Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

Thomas and several others had drawn near, to wish the voyagers well and to observe at close range whatever might happen next. When the last word of encouragement had been called in between the surrounding metal globes, Gray gestured for silence. Facing the smoky glow of the djinn’s image, he swept his pointing hand to one after another of the four spheres as he cried out: “Now, let there be exhausted from them all the air and other vapors, and let them then be sealed shut!”

A quartet of hissing noises suddenly surrounded the basket, issuing from the four orifices left in the spheres. Rolf felt his hair stirred by one of the jets of air. Tensely he gripped the basket’s railing, waiting for the first surge of flight.

And almost at once the four enormous globes did stir themselves. But not to rise. Instead, as their hissings began to be drowned out by ringings and portentous metal groans, they rolled from side to side on the sand, they lurched and crumpled and deformed themselves. The sphere in front of Rolf seemed to be struck by some giant and invisible mace; it sounded a deafening clang as it drew into itself a vast dent that bent its surface to its center. Then all four spheres, in a great blacksmith’s uproar of tortured metal, were shrivelling and flattening like so many fruit-husks thrown into a fire. As their obscuring bulks shrank down, Rolf sawThomas and others tumbling away with as little thought of dignity or face as they would have shown before an enemy ambush that caught them unarmed. Rolf had one leg over the basket rim again, and would have fled himself, but one direction looked as perilous as another. Meanwhile the basket stayed firmly seated on the sand, only swaying with Gray’s vociferous anger. The wizard spouted words at a tremendous rate, while Rolf dodged this way and that to avoid his gesturing arms.

Silence returned as suddenly as it had fled. The metal spheres, now reduced to shrunken, twisted wads of scrap, were still. Gray’s speech faltered and ran down, and for the moment silence was complete. There quickly ensued a murmur of laughter from part of the watching army, a murmur that dissolved before it could grow too large, when Gray swept his glare around him like a weapon. The dim masses of people beyond the torchlight began to scatter and drift off; a number of them, once they had got some distance away, seemed compelled to utter muted whooping noises.

Thomas and others, drawing near once more, spitting dust and brushing it from their clothes, did not seem much amused. But none of them daredyet say anything to Gray.

Gray drew in a big breath, and shouted one more outburst at the djinn. Its flaming, fuming scroll flared on apparently unperturbed.

“Oh great master,” it answered in its clattering voice, “such a curse as you have just delivered would pain me like the grip of Zapranoth -if I were in fact such a disobedient traitor as you say I am. But, as things are, I feel no ill effects. I have followed your instructions to the letter.”

“Ahhg! Technology!” Gray flung down his arms. He climbed out of the basket, in his excitement of disgust catching his foot on the rim and nearly falling. Lowering his voice, he said to those nearby: “It speaks the truth. Technology! How can any man who means to keep his sanity go far in such an art?”

Rolf, having got out of the basket too, was thinking. Hesitantly he asked: “Can I put questions to this djinn?”

“Why not?” Gray snapped, as if answering only with the easiest thing to say.

Rolf turned to address the fiery image. “You, there. What made the balls crumple up like that?”

There was a brief silence, as if the djinn were assessing its new questioner. Then with a clatterthe answer came: “Little master, they crumpled because the air was taken out of them.”


“Why not? The outside air pushed in with all its weight, and there was only thin metal to resist it.”

Gray had spoken of his experiments, showing that air had weight. The wizard looked uncomfortable, but with a sharp motion of his head he signed Rolf to go on with his questioning.

Rolf considered. It seemed to him that Gray’s theory was basically correct: a machine made lighter than air should rise in air, as wood rose in water; and air most certainly had weight. But obviously there were traps and dangers awaiting the technologist.

Rolf asked Gray: “Must it speak the truth to us?”

“Yes.” Gray sighed. “But not the whole truth; that’s the catch. Go on, go on, ask it more. Perhaps you have a better head for this than I.”

Rolf took thought, tried to put from his mind the fact that everyone present was watching and listening to him, and faced the djinn again. “Suppose you make the walls of the globes thicker and stronger. That should keep them from being crushed when you take out the air.”

“You are right,” said the djinn immediately. “Shall I rebuild them so?”

“And would they still be light enough, when emptied, to lift us and the basket with them?”

There was a short delay. “No.” This time Rolf thought he detected disappointment.

He folded his arms, and took a few short paces to and fro. “Tell me, djinn, what did the folk of the Old World do when they wished to fly?”

“They made a flying machine, and rode in it. I myself was born with the New World, of course, and never saw them. But so I have been told, and so I truly believe.”

“How did they make these flying machines?”

“Describe a way, and I will tell you if it is right or wrong.”

Rolf looked at Gray, who shook his head and told him: “I cannot compel it to greater helpfulness. The djinn must give us what it knows of the truth, in answer to our questions, but if it wishes to begrudging it can yield only a small fragment at a time.”

Rolf nodded, accepting the rules of the game, which he found more and more fascinating. “Djinn. Were these flying devices lighter than the air?”

“Some of them.”

“Had they lifting spheres, as big as these were?”


“Yet their spheres were not crushed.”

“That is true.”

The audience was silent. The time of half a dozen breaths had passed before Rolf chose his next question. “Were their lifting spheres empty?”

“No.” The monosyllable had a forced, reluctant sound.

“They were filled, then, with something lighter than the air?”

“They were.”

It was midnight before Rolf had extracted from the djinn what seemed to be the last necessary bit of information, and Gray could issue new orders: ” – that the new spheres be made of fabric such as you have described, airtight and capable of stretching; and that they be filled, by this lighter-than-air gas that will not burn, to the point where they will lift the basket with us in it.”

Shortly before dawn, having managed a few hours’ sleep in the meantime, Gray and Rolf were once more in the basket, attended by an audience much smaller and less hopeful-looking than that of the previous evening. Once more Gray gave orders to the djinn. The new balloons, that had replaced the crumpled metal spheres, rose from the sands as they inflated, then tugged boldly at their strong tethers, pulling them taut. The basket creaked and moved, and Rolf beheld the desert floor go dropping silently from beneath his feet.

The few who watched the launching cheered and waved. The camp was already astir with preparations for the day’s march, and now a wider cheer went up to greet the swift-ascending flyer. Looking down upon an earth much darker than the lightening sky, Rolf saw his comrades’ breakfast fires shrink steadily. The airborne flying machine was drifting slowly but steadily to the north. Gray was issuing sharp orders, planned beforehand, to the djinn, whose smoky image drifted without weight or apparent effort beside the basket. There came a hiss as flying gas was vented from the bags. Their giant shapes were spheres no longerbut pressed together above the mast by their own bulging.

The hissing continued, as Gray had ordered, until their ascent had been stopped, or so the djinn informed them. Rolf could not say from one moment to the next that they were really on the same level, and he would have been hard put to judge exactly how high they were. The fires of the camp were now a scattering of sparks at some distance to the south, and the last people Rolf had seen there had been shrunken to the stature of small insects. Not that he was worried about their height. The tight grip he had taken on the rim of the basket when it lifted, was now loosening. Enjoyment was winning out steadily over fright.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred