Excelsior

by David Clarke

Chapter 17

My socks, trousers and coat hadn't dried out very well and the rain was still coming down, even if it wasn't as heavy as it had been before, so all in all I wouldn't have chosen to go out for a walk at that point. But when people are pointing guns at you there isn't a lot of choice about it. Pasha led us off towards the south, which at least meant that he didn't see the crater, which was north of the little ridge next to which we'd pitched the tent, and I decided that I wasn't going to tell him about it, whatever he threatened me with. And from the friendly way he chatted to me while we were walking I found it hard to believe that he was actually going to threaten us at all.

"It's surprising how warm it is up here, isn't it?" he said. "It's warmer here than it is in Moscow, which is more than twelve degrees further south, or Petersburg. We're on our way to Romanov-na-Murmanje, which is about the same latitude as this, but it's already below freezing there."

It took me a moment to remember that this was the Imperial Russian name for Murmansk, and if that was where Pasha and his men were heading, I really wanted to persuade him to let us go before they left, because I definitely didn't want to find myself locked up in Russia's northernmost city. I decided that being friendly would probably be the best way to achieve this.

"That's one of the reasons why we wanted to come here," I said. "It's actually warmer here than it is in Oslo. It's something to do with ocean currents, apparently. Have you been here before?"

"No. Actually this is my first time in Norway. My father wanted to get rid of me for a bit, so he sent me on a tour of the frontier regions."

"Why would he want to get rid of you?"

"Oh, I'm a bit of a stain on the family's honour." He grinned at me. "Like I said before, I tend to play a bit rough, and while it doesn't matter too much if the odd serf gets damaged, when it happens to the sons of landowners people sometimes kick up a stink about it. I can't imagine why… anyway, my father decided that it would do me good to spend some time seeing what actually happens in the countries we govern. 'Maybe you'll learn what duty means', he said."

"And have you?"

"I already knew. Don't get me wrong: I might like to have fun in some rather unorthodox ways, but my country always comes first. Always. If I thought you were a threat to our security I wouldn't hesitate to kill you, or anyone else who threatened us. Of course, if I can use my more, er, exotic hobbies in the service of my country, so much the better. After all, there's no reason why you can't enjoy doing your duty, is there?"

"I'm sure there isn't," I agreed.

"There you are, then. I just hope a chance to combine business with pleasure comes my way. In the meantime I'm flying patrols along the frontiers and doing mundane things like delivering the mail. It's not very exciting, but it is a chance to see some different scenery."

"And have you got your own æthership?"

"Not officially. It's something I'd like to do, though. Of course, I'd want to do it as a privateer, rather than in a navy ship. When you're a privateer you can go where you want and do whatever you feel like, and you get to serve your country at the same time. I think I'd really enjoy that. Whether my father will let me is another matter, though – I think he expects me to become a soldier, like my boring brothers. But I'd hate that – lots of mud and blood and smoke, and most of the time you have to guess what's going on. I mean, I'm sure I could do it: most of the men in our family do some soldiering, and my father's been at it for about thirty years. But there aren't even any decent campaigns on at the moment. In the west we seem happy just to sit and wave at the Froggies across the Rhine, and in the south we haven't moved for years. I have heard a whisper that we're going to have another go at India shortly, but I expect it's just rubbish, like most of the rumours that go around."

"I don't think you ought to be telling me stuff like that," I pointed out. "Even if it's just a rumour it's probably still supposed to be secret."

"So who are you going to tell? Some German nobody in Oslo? He won't care – why should he? Even if you swam to England and yelled it into the king's ear he wouldn't do anything. The English don't have an army to speak of. True, their navy is a bloody nuisance, but it wouldn't be much use in the Himalayas, would it? And the Frogs wouldn't stick their necks out for the Indians, either. But, like I said, it's probably just crap anyway. And even if it isn't, I don't fancy slogging my way over some stupidly high mountains and then hacking through a jungle full of snakes and tigers and stuff. That's no way to fight. Give me an æthership and a decent crew and I'll be happy to show my father what I can do. So – and assuming for a moment that I decide not to kill you or keep you – what are you going to do when you grow up?"

"I really don't know," I said. "I don't even live in my own country, and since I can't speak Norwegian there isn't a lot I can do here. I'll probably have to go back to Prussia to find work."

"Maybe I could get you a job working for us?"

"I don't think so," I said. "Nothing personal, but it seems a bit dishonourable to work for the people who are occupying your country."

"The word is 'practical', not 'dishonourable'. Plenty of Germans are working for us. Besides, if stupid people can't accept reality and try to commit sabotage, it simply makes life difficult for all their fellow citizens. We have to clamp down and restrict movement and shoot people. If everyone inside the Empire simply accepted things as they are, life would be a lot easier for everyone."

By now we had walked around the southern end of the ridge and were heading east. We crossed a small wooden bridge that took us over a stream, and five minutes later I could see the sea ahead of us. We crossed one more low crest, and there, down a gentle slope on the far side, was a hamlet of half a dozen small stone houses and a rather rickety-looking jetty, partly sheltered by a crumbling harbour wall, with a grey warship tied up at it. And at one end of the village street there was a large æthership moored to a post and pegged down

"When did you get here?" I asked.

"Just before midday. It was blowing a gale, too - I don't mind admitting I was worried. But the captain got us down safely. Apparently he's used this place before – he does the Bergen to Romanov run regularly. Anyway, that's how we knew you were there, because we caught a glimpse of your tent as we were on the approach. I thought it was an odd place for a hike, so once the rain eased a bit I thought I'd come and see who you were."

"So how do you know about the English æthership? It must have gone long before you got here."

"That was the destroyer. They put in here because of the weather as soon as the wind started to get up, and one of their crew spotted the English ship. In fact the man thought he saw more than one – he said there was another one in the distance – but that seems a bit unlikely. Still, I can't imagine that even one English ship would come to a desolate chunk of rock like this, so maybe he was right. Perhaps you'll be able to enlighten us about that."

I shook my head. "I only saw one," I told him.

"Well, we'll see. Let's get under cover, and then we can talk properly."

We walked down the slope into the hamlet. As we got closer I realised that the place was uninhabited: the houses were in a poor state of repair, with broken panes of glass in some cases, and tiles missing, and in one case the house had partially collapsed.

"This place has been empty for quite a long time," Pasha told me. "We're a bit too near the north coast, and it can be very stormy here, especially in the winter. Further south there's more shelter, and the sea between the islands and the mainland is much less dangerous, so most of the locals do their fishing there. But of course you probably know that already."

"We can't speak Norwegian, remember?" I told him. "And not too many people here speak German. We've done our shopping by pointing."

We reached the hamlet and Pasha led us into the semi-collapsed house. The main room at one end was intact, though the windows had been boarded up.

"Would you mind putting your hands behind your backs?" he asked, and when we obliged he snapped a pair of handcuffs onto each of us.

"Thank you. Don't worry, we'll take you somewhere a bit warmer shortly, but I need to make some preparations first. And in case you're wondering, yes, there will be soldiers outside, so even if you manage to get out… anyway, you get the picture."

He grinned at me once more, and once again I was astonished by just how wide that smile was.

"You know, I've enjoyed playing along with your bullshit," he told me. "But there's a time and a place for that sort of thing, and you've just passed it. When we talk next I'll expect the truth, starting with your real name. And don't try pretending you're German, either: I know you're not. See you later!"

He turned and went out, closing and locking the door behind him and leaving us in the dark.

"Now what?" asked Tim.

"Now we wait," I replied. "My uncle speaks German well enough, so he knows where we are – in a ruined hamlet on the coast east of where we left the tent. There's a Russian warship – a small one – here, and a Russian æthership, but no other Russians apart from their crews."

"How does he know that?"

"Because the radio is turned on and transmitting – at least, as long as the battery hasn't run out, it is. The only issue now is how far away he got blown and whether he can get back here before nightfall. I hope you're getting this," I added, switching to English for the benefit of Joe or whoever else was manning the radio on Excalibur.

"Do you think he was serious about killing people?" asked Wolfie.

"Probably not," I said. "I mean, he's no older than we are, and if he'd really done that I'm sure he'd be locked away. I'm sure he was just trying to wind us up."

We waited in the derelict house for around twenty minutes, and then the door opened once more and Pasha came in.

"Sorry to keep you," he said to me. "Come on, I've got somewhere a bit warmer for you. You other two, stay here – I'll be along for you shortly."

He waited just outside the door. I couldn't see that there was anything to be gained by not going with him – after all, I was feeling more than a little cold, probably because I was still wearing wet clothes. So I followed him out into the street and along it to another house that appeared to be in better condition. This one was also divided into two main rooms, and the larger room was definitely warmer: there was no furniture in it at all except for a table against one wall, but there was a brazier burning in the middle of the room.

"I always think I ought to put a couple of pokers in the brazier," he said. "Somehow the sight of a couple of hot pokers seems to make people want to talk to me. But I'm sure such crude nonsense isn't necessary with someone like you, is it? Turn around and I'll take the cuffs off for you."

I did that and he removed the handcuffs and passed them to one of the crewmen who had followed us into the room. Two of them were carrying machine guns and had taken up position on either side of the door. The third one appeared to be an officer, and he and Pasha spoke to each other for a couple of minutes. Of course I didn't understand a word of it, but it was clear that Pasha was giving the orders. After a bit the officer nodded, backed out of the room and closed the door behind him.

"Right, then," said Pasha. "Now let's get a little better acquainted, hmm? To start with I'd like you to empty your pockets onto the table – and mind you don't miss anything: if we find anything in your pockets later I'll send for a poker after all!" And there was that dazzling grin once more.

I suppose I should have seen this coming, but somehow I hadn't. There wasn't anything in my pockets that had my name on, but there were some English banknotes in my wallet and some English coins loose in my pocket. But there was no avoiding it, so I put my wallet on the table along with my pen, the compass, a handful of mint humbugs, my watch, my keys, my comb and the whistle I carried for signalling by night. Finally I pulled the coins from my trouser pocket and chucked my handkerchief nonchalantly on top of them.

"Excellent. And now your bag."

There wasn't a lot in my bag, but while I was fishing out the mallet and the spare tent pegs I managed to turn the radio off and move the channel selector. Then I put the radio on the table with the rest.

"What the hell might that be?" asked Pasha.

"I've no idea. It belongs to my friend. He's keen on geology, and it's supposed to analyse the ground or something. He's got a lot of kit like that – you'll see when he empties his own bag."

"Very well. And now you can take your clothes off. Put them on the table and then step back into that corner. And if there is anything still stuck in a pocket, this is your last chance to tell me about it."

Unenthusiastically I removed my coat and laid it on the table. Then I removed my jacket, shoes, trousers, socks, shirt and vest. I kept my underpants on. Then I stepped into the corner. Pasha said something to one of the soldiers – presumably 'cover him' or something, because the man shifted his machine gun to point in my general direction – and then crossed the room to the table and began to look through my clothes, checking every pocket carefully.

"Sensible," he commented when he came up empty. "So now let's see who you really are."

He picked up the wallet and opened it, fishing out the banknotes inside.

"Well, goodness me," he said, grinning once again. "It's His Britannic Majesty King James the Fifth. How on earth did he find his way onto a German banknote? And, oh look, he's on all of them! After all, these must be German notes, because they're definitely not Norwegian, and obviously a German boy couldn't have English money in his wallet… Is there anything you'd like to tell me?"

"Not really," I said.

"Fair enough. Stand up against the wall and spread out your arms."

I wondered if he was going to have me shot out of hand. I didn't think so – after all, he didn't need me to stand in a particular position: all he had to do was tell the nearest soldier to shoot me where I stood. But I was definitely scared by now, so I did what he told me to without arguing.

Making sure not to get between me and the soldier, Pasha handcuffed my right wrist to a thick metal ring set into the wall, and then came right around the room – again, to avoid blocking the field of fire – and cuffed my left wrist to another ring on my other side. There seemed to be several of these rings around the room. I don't know what their original purpose was – perhaps nets were suspended between them to dry, or something – but Pasha had found an alternative use for them now.

Next he pulled a large knife from his belt and used it to cut off my underwear.

"Next time I tell you to do something, it means I want you to do it," he told me. "Not some of it, or most of it, but all of it. Please don't forget that. This is the only time the consequences won't be extremely painful."

He stepped back and eyed me up and down.

"How old are you?" he asked.

"Fourteen."

"Really?" He looked at my genitals and gave me another dazzling smile, and then he turned on his heels, said something to the man on the left, and went out with the other one following him. They came back a couple of minutes later with Wolfie.

"You do speak German, I hope?" he said to Wolfie. "Sadly, my English is rather limited."

"I am German," Wolfie replied.

"Forgive me if I tell you that I've heard that one before. Please push your friend's stuff up to the far end of the table and then empty your pockets."

Of course, the money in Wolfie's pocket was English as well, a fact which made Pasha smile knowingly. But when he told Wolfie to undress and Wolfie removed his greatcoat, the sight of his white military uniform clearly came as a surprise.

"Well, I know you want me to believe that you're German," said Pasha, "but isn't this overdoing it a bit? Where the hell did you get that uniform?"

"He's a bit slow," I said, hoping to protect Wolfie's identity. "He likes dressing up."

"Is that true?"

"Well, I'm not slow," said Wolfie, glowering at me. "But I do like uniforms, and when I saw this one in the militaria shop I just had to have it."

"You bought this in a militaria shop? Pull the other one – it's a perfect fit!"

"Well, obviously I had to have it tailored to fit me. You don't think they actually make generals' uniforms in my size, do you?"

"They might. I've got some fairly exalted uniforms which were made especially for me. So where was this supposed shop, then?"

"Oslo."

"Oslo. You bought this Prussian Brigadier-General's uniform in a second-hand shop in Oslo."

"That's right."

"You must think I'm completely stupid. All right, get the rest of your clothes off and then go and stand next to your friend."

"Please could you help me with my left boot? I can't do it myself – you'll see why in a moment."

Pasha spoke to one of the soldiers, and the man handed his gun to Pasha and came to help Wolfie remove his left boot. Once it was off Wolfie thanked him and removed his trousers.

"Ah," said Pasha. "Yes, I can see why you needed help. How did that happen?"

I had a bad fall," Wolfie told him. "It smashed my leg up so badly they had to take it off."

"You have my sympathy. Still, if you like I can cut the other one off as well – at least then you'll have a matched pair again! Now take the rest off – all of it – and go and stand next to your friend."

Wolfie didn't try to keep his underwear on – I suppose seeing me naked indicated fairly clearly that this was inevitable. He came and stood on my right, and a few seconds later he was cuffed: his left hand was cuffed to the same ring as my right, and his right to another one further along the wall.

Once again Pasha and one of the guards went out and this time they came back with Tim. He took one look at us and emptied his pockets without an argument. His wallet proved to contain not only English money but a couple of French banknotes too.

"Stranger and stranger," mused Pasha, contemplating the portrait of Napoleon VII. "Naturally you're a German too?"

"Of course," said Tim.

"Of course," echoed Pasha. "Very well. Take your clothes off and go and stand with the others."

"Is that really necessary?" asked Tim.

"No, not at all. If you prefer I can just have you shot straight away. You only have to say."

"I think I'd prefer to get undressed."

"I thought you might. Get on with it, then."

A couple of minutes later Tim was cuffed to the wall to my left. Pasha then stepped back to the table and opened Tim's rock-testing kit.

"What's this, then?" he asked.

"I'm interested in geology," Tim told him. "That kit will tell me what sort of rock we're standing on, and that in turn tells me a bit about the history – well, the prehistory, really – of these islands."

"Told you," I couldn't resist saying.

"Yes, you did. You also told me you were German and on a walking holiday, and since those statements are blatantly untrue, you'll forgive me if I don't immediately decide to believe anything else you tell me."

"What makes you think I'm not German?" I asked.

"Your grammar. You have an impressive accent, but every now and again you make a little grammatical slip-up, enough to indicate that you're not a native speaker. An incorrect case or a wrong gender, that sort of thing. I know I do the same thing myself. These two… no mistakes so far, although they haven't said much yet, but I'm keeping an open mind. But you, definitely not. You're English, aren't you?"

I shrugged, as best I could with my arms in that position.

"Oh, good," said Pasha, flashing his perfect teeth once more. "I'm going to get to play some games!"

He turned to one of the soldiers and spoke to him for a few seconds, and the soldier nodded and left the room. Pasha and the other soldier then picked up the table and put it down next to the brazier in front of us. The soldier returned to his position by the door while Pasha sat on the table facing us, swinging his legs.

"Torture," he said, happily. "It's an interesting concept, isn't it? Usually the very thought of it is enough to make people talk. Did you know that in the fifteen-hundreds in England they used to take prisoners to have a look at the rack the day before they were due to be questioned? They were then locked up overnight to think about it. The majority decided to talk without the rack actually needing to be used at all, which saved a lot of effort all round and still reached the same conclusion.

"Now I'm sure you're expecting me to produce a couple of pokers at this point and stick them in the brazier for a bit, and I suppose I could do that, but – as I said earlier – that's really a very crude method…"

The door opened and the second soldier returned, accompanied by a boy of around fifteen in a baggy red shirt. He was carrying a glass bottle about five inches tall.

"Personally I find this far more effective," said Pasha, taking the bottle and a long pipette from the boy and setting them on the table. "It's concentrated sulphuric acid. Its big advantage over the poker is that it can be used internally, as I'll be only too happy to demonstrate when I come back. Right now I'm going for a bite of supper, but when I come back I'm going to ask you some questions, and I really do advise you to answer them honestly. Think about it while I'm gone."

He stood up, gave me another big smile and left the room, the boy and the two soldiers going with him. The door closed behind them.

"Is he serious?" asked Wolfie.

"I'm not sure. It could all be an act and that bottle could be full of water, but I don't think so. There's something about him that makes me think he's capable of doing it. Did you hear that bit about him having some special uniforms? That would suggest he's a noble, and if so perhaps he is free to do what he wants. And the way he spoke to that officer - if he's in charge, nobody's going to stop him. I think we might have to tell him something. Can either of you think of a good reason for a British æthership to be here?"

But they couldn't, and neither could I. I supposed that we could claim it was a reconnaissance flight, but this was hardly an area of enormous strategic importance, and in any case reconnaissance wouldn't explain what the three of us were doing on the ground in a tent. So would it matter if we told him about the meteor? After all, they knew about their value already, and the raid on Thann proved that they also knew that we knew. On the other hand, I didn't want to make them a present of this meteor, and it was essential that they didn't find out who Tim was. I decided that I'd try not to talk – after all, maybe he really was bluffing…

When Pasha came back an hour or so later it was getting dark outside. This time he was accompanied by two soldiers and two boys, the crop-haired older one who had produced the acid and a younger boy of about twelve who was carrying a camera. The younger boy came in wearing a shin-length blue coat and a fur hat, but the brazier was still warm and pretty soon he removed his hat and coat, revealing that he was wearing a baggy red shirt with a belt, like the older boy, underneath. Both had short curved swords attached to their belts.

"So," said Pasha. "I hope you've decided to be sensible… no, actually that's a lie. It'll be a lot more fun if you haven't. Anyway, before we start we're going to take your photographs. They'll be sent to the Intelligence Service at Romanov. If you're even remotely important you'll be identified, so that's another reason for you to tell me the truth now. Look at the camera and smile nicely. I'm sure I don't need to tell you what will happen if we have to force you."

He said something in Russian to the younger boy, who stepped forward and took a head-and-shoulders shot of each of us, and then stepped back and took a couple of full-length shots.

"Those are for my personal collection," Pasha told us, grinning yet again – he was clearly very happy in his work. "Now, then, it's decision time. What's your real name?"

Was he bluffing or not? Would a boy of my own age really be capable of inflicting torture? I supposed it was time to find out.

"I'd rather not say," I replied.

"Excellent!" he said. "I suppose you think that because I'm well-educated and nobly born that I won't dirty my hands with this sort of thing. That just shows that you don't know much about Russia and that you know nothing about me. If we were at home, this would be where I bring in one of my orphans to demonstrate that I never bluff. Sadly I don't have any with me. But there are three of you and I only need one to talk, so… let's start with Coppernob. He's damaged already, so a few burns won't make a lot of difference."

He unlocked Wolfie's cuffs and the older boy and one of the soldiers dragged him to the table, shoved everything on it except the acid to the floor, and pinned Wolfie on his back on top of it.

"I imagine that even now you think there's only water in the bottle," said Pasha to me. "You'd be wrong about that. We have got a water bottle…"

He spoke to the younger boy, who put down the camera, went to his coat and produced a bottle from one of the pockets. Pasha meanwhile took the stopper out of the acid bottle and used the pipette to draw up a small amount.

"…but this is the real thing," he went on. "And just to give you an idea of what it's going to feel like to your red-headed friend…"

He stepped in front of me and released a drop of acid onto my right forearm. For a second I thought it really was water, but then it started to burn, and the pain grew and grew until I thought my whole arm was going to fall off. I screamed, and Pasha took the water bottle from the younger boy and poured some over my arm. The pain subsided a little but didn't go away.

"So now you know," he said, and went back to the far side of the table. "Now, as I said before, this can be used far more accurately than a poker. For example, a drip in the ear does wonders for ear-wax, but it's likely to damage the eardrum as well. If you're lucky it'll burn itself out dissolving the little bones inside the ear, the ones that control balance as well as hearing; if you're not it'll keep going into the brain. Dripped up the nose it can certainly clear the sinuses, and with care it can be used to eliminate tooth decay… and teeth, unfortunately. But my favourite use is this."

He drew a little more acid into the pipette, wiped the tip very thoroughly with the remains of my underpants, and then brought it towards Wolfie's body. At that Wolfie's control went and he began to scream and struggle frantically, and it took both soldiers and both boys to hold him down. The older boy slapped a hand over Wolfie's mouth, muffling his screams.

"You know, it's really up to you," Pasha told him, conversationally. "But if your flailing about jogs my hand you're likely to get a fair amount of acid all over your stomach. Really you'd do better to keep absolutely still and hope your friend is sensible."

By now the tip of the pipette was hovering close to Wolfie's genitals, and as he realised that he seemed to freeze completely.

"That's much better," said Pasha, and he looked up at me once more. "Now, I'm sure you can imagine what sort of damage this can do," and very carefully indeed he inserted the end of the pipette into the tip of Wolfie's penis and pushed it well in. "So I'm going to ask you one more time: what is your name?"

I could scarcely breathe – in fact I was so shaken that I could see little dots in front of my eyes, and for one horrible moment I thought I was going to faint. But then I managed to gasp in a breath.

"Leo!" I yelled. "My name's Leo de Courtenay! Please don't do it – please!! I'll tell you everything you want to know!"

"Yes," said Pasha. "I know you will. So what are you doing here?"

I still hadn't been able to think of a good cover story, and even if I had I wouldn't have risked it in this situation.

"I came from the English æthership," I admitted. "We all did."

"And why is there an English æthership in this godforsaken corner of Norway?"

"We were looking for a meteor. We know you use them to make armour for your Eagles, and we need raw material so that we can work out how to do it ourselves."

"Ah, now that sounds like the truth. Go on – why were you there personally, and why in that spot?"

"We saw a little crater, which they said was probably a small piece of the meteor that broke off. We were supposed to get a sample to take back to the ship – the scientist on board would then have been able to analyse it. Tom here is his junior apprentice – they didn't send anyone more senior in case they found the main impact site and needed the real experts there."

"So that's why you've got all that stuff with you. And did you get your sample?"

"No. We found the crater all right but then it started to rain really hard, so we decided to wait until it stopped raining. Only you found us before the rain stopped."

"Right." He pulled the pipette out of Wolfie's penis and my shoulders sagged in relief. But he hadn't quite finished with us yet. "Where exactly is the crater you found?"

I glanced out of the window and saw that it was dark outside – too dark for him to mount an expedition to find the crater, I thought.

"It's about two hundred metres north of where we put the tent," I told him, "and maybe fifty metres away from the slope of the ridge. We can show you if you want."

He let the acid drop back into the bottle.

"Suddenly you're being helpful," he observed.

"The word is 'practical'," I said, reminding him of his own comment earlier, and he caught the reference and laughed.

"I'm definitely starting to like you," he said. "Of course you're right, but you should have started being helpful a lot sooner than this. If you had been I might have considered letting you go, but as it is I think you can come and join my orphan collection. You might not actually be orphans, but your parents aren't going to be in any position to object to anything that might happen to you. Still, because I like you I think I'll add you to the Black Sea collection – I'm sure you'd prefer the weather there to what you'd find at my Siberian place."

He said something in Russian and the two soldiers helped Wolfie to sit up. He was trembling so badly that he couldn't actually stand, falling over when he tried, but the soldiers helped him to his feet and returned him to his previous position, chained to the wall next to me. Somehow he kept his feet under him this time.

"Tomorrow morning we'll go and have a look at your crater," he said. "I suppose there's a danger that your ship might come back, but they'll be in trouble if they do, because they don't know about the destroyer: it's got anti-air rocket batteries. And we'll have our own ship in the air too, just in case. And once we've had a look at the crater we'll be on our way. Once we get to Romanov we'll send a couple of ships of our own to retrieve the meteor, and you and I can take a nice train ride down to Feodosia and your new home. If you're really, really good and keep me entertained you could live for quite a long time – you might even last long enough to reach puberty!"

And with a final flashing grin he and his colleagues left the room, pulling the door closed behind them.

"Oh, God," I breathed. "Wolfie, are you okay?"

"Just about. I don't think I've ever been so scared in my life, not even when we jumped out of Daedalus and I lost my grip on you. That boy must be insane. Still, at least we're all right now."

"No, we're not. If they've got a photo of you in Murmansk – Romanov – we'll still be in trouble, because you're far too important to end up in some minor noble's zoo. They'll lock you up in a fortress in Petersburg. And if they've got a photo of Tim we'll be in even deeper trouble, because they'll force him to work for them instead of us. And if he loses both of you I think Pasha will be so angry that he'll take it out on me, and I really don't want…"

I trailed off, feeling sick and trying not to think about what might happen to me.

"We have to hope my uncle gets back here in time," I said, when I was able to speak again. "It depends how far south they were blown, because they won't be able to navigate properly in the dark. We just have to hope that they're in sight of the coast, or the islands, as soon as the sun gets up."

"Uncle Gil's a very good aeronaut," said Wolfie. "If anyone can find us in time, he can. And if the Russians decide to dig the meteor out before leaving it might keep them here until he arrives."

"Not if they do what Laughing Boy said," I said gloomily. "He said they'd leave the meteor and sent a team out from Romanov to deal with it."

"Then we'll have to change his mind. If we tell him that unless they dig it out tomorrow our ship will get to it first, and then…"

The door opened and Pasha came in, followed by the younger boy, who was carrying three mess-tins.

"I thought you'd be hungry," Pasha said, "so we brought you some supper. I'd hate you to starve before we get home. I expect Coppernob is still feeling a bit queasy, so we'll do him last."

The other boy put one mess-tin on the table, took a spoon from his pocket and began to feed Tim, while Pasha began to do the same for me. It was meat in some sort of cream sauce, and it was pretty good. I ate it all.

"Good, isn't it?" he said, putting the empty tin back on the table. "It's from the S78 – the destroyer. Their galley is a lot better than ours. Of course, you've flown yourself, so you know the limitations of galleys in the air."

"It was good," I said. "Thank you."

"Goodness me, courtesy from a prisoner! You really are a nice, polite boy, aren't you? Still, I like that – in fact, I like it a lot. Maybe it deserves a bit of a reward."

He spoke to the boy, who began feeding Wolfie, and then went out, returning a couple of minutes later with a bottle, a bucket, a long length of chain and the older boy, who was carrying a gun. He put everything down on the table and came and stood in front of me.

"That crack of mine about puberty was a bit unfair," he told me, tugging gently on my few pubic hairs. "You might not be as far into it as your friends, but there is something happening, isn't there? Of course, I could fix that for you: if I'm very careful I could use my acid to burn away your hairs and do just enough damage to prevent them from growing again…"

"No, thanks," I said, trying to keep my voice from trembling. "If you've got something that will make them grow a bit faster I'd definitely be interested, though."

He burst out laughing. "My God, I'm really glad I found you," he said. "You're going to do me a world of good. Keep it up and I might not kill you after all. Now, you won't get a lot of sleep if I leave you like you are, so I'm going to let you sleep on the floor. But I want your parole first. The door will be locked and the window is welded shut, but I still want you to swear that none of you will try to leave this room until I come for you in the morning. Are you prepared to do that?"

I barely hesitated. I was pretty sure we'd never get out of this room unassisted anyway, and if we were going to be rescued at all it would be when – or if – my uncle and the other ships returned, and that wouldn't be during the night.

"You have my word," I said. "None of us will try to leave until you come for us."

"Thank you. Now Sergei is going to undo some of your cuffs. Please be sensible – I'd hate it if we had to shoot you."

He stepped back, spoke to the older boy, who unslung his machine gun and aimed it at the floor in front of us, and then handed the younger boy a key. The boy came and rearranged the cuffs, and when he'd finished I was linked directly to Wolfie and Tim, but not to the wall. Wolfie was only attached to me, and Tim was attached to me on one side and to the long chain, which was itself attached to the wall, on the other. So the only link to the wall was on Tim's left wrist.

"You should be able to lie down now," Pasha told us. "Try, please – I want to be sure that the chain is the right length."

We did that, and Pasha moved the table and our clothes to the far corner of the room, where we couldn't reach them, but tossed our overcoats to us.

"Use these as blankets," he said. "You've got a bottle of water between you and a bucket to piss in. Get some sleep and we'll see you in the morning."

"Thank you for this," I said. "We appreciate it."

"So you should. Normally I'd have left you against the wall. I can't think what came over me." He headed for the door and his two colleagues went out, but just as he got there his eye fell on something on the ground. He bent and picked it up.

"Is this yours?" he said to me, holding up my watch.

I nodded.

"It's a good one," he said, opening it and checking the time. "I think I'll hold on to it for you for now. It would be a pity if it got damaged." And he gave me another brilliant smile and went out, and I heard the door lock behind him.

With my friends attached to both my wrists it was difficult to wrap my coat around myself properly, but I didn't really need it straight away because the brazier was still warm, even if it was starting to burn down. I sat with my back against the wall and tried to think if there was any way out of this mess, because if my uncle didn't get back in time and we were carted off to Russia, I couldn't see any way that we would ever get home.

Half an hour passed, and nothing had sprung to mind. But fortunately I wasn't the only person who had been thinking.

"Wolfie," said Tim, "if we all stretch out as far as we can, could you reach my bag?"

"I don't know. Let's try."

So Tim stretched the chain attaching him to the wall out straight and we did our best to get Wolfie close to our bags, but they were still a metre beyond his grasp.

"Use your coat," said Tim. "Chuck your coat over the bag and try to drag it towards you."

This took a few attempts, but eventually Wolfie managed to cast the collar of his coat over Tim's bag, and it snagged well enough for him to be able to drag the bag into range.

"Now what?" I asked.

"Now we can get free from the wall at least, because I have some acid, too. Not very much, but probably enough to burn through this chain."

"Then what?"

"Well, then at least we can reach our clothes and get dressed, and we'll have a fair chance of ambushing them in the morning. If we can grab a gun and take Pasha hostage, maybe they'll let us go."

I wasn't by any means sure that they'd let us go, but I thought maybe we could keep them in a standoff until my uncle came to rescue us.

"Right," I said. Go for it."

Tim rummaged in his bag and found a little vial, and my heart sank when I saw how small it was. "Is there enough?" I asked.

"Oh, yes. It'll do this chain for sure, and there might even be some left over."

He very carefully poured some of the acid onto a link close to the cuff around his wrist – though not so close as to risk it hitting his arm – and we waited. I saw a little white smoke rising from the chain, and then Tim pulled hard and the link gave way. The three of us were still linked to each other, but we were no longer connected to the wall, which meant that we could move around the room.

"Is there any left?" I asked.

"Some," Tim told me.

"Enough to open the window?"

"Nothing like. Anyway, I thought you gave your parole."

"I wasn't thinking of leaving now. I thought we could use the table to barricade the door and leave via the window as soon as they try to open the door. I said 'Until you come for us', remember?"

"Right. But there still isn't enough. We might manage to weaken the link between your cuff and mine, or between yours and Wolfie's, enough to break it, though."

"Then let's do that. Do it on the one between you and me – at least then you'll be a free agent."

We walked over to the table and put our wrists on it, and then he carefully poured the remainder of the acid onto the chain link nearest to the cuff around his wrist. Again there was a little smoke, but this time pulling wasn't enough to break the link. Tim delved into his bag and found one of the bits from his drill, and by putting that through the weakened link and twisting he was finally able to open the link enough to separate the two cuffs. That left Tim free and me attached only to Wolfie.

"Now what?" asked Tim.

"Now we get some sleep," I said. "After all, there's no way out of this room, even if I hadn't given my parole. In the morning we'll jump Pasha as soon as he opens the door, hold him hostage and then hope my uncle gets here quickly."

"I suppose it's as good as anything," agreed Tim. "But perhaps it would be a good idea if we could hold them up a bit, otherwise they could just burst in on us while we're asleep."

He took the smallest drill-bit he had, walked to the door and tried to jam it into the lock, and when that didn't work he ground some materials from his work kit up, added a little water to make them into a paste, and used a slightly larger drill-bit to force it into the lock.

"I don't suppose that'll hold them for long," he said, packing the rest of his kit away, "but it'll gum things up for a few seconds at least – long enough for us to get ready, anyway."

"Nice one, Tim," I said, approvingly.

We all got dressed – at least, Tim got dressed completely and Wolfie and I put on our trousers, socks and footwear: we couldn't put on anything above the waist while we were cuffed together – and then we settled down to get some sleep. I supposed our situation was a little better than it had been, but I was far from convinced that our sketchy plan was going to work: unless Pasha was the first person into the room it wouldn't work, and even then if he had just a single armed man with him it would almost certainly end in disaster. And even if we did managed to grab him, unless we could get hold of a weapon as well they could just shoot us, either through the door or, if we managed to barricade it, through the window. The more I thought about it, the more hopeless our situation seemed.

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