Owl Dance Excerpt 7: Dreaming of Airships

In this final excerpt from Owl Dance, General Gorloff goes to one of the great Russian scientists, Dmitri Mendeleev. If you’ve taken a chemistry class, you likely remember Mendeleev as the creator of the Periodic Table. However, he was also interested in airships. What if he had the resources to actually build one?

General Alexander Gorloff strode down a corridor at St. Petersburg University and knocked on a door.

“Come in,” called a distracted voice on the other side.

The general opened the door and was astonished to see a desk surrounded by books, some open, others closed—all in some kind of disarray. The desk itself was covered by papers. On the wall was a black chalkboard covered in incomprehensible scribbles that—as far as the general could tell—were some combination of hieroglyphs and a foreign language. None of this astonished the general as much as the man who sat behind the desk. His head was covered with a wild mop of gray-streaked, black hair. A bushy beard hid most of the man’s face.

The general introduced himself. “You are Mendeleev?”

“Yes, yes,” said the scientist, impatiently without rising from his chair. “What can I do for you, General?”

The general turned and closed the door. “I wish to discuss a matter of some secrecy that is important to our Czar.”

At this, Mendeleev turned his attention fully to Gorloff. “Go on.”

“In my duties as military attaché to the United States of America, it has come to my attention that the young country poses a threat to the Russian Empire.”

Mendeleev scowled. “This does not surprise me. It is a country of cowboys and loose cannons who have no respect for intellectual pursuits. The country has been around for a century and I cannot name one decent university or important literary work that has come from there.”

“I have heard some critics speak highly of a novel called Moby-Dick,” ventured the general.

The scientist waved his hand as though subjected to a bad smell. “A long-winded book about a madman hunting a whale? It has no value. Poe showed some promise, but he was obviously influenced by the French.”

“Obviously,” muttered the general in agreement. He sat down and decided to steer the conversation back to the topic at hand. “While in America, I also learned that there are vast reserves of gold and oil in Alaska,” continued Gorloff.

Mendeleev’s disdainful frown turned into a smug grin–although the general had some difficulty telling that through the thick beard. “I knew it was a mistake for the Czar to sell Alaska.”

“America poses a threat to Russia and the stability of the whole world,” declared the general. “I ask you, as a patriot, will you come to the aid of our country?”

“I am loyal to the Czar, General Gorloff. He has a good heart. He showed that when he freed the serfs. Ask what you will.” Mendeleev folded his arms across his chest, his eyes intent.

“We need a way to move quickly to the United States without being stopped by their navy,” explained the general. “We also need a way to deploy troops and heavy artillery across large sections of western North America.”

Mendeleev nodded and thought for several minutes. His head fell forward and for a moment, the general thought the scientist had fallen asleep. Just as he was leaning forward to tap Mendeleev on the shoulder, the scientist leapt to his feet and erased a section of the chalkboard. He drew a large ovoid shape. Next, he added boxes with something like ship propellers attached. Underneath, he drew a bigger box. “Imagine if you will, a ship of the air,” said Mendeleev, pointing at his drawing. “We build a steel frame. Inside will be great bags that we fill with a gas that’s lighter than air—say hydrogen.” He pointed to the boxes and propellers. “It will be light enough that small steam engines can be deployed to move it through the air. Underneath, like a balloon’s gondola, is a pilothouse. Within the steel frame structure, we can place troops, artillery, whatever you like.”

The general stared at the drawing wide-eyed. “Will such a thing really work?”

“I have been working on the problem of such a craft for the past few years.” As Mendeleev spoke, he continued sketching on the board, showing the airship from underneath. “The only thing that has kept me from building it is funding. If the Czar is serious about having such a war machine, I believe I can design it and we can build a small fleet.”

“This year?” Gorloff shook his head in wonder.

“If enough resources are dedicated to the problem.” Mendeleev stepped aside. The silhouette of an owl adorned his new sketch.

“Why do you adorn your airship with an owl?”

“My ancestors are Kalmyk, General Gorloff. A story has been passed down through the generations that an owl saved Ghengis Khan’s life. To us, owls have long been talismans of great power. These ships will be like great owls, expanding the Russian empire. We will guide the Americans to a more civilized age.”

Gorloff nodded satisfied. “Begin work designing these ships. Send word to the palace and let us know what materials and personnel you need. We will make sure they are sent.” The general reached out and shook Mendeleev’s hand. “It was a delight meeting you, Professor Mendeleev.”

“The pleasure was mine.”

Back out in the hall, the general heard Legion in the back of his mind. What a fascinating individual.

“You did well.” Gorloff’s voice was barely above a whisper. He didn’t want to attract attention as he walked down the hall. “It seems Professor Mendeleev responded quite well to the visions you showed him.”

We showed Professor Mendeleev no visions.

“What?!” The general shouted, then looked around quickly to make sure that no one had heard him. “What do you mean you showed him no visions?”

We didn’t need to. Those were Mendeleev’s own ideas.

First off, a big thank you for reading the excerpts today and helping to make this launch of Owl Dance a real success. I hope you have enjoyed the excerpts. You can find out more information about the novel, or buy a copy, at the following:

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