The Fires of Vulcan - Cover

The Fires of Vulcan

Copyright© 2023 by Lumpy

Chapter 28


Lucilla arrived for a second time at the large open field outside of Devnum. Though the early fall morning air held a chill that warned of the upcoming winter, a large crowd had already gathered in anticipation of this day’s event, again they were held back by several squads of Praetorians. Hortensius and Sorantius were at the balloon in the center of the field, no doubt making last-minute preparations for their launch.

The first test had proven to be a disaster, with the balloon igniting shortly after lifting off the ground, sending burning fragments raining down as the craft plummeted to earth. Thankfully, no one had been injured, but it had been terrifying. Lucilla suspected that was why today’s crowd seemed even larger than before. Nothing brought spectators together more than the possibility of a spectacle, especially a disastrous one.

The Praetorians were already struggling to hold back the encroaching onlookers. The audience was excited and parted as she approached the circle, some reaching out to touch the hem of her stola as she made her way into the center of the test area. Modius and the rest of her guards were anxious since she’d been brutally attacked the previous year by a similar crowd that included insurrectionists, but she wasn’t going to let that keep her away from her people.

A cheer went up for her as she made her way across the open field to where the two inventors were working, both of them stopping to see what the commotion was about.

“Empress, wonderful timing! We are nearly ready for the launch. Please, come see the improvements for yourself!” Hortensius said eagerly, gesturing to the strange orb resting in a large wicker basket.

She moved next to the basket, peering inside.

“As you can see, we encased the firepot in the new material you described. It held up very well during our testing, getting hot, but not so hot as to set even a piece of paper put against it on fire. It’s excellent at dissipating the heat and should keep the basket from catching fire like the last time.”

“Well done. I’m excited to see it in action,” she said.

“Then please, stand back,” he said to her, before turning his attention back to the attendants surrounding the conveyance. “That should be good. Let’s get started.”

Lucilla backed up as the men lit the firepot and scrambled away. Like the first time, after a few minutes, the fabric began to swell ever so slowly and expand until it finally lifted off the ground, turning globe-like as it rose above the basket. Again, as it had done the first time, the basket lifted off the ground, the ropes pulling tight as it held several handspans off the ground.

Murmurs rippled through the crowd, probably spectators who were here previously telling their fellows that this was when everything went wrong the last time. She waited almost breathlessly as it floated there, and nothing else happened.

“How will we know that it worked and there won’t be a fire this time?” she asked, her impatience finally getting the best of her.

“I think that was long enough,” Hortensius replied. “We’re well past the point where everything went wrong last time. I think we’re safe to assume it worked and move to the next stage of the test.”

“Next stage?” she asked as Hortensius began waving for men to grab the dangling ropes and pull the balloon closer to the ground.

As she watched, a man trotted over from where a group of assistants stood, and climbed into the basket.

“Yes, the next stage is to test it with a pilot aboard,” Hortensius explained. “Pridan has trained extensively for this flight, including learning Morse code and how to operate a telegraph.”

“Why would he need to be trained in Morse code to go up there?” Lucilla asked.

Waving her over, he picked up the thick rope that led from the frame holding the basket to a large winch on the ground and pulled the wound rope apart slightly to reveal a pair of rubber-covered wire inside. Sophus had tried to explain why they needed a pair of wires, but it quickly got past Lucilla’s understanding.

“So he can use this. There’s a portable telegraph machine, essentially just the transmitter, inside the basket with him. Using it, the pilot can send messages back to the ground, reporting on what he sees through his spyglass. To keep the weight down, and because room inside the basket is limited, we didn’t include a receiver, so he can’t receive messages, but he’s also been trained on the flag messaging system we used on the semaphore. Focusing his glasses down toward where the balloon is anchored, he’ll be able to read those messages if need be. There will also normally be a second person in the basket, so one can type out what they see while the other continues to observe from the air. He’ll also have flags up there with him, should the telegraph stop working. It will be slower, but we can still get messages that way.”

“Clever,” she said.

Although they had discussed having a way for the pilot to send messages, she hadn’t realized Hortensius had progressed this far with the idea or included the telegraph with the balloon itself. Especially not how he had the telegraph wire protected inside the rope attached to the rising balloon.

“All set,” Sorantius, who was over at the balloon checking the equipment, said.

“Excellent,” Hortensius said. “Please step away from the rope, Your Majesty.”

She stepped back as the men around the basket scattered. The men who’d been holding the ropes on the side of the basket released them, letting it spring up to just about head height. On Hortensius’s signal, the operators of the winch began cranking the machine, letting out more and more rope. With each handspan of rope released, the balloon climbed higher into the sky. Above the trees, then above the height of the palace and the Colosseum, and it continued to rise.

The crowd clapped and cheered, enthralled by the spectacle of a man reaching heights usually reserved for birds only. Lucilla shielded her eyes from the sun with one hand as she tracked the balloon’s progress, higher and higher, until the basket was nothing more than a tiny speck against the blue sky. The much larger balloon was still clearly visible, but it had gone so high as to seem noticeably smaller, much like seeing a ship far out to sea. She marveled at it. That a man was up there, flying.

Suddenly, the telegraph machine resting on a table nearby sprang to life. Lucilla turned her attention to it as clicks and taps sounded out a message. One of Hortensius’ assistants transcribed the incoming transmission, hurriedly writing down the translated letters on a sheet of paper.

Handing it to Hortensius, the inventor looked it over, smiling to himself before turning his attention to Lucilla.

“It’s a message from Pridan, Your Majesty. He says all is well. He is amazed by how far he can see.”

“Please ask him to describe it to us,” she said, wanting to both see what kind of detail the man could see using a spyglass that high in the sky, and wanting to confirm the ability to get messages from the ground to him.

“Send the request, please,” Hortensius said to one of his other assistants.

Two of the men went to a set of signal flags, one of them picking the flags up while the other looked up at the balloon through a spyglass. There was some back and forth between them until the second man began to wave the flags in the style she’d seen before on board Valdar’s ships. A minute passed, and then two, while nothing happened, before the telegraph receiver began to move again, hammering out a message. Lucilla turned her attention back to the assistant as he transcribed this new, lengthier message.

Again, Hortensius took the message, reading out loud this time, “Majesty, the view from up here is magnificent. I can see clear across Devnum. The water in the aqueduct, running from the reservoir, sparkles like jewels in the sun. The crowds at market around the Colosseum look like small insects from this height. I can see the gardens inside the palace, and the park between the buildings with its shade-providing trees. Beyond the city walls, orchards and farmland stretch as far as the eye can see. There is a ship leaving the harbor, looking much like a toy. What a privilege it is to be granted such a perspective!”

Lucilla smiled as she heard the pilot’s enthusiastic account, reminded again of the wonders this new invention could provide. Talking to Ky and Sophus, it was easy to accept these wonders as normal ... commonplace. It took a moment like this to realize the amazement they could bring. She just wished she could join Pridan, sailing high above the city and countryside, seeing it all unfold below. Of course, neither Ky nor her guards would ever allow something like that to happen.

“You’ve truly outdone yourselves,” she said to Hortensius and Sorantius, both of whom grinned at the compliment, as they looked from her back up to their invention flying in the sky.

“Thank you, Your Majesty,” the manufacturer said.

Turning her attention to Hortensius, she said, “Make preparations to transport the balloon immediately. I’ve received word that Valdar has captured the port of Kalb in the mouth of the Middle Sea and is sailing ships up to support Ky’s attack on the Carthaginian’s main port in Gaul. I want the balloon, all of the telegraph receivers and transmitters we have ready, and as much of the insulated wire as possible shipped to him with the next supply ship.”

“Of course, Your Majesty. We’ll need to dismantle and pack the balloon for transport, but we’ll have it done by the end of the day,” he said. “I’ll also send the technicians with the most experience operating this and the telegraph. I know the Consul doesn’t need assistance from someone like me to work these, but I’m certain it will make his job easier.”

“Good. Very good. Then I believe we need to begin expediting the building of the telegraph system. Beyond the legions and a handful of other uses, I don’t believe we need to devote a lot of resources to creating a large number of balloons, although I’m certain there’s going to be some demand for them once word gets out. I’m all for everyone making money on something like this, that’ll be profitable, but let’s keep our eye on the prize, as it were. I have an engagement at the palace, so I’ll leave this to you to take care of.”

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