This is the first of eight Flash Fiction teasers set in the universe of “The Rocks of Aserol” and “A New Life in Ventis.” They’re all connected to the story but not necessarily part of it. You can find them all in the collection Tales from Norlandia
Ivan Evershed was a twenty-year veteran, his service had been faithful in the wars and skirmishes he had been part of, and now was his twilight. For his last posting he had been sent for what the old hands called a ‘cushy’, the easy life in the Balloonists.
The Balloonists were the part of the service that kept the populace safe from the Drogans. In watchtowers and balloons they scanned the skies, gave warning and engaged the beasts with their gas-guns if they could.
Ivan was a senior and so was not supposed to leave the ground, his function was to organise and train the conscripts who did the climbing and the flying. But he loved the feeling of being up high, whether it was atop a watchtower or in the basket of a gas balloon. And having been a part of the service expedition to the desolate islands that were the beast’s home he felt a grudging affinity with them.
And so it was on that day that he led the two conscripts out for their first patrol. They were youngsters, in the first year of their conscription and had not been overcome by the cynicism of the third years, waiting out the last of their time. They had been in the balloon before, so had conquered their nausea.
“Come on then, you two,” he growled as the three, wrapped up warm in the summer sun, climbed into the wicker basket. Six feet square it was closed on three sides, the fourth containing the doorway. It was attached by four wire ropes to a canvas envelope that towered above them, filled with coal gas. It bobbed a few inches off the ground on its moorings, shifting from side to side as the men moved around loading their equipment. The gas guns, supplies and provisions were passed into them. When all was aboard, a wicker panel was fitted into place over the opening and locked from the inside.
Under Ivan’s orders the three balloonists set up their equipment, the guns and telescopes were mounted on swivels set in the steel frame of the basket, ammunition trays were set handy and the food and other things stowed. The sound-powered speaker was tested and the gas warning horn sounded. The basket itself was five feet high so only the heads of the three showed, bobbing in and out of sight as they worked. This basket would be their home for the next day and everything had a place. In one corner was a hole in the wickerwork floor; that corner was left unoccupied.
“Everyone happy?” asked Ivan and the two nodded. There were two rope toggles by Ivan’s side and he turned to the two young soldiers. “Now then,” he said, “what are these two toggles for?”
The taller of the two, Bryce, spoke up, “Filling gas release is the green one, sir.”
“And the red is the dump valve, for an emergency return to ground,” broke in the other. His name was Howard, as far as Ivan could remember.
He nodded, “A controlled return to ground if you please, Mr Howard. And why might we do that?”
“In the event of an attack we cannot beat off,” he replied. “Or a lightning storm or the loss of our cables.” These answers were straight from the manual, so he had been paying attention.
“Very good. Mr Bryce, will you do the honours?”
The young soldier held the green toggle and leant his head over the side of the basket. He waved to the ground corporal. “Ready release,” he called.
The corporal barked, “Fill release.” One of the ground crew shut a valve on the flexible filling line that attached to the side of the envelope. “Ready release,” he repeated and Bryce pulled the toggle. With a hiss of gas the filling hose fell away and was coiled.
The underside of the basket had another mounting, holding three more wires. These ran through sheaves set on tracks which led to three winches, spread in a circle around the launch site.
“Clear to fly,” said Bryce and the corporal signalled to his three winch-men. They lifted pawls and the wires paid out from the winches. The basket rose silently in the sky as the sheaves moved back towards the winches on the tracks. The balloon was stable under the tension of the three spaced wires, the wind having little effect on it.
Ivan consulted a clockwork as they rose, the moving needle showed the height above ground. “Look overside, you two,” he commanded and Bryce and Howard did so. They saw the town recede below them and the countryside open up to view. They rose above the belching chimneys of the Locals, fortunately for them, today they were upwind of the smoke. They passed the tops of the watchtowers, and looking down could see people and vehicles on the streets about their business, like so many scurrying insects. The ascent slowed as the needle reached two hundred feet and they sat, swaying gently.
“Right then lads, we’re up,” said Ivan. “What’s the first order of business?” The two thought long, and exchanged whispers, was it to report? to write a log? In the distraction of their position they could not think. “Come on then,” Ivan prompted, “the most important thing in the Drogan watch and the first thing we do on station.”
Shaking their heads, the two admitted defeat. Ivan looked exasperated, as if all his training had been a failure.
“Get the char brewing,” he gave them the service’s first answer to most problems. “You did remember the makings, didn’t you?”