by David Clarke
After breakfast the following morning we were measured for our new clothing by a man with several tape measures and a fussy manner, who measured almost every possible dimension on my body… well, not that one, but certainly all the others, including my head. I wondered if there were particular occasions on which I'd be required to wear a hat, and I can't say I liked the idea, because I simply didn't like wearing anything on my head. I must have been the only boy in our class who didn't own a baseball cap.
When the tailor had finally finished with us we were able to go and talk to Allchorn, who was in charge of the staff, about borrowing Billy Rodgers indefinitely to act as my personal runner and assistant. Allchorn wondered aloud if one of the indoor staff might not be a better choice, but I said that we'd spent much of the previous afternoon interviewing Rodgers and giving him some practical tests, such as checking his ability to tend a firebox, and were happy with the results, and at that the butler gave way. He agreed to ask Mrs Sweeting to make up a room for him in the servants' quarters on the third floor.
Towards the end of the morning Wolfie said that he wanted to go up to our private headquarters with me. He'd managed to get hold of some bedding – I didn't ask how, but I assumed he'd been busy while Alex and I were being catalogued by the tailor - and he wanted me to help him make the bed. But he didn't want Alex along, because we had never let anyone else know about our special room, and he didn't want that to change now.
I wasn't really happy about that.
"Alex is my friend," I said. "Sooner or later we're going to have to tell him – I won't be able to keep disappearing without him wanting to know where I am, especially if we're intending to stay there overnight. Surely you know by now that we can trust him?"
"Of course I do, but it is not about trust, it is about us having somewhere which is just for the two of us. If only you had your memory you would know how important that was."
"But I don't suppose we had any other particular friend back then – or did we?"
"Well… not quite like you and Alex are friends, no," he admitted. "Still…"
"Well, look," I said, "I'll agree to keep it between ourselves for a little longer. But I don't like having secrets from Alex, and if we shut him out he's going to feel really bad. That's not fair on him. Anyway, I want us to be friends, all three of us. So we'll sleep there tonight, and maybe again at the weekend, but I want to tell him about it next week, all right?"
"Well… I suppose so. Can he speak German?"
"Ah. No, but we'll teach him. You taught me pretty well: on the last day before I came back to this world I was talking to some boys from Trier in Germany, and they said I sounded almost like a genuine German."
"I am surprised they would know," said Wolfie. "Trier is not in Germany – in fact it is not caller Trier, either: that is a very old name for it. It is called Trèves, and it has been in France for about two hundred years. It is in the département of Forêts, I think… or possibly Sarre. I am not quite sure where the border is."
"Oh. Well, in my world… I mean, my other world, it's in Germany, and it has been since about 1816, I would guess. Anyway, they were native Germans, and they liked my accent. We'll just have to teach Alex as well as you taught me."
So when Alex returned from using the plumbing I asked him to go to the stables and find Billy and to bring him up to my room. I said we'd meet them there in about twenty minutes, which I thought would give us long enough to make the bed in our third-floor room.
We made our way up to the third floor room, and there I saw that Wolfie had been busy: the room had been tidied up, the dust covers had been removed, and the twin paintings were back above the fireplace.
"Hmmm," I commented, contemplating the lop-sided eagle. "Maybe we ought to think about re-doing those."
"The idea was not to have them looking perfect," he replied. "Had we wanted that we could have obtained professional pictures. Instead we wanted to do it ourselves – a picture has far greater meaning if it is personal."
"I suppose so. And of course we were probably a lot less critical when we were ten."
There was a pile of bedding on one of the chairs, so we set to work and soon had the bed made.
"Did we sleep up here a lot?" I asked.
"Not very often. It was hard to sneak away because the adults liked to know where we were. But we did manage to get a night here occasionally. It should be easier now, because we are older, so they will not watch us so closely."
"I've been wondering," I said. "Your English is really good, and your accent is too, apart from an occasional hint of a 'v' when a word starts with 'w'. So… why don't you use contractions?"
"Contractions. Just now you said 'because we are older, so they will not watch us', or something. Why not say 'Because we're older, so they won't watch us so closely'?"
"I was taught that is a lazy way to speak, and that as a member of the nobility I have to set an example, and so speak very correct English."
"Well, I suppose that's true if you're making a formal speech about something important, but it sounds dead weird if you're talking to me or Alex. I change the way I speak depending who I'm talking to – so when I was speaking to the French officers yesterday I was very formal, but when we were splashing about in the river I was very informal. You don't have to talk like a stuffed shirt all the time, you know."
"What is… Sorry. What's a stuffed shirt?"
"That's better! It's a pompous sort of prig who thinks he's God's gift."
"I only understood 'pompous' there – but I do not want… don't want to sound pompous. I... I'll try to talk like you and Alex from now on if you think that would be better."
"I do, much better. So let's go downstairs and give you some practice."
We got to my room before Alex and Billy, but only by thirty seconds or so.
"So what did your friends think about you coming to work in the house?" I asked Billy.
"I didn't tell them. I just said as how I'd been asked to report to the house for a day or so. That way if you get angry with me and send me back I won't look a complete fool."
"Do you think I'm likely to do that?"
"Well, no, but I could easily mess up. I'm not used to being close to…you know."
"Don't worry. Wolfie's the only real aristocrat here, and I'm trying to teach him to talk like the rest of us peasants. Once he learns to say 'You what?' and 'innit?' he'll sound just like me and Alex, and then we can all be peasants together. Seriously, Billy, just relax and you'll be fine. I'm quite prepared for you to get it wrong a couple of times, and I'm certainly not going to kick you back to the stables if you do. So stop hovering by the door and come and sit down."
"But servants aren't supposed…"
"I know," I interrupted. "But you'd better get used to it, because I'm not like most bosses. When it's just the four of us you get to relax and be one of the group. When we're with other people, I suppose you'll have to act like a very correct little servant. That's really just about the only thing you need to remember. And if it worries you, just tell yourself that I'm strange."
"And he's not joking about that," said Alex. "They don't come much stranger."
"Well, you're not exactly Mr Normal, are you?" I retorted.
"Normal's boring," said Alex.
"True," I agreed. "So, plans: what are we doing this afternoon? I'd like to go and look for the hole between worlds before much longer. Maybe we could borrow the steam-car this afternoon?"
"I think Uncle Gil is intending to take you up in Excalibur," said Wolfie. "Apparently the weather is going to be perfect – clear skies and not too much wind."
"Oh, okay," I said. "That might be fun, I suppose. Then let's ask him if we can borrow the car tomorrow."
"And what if we find the hole?" asked Alex.
"Well, if it looks stable we don't need to do anything," I said. "If it looks wobbly, though… I suppose you'll have to decide whether to go through or not."
"What about you?"
"I'll be staying here, at least for now. If the hole is stable I'll probably want to make a trip back to London to say goodbye to Auntie Megan and Uncle Jim; if it isn't I'll just have to give you a letter for them – assuming you decide to go yourself, that is. Don't forget the police could still be looking for you."
"That's true. I'd almost forgotten, to be honest. Obviously if it's a choice between Feltham and here it'll be no choice at all. Maybe I should just pop through the hole and phone home to see what's happening instead of just catching the first bus back to London. What do you think?"
"I agree that you should check first. But I'm not exactly impartial here, because I'd prefer you to stay here whether they're looking for you or not."
"Obviously. We're mates, remember? I don't want you to disappear out of my life."
"I'll remind you that you said that next time I annoy you," said Alex. "But thanks, anyway. And I suppose we don't need to decide what to do about the hole until we actually find the damned thing. So – do you think I'll be able to come with you this afternoon? Only I'd definitely like to if I'm allowed."
"I think we will all… We'll all be going," said Wolfie.
"Sick!" said Alex, enthusiastically.
"Sick?" queried Wolfie.
"That means good," I explained. "They talk funny in London. When you say 'all' – does that include Billy?"
"I don't think so. But then probably Uncle Gil did not… didn't know Billy would be here when he suggested it. I am sure he can come if you tell Uncle Gil that you want him to."
"Then I'll go and ask him now," I said. "Billy, come with me. I'll see you two at lunch."
We found Uncle Gil in his office. He said he had no objection to Billy coming with us, but that he'd need a change of clothing – he could hardly wear his current kit; which had a distinct horsey aroma. He sent me to find Allchorn. Allchorn agreed to find Billy some clothing suited to an inside position and then sent us to find Mrs Sweeting, who in turn explained that she had assigned Billy a third floor room at the top of the front stairs, since that way he would be as close as possible to my room. There was still fifteen minutes before lunch, so we went up to the third floor to have a look at it.
It was smaller than the corner room that Wolfie and I used, but it was certainly adequate for one person, and Billy was delighted with it.
"You might find it a bit lonely," I warned him. "You're quite a long way from everyone else up here."
"I don't mind that. At least I won't have someone snoring in my ear all night."
"Of course, in the old days you wouldn't have got a room," I pointed out. "You wouldn't even have got a bed. Once upon a time the lord's personal servant would sleep on the floor up against his door so that nobody could sneak in and assassinate him in the night. So if you get lonely up here, I'm sure there's room in front of my door."
"No, thanks, I'll stick with this. Look… please can I speak straight with you?"
He closed the door. "Look, Sir, you've been really kind to me, and I'm very happy to be here, but… it's not a very good way for you to behave. See, yesterday was a lot of fun, but I came away from it thinking as you was treating me almost like a friend, not a servant."
"That was the idea."
"Well, you shouldn't. If you and me get to be friends, what's going to happen when we find ourselves in the war in five or six years? Suppose you need me to do something dangerous – if you come to like me like a friend you won't want to order me to do it, and then maybe that could put you in danger instead of me. There's only one of you, but there's lots of common soldiers like me, so obviously it's better as one of us dies instead of you… look, I'm not saying this right…"
"Yes, you are. I can see what you're getting at. You're saying that sometimes an officer has to put his men in danger, and that if you and I are friends I won't want to do anything that might risk your life, even if that endangers other people, including me. Right?"
"Well, that might be true in the army, but I'm going to be flying an airship, and up there it's different. An airship captain doesn't put his crew into any more danger than he faces himself. If the mission succeeds, we all survive... well, mostly; if it fails, we all die. That seems fair to me – nobody has to give up his life to save someone else."
As I said those words I thought about the crewman who had tried to give his parachute to my mother, and who had actually ended up saving my uncle's life at the cost of his own. But then I told myself that the circumstances on Daedalus had been exceptional: normally there would have been enough jumpshades for everyone.
"Look," I went on, "I know it's probably bad for discipline, and that a servant who found himself being treated like a friend might go off the rails and start taking liberties. But I don't think you're like that: I think you can see the difference between what happens when it's just us, and what happens when there are other people about. I mean, we all act different with other people, too: when my uncle is there I try to behave correctly, the way he would expect the duke to behave. But when it's just us, like it was yesterday, then I can just act like a normal boy instead. It's like we all put on a bit of an act in front of other people, but we can be ourselves when we're on our own. I'd just like it to be the same for you."
"Yes, but it isn't really the same, is it, because for me, you're like your uncle is for you. Still, if that's what you want, that's what we'll do. Like I said, I had fun yesterday by just pretending as how you and the Margrave were two of the stable lads, and I'm sure as I can go on doing that."
He nodded, came away from the door and sat on the bed, looking at me as if he was expecting me to challenge him, but instead I just sat down beside him.
"All right," he said. "Then… can I ask you something?"
"Well, it's about Alex. Are you and him… well… sort of together?"
"Well, we're friends, and we've been together for over three years now, so I'd say we were good mates."
"No, I mean... is there more? Like, are you... you know... intimate friends?"
"Oh, you mean do we have sex? No… well, not really. We're good friends, but… well, okay, a couple of times we have sort of helped each other, but that's all."
"Helped… oh, you mean you frig each other? Well, that's all right – there's quite a bit of that goes on among us lads. Only, why I ask is, I like Alex a lot – even though he's older than me and a lot more grown up he never talked down to me at all. It was like we was proper equals. And if I'm going to be spending a lot of time with you I'd like to get to know him better, only I thought that if you and him was… you know, partners, maybe you wouldn't like that - you might think as I was trying to get between you. But if you're not, then it'll be all right, won't it?"
"Sure. And I'm pretty sure Alex would like that, too. There might be times when Wolfie and I have to go to meetings, like we did yesterday morning, and it'll be better for Alex if he's got someone to talk to while we're busy. Of course, I hope you and I get to know each other better too – in fact I want all four of us to get on well together."
"That'd be good," he agreed.
"Okay. Now it's almost lunch time, so you'd better go and eat, and then find Mr Allchorn – he should have some clothes for you. And once you're changed come and find me – I'll probably be in my room."
So we sent off to our separate meals, and after lunch he reappeared in black trousers, black shoes, white shirt and black waistcoat, which was the costume worn by the other indoor male servants. He certainly looked a lot tidier, though the horsey whiff hadn't completely disappeared. I thought that it might take a while and a few hot baths before that was completely eradicated.
"Smart," I commented.
"The shoes pinch," he complained. "And I look a knob in this waistcoat. Can't I keep my old clothes?"
"No," I said. "You have to look the part. Of course, if you'd prefer to go naked I don't suppose we'd mind too much."
"I just might, at that, at least when we're on our own."
"Promises, promises," I said. "Seriously, Billy, the shoes just need breaking in a bit, that's all. By the time you've been wearing them a week they'll be fine."
"If they're not I'm going to be sure and tell you," he said; glowering.
"You're allowed to complain, as long as it's only once. After that I'll get Alex to work you over – by the time you've got two broken arms you won't notice the slight twinge in your feet."
"No, you won't. You're not like that."
"Don't bet on it…. Okay, quiet, here comes my uncle."
Uncle Gil was wearing his frock coat, ruffled shirt and riding boots, just as he had been in my dream, and that got me thinking about what I should choose as my flying costume. I presumed that Wolfie had one, although today he was just wearing his normal clothes. I decided to ask him for advice later.
Uncle Gil led us out of the house. About five hundred metres from the north-east corner of it was a wooded ridge, and as we drew close I saw a pair of doors set into the bank. At first I thought my eyes were playing up, but as we got closer I saw that the doors really were that big: they must have been around fifty metres tall, and each of them was thirty metres wide. There was a normal-sized door set into the right hand one, and it looked ridiculously tiny by comparison.
Of course, I'd seen how big Bessières was, and I suppose I should have realised that with a vehicle that size you'd need a pretty big garage, but it was only once we were inside the hangar that I appreciated just how enormous this place was: not only was it high and wide, but it disappeared into the distance – the lighting was very dim and so I couldn't really see the far end of the building. But I could see that the ship inside took up most of the available space.
"Leo, this is His Majesty's Æthership Excalibur," my uncle told me. "She's a little bigger than Daedalus, and a bit better equipped, too. I'll show you round properly once we get her outside, but I'd like you to get to know her as soon as you can. Once you've made a couple of flights you'll have a fair idea of what she can do, and then I'll make you Second Officer. The sooner you get used to commanding a ship yourself, the better."
"But I don't know anything about flying," I protested.
"Yes, you do – it's all in your head somewhere, and hopefully once you're in the air it'll start to come back to you. Now let's get these doors open."
I thought that might take a bit of doing, but it turned out there was a steam engine for each door, housed in a solid stone cabin on each side of the hangar. I could understand the thick stone and double doors to the engine rooms: an open fire in the same building as a set of hydrogen tanks needs a lot of care – hence also the lack of gas lighting in the hangar: only small oil lamps were in use, and they were kept a long way from the tanks, which were at the far end of the hangar. I learned later that when the ship was being refuelled or worked on large panels in the roof could be opened to admit natural light, which was a lot safer.
Slowly the huge doors were pulled open. A large steam tractor had followed us up from the house, and when the doors finally stopped moving we saw that it had reversed up in front of the hangar. The ground crew had come with the tractor, and soon there was a cable running from the tractor to the nose of the ship. The tractor started to move, and gradually the ship emerged into the open air.
It was at least as big as Bessières, and possibly even bigger. In some ways it was similar: it had four gondolas underneath, the rear two side by side, and it had the same chain-link mesh around the hull. But it didn't have any side gondolas or a continuous gallery around the hull, just four alcoves on each side, and it had three turrets on top instead of one. It was painted mid-grey, with a red cross of Saint George across the nose, and above the name Excalibur just behind the nose cone was a white stag on a green background. I'd expected to see the leaping lion, but then I realised that this was my uncle's ship, and so it was logical that it would carry his crest instead of mine.
There was a second mooring mast in the centre of the field in front of the hangar, and the tractor towed the ship to it. Once it was safely moored the tractor rolled away and the crew began to get aboard. My uncle shepherded the four of us into the front gondola, Wolfie leaving his chair in the hands of one of the ground crew – there was a seat for him near the front of the gondola.
"This is the bridge," my uncle told us. "As well as the helm, this is the control point for the ballast, the gas envelopes and communications inside and outside the ship. Once we're airborne I'll give you the tour, but perhaps you could wait over there with Wolfie for a few minutes while we get off the ground?"
Seven other crew members came aboard, six dressed in sky-blue uniforms with white trim and one – Mr Hall the Estate Manager, who was also apparently the ship's first officer – dressed in a pseudo-military uniform of such spectacular tastelessness that the Beatles would have rejected it for their Sergeant Pepper album cover as being over the top: the principal garment was a thigh-length jacket of purple, with silver epaulettes and vast amounts of gold, silver and black braid. He was also wearing riding boots, a pair of black trousers with a purple stripe down each leg, and a black and gold belt with a sword attached.
"Do you like it?" he asked me. "The idea is that any enemy sniper who sees me will be too dazzled to be able to aim properly."
"Then I should think it works perfectly," I replied. "Isn't there a hat to go with it, though?"
"Good point. I shall have to design one."
Eventually everything was ready and we had sufficient steam to power the engines. The nose was unhooked from the mast, the ship dropped its extra ballast and we began to ascend. I watched the land drop away, and from above one thing was immediately clear: the ridge in which the hangar stood was artificial – it was too straight and too clean-cut. There was also a second hangar a bit further along, and I wondered if that had been where Daedalus had been kept.
"No," said Wolfie, when I asked him about it. "Daedalus was kept in Hangar Number One, where this one is kept now. This one was built after the crash. And there is another one being built in the second hangar, although it is not... I mean, isn't ready to fly yet. The ridge is there in case an Eagle ever gets close enough to bomb us. It hasn't happened yet, and really it shouldn't if the coastal defences do their job, but if it should ever happen there is enough earth in the ridge to provide protection against anything other than a direct hit. And there are rocket batteries in the woods and behind the stables, too."
"Helm, bearing zero nine five, cruising speed and maintain one thousand feet," ordered my uncle. "Mr Hall, you have the bridge. Come on, then, Leo: let's see if we can stir your memory."
There was a ladder leading up in the corner of the gondola, and my uncle went up it. I followed with Alex and Billy, though Wolfie showed no sign of wanting to come with us. I suppose he'd seen it all before anyway.
When I'd looked at pictures of airships I'd tended to think of them as being like a large hot air balloon: the passengers travel in the gondola, or basket, and above it there's just a lot of hot air. But it was nothing like that: there were walkways and narrow stairways inside the ship. There were no artificial lights inside – obviously an oil lamp next to a hydrogen envelope would be a bad idea - but there were portholes in the top between the rocket turrets, and there were the small galleries in the flanks of the ship that I had seen from outside, and in the nose and tail there were observation points with glass ports, and together these allowed just enough light into the ship for us to be able to see where we were going.
The other three gondolas were all engine rooms, the two rear ones driving the propellers and the forward one providing steam for the narrow steam lifting envelopes that separated the larger hydrogen ones.
We went up to one of the turrets, which were fitted with elaborate ports at the rear to channel the hot exhaust gases away from the hull. They were equipped not with the old-fashioned Congreves but with a much more accurate, though still to my mind outdated, rocket called a Hale, which didn't need the long stick of the Congreves but which spun as it flew. The problem was that in order to defeat the Eagles' armour a larger warhead was needed, which in turn reduced the space for fuel and so cut the rocket's range, but my uncle still said that they were a great deal better than the older type.
The side alcoves carried much more normal artillery in the shape of cannon, though they looked more like army field guns than naval cannon. The problem with these was that they and their shells were heavy, which meant that we could only carry four of them, two on each side.
"If we could dispense with the steam and just use hydrogen for lift we could carry more guns, and still be faster," my uncle told me. "But we simply can't risk it without better armour. We can just about afford to lose one hydrogen bag, but if we didn't separate the hydrogen envelopes with steam a single hit from a Congreve would destroy the whole ship."
"And are there enough jumpshades on board now?" I asked.
"More than enough. And we've made some other safety changes, too: if we're going to crash, one or all of the gondolas can be disconnected and dropped quickly, and that will allow us to slow our descent to the point where we have a good chance of walking away afterwards. There isn't going to be another Daedalus disaster, not on my ship."
By the time we'd visited the observation posts, the gun alcoves and the communications relay point amidships the tour had lasted about an hour. It hadn't awakened any memories, but it had certainly been interesting. And when we returned to the bridge we found that the ship was approaching London, and that was interesting too, because this London was clearly different from our London. For a start there was no Heathrow Airport, though there was a large open space a little further in that held four airship mooring towers, one of which was currently holding a ship a little smaller than ours with a union flag painted on its nose.
"That's Royal Æthership Station Harrow," my uncle told us. "There is a ring of them around the edges of the city, although they are concentrated to the east of the centre, since that's where any attack is likely to come from."
As we got closer to the centre I was looking out for the usual landmarks, but the only place I could recognise was St Paul's Cathedral: none of the taller buildings of the City were there – no NatWest Tower, no Gherkin, no Shard, no Canary Wharf. But when I looked in the opposite direction I could see Alexandra Palace (though without a TV mast) sitting on top of its hill, so at least there was still something recognisable in my part of London.
"Crikey," breathed Billy, his face pressed up against the window, "London's huge, isn't it? How many people live there?"
"About four million," Mr Hall told him.
"In the version I come from it's more like eight," said Alex. "But this version still looks pretty big from up here."
We flew on until we could see the docks just below us to our right, and this really was different: this was more like a proper port, with ships everywhere, and cranes, and vast warehouses, and lines and lines of railway wagons, and there were a couple of British naval airships a little above us too, circling slowly – I supposed the docks would be a tempting target if an Eagle could get close enough. A little further down the river there was a large battleship, a huge, square-looking thing bristling with guns, and a pair of smaller escorts, steaming slowly towards the Thames Estuary, and now we could also see rocket emplacements on both sides of the river. Clearly it wouldn't be easy for an enemy to get anywhere near the docks.
As we reached the sea Uncle Gil gave the order to turn to starboard, and we flew across the Kent fields and orchards until we reached the Channel near Dungeness. We continued south until we were in mid-Channel and then flew west-south-west above the water.
"What sort of range have we got?" I asked.
"Under normal conditions, we can go about two thousand miles. The only thing that really restricts us is the fuel: coal is heavy, and the only way to get more coal on board is to leave something else behind – the guns, or crew members, or both. Water is slightly less of a problem: we can reclaim and re-use some of the lifting-steam when it condenses, but we must have enough coal. Apparently the Earl of Crowborough is experimenting with compressed wood, which is wood chippings and sawdust pressed into blocks. He says it's lighter and more efficient than coal, and if that turns out to be true it will increase our range, but I'll want to see some figures before I'll commit myself to changing over.
"Of course we're not carrying our maximum capacity today. This is just a routine patrol, and even if we get distracted we won't be going more than three or four hundred miles."
"Ship coming our way," said the crewman at the communication desk. "Bearing two-four-five, range about two thousand yards. She's a Frenchie."
My uncle got his telescope out and so did Wolfie, and they scanned ahead of us until they picked out the oncoming ship. Wolfie handed me the telescope, and I saw the French ship just off the port bow.
"Helm, drop to one quarter both," ordered my uncle. "Signallers, stand by."
As the ship drew closer I could see more detail. This one had a tricolour on the front rather than the bees and eagles, but otherwise it looked much the same as Bessières. The only other difference was that this ship had no waist gondolas – they were all underneath the ship, the same as our own. As we got closer to each other we slowed down even more, until we were able to come to a complete stop alongside the other ship and about a hundred metres away from it. Of course it wasn't that easy: the wind was blowing a bit, and so both helmsmen had to work hard to hold position, but we were able to stay more or less on station for a minute or so at least. I looked through the telescope and saw that this ship was called Jean Rapp. I hadn't heard of him, but presumably he hadn't been one of Napoleon's first marshals. And then I saw a long white pole appear underneath their bridge, and three arms swung out from it and began to move.
"He's using English," said our signaller. "He sends 'Good morning milord. Any prey?'"
"Reply in French," said my uncle to the second signaller, who was sitting at a desk at the rear of the gondola. "Send 'Rien du tout, mon capitaine. Patrouille ennuyeuse.'"
"He says 'Better luck next time'," said our first signaller.
"Send 'Bonne chasse!'" said my uncle.
The semaphore pole under the French gondola swung up and disappeared and the ship began to move away, and a moment later my uncle said, "I think that'll do for today. Helm, new heading three-four-zero and bring her back up to cruising speed," and the ship swung back towards the English coast.
It took us another couple of hours to get back to Culham, and by then the sun was close to setting, but the ground crew was very efficient and they got Excalibur back into its hangar before it got too dark to see what they were doing. Supper was later than usual, and also a lot lighter: I supposed that a heavy meal before bed wasn't a very good idea. And then I had to break the news to Alex that he was going to be sleeping on his own. He took it better than I had expected.
"If it helps you to get your memory back, I suppose it's worth it," he said. "Just as long as you remember who I am in the morning."
"How could I forget my favourite ox?" I replied. "Seriously, Alex, it'll be fine. In fact it probably won't help my memory at all, because nothing else has – and you'd have thought that this afternoon's flight ought to have rung at least some bells."
"Yeah, but it was still pretty amazing, wasn't it? It's so quiet compared to a plane, and being able to see London spread out like that was pretty stupendous. I definitely want to do that again."
"Good, because so do I. Although whether I'd feel the same way if there were a load of Russians shooting at us is a different matter: it's easy to forget about all that hydrogen when everything's going smoothly, but when the sky is full of rockets… I'm not so sure."
"Hey, MM… actually, I like your real name, so I'm going to call you 'Leo' from now on… anyway… why do you suppose they don't use helium?"
"I've no idea," I said, "but it's a bloody good question. I'm definitely going to ask my uncle about it tomorrow. Good thinking, Alex!"
And as I made my way up to the third floor I thought it was actually an excellent question. I didn't know anything much about helium, except that it's lighter than air and doesn't burn – I didn't know where it came from or whether it was hard to produce, and if it was I supposed that might be why they didn't use it. But perhaps they simply didn't know about it, in which case maybe I could give them a way of countering the Russians' armour that didn't involve people freezing their bits off trying to dig bits of space rock out of Greenland.
Wolfie was sitting on the bed in the third-floor room waiting for me, and when I entered the room he stood up and gave me a big smile.
"So, tonight is going to be when you get your memory back," he said in German.
"Well, I hope so. But it might not happen quite so easily," I said.
"Don't be so negative! Didn't we always say that as long as we were together nothing could ever beat us?"
"I don't know, because I can't remember. But I'm certainly ready to have a go. So what do you want me to do?"
"Well, first of all we should get ready for bed."
I helped him to remove his trousers and then took off his prosthetic leg, but when I started to massage the area above the knee where the straps had left their mark he told me that it could wait. Instead he finished getting undressed, telling me to do the same, and when we were both naked he put two pillows on the floor in front of the fireplace, laid a towel across each and invited me to help him into position so that we were kneeling down and facing each other.
"Now look at your right hand," he invited me. "See the scar?"
I did – it was faint, but there was definitely a line there near the base of my thumb.
He handed me a small knife. "Open it up," he said. "We're going to renew our vows."
In my world – my other world - I think most people are too scared of AIDS or hepatitis to do this sort of thing any more, but that obviously wasn't the case here. Besides, the scar showed that I'd done this once and survived, and I didn't suppose that Wolfie had been exposing himself to too many risks recently. So I took the knife and cut my hand along the mark of the scar, and that knife was sharp, because blood welled up straight away.
Wolfie took the knife and cut his own hand, and then he grabbed my right hand in his, pressing the cuts together. Then he pulled me forward until we were close together, our right arms between our chests.
"We are brothers," he said. "We will stand together. When you call, I will come to you; when you need me, I will be there; when others attack, I will defend you. Your life shall be to me as my own. This is my undying vow."
To a fourteen-year-old that could have sounded melodramatic and way over the top, but I could imagine how serious and solemn it would have seemed to a nine- or ten-year-old – and somehow even now it didn't seem half as extreme as it should have done. And when Wolfie told me to repeat it, but in English, so that we were covered by both languages, I had no trouble in doing so with a completely serious demeanour.
"We forgot the towels the first time," he told me, "and we dripped blood all over the floor – we didn't think to use pillows then, either. This time I'm prepared."
He took a roll of bandage from the mantelpiece and, a little clumsily – he was using his left hand, after all – wrapped it around our joined hands, pinning the bandage closed with a little help from me. Then I helped him to his feet – well, foot - and we turned the light out, made our way clumsily over to the bed and got in.
"Do we have to stay like this all night?" I asked.
"No. I don't think I could sleep like this. It's just until the blood stops."
"Oh, okay. I wouldn't mind trying if you want, though. Somehow being joined to you like this feels right."
"Then let's join some more," he said, and he pushed me onto my back and rolled on top of me.
I could feel his genitals pressing against mine, and that felt good, and then he lowered his head and kissed me gently on the lips – and that was like a bright light going on in a dark room, and I saw the pair of us, barely half our present age, running about and chasing each other in the Long Meadow and then climbing on the æthership mooring mast, until old Wallis, who had been the ground crew leader when my father was still alive, threatened to tan our hides if we didn't come down immediately, and he didn't care what rank we were….
Oblivious to the effect his kiss had had, Wolfie rolled off me again and said, "Now would you like me to show you what I can do with my left hand?" and, without waiting for an answer, he took hold of my penis, brought it up to full size with a few gentle tugs and then started to rub it for me.
"Is this all right?" he asked me.
"Wolfie, that's perfect," I managed to say, and at the same time I had a clear memory of the first time he had ever done this for me, exactly like the flash memory I had seen when Alex had done this for me for the first time back in the other world.
"Good," he said, squeezing my right hand with his. "So, let's see if I've forgotten my technique over the past four years…"
He hadn't - at least, not as far as I could tell, because this felt really, really good. And it got better and better, until finally I reached the point where I couldn't control it any longer…
If being kissed had been like a light coming on in a dark room, this was more like an atomic bomb going off: an absolute flood of memories and sensations poured over me, far more than I could handle, so that after a few seconds the explosion overwhelmed me completely and I passed out.
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