Excelsior

by David Clarke

Chapter 20

One of the first things I wanted to do now that the holidays had started was to go to Stonehenge and find out how Sir Edmund's workers were getting on with the reconstruction. I knew that work had begun in mid-November, by which time Sir Edmund had acquired just about every photograph ever taken of the stones, and I was hoping that by now things would be well advanced. So on the morning of December 22nd we – myself, Alex, Joe and Sparrer, who grabbed the fourth seat in the auto-carriage before Wolfie or Billy could do so – drove back to the site of the Great Circle.

I was pleased to see that the work seemed to be going well: the remains of the crashed æthership had been removed and about two-thirds of the stones were in position again, including the all-important arch on the north-west arc of the circle. As far as I could tell it was in the correct place – of course there had been clear marks in the ground to indicate where the stones had stood before the Eagle hit them, and so it hadn't been too difficult to put them back in the same place. We were lucky, in that all three of the stones making up this arch were intact: two or three others had been broken by the impact. Of course, if the entire circle had to be in place for the arch to open this was likely to be a big problem, but I hoped that our arch would work independently of the condition of the rest of the monument.

"Have you had any trouble with mist?" I asked the foreman.

"Not so far, Your Grace," he told me. "Of course, at this time of year it's usually a bit too blowy for mist and fog…"

"I suppose so. Well, could you please keep a note of it if you do see any mist around the stones? I'm doing some research into local weather conditions."

He agreed to do that, and I went to have a closer look at the arch that mattered, but of course there was no way of telling if it was in the exact same place as before or if it was a few millimetres out, and nor could we tell if the lintel had been replaced correctly. I supposed that we would just have to wait and see.

We watched the men working for a while. It was quite interesting because they were mostly using very old-fashioned means, like wooden tripods and ropes and pulleys, and with horses and human effort doing the work of moving the stones. Of course they couldn't get a steam crane into the heart of the circle without doing more damage, and so they were using methods probably not so very different from those used by the original builders.

Eventually we got back into the carriage and Murdoch drove us home. The foreman had told me that he expected the work to be finished by mid-January, as long as there wasn't any snow, and I decided that we'd keep an eye on the weather forecast and come back the first time the weather was calm enough for mist to form. Only then would we find out if the hole was going to reopen or not.

Joe and Alex seemed a little more cheerful on the way back. I supposed that seeing that things were moving was responsible for that, although I was a bit worried about how they would feel if it transpired that the hole wasn't going to reappear. Still, I decided that it would be time enough to worry about that if it happened.

We had a little run of birthdays coming up: three of us were going to be fifteen over the next couple of weeks, starting with Albie on the 23rd.

"It's a pretty awful time for a birthday," he told us that evening, "especially if your father is a clergyman. I'd hardly see him in the run-up to Christmas: he'd be rushing about like a blue-arsed fly trying to get everything ready for the big services, and on my birthday he generally only stopped for long enough to thrust a card and a present at me and to shout 'Happy Birthday!' over his shoulder as he disappeared in the direction of the church. I thought it might get better when he became a bishop, but if anything it got worse, because now he seemed to be trying to organise twenty-odd parishes instead of one. And he never gave me what I wanted, either: time and time again I asked him for a nice box of make-up and some homo pornography, but he never delivered!"

He grinned at us. "Actually I wish I had asked for things like that," he went on. "I might have got kicked out of the house a bit sooner, but the look on his face would have almost made it worthwhile."

"Don't you miss you family at all?" Wolfie asked him.

"Of course I do. You can't imagine how often I thought about going back and asking them to give me another chance. But I knew it wouldn't work: even if they did take me back the relationship would have been completely different. And sooner or later I'd have done something else to annoy him… I decided I was better off where I was: I had a roof over my head, enough to eat most of the time and friends who didn't care who I wanted to sleep with. Even having to share a home with Sparrer wasn't enough to change my mind!"

Sparrer promptly hit him. We let them fight for a few seconds and then separated them.

"I'm afraid I don't know where to get you any porn," I told Albie, once order had been restored, "but if you like we can go into Abingdon tomorrow and get you some make-up."

"No, better not," he said. "I don't want your uncle to throw a fit and ask me to leave."

"I don't think he would, but maybe you're right. But… I bet you could get away with it on Excalibur! The officers all dress up in strange clothes for that, and I should think make-up would be perfectly acceptable there."

"What's Excalibur?"

"My uncle's æthership. Come to that, I ought to ask for a flying costume for my own birthday. I can't get shown up by General Wolfie any longer."

"Your uncle has an æthership? Do you think I'd be allowed to come on a flight with you some time?"

"Of course. In fact, that's one reason why I asked you to move down here, because eventually I'll be able to fly missions without my uncle, and I'm hoping to get a crew together of around my own age, so that by the time I get my own ship – when I'm twenty-one, hopefully – I'll already have a trained and experienced crew. That's why I asked if you knew anything about steam engines, because I was thinking you might make a good engineer."

"Are you serious?" he asked, staring at me.

"'E's serious," Sparrer confirmed. "We're all part of 'is crew. I work the telegraph-fings wot tell the engineers 'ow fast ter go. So if you finish up workin' wiv the engines, yer'll 'ave ter do wot I tell yer!"

"Leo must want his uncle's ship to crash if he lets you do anything important," Albie commented. "But obviously I'd really like that, Leo. I can't think of a lot of things I want to do more than fly."

"Wait until you're in a ship full of hydrogen and people are firing rockets at you," said Wolfie. "That has happened to me twice. The first time nearly killed me and cost me my leg… but even so, I would never give it up. Even if it's dangerous, it's still an incredible experience. And maybe if Tim is successful it will be safer."

"Perhaps we'll find out tomorrow," I said, because Tim had stopped me as we returned from Stonehenge and told me that he wanted to give me a demonstration of his progress next day. I wondered how far he was from a finished article. I didn't think he could be there yet, because I was under the impression that science generally takes ages to get anywhere. But of course Tim's father had been working on this project for several months before his death, and so perhaps…

"What do you really want for your birthday?" Alex asked Albie.

"How about a night of wickedness with the most gorgeous boy around?" suggested Albie. "And by 'gorgeous' I mean with blue eyes and black curly hair…"

I opened my mouth to tell him to shut up before Billy exploded, but before I could say anything Albie continued, "and of course 'gorgeous' also includes any blue-eyed, blond-haired cuties you might happen to know. Have you ever tried a threesome?"

Alex had, of course: on the night before he went back to his own world he'd played some games with Sparrer and me, but I wasn't sure that he'd told Billy about it. So I wasn't particularly surprised when he shook his head.

"Then I really hope you'll give me a chance to show you a few ideas," said Albie. "Don't worry, Billy: yes, I'm jealous as hell, but I can respect relationships, so I'm not going to try to get between you. Besides, Leo's already told me that if I do he'll send me back to the sewers so fast I won't know what's hit me."

"I won't," I said. "Instead I'll throw you out of Excalibur at a thousand feet and without a jumpshade. The last thing I want is to have my friends fighting each other, and there isn't much I wouldn't do to prevent it. Obviously if Alex and Billy decide to invite you to join them, that's their business, but I think the best present I can give you would be to sort you out some clothes. You can't go about in that charity collection for too long."

"I'd like that very much," he said. "It's a very long time indeed since I had a really good set of clothes. Thanks, Leo."

"What about you, Joe?" I asked. "You're next in line for a birthday, so what would you like?" Joe's birthday was on the 27th.

"Apart from a chance to go home, you mean?" He paused. "Sorry, Leo – I know you're trying hard to find one, so I shouldn't have said that. I don't really want anything, because I'm okay as I am. But if you really want to give me something I suppose a change of clothes would be a good idea – I can't keep borrowing Alex's spares."

"I should think that's an even worse time for a birthday than the 23rd," said Albie. "You get caught in the post-Christmas slump, when everyone's had enough of presents and celebrations."

"It's not quite that bad, because I'm Jewish, so we don't celebrate Christmas, and usually Chanukah is earlier than Christmas. This year they actually overlap, which is why I wasn't around yesterday evening and why I'll be disappearing from time to time over the next week, but in general my birthday isn't too close to the holiday. Actually having them coincide this year is quite nice. It won't make up for not having the family around, of course, but it's a lot better than if I had to celebrate my birthday on my own."

My own birthday was on January 7th, which was just long enough after Christmas and New Year for me not to suffer from losing my own special day in the general Christmas rush, although Wolfie had told me that in some of the German states presents were exchanged on Epiphany, which was January 6th, rather than Christmas. I was glad I didn't live there.

"What about you, Ben?" asked Joe. "When's your birthday?"

"I dunno. I ain't 'ad a birfday since I was six, an' I can't remember what day it was. I reckon I'm fourteen, 'cos I'm almost sure me ma died in two fahsand an' free, but I dunno any more than that."

"Then you ought to choose one," said Joe. "You have to have a birthday."

Sparrer shrugged. "It don't matter much," he said. "I'd like a birfday in the summer, though… what abaht August 27th?"

"Why then?"

"'Cos that's the day Leo took me aht of the sewers, so you could say that my life started again then."

"That means you won't get any presents for another eight months!" Joe warned him.

"I don't mind. I fink that'd be a good day fer a birfday, so if I can really choose, I'll 'ave that."

"I'll arrange it," I said. "We ought to get you some proper documents anyway, because you'll need to exist officially in the future. I'll get my uncle to talk to our solicitor about it."

That night I was sleeping in my own room. That may sound obvious, but I generally spent a couple of nights in Wolfie's room, and we had a rule that we should spend at least one night a week in our special room on the third floor. This was good for me – quite apart from the pleasure of sharing a fairly small bed with Wolfie, it obliged me to speak nothing but German for an entire evening and night, something I was keen to do: I was determined to eliminate the little grammar mistakes that had given me away to Pasha. In fact I'd suggested to Wolfie that we should speak German to each other even when we were sleeping in my room or his, and we were doing so this evening.

"Of course I'm happy to speak German with you," he said, putting a little more coal on the fire while I was getting undressed, "but there's nothing wrong with the way you speak it now. Even native speakers make slip-ups of grammar sometimes. Besides, we are most unlikely to be going into Russian-held territory again, so you're not going to find yourself wanting to be taken for a native speaker, are you?"

"No, but I'd still like to get better. Once we've got rid of the Russians I would imagine we'll be spending quite a lot of time in Prussia, and I don't want your servants laughing at my rubbish German."

"Your German isn't rubbish. And aren't you taking a few things for granted there? Even if we end up with better armour and radios, simply having air superiority won't be enough to dislodge the Russians on the ground. If it was, the Russians would have crossed the Rhine a long time ago."

"Perhaps. But radios would make a huge difference to our ground troops, too, and if the armour works on ætherships I imagine it'll work equally well on autocannons."

Wolfie got undressed and sat on the bed and I unstrapped his leg for him.

"I'd like to think you'll be able to go home to celebrate your eighteenth birthday," I went on. "Or at worst, your twenty-first."

"Well, that would be nice," he admitted. "But to be honest I'm perfectly happy right here – at least, I will be provided that you don't disappear again."

"Don't worry," I said. "I have no intention of disappearing anywhere. Wherever I go from now on, including back to Alex's world if we find a way to do that, you'll be coming with me. I'm not going to risk us ending up in different worlds again."

Wolfie wriggled into bed and I crossed the room to turn the lamp off, but before I reached the lamp there was a knock at the door. I called for whoever it was to come in, and the door opened and Albie entered the room.

"Sorry to disturb you so late," he said, "but I need to ask you something."

"Sure," I said, returning to the bed and getting into it, because whatever he wanted to ask, I didn't want to stand about naked listening to it.

"Thanks," he said, closing the door, approaching the bed and sitting on the edge of it. "You see, there's something else I'd like for my birthday, only I didn't want to ask in front of everyone. I don't mind just the two of you, but…"

"Ask away," I invited.

"Well… do you think you could arrange for me to see a doctor? I don't feel ill or anything – in fact I feel fine. But I'd like to be sure that I'm not carrying anything I shouldn't be. I'm sure you understand that in my previous line of work there are certain… hazards, shall we say, and I want to be absolutely certain that I'm clean before I do anything with anyone. Obviously you might prefer it not to be your own doctor, but if you can provide me with an address where I can find one who doesn't know you – I don't want anyone gossiping about you…"

"That's very thoughtful," I said. "I'm sure we can find one – there are probably a number in Abingdon, and if not Oxford is sure to have plenty. But if you're not completely certain that you're… well, you know – what were you intending to do with Alex and Billy if they'd said yes?"

"They did say yes. But you don't need to worry: there are plenty of things I can do without actually using my penis – in fact according to Sparrer you already know about some of them. Have you two actually…?"

"Not yet, no," I said. "I've thought about it, but I don't want to mess it up."

"You won't mess it up. Look, let me give you a quick lesson. There are a few little tricks you can use to make your partner enjoy it even more, and I'd be glad to show you both how to do that."

"What do you think?" I asked Wolfie. "We've spoken about doing this for ages, so what about getting a little tuition?"

"I don't see why not. After all, if we're going to learn something new, it would be a good idea to have an expert show us how to do it."

"You heard him," I said to Albie. "Go ahead."

"Thanks. May I join you, then?"

Without waiting for an answer he began to get undressed, and clearly this was a job he viewed with enthusiasm, because when his underwear came off he had an erection. This was the first time I'd seen him naked, and although he was a little skinnier than might have been considered ideal, I was sure that by the time he'd been with us a little longer he would begin to fill out a bit, just as Sparrer had done. Otherwise he looked good: he was clearly bigger than both of us where it counted, though not quite up there with Alex and Joe – I'd guess at somewhere between five and five and a half inches – and his balls were a bit bigger than mine too. He had no hair at all, but of course I already knew from Sparrer that this was because he removed it himself.

He climbed into bed, pushing me towards the middle of it and pulling the covers over us.

"Now," he said, "the most important thing is that there is absolutely no need to rush – unless you're paying by the hour, of course! And you don't need to rush straight down below the belt, either."

He ducked his head under the covers and I felt his lips close around my right nipple. For a minute or so he sucked, licked and even nibbled at it, and then he put his hand on the top of my thigh, stroking around the inside of it without quite getting close enough to touch my balls. Then he switched to the other nipple, and only after working away at that for some time did he finally move his head down my body. I thought he'd start to do something about the state of my erection, but not a bit of it – instead he took my balls into his mouth and started licking and sucking at those.

Next he carefully drew my foreskin down and started licking at the exposed tip, and that felt incredible: I had no idea that I was quite so sensitive there. And finally – finally! – he slipped my penis into his mouth… and then almost immediately took it out again.

"Of course, I could carry on," he said, "but that would hardly be fair on Wolfie. So if you'd like to swap places…"

I've never met a situation where the word 'frustrating' would be more appropriate, but I did as he said and spent the next few minutes watching Wolfie's reactions to being on the receiving end of the same treatment.

Eventually it was my turn again and he picked up where he had left off. He wasn't doing it at all quickly, but the combination of lips and tongue, together with what he was doing with his fingers at the same time – and I was absolutely certain that nobody had touched me there before – was enough to get me very close in a short space of time. And then the bastard stopped again.

"All right," he said, "now you should have the basic idea. There's just one more thing I need to show you, and that's the operating position. Wolfie, if you'd like to turn onto your side so that you're facing Leo… yes, that's perfect. Now Leo, if you'd like to get up and turn round… no, so that your head is nearer the bottom of the bed… up a bit… perfect. And now you should be able to do whatever comes naturally – and remember everything I've just shown you, all right? Splendid – you can tell me in the morning how you get on, because now I ought to be getting along to Alex's room. Night-night!"

He stood up, picked up his clothes and left the room, leaving me contemplating Wolfie's groin from a distance of about six inches. Well, I'd obviously heard about this position, but I hadn't expected to be trying it out. But when Wolfie made the first move by sliding his lips down my erection I decided that it would be better just to get on with it and think about it later, and so I slipped him into my mouth, sliding his foreskin down with my lips and setting to work, and quickly enough we fell into a rhythm with each other.

Really my only criticism would be that it didn't last long enough: with no previous experience of this neither of us was able to hold out for very long. But of course the second time around, after a short rest, gave us plenty of opportunities to experiment, and the results were pretty amazing…

We both slept very well that night, and when I compared notes with Alex the following morning at breakfast I discovered that, despite the presence of a third person in his bed – Albie had apparently stayed through the night – he had slept very well too.

"Aha!" commented Sparrer. "So Albie done wot 'e said an' come ter teach yer 'ow to give someone a proper…"

"Yes, he did," I interrupted – once again there were a couple of servants in the room, which made it imperative to prevent Sparrer from speaking with his usual indiscretion. "Has he been to visit you and Joe yet?"

"'E don't need ter. 'E taught me proper when we was in the sewers, an' it turns out that Joe's really good at it already. See, 'is bruvver an' 'is mate made 'im do it for 'em loads of times, an'…"

"Ben!" interrupted Joe, returning from the hotplates just too late to prevent this interesting piece of knowledge from being aired. "Do you really have to tell everyone everything I tell you privately?"

"Sorry. But you ain't got nuffink ter worry abaht – like I told you before, these are your mates an' they ain't gonna think anyfing bad abaht yer, whatever they hear abaht yer. Don't yer know that?"

"Yes, but there are still some things… oh, never mind."

"Sorry, Joe," I said. "But he's right, anyway: none of us is going to change the way we think about you, whatever we find out. You're our friend, and nothing's going to change that. And he's right about something else, too: you look much better now you've let your hair grow. Long hair suits you."

"You think so?"

"Sure," agreed Alex. "Now all you need is a face transplant!"

Joe obviously couldn't think of an instant reply to that, so he settled for giving Alex the finger.

"Well, since you know about it," he said, "it's true – not long after he saw what was on my USB stick Danny asked if I'd ever sucked anyone, and when I said no he said I could try doing it to him. He's not really my type…"

"An' what is your type?" interrupted Sparrer.

"Oh, I don't know… about five feet tall, brown eyes, wavy brown hair, speaks with a broad London accent, used to live in a sewer, can't keep a secret…"

"I can an' all, if I have ter," said Sparrer, whom this description of course fitted perfectly. "I'd never say nuffink in front of the grown-ups."

"Well, anyway, it wasn't as if I really had a lot of choice, and in any case I'd often wondered what it would be like, and so I went round to Danny's house after school and did it for him. I suppose if I'd wanted to get out of doing it again I could have deliberately done it really badly, but it was sort of interesting, and I thought that it might be a good idea to learn how to do it properly in case I ever got a proper boyfriend in the future – after all, by then I knew I wasn't going to be going out with girls…

"Anyway, I did it a few more times, and he told me things to try and I did a few experiments of my own and in the end I got quite good at it – at least, that's what Danny said. Then, of course, he told Simon and I had to do it for him too, and he really liked it, so I must have been doing it okay. Mind you, Ben's taught me a few new things since I got here, so if I ever get back I'll have some new tricks to show them both…"

He went quiet, and I knew he was thinking once more about being trapped in the wrong world.

"We'll find a way," I promised him again. "You heard what they said about Stonehenge being finished by the middle of next month. And if it doesn't work I'm putting together a list of other places we can try."

"And in the meantime you can keep practisin' on me," Sparrer promised him. "By the time you get 'ome yer'll be better at it than Albie, even."

I thought that might be quite difficult, but I was quite happy to let them try. I was definitely going to try myself, even if it took a very long time to reach that level…

After lunch Tim took us to the old stable block – or rather, just beyond the block – and here he handed me a square of what looked like blue-grey plastic, although it didn't feel quite like plastic, more like china. It was probably about an eighth of an inch thick and perhaps nine inches square, and it was light, seeming to weigh very little.

"Is this it?" I asked, passing it to my uncle. "Surely that won't stop anything!"

"You'd be surprised," Tim told me. "But no, that isn't it: that's just one layer. The full armour will have five layers like that. See, that's one way the Russians got it wrong: their armour is just one fairly thick layer, but it's far more efficient used in multiple thin layers. And it's light because it isn't solid: look at the corner."

When my uncle handed it back I saw that one corner of the sheet had been removed, and now we could see that the interior of the sheet seemed to be composed mostly of small bubbles.

"It starts out as a foam," Tim explained. "Well, actually it starts out as a mixture of metallic oxides and silicates ground together. Then we add a particular metal oxide which has been altered by heating it under pressure at high temperatures with a little of our meteor extract. That gets mixed with the silicates and other metal oxides. Then we add a solution of gum Arabic, mix it thoroughly and aerate it, and that gives us the foam I mentioned before. That goes into moulds and after it's been slowly dried it's removed from the moulds and baked at a very high temperature. And this is the result.

"Its main advantage is the way it dissipates the force of an impact horizontally, rather than vertically. Imagine dropping a piece of soft fruit onto a road: the fruit splatters sideways, rather than sinking into the road, and the same thing happens with most projectiles that hit this. Of course there is some vertical impact, but spread over a much wider area than simply the point of impact, and therefore with much less penetration.

"One other interesting thing is the way you don't get a large ricochet if a bullet hits this, unless it strikes at a fairly acute angle: instead the material absorbs most of the energy, and the bullet will only rebound a very short distance. Oh, and best of all: it's fireproof. But enough talk: time for a demonstration."

He led us in the direction of the low wooded ridge that lay to the south of the house, and we saw that a trench had been dug at right-angles to the ridge, so that it ran from level ground at the field end to a far end that was deep in the earth of the ridge, thus forming a basic firing range. At the far end a much larger sheet of armour had been set up.

"Now I could just impress you by firing a pistol at this little sheet," Tim told us. "It would scarcely mark it. But nobody is going to be shooting at your ship with a pistol, so I think we'll move straight on to the full-scale demonstration."

At the near end of the range there was a large piece of canvas, and when Tim and his colleagues pulled it away we saw that beneath it were a field gun of the type we carried on Excalibur and a single-barrel Hale rocket launcher. Tim had brought a gun crew from Excalibur with him, and we watched as they loaded the field gun, aimed it at the armour at the far end of the trench and then fired. I expected Tim to lead us down the trench to have a look at the results, but instead he indicated to the gun crew that they should move to the rocket-launcher, and a minute or so later a rocket had been sent in the wake of the shell. And now Tim did take us down the trench.

I'd expected to see the sheet of armour in pieces, or at least with a large hole through the middle, but while there were signs of damage the sheet was still intact, and there was no hole.

"That's two close-range direct hits," Tim pointed out. "We estimate you'd need to hit this sheet four times in exactly the same place to penetrate. That's the strength of the multi-layer system. Later we'll test this sheet to destruction to find out exactly what it takes to knock a hole in it, but in any event it's clearly a lot better than what you're using at the moment: it's far stronger and a great deal lighter, too. It's also probably at least twice as effective as the Russian single layer version.

"Of course there are a few disadvantages: first, the only way to make it is using moulds, and that includes moulding in the holes for the screws or whatever else we're going to use to fix it to the ship: it's really difficult to drill through the finished sheet. So you'll have to carry replacement sheets with you: you won't be able to make any new ones. And if you're not carrying a sheet of the correct size you'll have to stick it into place instead of using screws or bolts, and that won't be anything like as secure. Second, unless we get a really huge furnace the sections are going to have to be comparatively small, which means we'll need a vast number of sheets to cover an entire æthership. Again, we're looking for a larger one."

"Do the sheets have to be flat?" asked my uncle. "It would be good if we could protect the gondolas too, but that'll be difficult unless you can make some shaped panels."

"We can make it any shape you like. Most of them will be flat, but we can make the moulds any form you want, so we can certainly produce shielding for the gondolas."

"Excellent," said my uncle. "Thank you. I'll talk to you later about the next stage."

I wasn't quite sure what he meant by 'the next stage' unless it was actually manufacturing enough panels to cover Excalibur, but the most important thing was that the armour seemed to work. Now, if only we could find a way to produce electric generators and radios…

But my uncle said that we could look into that after Christmas, because the next couple of weeks were a holiday for everyone, including our research scientists. I supposed taking a short break wasn't a bad idea at all: after all, there was no great hurry, and everyone would be able to return to work more enthusiastically if they had a chance to stop and enjoy themselves over the festival.

In fact the actual festival kept me quite busy, what with attending church services at midnight on Christmas Eve and then twice on Christmas Day, hosting a party for some of our neighbours on Boxing Day (to be fair, my uncle did most of the work; I just had to greet the visitors, sit at the top of the table and generally act pleasantly) and visiting all of the houses on the estate to greet the workers who lived there and to thank them for their work throughout the year. There was also a rather less formal party for the estate workers on New Year's Eve, and that was rather more fun, if only because I wasn't the only one who felt out of place: by no means all of the farm workers and kitchen hands looked comfortable in their best clothes.

I caught sight of Graham Reed and a couple of the other stable-boys standing in a corner, tugging at their stiff collars and looking as if they wished they were somewhere else, and I went to join them.

"Sorry about this," I said. "If it was up to me we'd be dressed in ordinary clothes and playing cards up in your stable-loft, but my uncle says we have to have this traditional arrangement instead. I'll have to see if I can find a way to change the tradition next year. What's that you're drinking?"

"Flat lemonade," they told me.

"Well, trust me, it's still better than the champagne. Fancy some cider instead?"

"But, My Lord, Mr Francis said as how we weren't to drink anything with alcohol in!" protested Graham.

"Stuff that – it's New Year's Eve. Come with me."

I led them through the room, rounding up my friends as I went, and then slipped out into the hall.

"All right, Ben, you're the expert," I said to Sparrer. "Take us to the pantry and find us some cider."

We found an empty room on the second floor, lit a fire in the grate and spent the next hour or so much more informally. It took the stable-lads a couple of glasses before they started to relax properly, but I told them to undo their collars and take off their shoes, and after a bit they seemed to start enjoying themselves. If I'd been free to choose I would have stayed there for the rest of the evening, but at about quarter past eleven I said that I would have to go back to the party.

"Sorry, Wolfie, but I think you'd better come too, because they'll notice if we're not there for the speeches and stuff at midnight," I said. "But the rest of you, feel free to stay here and relax. Ben, if you need to go and find some more cider, feel free, and if anyone stops you, tell them I sent you. Just try not to get completely drunk, especially you three lads, because if you go back to the stables and puke over Mr Francis, don't expect me to come and rescue you!"

I somehow got through the speeches, toasts and everything else that went on either side of midnight. Probably it was just as well that I'd had a couple of drinks, because otherwise I'd have found the way everyone seemed to want to offer a toast to my 'welcome return to take my rightful place, et cetera, et cetera' unendurable. It still felt impossible to me that I should be the head of this estate and all these workers – the previous New Year's Eve had been spent with just Auntie Megan and Uncle Jim in a small house in North London.

I managed to give a speech – a very, very short one – in response, thanking everyone for the work they had done through the year and for their kind wishes, and concluding with a toast to a New Year of health, happiness and good harvests. And then, thank goodness, I was able to say goodnight and slip away.

I found that our private party on the second floor was still in full swing, though I noticed that Sparrer had found a couple of bottles of lemonade – the good stuff, with plenty of fizz – as well as more cider, so it looked as if the stable lads at least were playing safe. Alex had produced his cards while we were away and a game was under way when we got back, although rather to my surprise they were playing for tokens rather than clothes.

"We were afraid someone might come looking for us," explained Alex, when I asked. "If we're just having a quiet game and a couple of drinks we thought we'd get away with it, but if we were undressed, not so much."

"You're probably right. Well, find us some tokens and deal us in."

By about a quarter past one I was feeling ready for bed, and quite a few of the others were yawning, too: in fact one of the stable lads had already fallen asleep.

"I'm off to bed," I announced. "Graham, if you three want to sleep here tonight, that's fine with me, and I'll square it with Mr Francis in the morning if you need me to. You might as well, because you'll get very wet if you go outside – it sounds like the rain is pretty heavy now."

"Thank you," said Graham. "Maybe we should do that."

"That bed's a bit small for three," observed Albie. "Why don't you let Roger and Ted use this one? There's plenty of space for you in my room."

"Albie…" I began, because so far Albie had been on his best behaviour, wearing fairly conservative clothes and with not a hint of make-up, his accent halfway between Eton and Sewer and his effeminate side completely submerged behind a heavy screen of Butch. I was pretty sure that Graham had no idea of what he might be getting into here.

"Don't worry, Leo," said Albie. "I won't step out of line, I promise."

"Don't," I said. "I'm serious, Albie. Anyway, I probably won't make it to breakfast, so I'll see the rest of you at lunch."

I grabbed Wolfie and headed for my own room, which at least was on this floor: I wasn't sure that I could handle stairs any longer.

I remembered to drink some water before I got into bed, which was something I'd learned after the incident with the half-bottle of wine three years or so previously: I hoped it would be enough to prevent a headache in the morning. And I was so tired that I fell asleep as soon as I lay down.

2012 began with a bright sunny day: the rain had cleared overnight and from my window everything looked as good as it ever did in mid-winter. I didn't have a headache and I was even awake early enough for breakfast, so I went and had a wash, got dressed, shook Wolfie awake (and he also seemed no worse the wear from the previous evening's festivities), waited for him to wash and dress and then went down to the small dining room with him.

None of my friends had yet made an appearance, but my uncle was already at work on a plate of sausages, bacon and eggs.

"Good morning, Leo!" he said, loudly. "How's your head this morning?"

"Fine, thank you," I said. "I didn't have that much to drink, you know."

"Really? Then I wonder what happened to all those missing cider bottles in the pantry… come on, Leo, surely you didn't think you could disappear last night without anyone noticing?"

"Ah. Well, all right, I did have a little private celebration with my friends – after all, that wasn't the most exciting party I've ever been to, and I really don't like champagne. I thought you could spare me for an hour or so. And I really didn't drink that much."

"Don't worry, Leo, it's fine. I'm glad you came back for the run-in to midnight, though, because it would have been very awkward if you hadn't been there for the toasts."

"I know. But you don't need to worry, Uncle Gil – you've taught me about my responsibilities, and I wasn't going to let you down, last night or at any other time."

"I know that. And I'm proud of you: you've picked up the role of duke very well over the past four months. So if you need some time away from all the formal stuff, that's fine with me, just as long as you're here when we really need you."

After breakfast I went back upstairs to find out how many of my friends were actually intending to get out of bed at all that day, but as I stepped out into the second floor corridor I bumped into Graham Reed.

"Morning!" I greeted him, trying not to sound anxious. "Did you sleep well?"

"Yes, thank you, Your… I mean, Leo... or are we back to 'Your Grace' again?"

"No, I don't think so: there aren't any adults around who might be scandalized by your 'shocking lack of respect', so 'Leo' is fine. So Albie didn't keep you awake all night?"

"Well, we did talk for a while, mainly about what it was like living underground, but we were both quite tired, and we went to sleep quite quickly. But I like him – he knows masses of funny stories."

"Mostly dirty ones, I imagine."

"Well, some of them were… most of them, I suppose. But we got on well, and he said he'd like to see where I work, so I said as he could come round any time. Maybe I can teach him to ride."

"Maybe you can – and maybe you can teach him a bit about running a furnace, too, because that's something he does need to learn."

"Alright, I certainly don't mind doing that. And thanks for last night: we were dying of boredom down there. I'm just off to see if the others are awake yet, because probably we ought to get back to the stables. It's a holiday today, but I don't want Mr Francis to think as we've run away, or something stupid like that."

"All right. I was on my way to see if the others are awake, so I'll let you go and find Roger and Ted. But thanks for joining in last night: it's more fun with more people. I'll make sure we tell you next time we're having a party."

"Would you? I'd really like that. Just send Albie with a message."

He headed off along the corridor, and I thought that I owed Albie an apology, because it was clear that he hadn't misbehaved overnight – or if he had, Graham certainly hadn't minded…

The next few days were nice and relaxing. We played games, read books and went out on our horses a couple of times, and Wolfie and I spent one afternoon cleaning the cobwebs out of the passage system. We also lit a fire in the secret room, just to make sure that the chimney was clear, and we found that once it had been burning for a few minutes the room became quite warm. So we went and found a couple of chairs and a small table, so that if we ever had to use the room we could at least do so with a little comfort.

There was another church service to attend on January 6th and then came the morning of my fifteenth birthday, the first one I'd celebrated at Culham since 2007. It was traditional here for presents to be offered after breakfast, and so once we'd finished breakfast we went into the smaller reception room.

I hadn't really known what to ask for. Back in Alex's world I would probably have been hoping for video games or a new smartphone, but in a world that had no mobile phones, no internet and indeed no electricity I'd had to try to think of something else, and not much had sprung to mind: there really wasn't very much that I needed.

The one thing I had asked my uncle for was a new watch, because of course Pasha had taken my tenth birthday one. Since we'd returned from the mission to Norway I'd been wearing my old wristwatch, the one I had brought with me from Alex's world, but I knew that the battery in that wouldn't last indefinitely and that I wouldn't be able to replace it when it ran out, and in any case I'd got used to having a pocket watch instead. Of course, ideally I'd have preferred to get my original watch back, but that hardly seemed likely.

There were a few other things waiting for me in the reception room - a penknife, a new chess set, a pack of cards in a silver box, and a few other bits and pieces – but no watch. But I did have one other thing I'd asked for, and that was a proper flying outfit. I'd taken a risk here and asked Wolfie to choose something, rather than picking something out for myself: my only specification was that it should not, under any circumstances, include a steel helmet, with or without a leaping lion on it.

"I asked everyone else for ideas," Wolfie told me, which didn't exactly fill me with hope.

"Yes, I suggested a pointy red hat and a fishing rod," said Alex. "Then you could have spent your time between flights filling in as a garden gnome."

"Up yours, Demetriou," I said. "I'm growing, you know: I'm two inches taller now than I was when I got here."

"Well, so are the rest of us. You're still a midget."

I looked at him and realised that it was true: he was still the same size relative to me as he had been before, so if I had grown, he must have done so too.

"You know, when I get my own ship I'm going to design everyone's uniforms myself," I threatened him. "You'll be wearing a bikini and a bowler hat. Of course, by then I'll probably be taller than you anyway."

That got more of a laugh than I had expected: I hadn't thought it was that funny. I shrugged and picked up the package that presumably held my new outfit and started to open it.

"I know you don't like riding boots much," said Wolfie as I pulled a pair of plain black shoes from the wrapping, "so I thought you'd prefer straight-cut trousers and ordinary shoes instead of riding-breeches. But it'll be easy to change if you decide boots are better."

"No, thank you," I said. "Boots look great with your white uniform, but they're not really me."

"We could add some five inch heels…" suggested Alex, grinning at me. I ignored him and kept unwrapping.

Now I could see that the colour chosen was dark green, and I liked that: Wolfie looked good in white, but I wanted something different. And once it was out of its wrapping and I could see it properly I had to admit that I liked it. The trousers were simply a fairly ordinary pair of trousers in dark green, with no stripes or other decorations, and the jacket, while clearly military, was also fairly simple, with none of the braid and ornamentation that distinguished Wolfie's own uniform. It just had five silver buttons down the front with two breast pockets and two larger ones lower down, all fastened with smaller buttons, and no other decoration at all apart from a small blue and black patch on each side of the collar, on which was embroidered a red Culham lion.

"I know you didn't want anything too flashy," Wolfie said, "so I got you an actual fighting kit, rather than a parade one like mine. It's based on the Saxon uniform, but I've replaced the original collar patches with your own."

"Wolfie, it's perfect!" I said. "Can I try it on?"

"Of course. I'll come and help you."

I picked up the uniform and went out into the hall. I was going to go into the conference room to change, but instead Wolfie shepherded me into the billiard-room, which was on the opposite side of the hall.

"There's a mirror in here," he said when I queried this.

"Is there? I've never noticed one."

We got into the billiard room and found that I was right: no mirror.

"Oh, well, never mind," he said. "Come on, then – let's see what you look like!"

I kept the same shirt on: the uniform jacket buttoned to the neck, so it wouldn't matter what I wore underneath. And everything fitted perfectly, including the belt that went on over the jacket. There was another Culham lion engraved on the belt buckle, too.

"I didn't think you'd want a sword," Wolfie told me, "but you can add a holster for a pistol if you want. You won't trip over that the way I trip over my sword when I'm not careful. Stand up and let's see… well, I think it really suits you. Now, there are a couple of other things that go with it: first, there's a choice of hats. I know you didn't want a helmet, but a hat's a good idea when it's cold. There's a formal one and an informal one."

He dug into his bag and handed me a hat that looked quite like a baseball cap, except that this was green and had a red lion badge on the front. As I've said before, I don't really like hats, but when I tried this one on it was comfortable enough.

"Or there's this," said Wolfie, handing me something that looked as if it belonged on a World War Two German Field-Marshal, except that it had a lion badge instead of an eagle.

"Er, no, I don't think so," I said.

"Go on, try it – please?"

I sighed, removed the informal cap and put this one on. It was the right size, but I was sure I looked a complete idiot. Wolfie, however, didn't seem to think so.

"That looks absolutely perfect!" he told me. "Come on, let's go and see what the others think!"

I thought they would probably die laughing, but then I realised that just one little snigger from Alex would give me the perfect excuse not to wear that hat again. So I allowed Wolfie to lead me back to the reception room. And nobody laughed at all, least of all Alex, who stared at me.

"Bloody hell, Leo, you look amazing!" he said. "I wish I had a camera – too bad my phone battery's been flat for the past three months."

"You don't think the hat is overdoing it?"

"No – if anything, the hat makes it."

"All right," said Wolfie. "Now, I said there were a couple of things to go with the uniform. The hat was one; the other's outside. But I'm afraid we need to blindfold you first."

Well, I don't mind surprise presents, so I removed the hat and allowed Wolfie to blindfold me, after which he led me out into the hall. We paused near the door while he helped me into a greatcoat, and I could hear my friends putting coats on as well. Then they led me out of the house.

I assumed that this was going to be something that wouldn't fit inside the house, like a new auto-carriage. I wondered what the driving age in this world was – could it possibly be as low as fifteen? It didn't seem likely. Of course, I could still drive on private land, and we had plenty of that, so perhaps… Or it might be a horse, because I still didn't actually have one of my own: when I went out riding I just rode whichever one of the horses I came to first.

We walked on. Surely now we were too far from the house for it to be a horse, or even a carriage? What if this was actually a trick: perhaps it was traditional to throw the heir of the house into the river on his fifteenth birthday? But no, that couldn't be it: there was no way that they would push me into the river in my new uniform – and, besides, we were going uphill, not down through the Long Meadow.

Finally we stopped and someone began to undo the blindfold. I heard my uncle's voice say "Happy Birthday, Leo," and the blindfold fell away.

"This," said my uncle, indicating what was in front of me, "is His Majesty's Æthership Excelsior. She's yours. Congratulations!"

I simply stood and stared.

"When we started building her she was going to be an exact twin to Excalibur," my uncle continued. "But over the past three months or so we've changed a few things. To start with, this will be the first ship to be fitted with the new armour – you can see that the nose cone and front twenty metres have already been done. We needed to have that much complete so that we could paint the flag and name…"

I looked at the nose of the ship and saw that the name was indeed there, and above it was the leaping lion of Culham, rather than my uncle's stag.

"It's also going to carry an electricity generator, so it will be lit, and possibly heated, inside. We won't need a gondola purely to generate steam for lifting because this ship won't have any steam bags: once the new armour is in place we believe it'll be safe to use hydrogen in every envelope. Of course, there will still be partitions between the envelopes – Tim said something about fitting gypsum partitions to prevent fire moving from one bag to the next – but if the armour does half of what Tim thinks it will we won't really need them. You can see that there is a gondola where the steam one used to be, but on this ship the steam created in that one will power the electric generator.

"With the added lift, and the weight saving from using the new armour, we're going to give her four engines instead of two, and if you look there," (and he pointed halfway along the hull) "you'll see that we're putting a pair of rocket turrets on the underside as well as the usual ones on top. We'll have to wait until she's fully fitted before we discover exactly what she can carry, but we're hoping for a lot more guns than Excalibur.

"Of course she won't be ready to fly for a few weeks yet: we have to fit the rest of the armour and complete the wiring for the electricity system, and we'll be moving her to Abingdon for that, but as from today you're her captain. Once she's ready to fly I'll draw up a schedule of test flights and trialling with you, and you can also use those to train your crew. Of course to start with we'll be using the Excalibur crew, but hopefully by this time next year you'll be able to fly her with a crew of your own choosing. So – what do you think?"

About the only thing I was capable of thinking at that point was "Wow!" because I hadn't expected to get anywhere near a ship of my own until I was a lot older… and of course that explained why my friends had found my remark about being taller than Alex by the time I got my own ship hilarious. I turned to face them and found them all grinning widely.

"Did you all know about this?" I asked, and was met with a battery of nodding heads.

"You should see your face," said Alex. "Yes, we've known for some time – since before Christmas, anyway."

"See?" said Sparrer. "Told yer I can keep things secret if I have ter."

"So aren't you going to have a look at the bridge?" asked Wolfie. "I think you should."

So I allowed my uncle to lead me onto the bridge. It wasn't finished yet: the usual desks were there, but there were two others that were still in a skeletal state.

"This one will control the electricity supply throughout the ship," said my uncle, indicating the first of these, "and the other one will be for the radio operator – although I have to admit that we haven't made a lot of progress with the radios yet. Apparently they are so strange internally that they might be impossible to replicate. Still, we thought we'd put a desk in, just in case. And you'll see that we also put in chairs for the captain and first officer. I've decided that I'll put one of those on my own ship, too – I'm getting too old to stand up all the time!"

"Try your chair out," suggested Wolfie, so I made my way to the chair, which was at the front of the gondola, to one side of the chart table and right next to the wheel. It was a swivel chair, so I spun it to face me – and saw that there was a small package on it. I picked up the package, sat down – and that chair was really comfortable – and opened the package, which held a small box, which in turn held a watch. Like my old one, this had an engraving of the Culham lion of the front, and inside it was engraved with 'To Leo on his 15th birthday, January 7th 2012'

"Thank you," I said, and I got up, crossed the room and hugged my uncle, not caring in the slightest that my friends were watching. "Thank you very much for everything."

"Well," said my uncle, leading me back outside and heading for the house once more, "I originally thought it would be your sixteenth birthday when we gave you the ship, but the way you handled the Norway mission, and especially the last part of it, convinced me that you were almost ready now. In fact, everything you've done since you came back to us has convinced me that you're ready for the responsibility – the work you've done for the homeless in particular, but the way you've taken on the duties of the estate too. I hope you do manage to find a way to reopen the hole to Alex's world, because I would very much like to meet the people who brought you up while you lived there. They did a wonderful job."

I didn't feel capable of speaking at this point, so I said nothing. Obviously finding a way back to Alex's world was top of my list of things to do, so I really hoped it would be possible to introduce Auntie Megan and Uncle Jim to my real uncle one day. But at that moment, everything else in my world looked perfect: I had a great place to live, I had money, I had some really good friends, and I had my own æthership. Things surely couldn't get better than this…

I didn't realise it at the time, but I was absolutely right: things wouldn't get better. In fact, before I was very much older things would get worse – much, much worse…

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