Excelsior

by David Clarke

Chapter 16

We flew up the Cromarty Firth and then followed the coastline all the way up to John O'Groats, and from there it was just a quick hop across the Pentland Firth to the Orkney Islands. Scapa Flow, the body of water in the centre of the island group, was the largest of the British naval bases, and as we flew across it – by now we were losing height - we could see at least thirty warships of various sizes at anchor. On the north side of the anchorage was the Orkney Islands' capital of Kirkwall, and just to the west of the town there was a huge æthership base containing enough room for twenty or more ships. As we approached the base the semaphore tower on the control building began to signal us.

"Mast Seventeen," the duty signaller told my uncle. "Wind at ground level one-six-three, seven knots."

"Helm, you heard that," said my uncle. "Pass the base to the west and approach on that bearing, and watch out for that idiot in the navy ship."

A coastal defence ship was climbing away from one of the other masts and looked certain to cross our path, but the helmsman steered a little more to the west and successfully avoided it before turning to approach the mast from the north-north-west. I listened closely to my uncle's orders as the ship approached the mast and lost height, and while I still wasn't sure how he knew which gas envelopes to vent and for how long, there was no denying that he knew his stuff: this was a textbook landing.

There was a naval lieutenant waiting for us when we stepped ashore.

"Admiral Faulkner's compliments," he said to my uncle after saluting him, "but would you and your senior officers please come with me? Your ship will be refuelled while you're with the admiral, and if you need any further supplies our ground crew will be happy to oblige – if we have what you want in stock, of course."

My uncle spoke briefly with our chief engineer and then beckoned to Wolfie and me, indicating that we were to come with him and Mr Hall. The lieutenant stared at us but chose not to say anything, instead turning and leading us across the field to a low building at the north end. Here we found Air Admiral Faulkner, a small man in a black cloak and top hat, and a collection of French officers in naval uniform and one in the uniform of an army captain. My uncle greeted the admiral, said "Morning, Charlie!" to the short man and bowed to the French, who in turn bowed back, although I was conscious that some of them were staring at us.

"Who are these children?" asked one of the French officers.

"This is His Grace the Duke of Culham and His Highness the Markgraf von Brandenburg-Bayreuth," my uncle told him, at which the French guy had the grace to look embarrassed. "They're jointly my second officer. And this is Mr Hall my First Officer, who sadly doesn't know any good tailors."

That lowered the tension nicely, and when a minute or so later Seaforth and his two equally kilted officers arrived my uncle added, "And neither do these gentlemen."

Of course the earl didn't know why the French were laughing until my uncle apologised to him and introduced them properly.

The French had sent four ships in all: the fighting ships Pierre Bosquet, Joseph Joffre and Jean Rapp - the one we'd met on my first ever flight – and the troop carrier Perpignan. I wasn't sure why they had brought a troop ship, but nobody enlightened me at that point, and since my uncle didn't ask I didn't think I should either.

For the next half hour or so the senior officers discussed the mission, deciding which ships would be responsible for what. Clearly we were going to have to land at the meteor site because we needed Tim to examine the meteor before anything further was done, and the troop carrier might have to land if we did have the misfortune to find any Russians in the vicinity (so that was why it was there), but the others were intending to remain in the air to watch out for hostile forces and to provide air cover in the event of an attack. Obviously this had to be discussed now because all communication once we were in the air would have to be done by semaphore, something that might not be possible in bad visibility. But this was the point at which I had something to contribute. So I asked permission to speak and then pulled from my bag one of the radios Alex had brought back from his own world.

"This is called a radio," I told them. "Before too long I hope that we'll be able to equip every ship in both our fleets with these, and also with a way to run them constantly, because at the moment they can only be used for short periods. It allows you to speak to someone who is quite a long way away from you."

"Like a semaphore?" asked one of Seaforth's officers.

"No, like actually talking. We'll show you."

I turned the second radio on, checked that it was on the same channel and gave it to Wolfie, who took it and walked out of the room. I waited until he was a hundred metres or so away – we could see him through the window – and then pressed the 'transmit' button and said, "Hello, there. Can you hear me?"

"Yes, perfectly," came Wolfie's voice from the speaker, at which the audience seriously sat up and stared.

"Good. Come back in, then."

I waited until he was back with us and then forestalled the expected questions. "Don't ask exactly how it works, because I'm not scientist enough to explain it," I said. "Just accept that it does. We can use this mission to test them. Unfortunately we only have three of them, so we can't put one in each ship, but I thought that we'd keep one on Excalibur, put one in one of the French ships, and keep the third one to be used on the ground when we get to Norway. Obviously we'll still need semaphore to talk to the other ships, but it will make it easier for us to react quickly if anything unexpected happens. So, who wants the second one?"

The French conferred briefly before Captain Beauclair of the Rapp said he would take the radio. "Two of my communications officers speak good English, and the third can get by," he said. "If you would like to bring your device to the ship after this meeting you can explain them how it works. We are on Mast Eight."

So once the meeting was over I collected Tim, just in case I needed a translator after all, and took the second radio to Mast Eight. The interior of the French bridge was rather classier than ours, with lots of polished wood panelling and plenty of brass fittings. Their wheel was ornate where ours was merely functional, and their chairs looked more stylish, too. And at the front of the bridge, on a panel next to the chart table, was a portrait of a man in classic Napoleonic uniform and a brass plaque telling me about Jean Rapp, Comte de Colmar, born 1771, died 1821, created Marshal of the Empire in 1817 as a result of his part in the Battle of Steinbrück, wherever that was.

At that point my reading was interrupted by the return of Captain Beauclair and his signallers. I explained how to turn the radio on and which button to press if they wanted to speak and told them not to touch the other controls, especially the one used for changing channels.

"Stick to Channel One," I told them. "You shouldn't have any problem with range – in these conditions, with no interference, these sets are probably good for a hundred miles – but they won't last indefinitely. The more we talk, the quicker it will run out of power, so we should only use it during the actual operation, or in case of emergency. You'll get at least thirty hours out of the battery if it's on standby, but a lot less if we're talking all the time."

"What is a battery?" asked one of the signallers.

"This is a battery," I said, producing the spare. "When the first one stops working – you'll know because this little light won't come on when you press the 'on' button – you have to change the battery."

I demonstrated how to do that and got all three of them to show me that they could do it.

"Keep it on your communication desk," I said. "I'd suggest you turn it on at sunrise tomorrow, unless there's a storm or we lose contact with each other during the night, in which case turn it on straight away. Leave it on now and I'll call you when I get back to Excalibur, just to make sure it's working."

I shook Captain Beauclair's hand, went back to Excalibur and performed a radio check, but got no answer.

"Don't forget to press the button when you want to speak," I reminded them, and this time a voice came back.

"Good. We'll do one more test once we're in the air," I said. "Call me when you reach a thousand feet… three hundred metres. Turn the radio off now and turn it on again when you take off."

That got no answer either.

"Say 'Roger' if you understood my last message," I said.

"'Oo is Rojair?"

"It's just what you say when you've understood a message. And when you finish speaking, you say 'Over', to tell me you've finished and it's my turn to talk, okay? Over."

"Rojair," came the reply. Well, good enough, I thought, and I turned the radio off.

We were ready to take off shortly after midday. Because the troopship was a little slower than the rest of us we were going to hold our speed down to around forty knots, and that meant that the journey would take in the region of twenty hours, which would get us to our destination close to the hour of sunrise. My uncle not only asked me to take the first watch, but also altered the watch personnel so that all four of my friends were on my watch.

"That's so that none of you have to take a watch at night," he explained. "I might well ask you to take a night watch on the return journey, but none of you are used to working at night yet and I want you to ease into it. We'll be working six hour watches – more or less - on this trip instead of the usual four, because it's unlikely that anything will happen at night, so you'll have a little while in the dusk this evening.

"Now: do you feel that you're ready to handle the take-off?"

I took a deep breath. I certainly didn't feel ready to try landing the ship, but take-off was a great deal easier: the ground crew had already turned us into the wind, so all we had to do was release the mooring lines, drop the extra ballast that had been added by the ground crew on our arrival, point our nose up a bit and engage the engines.

"All right," I said. "Engines, do we have steam?"

Silence.

"Ben?" I prompted.

"Oh, shit, that's me, innit?" responded Sparrer. "'Ang on a mo…"

He set the two main engine telegraphs to 'Confirm status' and both pinged back to 'Engines ready.'

"Yeah, we're ready to go," he confirmed. "Sir," he added, belatedly.

"Engines, station holding. Signal ground crew to release cables. Are they clear? Okay, drop extra ballast. Helm, up five degrees. Engines, ahead one quarter…"

My one concern was hitting the mast, but I needn't have worried because we cleared it comfortably.

"Engines, ahead one half. Helm, take us slowly up to one thousand feet and head zero-two-five," I ordered. "Maintain half speed until the others are with us."

I checked the wind speed and direction, adjusted the bearing to zero-two-eight to compensate and watched as the other ships formed up on us: the grey-green bulk of 'Nessie' to our right, Charlie Cardington's more orthodox off-white Sparrowhawk on our left and the four French ships in line abreast behind us.

"Engines, ahead three-quarters," I ordered.

"Nice job," said my uncle. "Very well, you have the bridge. Just hold this bearing until you're relieved. If anything happens – anything at all – call me, do you understand?"

"Yes, sir," I replied, and my uncle smiled at me and disappeared up the ladder.

"Desk, call Rapp and see if they remember how to use the radio," I said.

Joe picked up the radio. "Excalibur calling Jean Rapp. Excalibur calling Jean Rapp. Do you receive me? Over," he said, demonstrating that he'd only learned how to use a radio by watching bad war films.

"Once is enough," I told him. "And you don't need to ask if they receive you, either. If they do, they'll answer, and if they don't, they won't. Keep it short."

After a few seconds – I guess they forgot about the 'speak' button again at first – a voice came back with "This is Jean Rapp. We hear you."

"Don't forget to say 'over' when you finish speaking," Joe reminded him. Anyway, we hear you perfectly. Can you hear me clearly? Over."

"We hear you clearly. Over."

"Okay, now tell them to turn the radio off until sunrise tomorrow," I said. "We need to conserve the batteries."

Joe did that and put the radio back on the desk, and really that was the last thing of note that happened for the remainder of my watch. I kept an eye on the wind gauges and made an occasional small course correction to compensate, but the other ships stayed in formation, which suggested that they were happy with my choice of heading. The Shetlands appeared below us and I did a final visual course correction as we flew over Unst, the northernmost island, and then it was just open sea beneath us.

The light began to go at around half-past five, and at that point my uncle returned to the bridge.

"I'd light the markers about now," he suggested to me.

I couldn't remember ever flying at night before, and so at first I didn't know what he was talking about.

"We're flying with other ships," he explained. "We need to show them where we are so that they don't collide with us, so we use coloured lights – oil-lamps with coloured glass. They're permanently mounted in the observation ports, so you've probably noticed them. All you need to do is to call Gondola Two and tell the duty Petty Officer to light the lamps."

"You heard the captain," I said to Joe. "Call the lamp geezer."

Joe did that, although he used the term 'petty officer' rather than 'geezer', which was probably just as well. Shortly after that I noticed lights appearing on the other ships: white on the nose of each, green on the port side of Caberféidh, blue on the starboard side of Sparrowhawk.

"Make sure you remember the colours," my uncle said. "Green to port, blue to starboard, white ahead and red astern. That way if you see another ship's light's at night you can visualize her position and direction. You'll also notice that the rest of the fleet will go into line astern shortly – that way all the helmsman of each ship has to do is to follow the red stern light of the ship in front."

A man in petty officer uniform came into the bridge and lit the lamps hanging above the chart table and the various desks. When they were all alight he saluted my uncle.

"All lights are burning," he reported.

"Thank you, Mr Stacey," replied my uncle.

We flew on for another half an hour or so. By now it was dark outside, and the only light I could see was the white nose light of Sparrowhawk, which had fallen in line behind us. I couldn't see anything at all ahead of us: clouds blocked the stars and there was no sign of the moon either, and I really didn't like the feeling of just sailing straight ahead at forty knots when I couldn't see what we were flying into. Logically I knew there was nothing there but empty sky, but it's a scary feeling to be moving ahead into absolute blackness. It was like walking through the tunnels at home, except that here I was responsible for an entire shipload of people who would die if I flew them into some unseen object.

Finally my uncle relieved me, and relieved is certainly what I felt. Okay, we might still hit something, but at least it wouldn't be my fault if we did.

"We've cleared the store on Deck Two as a cabin for your friends," my uncle told me. "You can use the officers' cabin, or stay with your friends if you prefer. Go and get something to eat and then you can decide, but make sure you come back and tell me, in case we need you during the night."

On long journeys the furnace in Gondola Two doubled as a galley: hotplates on top of it allowed hot food to be prepared, and there was a crew area close to the top of the gondola ladder that was equipped with tables and lightweight folding chairs. Of course the lack of space in the gondola prohibited any really complicated meals, but the stew the cooks had prepared on this occasion was hot and filling and tasted pretty good too, which was basically all I wanted.

The dining area was fairly warm because there was a heating tube connecting it to the gondola below, but once we'd finished eating and had made our way up to Deck Two we found that the rest of the ship wasn't very warm at all. The store-room that had been made available to us certainly wasn't very warm, even though one wall of it was against a steam gas envelope, which did provide a little faint warmth, and I thought it highly unlikely that anyone would be getting undressed tonight. There was just about enough room for eight thin mattresses, and there was a large pile of blankets and enough small pillows to go around. There was also a single oil lamp permanently attached to the ceiling, which Mr Stacey had presumably lit on his way around the ship. And that was all there was.

"Bloody 'ell, it's bleedin' parky in 'ere!" commented Sparrer. "Even the sewers woz 'otter than this!"

"Anyone fancy a game of strip poker?" I asked, which drew the expected reaction. "No, me neither. I'd suggest you grab a couple of blankets each and wrap yourselves up in them. You'll warm up a bit like that."

I grabbed a couple myself, turned out the lamp and went and lay down beside Wolfie, wrapping my blankets and his around both of us. It wasn't half as nice doing this fully dressed as when we were naked, but there really wasn't too much choice here: quite apart from the cold, we needed to stay dressed in case there was a sudden emergency during the night.

For the same reason Wolfie declined my offer to help him to remove his leg. He didn't like keeping it on in bed, but it made sense to do so here.

"Anyone know any good stories?" I asked, and for the next hour or so we told each other ghost stories. But eventually we ran out, and after that we settled down and tried to go to sleep.

It wasn't the best night's sleep I've ever had: I woke up two or three times, and when one of the crew came in to wake us up next morning I really wasn't feeling at my best. But at least the washrooms in a steam-powered æthership have hot water, and after a good wash I felt a bit better.

It was still dark when we reached the bridge, but that didn't stop us from taking over the watch. Mr Hall handed over to me officially and my watch took over the wheels and the various desks and we flew on into the darkness. Looking back past Gondola Two I could see a white light following us, so at least one of the other ships was still with us, but there wasn't anything else to look at outside.

Mr Hall stayed on the bridge at first, which was comforting, but once I'd made my first course correction he nodded to me and left me to get on with it.

Around a quarter past seven the first hint of light appeared in the east and as it grew I could see that there weren't quite as many clouds about today. Maybe we would have good weather, which would certainly make it easier to hunt for the meteor. On the other hand, the wind had veered round to the north, so it probably wasn't going to get any warmer.

Once I could see the sea below us I ordered the lamps to be extinguished, and shortly after that the other two British ships swung out to either side of us again. I couldn't see the French ships, though, so I asked Joe to call the Rapp to check that they were okay. There was no answer, which worried me a little, but I told myself that they had probably forgotten to turn the radio on. And when we tried again half an hour later they answered us, confirming that all four French ships were fine. Of course with no external points of reference they couldn't tell us exactly where they were, but they confirmed that they were flying on the same bearing as us, and so hopefully they wouldn't be too far away.

And then, shortly before eight o'clock, Wolfie spotted a line on the horizon off the starboard bow, and a few minutes later we could all see it without telescopes: we'd found a coastline. I got out the Norwegian charts that Admiral Faulkner had supplied, hoping that we'd be able to recognise a distinctive feature, although since the entire Norwegian coast is a mass of wiggly inlets and squiggly coastline I thought it might not be too easy to find anything unusual.

As we drew closer to land we saw that there were scores of islands off the coast, some quite large and some mere rocks, and the sheer number of these made identifying where we were difficult, especially since I wasn't completely confident that the charts were accurate.

"Helm, turn and follow the coast," I ordered. "Maybe we'll find some little fishing village that shows up on the map."

There were indeed some fishing villages here and there, but we couldn't be absolutely sure which was which until about fifteen minutes after we started following the coast. Then we found some large islands which did seem to be shown on the chart, and as we flew over them Wolfie handed me his telescope and pointed off to starboard.

"See that town? I think that's on the map."

I looked through the telescope and saw quite a large place with a wide inlet immediately south of it. Sure enough, there was a corresponding town on the map.

"That's Bod… how do you pronounce an O with a line through it?" I asked.

"Like a German O with an umlaut, I think. They use the same letter in Denmark."

"Okay, it's Bodø," I said, trying to sound the last letter properly. "That big rectangular inlet south of it has to be this one, see?" I pointed to the chart. "And in that case we're a bit too far east. Helm, new heading three-two-five and engines, full ahead both. And if the French still get there first we'll say that we were scouting around for Russian shipping."

Caberféidh and Sparrowhawk followed us onto the new heading. It was around sixty miles from Bodø to the Lofotens, so they were visible on the horizon inside half an hour, though it took us a bit longer than that actually to reach them. We still hadn't seen any trace of other ætherships, but as far as I was concerned that was good news: any ship that we saw here was just as likely to be Russian as French.

My uncle came onto the bridge when we were still about twenty miles short of our destination.

"Are we there yet?" he asked me, sounding exactly like a back-seat teenager.

"Almost," I said. "That's Mosken… Moskeneso… our destination, dead ahead, however you're supposed to pronounce it."

"Moskenesøya," said my uncle, sounding irritatingly sure of himself, though of course there were no native speakers around to tell him he was saying it wrong. "I can see Mac and Charlie are with us, but where are the French?"

"They were fine at sunrise," I said. "We can find out, if you like. Desk, give the Rapp a call and ask for an update."

"They estimate arrival in about forty-five minutes," Joe reported. "They hit the coast a bit too far south, the same as we did, but they know where they are now."

"Excellent," said my uncle. "So let's go and see if we can find our meteor, then. According to the admiral it's here, close to the north end of Moskenesøya. We're lucky it's on one of the flatter parts of the island, because we'd have had a real job landing if it had been in the mountains…"

We flew on until we were over land once more. From a distance the islands look like a long peninsula jutting out into the ocean, and it isn't until you get close that you realise it's actually a collection of islands that are almost locked together. Our destination was close to the northernmost point of the southernmost island, and to get there we had to fly over most of the island and part of the adjoining one. Here and there we could see small villages, but nothing large enough to be called a town, and virtually every place we found was right on the coast.

Finally we drew close to the point where the meteor was supposed to have impacted.

"Engines, half ahead both. Helm, take us down to six hundred feet, but be aware of the mountains to port. Semaphore, signal the other ships and tell them to take a wider station and commence searching," ordered my uncle, and the semaphore crew lowered the signalling arm and transmitted the message, first to Sparrowhawk and then to Caberféidh. Wolfie and I took up positions on each side of the gondola and started scanning the ground beneath us.

I was expecting to see a huge crater and couldn't understand how we could fail to spot something half a mile across, but when Sparrowhawk actually found it and signalled us to come and see I saw that this hole was only a few metres across.

"Is that it?" I asked Tim, in disbelief.

"That's it – or part of it, at least. Why, were you expecting something bigger?"

"Well, yes."

He shook his head. "We'll see for sure when we get down there, but if it had been a lot bigger it would have obliterated this entire end of the island."

"Can we land here?" he asked my uncle, sticking to German. "I'd like to make a start at checking it out."

My uncle looked uncertain. "The wind's getting up," he said. "Yes, we can probably land, but we won't be able to stay down for too long. How long do you need?"

"Half an hour should be enough for me to do a fast scan. I suppose I could try drilling out a small sample and then run the tests here, but it would be a lot better if I could do the tests on the ground. That way if I don't get conclusive results I'll be able to take another sample straight away"

"I don't think we'll be able to stay that long. We can't risk getting caught up in storm clouds, and with the mountains around here we won't be able to stay underneath them either. We know where it is now, so we can come back once the wind drops."

"That might be a while," said Tim, looking at the clouds gathering in the distance. "Look, we don't want to waste too much time here, do we? We want to get in and out as quickly as we can before someone reports seeing us to the Russians. So drop me off now, I'll get the tests done, and when you come back we'll be able to start digging straight away, assuming it's suitable, of course."

"I can't just leave you here on your own!"

"Then maybe Leo or Wolfie can come with me? Give us a tent to shelter in if the weather gets really bad, and we'll get the tests done and be ready to start work as soon as you get back."

"Well, it's true that I'd prefer not to waste time, and you're unlikely to run into anyone out here, so if you're absolutely sure..?"

"It's why I came," he said. "Just give me a moment to collect my equipment…"

He headed off up the ladder.

"You don't have to go, Leo," my uncle told me. "I can send a couple of crewmen if you'd prefer."

I shook my head. "He'll need someone who speaks French or German," I pointed out. "And you can probably spare me more easily than a trained man. Take us down and I'll go and find a tent from the stores…. You did bring some tents, I suppose?"

He nodded. "I didn't know that the French would be bringing troops with them, and since I didn't know how long it would take to dig the thing out I brought enough for a complete watch to sleep on the ground if necessary. I'll admit that I was expecting something bigger, too."

I went and collected my bag and then a tent and a roll of blankets from the store, and when I got back to the bridge I found that we were dropping slowly. The wind was gusting a bit, making the landing much more difficult, but my uncle had found a low ridge running north to south not too far from the impact site, and that gave a little shelter from the north-easterly wind.

"I'm not going to try mooring," my uncle told me. "Once we get low enough I want you to use the ladder, and we'll climb again as soon as you're clear. We'll probably try landing here when we come back unless the wind shifts, in which case we might have to use the other side of the ridge. In any case you just stay here until we come for you, all right?"

Predictably my friends wanted to come with me, but I told them we'd be fine.

"Once Tim's done his tests we'll probably get bored," I said. "You'll be better off here. Besides, there's only room in the tent for two."

"Three," said Wolfie. "And don't even think of arguing."

I took one look at his face and decided not to argue – and in any case I thought I'd be glad of his company.

Tim returned to the bridge carrying a large bag and we waited by the gondola door as the ship sank closer to the ground.

"Get ready," said my uncle.

I opened the door and unrolled the rope ladder that was anchored above the top of it, and when the foot of the ladder was just above the ground I dropped the tent and blankets, hoisted my bag onto my back and scrambled down the ladder. That wasn't as easy as it sounds, because there was still some wind blowing me about, but eventually I reached the foot of the ladder, trod on the bottom rung to stabilise it and called on the others to follow me. Tim scrambled down easily, but Wolfie had to take it a bit more slowly. Finally he reached the bottom, at which I released the ladder and called to my uncle that we were safely down. The ship began to rise once more, the ladder was pulled back inside and the door closed.

"Come on," I said to Wolfie, "let's find somewhere for the tent. The way those clouds are building I reckon it's going to rain before very long."

As we'd approached the impact site I'd noticed a kink in the ridge, and a short distance south of where we were we found a small spur sticking out of the main ridge. By putting the tent at its southern foot we had some protection from the wind from the east and from the north, so as long as the wind didn't change direction completely we'd be comfortable enough. Wolfie and I left our bags in the tent and then the three of us walked to the impact site a couple of hundred metres away.

Once again I was surprised by how small the crater was - in fact close to it looked even smaller.

"Surely you're not going to get enough material out of that to do anything with?" I said.

"You'd be surprised," Tim told me. "What we're looking for is a catalyst, remember, and that means that comparatively tiny amounts can have a major effect on a reaction. Besides, this won't be quite all there is - I would guess that it broke up before it hit the ground. Probably some of it landed in the sea, but there'll be other bits scattered about, probably smaller than this one. Have you got a compass on you?"

I had - it was in my jacket pocket. I took it out and watched the needle swing around to point at the crater.

"Good," said Tim. "The material is highly magnetic, so we should be able to find it using a compass. Now I'll get a sample so that we can see what we're dealing with."

He scrambled down into the crater, took what looked like a small drill from his bag and set to work.

"Make it quick," I said. "Any time now there's going to be a lot of rain."

"Five minutes," he replied.

The rain started after three, but he stuck to his task until he had enough material to be tested, and then he climbed out of the crater once more and we ran for the tent. It took us less than a minute to get there, but by the time we arrived our coats were very wet, and so were our shoes and the legs of our trousers. We scrambled into the tent, taking our shoes off and putting them in the bit at the end that was outside the tent but still under the flysheet, and then removing our coats. There wasn't enough room to spread them out to dry, so instead we piled them at the other end of the tent out of the way. Then I took my trousers and socks off.

"This really isn't the place for naturism," Tim pointed out.

"No, I know, but I don't think wet feet are a good idea. We're not going to be going anywhere for a while, and I reckon a dry blanket would be better than wet socks."

"Sounds sensible to me," agreed Wolfie, and he too removed his trousers and sock - he only had one, of course – even though his long boots had ensured that his trousers hardly got wet at all. Then we sat next to each other and stared at Tim.

His first reaction was to swear – at least, I think it was swearing, but I can't really understand everything he says in his dialect, and the only word I understood was 'kopf' or 'head' – in an exasperated tone of voice.

"Suppose I'm happy as I am?" he asked in rather more standard German when he'd finished with the abuse.

"If you're going to be working with your head by the entrance, you're going to be sticking your wet feet into our faces," I said. "And obviously if you catch flu you'll be no good to us, either."

He gave a theatrical sigh. "Well, if you absolutely bloody insist," he said, pausing to give us a chance to change our minds, and then, when neither of us said anything, he sighed again, shook his head but still removed his trousers and socks. Then he turned his back on us and started unpacking some of the kit from his bag.

I grabbed a blanket and thrust it at him, and then took another and wrapped it round myself and Wolfie, doing my best to keep out of Tim's way. We had no idea what exactly he was doing and he didn't bother to explain, but for the next forty minutes or so he played about with a little stove, added scrapings from the meteor to various liquids, and generally fiddled about with stuff. We watched with interest at first, then with less interest, and finally we stopped watching at all, preferring to lie on our backs and listen to the rain beating on the canvas. It didn't seem to be easing off at all.

Finally Tim stopped what he was doing and packed his kit away. He backed into the tent proper and sealed it, wrapped his blanket around himself and lay down beside us.

"Well?" I asked. What's the verdict?"

"Better than I'd hoped, to be honest. If the structure is consistent we will get at least fifty grams of the catalyst from it."

"Fifty grams? Is that all?"

"Well, if we can find more of the meteor we'll get more of the catalyst. But you're really not getting it: fifty grams would be an amazing result, and we could use it to produce quite a lot of armour. See, my father didn't think the Russians were getting the best results – he was fairly sure that different proportions would give a stronger structure that would weigh even less, and if we can collect even half of this meteor… anyway, it's probably best if I wait until we get back to the laboratory before I commit myself too much, but the important thing is that we have definitely found what we're looking for."

Well, that sounded like good news. Provided that the storm blew over fairly soon we might even get the bulk of the collection work done today, even if the freighter with the digging equipment was held up. I sat up, opened my bag and pulled out the radio.

"Leo to Excalibur, over," I said, and waited ten seconds before trying again.

"Excalibur to Leo," came Joe's voice, eventually. "Are you okay?"

"Yes, we're fine. Tell my uncle the meteor is good, over."

"He's happy to hear it, but we're not going to be able to get back to you just yet. There's a strong wind here and we're more or less having to go with it, so we're being driven away from you. We'll get back to you as soon as we can, over."

"Did you find the French? Over."

"Yes, they're close to us now, and they found the surface ships. They're still heading your way – the surface ships, that is – and they should reach the island in two or three hours. Over."

"Great! Anyway, we're fine. It's still very wet and windy here, but we're in the tent and we don't have to go anywhere. We'll see you when you get back. Out."

I put the radio back into my bag but left it turned on, just in case. Then I removed my jacket and folded it up to use as a pillow.

"Good Idea," said Wolfie. However, the amount of braid and buttons on his jacket made it a bit uncomfortable as a pillow, so in the end we put my jacket on top of his and shared it. Tim did the same with his own jacket, and once again we lay quietly for a while, listening to the wind and rain. I supposed it could have been worse: at least it wasn't snowing – in fact it wasn't even that cold, and we were comfortable enough in the tent.

Shortly after midday Wolfie sat up, delved into his bag and produced a loaf of bread and a large chunk of cheese, which we ate hungrily – we hadn't got round to eating breakfast before we left the ship. He'd brought a couple of water-bottles too.

"I should have thought of that," I admitted. "I'm supposed to be in charge. I suppose that shows that I'm not really ready for command yet."

"No, it shows that you need a good First Mate to take care of things for you," said Wolfie. "We're supposed to be a team, aren't we? But I bet you're glad you let me come with you now, aren't you?"

"I don't think I could have stopped you," I pointed out. "But I'll happily admit that I'm glad you're here."

Once we'd eaten we lay down again, and I actually dozed off for a while, probably because I hadn't slept too well the previous night. When I woke up the rain had eased off a bit but the wind still sounded quite strong. Wolfie seemed to be asleep, but Tim was sitting up drinking from one of the bottles.

"What time is it?" I asked him – my watch was in my trouser pocket and I couldn't be bothered to retrieve it.

"About three o'clock," he said. "It's still pretty wet and windy out there, but just before you woke up I thought I heard voices. I was going to put my head outside, but then I decided I'd simply imagined it. Would you like a drink?"

He passed me the bottle and I took a quick drink, but before I could hand the bottle back I heard something outside the tent myself, and a moment later the tent opened and a boy of around our own age looked in.

"Hej!" he said. "Kan jeg komme inn?"

Well, I can't speak Norwegian, but that was easy enough to understand.

"Ja, komm herein," I replied, hoping that the German was close enough to Norwegian to be understood. He gave me a broad smile displaying lots of very white teeth and then turned and spoke to somebody outside the tent, and somehow what he said didn't sound like Norwegian. I couldn't make out the reply, but then the boy gave a one-word answer, which sounded like 'Kharasho' and I realised that we might be in trouble here: Joe had taught us maybe a dozen words of Russian, and one of those was 'Kharasho', which means 'Very well'.

"So," said the boy, coming into the tent, "Hva gjør ni her?"

"I'm sorry," I said in German, "but we don't speak Norwegian."

"I see," he said, also in German. "So what are you, then? Are you English?"

If I hadn't heard that one word of Russian I might well have answered that truthfully, but as it was I thought it would be a really bad idea.

"Why would we be English?" I asked.

"Why would you be German? Either way you're a long way from home."

"I suppose that's true. We were in Oslo until recently. Right now we're doing a bit of walking, and we thought it would be interesting to see the other end of the country."

"That sounds reasonable, I suppose. I just wondered if you came from the æthership that flew over here this morning."

"Oh, we saw that one, too – around mid-morning. It was over the hills to the west of here… you mean that was English? We thought it was Russian."

"Nope. Russian ships have an eagle on the front."

"I know, but we only saw this one from the side. So what was it doing here?"

"I've no idea, but I'd like to find out. Anyway, tell me more about how you come to be living in Norway."

"Well, we used to live near Berlin – at least, I did. My parents decided it would be better to get out of Prussia when the fighting started again – of course I was only a little kid then. They moved to Oslo, and we've lived there ever since."

"So how is it that you can't speak Norwegian?"

"Well, I don't go to school – at least, not a normal one. There are a lot of German families where we live, and so we have our own sort of home school. Besides, most Norwegians seem to understand German – at least, in Oslo they do."

"I see. And what is your name?"

"Lukas Böttcher," I said. "This is my friend Klaus Schmidt, and that…"

"Thomas Thalmann," interrupted Tim. "Hello. I'm from Freiburg, and I only met these two recently, because we only moved to Norway a few months ago. Do you live around here?"

"I don't think anyone lives around here except for a few old fishermen," the boy said. "That's why we were surprised to see your tent. We were just passing through, sort of."

"So what do we call you?" I asked.

"People call me 'The Black Flash'," he said, striking a theatrical pose. "Actually my name is Pavel Mikhailovitch, but my friends call me Pasha."

"So you're Russian?"

"Good guess," he said, giving me that unnaturally wide smile once more.

"Wow – I don't think I've ever met a Russian before. But I thought Russians all had three names?"

"They do, but you really don't need to worry about my family name. So now the question is, what are we going to do with you?"

"Why do you need to do anything? We're just on holiday, and we're really not interested in anything you might be doing round here."

"Well, even if that's true – and I'm not convinced, to be honest – we can't just leave you wandering around in a wild place like this. Anything could happen to you. I think we'd better take you with us. We'll find somewhere a bit more comfortable, and then we can have a proper chat. I don't suppose any of you are orphans, are you?"

"Why would you want to know that?"

"Well, I collect orphans. What's great about them is that if anything happens to them – like if there's a nasty accident, for example – nobody worries about them, and so nobody does anything about it. See, I'm a scientist, and I often use orphans to help me with my experiments, because if they die, nobody cares. Very useful things, orphans."

I stared at him, wondering if he really was insane or if he was just trying to scare us. Either way I was starting to think we were in deep trouble here.

"So you'd better get dressed," he went on. "And make it quick: if you're not outside in two minutes we'll start shooting the tent." He grinned once more and went outside.

We looked at each other and got dressed as quickly as we could. I grabbed the radio and switched the setting so that the response was only on the earphone and not on speaker. I realised that Pasha was probably listening outside and so instead of the usual announcement I said "N13" (the postcode of Palmer's Green), "Arthur's Sword, Mayday, Mayday, sons of Stalin." I didn't dare repeat it or stay to listen for an answer, but I pressed the lock to keep the 'transmit' button open and shoved the radio to the bottom of my bag. Obviously nobody in this world would know who Stalin was, but Joe would, and he'd be able to warn my uncle that we'd run into some Russians.

"Ten seconds," called Pasha. "Nine, eight, seven…"

I scrambled outside, my laces still undone, and was dismayed to see eight adults in Russian uniforms pointing rifles at the tent.

"Hurry up!" I yelled in German. Tim crawled out dragging his bag behind him, and then Wolfie's head appeared.

"Three, two…" said Pasha,

I grabbed Wolfie and heaved, and his feet had just about cleared the tent when Pasha shouted "Fire!" and the soldiers did so. Eight rifles being fired a couple of yards away make a hell of a noise, and when I recovered and the smoke cleared I saw the tent was now thoroughly ventilated.

"Just in time!" said the Russian boy, grinning at me again. "I think I'm going to like you. We're definitely going to have a lot of fun together… well, I'm going to have fun, anyway. You, I'm not so sure.

"Now, as they've just demonstrated, my men know how to use a rifle and they can hit a tent at a range of two metres. They can also hit a boy at a range of fifty metres, so it would be a really bad idea for you to try running off. So come along quietly and you'll be just fine. Well, for the next hour or so, anyway…"

He clapped me on the back in a comradely fashion and indicated which way he wanted us to go, his soldiers formed up around us, and we set off. I was feeling more than merely anxious. But if our situation looked worrying then, it was going to look a great deal worse before the day ended…

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