Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

“That is so.” Rolf had finished laying out his portion of the pattern.

“Had you ever any indication that it might fly?”

“No, Gray.” His answer was emphatic. “It was of metal, and heavier than a big house, and it had no sign of wings.”

Gray shrugged. “Well, certainly they had many machines that did not fly; but they had some that did. And some of them still do, I think, though that does not concern us at this moment. What I proposed in meeting just now was not as mad as some thought. Machines can fly, and I intend that we shall use them to assault the cliffs of the Black Mountains.” Squinting at the arrangement of toy tools on the ground, Gray grunted with satisfaction, and began to draw with his staff (it occurred to Rolf that he had not noticed any staff in Gray’s hands until just now) a diagram of straight lines surrounding the symbolic tools. “The djinn that I will summon up will build for us a vehicle which we will then operate ourselves. I think its pilotage will not be too difficult, for intelligent men who have a little nerve and imagination.”

Gray stood his staff beside him on the ground; there it remained, as if it had taken root. He rummaged in the beast’s panniers again, and produced a paper that he unrolled and showed to Rolf.

“I have made this sketch from drawings left by the ancients of some of their simpler flying machines. Other types they made as well, that were heavier than air, and winged like birds, but the technology of those remains somewhat beyond my grasp; and what I cannot understand, I cannot order the djinn to build. However, the type that I have shown here should suit us well.”

Rolf studied the sketch. It showed, apparently in midair, a rimmed platform or shallow basket, supported at each of its four corners by a cluster of lines, the lines in turn reaching tautly upward to four great globes above. A mast rose from the center of the platform; small sails bellied, and pennants fluttered, showing the direction of the breeze. Inside the basket, four men rode.

“These globes from which the flying craft depended were made of some elastic fabric” Gray explained. “Sometimes filling them with hot air was enough to make them rise.”

Rolf considered silently. Was Gray mad? But wait -hot air did rush up the chimney.

“But with the djinn to labor for us, we shall do far better. Our globes will be made of thin metal, much stronger and safer, and in them there will be nothing.”

“Nothing?” Rolf tried to make the question sound intelligent.

Gray studied him, and sighed. Perhaps he wondered if he should request a more intelligent aide. “Consider: Why does a ship, or any chunk of wood, float on the water?”

“Because -because it is lighter than water. Too light to sink.”

“Ah. Very true.” Gray smiled, and tapped the paper with his finger. “Now, when all the air has been exhausted from these metal spheres -experiments have already shown me that air indeed has weight-when the weight of this whole apparatus is thus made less than the weight of an equal volume of air, what will this flying craft do?”

“It will weigh less than air?” Yes, it all sounded mad; but Rolf despite himself felt some enthusiasm grawing for this mad scheme. Wild as Gray’s ideas were, they somehow began to feel right in Rolf’s mind.

Gray spoke more rapidly, pleased that someone could halfway understand him. “Air is very light, true. But nothingness is lighter still. I tell you, the ancients made the idea work. Are you ready to try it with me, young technologist? I will need quick hands to help me and a quick mind, too, perhaps; Thomas tells me you have both, and I believe him. Of courseyou will help, you are ordered to. But are you really with me in this enterprise?”

Rolf took the time to give the question honest thought. “I am.”

Gray nodded. With a flourish, then, he beckoned to his balancing staff-that sprang lightly through the air into his hand. “Be silent for a moment now, while I evoke the djinn. He is an odd creature, even of his kind, irascible and not well-meaning. But he must labor for us, though he cares nothing for East or West, or for any mdn or demon.”

The calling-up was accomplished with quick confidence. After making a few controlled gestures over the array of toy tools and drawn lines, Gray uttered in a low rapid voice words that Rolf could not quite hear. Fire appeared in the air before the wizard, with a belching of soot and acrid smoke, and accompanied by a sound of rapid pounding, as by unseen, crude and heavy implements. The voice of the djinn rolled forth, sounding one moment like splintering wood, the next like clashing metal. “I come as bidden, master. What is your command?”

Gray unrolled his sketch and held it forth toward the flaming image of the djinn, meanwhile intoning:

“I first let be created four such great hollow spheres such as you see represented here – ”

The djinn’s voice hammered, interrupting. “You let be? That means you do not hinder?”

Asperity was in Gray’s voice. “It means that I command! I order you to do it, and be quick! The specifications for the globes are as follows…”

The djinn did not dispute him further, but maintained its sooty glow in silence, evidently listening. A moment after Gray had finished detailing his order, there appeared from nowhere four crude blocks of metal, each half as big as a man. In another moment the blocks were glowing hot. At once there arose a mighty screeching, and a banging as of invisible hammers.

The few soldiers who had been standing in the middle distance, watching, were being joined momentarily by ever-growing numbers of their fellows, drawn by the prospect of seeing something spectacularly unusual in the way of magic. The camp had doubtless heard by now several versions of what had happened at the meeting in Thomas’s tent. Rolf, for his part, backed up a few paces, and considered putting his fingers in his ears to dull the noise. The blocks of metal glowed incandescent and expanded under the powerful working of the djinn. They stretched out and up into enormous sheets of fiery metal, which then began to curve themselves, perfectly and surely, into spheres.

When the spheres, each the size of a small house, were almost completely closed, the djinn left them to cool on the sand. Meanwhile he received from Gray the specifications for the platform of the flying device, and for the ropes and sails and their attachments.

“So I let it be done!” Gray.concluded.

The djinn began to work again, extruding from its smoke long coils of twine. And as it worked, it grumbled. “Just so you understand that it is I am gathering all the stuffs and doing all the work that you are letting. It does not come from nothingness, you know.”

“Nothingness,” said Gray sharply, “is what I want inside the spheres-when the craft is finished, we are aboard, and all’s in readiness for flight. Then will I give you the order to empty them and seal them.”

The djinn emitted a burst of noise somewhat like the working of a broken sawmill. It took Rolf a little time to understand that this was laughter. “Nothingness! You do not know what you are ordering-beg pardon, what you are letting, master.”

“Contrary dolt!” A vein now stood upon Gray’s forehead. Rolf made a prudent mental note that the wizard was not notably long on patience. Gray went on: “By nothingness I mean a lack of air, a vacuum, nullity; such as you yourself will soon become if you irritate me too sorely!”

The djinn evidently did not regard the threat as idle, for the work did pick up speed, and for the time being at least there were no further grumblings. What seemed to be a multitude of invisible hands spun twine into stout ropes, and fastened ropes to the basket as it was fabricated. It was of a size to hold three or four people without crowding, with a waist-high rim all round, woven of tough, flexible withes, and seemingly very light. Each corner of the square basket was secured with several ropes to one of the great metal spheres. Their overshadowing bulks creaked as they cooled, and all but hid the basket from observation. At Gray’s direction, a central mast was now stepped in, and sails and pennants made and stowed folded in the bottom of the basket. Water and provisions, from more commonplace sources, went in also.

Full night had come when Gray was satisfied that all was in readiness for flight. He himself was the first to step into the basket, with a somewhat cautious scissoring of his long legs. “Now master Rolf, if you will.” And Rolf, feeling almost evenly balanced between eagerness and reluctance, hopped nimbly aboard.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred