The man looked as though he’d gone to hell and back. The coarse shirt he wore was torn in several places, and adorned with rust-colored stains all along one side. Even his face looked older, with rings under the eyes and the look of a man who’d spent too much time under the sun.
But he smiled like a madman, waving a scroll of some type to and fro as he climbed the hill.
Cufu Fulni watched him approach and felt himself smiling back. Vel Camna was his most trusted lieutenant and one of his oldest friends. He could be forgiven for making a loud entrance and looking like something that had been dragged in behind a horse.
“You look terrible,” Fulni informed him when he got into earshot.
“I haven’t been seated on my generous rump, drinking wine and ogling the women while others have been risking their lives for the glory of Etruria,” Camna replied stiffly.
Fulmi chuckled. “Prickly as ever, I see.” He held out a hand. “I’m glad to see you, old friend.”
The other man grasped Cufu’s forearm, his expression softening. “It’s good to be back. It’s been much too long.”
“Where have you been?”
A sigh. “Just about everywhere. Thebes. Sparta. I’ve seen things that would make you tremble, wonders that man was not meant to uncover. But that’s a story for another time. I want you to look at this.”
Vel unrolled the scroll he carried. On it, a large-scale line drawing depicted a machine of some sort, a chariot held under an elongated ovel structure, shown from various angles.
Fulni was completely unable to make anything of it. “What is it, some kind of war machine? Does it hurl rocks? I can’t see how it would manage such a thing.”
“No, it’s a flying machine. These are plans for vehicles that take men into the sky, even unto the Aether. The skies over the Helene cities are alive with them.”
“So what they say is true.”
Vel’s eyes lit up. “Yes! It’s magnificent. I never thought I would see wonders like those I’ve seen in the south. Anything is possible!”
Cufu knew that if anything was possible, they’d soon see the Greeks mounted on mechanical dragons marching down the streets of Tarchna, but he said nothing. Vel was an explorer, not a statesman.
“And what are these wonders made of?” he inquired.
“That’s the beauty of it. The materials are nothing special—this top part is made of cloth, filled with a gas that we can get from water. They claim that this wonderful gas looks just like air but is lighter than air and can be set on fire—to make water. And they taught me how to create a machine that separates water into gasses as if it were of no consequence. And the rest is made of wood and metal. All in all, they are ridiculously easy machines to build.” The man was breathless, inspired by the wonders he’d seen.
“And do you know how to fly one of these machines?”
“I know the principles. I’d be honored if we could learn the actual practice together.”
The two friends watched the sunset from the observation platform they’d built into the decks of the Tarchna. Though hesitant to break the silence, Cufu knew that the moment had come to ask questions. The past few months had been a wonderful, joyous time of experimentation and construction, but practical matters had to be discussed. “Vel,” he said, “you claim there were hundreds of these machines off to the south, that they were flying daily, uniting far-distant ports.”
“Yes,” his friend replied, face glowing with the memory, “it was something you couldn’t imagine. The skies seemed like a living thing.”
“And the designs you saw, were they fitted for war?”
“Oh, most certainly. They showed me storerooms full of heavy rocks, and even demonstrated explosive weapons that could be used to attack another airship, launched on a column of fire! Of course, they weren’t very forthcoming as to how such things functioned.”
Cufu sighed, wishing the other man had thought to mention these details earlier. “And how long would you estimate that our armies would last against this kind of weaponry?”
Vel Camna pondered for a moment. “Not long at all, especially since they have also developed a breed of projectile weapon that can pierce shields and armor.” And then he smiled. “But there’s no need to worry, my friend.”
“My place on the council of twelve means that it’s my job to worry.”
“Of course, of course. But there’s no real need. None of the Greek city-states would be foolish enough to waste energy attacking us. They are all much too preoccupied with what their neighbors are doing. They wouldn’t weaken themselves only to expand their territory – and besides, they are convinced that the polis is the ideal political unit. They measure influence in allegiances, not land. The Egyptians, of course, would never strike north – the Greeks would unite immediately to stop such a thing. But that’s not the most important thing.”
“Please enlighten me,” Cufu said, wishing his friend were more practical, just once in his life.
“The real reason that they won’t come this way is that they no longer really care about what is on land. All their efforts are aimed at going ever higher. There’s talk of floating cities. Some even say that it may be possible to reach the heavens and speak to the gods.”
“The gods?” Cufu snorted. “They would never allow it. Certainly, they’d consider it blasphemous to even think of such a thing, and strike down anyone who dares. Have many airships been destroyed by rogue winds and lightning strikes?”
“Many have, but some say that it was nature at work, and not the gods. Others say that it is because the crews were not pure in heart that they wanted to speak to the gods for personal gain, and not the glory of Greece. The Egyptians are rumored to be sending their dead up in airships designed to keep rising forever. I’ve heard whispers that they have a floating necropolis – up higher than the Greeks dare to venture.”
Cufu, a tactician by training, felt his heart drop. He had a vision of this floating city in his mind, and the sight was unequivocally that of the ultimate high ground. “We must go see this city.” The secrets it would yield might mean the difference between the survival of the Rasna, the people of Etruria, and their ultimate subjugation.
“That would never be allowed. The Egyptians consider it their holiest ground. They would never take us up there.”
“Why would we need them, when we have our own airship now?”
Vel froze. “But to get there, we’d need to cross the sea, avoiding the Greek fleets and then approach the Necropolis unseen. It would be fraught with danger. You must remember that they have much more advanced weaponry than we do.”
“We are Etruscans,” Cufu replied. “We have fought off more powerful enemies before. Do you remember when the upstart Romans wished to push north? It cost us in blood and widows, but we turned them back, kept them huddled among their seven hills.”
“The Romans were simple savages, as Etruscan as we are. You speak of defying the greatest powers in the known world.”
“Consider it another tribute to the heart of Etruria. A necessary one.”
“It would be an interesting challenge,” Vel said. “We’d have to outfit the Tarchna for night flying at high altitude, and…”
And Cufu Fulni knew he’d won.
The crew was nervous. It was obvious from the way they moved on the deck, the way they refused eye contact, the way they studiously avoided going anywhere near the railings. Only the fact that they were hand-picked volunteers chosen from the elite units of the Twelve Cities kept them from mutiny.
The problem was the cloud cover. The selection process had eliminated those men who were never meant to fly, but there was one test that they hadn’t thought of: how the men would react when it was no longer possible to see the ground.
The moment when they’d gone into the first cloud hadn’t been a problem because all the men had seen low mountain fog, and even welcomed the refreshing droplets. But when they emerged and realized that they couldn’t see the ground and that the last line to their home had been cut, the fact that they were actually leagues above the ground seemed to hit them. Although some of the men simply shrugged it off and went on as before, a kind of low-key terror seemed to flow through the rest, leaving them muttering like superstitious sailors.
Cufu ignored his own misgivings and held firm. Numerous conferences with Vel had impressed upon him the need to go much, much higher than they were currently flying if they wished to approach the Egyptian’s floating city. He couldn’t allow the crew to get used to flying low, just for the sake of comfort – at some moment in the distant past, seafaring vessels had finally gone deep enough into the ocean that the shore was no longer visible, and it was now time for airfaring Etruscans to do the same.
He pulled his thoughts away from the distance between airship and ground and walked off to find the man most responsible for Rasna flight. He found Vel staring through some kind of tube, straight up into the blue emptiness above, and wondered again at how practical concerns never seemed to get through the man’s passion for learning ever more. Not for Vel Camna the earthy thoughts of a long fall to his death, especially not when there were strange sights in the sky.
“Hello Vel, have you made any more discoveries for the great book?” Cufu was referring to a scroll that the other man had begun to write, a repository of all Etruscan knowledge of things that occurred above the clouds and the birds.
Vel pulled the spyglass from his eyes violently, and Cufu almost chastised him for it; the lenses inside that tube had cost a fortune in skilled labor, and bribes for the travelling Greek glassmaker who’d initially refused to sell precision optics to what he termed ‘unwashed heathens’. The frustration on his friend’s features, however, made Cufu hold his tongue.
“No,” Vel spat. “Everything looks just the same as it did from the ground, even the moon is only a little bigger, and I can really only see it well by night. Can’t we go just a little higher?”
“Not yet. The crew still needs to get used to being this high. Before we go further, I’d like to be more certain of what we’re getting into.”
“We’re not getting into anything. I already told you that the Aether goes at least twice as high as we are now.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“I myself went there in Greek airships. And I already told you that the Greeks are frightened, conservative. The Egyptians are going ten times as high.”
“But you haven’t seen them. And you had only the Greeks’ word for it that you were as high as they claimed. I cannot risk my crew on those grounds. We need to find some way to prove that it’s possible to go further. For all we know, this Aether of yours might end just above our heads. Look for a boundary, discover the color of the Aether. Give me something, and I will risk going higher. In the meantime, we have a long distance to cover before we need to take the decision. Egypt is still days away.”
Vel sighed and turned his attention back into the sky, signaling that, in his opinion, the conversation was over. But Cufu had barely gone three steps when the other man’s voice called him back. “You want proof?” he asked, triumphantly, “There’s your proof.” The scientist handed him the spyglass and, after a considerable amount of adjustment, Cufu saw what Vel was referring to: far up in the heavens, where the blue was nearly black, the tiny outline of an airship’s gas bag could be seen.
Cufu reacted, calling for his chief officer. “Down!” he ordered. “Dive into the clouds immediately!”
“What do you mean, down? I’ve just shown you that we can go up. Up as high as we want, practically!”
Cufu sighed. “And we will go up, in due course. But I still remember what you told me about the projectile weapons that the Greeks have mounted on their craft.”
“But those are only there in case the airship is attacked.”
“Of course, that’s what they told you,” Cufu said, relaxing as the enveloping cool wetness of the cloud destroyed all visibility. “But what if they were lying? Or what if they see any flight by lesser cultures as an affront to their power? Or maybe we’re flying over one of their city-states. It would be difficult to convince them that we’re not here to spy on them, or drop heavy rocks on their heads, don’t you think?” Indeed, the Tarchna had a hold full of such rocks, just above the level in which the slaves pedaled furiously, spinning the giant wooden propellers on the sides of the airship. They had another storeroom full of amphorae filled with naphtha, which could reduce a ship to burning ash in moments.
Vel’s eyes clouded over with sadness. Both men knew that Cufu’s words were wise, despite Vel’s wishes to the contrary. “But if we’re proposing to fly over Egypt, we will certainly be seen. The airships are as numerous as gnats on a summer evening.”
“If they are as numerous as you say, another one in their midst might not be noticed.”
“But ours has none of the sacred markings. They’d realize we were intruders right away.”
“Then,” Cufu replied gravely, “We will just have to be very careful.”
The following days tested both their skill at flying the airship, and their determination to see the mission through, as more and more enemy airships popped in and out of their view.
Cufu experimented with different altitudes, and even went against his own advice, flying much higher than any other airship they encountered, but eventually it was decided that the safest course was to fly just above the clouds, which allowed them to dive into the cover of the grey fog any time someone approached. That method was fine while they flew over the sea, Cufu knew, but what would they do over cloudless deserts?
Added to this was the tension they felt at the water situation. While their food could last them for months, they needed to land to replenish their water every ten days or so, as Vel’s experimental cloud condensers had not proven up to the task so far. With their current bearing, it would mean landing in Egyptian territory, something which had the crew on edge. One of the navigators had already expressed his absolute unhappiness with the situation by jumping over the side without a security rope, and Cufu was afraid that even more of the superstitious lot would follow suit. He was truly glad that they’d settled on soldiers and not sailors for this quest – it would have been impossible to keep discipline otherwise.
“Land ho!” the forward lookout shouted. The ship swayed dangerously as every man within earshot ran towards the front. Cufu immediately joined Vel on the left side of the airship. If land was to be seen, it would be easier to do so with the other man’s spyglass than by moving a few paces forward.
“What do you see?” he asked his friend.
“Desert, and a river delta, and a town.”
“Of course it’s Egypt. I told you that if you followed my course corrections we’d arrive here.”
“Can we put down along the Delta to get water without being seen?”
Vel shrugged. They’d discussed the need for secrecy over and over on the trip, but still the man wasn’t convinced. “It’s a large delta. If we go down at night with no lights on board, it should be easy enough to avoid the townsfolk. And if we run into any shepherds, well, I think our decision to select shock troops for a trip of exploration should keep us safe enough from some poor farmer with a sling.”
Cufu shook his head, wondering how someone so idealistic could have survived the trip to the south and returned bearing plans for the airship in the first place. “Just leave those details to me. Concentrate on the fact that, in another day or two, you will be seeing one of the true wonders of the modern world.”
Vel brightened at this and the captain went forward, ordering his men back to their posts and giving the instructions to wait for nightfall.
Cufu thought he’d become accustomed to flying over the previous few weeks, but now he understood just how wrong he’d been. The ground below was so far away that he couldn’t make out individual features of the terrain, even with the help of the spyglass. The smallest feature he could see was the coastline of northern Egypt. It was enough to make one want to jump.
But Vel had been right. The height seemed not to affect their ability to survive in the least. The air was still fresh and untainted, if a bit chilly, and the ship still moved the way it had been designed to. More to the point, it was perfectly obvious that the Egyptians were building something high in the sky. They’d been using distance and the sun to remain hidden while they observed the movements of sacred Egyptian airships as they landed, filled up with timber and supplies and flew nearly straight into the air.
It was one of those airships that they were now following, and even Vel knew that they’d crossed a line in the sand. If the Egyptians spotted them now, there was no question of a friendly reception. They would do everything in their considerable power to drive the Tarchna back to ground in small pieces.
What had, from a distance, looked like a strangely lined piece of black sky suddenly resolved itself into a grid of colossal scale which seemed to swallow the Egyptian ship whole.
“What is that?” Cufu said, eyes wide.
“I believe it’s the new city of the dead. The first resting place of the Pharaohs before they are released into the heavens.”
“But it’s huge.”
Vel peered at the structure intently. “Most of it is just a framework to mount the gas envelopes that keep the city afloat. The living area is over there. Look. It’s pretty small, just twenty or thirty buildings.”
Cufu nearly choked. Even Vel should have been hard-pressed to dismiss the fact that a medium-sized town was floating leagues above the ground. He wondered whether his friend deliberately made that kind of comment just to make him angry, and decided not to give him the satisfaction. “That is actually a good thing. We can land on one of the spars, far from the populated areas and try to make our way closer to see what we can discover.”
“Yes, that way I can study the framework, too,” Vel said. If he was disappointed that Cufu hadn’t risen to the bait, he certainly wasn’t showing it.
They decided to approach the outermost corner of the grid from directly below, both to minimize their chance of arriving undetected and to give themselves a chance to escape if that failed. The time it took them to make it to the edge underscored the sheer size of the thing floating above their heads.
“What if it falls down?”
Vel laughed. “Don’t be silly. How could it fall? It’s being held up by thousands of separate bags. Even if they lost a few, it would only sink a little until more gas could be brought up. It’s a perfect design.”
Cufu said nothing, but simply thought that if he were charged with bringing the thing down, he would definitely take into account that it was a wooden structure held aloft by bags of flammable gas. Twenty archers and a couple of barrels of oil for the burning arrows should make short work of it, he thought.
They reached the grid without incident, and Cufu was again surprised by the fact that, despite ascending to where the sky had been black a few moments before, they could see as well as they would have been able to at twilight on the ground. Fortunately, the sun was behind them, making them almost invisible, and night would soon fall to conceal them completely.
The grid was made of huge wooden beams, cut from some colossal trees in some unknown forest which Vel immediately described as ‘surely found in the jungles deep to the south of Egypt’, but which Cufu ignored once he’d reassured himself that they were strong enough to moor the airship.
Once secured, the crew descended without waiting for the order, the awe present on their faces at the fact that such a huge platform could simply float in the air mixing freely with the relief of standing on something more solid than the airship for the first time in weeks.
They had to act immediately. Night hid their presence for the moment, but the cluster of buildings and activity was quite a march from where they’d tied the airship, and they had to have their investigations concluded in time to leave before dawn. If they were spotted, the Egyptians would take them prisoner – or worse.
It was the work of a moment to put together a team. Every man on board volunteered – this, as opposed to the flying, was what they’d actually signed up for – and Cufu soon selected the best of the bunch. The disappointed remnant was set to guard the airship from any surprises.
Although a pair of chariots could have travelled across the wooden walkways side by side, the troops walked single-file down the center of the path. Everyone knew that the earth was a long way down, and despite Vel’s assurances, Cufu wasn’t certain that they’d even hit the ground. From this high up, he was convinced that they might miss the Earth altogether.
They advanced cautiously, sending scouts ahead to make certain that no guards had been posted, but the Egyptians seemed confident in their isolation. The Etruscans reached the outermost building without incident.
The edifice itself, though illuminated by burning lamps, seemed to be deserted: a large wooden structure holding rows of what looked like caskets. “This must be where they receive the honored dead,” Vel explained. “The golden caskets,” he indicated two near the front of the hall, “are nobles, while the rest are loyal retainers and servants.”
“What a coincidence that they’d all die at the same time,” Cufu said.
Vel didn’t seem to notice the sarcasm in his friend’s voice. “Oh, that was no coincidence – the Egyptians believe in taking their retainers with them into the afterlife, so they kill a few whenever a noble dies. Much more efficient than waiting for them to die of natural causes.”
Cufu shuddered to think what life as slaves of the Egyptians would be like. The Etruria had long prided itself on being an egalitarian society where slaves were never mistreated beyond what they deserved.
Vel went on. “They must have received them recently, and now they have to build an airship to send them up with the gods. That’s probably what the big building over there is for.”
Cufu would have preferred to look for the platform’s military installation. A thing this size floating above any of the Twelve Cities could replace a siege army, provided it was adequately armed. But investigating the largest building did seem to be the most logical course of action. They set off in that direction, silently.
Unlike the casket room, this building was abuzz as workers, both chained to their posts and free-roaming, put the finishing touches on a black airship. Most of the slaves had skin so dark as to be nearly blue, but some were lighter in color even than the Etruscans. They seemed to be supervising the build, but were clearly not in charge – guards armed with both swords and whips that stared down at them attested to this fact.
The structure itself had no roof, and the reason for this soon became clear. Under the directions of two of the light-skinned men, a large gas bag was being inflated from a system of pipes and bladders in the floor. They shouted across the expanse to one another and goaded the rest of the slaves into action.
“Greek,” Vel said. “They must have flown too high and been captured.”
Cufu wasn’t so certain that Vel’s conclusion had any merit whatsoever. His friend was a genius when it came to understanding the new machines that were taking over the world, but he didn’t understand empires. The Egyptians would be flexing their muscles, testing their newfound strength – and taking a few Greek airship crews for slaves would fit right in with that philosophy. It wouldn’t be long before the icy stalemate between the two powers spilled over onto the rest of the civilized peoples of the world.
Suddenly, shouting erupted off to their left. Cufu’s stomach sank; he was convinced that they’d been seen. But the commotion was distant, and a when powerful light illuminated part of the platform, and the dread in his gut turned to ice. The Tarchna’s unmistakable shape could be seen, silhouetted clearly against the night sky.
“Oh, by the beard of Uni, I hope they have sense enough to run.” But the hope was in vain. The sound of swords connecting, and the screams of dying men soon reached them; all the sounds that Cufu knew from his years at war with the Eluvitae tribesmen to the north. But then a new sound appeared, a series of loud cracks which sounded more like mortar stones cracking than anything else. These were followed by more screams.
Vel nodded. “Those are the projectile weapons,” he whispered.
Cufu said nothing, straining to see what was going on in the distance, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Tarchna slipping off into the night. Instead, he saw the gas bag catch fire, and burn so quickly that it became an afterimage in his vision. Still the men fought on. Even from that distance, he could hear the sound of the struggle, carrying through the cool night air.
Shocked to the core, Cufu slumped against the building. He hadn’t imagined that the airship would be discovered, out there on the dark fringes of the floating complex.
Only when the sounds of the battle died down did he react, to find Vel looking into his eyes. “Come Cufu, we need you to guide us.”
“Guide us where? The airship is gone. We might as well give ourselves up to the Egyptians right now.”
“Don’t be silly. There’s an airship right there. And if we surprise the guards, I think we can convince the slaves working on it to help us fly it, don’t you think?”
Cufu looked up and laughed. “It seems like I owe you an apology. I was dismissing you as a dreamer, a useless idealist. But when I couldn’t see the easy solution, you came through with a practicable plan. I’m sorry.” Cufu held out his hand.
Vel slapped it away with a smile. “We don’t have time for that right now. Give the orders. Organize your troops. Do military things and get me off this platform before the Egyptians catch us.”
“I thought you said they were peaceful, and had no designs on Etruria.”
“I still think that, but that won’t stop them from tossing us off the platform for invading sacred ground.”
“Fair enough,” Cufu said. He looked back into the factory floor, where, after a brief lull when the alarm sounded, the guards had pressed the slaves back into motion. They seemed to be putting decorative markings on the hull.
Six guards held thirty slaves in check, which seemed to be extremely risky until Vel pointed out that the guards were carrying projectile weapons that could take a man down from fifty paces and be ready to fire again in an instant.
Cufu studied them for another moment, and smiled. “That would be bad, except for one little thing?”
“The guards are looking inward at the workers. If we strike at all of them at once, we’ll hit them from behind.” He quickly briefed his soldiers on the plan and sent them off, counting as they went. When he reached one hundred, a pair of screams and one loud retort sounded. Cufu looked into the building to find the guards dead – as well as one of his men.
The slaves looked on in confusion, unsure of how to take these new armed interlopers. Cufu, seizing the moment, began to give orders. “Vel, talk to the Greeks. Explain that they can help us or stay, but if they resist, we will kill them. You, and you, pick up the guards’ weapons and get on board.”
After a few moments of tense shouting, the Greeks began to board the airship. The dark-skinned slaves, seeing them, followed suit.
Cufu shrugged. He had no idea how they’d manage to communicate with their new crew, but the more the merrier.
They’d been fortunate that the battle at the Tarchna had pulled the Egyptians away, because, judging by the shouting coming from outside, they were rapidly approaching.
“Go, go, go!” Cufu shouted. The last stragglers quickly boarded the airship, which the slaves had already released from its moorings. Soon enough, they were up in the air.
But the defenders had no intention of letting them escape. Arrows and other projectiles pelted the airship, buzzing past or embedding themselves in the wood.
“We’re as good as dead,” Cufu said, remembering the burning Tarchna.
“Not unless one of them hits you,” Vel replied, surprisingly calmly. “See? Look at the gas bag. It’s covered with leather shrouds, probably designed to stop the projectiles. Ingenious.”
Cufu shook his head. He’d definitely apologize to his friend if they made it back to Etruria alive. “So what next, great captain?” he asked.
“Well, the Greeks seem to know their way around an airship, so we don’t need to worry about that. Maybe we should find a cloud to hide in.”
Cufu relayed the order. “And then what?”
“I’d say we get back on Rasna soil and start preparing for war.”
“What?” Cufu was astounded. Vel, talking of war?
“This trip gives the people of Etruria a huge advantage.”
“What are you talking about? We just lost our only airship and half our crew.”
“Not lost, my friend. We traded it for a better airship and the latest projectile weapons. Not to mention a couple of Greek prisoners who probably have some interesting knowledge of their own to share with us. Gold should convince them, if duress doesn’t.”
“And this has convinced you that the Egyptians are going to attack us? At least you’ve finally learned to predict how leaders think.”
“Oh, no. I still think the Greeks and the Egyptians are too busy exploring the new frontiers to attack anyone else. This has nothing to do with them, it has to do with you.”
“Of course. Etruria suddenly has access to the best technology in the world, a commander who’s been up in the Aether and the resources of all Twelve of the great cities at our disposal. And no one is watching us, no one expects an attack from the north. I know you Cufu, and I know that you won’t waste this opportunity to attack.”
Cufu thought about it, silently, for a few moments. “Should I be ashamed? The heavens are opening up to us, and all I can think of is how to gain earthly power?”
Vel put his hand on his old friend’s shoulder. “Perhaps you should,” he said. “But I forgive you; it might be fun to build a huge army of war machines.”
“Do you think we can win?”
“Not really, but it should be one hell of a fight. Now, maybe we should figure out how to get the airship back to Etruria without the Greeks mutinying and throwing us overboard.”
Cufu thought about it. Most of the slaves were darker Africans who might remain neutral, and there were only a handful of Greeks on board. Their combined number was larger than that of the Etruscan soldiers at his disposal, but his troops were crack commandos, and they held the projectile weapons. Of course, they had no idea how to use them, but the Greeks didn’t know that, and Vel would figure it out soon enough.
An interesting problem.