by David Clarke
I didn't sleep very well: not only was I lying on a hard floor, but I was also attached to Wolfie, and every time he moved in his sleep it woke me up. This didn't usually happen: generally when we shared a bed we both slept very well indeed. But tonight my arm was hurting because I hadn't been able to do anything about the acid burn except to tie my handkerchief around it and soak it in cold water. That's why I was awake when the first hint of daylight crept through the window.
I wondered how long it would be before Pasha came for us. I guessed that he would want to go and find the meteor before too long, but with a little luck he'd wait until he'd eaten breakfast at least. I hoped he was hungry: every minute he waited would be another minute for my uncle to move closer to our position.
The other two were still asleep, and I made no attempt to wake them up: I thought they might as well rest while they could. But when the shooting started a short time later I changed my mind straight away.
I put the first shot down to a nervous sentry, but when it was answered and followed by more shots and people shouting I decided that they had to be shooting at someone, and the only people they could be shooting at would be on our side.
"Change of plan," I said, shaking the others into wakefulness. "We'll never manage to jump Pasha now, because he's sure to come with guns. I think our best bet would be to barricade the door and try to keep them out until whoever's attacking them gets here."
"What if it's only a few men and the Russians drive them off?" asked Wolfie.
"Then we're probably in deep trouble. But then we were already in deep trouble, and I don't think trying to block the door will make it any worse. Come on, let's get the table in front of the door."
So we did that, and I was pleased to discover that the table was fairly heavy. I hoped that if we all pushed against it they might find it hard to shift us. However, that still left a serious weak point.
"Tim," I said, "get your drill and use it to fix one of our coats over the window. If you use four different bits, drill through the coat and leave the bit in the wall each time it should hold it fairly well. Obviously it won't hold them for long, but at least they won't just be able to smash the glass and shoot us straight away."
Tim grabbed his kit and pulled out the drill. As there was no immediate sound of anyone trying to get through the door Wolfie and I were able to hold the coat while he used his first bit to attach it to the wall, but he had just started with the second bit when I heard someone trying to turn a key in the lock. Wolfie and I scuttled back to the table and leaned on it. We could hear someone swearing – at least, I think it was swearing – on the far side of the door as Tim's gunk stopped them turning the key, and then I heard Pasha's voice shouting some terse orders. He didn't sound happy. Eventually the person with the key managed to force it around and the handle turned, but the table prevented the door from moving. Someone shoulder-charged the door on the far side and for a moment it opened an inch or two, but Wolfie and I shoved as hard as we could and forced it closed once more.
Pasha shouted another order and five seconds later there was a bang: someone had fired a rifle at the door. But nobody in this world had heard of chipboard: this door was a thick, solid piece of Scandinavian timber, and the bullet failed to penetrate.
There was some more shouting from behind the door and then the door was shoved violently forward. We dug in and held it, and then Tim dropped his drill – by now he had three bits holding the coat in place – and dived across the room, adding his weight to ours and forcing the door closed again. We could still hear shooting from further away but it didn't seem to be getting any closer, and I wondered if help was going to reach us before the Russians got past the door. Fortunately the door was fairly narrow, so it was hard for more than one of them to shoulder-charge it at a time, but I thought that before too much longer they'd start using tools on it.
Then we heard the glass of our window break and something pushed against the coat. Tim went back to the window and grabbed the corner that hadn't been drilled into place, but whoever was outside wasn't going to be held up by something like an overcoat. Suddenly the blade of a large knife or bayonet came through the coat and began to slice away at it, and I realised that we were finished: as soon as he had cut a hole in the cloth he'd be able to shoot us through the window.
Then there was a heavy thump on the door that didn't sound like a shoulder: apparently they had found a big hammer, or perhaps an axe. The others looked at me, but I was out of ideas: all we could do was wait for them to break in. A couple more blows and we knew it was an axe, because the edge of the blade appeared through a crack in the door.
But now that the window was broken the sounds of gunfire outside the house were a lot louder, and we could hear more shouting and the crash of a heavy gun too. There was another flurry of shooting and then a scream from right outside the window. It sounded as though the guy with the bayonet had been hit.
The axe struck a couple more times, making a hole about half an inch across. A couple more hits and they'd be able to aim a gun through it. But then there was a shout of command from outside the house and I heard Pasha yell "Nyet!!" in reply. The axe struck once more, the command was repeated more forcefully and Pasha screamed his refusal once more, but the voice outside was insistent. I'm fairly sure that what Pasha said next was not very polite at all, but then he switched to German.
"Leo de Courtenay!" he called. "This is not over! You understand? THIS IS NOT OVER!"
There was the sound of footsteps moving away and more shooting outside. Of course I stayed exactly where I was at first, fearing a trap, but then when there was nothing more to be heard outside the door I risked putting my eye to the crack left by the axe, and I saw that there was nobody there. I gave it another minute or so to be sure and then we pulled the table away from the door, opened it carefully and went out into the hallway. The outer door was open and through it I could hear the noise of guns, and also the sound of engines.
"Tim, get Wolfie's jacket," I said, and when he had handed it to me I waved it out of the door. Nothing happened, so I put my head cautiously around the corner. There was nobody in sight, but we could still hear shooting from elsewhere. Directly ahead of us was the harbour, and we could see that the Russian destroyer had put out into the channel between this island and the next one and was firing one of its rocket batteries at an æthership that had been heading north up the channel. The æthership veered away inland and I recognised Sparrowhawk, which was itself firing at something at the north end of the village.
Stepping a bit further into the street I was able to see the Russian æthership climbing away from the village. I thought it was in trouble here: the destroyer might have managed to distract Sparrowhawk, but there were two other ships moving in on it, the grey-green Caberféidh closing in on its left and another ship, which I thought was Excalibur, up ahead of it. Caberféidh fired its guns and I could see that at least two shots had hit the Russian, but that armour was good and it kept going. One of its turrets fired a pair of Congreves, and although one of them veered crazily away into the sky, the other hit Caberféidh just behind the nose. There was a bang, a flash and a spurt of flame, and I realised that one of the hydrogen bags had caught fire. The Scottish ship lurched and swung away, heading for the low ridge to the west of the village, and I realised that Seaforth was hoping to clear it and find shelter behind it.
The Russian kept climbing and then suddenly swung to the right, and at the same time there was the loudest noise I'd heard yet and a huge gout of water splashed into the air next to the Russian destroyer. Looking north I saw a much larger warship, a heavy cruiser at least, nosing into the channel, and at the same time the destroyer swung south and speeded up. Apparently the Russian æthership had seen the cruiser, realised that its current course would take it straight over what was clearly an enemy vessel, and had taken evasive action.
Excalibur fired a pair of Hale rockets, one of which missed the Russian's tail fin by a matter of inches: a hit there would have disabled the enemy's rudder. But the Russian survived, now heading more or less due east, and vanished out of my sight behind the hills on the neighbouring island. I half expected Excalibur and Sparrowhawk to go after him, but maybe they were worried about possible Russian rocket emplacements closer to the mainland – or possibly they had spotted the three of us standing in the street and realised that we weren't aboard the Russian ship. Belatedly I remembered the radio and, dragging Wolfie behind me, ran back into the house to grab it.
"Leo to Excalibur, over," I said.
There was no reply, but then I remembered that I'd changed the channel. I moved it back to Channel One and tried again, and this time Joe answered.
"Stay where you are," he told me. "We can see your position. We're going to check that there are no more Russians around and then we'll land. Don't go away."
I had no intention of going anywhere. We went back to the street and leaned against the house, watching as the cruiser sailed past us in pursuit of the destroyer. A couple of minutes later a group of French soldiers appeared a little further up the street, so we called to them and waved Wolfie's jacket, just to avoid any unfortunate accidents.
I let Tim do the talking, and whatever he said did the trick, because one of the soldiers went away and came back three or four minutes later with a large pair of bolt-cutters, which he used to separate me from Wolfie. And that meant that by the time Excalibur landed we were both fully dressed once more, although Wolfie's greatcoat had been sliced up rather badly by the man with the bayonet before he had been shot by a French sniper.
We said thank you to the French and walked to the north end of the hamlet, where Excalibur was just settling onto the stretch of grassland newly vacated by the fleeing Russian ship. The mooring cables hadn't been deployed, indicating that my uncle wasn't intending to stay, so as soon as the bridge door opened we scrambled aboard. My uncle immediately ordered us back into the air.
"Are you alright?" he asked us.
"More or less," I replied. "I wouldn't want to go through that again, though. Why didn't you go after him – and what happened to the French? Where are they?"
"We didn't go after him because that wasn't part of the mission: we're here for the meteor, not to go chasing Eagles all over Scandinavia. The brief was to see off any Russians, not to see how many we could kill. Besides, for all we know there's another naval base nearby. It turns out that Admiral Faulkner's intelligence was wrong, because there is a Russian base at Bodø, and somehow your friend Pasha got a message to them. Perhaps that destroyer did the job.
"See, yesterday afternoon the freighter broke down, and they were still trying to fix it at daybreak this morning. We'd found the surface fleet yesterday afternoon, but the storm took us past them, and it wasn't until close to daybreak this morning that we found them again. By then they'd rigged a tow line from the freighter to one of the cruisers and so were under way once more, but they were moving very slowly. I thought we needed to get back here as quickly as we could, so the three of us, the French troop ship and Bosquet came on, leaving Rapp and Joffre to stay with the surface ships. One of our cruisers and its escort came with us, too.
"Our problem was to try to get fairly close to you without being seen by their sentries, so we decided to drop the ground troops a couple of miles away. But the light still wasn't very good and the troop ship landed a bit too heavily and cracked some struts, so we had to leave Bosquet to keep an eye on them while they made repairs. That's why it's only the three of us, and the cruiser, who are here now.
"So, what happened to you after the radio got turned off?"
I explained the basics of our capture and imprisonment but without going into too many details: I didn't think Wolfie would want to have to revisit his experience with the acid.
"Sounds like a charming boy," my uncle said, when I'd finished giving him my forthright opinion of Pasha. "Well, we think we know who he is: Joe tells me that when he was speaking to his men they called him "Imperial Highness", and we know that his father's name is Mikhail – he gave you his patronymic 'Mikhailovitch – and that he has two brothers who must be older than him if they are already in the army. So he has to be the Grand Duke Pavel Mikhailovitch Romanov. He's the Tsar's nephew."
"No wonder everyone jumped to do what he told them," I commented. "I'm surprised they managed to drag him away at the end, in that case."
"I imagine that the ship's captain knew how much trouble he would be in if anything happened to him," said my uncle. "To be honest, that's another reason I decided not to go after them: it would have been immensely useful to have captured him, but actually killing a close relative of the Tsar – which would have been far more likely if we'd shot him down - would probably have resulted in serious repercussions, particularly if it happened in Russian-controlled territory. I thought it better to let him go."
By now we'd crossed the ridge to the west of the hamlet, and so we could see Caberféidh, which had landed on the plain beyond the ridge. The fire was out but there was a significant hole in the armour and I wondered how much damage had been done to the internal structure. Sparrowhawk was circling overhead, so we signalled them to keep an eye out and then landed close to Caberféidh.
"Mr Silver, could you ask Rapp for an update, please?" said my uncle.
Joe got on the radio. "There's good news," he said. "The freighter is under way again and should be here in a couple of hours at the outside. And they've beaten off the Russian cruiser and its escorts. The bad news is that we've lost the Joffre: a rocket took out the bridge and started a fire that spread to the gas envelopes. They fished some survivors out of the sea, but not very many."
"What Russian cruiser was that?" I asked. "I only saw a destroyer."
"There were a cruiser and a pair of escorting destroyers in the harbour at Bodø," my uncle explained. "That's what I meant about Faulkner's information being wrong. Someone must have told them that there were British ships south of the Lofotens, because they came out to investigate. We outgunned them and we had air cover, but it seems that they still did some damage. Very well, Mr Silver, acknowledge that and suggest that Rapp remain with the freighter until it gets here. We'll try to identify as much of the meteor as we can find so that it's ready to be dug out as soon as the machinery arrives."
"From what I've seen so far we could dig it out with a couple of shovels," I pointed out.
"There's more than you've seen so far. We've spotted another fairly significant crater and a couple of smaller ones. Yes, we could possibly dig it all out by hand, but I want to concentrate on getting Mac airworthy again as quickly as possible, just in case your friend Pasha comes back with some friends. I'm going over there now to see how much help he needs. You stay here and rest for a bit."
I felt that I ought to be doing something, but I did feel tired and I thought a short rest would do me good. So I made my way up to the storeroom on Deck Two, grabbed a blanket and a pillow and lay down, and the next thing I knew Wolfie was shaking me awake and telling me it was almost midday.
"Feeling better?" he asked as I sat up groggily. "Good. Come on, Tim wants us to go and look for more bits of meteor."
I followed him through the ship and out onto the grass. The wind had dropped, which was probably a good thing, because I could see several ladders propped against the side of Caberféidh and several crewmen from both ships fixing some sort of temporary sheeting across the hole. A little further away I could see activity around the hole where the first piece of the meteor had struck: there was a large steam tractor at work and several people around it. We walked that way and I saw that it had a big shovel attachment on the back, like a JCB, and I agreed that this would definitely be faster than digging the meteor out by hand.
Tim had borrowed a compass from somewhere, and once we were well past the meteor site he got this out and moved it around before striding off in the direction of the ridge. Using the compass he identified half a dozen minor impact points, some less than a metre across.
"Is it worth bothering with these?" I asked, peering into one small hole, at the bottom of which lay something no bigger than a golf ball.
"It's all worth having," Tim replied. "Put it this way: we're unlikely to get another chance to collect material like this without reverting to the original plan of scouring Greenland, so while we're here I want as much of this stuff as we can get."
The digging went on throughout the afternoon, using shovels for the small bits and the steam JCB for the bigger ones. At various points the ætherships – the three surviving French ships had now rejoined us – took it in turns to land close to the harbour where the freighter had docked and to refuel with the coal that it had carried, and by late afternoon we were just about ready to leave. Originally we had intended for the meteor to be transported by the freighter, but since there was a lot less of it than anyone except Tim had expected, and also because we knew that there were Russian warships in the area, we decided to take it back on Excalibur instead. To me the total amount of material looked insignificant, but Tim was positively ecstatic about it.
"There's almost two hundred kilos here!" he said. "That's almost twice what I'd hoped for. It's true that there's a fair bit of earth mixed in, but even so this is going to be really significant. I'll be able to carry out several different experiments and will have more than enough left over to make some proper armour – at least, I hope so. And if it's even half as good as I hope it'll still be better than what you're using now."
Well, that sounded like excellent news. Of course, we had to get it back home first, but there was still no sign of interference from the Russians, and it would soon be dark: provided we could get airborne and under way in the next hour or so we'd then be protected by the darkness until we were more than halfway back to Scapa.
Caberféidh had been patched up as best we could. The main problem was that there was no way to replace the hydrogen that had been lost: there was no æthership base closer than Shetland – at least, not one we could use – and no way to manufacture more ourselves. The damaged envelope had been repaired and so it would be able to take steam, but the lift from steam was significantly lower, and the only way to get the ship airborne and manoeuvrable again was to strip her of absolutely anything non-essential: guns, rockets, equipment and all but a skeleton crew, mostly stokers, engineers and essential bridge crew. There would be no relief watches for most: they would have to work non-stop until we got back to British territory.
The guns were spiked and the rockets and extra crew divided between the other ships, and then we watched as she climbed slowly into the air.
"I think she's going to make it," commented Mr Hall.
"If anyone can get her home, Mac can," agreed my uncle. "Very well: let's get under way."
We were the last ship on the ground, so once we were back in the air we were able to form up on the others – this time Sparrowhawk was going to lead the way – and begin the journey south. The surface ships had already left, and it had been decided that we would stay with them until it got dark, as that would offer protection from any Russian attack, so once we caught up with them just south of the island we slowed down until it was too dark to see. We'd sent then a final 'good luck' signal just before we lost sight of them, and once they were invisible we settled into line astern and speeded up to forty knots, which was about the best that the troopship could manage.
This time I did take a watch during the hours of darkness, but actually it was easy, because now that we weren't leading I simply had to make sure I kept in position behind the red light at the tail of Caberféidh. The only danger was falling asleep, but Wolfie kept talking to me, and in any case I benefitted from the rest I'd had during the morning, and when Mr Hall relieved me at around midnight I was able to report that all was well.
It was still cold and my arm was still a bit sore, but at least I'd finally got rid of the bracelets from the cuffs: one of our engineers had drilled out the locks. In any event I slept fairly well, and when I woke up next morning I felt much more like my normal self. I went and had a quick wash, grabbed a bowl of porridge from the galley and then returned to the bridge.
"How are we doing?" I asked my uncle, whose watch it was.
"Well enough. The wind is still more or less with us, so we're making good progress, and as far as I can tell we're still all together. The sun should be up in an hour or so, so we'll know for sure then. And if we're where I think we are we should be back in Orkney not too long after lunchtime."
My watch started just as the sun was appearing on the horizon, and it revealed that all six ships were still together. I'd given the third radio, the one we'd used on the ground, to Seaforth, so that he could call us if the temporary repairs looked like failing, so as soon as Joe had taken his place at the communications desk I asked him to call the earl for an update.
"It's holding together," Joe reported. "As long as the wind stays where it is he's confident it'll get him back to Orkney."
Well, that was good news, and in fact my watch was completely uneventful. When I handed over to Mr Hall at midday we were already over the Shetlands, and we reached the base at Scapa around three hours later. Seaforth managed to land safely, and soon there was a ground crew at work on his ship. I thought that the rest of us would keep going, but my uncle said that there was no rush, and that it would be no bad idea to give everyone a proper break and to get the ship checked over by a professional engineering crew while we had the opportunity.
"We'll stay here tonight and then fly through tomorrow night," he said. "That'll get us home on Friday morning. We might as well take it easy now: we've done the hard bit."
The only disadvantage of spending an extra day here would be that it wouldn't leave us much time to get Joe back to his world in time for school on Monday morning. If the portal was open on Friday evening or Saturday, well and good, but if not…
"I'm not too worried, to be honest," he said, when I explained our schedule. "I'm sure I can get away with being a day or two late. In any case, I'm definitely thinking about coming back here, provided I can talk my parents into it, so it won't matter too much what the school thinks."
"Are you sure this is what you want?" I asked. "It might mean more missions like this, and you know by now how dangerous it can be. A lot of the French crew on the Joffre didn't make it."
"I know, but I'm sure I'd be better off here than back in the other world. I mean, what's my future going to be like there? The way it's going at the moment I won't have a job, and even if I get the grades to go to uni it'll cost a fortune to pay the fees. I don't fancy being twenty thousand pounds in debt before I even start working. Whereas here I'm sure you can help me a get a job – actually I wouldn't mind working for your homeless charity. Ben's told me all about it, and I'd like to help. And I really like flying, and if Tim can make the armour you've all been talking about it'll be safer too, won't it?"
"Safer, yes, but it's still going to be dangerous. Mind you, that won't stop me doing it, and it'd be great if you were with us… Anyway, obviously you won't be able to decide until you've talked to your parents, but if you do decide to come back I'll be happy to take you – and I'm sure we can find work for your father if you manage to persuade the whole family to come with you."
I didn't bother going to the debrief meeting with Air Admiral Faulkner: I was sure that my uncle could handle that without me. Instead I went for a wander round the base with Wolfie and my other friends, watching the repair work being done on Caberféidh and the French troop carrier (some of the cracked struts were being completely replaced) and looking at the various types of coastal defence ships belonging to the British Air Service. After that we walked to the waterfront and had a look at some of the surface ships out in the anchorage, marvelling at the size of the largest of them. This world still believed that big was beautiful, and the largest battleships in the harbour must have been around seven hundred feet long.
"How would you fancy captaining something like that?" Alex asked me.
"No, thanks. The trouble with being in the biggest ship is that it's always the one the enemy most want to sink. That's why they gave up on ships that big in your world: millions of pounds to build, crew of two thousand, and the whole thing can be sunk by a single torpedo if it hits in the right place. Look what happened to the Hood, and then what happened to the Bismarck when the rest of the British ships caught up with it. Of course in your world aircraft carriers became more important, but that isn't going to happen here – or not yet, at least. No, I'll stick to flying, thank you: better views, you can go anywhere and if you do get shot down you generally have a reasonable chance of getting out alive – as long as there are enough jumpshades on board, of course…"
That night we slept in one of the barrack huts on the base. The beds were too narrow to share, and in any case they were in an open dormitory, but they were comfortable enough and the hut was a great deal warmer than the Deck Two storeroom on Excalibur, so I slept very well. We then spent most of the next day mooching about: the engineers had finished our checkover by lunchtime, but there was no point in leaving then because it would have meant that we would have arrived at Culham after dark. Instead we decided to postpone our departure until shortly before sunset.
We said goodbye to Seaforth and his crew, who would be staying at Scapa for a complete refit, and to the French, who left a couple of hours ahead of us: they had further to go and were handicapped by the slower speed of the troop carrier. Charlie Cardington was going to be travelling most of the way with us, however, and so, just as the sun was touching the horizon, our two ships took off and headed back for England.
Once again I took the watch between eight pm and midnight. I still wasn't completely happy flying into darkness – we were leading again – but it was a clear night and we could at least see lights on the ground, so it wasn't quite as bad as it had been over open sea. And again my watch passed without incident and we were able to go back to the storeroom to rest. After the warmth of the barracks the store seemed colder than ever, but I did finally manage to go to sleep.
I was back on duty at eight o'clock the following morning, by which time the sun was just starting to appear. Mr Hall handed over command and left the bridge, and at the same time Sparrowhawk signalled 'Bon Voyage' and began to angle away from us: by now we were between Leicester and Coventry, about sixty miles north of Culham. From here our route was more or less due south, whereas Cardington was south-east of here.
I saw that we had slowed down a little during the night, presumably to make sure that we didn't get back to Culham before dawn, so I ordered an increase back up to cruising speed – there was no reason for us to delay any longer.
Sparrowhawk disappeared off to our left, and we flew on alone for another three quarters of an hour, and then Wolfie glanced out of the back of the gondola, pulled his telescope from his pocket and looked through it.
"There is a pair of coastal defence ships following us," he told me.
"Really?" I said, taking the telescope from him. "So there are. We didn't leave anything behind at Scapa, did we?"
"I don't think so."
"Then it's probably just Admiral Faulkner making sure we get home alright. I don't know who he thought was likely to attack us in the middle of England, though."
I went back to my usual place at the front of the bridge, because we were almost home: Oxford was coming into view. I wondered if my uncle would expect me to land the ship myself. I thought it quite possible that he would, and I hoped I wasn't going to make a complete mess of it, especially with two navy ships looking on.
We flew on, gradually losing height as we flew over Oxford and past Abingdon, and as we approached Culham my uncle still hadn't come to the bridge, so I decided that I should at least line the ship up and make the approach. I could always abort before landing if I thought I'd got it wrong.
"Helm, wind direction is zero-four-two, five knots," I told Billy. "Come around to the west of the field and line up on the upper mast. You won't be able to come straight in on that bearing or you'll hit the house, so come south of the house and adjust once you're clear of it. Engines, three-quarters both."
We began to turn to approach the house from the south-west, and at the same time Sparrer began to take us even lower.
"They're still coming," commented Wolfie.
"Huh?" I said, trying to concentrate on working out which bags to vent.
"The navy ships. You'd have thought they'd turn round and go home now that we're safely back at base."
"As long as they stay out of my way I won't care," I said. "Prepare to vent one and nine on my mark… mark! Okay, that's enough…"
Billy had brought us around the house and we were lining up nicely on the mast. I thought our angle was about right… "Engines, one quarter both," I ordered.
As we cleared the house I could see the two navy ships, now away off the port bow. I agreed with Wolfie that it was odd that they hadn't turned for home. Unusual gondola arrangement, too: I didn't think any of the ones at Scapa had those waist gondolas: I'd only seen those on some of the older French ships. And the one on the left had a really shoddy paint job, too: one quarter of the union flag on the nose cone was crooked…
"Shit!" I cried. "Helm, climb and come to bearing one-eight-zero. Engines, maximum power both!"
Both Billy and Sparrer looked at me as if I'd gone mad, and so did Wolfie, but thank heaven for naval discipline, because both Sparrer and Billy obeyed me after only the briefest of pauses.
"Desk, sound battle stations and get crews to the turrets!" I yelled. "Alex, I want those voided bags at full pressure as soon as you can."
Joe was busy opening all the communication tubes preparatory to blowing the 'Action stations' whistle down them, so I grabbed the radio myself and prayed that the crew on the Rapp had forgotten to turn theirs off.
"Excalibur to Rapp, Mayday, Mayday," I shouted into it. "Please respond."
Joe began blowing his whistle, so I jammed a finger into my other ear and pressed the radio against my head.
"Excalibur to Rapp, please respond," I said again.
"This is Rapp," came a voice in my ear. "What is 'Mayday'? Over."
"It means we need help," I said. "What is your position? Over."
"One moment." There was a pause, during which my uncle came rapidly down the ladder onto the bridge, followed by Mr Hall.
"Leo, what's going on?" asked my uncle.
I raised a hand to signal that he should wait.
"We just approach…Dorchester. Over," said the Rapp's communications office.
"Then please turn and head for Culham as fast as you can. We're being attacked. Over."
"'Ow is this possible? You are at 'ome!"
"Trust me, it's possible. We have two Eagles. I'll try to lead them straight to you. Out."
"Leo, what on Earth…?" began my uncle.
I ignored him and ran to the chart table. "Helm, get us up to one thousand feet and new bearing…two-zero-five," I ordered. "Engines, maintain maximum speed."
I looked out of the back of the gondola and saw, as I had expected, that the two navy ships were still coming our way, and even as I watched the canvas sheet with the union flag painted on it was pulled away from the first ship's nose, revealing a black two-headed eagle underneath. The other ship also revealed its true colours, and at the same time the first Congreve flashed towards us and then veered off to the left and disappeared into the sky.
"Rear turret, you may fire when ready," I ordered. "And Captain? You have the bridge."
"You seem to be managing nicely," said my uncle. "Please carry on. Where did those Eagles come from, and how did you know?"
"Wolfie spotted them first," I said. "I didn't think anything of it at first, but Wolfie thought it was odd that they hadn't left when we reached Culham. Then I saw that the gondolas are wrong for a coastal ship: the only three ships I've seen like that are the Bessières, the Dreyfus… and the Russian ship in Norway. Then I saw that their flag was crooked and I realised it was a canvas. I'll bet you any money we've got Pavel Bloody Romanov to thank for this! Nobody else would know about the mission."
"It could just be a random raid, but I think you're right," said my uncle. "I gather you reached the French. What's the situation?"
"Rear turret, fire at will," I said to Joe, who relayed that order upstairs. "The French were over Dorchester. I told them to head for Culham while we head for Dorset. We should meet them about halfway. Provided the Russians don't hit us first – and they've only got our tail to aim at – we should be able to give them a nasty surprise."
I looked behind us and saw that the two Russian ships had moved apart from each other – clearly they had realised the same thing, and by taking up a wider position they would have more of our ship to aim at. On the other hand it also brought our other two turrets into play.
"Desk, tell Turrets One and Two they may also fire as soon as they have a target," I ordered.
I went back to the table and drew a line between our position south of Culham and Dorchester. It looked to be further than I'd hoped, maybe ninety miles. Still, if we were flying south at close to sixty knots and the French were flying north at about the same speed, though perhaps a bit slower if the troop carrier was coming back too… It was like one of those maths problems you get asked at school: 'If two ætherships are flying towards each other and one is flying at sixty knots and the other at forty knots, how soon will they meet if they start out eighty-eight miles apart?'
I did the calculation and didn't like the answer, so I tried again with the assumption that the French would leave the troop ship behind and just make their best speed, and that gave me a slightly more satisfactory answer of about thirty-eight minutes. But that was still a long time to survive with Congreves whistling past, because it would only take one hit to cripple us: I'd already seen it happen to Caberféidh.
One of our missiles hit the left-hand pursuer just above the nose cone, and through the telescope I could see that it had done some damage to the armour, but we'd have to hit the same spot again to get through to the gasbags.
We flew on. I'd hoped that we could outpace them, but I suppose that if they had flown all the way from Norway – or even Murmansk – they would be light on coal by now, whereas we had refuelled at Scapa and so were still carrying quite a lot. I considered dumping it, but once it was in the hopper it was hard to unload it again without a lot of work, and dumping it one shovelful at a time wasn't the answer.
"What if we drop Gondola Two?" I suggested to my uncle. "That would give us less weight."
"It's a bit drastic, and we'd lose lift from the steam bags," he replied. "Better to carry on as we are. As long as they can't get alongside the nets will give us some help – a missile striking at an angle is far less dangerous that one hitting at ninety degrees. It's good to see that you're thinking, though."
About twenty-five minutes into the chase we were hit by our first Congreve. As my uncle had foreseen, it got caught in the chain-link netting and so failed to penetrate the armour, but it was still a frightening experience hearing it roaring somewhere over our heads.
"Excalibur to Rapp," I said into the radio, once I was sure that we were still basically undamaged. "Progress? Over."
"Rapp to Excalibur, we are to the west of Sall-is-bury, over."
"Great – you're doing better than I had dared to hope. We should be with you in less than ten minutes. If Bosquet is with you it might be a good idea if you split up, so you can come at them from two directions. Anyway, I'll leave it to you. I estimate we'll meet close to Amesbury. Good luck! Over."
"Call the front observation deck," I said to Joe. "The moment they see the French I want a bearing, okay?"
Another Congreve rattled the gondola in its passing, and for a moment I had a nasty flash of my recurring dream: six inches closer and that rocket would have taken out the port wall of the bridge, exactly as had happened on Daedalus. Were we going to go the same way?
"Should I order the crew to get their jumpshades on?" I asked my uncle quietly.
He shook his head. "The turret crews will have theirs on already, and so will the gun crews. The stokers won't because it's hard to work with a shade on, but someone will have them ready. It's best not to give the order unless you have to, though – after all, there's no need, because you're certain we're going to win. Or at least, that's the mind-set you want the crew to believe."
"French ship spotted at two thousand five hundred yards, bearing two-zero-nine and down thirty degrees," Joe told me.
"Maintain current level and heading," I ordered.
The French captain had done the sensible thing: his ship would be harder to see if it was between the Russians and the ground, and if they were attacking from below the Russians wouldn't be able to use their turrets against them.
"Second French ship, same level, bearing two-zero-four," Joe told me.
"Helm, bring us onto two-zero-seven," I ordered. "And stand by to come about as soon as the French engage them. I'll give you the word."
The ambush couldn't have gone better if we'd been planning it for weeks. By the time the Russians saw the French coming towards them, there were already missiles heading their way, and Bosquet got very lucky with one of its first rockets, which destroyed one of the Eagle's lateral engine rooms. The Russian ship, missing its starboard engine, began to turn in that direction, and by the time its captain had brought it back under control Bosquet was firing at it from a very short range. Three more rockets hit the hull.
"Helm, hard to starboard," I ordered. "All turrets and starboard guns, fire at the damaged Eagle as soon as you have a clear shot."
No matter how good a ship's armour is, when it's being hit several times from two directions, sooner or later a weak spot is sure to appear. I'm not sure whether it was one of our rockets or one of the French ones, but something got through and there was a blossom of flame amidships. Russian ships don't use steam to separate their hydrogen bags, so once the hydrogen was burning, that was the end. The ship began to go down.
"Second target," I ordered. "Helm, come to bearing zero-three-one."
Ignoring the stricken Russian ship Bosquet was now also turning its attention to the surviving Russian, who was exchanging shots with Rapp. But someone on the Eagle obviously saw us coming, because the ship broke away from its opponent and started to climb, swinging to the east. We were close enough now for me to be able to see the ship's name through my telescope, but I couldn't read it because of course it was written in Cyrillic.
"Joe," I called, "come and tell me what that ship is called."
Joe took the telescope. "Alexander Suvorov," he reported, handing it back to me and returning to his desk.
"Who was he?" I asked.
"He was a famous Russian general. Eighteenth century, I think," Wolfie told me.
I'd still never heard of him. But then I saw something just above the name which I thought at first was a mark from a rocket, but when I looked through the telescope I saw it was actually a stylised lightning stroke. A black one.
"The Black Flash," I said almost to myself. "That's Pasha's ship! Engines, full ahead both – I want that bastard!"
The Russian ship continued to climb, and now I could see what its captain had seen: there was a bank of cloud in that direction. If he once got into it he'd be able to lose us.
Now we were doing the chasing, but we weren't able to close the gap and his tail was a comparatively small target. Our rocket crews tried, and so did the French, but soon we were flying into wispy cloud, and then the wisps got thicker, until finally the Russian ship disappeared.
"That's it, Leo," said my uncle. "It'd be far too dangerous to chase an Eagle in this stuff, especially if it has a good captain. We'd be sure to fly into an ambush. Take us out again."
I knew my uncle was right, but the thought of having the bastard so close and yet out of reach was intensely frustrating.
"All right," I said finally, acknowledging defeat. "Engines, slow to one half. Helm, take us back out – bearing two-seven-zero, and drop us to one thousand feet again. And watch out for the French – we don't want to fly into them."
"Excalibur to Rapp," said Joe. "We're coming back out. Watch out for us."
I hadn't actually thought of calling them, but it was sensible to do so, and when we made it back into clear air we saw that both French ships had turned and were heading in the same direction.
"Rapp to Excalibur," I heard – Joe had put the radio back on speaker. "Do you need an escort back to Culham? Over."
"Excalibur to Rapp," I said, picking up the radio. "He's probably given up, but… perhaps it would be a good idea, if you don't mind. Thank you."
"Rapp, wait. We will advise Bosquet to escort Perpignan back to France. We left her at the æthership station outside Dorchester."
Rapp's signal arm swung down and began to exchange messages with Bosquet. While the French ships were talking to each other I looked about to see what had become of the first Eagle, and before too long I saw some smoking wreckage on the ground. And then I saw where it had crashed.
"Helm, take us two-nine-five and drop us to five hundred feet," I ordered.
Once again Billy and Sparrer didn't argue, although my uncle stared at me and Wolfie actually started to ask what I was doing. But as we got closer to the crash site Wolfie understood.
"Alex, Joe, you'd better come and look at this," I said, and they stood up and came to join me at the window. Together we looked down at the wreckage of the Eagle, which had crashed squarely into Stonehenge. The arch that led back to their world had been flattened.
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