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1635 The Papal Stakes: Chapter Thirteen
Last updated: Wednesday, August 22, 2012 21:52 EDT
Two days later, Estuban Miro stifled a yawn as he waited for Tom Stone to arrive back at the embassy in Venice. Word had it that the American pharmaceutical magnate had stayed late over on the mainland in Mestre, personally attending to what he had dubbed a “quality control problem” in one of the new jointly owned chemical refineries he had founded in the past half year.
Ironic, since Miro had been in Mestre himself last night. But not wanting to waste the early hours of the day, he had left both Lefferts’ Wrecking Crew and North’s Hibernians slumbering as he emerged into the predawn glimmer to catch the first available boat from the mainland, which the locals dubbed Terraferma. So he was among the first visitors to arrive on Venetia, that day. And what did he get for all his troubles? A reasonably cushioned chair and a small cup of passable coffee as he waited for the USE’s ambassador to Venice to return. Eventually.
Miro stifled another yawn. He’d been working on a sleep deficit for the past two nights. In Padua, he had tried to excuse himself from the dinner table early, pleading his early departure the next morning. Somehow that never happened; every time he started to rise, someone refilled his glass, or asked a question, or embroiled him in a debate. In short, no matter how Miro had tried to get away from that spattered, partially charred, richly served table of good cheer, he couldn’t make good his escape. Probably just as well. While it was superficially just a meal with intelligent companions, it had also been a rite of passage.
Among the up-timers, it had been a kind of assessment concluding with a provisional adoption. Mazzare’s cordiality had deepened into potential friendship over the course of their joint balloon journey from Jena to Chur, and the up-time cardinal’s opinion obviously held great sway with both Sharon and Ruy.
But it had probably been more crucial in securing the benign toleration and cooperation of Father-General Vitelleschi and Cardinal Barberini. Miro had been thoroughly briefed on the former before arriving in Italy. A reputation for stern measures and judgment in his professional life had colored the depictions of Vitelleschi; he was purported to be humorless and vinegary. As Miro had learned, this was a profound misperception. In some ways, he suspected Vitelleschi might have had the most incisive and even blasphemous wit of them all; he just elected not to show it. The younger Barberini had imbibed many of the prejudices of his patrician class: a lack of ease around Jews, a reluctance to have dealings with them. But his uncle’s cosmopolitanism had also rubbed off on Antonio Barberini, who, over the course of the evening, warmed to Miro and his wry interjections.
But Urban — he was the hardest of them to figure. Possibly, because he is most like me, thought Miro with a smile, thinking how that observation would have scandalized every Catholic in the room. With the probable exception of Urban.
For Urban VIII’s was a face and consciousness that had very obviously been washed by many waters, not all of which had been pure or calm. He loved life, enough so that he did not ruin his existence by being desperate to retain it above all other things. Yet he also was intrigued by the possibility of what lay beyond. Urban’s speech and attitudes did not reflect a rigid expectation of the shape that Heaven or Hell might take, nor the face of God or the malice of Satan. Before he had become a pope, he had been Maffeo Barberini, head of his powerful family, a creature of his time, versed in arts and letters and the lofty heresies of the Greeks and Romans. No, Pope Urban VIII was not a simple man, and his thoughts and plans clearly moved on many levels simultaneously.
When the dinner group had finally pushed back from the table in search of their beds, Miro was glad to have stayed awake so late; it had been crucial for him to be accepted by these groups with whom he would now be working. But he also dreaded rising the next day, and riding to Venice.
Or rather, to Mestre. The entire traveling party — numbering almost thirty — was hot, dusty, and parched when they reached Mestre just before sundown. It had made no sense to push the horses any harder, and the timing had not been fortuitous. The last boat to the main island was a black shadow receding into the lagoon’s red-orange reflection of the sunset sky. That had meant retracing their steps away from the dockside, until they found a predictably over-priced, under-staffed inn in which to spend the night.
A night that had been all too short: five hours after finally settling in, the inn’s ostler had jostled Miro awake, as he had requested. Morning ablutions, a quick walk back to the docks, waiting for the first ready boatman — and now, here in the embassy, wondering about the odds of getting a second cup of coffee before –
Tom Stone came up the stairs two at a time, one top-tuft of hair truant from the rest of his somewhat trimmed gray-silver mane. He got to the top of the stairs, saw Miro, frowned, and then his brows rose. “Oh, yeah. Right. You’re the guy. Miro. From back home. Sorry I got delayed — uh, detained. I was over in Mestre helping out my partners.”
“Yes. I was told. I wasn’t waiting long.” Miro rose, put out a hand, smiled. “Mr. Stone, I’m Estuban Miro.”
“Yeah, yeah. I got the messages about you from Grantville. Great to meet you.” The hand-shake was vigorous; unpolished, yes, but very enthusiastic and genuine.
Stone waved off the help of one of the waiting embassy staff, opened the door to his office himself, and apparently presumed Miro would follow without invitation, as if he was simply an acquaintance who had come to call at his home. Miro trailed along. He was impressed at the size of the chamber but doubted Stone had anything to do with the opulent décor incorporating tasteful Renaissance hints and flourishes. Tom flopped down behind the plateau that was his desk and smiled at Miro over the top of it. Then, his hand halfway through waving his visitor toward a seat, Stone reconsidered the arrangements with a frown; he quickly rose up, came around and sat in a chair directly opposite the one Miro was already standing behind.
“No desks today,” Stone explained. “At least not with someone from home. Hey, have a seat; take a load off, Don Estuban. You’ve come a long way without a lot of rest, from what I hear.”
Miro smiled. “That would not be an exaggeration.”
“Want some breakfast?”
“Thank you, no; I had a light meal before coming here,” Miro lied, hoping that the sudden contradictory growl from his stomach remained inaudible to Stone.
Apparently it did. Tom replied with the strange, neck-bobbing nod that was his wont, and looked uneasily out the window. “I don’t mean to rush you, Don Estuban, but –”
“Mr. Stone, there is no need for apologies. If I had family members in the clutches of Borja, I would want to get down to business, too.”
Tom smile gratefully. “I’m glad you understand, Don Estuban, really I am. I don’t want to seem rude but — well, Frank and Giovanna are on my mind. Pretty much all the time.”
Miro noticed the faint blue rings under his host’s eyes but said nothing.
“So what’s the plan?”
“First, Mr. Stone, have there been any further developments? I haven’t received a situation report since Chur.”
Stone went back in his seat with a sigh and a grimace. “No. No ransom demands. Not even anyone to talk to. The Spanish ambassador here claims ignorance of Borja’s actions. ‘Course, he’s probably telling the truth; seems all the Spanish big shots in Italy were taken as much by surprise by Borja’s actions as was Rome itself.”
Miro nodded. “Unfortunately, with no remaining embassy in Rome, we are unable to get any new information on the situation there. Even Don Francisco Nasi’s intelligence networks have gone silent. We cannot tell if they have been discovered and eliminated or are merely unable to send messages because of the political and domestic chaos prevailing in the city.”
Tom nodded. “So — what’s the plan?”
“I don’t know.”
“Wait a minute. Mike radioed that you were in charge of the rescue operation –”
“I am in charge of the mission sent down here to Italy, but that mission has three separate mandates: protect the pope, recover your son and daughter-in-law, and coordinate with you. I only know the specifics of the objectives I am to be directly involved in. Harry Lefferts is in charge of the rescue operation, and I must remain unaware of his plans.”
Tom nodded again. “Yeah, yeah. Compartmentalization of information, right? So even if someone grabs you, you can’t tell them anything about any of the other plans.”
“That is correct. And that is why you will no longer be hearing from the ex-Roman embassy after it relocates.”
“What? Not even by radio?”
“Not routinely. Other than brief, coded status reports at prearranged times, radio communications will be of an emergency nature only.”
“It is unlikely, but the Spanish may have procured radios. If they have, it is even more unlikely but still possible that they have acquired a working knowledge of signal triangulation. Which could lead them directly to the pope.”
“Whoa. Signal triangulation is a bit out of the Spaniards’ league, isn’t it? Hell, it’s out of our league, I thought.”
“Not quite, and between up-timer defectors and all the down-time radio operators you have trained that have since left your service, the Spanish could easily gather the resources necessary to get an initial sense of the embassy’s final hiding place if it sends radio transmissions. Which reminds me; might I have the list of new safe houses compiled by Giuseppe Cavriani?”
Tom took a sealed scroll from his desk and handed it over to Miro. “Just what Nasi asked for: three locations, all vetted and brokered by Giuseppe Cavriani himself. I haven’t broken the seal; no one other than he knows the locations.”
“Excellent. And the arrival of your large airplane, the Jupiter?”
Tom slouched in his chair and picked distractedly at threads that had come loose from the upholstery on the armrests. “Next few days. Maybe next week.”
Miro tried to keep the frown off his face. “I see. Problems?”
“Seems so. That damn Monster’s landing gear are turning into maintenance pigs. Or so they tell me.”
Miro wasn’t quite sure he had parsed all the slang correctly. “I beg your pardon?”
Tom uprooted one of the threads abruptly, seemed to regret it. “The Monster — which is what most of us call our big, four engine transport, the Jupiter — has got air-cushion landing gear. It was the only approach that seemed workable when we were building it, and it also allowed us to use any body of water as an airfield. Cool idea, huh?”
“Huh,” agreed Miro, trying not to sound confused.
“Yeah, well it was great until this ‘ACL gear’ started failing maintenance checks. Every time that happened, they had to take it off-line — they had to ground it — and fix the problem. Now, it’s grounded more than it’s flying. Not that I see why the Monster is needed down here.” He cast an appraising glance at Miro.
Miro smiled. “I’m not allowed to talk about that, at this point. Compartmentalization of information, I’m afraid.”
Tom grumbled but smiled back. “Yeah, I figured. Although I figure maybe you’ll use it to get the pope out of Italy. And I figure that maybe, once Harry springs my kids, it would be a lot easier to fly away from Rome than elude overland or maritime pursuit.”
Miro merely nodded. Well, so much for having any major operational surprises up their sleeves. Although, truth be told, if he were the Spanish, he would be expecting these gambits, anyhow.
Tom was still staring at him. “You know, I hear rumors that you have a balloon. That that’s how you came over the Alps.”
“There are so many rumors, these days, it’s hard to know what to believe.”
“I got this rumor from some folks here in Venice, folks who are thinking of trying to build one of their own. Seems someone’s ex-seaman son has given up sewing sails and has instead been stitching seams for an airship’s envelope up in Grantville for the past eight months. Seems the guy paying him is one Don Estuban Miro.”
Miro sighed. “It seems that we live in a very small world, indeed.”
Tom smiled. “Sorry to pop your balloon, so to speak.”
Miro’s stomach growled again. So audibly that Tom Stone noticed. Miro waved away any concern. “That was merely distress at your unforgivable pun, not hunger, Mr. Stone.”
“Very well. Tom. And I am simply Estuban.”
“Great.” Tom rang for breakfast before Miro could object — who silently blessed him. “Listen, Estuban, I was thinking. If the Monster doesn’t get here on time, or gets gummed up or something well ”
“Well, what about your balloon?”
Miro shook his head. “I am sorry, Tom, but no, my balloons are completely insufficient for any of the tasks you are envisioning.”
“Whaddya mean? They got you over the Alps, didn’t they? You and the Wrecking Crew, who usually come pretty heavily armed.”
“Yes, the balloon got us over the Alps, but at a rate of only one hundred miles per day, and only thirty miles per hour.”
“What? Why so slow?”
“Tom, these are hot air balloons. They consume fuel at a prodigious rate. Most of our cargo space is fuel tankage for the burner, so that we can keep the air in the envelope hot enough.”
“And why so slow?”
“Hot air has much less lift than the other balloons you were familiar with, such as the Hindenburg and the others which used hydrogen. So hot air balloons can’t afford the weight of a full internal frame. Without that frame, the balloon deforms at higher airspeeds; it begins to flatten at the nose, buckle, veer off course. It is an inherent limit of the technology, Tom. I am sorry.”
“Well, can’t we build a better balloon? Something like the Hindenburg?” Seeing the look on Miro’s face, he added, “But smaller, of course.”
“I’d like to, Tom. But hydrogen is a dangerous substance. As I’m sure you’re aware.”
“You’re not talking about the flammability issues, are you?”
“Not directly. From what I’ve read, and from the up-timers I’ve talked to, the real danger is the brittlization.”
Tom nodded. “So, you’ve done your homework.” He considered Miro for a long moment. “I get it. This balloon of yours: this is just Phase One, isn’t it?”
Miro tried not to start in surprise. He rarely misgauged people, but he had mistaken the profound informality of Tom’s thought processes as diagnostic of the classical “narrow genius.” That kind of prodigy who was a wonder in regards to his own field, but disengaged from others. Now Miro saw this was not the case with Tom Stone: there were simply a few areas in which this up-timer was profoundly disinterested — or that he found downright aversive — and so he avoided them. But the idea of ballooning was apparently of interest to him, at least enough to leap ahead and see where Miro was going, what he intended. “Yes, going to hydrogen balloons is indeed my next plan. The hot air balloons are simply the first step. They will get a network of mooring towers and aerodromes established, will acclimate people to the notion of flying. But after that –”
“Sure,” said Tom with a lazy, but also canny, smile. “Everyone will want to sail in the clouds: the ultimate, natural trip.”
Miro felt, from the emphasis Tom put on the word “trip,” that he was not simply referring to a journey. “You sound interested, Tom. Personally.”
Tom rocked his feet from side to side. “Yeah. When I was just a kid, I was cruising through the Southwest. Doing my Jack Kerouac thing. Saw a bunch of balloons go up. Drove over. Traded some strictly medicinal cannabis for a ride. Man, oh man.” Tom’s eyes looked out the window, but were clearly seeing another time and place. “The colors, the shapes, the desert. Like another planet. Didn’t need the weed, you know?”
“Uh no, I’m afraid I don’t.”
Tom blinked out of the recollection, sat a little straighter, grinned sheepishly. “‘Course you wouldn’t; how could you?” His eyes became very intent. “Listen, Estuban. I’ve been watching my friends in Grantville build planes, and I’ve been amazed, just amazed, at what they’ve been able to do. But no matter how many they build, there’s always a need for more air transport. Any kind of air transport, even if it’s slow and with limited range. And the people here — you down-timers — can’t really get in on the airplane-building action, not for years, anyway. But balloons are simpler, and they can be made here.”
“Which is why I built one, Tom. And why I’m building more.”
Tom smiled. “See? It’s like synchronicity; you were meant to be here, for us to talk about airplanes but wind up talking about balloons. I’m going to talk to the people trying to build them here in Venice, if it’s okay with you. Your people have the experience now, but this city has money — lots of money — and resources. And I’ve got some myself, you know.”
Miro smiled. “Yes, I’ve heard.”
Tom nodded. “You and me, Estuban, we’re going to help people sail in the clouds. And we’re going to rescue lives while we’re at it.”
“You mean quick responses to medical emergencies?”
“I mean more than that, Estuban. Think of it: my drugs carried on your balloons. We learn of an outbreak of plague, of typhus, and BANG! –” Tom hammered the desktop with the flat of his hand; Miro almost jumped “– we’re there, with drugs in hand. If the epidemic is in a single town, we surround it and wipe it out. If it’s coming at us like a wall of fire, we land in front of it and build a fire-break of immunity. Estuban, we could save thousands — millions! — of lives before we get to the middle of this century.”
Miro nodded. “Yes. But do remember this, Tom: balloons could carry payloads other than life-saving drugs. Much more unwelcome payloads.”
Tom’s eyes darkened. “Yeah. There’s that.” He rocked his big feet back and forth again. “I like that you brought that up, Estuban. A guy just in this for the money would have tried to leave that under the rug. Not you. You’re okay.” The feet rocked one more time and were still. “Listen. After you’ve sent that scroll on its crooked way to Sharon, you have some business in town, right?”
“I do.” Miro’s breakfast was borne in by a young man so discreet as to be almost soundless and invisible.
Tom nodded approvingly. “Good. Hang out a bit. See the sights. Lemme think on this balloon business a little. We’ll talk soon, okay?”
“Okay,” repeated Miro around a mouthful of eggs.
“Hey,” remarked Tom, “breakfast! That’s a great idea you had.” Tom jumped out of his chair, calling after the young attendant who had delivered it.
Miro, mouth still full, was unable to point out that it had been Tom’s idea, after all.
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