Excelsior

by David Clarke

Chapter 25

Our plans for Tuesday morning went out of the window almost from the beginning: I'd put my uniform on before I'd been out of the house, and so I didn't realise quite how blowy it was. But there had been a storm overnight and the wind was still very strong and gusty – far too strong to risk bringing Excelsior out of its hanger. According to the forecast the weather was supposed to improve later, but it looked as if we were going to be limited to another short trip, and that wouldn't really give us the chance to get used to the ship in the way I had hoped. Of course, my uncle was right in saying that we could train on the way to Greece, but when you set out on a thoroughly dangerous mission it's nice to think that you have some idea of how to handle your ship first.

I was also hoping to experiment with crew numbers: I wanted to take the absolute minimum necessary to run the ship on a two-watch basis, because unless something went horribly wrong there would be no night flying necessary on this journey. The fewer people I took with me, the fewer lives I would be putting at risk. However, the problem with a steam-powered æthership is that you need stokers and greasers in every engine-room, and on this ship we had five of them. We also now had five rocket turrets, and while they wouldn't need to be manned at all times, if we came up against any Russians we had to have enough men to man all five simultaneously. The same was true of our eight guns. I wondered if we might do better to leave some of the guns behind, but I was reluctant to do that if we were going into enemy territory.

By using the rocketeers and gunners as general hands for the purposes of landing the ship – releasing mooring-lines and, if we were landing away from an established base, forming a basic ground crew - and by cutting back to three stokers per engine, I was able to reduce the ship's complement to seventy per watch, including a petty officer in each engine room. So apparently we needed a hundred and forty men, plus six officers including the Ship's Doctor.

Then I started thinking logically, and I realised that the only jobs that needed two full watches were those on the bridge and in the engine rooms. We didn't need two sets of artillerymen – after all, we'd only need to man the guns and turrets during an actual battle, so one crew for each gun and each turret would be enough. But even cutting out the second artillery teams only brought the number needed down to 106 men, plus officers, and that still seemed far too many. But I didn't think I could cut any further – at least, not until I had every member of the crew fully trained on multiple jobs, and we didn't have time for that now. And for the purposes of this training trip it was obviously best to take all the trainees and then select the one hundred and six best ones for the real journey.

We finally got airborne a little after one o'clock, and on the whole the afternoon was a disaster. There were a couple of bright spots: first of all, Sparrer showed that he was a natural as assistant helm, because by the time we'd been flying for an hour he'd mastered the balance of the new ship and was able to keep her steady, even though the wind was still quite gusty. The first thing he did was to move his chair out of the way and do the job standing up, just like the main helmsman.

"I can feel the ship through my feet like this," he explained. "You can feel every little twitch, and then you know what to do about it, sort of thing."

The bad news was that the other two assistants couldn't get it at all. The problem is that it takes a ship as big as Excelsior time to respond. A new assistant moves the elevators, sees that nothing is happening, and so he moves them even further, and then the ship responds too much, so he moves them in the opposite direction, feels that nothing is happening, and so on, with the result that the ship's nose goes up and down like a ride at the fairground, and if it goes on for too long everyone on board gets airsick. My uncle, who went to Oxford University when he was eighteen, said it's like steering a punt, but since I haven't tried that either I'm not sure if it's actually the same or not.

Anyway, with Sparrer standing right next to them and guiding them it worked well enough, but as soon as he stepped away we were back on the see-saw, and in the end I had to more or less give up and let Sparrer man the position for the rest of the afternoon.

There was better news on the other wheel: both Billy and Weasel, one of the other two helmsmen, adjusted to the new ship fairly quickly, although the third one had the same problem as the elevator operators, except of course in his case it meant that the ship went from side to side instead of up and down. The effect was equally unpleasant, and the idea of having both incompetents on duty at once was completely unthinkable.

We also lost one of the engines, which started to seize up about an hour into the journey. Fortunately the petty officer in that gondola realised immediately that there was a problem and so disengaged the engine straight away, thus avoiding further damage, but it was a problem that we couldn't solve in the air because we didn't have the necessary parts or tools on board. The one good thing that came out of that was that it gave me a chance to try running the ship on three engines, trying to balance the one starboard engine against the two port ones, and although it reduced our speed we were still able to manoeuvre like that.

We tried a 'Getting to Action Stations' drill, and that was pretty chaotic too, because the crew still hadn't got used to the layout of the ship, and that resulted in crewmen wandering around looking lost a full five minutes after the whistle had been blown. All in all, it wasn't a very encouraging voyage, and I wasn't the only person who thought so, either.

"You're not ready," said my uncle flatly, once we were back in the conference room. "You've got far too many who don't know what they're doing, and you don't need me to tell you what will happen if you run into even one Eagle with the ship as it was today.'

"We've got two thousand miles to practise in," I pointed out. "I've got two decent helmsmen and one solid assistant – if I can find someone else for the elevators we'll be fine. We'll be carrying tools and spares on the actual mission, and we'll have plenty of time to get the crew used to the ship. Yes, you're right about them not being ready to fight, but I'm not intending to fight. I promise you that at the first sign of trouble we'll run the other way. Look, Uncle, I have to do this. I'm not leaving Wolfie, and there's no other way to get there quickly enough."

"I don't like it," said my uncle.

"Nor do I," echoed Admiral Faulkner. "Whatever else happens, we simply cannot risk letting the Russians get their hands on your ship."

"I know," I said. "Don't worry: when we get to Greece we're going to set mines inside her, and if the worst happens we'll ditch in the Black Sea and detonate them. Tim says she's certain to sink if we do that, and he's confident that no equipment exists that can cut that armour underwater. They'd have to raise the whole ship, and I'm certain they wouldn't be able to do that."

The discussion lasted a little longer, but at the end of the day the Admiralty doesn't have the authority to tell privateers what they can and cannot do, and Uncle Gil stuck by his promise to me to let me make my own decisions, and so when the Admiral left us after supper, the trip was still on.

An enormous package had been delivered while were in the air, and it came with a note saying 'Have fun with this – and good luck!' signed by Charlie Cardington. Our false flag had arrived. I left it packed up for the time being as it would take up less room like that.

Also newly arrived was the militia interpreter, Lieutenant Beeching, who timed his arrival perfectly as we were about to sit down to supper when he turned up. I invited him to join us, and shortly after supper I took him upstairs to meet our resident Russian. I found Joe and Sparrer already sitting beside Dmitri's bed, and so I told them to go and have some fun for a while, saying that we could look after the patient for a bit.

Lieutenant Beeching said hello and exchanged a few phrases, establishing that Dmitri's accent wasn't too hard for him. Dmitri confirmed that he was feeling okay and that there was nothing he needed, and so I turned to go, but before I reached the door Dmitri said, "Wait! I want to talk about the Jew."

I don't like hearing any of my friends referred to like that. In Joe's case I hadn't liked it when Carmody referred to him in that way, and I liked it a great deal less coming from a Russian.

"What?" I said, and Beeching hardly needed to translate that for my hostility to be obvious.

"No, you misunderstand," said Dmitri. "You must realise that between my people and his there is a lot of history. Maybe you don't know a lot about Russia… do you know the meaning of the word 'pogrom'?"

I didn't, but it turned out that Beeching, who was four years older than me and so had been through more education, did.

"The Jews in Russia went through periods when they were tolerated, interspersed with periods when they weren't," he explained. "It depended on what was happening politically and who was on the throne at the time. And so every so often the Jews would be attacked and killed."

He said something to Dmitri, who nodded. "And when the Little Father decreed that the Jews had to go, it was usually we Cossacks who were given the job," Dmitri said. "Even today, Jews in the Empire view us with suspicion. So when I discovered that your servant was a Jew, at first I feared for my life – I thought he would smother me in the night. But instead he has done all that he could to ensure that I was comfortable and had everything I needed, and last night he moved a mattress into the room and slept on it, so as to be nearby if I were to wake up in the night. I could not have asked for more, even from a close comrade. Ask him yourself what he has done for me, and make sure he understands that I want him to tell you.

"To be treated as I have been, by you and by your servants generally and by the Jew in particular, seems to me to be extraordinary, and so I wanted to thank you. You have my deep gratitude. And if I can ever repay the service – without betraying my master, obviously – I would be happy for an opportunity to do so."

"Thank you, Dmitri Igorovitch," I said. "But please could you not refer to him as 'The Jew'? He has a name, you know."

"Yes, I know. But it is the fact of his religion that makes his behaviour so unbelievable. I meant no slur by it."

"Okay, then. I'll get either Joe or Lieutenant Beeching here to come by later to see that you have everything you need. And if you need us before then, just ring the bell."

I said 'Thank you' to the lieutenant and went to find Joe, eventually running him to ground in the reading room, where he was playing chess with Sparrer. I closed the door and sat down next to him.

"I've just been talking to Dmitri," I said. "He couldn't believe that you hadn't killed him in his sleep."

"You should have seen his face when I told him I was Jewish," he said, grinning at me. "You know I'm not much of a fighter, and so nobody has ever looked or acted remotely scared of me before. It was interesting. And when I told him that my grandparents had actually been born in Russia… well, let's just say it didn't seem to calm him down. But I told him that I really wasn't interested in ancient history, and that all I cared about was looking after him.

"It took him a while to relax, but after an hour or so we were getting on fairly well. It's difficult being stuck in bed, especially when you need the toilet, and he got quite embarrassed, but I got him to relax by joking about it, and that helped. And then when he woke up this morning he got really embarrassed because he'd had a wet dream. He said he wouldn't have told me, except that Dr Harries was supposed to be coming to check up on him and he didn't want to get caught with sticky pyjamas.

"So I got them off him and helped him to clean up, and I made some comment like, 'That must have been one hell of a good dream!' or something, because there was loads of it, and he said it was because he hadn't been able to masturbate since last Thursday, and he was afraid it was going to happen a few more times unless he could learn to do it left-handed. So I offered to do it for him."

"Bloody hell!" I said. "How did that go down?"

"Pretty well, actually. Of course, Cossacks already think that Jews are about as low as it gets, so a gay Jew couldn't be any lower… except he said he didn't think it was gay to get a friend to help you if you couldn't do it yourself. So I queried the 'friend' part of that, and he said he considered me his friend now, despite my religion – in fact he seemed to think that maybe he'd been misinformed about the iniquities of the Jewish people…

"Anyway, from that point on he relaxed completely and started calling me 'Osya' – I didn't even know that there was a diminutive of 'Ioseph' in Russian, but apparently there is – and asked me to call him 'Dima', so I guess you could say that we're getting on pretty well. Not so well that I'll be able to persuade him to stab Pasha in the back – he seems to look at Pasha rather in the way that your orphans look at you – but I should think he might be prepared to say some nice things about you when he gets home, if that's going to help."

"If he ends up back with Pasha it'll mean we've already achieved everything we want," I said, "because he doesn't go back to Pasha unless Wolfie comes back to us. Still, if you don't mind carrying on looking after him it might be no bad thing."

"I don't mind at all. Actually I'm starting to like him. So I'll carry on sleeping in his room and, er, giving him a hand when necessary."

"I'm sure that won't be too great a hardship for you!" I said.

The next interview was, I thought, not going to be half as much fun, because this was the point at which I was supposed to go to my uncle and give him my plan to rescue Wolfie, and, barring a half-formed idea about swapping him for Dmitri, I had no real plan at all.

"I'm going to talk to him," I told my uncle. "I'm going to try to persuade him to exchange Wolfie for Dmitri. I think there's at least a chance that he'll accept." I backed that up by showing my uncle the photo.

"What makes you think he won't just grab you as well?"

"Well… I know it's a risk, but so far we've both kept our word. After all, I had him and I let him go. Alex thinks it's a risk because he's convinced that Pasha is insane, but even if he is I hope that the photo is evidence that he does have normal human feelings, no matter how deep he tries to bury them. And if I tell him that Alex is in command of my ship in my absence – which he will be – and that what happens to Dmitri is going to be in Alex's hands, I think that'll help too: he seemed to think Alex doesn't have the same weaknesses that I do - things like honour, decency and so on. If he thinks that Dmitri's life really is on the line, perhaps he'll play it straight. And if he doesn't, I'm going to leave Alex with orders to fly over Pasha's villa and bomb it to hell and back, even if Wolfie and I are still inside. I think our armour will protect the ship from his rockets for long enough to make the point."

"You realise that could just get both you and Wolfie killed?"

"Obviously. But maybe I'll get Alex to concentrate on the æthership hangers instead of the house – that will make the same point with less risk to ourselves."

"Yes, that might do the trick. There's one problem with that, though: will Alex be able to land the ship again afterwards?"

"Ah. I hadn't thought of that. Still, maybe the threat will be enough – and maybe I can teach Alex how to do it before we get there. After all, it's not so very long ago that I couldn't do it either."

"Don't forget the added problem of losing gas," he reminded me. "Every time you land the ship, especially if you're trying to land vertically in a valley, you're going to have to vent hydrogen. You can probably get away with one landing like that, but anything more and you're going to reduce your lift."

"All right, but if we have to we can compensate by dumping ballast, and if that isn't enough I'll chuck a couple of guns into the sea. We'll manage, Uncle."

"Actually, I think you will," he said. "You're thinking like a captain, anyway. I wonder if Alex is able to think like a First Officer yet?"

He rang the bell-pull, and when Allchorn appeared he asked him to go and fetch Alex.

"Here's a scenario for you," he said to Alex when he arrived. "Leo and Wolfie are still in Romanov's villa, leaving you in charge of the ship. Your spotters report that there are three Eagles heading in your direction. What do you do?"

"I run," said Alex. "We can't beat three Eagles, so we head for Turkey. Of course, once they've gone we go back. And if they're still there, we wait until it's dark and then go back."

"Do you think you can navigate in the dark?"

"Yes, I should think so. After all, if we reverse our bearing we should get close enough to see the lights of Feodosia. The Eagles, if they're still there after dark…"

"Which I'm sure they wouldn't be," I put in.

"Right, but even if they are, they'll have to have their lights on to avoid crashing into each other. So we'll have three nicely-lit up targets to aim at, and our lights will be out, so they won't be able to see us. We give them a full broadside using everything, guns and all five turrets, and then run away again before they can aim at the rocket trails and fire back. How am I doing so far?"

Well, I was impressed: Alex had obviously been thinking about this.

"Good as long as there's no moon," said my uncle. "Have you checked what phase it will be?"

"No, but I can remember that it was a new moon the night Wolfie disappeared, so it won't be more than first quarter by the time we get to Feodosia," said Alex. "And provided there's some cloud as well we should be okay."

"Yes, he is," said my uncle to me. That confused me until I realised that he was answering his own question from a few minutes earlier about whether Alex was able to think like a First Officer. "Very well, Leo, you have my support. I've been talking to the French High Command, and they've agreed to mount a raid or two across the Weser in the direction of Hannover. Obviously that won't help you directly, but it will keep the Russian High Command preoccupied and less inclined to get involved in a minor skirmish on the Black Sea. But the most important thing is still going to be time: you must get in and out before Romanov can notify the two Russian æthership bases Sir Neil told you about. He probably has enough clout that they'd respond to an order from him without referring it to the High Command first.

"And now I'd suggest that you go to bed, because if you're leaving at first light you'll have to be up soon after five."

Alex followed me up the stairs, and when he opened his own bedroom door I told him to close it again.

"I don't want to be on my own tonight," I said, "because if I am I'm just going to lie there awake for ages thinking about everything that might go wrong. Maybe if you're there I won't do that."

"What you need," he said, following me into my room, "is a good massage."

I thought that was a really excellent idea, and it certainly got me relaxed: despite everything that had happened I slept really well.

Alex's watch alarm got us up just after five. We washed, dressed in our flying uniforms, packed a small bag each with changes of clothing, and then went down to breakfast.

"You're in luck with the weather," my uncle observed. "There's hardly any wind, so you should be able to get away as soon as it's light enough to see what you're doing. I'd get the stokers up to the ship at about half-past: I've already arranged for the ground crew to move her to the mast at that time."

"Thank you, Uncle," I said. Now that the moment had arrived I was feeling nervous again and I didn't really fancy breakfast too much, but I forced myself to eat something anyway to give me the energy to get through the day.

As soon as I'd finished I gathered up my friends (except for Joe, who was going to get Dmitri into the wheelchair and then bring him up to the ship) and we made our way to the upper mast. There was just enough light in the sky for us to be able to see the ship emerging from its hanger, so Alex headed off to round up the stokers while the rest of us watched as the ground crew moored the ship to the mast.

Of course we couldn't use the lights on the bridge gondola until the electric generator was running, and so to start with I just sat in my chair and waited, trying to plan ahead and think of ways to deal with everything that could possibly go wrong. That kept me busy for a long time, and in fact I felt I'd barely started to scratch the surface when the lights came on.

This ship was better equipped than Excalibur in that it had proper crew quarters with enough bunks for eighty crew and eight officers, and I had quite a nice cabin not too far from the ladder up from the bridge gondola. All the accommodation was at the bottom of the ship and so below the hydrogen bags, and this was also a big improvement on Excalibur, where cabins and sleeping areas had been fitted into small spaces all over the ship. So we took our bags to our cabins and then went back to the bridge, and Alex and I started to work out our first bearing: today's leg of the journey was to take us to Parma, which in this world was in France, in the département of Taro. We couldn't quite fly there in a straight line as that would have taken us over a corner of the neutral Swiss Confederation, so we were heading first for Lyon, where we would change course for Parma. That would keep us over French territory throughout the journey, which – in theory at least – meant that we would be free to run drills without any danger of a real attack developing.

Joe and Dr Harries brought Dmitri aboard and carried him, with some difficulty, up the ladder and along to the cabin which I had arranged for him, next to Joe's own and with the doctor not too far away. There was no point in bringing the wheelchair, since Dmitri would be in bed throughout the journey, so my uncle said he would take it back to the house when we left.

Alex went to take a roll-call of the crew, who had assembled outside the ship, and came back to say that everyone was accounted for, and that he had selected the names we had agreed the previous evening, thanked the rest and apologised that there was no room for them on this mission, but added that if we had to undertake any long, overnight journeys, we would need all of them.

My uncle shook my hand.

"Take it easy for the first couple for days," he suggested. "You'll get to Parma well before sunset even if you don't go above cruising speed, so take it a bit slower and use the time for training. If you can build the crew's confidence before you leave Greece they'll be a lot more relaxed about the third day.

"Good luck – and if you don't bring the ship back in one piece, you're in trouble!"

He shook my hand again and stepped out of the gondola, and the ground crew released the mooring cables and stepped back.

"Helm, up five degrees, one quarter speed," I ordered, and the ship began to move. I stood up and looked down at the house as we climbed, wondering if I'd ever see it again. Finally I sighed and looked away.

"Helm, come to bearing one-five-five and climb to seven hundred and fifty feet. All engines, cruise speed. Mr Demetriou, you have the bridge."

It was about five hundred miles to Lyon and then another two hundred and fifty to Parma, which was around ten hours at cruising speed, provided that we didn't have to skirt around any heavy weather, and none was forecast. That would get us to our destination well before sunset, so we wouldn't have to strain the engines at all.

"Call me if anything happens," I said to Alex as I reached the foot of the ladder. "I'm going to have a walk round the ship."

Most of the off-duty watch were trying out their bunks, though some, and the gunners and rocketeers, who were strictly on duty, were sitting around in the two crew's quarters day-rooms, playing cards or dice or, in a couple of cases, reading books. I warned them that there would almost certainly be a drill before the watch was out and left them to their games.

Next on my list was one of the engine gondolas, and here I found two stokers working while the third rested, which was how it was supposed to be: it's hard to shovel coal non-stop through a four-hour watch. The gondola petty officer, who was also the engineer, did seem to be keeping a close eye on his engine, but the final crew-member, who was responsible for keeping the engine lubricated and helping the officer if a problem arose, was with the spare stoker, looking out of the window.

I was already starting to think that we were over-staffed: probably I only really needed two stokers to a boiler, not three, and maybe the grease-monkey could cover more than one gondola. And there were a lot of gunners and rocketeers who were likely to get through their entire watch doing nothing at all, unless we ran some drills for them. Of course, when we were in action I supposed that almost everyone would be busy, but right now it just looked inefficient.

I went forward again, stopping in at the small sick bay, where I found Dr Harries happily reading a newspaper, and then went on to the officers' cabins. The only one of the eight cabins currently occupied held Dmitri and Lieutenant Beeching, who had apparently just popped in to make sure that the patient was comfortable (Joe was on duty, of course).

"Everything all right?" I asked Dmitri.

"Yes, thank you. These cabins are better than the ones on Suvorov. I've never seen such a large bunk on an æthership."

There was a reason for that, of course: the likelihood was that some of the officers at least would prefer not to sleep alone, and in fact when the cabins were being installed Wolfie and I had worked exactly how much sleeping space we needed and had then asked for a bunk big enough to sleep both of us in comfort. Knowing that Alex and Joe were similarly likely to be sharing their quarters I had ensured that all the officer cabins were similarly equipped.

"There's no reason not to be comfortable in a warship," I replied. "Anyway, I just wanted to warn you that we'll be holding some drills before too long, so don't worry if you hear the alarm sounded. You just stay here and relax. If there's ever a real alarm I'll make sure that we don't forget you. In any case there's a jumpshade under your bunk, and I'm sure Joe will come and rescue you if we have to abandon ship. I'm fairly sure that won't happen today, though, not unless the French have changed sides without telling us."

I went back to the bridge and Beeching came with me. By now the sea was in view, so we were progressing nicely. I decided to run the first action drill once we were safely across the Channel. I also wanted to get at least one drill done before the watch changed and we found ourselves at the mercy of the trainee elevator operator… and then I had an idea.

"You live in Oxford, don't you?" I asked Beeching.

"That's right. Why?"

"Well, have you ever been in a punt?"

"Yes, of course."

"Then would you be so kind as to relieve Mr Sparrow at the elevator wheel? See, my uncle says handling the wheels is like steering a punt – there's a sort of delayed reaction problem which most people can't overcome. But maybe if you're used to handling a punt…"

"Well, I'll have a try if you like. But I've never even flown before, far less worked the controls."

"Ben, could you give him a quick lesson?" I asked.

"Yeah, why not? He's got to be better than them prick… sorry, them pillocks we had doing it last time. What do I call you, then?" he added to Beeching.

"You call him 'Sir' I said. "He's an officer. You can tell that from his uniform."

"Yeah, a land officer," said Sparrer, scornfully. "That don't really count."

"Oh, yes it does," I started.

"It's fine," said the lieutenant. "If I'm doing a crewman's job you can call me 'Chris'. But when we're on the ground you'd better call me 'Sir', or else!"

"You don't scare me!" said Sparrer, grinning at him. "Besides, I ain't going on the ground, not this trip. So, you stand here, with your feet apart a bit – you can feel the ship better that way – and you take hold of the wheel. Normally you move both the elevators at the same time, but if you want to do one and not the other you use this lever here.

"Then you got a load of instruments to tell you what's happening: your little angle thingy what tells you what angle you're climbing or diving at, the other two angle thingies what show you the position each elevator is in, these two little bubble things what tell you if the ship is level sideways and longways, your altimeter, what tells you how far up we are, them two gauges what tell you what the wind's doing and how fast it is, and these other bits and pieces what I don't really understand, so I ignore them and you might as well too."

I didn't really like the sound of that and hoped there was nothing important among the 'bits and pieces'.

"Now you have a go," Sparrer went on. "Just remember it takes time for the ship to change what it's doing, so if you think we need to go down a bit, just move the wheel down a bit and then level off again – and don't do nothing else, even if you think it's not working. Wait, and it'll happen."

Beeching took his place at the elevator wheel, and I sidled over to the navigation table to have a look at the wind gauges. It was a little bit blowy here in mid-Channel, so I waited for the first see-saw bump, and sure enough we went down and then up again a couple of times for a couple of minutes. But then the ship levelled again.

"I think I've got it now," said the lieutenant, and indeed after that there were hardly any bumps at all.

"Bloody hell, you got that quick!" said Sparrer. "It took me at least half an hour to work it out, and them other kids never got it at all. Leo… Sorry, I mean Captain, I reckon he's a natural!"

"Do you want a job?" I asked Beeching. "I mean, provided we all get back in one piece from this trip, and provided the militia can spare you, that is. If we do and they can I'd like you to join the crew permanently."

"Really? I'd never really thought about flying… I tell you what – ask me again when we get back home. That should give me a chance to see if I like it. But I don't mind filling in here for this mission, if you like."

"Great! Thanks – that's really solved one of our biggest problems. I'll make sure you get a full crewman's pay on top of your interpreter's fee, too. All right, you're now assistant helm for Number Two watch. You're off duty at the moment, so you can give the wheel back to Mr Sparrow. But if you're off duty when we land this evening, could you please come and watch? I'd like you to be able to do that too, if at all possible."

Sparrer took over again and I went and sat down in the captain's chair next to Billy, feeling greatly relieved: at least now I wouldn't have half the crew feeing seasick.

Once we were across the Channel I told Alex to give me five minutes to get into position and then call battle stations. I made my way to the point where the main walkway intersected with the central staircase and waited, and a couple of minutes later the whistle was sounded and people started to scurry about. In fairness it was a little better than our attempt the previous day had been, but not by much. Once everyone had finally reached their correct station I made my way around the entire ship, checking that everyone was where they were supposed to be. This time I also thought to go and check up on the off-duty watch, and was dismayed to realise just how many people I had standing around doing nothing even under battle stations. We were definitely over-manned.

"All right," I told them. "For now you wait here, in the crew day rooms. If we take casualties, you'll be either directed to replace them by the communications desk or by one of us officers. Otherwise just wait here for further orders. But stay awake, because I can guarantee there will be more drills before today is over – and 'll expect you to get to your stations faster than the current bunch."

I went back to the bridge and told Joe to stand the crew down, and then I sank into my chair next to Alex.

"The trouble with making it up as you go along," I said, "is that if you do it after the mission has already started it's difficult to put things right. We've got about forty more people on board than we really need… well, maybe not as many as forty. But some, anyway. When we're at action stations, everyone should have a job to do."

"I'm not sure we can manage that," he replied. "What are you going to do with off-duty stokers?"

"If we'd thought to train all the stokers as gunners as well we could have left all the gun crews behind. God, I'm so useless! I should have worked all this out weeks ago!"

"No, you're not. Anyway, we didn't even know any of this was going to happen weeks ago – we thought we had at least a year to get the details right. Anyway, better too many than too few. And if it comes to a fight, we can always give all the extra crew rifles and get them to shoot at the enemy gondolas. That might be useful."

"No, we can't, because we didn't bring any rifles, either, which was pretty stupid, because actually that's a good idea. How did you think of that?"

He shrugged. "In the Napoleonic Wars, ships used to carry marines, and one of their jobs was to shoot at enemy officers during naval battles. That's how Nelson died, remember? And in a way, these ships aren't so very different: they're fairly slow and they fight close to the enemy ships. And since all our crewmen did some rifle training at Oxford…"

Of course I knew that history was Alex's best subject, but I hadn't realised how any of it could be applied today. But this was definitely an idea worth pursuing.

"If we get to Parma early enough, maybe we can buy some rifles," I said. "If we can arm the rest of our crewmen, at least it won't have been completely pointless bringing them all along. Nice one, Alex!"

At ten o'clock we changed watches. Since this was the first time that Albie had been in charge I said I would stay on the bridge for an hour or so, but he seemed to be coping with the bearings quite comfortably, and so I left him to it after half an hour and walked up to the forward observation post and watched the French landscape slip by for a while. We ran another drill about midway through Albie's watch, which was a bit better than the first one, and then a third one half an hour later. That one wasn't too bad at all, but it was still slower than I would have liked.

We landed at Parma shortly before four in the afternoon. The only tricky bit was exchanging signals with the ground at the Parma æthership base, because although Joe could by now manage the semaphore in English, he'd never had to use it in French before. Fortunately it turned out that Chris Beeching spoke French as well as Russian, and because he was a communications officer in the militia he also knew how to use a semaphore. I was starting to think that bringing him with us was about the only thing I'd got right so far.

Once we'd landed and I'd made the arrangements with the base commander for refuelling – I took Tim with me to do that, since his French was the best at my disposal – I asked if he knew where I could obtain some rifles, and he just asked how many I needed. It was that easy. So I ordered forty, with plenty of ammunition, and he said everything would be ready for our departure the following morning. Then I assembled the rest of the crew outside the barracks we were going to be using (we still had more crewmen than there were bunks on the ship) and told them what I thought of the day's drills. The gist of the message was 'improving, but can still be better', though I balanced it with the comment that I had no complaints at all about the actual flying of the ship. On the whole, I supposed things could have been worse.

The following day the drills were a bit better, and then, the second time around, a lot better. Overall it was a good day, though we had to divert a little to the east to avoid a thunderstorm over the Adriatic, and that meant that we had to fly over Illyria instead of over the sea for much of the day. We followed the coast all the way down to Ragusa and then went back over the sea to avoid overflying Montenegro or Albania (Albania was neutral, but I'd developed an allergy to two-headed black eagles). When we reached Corfu we headed east and reached Thessalonika shortly before five o'clock.

Now it was Alex's turn to struggle with the semaphore, and at least he understood which mast we were directed to, even if he didn't understand too much else – the fault of the semaphore system, he assured us, and not a deficiency of his Greek. And in fact once we were on the ground he found, much to his own surprise, that he was able to carry on a conversation with the duty officer at the base. Of course he lacked some of the necessary vocabulary: for some reason his Greek School classes in Palmers Green had neglected to teach him such essential phrases as 'Our æthership needs more coal, water and hydrogen' and 'We need a barracks for twenty-six crewmen' (the remaining eighty would be sleeping on board, of course), though he did find it easier to ask what time the mess would be open. In the end, with the help of a dictionary provided by the base officer, he managed to arrange everything we needed.

After we had eaten I sat down with the other officers, Tim and Beeching, whom I considered to be an officer even though he was working as a crewman, and we had a look at the map of the Black Sea.

"It's about seven hundred miles," I said. "We can do that comfortably enough. Ideally I'd prefer to approach from the north, because I bet Pasha won't be looking that way. But that's going to be too dangerous: we'd have to pass far too close to the Russian naval base at Sevastopol, and you can bet that there will be ætherships all over that. So I'm going to try to stay well to the south and then approach the Crimea from the south-east, as if we'd come from Georgia. That way there are likely to be fewer enemy ætherships to bluff our way past, and if we make a mess of the Russian – no offence to either Chris or Joe – they'll put it down to us being Georgian and so only having Russian as our second language.

"I want us to reach Feodosia a little before sunset. That should give us time to land before it gets dark but won't give them time to get a ship into the air to investigate if anyone sees us."

"Okay, but then what?" asked Alex. "Assuming everything goes well – big assumption, but still – and we manage to land without being attacked: what then?"

"Then I go visiting," I said. "I'll go to Pasha's villa and knock on the door."

"Just like that?" said Alex.

"Just like that."

"And what happens if you run into a patrol on the way and they take you somewhere else – or even shoot you?"

"I'll carry a white flag if you like."

"I think you should take someone with you," said Joe. "Me, preferably, because if we do meet any Russians I'll be able to speak to them for you."

"I don't want him getting his hands on anyone other than me," I said. "So I think I have to go on my own."

"My first question still stands," said Alex. "If you go on your own you might never reach Pasha's place at all."

"How about this?" suggested Albie. "You take Joe with you, and also a squad of men. That way you'll have a proper escort. When you get in sight of Pasha's front door, Joe brings the escort back here, so none of them gets captured, and you go on alone. That way you get there safely, but nobody else is put at risk."

"Well, that's fine unless we run into a bigger squad than the one I'm taking," I said. "It won't help anyone if we start shooting at each other."

"We can't cover all the possibilities," said Albie. "I think taking Joe and a small escort is your best option, though."

I wasn't totally convinced, but in the end I went along with it. I then showed them the photos that Admiral Faulkner had given me.

"If I'm not back with you by midday on Saturday," I said, "I'd suggest you make a flying pass of Pasha's villa and see if you can bomb his æthership hangars, or fire a couple of rockets at them, or both. But just one pass, okay? He's sure to have rockets, and while I think our armour will work in the short term, I don't want you to take any risks. After that we'll just have to play it by ear. Alex, I'll talk to you this evening about what to do if shooting up his estate doesn't work. The rest of you, get plenty of rest. Tomorrow is likely to be difficult."

That night Alex and I shared my cabin on the ship, first because I fancied another massage, and second, because there were some things I needed to say to him. The massage was every bit as good as the previous one had been, and I felt better afterwards.

"Okay, listen," I said, pulling him down onto the bunk next to me. "If he won't let me go even after you've shot up his place, you have to swear that you'll take the ship back to Greece. Shut up," I added, as he opened his mouth to argue. "You can't keep the ship there any longer because you can bet he'll send to the nearest æthership bases when you attack him at the very latest, if not before, and we know we can't fight multiple Eagles. So you have to get the ship back home, and then my uncle can make a formal application to the Russian government for me to be ransomed – I'm not as important as Wolfie, so they'll almost certainly accept.

"If you stay, all that will happen is that the ship will be destroyed and everyone on board will be killed, and that won't help me or Wolfie. If you make it back home there's a good chance that my uncle will be able to get me back. And maybe I'll still be able to persuade Pasha to let Wolfie come with me."

"Yeah, like that's gonna happen!"

"Well, it might. So I want you to swear, Alex, okay?"

"We can't get all the way back without you. Albie and I aren't that great at navigating."

"Well, make Graham up to Acting Second Officer. He's been trained. Or you could ask Chris Beeching, because he seems to be able to do just about everything else. But I'm really not prepared to argue about this, Alex."

"Neither am I. We're not going to leave you behind, okay? I don't know how many soldiers Romanov has, but I would imagine there aren't that many, at least not actually at the villa. It's supposed to be a holiday place, and it's deep in the heart of Russian territory, so why would he keep soldiers there? I'm betting there are half a dozen or so Cossacks like Dmitri and nothing much else. If we armed forty of our guys I bet we could take the whole place!"

"And what if you're wrong? Suppose there are fifty Cossacks? I wouldn't be surprised to find that he has some heavy weapons there, too. Sorry, Alex, but I can't let you do that."

"Well, let's see what the defence is like when I bomb the place. I should get some idea from that of how many men he's got."

"Well, okay, but if it turns out the place is well defended, will you promise me that you'll fly back to Greece?"

He was silent for a moment.

"Okay," he said, finally. "If it looks to be too well defended I'll order the ship back to Greece. But that had better not happen, okay? I'm counting on you to talk your way past him."

"Don't worry," I said. "I can promise you I'll be doing everything I can to do that."

"You'd better."

He snuggled up to me and went to sleep, but I lay awake for quite a long time thinking about what I could say to Pasha, and what would happen if I failed to convince him. And the more I thought about it, the less confident I felt.

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.]