Elf Boy's Friends - VI

by George Gauthier

Chapter 1

Wheels

"Working late again Eike?" Lieutenant Sir Nathan "Sparky" Lathrop asked his boyfriend and protege Karl-Eike Thyssen as the journeyman naval architect entered the suite of rooms they shared in a residential hotel.

"Admiral Van Zant's folks are sure keeping you busy."

Eike, as he preferred to be called, worked at the Navy's Bureau of Ships. Smart, inventive, and very good with his hands, he counted himself lucky to have found his niche in life. He loved his job with the Navy though admittedly he himself was no sailor.

The Navy was at the forefront of technical development, especially in ways that combined the mechanical and alchemical arts with magic. True, it was the Army Air Corps which first deployed fetchers who used their telekinetic powers to fly as scouts and bombers, but that involved short range flying. It was the Navy which had pioneered long range aerial patrolling flying with the rigid wing invented by Nathan. Eike had done more than anyone else to transform Nathan' idea into practical reality, first constructing models then prototypes.

Nathan and Eike had become lovers nearly two years after Nathan and the CS Petrel had rescued the orphaned castaway, then only fifteen, from Huckleberry Island in the Scilly Isles. Nathan had protected the naive youth from the kinds of sexual advances a cute blond boy with his looks would be expected to draw.

Growing up on the island alone from the age of ten to fifteen, Eike had been innocent with no understanding whatever of sexuality whether for pleasure or fecundity. Nathan ensured that Eike got a chance to develop at his own pace and to make his own choices, which ultimately turned out to be for Nathan himself.

Eike was slight of build and smooth muscled with a face far prettier than any boy's rightly ought to be. Blessed with a flawless complexion and fine boned features Eike had a broad brow, high cheekbones, straight nose, and a chiseled jaw line. Slightly pointed ears and a sharp chin gave him an elfin appearance and his large green eyes were set wide apart under finely arched brows, their lashes too long to have ever have been meant for a male.

"Oh the Navy isn't working me too hard, Sparky. I actually keep regular hours but after I quit for the day I go off premises to a little shed I rent out and tinker away at my inventions. You see, I have an idea with tremendous potential, but to protect my interests I work on my own time in private premises. My Navy legal adviser told me that if I worked on my idea on naval premises and with the navy's tools and equipment, then whatever I invented would belong to the Navy. "

"So what is it you are working on, Eike?"

"I'll tell you, but you have to promise not to laugh."

From the anxiety evident on Eike's face Nathan knew he would hurt his friend's feelings if he didn't keep a straight face.

"Go ahead. I promise."

Eike brightened then announced:

"I have reinvented the wheel!"

"The wheel? Like what goes round and round?"

"Exactly. That might sound preposterous or even presumptuous, but I really have invented a better wheel than any in use today."

Nathan was too intrigued to even smile at the notion of reinventing the wheel, the proverbial butt of jokes. He had respect for Eike's intelligence, ingenuity, and mechanical and design skills. If anyone actually could reinvent the wheel and make it better, it would be him.

"Show me."

Eike didn't have any plans or notes with him so he just sketched the design for his wheel on a sheet taken from Drew's sketch pad, which is what brought Drew into the conversation. Nathan looked at it quizzically, not sure what he was supposed to see.

"Okay, I see a wheel with a whole lot of very skinny spokes connecting the hub of the wheel to a narrow rim. It looks like a flimsy wagon wheel."

Drew shook his head. "I see just what Nathan sees. What are we missing?"

"Ah, to the uninitiated it might look like a skinny wagon wheel, but what you cannot see is that the spokes are flexible wires under tension, not rigid wooden rods under compression. You see, with a wagon wheel the spokes have to be thick and stiff because they push on the hub. My spokes are made of wire and pull on the hub. They are in tension. The steel rim itself is flexible and pulls on the spokes all the way around. Finally, I have replaced noisy iron tires with solid rubber tires similar to those used for the pushcarts the Frost Giants favor only much narrower."

"My wire wheel is strong, lightweight, and quiet, and offers a comfortable ride with very little rolling resistance. The twins' and Axel's business manager the dwarf Lennart is helping me work up a patent application and he has already set up a company to license the design to manufacturers. Understand I won't be producing the wheels myself. I am not interested in running a manufactory. That would only get in the way of my career in naval architecture. Besides, this approach makes the start up costs so much lower."

"You really think there is money to be made with this new kind of wheel?"

"More than you can imagine."

"I don't know. I have a pretty vivid imagination." Drew pointed out.

"Lennart assured me that in a few years I would be rich beyond the dreams of avarice. Now there is a phrase for you, my wordsmith friend: beyond the dreams of avarice. Wrap your imagination around that!"

Drew nodded. Everyone knew that the wily dwarf Lennart was the shrewd business agent who helped the twins get rich from their Gemini Zinger and mapping businesses and Axel too with his street lighting business, nor were those two his only successful ventures.

"First he made our friends rich; now it is your turn."

"Exactly. For his help Lennart takes a minority share in the enterprises he helps get going, which gives him a stake in their success. He has always done well by his partners. I understand that Sir Angus McFarden, Drew's King of the Iron Roads, tried several times to hire him away. Lennart turned him down saying that, as marvelous as they are, irons roads and street cars are now established industries. He prefers to carry on with his role as a midwife to new business ideas and ventures. That keeps him on the cutting edge of business enterprise, so there is always something new."

"OK, I don't doubt that the man — I mean the dwarf — has a good record. What I don't know is how you can make money with a new kind of wheel." Drew said.

"With bicycles. The new wheel will make those bone-shaker bicycles obsolete and multiply the number of bicycles on the roads."

Built with heavy frames and wooden wheels and with only the most rudimentary sort of suspension the aptly nicknamed bone-shaker cycles were notoriously uncomfortable to ride and were noisy and not very maneuverable either.

"With my wheel, bicycles won't just be for idlers out for a joy ride. The bicycle and the tricycle will provide transportation for the masses. True these days we have street cars pushed by fetchers but only along a few fixed routes in the major cities. A cycle of one's own will give folks the flexibility to go anywhere anytime, city or country."

"I don't think it is going too far to say that my wire wheel will initiate a revolution in personal transportation."

Nathan and Drew were caught up in Eike's enthusiasm and promised to keep the secret till the patent was locked up, which happened soon enough. Lennart delivered the goods: a defensible patent, a company to own and license it, contracts with reputable manufactories, and top drawer advocates to protect their legal rights from unlicensed copycats.

It took a few expensive defeats in court for the unscrupulous to learn that if they wanted to use Eike's wire wheels, they had to pay for a license and not infringe on his patent. Lennart set fees low enough to encourage compliance, and the money rolled in. Axel, the twins, and Count Klarendes invested in bicycle companies and added to their fortunes.

As the new style of cycle started rolling out of the manufactories, Lennart drummed up interest with promotional efforts like a series of exhibition races in major cities. He calculated that cycle racing would soon become a popular sport which would spur demand for second cycles from young males, a light sports version for fun as well as a sturdy practical model for everyday use.

It did't hurt the cause any that like runners competitive cyclists were all slender athletic guys happy to pedal away in the nude. That let air currents reach and cool every part of their splendid sweaty physiques. To engage the pedals on the front wheel the rider sat up straight leaning back slightly, arms up, forward, and spread to grasp the handle bars, legs straddling the frame and the wheel in front.

That posture made for an unimpeded view of the rider's physique. Only the soles of his feet, the palms of his hands, and the middle of his rump were not in view. With his nude body so totally on display, legs churning and arms spread, a racer was a sensual delight for anyone who appreciated the athletic male body in motion.

The races were the highlight of a promotional effort that included advertising in the news-papers, raffles, and pamphlets and flyers passed out on busy street corners. The only sour note in the whole campaign was sounded when a winner of one race, a minor air wizard, was forced to hand back his trophy and prize money for using a jet of air to push his bicycle. The rules were clear: No Powers.

Lennart's promotional efforts caught the fancy of the public. From then on, bicycles built with wire wheels sold themselves. Soon practically everyone had bought one or was on a waiting list from backlogged manufacturers. Bicycles were especially popular with fetchers who could push the vehicle along with their telekinetic gift. No need for hard sweaty work with the pedals.

One important customer was the army. Cheap lightweight bicycles became the mounts for a new type of dragoon. Traditionally dragoons were mounted infantry who rode to battle then dismounted, formed up, and fought on foot. Their mounts provided just transportation not the shock effect of cavalry. Battalion of dragoons could now zip down the major highways and paved secondary roads and reach a threatened sector much faster than by foot and without having to mess with horses.

The advantages of bicycle dragoons were obvious. For starters there was the fortune saved on the purchase and training of horseflesh. Next the army's supply train was relieved of the burden of transporting huge quantities of fodder and feed grains. Bicycles didn't have to stop and graze for hours at a time delaying movement. And they were not temperamental with minds of their own. Nor could an enemy raid your remuda and stampede your mounts. Camps and military posts could be more compact and easier to defend.

Bicycles didn't get sick or tired. If they broke down they could be fixed faster than a horse could heal. Cycling promoted stamina and physical fitness in a way riding a horse never could.

Despite its often deserved reputation for a 'Not Invented Here' mentality, the Army readily adopted the idea of dragoons mounted on bicycles. Each field army stationed within the Commonwealth proper organized two battalions designated as a quick reaction force that could get to any threatened sector fast via the Commonwealth's excellent highway network.

Their job was not necessarily to engage in major combat but to act like skirmishers to delay an enemy advance by dropping trees across roads or holding chokepoints like mountain passes and river crossings long enough to force the enemy to deploy from line of march to line of battle only to withdraw and return to harassing a frustrated enemy.

The postal service was soon using cycles for rural delivery. Healers got to their patients faster. Cycles with extended frames were fitted out with tandem seats for a passenger and/or a tow point to pull a light trailer.

Tricycles offered taxi service for the old, the halt, or the lame, or the many who preferred not to arrive at their destination all hot and sweaty. The three wheels on a tricycle made the vehicles stable and large enough for two or three passengers at once. Unlike cabs with animal traction, these taxis did not leave a smelly mess in the streets.

Sales of bicycles to the Army and postal service were only the beginning. Millions of citizens in the Commonwealth took to riding bicycles to go to work, to school, for shopping or for outings, whatever, and all those millions of vehicles were built with Eike's wire wheels. Cycles were soon crowding horses off the streets. Only those who had hitherto relied on scooping up a supply of free manure for their backyard gardens were put out by the decline of equine transportation.

The new wheel was the stimulus for a virtuous circle of innovation and invention. Other tinkerers improved the bicycle with better brakes and saddles, cargo baskets, safety flags, and other accessories. There was even early versions of a chain drive though most cycles were still powered by pedals attached directly to the large wheel in front. (The larger the wheel the farther you could travel with one rotation of the pedals.)

Now Eike already had a nice nest egg from the treasure he had inherited on Huckleberry Island, which had been invested for him after his rescue several years earlier. With license fees filling his coffers he could readily afford a nicer place of his own. So he and Nathan and Liam took the suite of rooms next door to the suite the twins leased. Corwin Klarendes moved over from his uncle's townhouse across town to share rooms with Drew and Axel. It was great having all eight of them under one roof.

Eike had to wait a while for official recognition from the Commonwealth. The value of bicycles running on wire wheels was not as immediately self-evident as the innovations of the Pioneers of Flight. Finally, nearly two years after the wheel went into commercial production, the young inventor had his day. For his noteworthy contributions to the Commonwealth Karl-Eike Thyssen was raised to the knighthood by letters patent. Formally he would henceforth be titled Sir Karl-Eike Thyssen of the Scilly Isles, but always just Eike to his friends.

Right after that, the healers and druids enhanced Eike's vitality as they had for his friends the twins, Drew, Liam, Nathan, and Axel. Together they would stride down the centuries perpetually healthy and youthful.

Eike no longer looked for a magical gift would give him a direction in life. He had already found his: a career in naval architecture, more money than he could spend, his continuing interest in tinkering and invention, and a circle of friends.

Still it would be nice if he too could start throwing lightning or fireballs around and join his friends on an adventure or two. Not that he wanted to run off all the time as they did, but every young man dreams of adventure, if only to have something to look back on in later years. He did start sparring with Jemsen and training with Karel to run with the wind at his back. Drew and Liam took him up on familiarization flights with the tandem rig.

By that time, Liam too had reached his peak strength in magic after which wizards became more effective through experience and cunning rather than any increase in raw power. Sir Willet sponsored him for promotion to war wizard in full, which came with a knighthood.

Karel teased him that the name "Sir Liam" sounded pretty flat. It was high time the former nomad took a surname, preferably something impressive and sonorous or at least added a geographic qualification to his title. For example: Sir Liam Rodomontade or Sir Liam of the Western Plains, or even better Sir Liam Rodomontade of the Western Plains.

"I'll consider taking a longer name after you and Jemsen take one." the newly minted Sir Liam countered, and that was the end of that.

Liam did look up 'rodomontade' in the dictionary and was not really surprised at what he found there. Just another of Karel's jokes.

Only Drew Altair of all their circle of friends remained, as Karel had once put it in jest, an "untitled nobody", though he was definitely not "a major disappointment to his family". They could not have been prouder of their son who was not only a star reporter and best selling author with five Writers' Prizes to his credit but also both a war hero and a peacemaker recognized as a Stalwart of the Commonwealth. A knighthood for Drew was only a matter of time.

Nor was Corwin really an untitled nobody. He had deliberately not mentioned to his friends that, as the first son of a baron, he himself held the courtesy title of "Corwin, Lord Klarendes", which he never used. The boy thought it silly for older men to address a kid like himself as if he were a superior just because of an accident of birth. He would be presumptuous to insist on it. Now titles you earned were a different story.

Even Corwin's uncle Taitos, with inherited titles like Lord-Zamindar of Elysion and Count of the Eastern March, preferred to be addressed by the folk of Elysion as Captain Klarendes, a title he had earned in the army not simply inherited. Taitos was also the captain of both their militia and their volunteer fire brigade. It was handy having a captain who could extinguish a fire with a thought.

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