Elf Boy's Friends - Volume XIV

by George Gauthier

Chapter 9

Airships and Aerostats

"Time to get up, Drew," Axel Wilde told his lover Drew Altair, a notorious slug-a-bed who groaned and snuggled deeper into his pillow. By contrast Axel was a morning person who rose promptly every day and bounded out of bed, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, eager to face the day.

"Wake up, lazybones," Axel mock scolded, punctuating his words with a smart slap to Drew's pert rump. "If you get up right now, we'll have time to shower together, and maybe fool around a bit, if you take my meaning."

"What? You didn't get enough last night?"

Axel shrugged: "That was then; this is now."

"Naughty boy!"

Later and somewhat tardily the pair joined their roommates for breakfast in the dining room of their residential hotel. The topic of conversation was the upcoming barbecue in the garden of the Klarendes' townhouse. Axel put his two cents in, enthusing:

"I am really looking forward to the barbecue tomorrow. As I have often said before give me a barbecue any day over a formal sit-down dinner. Why fumble with a fancy table setting with two knives, three forks, and four spoons when one of each is all you really need? And there are always plenty of finger foods like corn-on-the-cob and stuffed celery."

"I agree wholeheartedly." Drew concurred, adding:

"What's really great about the count's barbecues is that his cook broils the meats just right -- browned and tender and juicy. Then there is the groaning side board of dishes like soups and salads and veggies and fruit plates plus a tempting array of desserts, including those fruit tarts you are so fond of, Axel. My mouth waters just thinking about all those good eats."

The next afternoon was sunny and hot though there was a pleasant breeze which passed over tubs of ice the family had frozen with their heat magic, besides which an awning and trees shaded the guests from the direct rays of the sun. The guests sat on comfortable rattan chairs grouped around an oval table and helped themselves to the dishes spread out on a trestle table nearby.

The food and cold beer were just as good as the young lovers had expected. The flesh of the grilled fowl was practically falling off the bone, and the spicy sausages were bursting with flavor. The steaks and chops were brown on the outside and pink on the inside, so just right for everyone except Aodh who, as a shape shifter, had good reason to prefer his meat as rare as human dentition allowed. In his alternate form as a black panther his dentition was up to any masticatory challenge including raw meat.

Besides Aodh himself his spouse the count and his immediate family were all on hand: Lord Artor the first born son who was one of the Dread Hands of the Commonwealth, and the count's younger son Eborn. Both were young men just entering their thirties though still looking like teenagers thanks to the strong admixture of elven blood in the family line. The older son Artor favored his father while Eborn took after their mother.

The last member of the clan was Corwin Klarendes, Taitos' nephew, and Drew's colleague at the Capital Intelligencer. Next to him sat Drew and Axel's roommate Karl-Eike Thyssen who was a little guy like them while Finn Ragnarson occupied a sturdy chair built for a frost giant like him.

Axel's mentor the war wizard Sir Willet Hanford was the last to arrive showing up right after the twins Jemsen and Karel, who, for the occasion, were dressed in what for them passed for formal wear, sarongs, color coded as always to let people tell them apart: green for Jemsen and blue for Karel. Axel himself wore a paisley patterned sarong plus the soft moccasins he favored in town.

Drew's garment was more minimal: a pair of the low-rise, square cut short shorts which the twins had made fashionable, a garment which flattered the trim and taut body Drew was so proud of. True he was a little guy standing five foot zero and weighed only a hundred pounds, but, as he always said, physiques like his and Aodh's and Eike's were really more about quality than about quantity, weren't they? Drew gladly left quantity to Frost Giants like Finn who stood eight foot and weighed six hundred pounds.

The count joked to Sir Willet that his harem had turned out in full force.

"I am always happy to see those boys, and as a ladies man I can honestly say that I enjoy their company for their sterling character, their keen minds, and their sense of humor, not for their physical attributes, attractive as those are in an aesthetic sense."

"By the way, how are our druid friends coming along with the new flying technique which Axel thought up and the twins pioneered?"

"They have gotten pretty good flying with earth magic to lift the into the sky and weather magic to push themselves along, but they also practice just using gravitational repulsion to lift themselves to an altitude where the wind is blowing in the direction they want to go. How many ways to fly is that now?"

"Let's me see..." Sir Willet started as he ticked them off.

"Lifting oneself by one's sandals came first, then flying yokes, then the Navy's fixed wings for long range scouting, then autogyros propelled by either telekinesis or the planetary magnetic field, then Finn turned Mjolnir into a means of aerial transport as well as a weapon. Have I left anything out? And why the glum look Taitos?"

"Everyone else is able to fly on their own. It only wish I could too, but fire wizardry does not seem to lend itself to flight," the count said ruefully.

"Don't be too sure, sir," Eike said hesitantly. "I've been toying with an idea that might make it possible."

"I am all ears. Everyone! Listen up to Eike's latest brainstorm."

"Well, it is more of an idle notion that popped into my mind a couple of days ago when I was at my workshop at Thyssen Toys. As you may know among the items we sell are rubber balloons which you inflate with your lungs then tie off to keep the air in. We also make sky-lanterns out of paper stretched over a bamboo frame with a candle holder fixed at the opening in the bottom. The flame heats the air inside making it less dense than the surrounding cooler air. So it lifts off into the night sky and rides the winds, looking rather like a will-o'- the-wisp. Folks release them en masse for the harvest festival. "

"Well, I got to thinking that if I combined features of both devices and made it a whole lot bigger I could build a hot-air balloon with enough lift to carry a man. Now I am really making this up as I go along, thinking out loud so to speak, so don't expect a fully formed idea."

"It would start with a very large balloon made of a strong and light fabric like silk rather than stretchable — and breakable— rubber. The envelope would be enclosed within a lightweight aerodynamic hull. Crew and passengers would ride in a basket or better yet a gondola hung below a ring at the base."

"As for the heat source, that is where you fire wizards come in . You control not just fire and flame but more basically heat energy so you could raise the temperature of the air inside the balloon without any flame at all. As the air in the balloon gets hotter it becomes less dense than that outside, which generates buoyancy or lift. Later, when the captured air starts to cool and you lose lift, just heat it up again. Or let the contraption float down to earth for a gentle landing."

"That sounds very promising," the count told him," but how would you steer it."

"That's the easy part." Axel chimed in with sudden realization.


"Think of the buoyancy of hot air as an alternative to the gravitational repulsion which druids and earth wizards already use to help them fly. The fire wizard could try for a favorable wind at different altitudes. Or an air wizard like Karel could push it along in the preferred direction of travel."

"Or a fetcher could push it with telekinesis providing only propulsion but not lift." Drew suggested.

"This is wonderful!" Sir Willet exclaimed. "Once again you boys will be hailed as Pioneers of Flight. Drew and Corwin, you gotta write this up right away for the Capital Intelligencer and the journal Magic."

"Not so fast, Sir Willet," Corwin objected.

"We have to give Eike time to turn his and Axel's ideas into a workable means of aerial transportation. We should not publish till after successful test flights. Uh, why the frown, Jemsen?"

"Calling it a balloon makes it sound like a toy. How about calling it a hot-air ship or a thermal air-ship?" Jemsen suggested.

"Good thought, but let's shorten the name to just airship," Eike agreed.

"What would you use a flying ship for?" Jemsen wondered. "I can foresee its being useful to the military. Can you think of commercial uses?"

"It's early days yet" Eike replied shrugging, "but airships could be useful for long-distance transport of passengers and freight

"Not to sound mercenary, but you'd better ask our business wizard Lennart to protect your intellectual property rights,"

"Wizardry isn't a bad name for his prodigious talent," Sir Willet agreed. "entirely natural though his gifts may be."

"Actually the High Council plans to confer a real title on him any day now — not wizard of course — but something else entirely. Er, don't bruit that about just yet. It's still confidential." Drew disclosed.


"They plan to name him a Stalwart of the Commonwealth."

"Exactly right given his record in midwifing new industries, but how is it Drew that you already know what they intend. In my experience, the Council members tend to be a pretty close-mouthed bunch."

Drew shrugged then added smugly "Sources."

Eike grinned then took up the thread of the conversation:

"Karel I'll take your advice about licenses for profit-making manufactories, but I will also assign a noncommercial license to the government for any public purpose whether military or civilian. The Navy would probably build their own airships in its shipyards and the Army at its arsenals, but I expect civilian agencies would just procure them commercially or maybe lease or hire them from private companies."

Ideas were easy. Execution was hard especially since an airship had no moving parts, so Eike's gift of Shaping wasn't much help in building models and prototypes. One thing that helped in the actual construction was that Thyssen Toys already used treadle operated sewing machines. That made it possible to stitch a huge silk envelope. To a naval architect like Eike the real challenge with the frame and hull and the suspension for the gondola was to make it strong but lightweight. For that job he chose bamboo rendered fireproof by an alchemical process.

Test flights of the prototypes showed the need for ballast to better control altitude. Circumstances might require the airship to rise quickly to avoid an obstacle or to slow too rapid a descent. So a dozen sandbags were hung from the gondola as ballast with the tied-off opening facing downward. For the safety of those below filled sandbags were never jettisoned whole. Instead a tug on a cord loosed its contents, letting them spill out harmlessly as a shower of sand. The reduction in load gave the airship a quick boost upward.

And so was born the airship of which there were two types: free flying airships and those called aerostats which were tethered to the ground so they would not blow away. An aerostat made a perfect observation platform, far superior to the dangerous box kites the twins had ridden into the sky back in the day as army scouts. Nor was it long before enterprising tour guides started taking tourists up for an aerial survey of the capital and later of natural wonders across the continent.

Klarendes bought one of each, a tethered aerostat for tourists and guests of the resort sightseeing at scenic Rainbow Falls in the bowl of Elysion, his holding in the Eastern Mountains. An ascent and descent let visitors observe it and its famous double rainbows from all vantage points. Taitos' mobile airship was a recreational vehicle, a rich man's joy ride really, not a practical means of aerial transportation. For that he already owned a personal autogyro flown by a fetcher pilot on staff who also regularly shuttled customers between the landing field at the resort and the train station of the iron road at Dalnot, junction of iron roads running north-south and east-west.

Airship and aerostat companies displayed their latest models at the first of annual air shows at the capital. Testosterone driven young males with perhaps more coin than common sense took to the skies in airships and formed aerial regattas to sponsor speed and distance races. Though fewer in number, adventurous young ladies also took up the sport.

It was Sir Angus McFarden, King of the Iron Roads, who suggested using very large airships to haul bulky cargo over otherwise impassible terrain. He got the idea from watching loggers slide entire logs down slope on cables raised high enough to clear intervening trees. Fetchers lifted the log high enough to snag the hook in its harness on the cable then guided it to the foot of the mountain, letting the cable take most of the weight for most of the trip.

The new method of logging with an airship was another way of avoiding the expense of building logging roads into the woods. Lumberjacks might follow a game trail or hack their way through the understory to select the very best trees anywhere in a stretch of forest, then cut them down. Once attached to an airship the fetcher and firecaster floated them directly to a nearby sawmill or over to an iron road. If a suitable body of water were nearby, loggers would build huge rafts of logs chained together which a fetcher pushed across the lake or downstream to a sawmill.

Innovative builders offered cottages, cabins, and beach houses made of bamboo which were constructed whole off site or in modules easily fastened together then floated over and set up in scenic or inaccessible locations in the mountains, or along the shore, or on islands in the Great Inland Freshwater Sea. The Scilly Isles saw a housing boom which increased the population by a quarter in only three years.

All these developments provided well-paying jobs for firecasters whose previous employment opportunities had been mostly jobs in refrigeration, fire brigades in cities and towns, or in the military or constabulary.

The Sylvan Elves also benefited. The forest folk farmed both mulberry trees and the silkworms which fed on their leaves in secluded vales in the mountains from which they had always shipped silk fabric for clothing and sails. Airships and aerostats provided a lucrative new market which they were happy to serve, shipping envelope fabric in the same autogyros which supplied the cities of the Commonwealth with cut-flowers and starter pots of those medicinal and culinary herbs which were difficult to grow from seed.

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