by David Clarke
There was one other significant change to my life that followed my birthday, and it was considerably less welcome than the presents had been. A couple of weeks later things were back to normal: Excelsior had been moved to Abingdon to have its electric wiring fitted and school had started again, and I was expecting life to continue much as it had before, at least until my ship was ready to fly. But I was wrong.
After breakfast one Saturday morning in mid-January my uncle asked me to go with him to his study. I found it amazingly tidy: all of the paperwork that had covered the desk on my previous visit had disappeared.
"I'm going back to Chisbury," my uncle told me. "You don't need me here full time any longer, and it's about time I dedicated a bit more time to my own estate."
"But… I won't be able to manage without you!" I protested.
"Yes, you will. It won't mean a lot of work for you anyway: Jon Hall manages the estate with complete competence when I'm not around, and Allchorn looks after the staff, so the only thing I normally have to do is sign the paperwork, and I know perfectly well you can manage that. If I didn't think you could handle it I wouldn't go, but as it is I can see no reason not to."
"But aren't you my legal guardian?" I asked.
"Yes, but that doesn't mean I have to live in the same house. Of course it would be different if you were just an ordinary boy living in a cottage on the estate – then there would be no question of you being left on your own. But you won't be on your own here: you'll have an entire household to look after you. You don't need me under your feet all the time.
"Obviously if something does come up I'll be happy to come back to help you to sort it out, and in any case I'll drop in every now and again anyway to make sure you're getting on all right. And if you need me urgently, Chisbury isn't that far away: you can get a galloper to me in under an hour, or you could send Murdoch to fetch me in the autocarriage."
"I suppose so," I said, unenthusiastically. Then I thought of something and perked up a little.
"Does this mean I'll have to stop studying?" I asked.
"No, it most certainly does not! You'll continue your education exactly as you're doing at the moment. It doesn't take that long to sign a few papers. Education is important, Leo: just because you have money doesn't mean that you don't need to improve yourself, understand? If Mr Devlin isn't happy with you I've asked him to let me know, and if that's the reason I have to come back for a visit, you'll really wish I'd stayed away!"
"What about flying?" I asked. "Does this mean no more missions together?"
"Of course not. I'll be moving Excalibur to Chisbury, but any time we fly – at least until your own ship is ready – we'll come and collect you and the rest of the crew. After all, it's not just you and your friends: quite a lot of the rest of my crew live here too. And I'll want you to attend any meetings I might have with Admiral Faulkner or the French naval command, too – in fact we'll probably continue to hold those here, because the facilities are better here than at my place. So don't worry, Leo – I'm not just going to abandon you completely!"
Obviously in one way I was glad to feel that my uncle trusted me enough to leave me to manage without him, but in another I knew I was going to miss having him around whenever I had a problem. I suppose it's part of growing up that you learn to stand on your own two feet, and at fifteen I wasn't a little kid any more, but even so…
Still, even without my uncle I wouldn't exactly be on my own. I already discussed just about everything with Wolfie, and the rest of my friends could give me help and advice too if I needed it. And I supposed that Mr Hall would probably be very helpful if there was a sudden crisis, too, so probably I'd get by.
My uncle moved out just before the end of January. In fact the only difference to my daily life was that I now had a half-hour session with Mr Hall at the end of each afternoon, in which I talked to him about anything that needed my attention and signed any papers that needed an official signature, and I didn't take too long to get used to that being a part of my daily routine.
The next issue I had to deal with was going to be finding a crew for Excelsior, and so one Saturday morning at the beginning of February I sat down with my friends in the conference room to talk about it.
"The problem is that most of the men on the estate are already part of the crew of Excalibur," I told them. "Okay, I expect my uncle will be able to find some replacements for some of them in Chisbury, but that's a smaller estate, so there won't be so many men available. And Excelsior's a bigger ship, too: we'll need five teams of stokers and engineers for each watch, for a start. I suppose I could go recruiting in Abingdon and the local villages, but I'd sooner not just take people off the streets without knowing anything about them."
"I know as how the rest of the lads will want to come," Billy pointed out. "It's true as some of them are probably too young, but most are close to my age."
"We'll have time to train them," Wolfie pointed out. "After all, your uncle said we won't be expected to fly proper combat missions until you're sixteen, so that gives us a whole year. So it won't matter if some of the crew are a bit young at the moment."
."I suppose that's true," I agreed. "There aren't all that many of them, but it'll help."
"If you don't mind them starting out young, I know where you can find plenty of volunteers," offered Albie. "Virtually every kid you've rescued from the sewers would fall over himself in order to sign up. They think you're the next best thing to God, and even if you told them how dangerous ætherships can be I don't think many of them would change their minds. If Sparrer and I did the rounds of the new Children's Homes you've set up we could probably get enough boys to crew half a dozen ætherships."
I thought about that, and I didn't need to look at Wolfie's face to know what he would think about a crew of pickpockets, thieves, con-artists and rent-boys, and I suspect my face reflected the same doubts, because Sparrer decided to chip in at that point.
"He's right," he said. "Yeah, we're scum, and when we was living down Bazalgette's you couldn't have trusted none of us. But now... now it's different. Now we're living like normal people, and we ain't stealing no more, neither. There ain't nothing they wouldn't do for you. Look at me: I was shit, and you still took me in, and now I've got proper friends and a proper life. I'd kill myself for you if you told me to – and so would any of them kids in London. Take them on as crew for your ship and I swear none of them will ever let you down."
Sparrer's English had come a long way since Christmas: he'd started attending the village school at the beginning of January and had been working hard at his diction, with a lot of extra help from Albie. His grammar was still all over the place, but he was putting in a real effort, and even Wolfie had told me how impressed he was.
As for the thought of a crew from the sewers...it was true that a crew full of Sparrers would be a handful, but by now I was pretty sure I could trust him with my life, and if what he and Albie were saying about their fellow orphans was true, then loyalty would be one thing I wouldn't have to worry about. And if we were supposed to be privateers, maybe there was no harm in having a crew of pirates... Put it this way: if it ever came to hand-to-hand combat, I'd back a crew of Sparrers over a crew of nicely brought up Wolfies any day.
"Okay, you're on," I said. "We'll work out what the complement of the ship will be when she's finished, and then you two can go to London to recruit as many as we need to make up the shortfall between what we have on the estate and what we need to run the ship on a full three-watch basis. Get some older kids if you can – we'll need to appoint some petty officers – and I'll arrange a training schedule for them with my uncle. I want every one of them to have made at least two flights in Excalibur before Easter."
"Where are you going to put them all?" asked Wolfie. "There won't be room in the house, even if…"
"Even if I'm prepared to fill the place up with criminals, you mean? We'll have to arrange some temporary accommodation somewhere. Tents, if we can't find anywhere else. I'll discuss it with Mr Hall this afternoon. But we don't want them here long term – at least, not until we're making regular flights in Excelsior – and I don't want to mess up their schooling too much, because they're bound to be miles behind as it is. We'll try to get as much as possible done in the holiday in the third week of the month.
"Now, I'm going to need a lot of help with this, because I've still got to look after the normal running of the place, so it would be better if one of you can take on the training. Any volunteers?"
"I'll do it," said Wolfie.
That came as a surprise. "Really?" I said. "Why would you want to do that?"
He shrugged. "I've got far more experience on an æthership than anyone else here, so I know what's needed. Besides, it'll be interesting."
"Yes, but… I know how you feel about sewer-kids…"
"No, you don't. You know how I used to feel. Yes, I still have my doubts, and I'm not sure it would be sensible to have huge numbers of them in the house – there's sure to be a bad apple or two somewhere. But you were absolutely right about Ben, and if he could turn out like he has, then I think we should give the same chance to some of the others. And organising the crew is one of the First Officer's jobs, anyway. So I don't mind working with them, although I might need Albie to interpret for me!"
I left the organisation of the training to Wolfie, who recruited Alex and Albie to help him. Albie and Sparrer made a couple of trips to London and had no trouble at all finding volunteers, even though Albie told me that if anything he'd over-emphasised the dangers of crewing a fighting æthership. Of course, in all probability any warning would have gone in one ear and out the other: once these street kids heard the word 'fly' everything else became meaningless. In any event, when we ran our first training course during the school half-term holiday in February, we ended up with more kids than we could accommodate and had to borrow some more tents from the army base in Oxford.
Uncle Gil was only too happy to help: he'd been doing some recruiting of his own and needed to train his own crew, and so he'd arranged to bring Excalibur back on the Saturday so that we could undertake our first training flight the following day. Our trainees had travelled down on the Saturday, too. I'd left everything to Wolfie, and so apart from noticing out of the window when the first batch arrived from the station I didn't get involved on the Saturday at all.
But when I got up on the Sunday I discovered that my day had already been organised for me. Wolfie went down to breakfast with me and then escorted me back up to my room and told me to put my uniform on.
"Do I really need to?" I asked. "We're not flying until later, are we?"
"Well, actually, we are – your uncle moved it forward to this morning. I think some of his own trainees have plans for later today. And in any case, I want you to make an impression. This is going to be your crew, and I want them to see you at your best. So, your full uniform, please – including the hat."
Unenthusiastically I put the uniform on, and as I took the jacket out of the wardrobe I found that Wolfie must have taken it and sent it back to the tailor's without telling me, because it now had some extra decoration: a pair of shoulder-tabs decorated with intricate criss-crossing silver thread and two gold pips, some extra buttons on the cuffs, which were now in two-tone green in what Wolfie told me was the Saxon style, and another red leaping lion badge above the right-hand breast pocket.
"What do I need all this shiny stuff for?" I asked.
"I'll explain later. Just put it on. Oh, and be careful with the belt: there's a gun in the holster. It's not loaded – at least, I don't think so…"
I stared at him.
"Wolfie, I know you don't trust the sewer kids," I said, '"but I hardly think they're likely to attack me!"
"No, that's not it. I just want you to look like a proper officer, that's all. Don't worry, if I thought they were likely to attack you I'd be carrying a machine gun myself. Actually I should think there probably isn't a group of people anywhere who would be less likely to attack you. Come on, get the jacket on."
I sighed and put the jacket on, did up the belt – complete with pistol holster – and settled the peaked cap on my head.
"Perfect!" declared Wolfie. "Now wait here – I won't be a minute."
He left the room and I stared at myself in the mirror. Okay, I suppose I did look sort of military, and it was definitely smart, but I've never enjoyed anything ceremonial. I've probably got Auntie Megan to thank for that: as a republican she had no time for what she called 'dressing up and poncing about', and if she caught the news coverage of the Trooping of the Colour, the Queen's Birthday parade, or anything similar, she would simply dismiss it as 'a total waste of money'. In any event, I thought that if she saw me looking like this she'd simply laugh.
Wolfie was actually gone for more like five minutes than one, but eventually I heard his voice outside the door telling me to come out, and when I stepped out into the corridor I found that he was wearing a uniform which was, at first glance, identical to mine.
"Where's the Prussian brigadier?" I asked.
"That helmet's too heavy. I thought that we ought to present them with a matched pair… well, not quite: you'll notice that I've dropped a few ranks."
He ducked a shoulder towards me and I saw that his shoulder-tabs had the same intricate silver braid as mine, but didn't have any gold pips. I'm no expert in Prussian or Saxon insignia, but I still didn't bother asking.
He led me down the stairs and around to the side of the stable-block, beyond which the tents had been set up. And I stopped dead when I saw that there was an army drawn up in front of them in parade-ground order.
"Keep going," muttered Wolfie, nudging me.
He guided me to a point in front of the troops, who had been drawn up in three blocks of thirty and one rather smaller block that was off to one side.
"Parade!" yelled Wolfie. "Parade, atten – shun!"
It wasn't even close to a unison movement, but at least the whole parade ended up in the same posture, eventually.
"I'd have got them to present arms," whispered Wolfie, "but it took them about three hours just to get 'Attention' right – well, sort of right. What do you think?"
I looked at the ranks ahead of me. Most of them seemed to be kids of around my age or a little younger, though there were a few older boys as well – and every one of them was wearing a dark green uniform.
"Where did the uniforms come from?" I asked Wolfie.
"The same place as yours. I'm financing them – call it a late birthday present. Now come and inspect the troops."
I let him guide me along the front rank of each of the three blocks. It was obvious that one of two of the smaller kids were finding it hard not to giggle, but somehow they managed not to lose control. The uniforms were simpler than mine, without the Saxon cuffs, but they all had two lion badges on the collar and one above the breast pocket, the same as me.
The smaller group was composed of boys I recognised – Graham Reed and his fellow stable-lads, together with some of the other junior staff of the house, indoor and out.
"What do you think of all this?" I asked Graham.
"I think it's great! I know we talked about this, but I thought it would be years away – but now it really seems… well, real!" He lowered his voice. "It might take a while to teach those London kids very much, though – they seem to spend most of their time just staring at the horizon."
"I expect they've never been in the country before," I pointed out. "They'll probably be fine when the real training starts."
Wolfie pulled out his watch. "Time to get them up to the ship," he said. "I'd march them there, but it would be a complete shambles."
He turned to face the boys and raised his voice. "In a moment I'll order you to fall out," he said. "Once you've done that I want you to follow us to the upper mast, where we'll get you on board. Stokers and greasers, make sure you bring your overalls with you. Parade, parade, fall… out!"
Half the kids didn't seem to know their right from their left, and I've never seen a less military manoeuvre. Still, I supposed we weren't training them to be parade ground soldiers.
The upper mast was on the far side of the house and so out of sight of the tents, which meant that the recruits hadn't seen Excalibur being towed from its hangar to the mast. So when we came around the side of the house most of them were seeing the ship for the first time, and there was a sort of collective gasp, followed by an excited burst of chatter.
"Keep the noise down!" said Wolfie, and the volume decreased by a decibel or two.
When we reached the ship I found the rest of my friends waiting for me, and by now I was unsurprised to find that they were all in dark green uniforms too. Wolfie had apparently already chosen some of the stronger boys to be stokers, but now he divided the rest of the recruits up into engineering staff, gunners and rocketeers, and general deck crew. He'd also picked out a number of brighter candidates for the specialist positions on the bridge. I left him to get on with it and went onto the bridge to talk to my uncle.
"Well, they look smart," he commented. "Will they be any good, though?"
"Ask Wolfie," I said. "He's running this show. I think he wants me to keep a couple of steps back in order to preserve the mystique of command, or some such thing, so I've had nothing to do with the programme."
I didn't get involved in the in-flight training either, though I did wander round the ship to see what was going on. In most cases the regular crew members were being shadowed by one or two of my trainees, and also in some cases by men in civilian clothes who I gathered were new recruits from my uncle's estate.
I had very little to do during that flight, but my friends were kept rather busier: Alex, Joe, Albie and Graham were all asked to calculate bearings. I was a bit surprised that my uncle involved Albie and Graham in this, but when I queried it I discovered that there was a good reason.
"All the officers on board need to be able to navigate," my uncle explained. "And that includes engineers. Imagine what would happen if a rocket destroyed the bridge and killed everyone on it but left the ship otherwise intact. The engineering team could jury-rig a pair of wheels, but it wouldn't do them any good if they couldn't find their way back to their base. So we keep a complete set of charts and instruments in the captain's cabin, and in an emergency the engineering officers can use them to get the ship home."
Uncle Gil did what he'd done to Billy on the first leg of our mission to Norway and left a trainee helmsman at the wheel as the ship came in to land at Culham at the end of the trip. The boy didn't look happy, but he stuck to the job without asking to be relieved, and Billy whispered the same sort of things in his ear as he'd heard himself just before his first landing, and in the end the landing went off without a hitch.
"Thank you, Mr…?" said my uncle.
"Weasel," supplied the trainee helmsman. "'Cept normally it's wivaht the 'Mister'."
"We might have to do something about that," said Albie apologetically. "Perhaps we can ask Sparrer to think up some suitable first names – eh, Ebenezer?"
"Yeah, alright," said Sparrer. "What about Obadiah?"
"Wot abaht I duff you up, Sparrer?" replied Weasel.
"We'll discuss it later," said Albie, stepping between them hurriedly.
I didn't see much of Wolfie over the next two days: he'd taken our recruits to the army base outside Oxford, where the gunners and rocketeers were being trained on the artillery range, where the whole crew was getting some basic firearms training, and where everyone was learning some simple drill from a regular army sergeant-major. I was glad to miss that: I wouldn't have known whether to bet on the orphans or the sergeant-major to crack first.
On the fourth and last day of the training we went up in Excalibur once more, but this time the trainees ran the ship while the regular crew stood back and watched. We'd flown more or less north-east from Culham, and we were probably about two-thirds of the way to Cambridge when the trainee at the communications desk gave a strangled yelp.
"What is it, Mr Sullivan?" asked Alex, who was acting as officer of the watch.
"There's… Sorry. There's an Eagle heading this way, bearing zero four-zero, approximately three thousand yards."
"What! Are you sure?"
I pulled out my telescope and looked, and sure enough there was a ship out there, and it did have an Eagle on its nose.
"You'd better take over," Alex said, staring at me.
"You're officer of the watch," said my uncle. "What are you going to do?"
"Um… we'd better attack, I suppose. Helm, come to zero-four-zero and… oh, yes, man the turrets… "
"How do you do that?" asked my uncle.
"Oh, right… sound action stations!"
Joe demonstrated to the boy on the desk how to open all the tubes and where the whistle was, and once he began to blow it I thought it might be interesting to see what was happening inside the ship, so I climbed the ladder and strolled to the nearest gun port. I'd expected to find headless chickens, but I was surprised to find the crew actually preparing the gun fairly efficiently. Interestingly, this was just the three-man trainee crew – the regular crew had disappeared.
"Do you know what your target is?" I asked the gun captain.
"Ivan ship, Sir," he said.
"Correct," I said. "Do you think the three of you can handle this gun on your own?"
"I think so, Sir. We done the training yesterday."
"A bit different doing it for real, I should think."
"Not really, Sir. Really this ought to be easier. Big target, see?"
I nodded. "Good. Carry on, then."
Of course, not everyone was quite as organised as that crew, and there were a few crewmen who didn't seem to know where they were supposed to be. I left the gun crew and headed back down towards the gondolas, but on the way I found a small figure huddled up on a staircase. I cleared my throat and the boy looked up at me with a pale face, realised who I was and stood up. He was trembling and had been crying.
"It's Freddie, isn't it?" I asked, recognising one of the youngest of the stable-lads and hoping I'd got the name right. Apparently I had.
"Y... yes, Your Grace," he replied.
"Just 'Sir' on board, Freddie," I said. "Where are you supposed to be?"
"D... Damage control point five," he replied. "But... but I don't know where it is."
"Ah. You're on the wrong staircase, that's why. Come with me."
I led him down and along a narrow passage and then up the next staircase along, until we reached a point where the staircase intersected with one of the main corridors running the length of the ship.
"This is your post," I said. "You've got the speaking tube here, see? You have to keep an eye open for any sort of damage – fire, smoke, anything else – anywhere on this passage or this staircase. If you see or hear anything, use the tube to report it to the desk. Do you think you can manage that?"
"Yes, Sir, I think so."
"Good. We're relying on you, Freddie. And don't worry: it's all right to be scared. Actually I'd think there was something wrong with you if you weren't."
"Really. You've got one of the hardest jobs on the whole ship, because you're on your own. Everyone except the damage control spotters has at least one other person with him, and in most cases there are several others. Down on the bridge, for example, there are usually nine or ten of us, and it's a lot easier to be brave when you've got friends all around you. How old are you?"
"This isn't really a job for a twelve-year-old. Would you like me to find someone else to take this post? I'm sure we can find something else for you, something where you won't be on your own."
He was silent for a moment, but then he shook his head.
"I'll stay here, Sir," he said. "it wouldn't be right to leave this post while you try to find someone else, and I'm sure as how you haven't got time to go looking for spare crew. I'll be all right."
"Are you sure?"
He was still trembling a bit, but he seemed ready to stick it out.
"Thank you, Freddie," I said. "I'm proud of you. Carry on."
I gave him a little nod and set off down the staircase once more. This time I went all the way down to Gondola Two to see how the stokers were doing: it's not that easy to go on shovelling coal in a battle. True, there was a team of four stokers and a couple of engineers here, so they weren't on their own, but gunners can fight back and most of the rest of the crew – other than the poor old damage control spotters - can at least see what's going on. But when you're tending a furnace you can't keep looking out of the window.
I was pleased to see that this team were managing to get on with their job, so just to stir them up a bit I opened the jumpshade locker.
"Have you been trained on using these?" I asked, and was rewarded with mass head-shaking.
"Ah," I said. "We'll have to make sure we include it in the next training – assuming we live long enough to have one, of course. Well, if the word is given to abandon ship you line up here, your officer will hand you each a shade, you put it on and you jump through that door there. You count to five slowly and then pull this cord, and the shade should open. You'll find that there are a couple of steering ropes, but if you haven't been trained it's best to leave those alone. And bend your knees when you land. All right, carry on."
With perfect timing a rocket flew past the gondola, and the crew looked at each other nervously.
"Tend your furnace," I told them, and looked out of the front of the gondola. The other ship was approaching us off the port bow, which meant that it would pass alongside us at a distance of fifty yards or so. Æthership captains generally avoid exchanging full broadsides with each other, because this quite often results in both ships suffering critical damage, but of course Russian commanders tend to trust that their armour will give them the advantage in such an exchange.
I made my way back to the bridge, arriving as the two ships were about to come together. Both ships were firing rockets, but so far no damage had been done on either side.
"Are you sure you want to do this?" I asked Alex.
"It's a bit late to ask that now," he replied.
"Not really," I said. "You could order a steep dive. If he's slow to react you might get below him, which would mean that his turrets would be useless. Of course, he might drop bombs on us…"
"You don't seem very worried about this!" he accused me.
"Oh, I have every confidence in your abilities," I said, grinning at him.
I expected him to realise what was happening then, but he didn't seem to. Instead he turned to the desk and ordered "All port guns, fire once you have a target. Turrets may continue to fire at will."
But if he didn't get it, Joe did. He picked up Wolfie's telescope from the chart table, looked through it at the approaching ship, and then started to laugh.
"What's so funny?" asked Alex, just as the ships began to come alongside each other and the guns started firing.
"Check out the name," suggested Joe, handing Alex the telescope.
"But I can't read Russian!"
Alex took the scope, moved it along the enemy ship until he found the name, and then swore violently. He did it in Greek, but he and I have been friends for long enough for me to recognise most Greek swear words.
"Desk, all weapons, cease firing," he ordered.
The trainee at the desk stared at him.
"But…" he objected, gesturing in the direction of the 'Russian' ship.
"Do it," confirmed Alex. "That"s not a Russian. It's a ship called Sparrowhawk, and it's British."
He turned to me, and he looked positively furious.
"You fu…" he started.
"Thank you, Mr Demetriou," interrupted my uncle firmly. "We'll save the debriefing until we get back to Culham. Helm, come to reciprocal bearing… sorry, I mean two-two-zero – and match speed with that ship. Signaller, prepare to lower the semaphore."
Lord Cardington had slowed his ship to a crawl, and so once we had turned around it didn't take us too long to come alongside him. My uncle exchanged a few pleasantries with him, thanked him for contributing to the training, and then wished him a pleasant trip home. Sparrowhawk's signalling arm swung up and the ship moved off.
"Desk, stand the crew down," my uncle ordered. "Let's go home. Mr Silver, could we have a bearing, please?"
I'd hoped that Alex would calm down a bit by the time we got back to Culham, but I could tell that he was still itching to punch me in the mouth even after we landed, and it was only the presence of my uncle that stopped him.
Before we disembarked my uncle spoke to the bridge crew.
"Well done, all of you," he said. "Just one thing: whether you're actually in a battle or not, it's absolutely essential that you obey orders straight away, even if you think the officer giving the orders has gone mad. Mr Sullivan, you did a good job overall, but we can't afford any hesitation in getting the captain's orders to the crew. I can understand why you hesitated, but it's not your job to think, just to transmit the officer's orders.
"Right, let's disembark. I'll have a word with the crew, and then we'll go inside and have a bit of a chat about the exercise."
We lined up the trainee crew in some semblance of order, while my uncle spoke briefly with Mr Hall – whom I hadn't even noticed, because he was wearing a dark suit instead of his psychedelic coat – and a couple of the other senior crewmen. Then he turned to face the crew.
"Hands up if you were scared when the alarm sounded," began my uncle, and a scattering of hands were raised.
"I make that about twenty honest people and a lot of liars," my uncle went on. "You're allowed to be scared in battle. If we're honest, most of us officers sometimes get scared, too, especially when the odds are against us. There's no shame in it – provided that you stay at your post and do your duty. And you all did that. It's only the second time that most of you have flown, and it's certainly the first time that most of you have been in a large, slow-moving machine that other people are firing cannons and rockets at – after all, there was no way for you to know that the rockets had no warheads and the cannon-shells were blanks, just like the ones we were firing ourselves, in fact. Leo, do you want to add anything?"
I hadn't expected to be asked to make an inspirational speech and I certainly had nothing prepared, but obviously I had to say something.
"Well, I said, "I personally saw the crews of Gun Number Three and Gondola Two in action during the alarm, and I was really impressed, especially since the senior crew had left you to get on with it on your own. If that's what you look like after a couple of days of training, you're going to be absolutely amazing by the time we've been flying together for a few weeks. I wasn't expecting to have a proper crew that I could rely on for at least a year; as it is, if we were ordered to fly into Russia tomorrow I'd be glad to have you with me. Thank you all, and well done!"
Okay, maybe that was overstating it a little, but I was damned sure that I'd have been wetting myself if I'd been put in the position we put some of those kids in after only one previous flight.
My uncle said a few more words and then Wolfie took the crew back to their tents to start packing up ready for the return trip to London. The ground crew arrived with their tractor to return Excalibur to the hangar, and my friends and I, less Wolfie, followed my uncle up to the house and into the conference room.
"If I'm honest," my uncle began, "that went a lot better than I had expected. According to Mr Hall and the other senior crewmen, nobody really panicked. There were a few who were close, apparently, but they got through it."
"You develop a certain fatalism in the sewers," Albie observed. "After a while you start to view life as fairly cheap, including your own. If it's your time, you tend not to fight it. Of course once they've been out of the sewers for a few months that might start to change – certainly my view has changed since I moved here. But for now, I think they'll be more reliable than you might expect."
"We'll arrange some more training for them over Easter, then," said my uncle. "Let's build on it before they discover what self-preservation is. Now, Alex: why did you decide to attack that ship? What alternatives did you have?"
"I didn't really consider any," admitted Alex. "It was already fairly close, and I thought it would be better if we attacked them before they could attack us, that's all."
"All right. So now that the pressure's off, can you think of anything else you could have done?"
"Well, the only real alternative would have been to run away, and I don't think the crew would have been impressed if I'd done that."
"Possibly not, but they would still be alive. Remember what I said to Leo after we fought those two Eagles? I said that you should never take on an Eagle one-on-one unless you have an edge. Their armour is better, and you can probably assume that any Eagle that flies into our air-space has a very experienced and efficient crew. In the situation we were in today, the safe thing to do would have been to head towards London as fast as you could and hope that we reached the city's air defence batteries and æthership stations before the Eagle caught up with us.
"However, I'm glad you didn't do that, because if you had I'd probably have had to countermand you: I wanted to see how the recruits would handle an attack. And I think that if we'd been in Excelsior instead of Excalibur you'd have been right to attack, because then we'd have had the better armour, and the heavier armament, too. The first Russian ship that meets Excelsior is going to get a nasty surprise – except that by then I hope to have had Excalibur re-armoured too, and if Tim can get enough catalyst out of his meteor, maybe we won't be the only ones.
"Anyway, it was probably a bad decision to take them on, but after that you didn't set a foot wrong. You gave decisive orders to the crew and you sounded confident, and even if you're not feeling confident you have to project that state of mind. You're going to make Leo a good officer, I think."
"If I don't get him killed first," muttered Alex, who was clearly still not completely happy.
"All right, thank you all – you can go and do whatever you need to do to recover. I'll see you at supper. Leo, if you could wait one moment, please?"
Once the others had gone, my uncle asked "How quickly did you realise that the Eagle wasn't one?"
"As soon as I looked at it through the telescope. I had an advantage over the others: they spent most of the mission to Norway sitting at their posts watching dials. I was looking out of the gondola window for most of the journey, and we had Sparrowhawk flying alongside us for quite a long time. Their front turret's been repaired with something black, so it sort of stands out. Even with that canvas eagle over its nose I recognised it."
"Ah. I should have got Crowborough or Wimbourne or one of the others you haven't met to do it, then! But still, thank you for going along with it. I wanted to see how everyone reacted under pressure, and I thought the bridge crew did well. Even young Sullivan – in fact he might be officer material himself.
"Now, there's one other post that we haven't considered yet. Which of your friends is the brightest, do you think?"
"Well… Joe's not stupid. Nor's Alex, come to that. I'm assuming you're not including Tim in this, so… I don't really know him that well yet, but I'd say Albie is probably the most intelligent. Why?"
"Because you're going to need a medic. I'm afraid I'm not going to give you Dr Harries – I want him for my own ship. So you'll need to train someone in the basics. I suppose we could try to persuade one of the other local GPs to sign up, but we're thinking of your crew staying the same for the foreseeable future, so one of your contemporaries would be best. And if he picks up the basics quickly enough there's no reason why we can't sponsor him to do a full medical degree when he's ready for university. Ask him what he thinks."
"All right. I'll have to find another senior engineer, but that'll be easier than finding another person who's capable of understanding doctoring."
I stepped out of the conference room and found Alex waiting for me. He seemed to have cooled down a little, but he still looked annoyed.
"Why didn't you tell me, you bastard?" he asked. "You didn't have to let me make a fool of myself. I thought we were mates."
"We are, and as far as I'm concerned we always will be," I said. "Sorry, but I thought you'd realise. It was only later that I realised you hadn't had a lot of chance to look at Sparrowhawk in Norway because you were having to watch the gas envelope pressure gauges. But you heard my uncle: once you'd made the decision to attack, you did everything else perfectly – and he also said that if we'd been on Excelsior it would have been the right decision, and since the only time you'll ever have to do it for real will be when you're officer of the watch on Excelsior I'm not worried at all. You did a good job, Alex, and, considering that it was the first time you'd ever been in command, it was really impressive. Besides, you didn't make a fool of yourself: every other person on that ship except for me, my uncle and the senior crew he'd told in advance thought the attack was real."
"I still feel like a dick, though."
"Don't," I said sincerely. "I bet if you go and talk to Billy he'll pretty soon change your mind for you."
"Now that," he said, "is a good idea." And he flashed his teeth at me and headed for the staircase.
The next four days were more or less an exact repeat: the second batch of new trainees came down and went through identical training. The only difference this time was that when we ran into a 'Russian' ship on the final day, Alex, Joe and the rest of my friends knew what was going on. They all played along for the benefit of the new bridge trainees, though.
We arranged some more training for the Easter holidays in April, and I hoped that by then we'd be able to do it in Excelsior. The armour was almost complete and most of the wiring had been done, and when I asked Tim, on one of the rare occasions he was actually in the house, he assured me that it would be ready to fly at the beginning of April – as long as nothing went wrong, he added.
February rolled on into March and the weather improved quite substantially, to the extent that we started actually spending time outdoors for fun, rather than simply when we had to. One Thursday as we finished afternoon school Wolfie asked me if I wanted to go for a ride with him.
"Can't," I said, reluctantly. "I've got a pile of stuff to sign. And it's not worth waiting for me because I don't know how long it'll take, and if you wait too long it'll be dark before you have time to go anywhere. Ask one of the others."
"I don't think we've managed to persuade Alex or Joe about the joys of horse-riding yet," he pointed out. "But I can always take one of the stable-lads with me, just in case I fall off."
"You won't fall off," I assured him. "Once you're aboard you look as assured now as you did before the accident. But it's probably still a good idea to take someone with you, just in case. Have a good ride, and if the weather stays decent we'll go out together on Saturday."
He gave me a wave and headed off to his room to get changed into his riding-kit, and I headed for Mr Hall's office feeling rather less content with my lot: I hadn't minded sitting at a desk reading and signing off accounts for horseshoes and tractor spares when it had been cold and dark outside, but now that spring was in the air my enthusiasm was, to say the least, diminished.
When I finally escaped from Mr Hall it was too late to think about riding, so instead I went down to the library, where I found Joe trying to teach Sparrer to play chess. I didn't know whether street cunning was an asset when playing chess or not, but he seemed to grasp the moves fairly easily. I helped out by giving Joe a game while Sparrer watched and Joe explained to him what the point of each move was, and that kept me occupied until supper-time.
Now that my uncle was no longer here I'd relaxed the rule about dressing for dinner, at least during the week, and now we just turned up at supper wearing our ordinary clothes. I don't think Allchorn entirely approved: he was an old-style butler who believed in old-style ways, and it was mainly for his benefit that I'd opted to retain the custom of dressing for dinner at weekends. But the only adult who regularly ate with us was Mr Hall, and he had said that he didn't mind at all if he didn't have to go and put his dinner jacket on every evening.
I wondered if Wolfie would turn up to eat in his riding kit, but in the event he didn't turn up at all. I didn't think too much about it: I thought it possible that he'd run into Lord Brookhampton or one of our other neighbours and accepted an invitation to dine with him. And so after supper I simply went back to the library with Joe and Sparrer to continue our game. But we'd only been at it for about a quarter of an hour when Allchorn appeared at the library door and showed in Graham Reed.
"What is it?" I asked.
"Well…" Graham looked over his shoulder, found that Allchorn was still there, and selected 'official' for his mode of address. "Your Grace, it's the Margrave," he said.
"What about him?"
"Well, he's not come back. Nor has Roger. But their horses have – they both returned to the stable five minutes ago, without their riders."
"Then we'd better start looking for them!" I said.
"We can't, Your Grace," said Graham. "It's full dark now, and there's a new moon tonight. We'd not be able to see anything out there. And we don't know which direction they took, neither. Come morning we'll be able to take on a proper search, but now, no."
I could see the truth of that, but the thought of Wolfie lying injured in a ditch somewhere meant that it was a truth I didn't like at all.
"I want you to organise a full search as soon as the sun rises," I said to Allchorn. "And first thing in the morning I want you to send someone to the æthership base at Oxford and ask if they can get a ship in the air to help us search. That'll be faster than sending to Chisbury for my uncle. Graham, if Roger turns up in the night I want you to come and wake me, understand? I don't care what time it is, either."
"He'll be okay," said Joe, when Allchorn and Graham had gone. "He's got someone with him, and it's not likely they're both injured. Probably one of them got hurt somehow and the other one's staying with him to look after him. I expect they sent the horses back so that we'd know to come looking for them."
And I supposed that was possible too, but I didn't like the thought of Wolfie out there in the open overnight, even if the weather wasn't too bad. In any case I was no longer in the mood for chess, so I excused myself to Joe and Sparrer and went up to my room. I was determined to be part of the search party next morning, and as I'd ordered it to start as soon as it was light enough to see I decided to go to bed. Sunrise was due at around six o'clock, and so I set the alarm for a quarter to. It took me quite a while to get to sleep…
I was awakened next morning by someone shaking me. It was still dark in the room, so I groped for the flashlight that I kept beside the bed and turned it on, and found Alex standing there, fully dressed.
"What's the time?" I asked, sleepily.
"About half past five. Get up, Leo, we're in trouble."
"What are you talking about?" I asked, crawling out of bed.
"I was up with Billy last night," Alex told me. "I knew we'd probably get woken up early this morning and I didn't want Allchorn or one of the footmen coming and finding me sharing Billy's bed, so I set my wrist alarm for quarter past five. I got dressed and came quietly down to this floor, but when I reached the top of the great staircase I could hear people talking quietly in the hall. Except they weren't speaking English. I peeped over the rail and saw that they had guns, so I thought I'd better come and find you."
"Not speaking English? Are you sure?" I asked, getting dressed in a hurry.
"Yes, I'm sure. It wasn't French, German or Greek, either. And I was afraid that…"
I strode to the door and opened it. At first I couldn't hear anything, but then I heard a shot, followed by some shouting and a lot of running feet. I slammed the door closed again and turned the key.
"You're right," I said, "we're in trouble. They're Russians."
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