it is, I'm almost certain they don't expect it to be from Denmark. I've been talking to Herr Lund, the new governor. He says that they probably think that the Danish East India company is still floundering around, trying to arrange for a ship that will get here sometime next year. This will be a real shock for them, I'm afraid."

****

The course had been set deliberately south of where the navigator thought Tranquebar was. They turned north and sailed over India now for more than two hours, waiting to sight the fort. They were at about five thousand feet, watching the countryside pass by. Everybody was on the lookout, leaning over railings and out of windows, watching for the large square fortress the company had built there thirteen years before. As landmarks went, it was probably the best thing they were going to get for positive identification from the air.

"There it is!" Then several more shouts came confirming a sighting.

Marlon turned to Eric, the flight engineer. "Somebody tie a weight on the end of a rope, and then put our Danish flag on it. We'll lower it to about twenty feet below the airship. I don't want anybody down there taking a pot shot at us because they don't know what we are."

Just like in Venice, crowds of people were standing in the open and pointing upward. Marlon thought, I wonder if this is ever going to become commonplace? "Let's tie a bucket or bottle or something to a long strip of cloth. We need to get a message to the people in the fort, and tell them how to help us land. You go get the container and a streamer, and I'll write up the instructions. Then you can check it before we make the drop."

Later, their preparations made, Marlon instructed Gunnar, the helmsman, to take the airship across the fortress. "Well, here goes the first aerially transmitted message from Denmark to India in the history of the world." He tossed the green glass bottle out the window. The container fell, streamer fluttering behind it.

Marlon watched as the bottle, trailing a long tail of cloth like a kite, bounced off the wall on the west side of the fortress. Luckily it didn't break. He could see a figure running across the fortress courtyard. The boy scooped up the bottle and ran back toward the building on the east side of the compound.

"Okay, Gunnar. Take it downwind and then come back to that open area just south of the fortress," said Marlon. "We're going to have to make two more runs before we can land. First we're going to drop Ulrik and let him tell them how to set up the mast. Then we're going to drop the mast. For every run, we need to come in at a very low level, and make sure our deliveries are gentle. I don't want to lose either the man or the mast."

The crowd of people was pouring out of the fortress gates. They were all hurrying to a large open area south of the fortress. The airship was creeping upwind just about five hundred feet above the ground. Small boys were waving and shouting. People were staring in open amazement that such a huge thing could be floating toward them.

Marlon braced his feet against the railing near the gangplank and tightened the harness on Ulrik. "Okay, remember to do it exactly the way we practiced. Make sure that the rope hits the ground before you do. You want it to dissipate any shock before landing. I don't know how much static electricity we've built up."

The crewmen nodded. When Marlon said "electricity" nobody wanted to tinker with such a dangerous sounding concept.

Everything was ready. Time to go. Ulrik stepped to the door. The men at the winch put their thumbs up and started the crank, lifting the crewmen above the floor. Then they swung him out the door.

Marlon grinned like a picket fence. "Okay, start him down, boys." The winch crew were cranking like crazy, and Ulrik looked as if he were walking on air. He had a rope dangling below him that would bleed off the static electricity.

Marlon leaned out of the door and watched his man drop slowly but steadily toward the ground. He saw little boys running to catch the end of the rope. He got his megaphone and shouted, "Stay away! Stay away from the rope!"

Ulrik shouted as well, but the boys below didn't stop. Marlon felt as if he were going to burst, trying to save the boys from serious injury. Then he saw someone in a white uniform come running into the crowd of boys. He spoke to them, and gestured sharply, and the boys scattered. The rope touched the ground and bounced along for a moment, then Ulrik was within stepping distance of the ground.

He released his harness and made a perfect landing tumble, rolling into a ball and jumping up immediately.

The man in white walked over to him, shook his hand, then grabbed him in a huge embrace. "Looks like we're welcome, after all." Marlon grinned a moment more, then hurried back to the bridge.

"Okay, Gunnar. Time to deliver the mast. Then we can finally land this thing."

Gunnar brought the ship around in a stately turn, and then was again pointing at the potential landing site. Ulrik was pointing up to the airship and the long mast that have been slung below the cargo compartment. The pivoting cone attachment for docking was already in place on the mast. It seemed to take forever as he spoke and gestured what he wanted to do with the mast. But finally, Ulrik waved his arms.

Marlon said, "There's the signal. Gunnar. When the mast is away take us back over the ocean for the final run while they get it set up."

Marlon sat down in the command chair, feeling completely exhausted and rubbed his forehead. It's true that he hadn't gotten the sleep he needed on this trip. Getting ready to land was taking a huge weight off his shoulders, at least for now.

The Royal Anne sailed out over the ocean and waited. It seemed like only a few minutes but must have been more than an hour. Finally the mast stood on end, and was guyed down firmly to the ground.

"Docking positions," ordered Marlon. "Take us around and bring us up to the mast slowly. Let's do it by the numbers. I don't want to look like an idiot or a fool in front of these people. This is the first time they've ever seen this done, so let's do it right."

Governor's Office, Tranquebar

September 27, 1636

About sunset

"You've certainly caused quite a bit of an excitement." Roelant Crappé was host to Captain Pridmore and the replacement governor, Niels Lund. They were sipping tea and watching the sunset out of the west window of the office.

Crappé said, "This has probably been the most surprising thing to ever happen in this place. Nothing can compare with a great ship appearing out of the clouds, and flying to our outpost."

Niels nodded. "I don't know how much you've heard about things happening in Europe. But there are wonders and things that have never before been seen. And it's going on all over the continent."

Marlon set his cup down and picked up where Niels left off. "Yes, it's really true. There's a whole group of people who came from the future and settled in central Germany. I know for a certainty, because I'm one of them."

Roelant tried, and failed, to stop staring. The airship captain didn't look any different from any other captain ever entertained in this office. And yet, in speaking with Marlon, there was something subtly different. "So, Captain. You come from a time of magic and miracles. This all should seem totally normal to you."

Marlon chuckled. "Indeed, it may seem so. But even in the future where I came from, airships like this always seemed to have a certain magic. People were absolutely fascinated every time they saw one flying around. It's almost like people could not keep from looking at airships, 'blimps' as we called them. I still think they're just wonders beyond belief."

"I know you were wondering why we are here," Niels said. "Your missive was received by the Danish East India Company just this month. And already, we are here with this airship to pick up the most valuable portion of your cargo. We can only take twenty tons, so we need the most vulnerable parts. We can take it back to Denmark in less than a month."

Roelant looked a little surprised. Marlon grinned and pulled out his own large, official packet, covered with seals and ribbons and placed it in front of the long-time factor. "You know, it's a lot more fun to give this away instead of getting one."

After Roelant had thoroughly examined the packet, Niels pulled a document folded into soft leather from his inner jacket pocket. "This is our manifest. We didn't really know what we could bring to India that would have any real value in trade. As far as anybody knows, all the Indians want from Europe is money. However, we bought about ten tons of glassware from Venice. It's some of the finest they make, and hopefully in such a large quantity we can make a profit on it."

Roelant smiled. "Glassware is a good choice. It was never feasible to ship any on the long journey around the Cape of Good Hope. But I'm certain that you, as the new governor, will be able to find buyers. I'll introduce you to my assistant, Chander. He will be of great help."

Marlon said, "My greatest concern, frankly, is fuel for our engines. We used far more fuel than we expected on the trip out here. The monsoon winds are now blowing to the west and we can fly with the wind and get more distance for the fuel we burn, but I still don't think it's enough. We need something in the way of fuel to take us all the way home."

"What sort of fuel do you need? There may be charcoal available, but I don't know in what quantities. And I don't know of any coal." Roelant scratched his chin, thinking of availability and costs.

"My engines run on liquid fuel, like oil or petroleum. Do they use any kind of oil around here for lamps or heating?"

The factor shrugged. "I will have to think about this. I really don't know exactly what we could use. There is very little of this petroleum that you speak of in use here in India right now. Don't worry, though. I've never seen anything we couldn't find in India somewhere. I'm sure we'll think of something."

Marlon stood up and started to pace. "You know, I can adjust to whatever we find, and I'm thinking . . . "

Roelant held up his hand and interrupted Marlon. "We can leave that for another day. Tonight, the natives have prepared a huge festivity to celebrate your arrival from home. They like to have a feast whenever anyone arrives."

Niels said, "Yes, and I'm sure it doesn't hurt your feelings, Roelant. You end up getting home again, even though the ship sent out to retrieve you sank."

"Indeed that has crossed my mind," chuckled Roelant. "Now let's all go to dinner. I think we have some things you may enjoy quite a bit."

****

Marlon sat at a desk in an office they'd loaned him here at the outpost. He felt as if an army of paper was marching past him, and he had to do combat with every single report. The more things change the more they stay the same.

He mumbled to himself. "When I got out of the army, I got a job where I wouldn't be shot at. Little did I know I'd be drowning in numbers. We go through the Ring of Fire and I'm still playing with numbers. I move to Denmark and I'm still playing with numbers."

From the door came a dry laugh. "I do believe the whole world floats on a sea of numbers now." Niels Lund came into the office. "Blame it on the people who want to buy and trade and want to get value for it. That seems to be all we have to defend ourselves, in a shroud of numbers. Perhaps they will keep us from making a devastating mistake.

"I came to show you this list of cargo that we want to send home with you. As you recommended, it's all compact, perishable, and highly valuable."

Marlon reached over and picked up the paper, then almost choked. "Are you sure these numbers are correct? I can see that the nutmeg will sell, and even the opium would bring a lot of money. But your numbers here are truly astonishing."

"Yes, indeed. And when you convert the expected sale price from Gilders to your USE dollars, you should expect to clear a little more than ten million on this trip alone. That's not much compared to what a whole ship would win if we could only get it back to Copenhagen. Your load is only about one fifth as large. But still, if we can get more than one airship a year out here, we could make a very tidy profit."

Marlon shook his head. Ten million dollars for a month of travel? "I'm not certain, but it's probable that we can make five to ten trips a year. It depends on whether or not we can have another airship available to us. There are all kinds of problems that we're lucky not to have experienced on this trip. Only one bad bearing in an engine, and almost no weather concerns. We had good weather all the way out except for when the wind shifted. The only serious problem we've really had, besides rescuing that very beautiful young lady, was that we burned a lot more fuel than we should have. That's something I hadn't expected."

Just then the door opened and a young maid servant brought in a tray. She curtsied, and delivered a practiced speech. "Kind sir, here is the meal you ordered. It is bread and cheese and ghee." Then she curtsied again, and scurried out.

"Did you order this?" Marlon asked.

"Yes, I did." Niels grinned. "In the heat of the day, according to Roelant, everyone eats a light meal. The more rich foods are for the cool of the evening. But you should have something to eat. You haven't eaten all day. This will help keep your mind clear."

"She said this was ghee?"

Niels shrugged. "According to Chander, it's a kind of butter from the milk of the water buffalos. He says they boil it to clarify it, and all the solids are removed. He says it keeps very well in this weather and does not go rancid as quickly."

Marlon tore off a bite-sized piece of bread, dipped it in the little pot and tasted it. "Not bad. A little like toasted butter without the same feeling in your mouth. I kind of like it." He dipped another piece of bread and continued to eat. Then he almost choked, dropped the bread and started scrabbling in his pockets until he found a small silver box.

Niels asked, "Marlon, are you all right? Should I call a doctor?"

Marlon shook his head, and tried to swallow the rest of what was in his mouth. "No, Niels, I'm all right. Just let me try something."

Marlon pulled a small metal device out of his pocket, opened the lid and spun a wheel. Flame leapt up out of the lighter.

"What is that thing? Is it supposed to burst into flame like that?"

"Yes, Niels. Don't worry. It's called a lighter. We use them kind of like permanent matches." He handed the small silver square to Niels.

The governor examined it closely. It had rounded corners, and an etching on the side of some kind of heraldic device with arrows. "That's a very unique device. Do you have more of them?"

Marlon looked down at the floor, and his voice sounded gruff for a moment. "Well, no. This was a gift many years ago from a friend in the army. That was our unit insignia there." He held out his hand, and Niels quickly handed the lighter back.

Marlon kind of cleared his throat, and put the lighter down on the table. "Never mind all that. I've got to try something."

Marlon tore a strip of paper from the edge of one of the reports, dipped it in the ghee until it was well coated, and left it in the little pot, with just a half inch of paper sticking up above the oil. When he held the lighter's flame to the paper, the strip lit, and burned with a clear, smokeless, yellow flame. The paper wasn't consumed in the fire, so it was obviously acting as a wick.


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