Excelsior

by David Clarke

Chapter 13

Alex and Joe spent the rest of that week settling in and adjusting to schooling in the Victorian style. In fact I liked being in a much smaller class, because at least if I had a question I could ask without fear of being jeered at by the rest of the class, although the discipline took a bit of getting used to. So did maths without a calculator and writing longhand - I had got far too used to having computers available for everything.

I wondered how they had managed to square their absence with the school – this was the middle of term-time, after all. Alex had apparently told them that his family was in the process of moving house out of London, and Joe had somehow persuaded his doctor to sign him off for a couple of weeks due to stress, largely brought on by seeing his 'best friend' imprisoned. He was expected back at school after the half-term holiday, which gave him up to three weeks with me, although he said he might have to leave earlier than that because of the unpredictable nature of the hole between worlds.

On the Thursday evening at supper Uncle Gil said that he was intending taking Excalibur out that weekend to check that everything was in good working order, adding that of course I would be welcome to bring my friends along for the ride. I was a bit surprised when Joe said that he wouldn't be able to come with us.

"Why not?" I asked. "Don't you like flying?

"No, that's not it. It's just that this Saturday…"

"What?"

"Well… look, MM, I don't know how things are in this world. Do people have any problems with… well, religion?"

"No, not at all – in fact we go to church every wee… ah. No, I don't think anyone here will have any problem with your religion, and if they do, well, it's my house, so you won't be the one who has to leave. So, you were saying?"

"Well, this Saturday is a really important festival, so I won't be able to do anything much that day. I don't think flying would be a problem for me normally even on a Saturday, as long as you didn't need me to tend a furnace or something, but I really can't this week."

Uncle Gil wasn't stupid, so although the actual word 'Jewish' hadn't been uttered he'd got the picture.

"Any friend of Leo's is welcome in this house," he said, "regardless of religion. Which festival is it?"

"Yom Kippur," Joe told him.

"Right. I believe there is a small synagogue in Oxford. If you like we can take you there tomorrow before sunset and collect you again on Saturday night or Sunday morning. I'm sure someone there will be able to offer you a room for the night. I can't tell you which strand of Judaism they follow, but I imagine that in any event their company would be better than none. Would you like to do that?"

"Yes, please," said Joe. "Thank you very much, Sir."

"Very well. And we'll postpone our flight until Sunday. We're not quite so strict about not working on the Sabbath, and I can give the crew Saturday off instead."

So Joe left us late on Friday afternoon and had reappeared by the time we got back from church on Sunday morning, and after lunch we went to get changed for our flight. I still hadn't done anything about choosing a uniform, but it turned out that I was the only one: Billy had managed to get crewman's uniforms for himself and Sparrer, and they joined us in the hall decked out in sky blue; Alex and Joe were wearing their school uniform – Alex had thought it would do well enough as a flying kit (and since it was mainly in varying shades of blue it went very well with the crewmen's uniforms); and Wolfie appeared at the top of the stairs resplendent in a white military uniform complete with riding boots, sword and a magnificent silver helmet surmounted by a silver eagle.

"Hail, Caesar!" I greeted him. "Nice hat."

"Thank you. Actually I probably won't wear it all the time – it gets a bit heavy."

"So what's the uniform and how come I haven't seen you in it before?"

"I'm a General of Brigade of the Prussian heavy cavalry," he told me. "I actually do hold that rank, even though the brigade itself isn't exactly active these days – though I suspect that if it was my uncle wouldn't have made me its general, because I don't have any combat experience. And you haven't seen it before because I only ordered it after our last flight. I wanted to celebrate your return."

"Then I'm flattered. You must tell me who made this for you, too – I definitely need to order something. I feel positively scruffy like this."

I was wearing ordinary clothes, though at least in this world that was a little better than jeans and trainers: I was wearing black trousers and proper leather shoes, though the jacket I was wearing – the one I'd brought with me from Alex's world – looked rather out of place.

In due course my uncle arrived, wearing his tail coat and ruffled shirt as usual and accompanied by Mr Hall in his psychedelic Sixties militaria, though he still hadn't got around to designing a hat to go with it. We all made our way out to the mast in the field next to the ridge and waited there while my uncle and Mr Hall went to supervise the preparation of the ship.

"So," I asked Joe, "did your festival go okay?"

"Yes, it was great. They're a little more liberal than we are, but nobody expected me to do anything I wouldn't have done at home, and they were really welcoming. If I did decide to stay and bring my family through we'd definitely be able to go there."

"Good. We'll have to teach you to ride a horse, and then you'll be able to get there on your own."

"I'm not sure if I'm allowed to do that – somehow horse-riding has never come up. I suppose in theory it ought to be okay… I'll have to ask the rabbi. I know I'm probably not supposed to use your steam-car actually on Shabbat because that involves burning something, and I think maybe riding my bike would count as work too… but then again, we're allowed to break the rules in order to get to synagogue if there's no other way."

"Sounds far too complicated to me. Do you really think God would get annoyed if you broke one of the rules, even if you weren't sure what the rule really says?"

"Probably not. We think God loves us and cares about us, and if we mess up he doesn't lose his rag. If he did he'd be permanently furious, I should think."

"But what about… you know, what Carmody found out about? Isn't that against the rules?"

"Well, yes, strictly. Certainly the place we go back in London wouldn't be happy if they knew. But some of the more liberal congregations seem okay with it, and I guess that means God probably is too, despite what it says in the Torah. After all, it's not like I chose it."

"I suppose not. Still, if God's angry with you you'd better make it up with him now, because I don't want him trying to hit you with a thunderbolt while we're hanging underneath a load of hydrogen."

"Thunderbolts aren't really his style. He's more into sending a plague of frogs, or something like that. Locusts, maybe."

"You're allowed to joke about God?"

"Of course. If God hasn't got a sense of humour we're all in trouble."

I realised I didn't actually know Joe very well at all, but I was starting to like him, and I thought that if he did decide to stay he'd fit in pretty well.

The ship emerged from its hangar and Joe positively gaped at it.

"Are we really going up in that?" he asked. "Is it safe?"

"So far. Of course the last one I was in before this one crashed, but that was because a lot of Russians were shooting at it. As long as we steer clear of the Tsar's Eagles I should think it's safe enough."

We waited until the ship had been moored to the mast and then I ushered them into the bridge gondola, and once the preliminary checks were complete and we had sufficient steam we were ready to go. I watched my friends as the ship rose: Joe and Sparrer had their faces pressed to the gondola windows, pointing things out to each other and talking excitedly, and on the other side of the cabin Alex and Billy were doing the same thing – this was only their second trip, after all.

"The other world must be a very dull place if there are no ætherships," Wolfie observed. "It's obvious how much Alex and Joe like this, and I would certainly miss it if I was unable to fly."

"Me, too. Actually, there are flying machines in the other world, but they fly high above the clouds, so you can't often see very much – at least, that's what Alex says. He's been to Cyprus a couple of times. I never flew in that world at all. But… will you be allowed to come with us if we go to Greenland? Won't your uncle object?"

"I'm not going to tell him. You surely don't think I'd let you go off on a mission without coming with you?"

"I hope not, but I don't want you getting into trouble."

"I'd far sooner get into trouble than have to sit at home on my own for days and days without knowing what was happening to you."

"Then we'll just have to make sure your uncle doesn't find out," I said.

Today we were heading west, rather than east towards London, and so I asked my uncle where we were going.

"That will depend on your navigation," he replied. "There are two reasons for today's flight. One is to check the engines and make sure everything is running efficiently. The other is to make sure you can run the ship yourself."

I stared at him. "But… I've been away for four years!" I protested.

"But you had plenty of training from your mother before that. The thing is, Leo, if we go to Greenland it's going to be a very long flight, and it will be easier if we have three capable officers on board instead of two. We'll be flying non-stop for more than a day if we have to go to Greenland, and that means three full watches – which, incidentally, means that your friends will need to take a turn too. We won't have room for passengers on a trip like that. So today we're going to find out whether you can all pull your weight or not. So, time for a change of crew, I think. Leo, you're now Second Officer and officer of the watch. Wolfie will act as your Number One. As for the rest of you… Mr Demetriou, gas control, if you please."

He indicated one of the desks on the right side of the cabin. Alex gaped at him.

"But… I don't know anything about it!" he protested.

"Obviously, but you'll learn. It's not difficult: you just have to keep an eye on the various gauges, keep the steam envelopes at the optimum pressure, watch the hydrogen envelopes for leaks, and be ready to vent immediately if a fire breaks out. You'll pick it up in no time.

"Mr Silver, communications, please. You've got tubes connecting you to the observation points, engine rooms, gun decks and turrets. You'll soon work out which is which. Can you read semaphore?"

Joe shook his head slowly.

"Oh, well, you'll learn," said my uncle. "Mr Sparrow, assistant helm. You've got the telegraphs for the engine rooms, and a speaking tube to each as well in case you need direct contact. You've also got the elevator wheel – that controls up and down. Turn it to the left to go down, and to the right to go up – you'll see there's a little dial that will give you an exact angle. So any time I give an order to the helm that includes 'up' or 'down', that means you, understand? And finally, Mr Rodgers, if you'd be so good as to take the main wheel?"

Now I was convinced he was joking – Sparrer, who had never set foot in an æthership until ten minutes ago, in charge of the elevators and engines, and Billy, who had only flown once, at the helm? But apparently he was dead serious: the various crewmen stood up and vacated their seats and the helmsman moved to one side, though he kept hold of the wheel until Billy was ready to take it from him.

"Now, Mr de Courtenay, if you'd like to step over to the navigation desk you can plot our course. I want you to aim first for Bristol, and when we get there take us to Hereford, and then back home. We're currently here." And he pointed to a spot on the chart just to the west of Abingdon.

Frantically I tried to remember everything my mother had taught me. Of course it was easy enough to get a grid bearing from the map, convert it to a magnetic bearing and tell the helmsman to point the ship that way, but there were other considerations, of which wind speed and direction were the most important. If I didn't take that into account we could end up miles off course.

There were some gauges at one end of the chart desk showing, among other things, the barometric pressure and the state of the wind, so I did the basic calculation, adjusted as best I could for a westerly breeze blowing at about five to ten knots, swallowed and muttered "two-five-five?" to my uncle who, the bastard, said nothing at all. I knew that if I didn't sound decisive the crew wouldn't trust me, so I turned to Billy and said, "Bearing two-five-five. Ben, take us up to fifteen hundred feet and fifty knots – that's the segment of the telegraph that's marked 'cruise'."

The original helmsman showed Billy where his compass was, and his assistant made sure Sparrer knew where the altimeter was and explained how to read it. He also demonstrated how to take the ship up gradually and how to keep it level when the correct altitude was reached. I was grateful for the fact that the two of them, like the other senior crewmen, were still there: if my uncle had really wanted to throw us in at the deep end he could have withdrawn the usual crew altogether and left us to sink or swim. But I suppose the thought of us crashing into the tower of Gloucester Cathedral or ploughing into the Bristol Channel kept him close at hand.

Once we reached the higher altitude – which was quite a lot higher than the ætherships usually flew, but which I'd chosen so that we could see further, because I lacked confidence in my ability to get the bearing right – the ship levelled off and we settled into a steady cruising speed. According to my calculations Bristol was about sixty miles away, and so we ought to have reached it in a little over an hour, and so once the hour was up I started scanning the horizon anxiously. I didn't see Bristol, but a few minutes later I did see the sun glinting on water, and as we got a bit closer I saw what had to be the Severn estuary below us. But it didn't look wide enough to me, and I realised that we were a bit too far north.

"Helm, turn to port and follow the river," I said, and only a couple of minutes later I saw the city appear ahead of us.

"Not too bad," commented my uncle. "You allowed a bit too much for the wind. You'll need the extra on the next leg, though, because we'll be just about beam-on to the wind. You may turn onto the second leg when you're ready."

The rest of the trip went well – the bearing I chose for Hereford was close enough that I could see the city, which was slightly to our left, without having to cast about for it. Flying beam-on to the wind made Billy's job a lot harder, though, and the senior helmsman had to stay close at hand to advise him on how to maintain the bearing without the ship bumping about too much. The third leg was even better, because my course took us straight over Abingdon. By then Joe had got some practice at using the speaker tubes and Alex had, with a nudge from the usual crewman, spotted a minor leak (manufactured, I'm sure) in one of the hydrogen envelopes and arranged for it to be repaired. We'd also taken the engines up to full power and run them there for half an hour without any problem.

My uncle wasn't prepared to risk letting us land, however, and so the regular crew took over for that manoeuvre. But once we were safely back on the ground my uncle said that he was satisfied with our performance, particularly that of Sparrer – my uncle said that the elevator position was just about the most difficult job on the ship, and was normally only done by very experienced crewmen.

"You kept us a lot steadier than I had expected, to be honest," my uncle concluded. "So I'm now prepared to say that I'd be happy to take all of you on the Greenland trip – if any of you actually wants to come, of course."

"Of course we want to come!" said Alex, enthusiastically.

"Are you sure? It'll be very boring," Uncle Gil warned him. "You'll have nothing to look at except the sea, and it will mean hours and hours of just droning along in a straight line. Even when we get to Greenland it'll be the same, except that you'll just have ice and snow to look at instead of water. I wouldn't blame you at all if you said you'd prefer to stay at home."

"If Leo's going, so are we," said Alex, firmly. "Someone has to keep him out of trouble."

"And of course you and I would be perfect for that," commented Joe. "I mean, we never get into trouble at all, do we?"

"That's why we'd be perfect," said Alex. "We know all about trouble, so we'll be able to steer him clear of it before he does something stupid like we did… well, to be fair, it wasn't really your idea to go, was it? Okay, like I did, then. Anyway, you're not getting rid of us, Leo. I'm coming, anyway, and I hope Joe will too, if he's still here when we leave, of course."

"He might not be," I said. "It could be weeks before a meteor appears, and if Joe's going home at half term…"

"But I might come back," said Joe. "If it's going to mean being able to fly again I'll certainly want to think seriously about it. I suppose it'll depend on whether or not I can persuade my family to come with me."

"You'd definitely be welcome," I told him. "See how you feel about it by half term."

That night Wolfie and I decided to sleep in our HQ on the third floor.

"I didn't think my uncle would let me come on the mission," I confided to him as we got undressed. "That first bearing I gave was pretty useless."

"You think that was bad? The first time he got me to calculate a bearing I ended up missing London altogether. And I can't even blame the wind: I forgot to convert the grid bearing to a magnetic one. If I did that on the real mission we'd probably hit Africa before we hit Greenland."

"Well, not quite. And it's an easy mistake to make, especially when you're under pressure. And I'll bet you didn't do it again, did you?"

"Well, no, but I still felt a complete idiot. So I think you did fairly well today by comparison."

"I'm still a bit worried about it, though. Today I got away with it because we had the river to guide us, but over the middle of the Atlantic there'll be nothing to show us the way at all, so if I get it wrong I won't find out about it until we're miles, or even hundreds of miles, away from where we should be."

"You won't get it wrong," he said, sitting down to unstrap his leg. "We're not going on this trip on our own, remember. All you have to do is let the Frenchies go first and just follow them. That way if we end up in the wrong place it'll be their fault and not yours."

"I suppose so," I said. "I'd forgotten about that, to be honest."

"See? There's nothing to worry about. Now are you going to massage my leg for me?"

So I did, and then I helped him into bed, turned the light out and got in next to him. He wriggled his way next to me and put his arm around me.

"Of course we won't be able to do this on the mission," he pointed out. "There's only limited sleeping space, and we certainly won't get a place to ourselves, so probably we ought to make the most of this while we can."

"Damn! Perhaps we ought not to go after all!"

"Now I know you don't mean that, Leo. You wouldn't miss a chance to go on a proper mission."

"If you uncle finds out about it and stops you going, maybe I'll stay."

"No, you won't. Duty comes first, remember? And, anyway, if my uncle tries to stop me coming with you I'll just stow away. I had to go four years without you, and I'm not risking that starting again."

I gave him a hug, and for a few minutes we just lay quietly together.

"So when are you going to do the tunnel forfeit?" he asked. "Because, now we've found the rest of the system, I think you should do the whole thing, starting from the ice house."

"What, naked and without a light? Get lost! Besides, I don't think it would be possible – I'd never be able to find the keyholes for the skewer in the dark."

"No, you'd only need it once, for the door at the bottom of the old stairs, and we could just leave the skewer in the hole ready. You could find it perfectly well like that, and then you just have to come up the stairs until you reach the attic, the same as you did last time. You wouldn't need to visit the secret room, so you wouldn't need the skewer again."

"You've been thinking hard about this, haven't you?" I asked. "Well, hard luck. The ice house tunnel was never in our agreement, and it isn't going to start appearing in it now."

"Scaredy-cat!"

"Not at all. It just wasn't part of the bet. But if you think it's so easy, why don't you try it?"

"Because I won the bet, remember? But…I suppose we could do it together. That might be fun."

"Are you serious? That tunnel would be really nasty in the dark. It's long, and it would be really cold, too."

"Yes, it would, but we could do it together. I think it could be a very interesting challenge for us."

"Well… okay, maybe it would, but it would be pretty dangerous, too. If we were both stuck inside the system with no light and no clothes we'd be in serious trouble if anything went wrong – if one of us fell and got badly hurt, for example."

"I suppose that's true. Then perhaps we could take your magic lamp but swear not to use it except in a real emergency. That would make it safer, wouldn't it?"

"Yes, but perhaps that would be a bit too easy. It would be too easy to declare an emergency and cheat. I was thinking more about taking three or four lucifers with us – just enough to let us find a door catch in case we got stuck, like I did on the last panel last time. But I also think we should leave a letter for Alex or Billy, just to be sure."

"That seems fair. So when do you want to do it?"

"I suppose it'll have to be next weekend. Saturday or Sunday afternoon," I suggested.

With that agreement reached we fell silent again, but after a few minutes I realised that there was something else I wanted to ask him.

"Alex said something to me a while back," I started. "He said that the problem with being part of a noble family is that probably we'll have to get married to someone our families choose for us. And I was wondering – is that likely to happen to you too?"

"I think it would depend on where I was in the line of succession," he replied. "Provided that nothing happens to the Crown Prince or my other cousins I'd probably get a lot more say in it, but if a couple of them were to die – or even all three – then I'd almost certainly have to do what I was told. If I'm all that's left of the main line I'm sure they'd insist on me getting married and producing an heir, but once the Crown Prince is married and has an heir of his own I should be able to disappear into obscurity and live my own life. But why ask that question now?"

"I was wondering what sort of a future we've got – together, I mean."

"As much as we want, I should think."

"Yeah, right. And what happens when you're married to Princess Haybag of Ruritania and I'm married to some horse-faced mare whose only qualification is that her coat of arms has seventy-two quarterings?"

"I'm sure it won't be a problem. People expect monarchs and noblemen to marry for reasons of state, and so nobody worries too much about whose bed they actually sleep in. Look how many mistresses the French kings got through before the first Napoleon – and they weren't remotely discreet about it, either."

"It would be a bit different if you were sleeping with a man, though, wouldn't it?"

"Why? If anything it would be preferable, because at least then people could be fairly sure I wasn't producing bastards who might decide to contest the throne one day. Yes, I know the churches say you're not supposed to do stuff with another man, but frankly I don't care what the churches say: as far as I'm concerned, you and I are together. We've sworn an oath, remember? So as long as you want to stay with me we'll always be together, whether I'm king or just some irrelevant forgotten cousin. I might have to sleep with Princess Whatever-you-called-her sometimes, but surely what's important is who your heart belongs to, not whose bed you sometimes end up in."

"And what if you end up actually enjoying the Princess's bed?"

"Well, that'll just be a bonus for me: it'll make the duty of producing an heir a lot less unpleasant. But I don't think for a moment that I'll end up preferring women."

"Are you sure? I mean, we're barely into puberty yet."

"Fairly sure – and speak for yourself! Some of us have actually got some hair, you know… why, do you think you're going to change?"

"I don't really know. I mean, apart from what you and I did before I got lost – and that was more like a game than actual sex – I'd never done anything with anyone until this summer. Yes, it's true that I've enjoyed everything I have done over the past couple of months, but for all I know I'd enjoy doing stuff with girls, too."

"If you're lucky you will," he said. "Some people can happily have sex with boys and girls. But the actual mechanics don't really matter. After all, you can have sex on your own if you just want a physical feeling. What really matters is sharing sex with someone you really like, and that's a million miles from doing it yourself. I know you and Alex really like each other… you have done stuff with Alex, I assume?"

"Well, yes. And with Sparrer."

"Ah. Well, you like him too, so perhaps it's the same as with Alex… although maybe I should have locked Sparrer in the cellar after all…"

"No, you shouldn't. With him it's just having fun, and really that's all it is with Alex, too. Being friends makes it better, but it's way better doing stuff with you because… well, because I feel differently about you. You're more than just a friend."

"Then I really don't mind you having fun with your other friends. Maybe Sparrer can teach you some new tricks."

"Funny you should say that – there's something I want to show you."

"Later," he said, firmly. "I'm comfy how I am at the moment. So, do you think he could teach me some new tricks too?"

"Probably," I said, a bit surprised. "But I thought you didn't really like him that much?"

"Oh, I don't know. I suppose he's quite nice-looking. But… no, I'm only teasing."

"I wouldn't mind," I assured him. "It isn't fair that I get to do stuff with him and Alex and you don't… if you want to, of course… Or I can stop doing anything with them, if you prefer."

"Leo, we're not married, and even if we were I wouldn't mind you seeing other people. As long as you come back to me afterwards I'm happy - just as long as you really don't mind if I do the same thing if the opportunity presents itself. Some of the stable-lads are quite cute…"

"Now you're teasing again. I can't imagine you actually lowering yourself to do stuff with a mere stable-lad."

"That was before I met the New Leo. He's taught me that there's no reason not to be friends with stable-lads, kitchen-boys, beggars and thieves. All right, I still have my doubts about the way you act with Billy and Sparrer, but it doesn't seem to have done any harm – in fact they both seem to be devoted to you. So maybe you're right, in which case there's no good reason why I shouldn't find a stable-lad of my own to cuddle with when you're away."

"Somehow it's hard to imagine you cuddling a stable-lad," I said. "And in any case, you won't have to, because I'm not going anywhere without you again."

And I gave him a kiss and settled down for the night.

That week at school began where the previous one had left off, with myself, Alex and Joe displaying our ignorance and Mr Devlin marvelling that teachers in the other world actually got paid at all, given that they apparently weren't actually teaching their students anything.

But then on Tuesday morning our routine was interrupted again, this time by the arrival of the French æthership Alfred Dreyfus, which came in to land at the mooring mast in the Long Meadow at around half past eleven.

"Go on, then," said Mr Devlin to me, resignedly, when one of the footmen came into the schoolroom to request my presence. "The rest of you might as well go, too. But I don't care if it's Napoleon himself on board, I still want you all back here at the start of afternoon school."

I thought it highly unlikely that Napoleon would be on board: this wasn't the French flagship, and in any event I thought it improbable that the ruler of the Empire would deign to talk to a provincial like me. And of course I was right about that: when Allchorn ushered the visitors into the front reception room we found that the party consisted only of the æthership captain, a man in a uniform I didn't recognise but with a colonel's insignia on the collar, and a dark-haired boy of around my own age who I assumed was the son of one of the men. But it turned out that I was wrong.

"Two months ago," the colonel began, in reasonable English, "you were told of the progress that we were making in developing lightweight armour to balance that used by the Tsar's Eagles. At that stage we had ascertained that they were obtaining some of the material they use from meteors, and of course we are still waiting for a chance to obtain a meteor ourselves… Well, to make it short, at around the same time our special forces mounted a raid on the Tsar's æthership-building facility at Friedrichshafen on the Lake Constance and succeeded to remove a quantity of material, and our experts have worked on it since.

"Our leading scientist had already made good progress when we discovered, unfortunately, that just as the Friedrichshafen works are dangerously close to our territory, so our laboratories were, as it also turned, dangerously close to theirs. Three days ago the Russians launched an audacious raid, dropping a special unit into the grounds of our facility at Thann. They destroyed our laboratories, killed all the scientists – and everyone else they found, presumably to make sure that no knowledge survived – and blew up the whole complex before withdrawing. By the time our forces got there, there was nothing left. Except that the Russians missed someone.

"Here" (and he indicated the boy) "is Timothée Duvallier, son of the chief scientist. Of course he was not himself involved in the work and was at school at the time, but his father every day took his notes home from the laboratory and Timothée typed them up for him, because his father suffered from the arthritis and found typing painful. His father also explained the progress of the experiments, and on occasion had taken Timothée to the laboratory to see for himself what was being done. And so we have a full set of notes – the carbon from each report was kept at the home of Dr Duvallier. Further, Timothée is intelligent and can remember what his father had told him. So we will be able to repeat the work.

"We have decided, however, that we should set up two centres, distant from the frontier, and because of your involvement in the meteor project we hoped that you would allow one research centre to be set up here, or nearby – perhaps using the facilities of the Oxford University? Here there would be little danger that the Russians could attack. We have placed our own new research facility to the west of Paris, where again attack is unlikely. Would you be able to accommodate us?"

Uncle Gil looked at me, and I shrugged and then nodded – I could see no reason not to agree to this.

"Of course," said Uncle Gil. "I don't know how much room you would need, but we already have some buildings that you could use to make a start – the old stables, Leo. I think they would do, don't you?"

"Well, we might have to do some work on the furnace and boiler, but otherwise I don't see why not," I agreed. "And I'm sure the colonel is right to say we could find additional space at one of the colleges, although if we're trying to keep it secret it might be better not to do that."

"Perhaps that would be sensible," agreed my uncle. "Will you be supplying the staff, or do you want us to try to find some suitable people locally?"

"Well, we lost most of those who were acquainted with the project, so perhaps if you can find some British scientists – asking discreetly, of course – that would be best. May I leave you to arrange the details with Timothée?"

"He's staying, then?" queried my uncle. "Won't you need him at your own research centre?"

"To be honest I am concerned for his safety. Should the Russians discover that they failed to kill everyone associated with the project they may come looking for him, and I feel that he would be safer here than in France. I have told him that his knowledge will be of more use here, because nobody here has any knowledge of the project. Unfortunately he has little English, but I am certain that you can find a translator for him."

"I am sure that we can," said my uncle. "I speak some French myself, and I believe that Mr Devlin, our tutor, is quite proficient in the language."

"Then we will be on our way," said the colonel. "If we return immediately, few people will know that we have been here, and that will increase Timothée's safety."

I escorted them as far as the door, where Timothée spoke to the colonel - in what sounded like strongly-accented German. The colonel replied in the same language and both he and the captain shook the boy's hand. The two officers then strode off towards the waiting ship.

"Do you speak German?" I asked the boy, in that language.

He smiled. "I do," he replied. "Alsace is a German-speaking province. We learn German before French. If you can speak German it will be a lot easier for me here. I'm afraid Colonel Schaeffer didn't explain who you are, though…"

"Ah. Well, I'm Leo de Courtenay, and I'm the Duke of Culham. This is my house."

"Oh! Oh, God, I'm really sorry… Your Lordship. I thought the man with the beard was the Duke. I didn't mean to offend you."

"Hey, don't worry! Nobody round here calls me anything except 'Leo', and that includes my personal attendant and…"

I wasn't sure how to describe Sparrer, whose somewhat anomalous position confused most of the household. Technically he was a guest, but he seemed to view himself as Billy's assistant.

"And his friend," I went on. "I get uncomfortable if people keep calling me 'Your Grace' and stuff. Anyway, the man with the beard is my uncle, Lord Folliot of Chisbury. He's also my guardian, so basically he runs the place and decides what I can and can't do, which I suppose is fair enough.

"Come with me – I'll arrange a room for you and then you can come and meet my friends. I'm afraid they don't all speak German, but I expect you'll pick up English quickly enough. And then after lunch I expect my uncle will want to show you the old stables and find out from you what sort of equipment you'll need."

We found Allchorn, who was ahead of us as usual: he'd already asked Mrs Sweeting to prepare another of the second floor guest rooms. And then I took Timothée up to Wolfie's room, where my three fellow students were waiting.

"This is Timothée Duvallier," I told them in English. "He's going to be staying here and setting up a laboratory in the old stables to carry on with his father's work on æthership armour. His father was killed three days ago when the Russians attacked their research centre in Alsace, so be careful what you say, okay? He doesn't speak English, but he does speak German, so at least Wolfie and I will be able to talk to him."

I switched to German and introduced my friends. "Can we call you Tim?" I added. "It sounds English, and if we don't want too many people knowing who you are – not that I think I have any Russian spies here, but still – it would be better not to make it too obvious that you're French."

"Well, I arrived in a French æthership and accompanied by two French officers," he pointed out, reasonably enough, "so I expect most of the staff here will have guessed that I'm not English. But I don't mind being called Tim. To be honest, 'Timothée' is a bit old-fashioned anyway – I've never met another one."

My friends said hello, and Wolfie then asked what exactly he was going to be working on. I don't think I would have understood much of the answer even if it had been in English, but it demonstrated clearly that Tim wasn't an ordinary fourteen-year-old: clearly his father had already given him considerable training. By the time he'd finished talking about meteors of the classification Schweitzer-Garfield from which could be obtained a catalyst that modified the molecular structure of something or other, and then there was a bit about a mix of metallic oxides and silicates, and something else about the end product being a form of lightweight ceramic, which could be treated in such a way as to…

I gave up completely at that point, and from the expression on Wolfie's face he hadn't even got that far. And even if Alex or Joe had been a scientific genius, which they weren't, there was no way I could have translated all that into English, and so they weren't going to get the chance to understand it.

"Great!" I said. "Well, I didn't understand any of that, but if you can make it work we'll all be very grateful indeed. Just tell my uncle what you need and he'll get it for you."

"Thank you," he said. "Of course, the main thing I need is a lot of meteor. We did manage to retrieve a small amount from what was left of the research centre, but it isn't really enough to do very much with."

At that point we were summoned to the dining room, and after lunch my uncle whisked Tim away to have a look at the old stables and to find out what equipment he would need, how many people he would require to help with his experiments and what qualifications they should have. Fortunately my uncle's French was a lot better than mine.

I didn't see Tim again until shortly before supper, when I went to his room to make sure he was settling in properly. I knocked on the door and went in, and found him sitting on the end of the bed holding a photograph. It was obvious that he had been crying.

"Sorry," I said in German. "I'll come back later."

"No!" he said. "No, come in. It's alright."

He put the photo on the table beside the bed, and I saw that it depicted a slightly younger-looking version of him with a middle-aged man in glasses.

"Your father?" I asked.

He nodded. "That was taken just over a year ago," he said. "See, my mother died during my birth, and so it's always just been him and me. And now I suppose it's just me."

"No," I said. "Now it's you and us. See, Wolfie's parents are dead, and so are mine, so we both understand how you feel. And the same goes for Sparrer, who you'll meet later this evening, I expect. My father died just before my ninth birthday. He was in the army – his portrait's on the first landing of the main stairs, in the red uniform, if you want to know what he looked like – and he died during the winter campaign at the end of 2005. And my mother died in 2007 – she was an æthership captain, and her ship was shot down by the Tsar's Eagles. Wolfie and I were on that ship too, but we had a jumpshade and so we escaped. So the Russians killed my parents, too – so you're not alone. Stand up for a moment."

He did so, and I looked at him. Like me, he was small for his age – in fact I was probably an inch or so taller. He also had brown eyes like me, though his hair was darker than mine, so dark it was almost black. And of course he was a lot cleverer than me, too. But right then I was more concerned with our similarities than our differences. I stepped closer to him, put my arms around him and gave him a brief hug.

"If you need anyone to talk to," I said, "come and find me, or Wolfie, any time you want. Or if you need an adult to talk to, my uncle is a good man and I'm sure he'll always make time for you. You'll never have to feel alone here, I promise."

He managed a nod and a sort of wan smile.

"Good," I said. "Now maybe you ought to wash your face before supper. And afterwards you'd better meet Billy and Sparrer – though I suppose I ought to try to get used to calling him Ben now. I'm afraid they don't speak German or French, but they're likely to be with us a lot of the time, so you ought to be introduced at least."

I'm not sure what Tim made of Sparrer. He certainly couldn't understand a word he said, but then even we native English speakers sometimes had problems with that; but all the same they seemed to get along well enough. At least Sparrer didn't challenge him to a fight within a minute of meeting him, as he had done with Joe.

We didn't see a great deal of Tim after that: even on the Saturday he disappeared straight after breakfast – apparently he was in conference with Uncle Gil sorting out equipment for his laboratory. He said he wanted it to be up and running as soon as possible.

And that was just as well, because barely a week after he arrived we heard that our meteor had landed. And it wasn't in Greenland, either.

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