Excelsior

by David Clarke

Chapter 24

I made my way back up to the house and was met at the door by Allchorn, who had taken the time to change into his usual morning coat and pinstriped trousers.

"The militia assure me that there is no trace of any explosive," he reported. "Of course we'll be sure to check more thoroughly in order to be completely certain, but for now it would appear that it is safe for you to come in."

"Thank you, Allchorn," I said. "I'm told that one of the staff was killed yesterday morning. Who?"

"That was Foulkes, Your Grace," he said. "I have already taken the liberty of notifying the undertakers."

"Good. I'll talk to Mr Hall and make sure that the family is cared for. Is Mr Francis in the house?"

"He went back to the stables to make sure that the horses were cared for, Your Grace."

"Very well, I'll go and talk to him there. Is anyone else hurt?"

"No, Your Grace, and there seems to have been no damage to the house, either. They were exceedingly considerate, for enemy troops. Will Your Grace require breakfast immediately?"

"No, thank you. You may tell Cook that we will take breakfast at the usual time. And I'll need the conference room for later this morning – a dozen places should be sufficient."

I went round to the stables and found Mr Francis and his lads looking after the horses.

"I need you to send a runner to the works in Abingdon," I told him. "I'll have a message for Mr Duvallier shortly – just ask the boy to come to the front door when he's ready to go. And I need someone else to ride to Chisbury to inform my uncle of what has happened here. Tell him I'll send the carriage for him as soon as Murdoch has got steam up. Oh, and please tell Graham Reed to report to the conference room at ten-thirty."

I went back into the house, wrote a short note telling Tim what had happened and asking him to come to the house for ten-thirty and handed it to Tommy the stable-lad when he appeared at the front door a few minutes later. Then I went looking for the rest of my friends and found them in Alex's room: Alex had apparently rounded them up while I'd been at the stables.

"First, is everyone OK?" I asked them, and they assured me that they were.

"Good," I went on. "Now, we'll be sitting down to discuss what we're going to do at half past ten, so…"

"What's to discuss?" asked Alex. "We're going after him, aren't we?"

"I'm going after him," I said. "There's no need for any of you to come."

The response to that was loud and, in some cases, quite abusive, but the gist of it was that anywhere I was going, they were going too. To be honest I'd hoped for that response, because if I was to stand any chance of getting Wolfie back I'd need a lot of help, but it was still good to know that my friends were all whole-heartedly with me.

"Thank you," I said. "We'll discuss it properly at ten-thirty in the conference room. Now, breakfast will be in an hour, so get some rest – I don't suppose you slept too well last night – and then get something to eat, and I'll see you all at half-past ten. Alex, could you come with me, please? And bring your torch."

We went into my room and found it as we'd left it, more or less: the bed was disordered, there was a thin mattress and a couple of blankets near the door where Dmitri had been sleeping, and the panel in the wardrobe was still open. We checked out the entire open part of the system, from the attic to the cellars and omitting only the secret room and second staircase, to which the Russians couldn't have gained access, but found nobody. We went as far along the escape tunnel as we could, and that turned out to be quite a long way: apparently the lever had only caused the collapse of a comparatively short stretch of it, which was probably good news for the Russians who had been following Dmitri: none of them had been close enough to get caught in the collapse.

Once we were sure that the system was clear we went back to my room, closing the panels behind us as we went.

"I suppose we'll have to get the tunnel cleared and repaired," I said. "It'll mean other people finding out about it, but that can't be helped."

"You could tell people it's simply what you said it started out as, a way to bring ice up to the house from the ice-house, and you're repairing it purely for historical reasons," suggested Alex. "That way they wouldn't have to find out about the passages inside the house."

"I suppose that might work. Anyway, thanks for coming with me to check them out. I'll see you at breakfast."

"No, you won't," he replied. "You'll see me until breakfast. If you think I'm leaving you on your own after what just happened, you're having a laugh."

"Go!" I said, as firmly as I could.

"Fuck off," he said, sitting down beside me. "You're not going to beat yourself up about this. I know exactly what you're like, Leo: you're thinking 'It was my fault' and 'I should have known' and stuff like that. Well, it wasn't your fault and you couldn't have known, okay?"

"I didn't even ask," I said, bitterly. "I was sitting next to that bastard in the wheelhouse for twenty minutes before you got the engine going, and I never once asked him if he was holding Wolfie. How could I have been such a complete cretin?"

"You think he'd have told you the truth? 'Oh, yes, Leo, I've got your boyfriend stashed on my ship, and letting him go wasn't part of our deal, so nyah-nyah-nyah to you'? He'd have lied through his teeth and either said that Wolfie was in the house with the others, or that he hadn't seen him at all."

"I don't think he would have lied. He was truthful about everything else."

"Leo, he's a fucking psycho! You read that bit about Wolfie being an orphan, and you told me what he was like in Norway. He'd tell you anything that would suit his cause."

"But I could have checked! If I'd just gone into the house for thirty seconds after the Russians left, I'd have seen for myself that he wasn't there..."

"Pasha would still have said that he didn't know anything about Wolfie."

"Yes, but then I'd have insisted on searching his ship!"

"I don't think he'd have let you do that. And even if you had, there must be any numbers of places you can hide something on an airship. Face it, Leo, there was nothing you could have done: once he had Wolfie you were stuffed. At least we got out of it without losing anyone else."

"Except Foulkes," I said, grimly. "Does Sparrer know?"

Alex nodded. "He was pretty cut up about it. He liked Foulkes a lot, even though he messed him about all the time he was taking lessons from him. Joe's looking after him, though, and he'll get over it. I expect he saw enough people he knew die when he was in the sewers."

I supposed that was true, but it didn't make me feel any better. Whatever Alex said, I still thought that there must have been something I could have done to prevent what had happened.

"Come on," he said, pulling me to my feet. ""We've been wearing these clothes for twenty-four hours straight. Let's go and have a bath and put some clean stuff on ready for breakfast."

I'd have preferred to lie on the bed and feel miserable, but I recognised that Alex was right: I'd need to show some leadership later in the day, and I'd be able to do that better if I freshened myself up a bit. So I collected a change of clothes and followed Alex, first into his room and then to the bathroom, where he sat me on the chair in the corner and started to run the bath.

I'd shared baths with Wolfie before, but never with Alex, but this was still nice. He respected my mood by not doing anything erotic, but he scrubbed my back and shampooed my hair for me, and I returned the favour, and afterwards I did feel a bit better. Breakfast also helped, and after that he took me for a walk around the garden – he was clearly determined not to leave me on my own at all.

At half-past ten we made our way to the conference room. My uncle had arrived while I was in the garden and was still getting an account of what had happened from Mr Hall, so I waited until they had finished speaking. Everyone else there – Alex, Joe, Billy, Sparrer, Albie and Graham – knew what had happened from personal experience, and Tim knew everything except for the fact of Wolfie's abduction.

"So," I began, "now we have to decide what we're going to do. Who wants to go first?"

"We're going after him, obviously," said Alex, drawing a chorus of agreement from my friends.

"No," said my uncle firmly, "you're not. You can't seriously be considering flying into Russia in a ship that isn't even fully commissioned yet, with a crew who have only ever flown on two very short training trips. You might as well just line up your crew and shoot them one by one."

"They're better than that, and you know it," I replied. "You said yourself how well they did in training."

"Yes, against a friendly ship that was firing blanks! This is a completely different matter. For a start, Romanov knows you're coming, so he'll be ready. The main Russian Black Sea surface fleet is based less than a hundred miles from Feodosia, and you can be sure they'll have a vast number of Eagles close at hand to defend their shipping. I don't care how good your armour is, either – remember what happened to the Eagle we shot down over the Great Circle? That was well-armoured, and there were only two ships attacking it. If you go near the Crimea, you'll be trying to fight off twenty."

"Our armour is far better than theirs. You saw the tests."

"No armour can stand the sort of battering you'd get. Sorry, Leo, but I forbid it."

"You can't forbid it. It's my ship, and even if you refuse to allow the Excalibur crew to come, I've got enough crew of my own for two watches. Of course, if you can think of another way to get Wolfie back, I'm all ears."

"Couldn't we ransom him?" suggested Albie. "I know Romanov wouldn't let him go for money, but suppose we sent an official message to the Tsar, telling him that his nephew was holding Wolfie and offering to ransom him – could that work?"

I hadn't thought of that. "Do you think that would work?" I asked my uncle.

He shook his head. "Normally it might, but Wolfie is too important. If the Tsar found out he was there, Wolfie would either end up locked up in some fortress in Siberia, or they'd try to use him as a puppet to justify their control of Prussia. Wolfie would hate that."

"Yes, but at least he wouldn't have a psycho taking him apart a piece at a time," said Alex.

"No, but once he was an official prisoner we'd have no chance of getting him back," I said. "So that's out. Any more ideas?"

"What about if we was to attack with loads of ships at once?" offered Sparrer. "They'd never think as we'd be stupid enough to do that, so we might catch them with their pants down, sort of thing."

"Nice idea," I said, "but we've only got a week, and I reckon it'll take at least three days to get there. We'd never get enough ships together in time. Besides, my uncle is right about the danger: we couldn't really ask any other captain to go up against an entire Russian surface and air fleet just because I messed up."

"You might be able to do it better as zree days," said Tim, whose understanding of English was by now pretty good, even if his grammar and accent weren't. "You 'ave four engines now. 'Ow far izzit?"

I got the maps out and put the one of the whole of Europe on the table. Then I set to work with a ruler.

"Ah," I said. "There's another problem: he can go direct, but we can't, or we'd be over Russian-held territory for most of the way, and doing that in daylight would be asking for trouble. We'd have to go around the south, through Italy, Illyria and Greece, and that would be…. over two thousand miles. Call it two thousand two hundred."

"We estimate zat wiz four engines you can get one 'undred twenty kilometres in a hour, cruise speed, and maybe one 'undred sirty at full speed," said Tim. "Zat izz…at around twenty-nine hours of flying at cruise speed."

"Is that all? Great!" I said.

"But you would 'ave to land to refuel," Tim went on. "Per'aps in Greece? You will not 'ave fuel to return else, an' I do not zink zat you can refuel in Russia."

"Good point," I said. "Thank you, Tim. But even if we can get there that quickly, none of our other ships could match that speed, even if we could persuade any other idiot to come with us. So we're back where we were. Any other ideas?"

Silence. Then Tim said, "Of course, you could give 'im what 'e wants."

"Sorry?"

"'E wants me. If you give me to 'im, 'e will let your friend go."

"Not a chance! He'd force you to tell him everything you know about armour."

"Not if I am dead. See, 'e said 'e wants me. Did 'e say 'e wants me alive?"

"Well, no, but it was pretty obvious that's what he meant."

"And it was pretty obvious that you meant you'd let him go if you got your hostages back unharmed," Alex pointed out. "All of them – even if you didn't actually specify it. So if we gave them a dead Tim, he would have to keep his word and give you Wolfie. Of course, we don't tell him Tim's dead until we got Wolfie back… That way we'd be sticking to the letter of the agreement, just like he did with you."

"Yes, but… bloody hell, we can't kill Tim!" I protested.

"Why not?" asked Tim. "I 'ave finish ze work 'ere, and I 'ave write all zat I know about ze armour. You do not 'ave need of me."

"Don't be so bloody stupid! I'm not going to sacrifice one of my friends to get another one back!"

"Well, we could tell him Tim's dead," suggested Albie. "We could even hold a funeral for him, in case he has spies watching."

"I don't think he'd let Wolfie go without proof," I said. "Actually, I don't think he'd let Wolfie go even with proof. Sorry, but I don't think that's going to fly either. Any more?"

But that was the limit of the brainwaves.

"All right, then," I said. "Let's mobilise. Tim, I want Excelsior hopped over here today. You can continue any work that needs doing over the weekend – I'll pay extra for Sunday, obviously. At the same time I want her fuelled and fitted out with as much armament as she can comfortably carry – and, yes, I know that'll mean some testing. I'll leave that to you. Albie, I want you to go to London and collect as many of the trainees as you can. Tell them openly where we're going, and make sure they know I won't think any less of anyone who prefers not to come.

"Alex, you're Acting First Officer. If you need any more help with bearings and so on, talk to me afterwards and we'll go through it together. Albie, I know you've had no opportunity to study any more First Aid, but you're now also Acting Second Officer. Again, we'll arrange some extra work on bearings and so on later. Graham, you're Chief Engineer. You'll need to spend some time on the ship with Tim making sure you understand exactly how the engines work.

"Joe, you're chief electrical engineer as well as communications officer. That's really because you're the only other person who knows anything about electricity at all. Use the textbooks you brought back from your world and again, get Tim to show you how the generator operates. I also need you to learn semaphore, preferably in Russian as well as English, and Alex, I want you to try to learn semaphore in Greek, because if we're going to land in Greece we're going to need to be able to talk to their ground control.

"And I want everything done and the ship ready to leave at first light on Wednesday. Hopefully by then we'll have come up with something approaching a plan. Questions?"

I looked at my uncle, daring him to speak; but the only hand raised was Albie's.

"I can think of something else we need," he said. "He got into British airspace in disguise. Couldn't we do the same thing? After all, he's never seen Excelsior, so he can't warn the Russian ætherships to watch out for us. And if we had a false flag as well…"

"Good idea," I said. "There must be somewhere we can get a canvas made… I know, I'll ask Charlie Cardington where he got the one he used for Sparrowhawk during the training exercise. Anything else? No? Thank you, then – you all know what you need to do."

Most of them got up and left, but my uncle showed no signs of moving and so neither did I – after all, I could hardly avoid the conversation that I knew was coming, and I preferred to get it over and done with now. Alex stayed where he was, too, at least until my uncle said "Thank you, Mr Demetriou" in a pointed way. Alex looked at me and I nodded.

"Okay," he said, getting up, "but don't let him bully you!"

"I really like that boy," commented my uncle, once Alex had left and closed the door behind him. "You'd have thought he'd be much happier with Wolfie gone, but instead he seems to be the most determined to go with you to get him back."

"What do you mean?"

"Oh, come on, Leo, I'm not stupid. I know how Alex feels about you, but I've never ever heard him say a bad word about Wolfie. That's the sort of friend you want to do everything you can to keep. Anyway, I'm not happy about you going, but when I gave you the ship I gave you the freedom to use it as you think best, and so I won't try to stop you, even if I could. But there are going to be a few conditions.

"First, and most important, it is absolutely vital that the ship doesn't fall into Russian hands. If the worst happens and you find yourself in a fight that you can't win, make absolutely sure that she goes down over the Black Sea, as far out as possible, and make sure that she sinks. Detonate a couple of rockets inside her and leave all the hatches open so that the sea can get in after the hydrogen has burnt out.

"Second, remember what I told you about facing bad odds: don't try to fight, just run. With your four engines you should be faster than anything the Russians have got anyway, but use cloud if there is any and don't be afraid to head for Turkey if you have to: the Turks are neutral, but they won't allow Russians into their air space, whereas they'll turn a blind eye to a single English ship.

"Third, you're responsible for every life on board. Don't stick your head into a hornet's nest in an attempt to rescue Wolfie if it's going to mean you run a serious risk of getting everyone on board killed. And I've already said this, but I'll say it again anyway: don't trust too much in your armour. It's good, but it's not infallible.

"Finally, use the flight to Greece to run some training: get the crew used to getting to action stations while it's safe, and they'll do it automatically when they really have to."

I stared at him, because I'd been expecting a tooth and claw attempt to keep me from going, and I simply wasn't prepared for this apparently easy capitulation.

"One more thing," he added. "I want you to come and see me on Tuesday evening and present me with a proper, considered and reasonable plan of action. And I don't want some sort of vague 'We'll make it up when we get there' nonsense, either. Oh, and I'll need to borrow Murdoch and the carriage for the rest of the day – actually for the next two or three days, because I've got a certain amount of running back and forth to do between here and Chisbury.

"Well, off you go – I' sure you have plenty to do. And send Tim in to see me, if you wouldn't mind. I don't suppose he's left for Abingdon just yet."

"Thank you," I said. "There is one thing you can do for me, though: ask Admiral Faulkner if British Intelligence can find me a plan of Pasha's place. It'll be easier to make a plan if I know where I'm going. Oh, and Lord Cardington knows you a lot better than he knows me, so perhaps you could ask where he got his canvas made?"

"I'll do that," he promised. "I might get the admiral to send someone down to brief you if I can arrange it quickly enough."

"Thanks again," I said, and I went to find Tim.

After he'd spoken to my uncle Tim went straight back to Abingdon, returning in Excelsior in early afternoon. The ship landed at the upper mast and was winched straight into Number One hangar for fuelling, and after a bit I went to see how she was looking. Tim took me on a quick walk round the ship, inside and out.

"I'll need to talk to the bridge crew," he said (we were speaking German, which was easier for him). "There are quite a few things that are different about this ship, both in the way it flies and in the best way to use her. I'll tell you now so that if I miss anything with the others you'll be able to correct me.

"First, landing: there are no steam bags on this ship, so if you use venting while landing you'll be venting hydrogen, and obviously any hydrogen you vent is lost. That doesn't mean you can't vent when coming in to a fully-equipped æthership base, because you'll be able to top up the gas before taking off again, but if you're landing in the country, or in hostile territory, you'll have to learn to land using the elevators as much as you can and only vent the bare minimum of gas.

"The same thing applies to buoyancy control in flight: try to maintain altitude without venting gas. It'll be harder in this ship because you're running four engines, and so you'll be burning up twice the amount of fuel and the ship will get lighter twice as quickly. I would advise over-ballasting and reclaiming as much water as you can from the steam engines: you won't regain the weight of the coal that way, but it'll help. We've put some guttering on the sides of the ship to help collect rainwater, too, but if it doesn't rain you won't be able to gain weight that way.

"A lot about this journey is going to be new territory for the whole science of flight: you're the first British ship since the experimental days to run on hydrogen alone, and the first four-engine ship, too. We'll keep a log of everything that happens, and hopefully that will help us to learn from anything that goes wrong."

"Let's hope that nothing goes wrong, then… hang on, you said 'we'll keep a log'. You're not coming on this trip!"

"Yes I am. First, you'll need me, because I know more about this ship than anyone else, which means that if anything does go wrong I'll know what to do - at least, I hope I will. And second, having me along means that you're keeping your options open – if all else fails you'll still be able to hand me over to Romanov if necessary."

"That isn't going to happen – not under any circumstances."

"You should never rule anything out. Don't get me wrong – I really don't want to have to get involved at all, but it would be stupid to shut the door until you have to. But your uncle said he wants me on board, and obviously that would be sensible, quite apart from the fact that Romanov wants me."

I could see the sense of taking him, because this was going to be a very long journey in a ship that hadn't flown anywhere before, and so it would be downright amazing if something didn't go wrong. Sure, we'd take a couple of short flights on the Monday and the Tuesday, but that was hardly a substitute for a full set of proving flights. But I was absolutely determined that he wasn't going to put one foot onto Russian soil.

The loading and final checks were completed on Saturday afternoon. On Sunday morning we all went to church as usual, and then Tim spent the rest of the day taking the ship up and down in order to find out what it could lift if it had to and what was a sensible working weight. I didn't see much of that because I was in the conference room with Alex, Albie and Graham, developing their map reading skills and making sure that they all felt confident about converting bearings from map bearings to magnetic ones and allowing for variations caused by wind, air pressure and the magnetic variation which could change enormously over a journey such as the one we were proposing.

My uncle came and went throughout the weekend. I wasn't quite sure what he was doing, but on Sunday evening at supper he told me that he'd arranged for one of Admiral Faulkner's staff to visit the following day in order to tell me what they knew about Pasha's place outside Feodosia, and that he'd sent a message to Charlie Cardington, as a result of which a false-flag canvas was being prepared for us.

"And there's one more thing," he added. "Contrary to what I said previously, I want you to take Dr Harries on this journey. I've already discussed it with him and he's happy to come with you. You can't fly into enemy territory with no medical team beyond a boy with a very basic knowledge of how to apply a bandage."

"Thank you," I said gratefully. "I admit that had been worrying me."

"I hope you don't need him, but it's better to be safe. Now, I won't be able to come with you tomorrow afternoon, but I'd like to come on Tuesday's test flight if I may. I won't get in your way, but I'd like to get an idea of what you can do with four engines. After all, if everything works out I'll be getting Excalibur converted to four engines too."

My uncle went back to Chisbury after supper – we'd moved supper forwards a bit so that he could get back to his home before nightfall. Of course, this meant that we didn't have the use of the steam-carriage on Monday morning, and so after breakfast I gathered up Alex, Billy and Joe – and Sparrer, who I hadn't specifically asked to come but who somehow attached himself to us anyway - and we walked to Culham village and went aboard the Lady Renée Ocuto, which was still tied up at the village wharf.

"What's that ugly thing?" asked Billy, indicating the cupboard – I'd half-hoped that somebody might steal it and so take it off my hands, but no such luck. I suppose everyone local would have known it was my boat, and so nobody would have dared to take it. I just hoped nobody was judging my taste from seeing it.

"Ah," said Alex. "There's a story behind that. Let's go and light the fire, and I'll tell you all about it."

Joe, Sparrer and I waited on deck until we had steam – this time we were sailing up river, so there was no way we could release the cables before we had an engine. While we waited I told them the same story that Alex was presumably telling Billy, but I was probably a little more critical of Alex's acting ability than he was himself: I doubt if Alex's own description of his yokel accent included words like 'appalling', 'hopeless' and 'God only knows how he got away with it'. I told them too about the second voyage, the one taken with a reluctant Pasha and a semi-conscious Dmitri as passengers.

By the time I'd finished that and had answered some questions we were ready to go, so we pulled the ramp aboard, released the lines and headed back upstream. The weather was still pleasantly warm for March, and in other circumstances it would have been a nice day for a boat trip, even if the water was probably still too cold for swimming. But my mind was on other things, and so I passed the swimming place without even looking at the bank and carried straight on past the boathouse, too.

"Where are we going?" asked Joe.

"Oxford," I told him. "Uncle Gil's got the carriage, and so I thought we'd use the boat. I haven't been upstream from the boathouse, so it's a chance to relax a bit. Probably the last chance we'll get for a long time."

I made a brief stop at the Folly Bridge wharf and jogged the short distance from there to the militia headquarters, where I asked if I could request the services of the bespectacled Russian-speaking lieutenant who had interpreted for me two days previously. Fortunately he was actually in the building, and so I was able to ask him in person how he felt about a potentially dangerous mission to Russia. His response was immediate and enthusiastic, and so I told him to report to the house the following evening. I suppose it would have been fairer if I'd warned him that he was going to be making the flight in an untried ship with a crew of complete novices, all of whom were under seventeen, but I needed him to come and so I said nothing.

"Why do you need him?" asked Joe when I explained what I'd done. "You've got me. This isn't some sneaky attempt to leave me behind, I hope?"

"No, it isn't. I'd actually be much happier if you stayed behind, and if you want to I'll be only too happy to let you, but somehow I don't think you're going to say that. And in any case, I need you. At some point we'll have to have a ground party of some sort, and I'll need a Russian speaker on the ground and in the ship, and in any case if I only have one interpreter and he falls ill… so I need you both."

We sailed a bit further, and then I moored up again and we walked through Jericho to the hospital, and this time I took everyone with me. I found that the squire of Culham had done me proud: he'd even arranged for Dmitri to be put in a small private room. Of course, the squire probably hadn't known the boy was Russian…

"Okay," I said to Joe. "Let's see what you make of a Crimean accent. Just do your best to translate both ways…"

We went into the room and found Dmitri awake and with his left leg and right forearm in plaster.

"How are you feeling?" I asked him.

"Where's Pasha?" he replied. "What have you done with him?"

That was interesting: I could hear myself that he'd actually said 'Pasha' and not 'His Imperial Highness', as I'd expected.

"He's fine," I told him. "He flew back to Russia on Saturday."

"You let him go?"

I nodded. "We had an agreement," I said. "At least, I thought we did… anyway, he didn't really want to leave you behind, but he knew you needed to get to hospital, so he didn't really have any choice. How's the leg?"

"It hurts, but less than it did. I don't know exactly what they did to it because none of them speak Russian and I can't speak English, but they seem to have saved it."

"I'll find out for you," I said, and asked Billy to go and find a nurse or a doctor.

"Why did you pull me out of the tunnel?" he asked.

"Because you were injured, and I thought you would die if we left you."

"So? I'm your enemy!"

"I thought you were very brave," I told him. "You were unarmed, and yet you kept coming even when I threatened to shoot you. I didn't think you deserved to die alone in the dark."

"I did what I had to. I'm sure your own people would have done the same for you – that one in particular," and he nodded at Alex, who gave him a little smile and nodded back.

"Well, I'm glad they fixed you up."

Billy returned with a doctor, who told me that the left tibia was broken in three places and the fibula in one, but that they had been able to put both bones back together, and they expected a full recovery over time, provided the leg was allowed to heal, which might mean several weeks in bed. Dmitri had also cracked some bones in his wrist, presumably when he fell. I hadn't even noticed that at the time, but it might have explained why he screamed when Pasha pulled him away from the fallen slab. Joe relayed the doctor's comments to Dmitri, who said 'Thank you'. The doctor left.

"Why do you call him 'Pasha'?" I asked. "He's your master, isn't he?"

"We've been together for a long time, and he encourages us – me and Sergei, at least – to call him by his diminutive. And he's not exactly my master. Our relationship is… unusual. Certainly we serve him, but it's through choice, not compulsion, and in return he treats us more like family than servants."

"That sounds familiar!" commented Alex. "Maybe you and he have more in common than you thought!"

"In some ways, perhaps," I said. "Not in others. I don't think I'm likely to take up torture for fun."

I turned back to face the patient.

"So, Dmitri Igorovitch," I said. "Would you like to be able to go back to Feodosia?"

"Obviously, but I can't imagine that you'll let me."

"On the contrary, I'll take you there myself, if you're prepared to risk it. After all, you heard the doctor: really you're supposed to stay in bed and rest that leg. If you come with us it might not heal properly."

"I don't care. But why?"

"I told you, I respect bravery. And as I'm going that way I can't see any reason not to take you with me."

He was silent for a moment. Then he said, "You shouldn't go, you know. I think Pasha will kill you if you do."

"Maybe," I said. "But I don't have a lot of choice, because he's holding my friend."

"Ah, yes, the crippled Prussian. Is he really worth risking your life for?"

"You risked your life for your friend," I pointed out.

"True. But my people are warriors, and risking death is natural to us. You, I think not."

"I think perhaps your code and mine are not so very different," I said. "Part of my code is not to abandon your friends, and I'm not going to abandon this one in particular.

"Anyway, I'll arrange for you to be moved to the house… actually it might be best if you come with us now, because we're travelling by boat, and that's probably going to be better for you than bumping about on the road. You can stay with us until we leave on Wednesday. My own doctor can give you any painkillers you need."

The doctor wasn't too happy about the patient being moved, even though his leg was enclosed in a cast, but in the end I talked him into it. He gave me the details of Dmitri's medication to pass on to Dr Harries, and he also supplied a pair of orderlies and a stretcher to carry the patient to the boat. I got them to put him on the deck next to the cupboard – sooner or later I supposed we'd have to find a home for that, but for now I supposed that it might as well stay where it was – and we sailed back home. When we reached the boathouse I sent Alex and Billy to go and get Wolfie's wheelchair out of the attic and bring it back to the boathouse. Wolfie had of course been able to bend his legs, but it was possible to use the chair with one or both legs raised, and so we set it up and carefully transferred Dmitri into it.

We installed him in one of the second-floor rooms and made sure that he could reach the bell-pull (these were fitted in every first- and second-floor room. My friends and I didn't use them, but if you wanted something you could pull the rope and a maid or footman would came to see what you needed). Joe gave him a piece of paper with 'Fetch Joe Silver' written on it and told him to show it to the staff if he needed something and was unable to indicate what it was without words. Then we left him to rest.

After lunch we took Excelsior up for her first proper test flight. Almost all of my trainees had come down from London, so I had more than enough crewmen to man the ship, and the trip gave them all a chance to get used to the layout of this ship and the difference in the way she handled compared with Excalibur. That applied to me and the other officers too, because I discovered that the bridge layout had changed since I had first seen it on my birthday.

"We decided that the elevator control was going to need complete concentration on this ship," Tim explained. "So we moved the telegraphs to the other side of the bridge. Now they're controlled from the same desk as ballast control. We left gas control where it was, next to the ballast and telegraph desk, but we've put you in a proper navigation area a bit further back, because it was too awkward getting at the table where it was, and there was nowhere there to store the charts, either.

"We took out the radio desk because there's no way we can replicate the radios – at least not in the near future – but we extended the communications desk a bit, because there are more tubes needed on this ship. The electrical desk is next to communications, and the semaphore control and signaller's desk is still where it was, at the back of the gondola. What do you think?"

I looked around and decided that the layout was logical. The First Officer's seat was now where the table had been, next to the Captain's seat at the front of the gondola, and certainly having the navigation position further back did give us more space. And I thought it was sensible to allow the assistant helm to concentrate fully on the elevators, instead of having to worry about the engines as well, because keeping an æthership steady is difficult even when you know the ship well, and none of us had tried handling a four-engine ship before.

"I like it," I said. "Nice job, Tim."

Even though this was a short trip I learned a few things, including the facts that my helm teams were going to need a lot longer to get used to handling her, that not all of my officers could get a bearing right first time, and that I myself needed a lot more practice at landing a ship without venting gas. In fact I came to the conclusion that it couldn't be done: even with the elevators doing much of the work it was impossible to bring the ship low enough for a landing without venting hydrogen – at least, not unless you had a huge open plain to land in.

Nonetheless, we'd got where I'd intended and successfully found our way home again, and we'd also managed to land the ship – eventually – in one piece, and so afterwards I told the crew that they had done exceptionally well. I really hoped that we wouldn't have to fight, though, because it's one thing to fly in a straight line, but another entirely to try to out-fly an opponent in a battle situation, and at present even keeping the ship straight and level was an effort.

When I got back to the house I found that Air Admiral Faulkner had come in person with the information about Feodosia and the surrounding area.

"Sorry I got here too late for the flight," he said. "I'd like to come with you tomorrow, if you don't mind. I want to see what can be done with a ship like yours."

"Of course," I said. "My uncle will be with us too, so he should be able to answer any questions you might have. So what can you tell me about Feodosia?"

The admiral placed a map on the table in front of me.

"This is Feodosia," he said, indicating a town in the south-east corner of the Crimea. "Romanov's place is here, about eight or nine miles to the south-west of it, on the edge of this big bay here, see? Most of the surrounding land is his, and as far as we're aware nobody else lives there. Now, on the other side of the bay – here – you can see the start of a range of mountains that runs away west and then south-west. The peaks are mostly eight hundred to thirteen hundred feet, and there are plenty of valleys between them where you could park an æthership and be reasonably confident that nobody would see it unless they flew right over it. That would leave you about five miles from Romanov's villa. The tricky part, obviously, would be landing, but if you can do that you'll be very well placed.

"The main Russian surface naval base is at Sevastopol, which is around a hundred miles away, but there are æthership bases at Alushta and Simferopol, which are quite a bit closer, maybe sixty miles from Romanov's villa. So you'll need to be in and out quickly – if you give him time to get a message to either of those you're probably done for.

"Here's the only photograph we have of the actual house. You can see that it's quite a lot smaller that this place, and it doesn't have external fences, so there's nothing to stop you walking right up to the front door, although as you can see there's no cover, so you'd only be able to arrive openly. You can see the two æthership hangars behind the house, and those are protected by artillery and rocket batteries. He also has two or three surface vessels – there's a large boathouse on the seafront south of the villa, though you can't see it in the photograph.

"I hope that helps, because we don't have anything further."

"No, that's fine – at least now I can envisage the area a bit. Thank you, Sir Neil. Are these originals or copies?"

"They're all copies, so you can take them with you."

So at least now I knew where I was going, and that I had a ship which could probably get me there. Unfortunately I still didn't have even the beginnings of a proper plan.

After breakfast the following morning I went back to my room to put my flying uniform on – I hadn't bothered the previous day because the flight was so short. I've got three different clothes cupboards – the large wardrobe that leads to the secret passage, where I keep most of my everyday clothes; a smaller one that holds my morning and evening suits for formal occasions; and another small one where I keep my flying uniform (it's ideal for that because, unlike the other two, this one has a shelf for a hat). And when I opened the third wardrobe I found myself looking at some clothes that didn't belong to me, and I realised that this must be Pasha's stuff.

I took it all out of the wardrobe and put it on the bed. It wasn't a uniform, just ordinary clothes not too different from the ones he'd been wearing when we first met in Norway. I went through the pockets, finding some Russian coins and some keys in the trousers and a small wallet in the jacket, and I opened this eagerly, hoping to find some sort of ID card that I might be able to use in the Crimea. There were a couple of documents in Russian, but nothing that looked like an ID. The wallet also contained some banknotes, three or four visiting cards not so very different from my own, and a photograph of three boys on a beach smiling happily at the camera, just like the sort of holiday snaps most families seem to have.

"Now that's interesting," I said to myself, because the boy in the middle was Pasha himself, with his two Cossacks, Dmitri and Sergei, on either side of him. They were all bare-chested, and they had their arms around each other's shoulders, and anything less like a master and two servants it would be hard to imagine. I remembered how desperate Pasha had been to rescue Dmitri from the collapsed tunnel, and Dmitri's own description of their relationship as 'unusual', and I wondered if, just possibly, I might have the answer to our problem right here in my hand: maybe I could persuade Pasha to swap Wolfie for Dmitri…

Talk about this story on our forum
Authors deserve your feedback. It's the only payment they get. If you go to the top of the page you will find the author's name. Click that and you can email the author easily. Please take a few moments, if you liked the story, to say so.

[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. If the email address pastes with %40 in the middle, replace that with an @ sign.]