Excelsior

by David Clarke

Chapter 15

I still hadn't got around to ordering myself a flying uniform – or perhaps 'costume' would be a better word, since apparently I was free to wear anything I wanted – and so when Saturday morning came around I just dressed in my usual clothes. But it turned out that I was going to be at least partly in uniform anyway, because once we'd finished breakfast, at the unusually early time of seven o'clock, my uncle handed me and each of my friends a long heavy black coat.

"You'll need this tomorrow," he told me, "and you might as well put it on now, because it's cold out there."

So I took it, put it on and followed him out of the house, and he was right: it was cold. The sun hadn't quite risen and the clear sky suggested that it would be warmer later in the day, but as it was I was glad of the coat. The others had decided to wear their coats too, although the uniform quality was rather spoiled by the headgear: Wolfie was wearing his Eagle-crowned helmet and both Alex and Joe were wearing baseball caps. As usual I wasn't wearing a hat, but I wondered if I'd wish I'd brought one once we got to Norway.

We waited by the mast while the tractor towed the ship across from the hanger, and once it had been moored we followed my uncle into the bridge gondola.

"I've divided your friends into different watches," he told me, pinning a list of names in three columns to the panel above the chart table. "It wouldn't be fair on you to give you a crew that was two-thirds novices. I've kept you and Wolfie together because he's got more experience than you, so he'll be able to advise you. And I won't be asking you to take a night watch, either, so really there's nothing to worry about. If I didn't think you could handle it I wouldn't have brought you with us.

"As far as today's trip is concerned I want you to take the second watch. That should be straightforward enough for your first time in command. But I want you to watch and listen closely to take-off and landing procedures, because sooner or later you'll need to be able to do both. Now, while we're waiting for steam to be raised, why don't you tell me the bearing you'd want us to take first of all?"

I looked at the chart. "I can't tell you for sure until we get up there and can see what the wind is doing, but for now I reckon somewhere around three hundred and forty," I said.

"Good answer. Calculate an exact bearing for Dingwall assuming no wind at all and we'll adjust it for wind once we get airborne."

Around me the crew took their places. Of my friends, only Joe and Sparrer were on the first watch, so Alex and Billy were able to relax, and of course Tim, who was also with us, wouldn't have to worry about duty at all. Since we weren't officially on duty Wolfie and I should have been able to relax too, but actually I was glad of the opportunity to make sure I was doing this right before I had to do it solo later on, and so I grabbed Wolfie and got him to double-check my calculations.

"I make it three-four-one, assuming no wind," I reported.

"What magnetic variation are you using?"

"One fifty-one west."

"Correct, but make sure you check the chart every time," said my uncle. "We're going a long way north and the variation changes a lot up there. There's about eight degrees difference in the variation between Dingwall and Lofoten, so it's vital that you adjust correctly each time we check our position. Understood?"

I nodded, thinking that there was a serious chance that I was going to mess up sooner or later: I had horrible visions of getting a bearing wrong in low cloud or fog, losing the rest of the fleet and ending up completely lost, on our own and in hostile air space. I supposed that at least I wouldn't have to worry about it for a few hours yet, but the thought was still nagging away at me even while I was off duty.

A few minutes later we were in the air. Once we reached eight hundred feet I checked the instruments, made an adjustment to the bearing to take the wind into account and offered the result to my uncle, who nodded his agreement and called the bearing to the helmsman, and then we were on our way.

I spent most of the first part of the voyage looking out of the windows with Wolfie and the others: we were over land the whole way and visibility was good, so there was plenty to look at. At each check, generally once an hour, I joined my uncle at the desk and helped him to confirm our position with visible landmarks and then to calculate any necessary adjustments to our course.

Then, at midday, I took over as officer of the watch. To make matters worse, as soon as he had officially handed over to me my uncle disappeared up the ladder that led off the bridge. I'm sure he did it deliberately so that I wouldn't feel that he was constantly looking over my shoulder, but right at that moment I wouldn't have minded him looking over my shoulder one little bit.

But gradually I began to relax. The ship sailed serenely onwards, the wind remained light and fairly constant and nothing untoward happened: no sudden thunderstorms and no squadrons of Eagles suddenly bearing down upon us. Manchester came into view off our port bow as expected, and at the next course check Bradford was where it was supposed to be, too. By the end of that first four-hour watch I felt a great deal better about things.

Of course, as my uncle had pointed out, it was fairly easy to maintain course over land and in clear conditions, but when I handed over to Mr Hall at the end of my watch I still felt good. Maybe I wasn't going to mess up after all.

Once the handover was complete I beckoned Wolfie to follow me and headed up the ladder. It was hard to find anywhere private: there was a small cabin for the captain, but since my uncle wasn't on duty he was probably in it, and I was pretty sure that all the other cabins would also have off duty crew in them. But then I remembered something, and I led Wolfie up to the top of the ship.

"My uncle told me that only one turret is manned while we're over British soil," I told him. "So that ought to mean that there's nobody in two of them. Let's try the rear one."

Sure enough the rear rocket turret was unmanned, so we let ourselves in and closed the hatch. I checked that the speaking tube was stoppered – I didn't want the communications officer listening in – and pulled Wolfie into my arms.

"We should make the most of this," I said. "I don't suppose we'll get a lot of opportunities to be on our own for the next three or four days."

"I don't think we'd want to do very much anyway," he said. "I think that taking our clothes off north of the Arctic Circle would probably be a bad idea. I would be very unhappy if your personal areas got frostbite."

"Not half as unhappy as I'd be," I said, shuddering to think of it. "I know the admiral said it won't be particularly cold in the Lofoten Islands, but on the whole I'd prefer not to risk it. On the other hand, I can think of some good ways to warm it up again if it happened to you."

"I'm sure you can," he said, grinning, "especially if you've been talking to Ben again."

"What do you mean?"

"He told me about another way of doing sex. He seemed a bit surprised that you haven't suggested it to me yet, actually. He said that when he told you about it he was hoping you'd share it with me."

"Ah. Well, I was going to, but… to be honest I wasn't sure how you might react."

"You thought that I wouldn't like to try something new with you? Why would you think that?"

"Well, it is a bit weird."

"Do you think so? I think it sounds interesting, and I definitely want to try it. But I think it might be best to do it somewhere good and warm and where we have a comfortable bed, so I suppose that it will have to wait until we get back home. So that is another reason why nothing is going to go wrong on this mission, you understand? Anyway, Ben told me that you had practised with him, so… what is it like? Is it as good as Ben says it is?"

"I thought so. It was really nice having it done, and I didn't mind doing it for him, either. But I think it'll be better with you. You're bigger than he is, for a start."

"And are there other ways in which I am better than Ben?"

"Obviously. You've got beautiful hair, for a start. Of course I can't really see it at the moment – any of it, in fact. Why don't you take that silly bird off your head?"

"Don't insult the Eagle of Brandenburg," he said, trying unsuccessfully to conjure up a scowl. "Not unless you want me to refer to your crest as a mangy pussy-cat."

"My lion could take your eagle any day."

"Oh, yes?"

"Obviously."

Let's see, shall we?"

He took his helmet off and then grabbed me, and for a couple of minutes we rolled around on the floor, play-fighting. But there wasn't a lot of room in the turret, and trying to jerk back from one of his attacks I banged my head on the rocket launcher. I swore loudly.

"Suddenly I wish I'd got a steel hat myself," I said, rubbing my head and wincing. "That really hurt."

"I'll order you one when we get home," he promised. "Maybe we can even find one with a mangy pussy-cat on top."

"You can tell this is hurting," I said. "I'd never let you get away with that otherwise. Come on, let's go back to the bridge. It's a lot warmer down there."

There was a heating system in the front gondola – basically it was just a tube that carried hot air from the furnace in Gondola Two, but it did quite a good job. Most of the rest of the ship was less warm, because although some hot air was channelled into the deck area, it would have been unwise to have hot metal pipes running next to the hydrogen gasbags, and so only the area close to the gondolas got the benefit.

We returned to the bridge and found that it felt pleasantly warm compared to the turret, and I found myself wondering if we would be able to find a way to install electric heaters in the turrets and other extremities of the ship once we'd sorted out the legal stuff. I thought that it would be perfectly feasible to install a generator which could be driven by steam from the furnace in Gondola Two, and that would allow us to put in some internal lighting as well as heating. At the moment lighting was a real problem: oil lamps need great care if you're using them while surrounded by envelopes of hydrogen.

By now we were approaching Dingwall, our destination for today. Already I could see the expanse of the Moray Firth ahead of us, and then we passed over Inverness and Mr Hall, who was officer of the watch, called out the order to begin to descend. Billy was at the wheel at this point and I expected him to be relieved, but Mr Hall gave no such order, although it was noticeable that one of the regular helmsmen was on the bridge and keeping an eye on things from a distance. Alex was on duty too, and in his case there was a more senior crewman next to him: a certain amount of venting, mainly from the steam envelopes, is needed when an æthership comes in to land, and of course Alex had never done this before.

"Engines, one quarter. All right, Mr Rodgers," said Mr Hall, "wind direction is three-two-five, speed five knots. See the mast down there? Then line us up and bring us in."

The senior helmsman stepped forward and muttered something in Billy's ear but then stepped back again and let him get on with it. I looked out of the window nervously: if we overshot the mast we'd have to go round and come at it from the same direction again, and if we landed short we'd make life very difficult for the ground crew. But what really worried me was the prospect of colliding with the mast, because if we did that the mission would be over before it had really started.

"Vent three and nine," commanded Mr Hall, and Alex, with some help from the senior man, managed to select the correct envelopes. The ship began to drop a little more.

"Engines, station holding. Gas, three-second vent of five and seven… release mooring cables. Port engine, five second burst at one quarter… that should do it. Port engine, return to station holding. Gas, another three second vent of five and seven… that's it, they have us. Engines, all stop."

Outside the ground crew had successfully grabbed our mooring cables, and soon we were safely tethered to the mast and the other cables were being pegged down.

"Finished with engines," ordered Mr Hall. "Thank you, everyone. Desk, tell the crew they may disembark. Mr Rodgers, well done: that was a tidy job. The approach hardly wavered at all, despite the wind gusting."

I don't know how Billy was feeling, but I did know that all of that juggling between engines, helm and gas envelopes had made me nervous again: I was convinced that if I tried to land the ship I'd make a complete mess of it. Venting the envelopes, for example: Mr Hall had the experience to know which envelopes should be vented for how long, but I certainly didn't, and if I got it wrong we'd either sail serenely over the mooring mast and have to go around and start all over again, or we'd drop too quickly and hit the ground.

"Come on," said Wolfie, nudging me out of my semi-trance, "let's go and see if we can persuade our host to find us a quiet room a long way from everyone else."

"Don't get your hopes up," I said, looking at the stately pile in front of us.

It was rather smaller than my own place, being neither as tall nor as wide, and I thought that there might not be quite as many guest rooms, and therefore not much chance of us getting a room that wasn't next door to someone else, probably my uncle. And that would certainly act as a bit of a deterrent to too much misbehaviour overnight.

Our host was waiting for us about fifty yards away. My uncle had told me a bit about the earl and his exploits as an æthership captain, and as a result I'd had this mental image of a giant of a man with a massive, Brian Blessed-type beard, wearing a kilt and striding about the place bellowing at us in an impenetrable Scots accent. Instead we were greeted by a man of average height, clean-shaven and dressed in perfectly ordinary trousers and a tweed jacket. And although he had a Scottish accent, it was perfectly understandable.

"Good afternoon to you, Gilbert," he greeted my uncle, offering him his hand. "You're nicely on time: supper should be ready in about half an hour. And… good Lord, is this Caroline's boy?"

"It is," said my uncle. "This is Leo. Leo, this is Alasdair Mackenzie, Fourteenth Earl of Seaforth."

"Pleased to meet you, Sir," I said, offering my hand, which was shaken politely.

"Last time I saw you, you were about five years old, I think," said the earl. "Welcome to Brahan Castle".

I have to say that it didn't look remotely like a castle: when you think of a Scottish castle you imagine something like that one that always appears on biscuit tins and turns up in films whenever the director wants somewhere remote, solid-looking and surrounded by water. This place looked like a standard stately home.

"And this is Wolfgang-Christian, Margrave of Brandenburg-Bayreuth," my uncle went on, and Wolfie shook the earl's hand in his turn. "So – how's Nessie?"

"If you are referring," said the earl, glaring at him, "to His Majesty's Scottish Æthership Caberféidh, she is fine, as you will see in the morning." He grinned. "I gather it was you who put my name forward for this venture. If that is so, thank you: it's been a while since I last had an opportunity to twist the Tsar's tail."

He turned and led the way to the house, giving me no opportunity to introduce the others. I suppose he thought they were servants of some sort: maybe he saw Alex and Joe as my personal bodyguards, Tim as my advisor and Billy and Sparrow as valets. Or maybe he was simply used to filtering out anyone who didn't come with a title.

Inside the house we were met by a couple that I assumed to be the butler and the housekeeper. Both looked a little surprised at how many of us there were.

"Will all of these young gentlemen be staying?" asked the butler.

"Is that a problem?" I asked.

"Ah," said the earl. "We'd counted on four rooms, you understand: Gilbert, his First Officer, you and the Margrave. We'd assumed that the remainder of the crew would sleep in our barracks."

I could see that my friends weren't too keen on that.

"Don't worry," I said. "If you don't have any other rooms ready we can always share. If you can just find some blankets – and maybe a couple of mattresses…"

"Let it not be said that Clan Mackenzie is lacking in hospitality," said the earl, firmly. "I am sure that we can prepare at least two more rooms. That will still call for some sharing, but I'm sure your servants won't mind too much – it will still be better than sleeping in the barracks."

"That's very kind," I said. "And I'm sure you're right: sharing will be no hardship for them." Quite the reverse, in fact: I was pretty sure that even if we'd been supplied with a room each, some of the beds would not have been slept in.

Supper was excellent: the main course was venison, a meat I'd never eaten before, but I thought it tasted really good. Apparently the deer-stalking season had just ended and the earl thought it logical to share the results of his final stalk of the year with us. I wasn't sure whether or not Joe was allowed to eat deer, but he was tucking in quite happily, and so I assumed that it didn't contravene any of his dietary laws.

"Well, yes and no," he said, when I asked him about it. "Yes, we're allowed to eat deer, but no, because this wasn't killed the kosher way. But there is quite a lot of leeway when you're a guest in someone's house – after all, I don't suppose anything I ate at your house was strictly kosher, either. But I don't think God minds too much."

"I reckon 'e's orlright, your god," said Sparrer, who was sitting next to Joe. "After all, 'e ain't smote yer yet, even after orl the bad stuff you an' me 'ave done wiv each uvver – like last night, when I…"

"Ben!" interrupted Joe, blushing again. "For Heaven's sake shut up – we're in public here!"

"Oh, yeah, so we are," said Sparrer, though it was obvious that none of the adults was listening to us. "Sorry. But, anyway, if God can put up wiv that, I don't reckon 'e's gonna get too mad about the wrong type of meat."

Personally I thought that God, if he existed at all, probably had other things to worry about than who was sleeping with who, but then I knew very little about Joe's religion, and so I decided to keep quiet. Instead I asked Billy how he had felt being at the helm when we were landing.

"Scared," he said. "Proper scared when we started to descend – I hadn't expected as how I'd keep the wheel for the landing. But Mr Green – he's the senior helmsman – told me that all I really had to do was to keep the ship pointing at the mast and not to worry about the descent. He told me that everything else would be done by other people – like angle of descent, engine speed, gas venting and so on – and that my job was easy. I was still a bit nervous-like, but it were a bit less scary after that. I reckon as how I could do it on my own now if I had to."

"Good," I said. "So by the time I get to take over as captain you should be expert at it. Looks like I've found my own senior helmsman."

He stared at me. "Do you really mean that?" he asked.

"Sure. Why not?"

"But… wow! See, I thought as how if I even got to fly at all it would be as a stoker, seeing as how that's all I knew how to do. But to actually fly a ship… that's so much better!"

"Of course, if we make a mess of this mission, probably none of us will ever fly again, including me," I warned him. So we've all got to do the best we can to make sure it all goes smoothly. But if it does I'm hoping my uncle will let me fly some missions without him and Mr Hall – maybe in a couple of years, when I'm sixteen. And by then all of us should be pretty experienced, and I can't see any reason why you shouldn't be helmsman. Just listen to everything Mr Green and the other helmsman tell you and watch what they do. After all, that's what I'm trying to do with my uncle."

At that stage I was feeling quite confident – after all, we'd all completed our first day of a real mission without anything going wrong, and from now on we'd have another ship at least alongside us, which ought to go a long way to ensure that nothing would go too far astray. At least, I hoped not.

After supper the earl invited Wolfie and me to join the other men for a cigar and what I suspected would be quite a lot of alcohol. I declined before my uncle could do so on our behalf.

"I think we'll need to be at our best tomorrow," I said, "so we'll leave the drinking to those who are used to it. So thank you, but I think we'd do better to get an early night."

"How come I didn't get invited?" complained Alex, as we followed the butler to the guest rooms. "I wouldn't have minded a few drinks."

"I don't think we were talking about a half of shandy there," I said. "I don't suppose you like whisky anyway."

"Hey, I can handle a lot more than shandy – and how am I going to find out if I like whisky if you don't let me try some?"

"It wasn't me who didn't invite you," I pointed out. "But personally I don't want you on the control board tomorrow if you've got a hangover. I can just imagine you emptying all the hydrogen bags by mistake and dumping us in the Norwegian Sea."

"We're not all like you," he replied. "Some of us don't puke up after half a glass of wine."

"That was three years ago, and it wasn't half a glass, either. It was more like half a bottle."

"Yeah, right. One sip and you're anyone's."

"You wish! I bet you were just hoping I'd get so drunk you'd be able…"

I noticed that Wolfie and Billy were both listening in and decided to shut up.

"Okay, if you want to get shown up, we'll have a drinking contest when we get back home" I said, rashly.

"You're on," he replied at once. "I reckon two of anything and you'll fall over."

I thought he was probably being a little harsh there – after all, I did drink a glass or two of wine at mealtimes, so it wasn't as if I never drank alcohol at all. On the other hand, I knew that he did too, at least since he'd moved into my place. Even so, there was no reason to think I was sure to lose.

As I had expected, the original four guest rooms were at the front of the house. I suggested to Tim that he should take the third one, leaving the first two for my uncle and Mr Hall, and that Wolfie and I would share the fourth one.

"You shouldn't have to share," protested Tim.

"Oh, we're used to it," I told him. "Besides, you ought to get a good night's sleep tonight, because we'll be relying on you once we get to Norway."

"Well, if you're sure…"

"I am," I said. This one's yours. Wolfie, you might as well get settled in; I'll go and see where the others are in case we need them later."

The other two rooms were in the East Wing, and were fairly clearly intended for servants rather than actual guests: they were smaller, sparsely furnished and featured iron-framed twin beds. Still, I was sure they would be a great deal better than the barracks.

"Dump your bags," I said to my friends, "and then come back to my room. I know I told my uncle we'd have an early night, but it's a bit too early to go to bed just yet. We can talk about what's going to happen tomorrow."

I made my way back to our room, where I found Wolfie sitting on the bed waiting for me.

"It seems a bit early to go to bed," he said. "Can you think of anything we could do to pass the time first?"

"I'm sure I can;" I replied. "Unfortunately it'll have to wait, because we're going to have company: I invited the others to come and join us."

"Well, that wasn't very clever, was it?"

"Sorry. We can always throw them out in ten minutes' time."

"I suppose we could. But I bet we don't – I know what you're like."

I was saved from having to answer that by the arrival of Alex, Joe, Billy and Sparrer. I told them to come in and grab a chair, which was tricky because the room contained only a sofa and a hard-backed chair that was in front of a writing-desk, and oddly nobody seemed keen on that. Instead they all tried to squeeze onto the sofa, which really wasn't big enough for four of them. Sparrer solved the problem by parking himself on Joe's lap instead.

I asked Joe and Sparrer how they felt about their first real turn of duty, and they both said that they'd been nervous at the start of the watch but happy enough with their performance by the end of it.

"I suppose that means that you all want to stay aboard tomorrow, then," I said. "You don't have to – there's no reason why you can't stay here. We can pick you up on the way back…"

A chorus of abuse greeted that suggestion, which didn't actually surprise me at all.

"Well, when the ship has crashed and you're about to drown in the middle of the Norwegian Sea, don't say I didn't offer," I said.

"Even with you in command I don't think that'll happen," said Alex.

"Thank you for that vote of confidence," I said.

"Oh, it's not confidence in you. As long as Wolfie's beside you I'm counting on him to make sure you don't mess up."

"Yes, well, don't laugh too loudly, because when I get to fly missions without my uncle and Mr Hall I'm going to be looking for a Second Officer, and it might well be you – so maybe you ought to start learning how to read a map and find a bearing. Once you see how complicated it is, maybe you'll start to appreciate my genius."

"Are you serious? You'd actually make me an officer?"

"You must be desperate," commented Billy, which led to a minor scuffle.

"Billy maybe has a point," I allowed, once the fight had subsided, "but actually, yes, I am serious. I don't suppose it'll happen before I'm sixteen, so we've got a year and a half to train you and that ought to be enough. You're not completely dim, after all. Seriously, if I start out with a crew of my own age, by the time I'm twenty-one we'll have had five years flying together, and a crew that is used to working together is really important if you're going to be a successful captain.

"But let's get this mission done first. Tomorrow morning we'll be flying to the big naval base in the Orkneys – it's not too far from here, so it will only take a couple of hours – and there we'll refuel and hopefully meet up with the French ships that'll be coming with us. And then it's non-stop to the Lofotens, which will mean flying through tomorrow night. My uncle says he won't expect us to work the night watches, but after that things will get serious because we'll be in enemy air space. So no messing around, okay? Have any of you got any questions?"

"Yeah, I fink so," said Sparrer. "It's not abaht termorrer, but… See, them little beds in our rooms are gonna be a bit small fer two of us. So I was finking: wot if we wuz ter challenge you ter a game of cards? If we win, we get to sleep in 'ere and 'ave that proper-sahzed bed yer sittin' on."

"Good point," agreed Alex. "I reckon me and Billy wouldn't mind sleeping in here, either. So we're definitely up for it if there's going to be a game."

"I don't think so," I said. "I mean, what's the incentive for me and Wolfie? If we lose, we have to sleep in the small beds, and if we win we just get to stay where we already are."

"Well, if we play a strip game you'll get ter take the piss aht of us if we lose," said Sparrer. "And then I got sumfink else ter offer: see, yesterday afternoon I sort of fahnd myself in the pantry, and while I wuz there a couple of bottles of cider sort of fell inter my bag. An' I fort that maybe yer might like to 'elp us drink 'em, sort of fing."

"You mean, you stole some cider from my pantry?" I asked.

"Nah, of course not! Not stole – I don't steal nuffink no more! I wuz jes' lookin' after 'em," he said, virtuously. "An' I fort maybe we could sort of share 'em rahnd while we play. Wot abaht it?"

"Sounds good to me," said Alex, before I could speak. "After all, you're always saying you want us all to just treat you like one of us, so it seems only fair that we should sort of draw lots to see who gets the decent bed."

"I don't think I said anything like that," Wolfie pointed out.

"That's just tough. You're with Leo, so you have to stick with his rules. So, what about it, Leo – or are you too chicken?"

"Don't start that again," I said. "You know the 'chicken' thing doesn't work. But… yes, okay, I'm game. One condition, though: Ben doesn't get to deal."

"Wot? Don't yer trust me?" asked Sparrer, pretending to look wounded.

"Now that you mention it – no, at least not where cards are concerned. So how are we going to do it – are we playing in pairs, or what?"

"No, let's all play separately," said Alex. "Whoever wins, he and his partner get this bed – so if Wolfie wins, you two stay here, or if Billy wins, he and I get the decent bed."

"Okay, why not?" I agreed, trying not to look at Wolfie, who didn't seem particularly enthusiastic. But clearly the others were much happier about it. Alex and Joe moved the sofa to face the bed and then went and collected a small table from a corner of the room and put it between the two. Meanwhile Sparrer delved into his bag and produced not only a bottle of cider, but four glasses as well.

"Are those mine too?" I asked.

"Nah, of course not! I fahnd these in our rooms. I 'spect you've got one, an' all."

In fact it turned out that there were two on the little shelf above the washbasin, which was handy, since it meant that we now had one each. Sparrer pulled the cork on the bottle and filled the glasses, and Alex pulled his pack of cards from his pocket and started to shuffle.

"What about a toast?" I said, lifting my glass. "A successful mission and a safe return!"

We all drank to that, and then: "An' a comfy bed!" added Sparrer.

"Only if you can win without cheating," I said, darkly. "Let's cut for deal."

We did that and Joe won, which I thought was good because I didn't think there was any real danger of Joe cheating – at least, not compared to the chances of Sparrer trying it on again.

With six of us playing, and all of us wearing several layers, both because of the weather and because we'd been dressed fairly formally for supper, it was quite a while before anyone needed to worry about embarrassment. Nobody had a losing streak, and if Joe was losing slightly less than the rest of us that was only natural, because the dealer always has a slight advantage at Pontoon. Sparrer kept our glasses topped up, producing a second bottle when the first one was empty, and then a third.

"When you said 'a couple of bottles', I asked, "What exactly did you mean?"

"A couple," he said. "That means sumfink close ter two, dunnit?"

"How close?"

"Well, free… ish."

"Ish? Come on, Ben – exactly how many?"

"Four," he admitted. "But I left one in our room, 'cos I fort you'd 'ave a fit if we got too ratted, seein' as 'ow we 'ave ter fly termorrer. So we got 'alf a bottle each."

I didn't think that would be too much: Wolfie and I regularly drank wine with meals; Alex had always claimed that he drank beer at home, and I knew that Sparrer had drunk gin while he lived in the sewers. That left Billy and Joe, whose drinking habits I knew nothing about. But both seemed quite happy to drink whatever was put in front of them, so I decided just to wait and see what happened.

We'd just about finished the second bottle when I lost three hands in a row. This reduced me to my underwear and greatly increased the level of pointed comments about both my physique and my chances of sleeping in a decent bed. I did my best to ignore them and watched closely as Joe dealt the next hand, but if he was cheating he was doing it so well that I couldn't spot it.

I survived the next couple of hands, both of which were lost by Alex, and that at least meant that maybe I wouldn't be the first one to lose. But I certainly wasn't going to win: Sparrer had only lost a couple of times, and Billy was also wearing most of what he'd started in. And a couple of hands later I lost again, and that was me finished. I removed my boxers and dropped them on top of the rest of my clothes and then sat back to watch the others play and to cheer Wolfie on. I wasn't quite so worried about being naked in front of my friends this time: by now they had all seen me in a state of nature except Joe, and he was far too polite to comment. He did clearly check me out, though, and had to be nudged to remind him to deal the next hand.

Alex was next to lose, and this time Joe tried to be a little less blatant in his inspection. I waited for one of the others, or perhaps Alex himself, to make the usual 'compare and contrast' comments about the difference between him and me, but nobody did, so perhaps I was judging my friends too harshly.

Sparrer broached the third bottle and the four survivors played on. Joe himself hit a bad streak but still managed to outlast Wolfie by one hand, which meant that Wolfie and I were clearly going to be sleeping in a smaller bed tonight. And then Joe lost once more, and he was very obviously nervous about removing his underwear.

"If anyone laughs - and I'm especially looking at you here, Alex - I'll kill them. Okay?" he said.

"From where I'm sitting, I'd say you've got nothing to be ashamed of," commented Alex, eyeing the bulge in Joe's boxers.

"That's what you think," said Joe, slipping his boxers off, revealing a very large, hard piece of meat – a good six inches, I estimated – with balls to match but a complete lack of hair. I don't know what sort of depilatory cream he was using, but whatever it was, it was good: there wasn't even a trace of stubble.

Of course Sparrer and I knew about this already, and so did Billy, but it looked as though Billy hadn't told Alex, because Alex did a massive double-take.

"Bloody hell, Joe," he said, "That's… wow! How come you haven't…? I mean, it's well huge, but…"

"It's 'cos of…" started Sparrer, but that's as far as he got.

"Shut up, Ben!" interrupted Joe. "I'll tell you about it later, Alex – or probably Billy will. Leo, I'm sure you can fill Wolfie in."

"I didn't think as how I ought to say anything, without you saying as I could," said Billy. "To be right honest, I didn't think as how Ben should have told me."

"You're right, he shouldn't," said Joe. "But thanks for keeping it to yourself, Billy. I appreciate it. To be honest, though, I don't really mind Alex knowing – after all, he's a friend, and he knows more about the background than any of you, so you can certainly tell him. And thanks for not laughing, Alex. Now let's finish the game. My glass seems to be empty, Ben…"

Having successfully changed the subject he picked up the pack, shuffled – as he had done each time someone had dropped out of the game – passed the cards to Billy to cut, and dealt fresh hands to Billy and Sparrer. Rather to my surprise it was Billy who eventually won, so I decided that I owed Sparrer an apology for having thought that he might be cheating.

"Well done, Billy!" said Alex happily. "We get the comfy bed. So that makes this our room. Out, peasants!"

"Not till we get froo the bottle," said Sparrer. "I ain't leavin' it 'ere for you two."

I suppose we'd been getting a bit loud, which is what generally happens at parties as the amount of alcohol drunk increases. Those doing the drinking don't usually notice, and I certainly hadn't, but clearly the noise had carried because the door opened and Tim put his head around it.

"Don't tell me," he said in German. "This is Naturist Evening."

"No," I said. "It's just us being strange again. Sorry if we disturbed you. Do you want a drink?"

"No, thank you. I'd just like to be able to get to sleep fairly soon."

"Sorry," I said again. I switched to English. "Let's drink up and go to bed. We probably ought to, because I expect we'll be leaving early in the morning."

Tim said goodnight and went back to his room and the rest of us finished the bottle and put on enough clothing to be decent in case we ran into any of Seaforth's servants between here and the other two rooms.

"There's no point in moving all our stuff," I said to Alex. "We'll swap back first thing in the morning."

Alex agreed to that and wished us goodnight, managing not to gloat too much, and then Wolfie and I went with Joe and Sparrer back to the servants' wing.

"Sorry," I said to Wolfie, once we were alone in our new room. "I bet you think I should never have agreed to this, don't you?"

"No, actually," he said, surprising me. "After all, these beds are about the same size as the one in our headquarters, and the best thing about sharing that bed with you is that we stay touching each other all night. I really like waking up first and finding you draped all over me, or me all over you. You look really beautiful when you're asleep, you know."

"Do I? I must change a hell of a lot when I go to sleep, then. Of course, you look perfect asleep or awake…. Come on, let's get to bed."

Five minutes later we were cuddled up together. It wasn't the softest bed I have ever slept in, but the company meant that I didn't care. Wolfie was right: sleeping two to a fairly small bed felt great…

I woke up first next morning. It was still dark, but I'd left my flashlight on the table beside the bed and so I was able to use it to check the time. It was only around seven, but I expected us to be called fairly soon: the sun would be up in an hour, and I was fairly sure my uncle would want us to be in the air as soon as it was light enough to see what was happening. But before I got out of bed I shone the torch on Wolfie…

I realised once again how amazing he looked, and just for a moment I got the shivers: what the hell was I doing taking him with me on such a potentially dangerous trip? It was all very well saying that it was his decision, but I was sure I'd still hold myself to blame if anything happened to him. I wondered if I could possibly persuade him to stay here instead of coming with us, but I realised straight away that it wasn't going to happen: if he'd tried to talk me into staying here I'd have told him where to put that idea. I decided that instead I'd just have to stick to him really closely, so that whatever happened, it would happen to both of us.

The torchlight shining on him had disturbed his sleep and he was starting to stir, so I completed the process by kissing him until he opened his eyes and smiled at me sleepily.

"Come on," I said. "We need to get up and get back to the other room – I left my washing kit there, and it would probably be an idea to make sure the others are awake anyway. It would probably better if Seaforth's servants don't have to wake them up – I'd prefer to avoid questions about why some of the beds haven't been slept in. In fact, we'd better do something about that right now."

I got up, lit the gaslight and crossed the room to the second bed, climbing into it and rolling about for a couple of minutes so that it would look as if it had actually been slept in. Then I got dressed, went next door and made sure that Joe and Sparrer were awake, and then led Wolfie back to our original room. Alex and Billy were still asleep, and very cute they looked too, curled up in each other's arms – though they clearly hadn't made much use of the wider bed: they seemed to be using only about a third of it.

I woke them up by shaking them gently. Alex just told me blearily to go away, but Billy looked really embarrassed, rolling away from Alex and then looking at me nervously.

"What's the matter?" I asked him. "Do you think I object to you and Alex sleeping together? Of course I don't. I'm glad you're together, actually – and it would probably be a good idea if you were to keep each other warm over the next few nights, because it's not likely to be very warm on Excalibur. Anyway, you need to get up and get dressed, and then go and have a wash, get your kit together and meet us in the dining hall in about fifteen minutes. And it would probably be a good idea to make sure that the other two haven't gone back to sleep, too…"

When we made our way out to Excalibur after breakfast we found another ship moored next to it, and now I understood my uncle's crack about 'Nessie': this ship was painted grey-green all over. It was a little smaller than Excalibur, with two rocket turrets instead of three, and where our ship had the cross of St George across the nose, this one, not surprisingly, was carrying the saltire of St Andrew. The crest above the name Caberféidh showed a red stag's head with curly antlers, which I supposed must be Seaforth's personal crest. And now he did go some way towards restoring my original expectations, because both he and his entire crew were resplendent in greeny-blue kilts. The crew were wearing warm-looking green pullovers, but Seaforth himself – we hadn't seen him at breakfast - was wearing a ruffled shirt like my uncle's, a velvet dress jacket and a heavy cloak, and on his head he had a black highland bonnet with a long feather in it.

"We've a fine day for it," he greeted us. "Clear skies and a following wind. We'll be in Orkney before ten. I'll let you lead the way, Gilbert." He handed my uncle a silver hip flask. "A quick nip to see us on our way?"

"Why not?" said my uncle, accepting the flask and taking a quick pull. "A successful trip, and all to come back alive."

"I'll drink to that," agreed the earl, doing so. "Happy hunting, Gilbert."

"Happy hunting, Mac," returned my uncle.

They shook hands and the earl went over to his own ship while we followed my uncle into the bridge gondola of ours. I suppose the stokers had been at work for some time, because as soon as we were aboard we were able to take off. My uncle didn't ask me to work out the bearing for Scapa Flow – presumably by now he was confident that I could do it without messing it up – and so I was able to stand at the window and watch Caberféidh slowly ascending behind us. And then we swung round to the north-east and began to pick up speed, and I felt that now the mission was truly under way…

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