Excelsior

by David Clarke

Chapter 27

I woke up at one point. I'm not sure what the time was, but it was too dark to see my watch and for obvious reasons I hadn't brought my flashlight with me. I wondered what the chances were of getting the key from around Sergei's neck without waking him up, letting myself out of the room, finding Wolfie, pinching some clothes for him and sneaking out of the house unseen. 'Pretty much zero' was the conclusion I came to: Pasha knew I had a crew not too far away, and so it was an absolute certainty that there would be guards and sentries about, both inside and outside the house.

Next I considered getting my gun and bashing both Pasha and Sergei over the head, and while that was probably an easier way of getting out of the room it still wouldn't get me past the sentries, because as soon as I fired the gun the entire household would come running. Maybe I could hold up one sentry – they couldn't all have as little sense of self-preservation as Pasha himself, surely? But there was no way I could hope to get past all of them.

On the other hand, what was the alternative? I already knew I couldn't just sit and watch Wolfie being tortured… so in the end I swung my legs out of the bed, stood up and took a step towards the wardrobe.

"Going somewhere?" asked Pasha, quietly.

"Oh! Sorry – I didn't mean to wake you up. But yes, I need a pee."

"It's in the bathroom. There's a gas light just inside the door on the right."

I found the bathroom door, groped around until I found the light, opened the valve, flicked the switch that struck a spark from a flint, and when the gas caught I adjusted it to a low light. I found the toilet behind its partition, and when I'd finished I rinsed my hands, came back into the bedroom long enough to pick up my watch, checked the time, turned off the bathroom light and went back to the bed.

"What time is it?" asked Pasha.

"It's a little after five."

"We don't need to get up for a couple of hours yet, then," he said. "Go back to sleep."

"Pasha… were you awake?" I asked. "Because I'm fairly sure I didn't make any noise."

"Yes, I was."

"Why? Didn't you trust me enough to go to sleep next to me?"

"Oh, I'd been asleep. I just woke up again. I'm not worried about you: first, you haven't got the balls, and second, you're too sensible: you know that if you actually did kill me you'd never get out of here alive. No, I was lying here planning out what I'm going to do to the Margrave, and in what order. Rack first, with a little carefully-applied acid – nipples and testicles, perhaps - and then extract a few teeth, because it's amazing how much that can hurt. Actually it's better to crush the tooth, rather than extract it, because that exposes the nerves and leaves them open. Then…"

"Shut up," I said, though without raising my voice. "I don't think that's what you were thinking about at all. I reckon you were thinking about Dmitri and how much you'd like to have him back with you."

"Think what you like!" he said shortly, and he rolled over, presenting his back to me.

I took the hint and kept quiet, but I wondered if, just maybe, I might have been right…

The next time I woke up it was getting light outside. Pasha was propped up on one elbow looking at me, and I wondered how much sleep he'd actually had during the night.

"Morning," I said, quietly – I didn't know if Sergei was awake yet and I didn't want to wake him up.

Pasha gave me one of his customary grins. "You're astounding," he told me. "You're lying next to someone who's going to torture your closest friend this morning, but what do you say to me? 'Morning'. I just love the way you English are such gentlemen."

"Well, you've always been perfectly polite to me."

"Yes, and I'll still be polite to you even while I drip acid onto the Margrave's balls. Do you really think good manners are all that matters?"

"Would it do me any good if I shouted and swore at you all the time?"

"It might be a bit more honest."

"It wouldn't change anything, though, so what's the point? Look, Pasha, I know you've had a pretty shit life so far, but there's no reason why it shouldn't change now that you're away from your family, is there? Even if things look less than perfect right now, you don't know what might happen in the future. I don't know how much you know about me, but almost five years ago I got lost. I'd banged my head and forgotten everything, including who I was, and the place where I ended up… well, nobody there knew who I was either. So I ended up in an orphanage. I was completely alone: there was nobody who knew me, I had no family, no friends and I couldn't even remember my own name. But then things got a lot better: I was adopted, I made some friends, and eventually I found my way back home again. So for all you know, your life might improve like mine did."

"I shouldn't think so. I know exactly who I am, and so does everyone else, and I can't imagine that's going to change. I didn't know all that about you, but I did know that you're an orphan, and I hate orphans. Do you know why?"

I shook my head.

"Because they're lucky: they don't have a family constantly treating them like dirt. They don't have anyone to tell them what to do. I really, really wish I'd been an orphan."

"Most families aren't like yours, Pasha. Take Duvallier: his mother died in childbirth too, exactly like yours did. But his father knew it wasn't the baby's fault – how could it be? And so he loved his son and looked after him. It's not your fault that your father was a moron."

"Well, it's too late to worry about it now, isn't it?"

"Maybe, but it doesn't have to poison your whole life. And you're wrong about love, too: it does exist, and it's got nothing to do with controlling people. It's just about liking each other a lot and being happy when you're together."

"How do you know your friends love you?" he asked. "How do you know it's not just because you're rich and powerful, and they want to get a slice of your money?"

"Well, first, because Alex was my friend when I was an orphan with no name and no money at all – he didn't care about that. He just liked me and I liked him. And I know that the way I feel about Wolfie has got nothing to do with him being royalty – obviously, because he's got no kingdom and virtually no money. I love him because being with him makes me feel good. If you and me were just ordinary kids, people would still want to be friends with us – I know, because I've already found that out for myself. I even think we could be friends if we'd met in other circumstances."

"You must be desperate for friends, then."

"No, I'm not. And nor are your other friends. If you think Dmitri and Sergei only stay with you because you're rich and powerful, you haven't been paying attention, and you must have missed the way Dmitri kept risking his life to try to protect you back at my house. And don't tell me he was just doing his duty: what he did went far beyond that. He loves you, Pasha. Love really exists."

He looked at me, and just for a moment I could see something in his eyes – a sort of longing mixed with regret… But it was only for a couple of seconds, and then it was like a shutter coming down.

"Good try," he said, grinning his broad grin once more. "You almost got me going there for a moment. I'm afraid I'm not going to bite, though. Come on – it's time to get up."

He rolled out of bed and headed for the bathroom, and I paused long enough to grab a clean pair of underpants from my bag and slip them on, and then I followed him. Once we were washed and dressed he led me to the dining room – Sergei had opened the door and left while we were in the bathroom – and there we ate some sort of pancakes served with jam or sour cream, which seemed a bit odd at breakfast time, and drank more tea. Pasha didn't speak much during the meal and so neither did I: I hoped he was thinking about what I'd said to him.

But once breakfast was over he spoke to Sergei in Russian. The Cossack boy left the room, and a minute or so later two rather bigger boys came in and took up position on either side of me.

"In a moment we'll be going back downstairs," Pasha told me. "We'll just give Sergei and the others a couple of minutes to get the Margrave ready and then we'll go and join them. Try to be sensible: I've told these two not to hurt you if it can be avoided, but it's likely that you're not going to be very happy and so you might do something stupid. Don't worry, I'll be taking it slowly: just a few minor burns, a couple of broken fingers and a dislocation or two will be enough for today. If I'm careful I'll manage to make him last right through to my birthday – I'll be fourteen in two weeks' time. Finishing him off on that day would be a nice present to myself.

"Now, you can shout 'Stop!' at any time, but there's no point in doing that unless you're prepared to make the trade, and if you waste my time by telling me to stop for any other reason I'll go for some more serious burns. Actually I quite want to see what happens if you drip acid into someone's belly-button. Shall we go and find out?"

And with another dazzling grin he turned and left the room. His two gorillas grabbed me by the elbows and marched me after him. I was getting close to panic by now, because I couldn't think of anything I could do or say that would prevent this, and Alex wouldn't consider attacking us for another four hours at the earliest – and heaven only knew what state Wolfie would be in by then. I tried to tell myself that Pasha was only bluffing, but from what I'd seen of him so far that didn't really seem likely.

I was half dragged, half carried down to the underground room, and there I found Sergei and two other older boys in the process of attaching Wolfie's arms and leg to the rack. They'd already removed his nightshirt, so he looked horribly vulnerable.

"This is going to be interesting," commented Pasha. "Obviously the rack was designed for two legs. I wonder how it will cope with an unbalanced passenger... I expect it'll manage, but perhaps we should strap the half-leg down – we don't want him kicking about with it and injuring himself, do we?"

"Remember, Leo," said Wolfie in English, trying to keep his voice steady, "you and I don't matter. What matters is Tim. Don't forget that, whatever happens to me."

I knew that, of course, but there's a difference between knowing something and being able to hold onto the knowledge when faced with terrible consequences.

"Listen, Pasha," I said, thinking that I still had one more card to play, "you know who Wolfie is. Why don't you send him to your uncle? He could use him as a puppet ruler of Prussia, which would be sure to at least divide the opposition to you there. Surely that would get you the recognition you want? I mean, you mounted a really dangerous expedition to England and captured someone seriously important. Wouldn't a public acknowledgement from the Tsar give you what you want?"

Obviously I didn't want Wolfie sent to St Petersburg, but at least there he'd be at no risk of being tortured, and by this stage I was ready to suggest anything that might avoid that.

"Well, that's probably true," acknowledged Pasha. "But really he's not that valuable. What is he, sixth in line to the throne?"

"Fifth," I corrected.

"Well, even so. That's not a lot better than me being eighth in line to our throne – it's never going to happen. Yes, it might give us a short-term propaganda gain, but it wouldn't make any real difference in the long term. Whereas if I could send my uncle someone who can improve our armour, and at the same time deprive our enemies of him – well, that would definitely get me noticed."

"Duvallier would never work for you. The Russians killed his father. He hates you. And it wouldn't do any good to torture him, either: no matter what you did he'd keep deliberately making little mistakes in the formulas and getting mixtures wrong and stuff, and your armour would never work properly. And every ship you sent up with his armour on would be shot down. Your uncle would end up hating you."

"I think you seriously underestimate the effects of torture. It's easy to be brave and defiant before it starts, and I'm sure the Margrave was being brave and defiant in whatever he said to you just now, but once it starts it's a whole new world. And when the time comes to start Day Two, I can promise you that nobody is brave or defiant any longer, because they know exactly what's coming and they know they can't take it.

"I tell you what: let's have a little wager. I'll bet you I can get the Margrave screaming and begging inside ten minutes. Deal?"

I shook my head, because I was sure he was right, especially when Sergei handed him the same bottle and pipette that I'd last seen in Norway. Pasha spoke to the Cossack at the head end of the rack, and the boy pulled on the handle until Wolfie gave a little gasp. Pasha went and checked him over, paying particular attention to his shoulders.

"Now he's at full stretch," he told me. "At least, he thinks he is. In a moment we'll pull another centimetre, and then we'll get to work with the acid. Are you sure you don't want me to stop?"

By this stage I was close to screaming myself. When I'd been in this position in Norway it had been easy to stop the torture: I'd only had to tell Pasha my name. But this was completely different, because I couldn't give Pasha what he wanted. I really wished I'd insisted on Tim staying in England.

Pasha nodded to the Cossack, who moved the handle a little further, and this time Wolfie cried out. Then Pasha opened the acid bottle and drew some into the pipette, and I knew that I simply couldn't allow this to happen – I just couldn't stand by and watch my dearest friend being destroyed an inch at a time.

"Put it away," I said, as calmly as I could. "You've made your point. I'll agree to the exchange."

"What? No!" shouted Wolfie, only to scream when Pasha released a drop of acid onto his shoulder.

"Are you sure?" he asked me.

"Yes!" I yelled.

"Your word on it?"

"Yes! I give you my word!"

Pasha spoke to Sergei, who sloshed some water onto Wolfie's shoulder, and to the other boy, who moved the rack handle back the other way, relaxing the pressure.

"If I have to come back down here later I'm going to be very unhappy," commented Pasha, signalling for the cables to be removed. "And in that case I'll start by putting the acid where I was going to when we were in Norway, so you'd really better hope that nothing goes wrong – like, for example, your curly-headed friend deciding to shoot the French boy."

"If you remember, the deal was simply that you'd exchange the Margrave for the scientist," I reminded him. "You didn't say he had to be alive."

"True, but I didn't say that the Margrave had to be alive either," he pointed out. "Or intact. So if anything fatal happens to Duvallier, count on something happening to the Margrave, too, starting with an injection of acid into his groin."

"Then you'd better let me send Alex a message," I said. "Otherwise he's likely to obey my order to kill Duvallier rather than let you have him."

"That seems reasonable," he said. "Come upstairs and I'll find you some paper."

We waited while Wolfie reattached his leg – his arms still seemed to me working, although he didn't look comfortable – and then we all went up to a writing room at the front of the house.

"Keep it simple," Pasha instructed me. "My English is poor, but I'll be able to tell if you write something other than what we've agreed."

I thought for a moment and wrote 'Alex: I've agreed to exchange Tim for Wolfie. Make sure Tim is ready to travel. He has to be alive, too, or we won't get Wolfie back.'

I signed it and gave Pasha a quick translation into German, and he looked it over and declared himself satisfied.

"You'd better tell him to send the scientist back with my messenger," he said.

"No," I said firmly. "Last time we trusted each other and it worked it fairly well – as you've said, you didn't break your word by keeping the Margrave. But this time I want you to meet me halfway – after all, if you had me, Wolfie and Tim all here… well, there wouldn't be a lot of incentive to let any of us go. We'll do the exchange at my ship. We're still in your country, so you'd be safe enough, especially if you bring an escort. Besides, if I'm not there in person to give the order, Alex might not be prepared to release Tim – he might think the message is a forgery."

He seemed to be thinking about it.

"Pasha, I'm a noble, the same as you," I said. "People like you and me, we keep our word, don't we? When you came to Culham I could easily have double-crossed you once your men were in the open with no weapons, but I didn't, did I? And I'm not going to double-cross you now. I swear that if you give me the Margrave, I'll give you the scientist – alive. And there'll be no attempt to kill or capture you, either. I still don't think Tim will cooperate with you, but that'll be your problem to solve. At least I'll give you the chance."

He looked at me for a moment.

"Very well," he said. "As I said this morning, you're a gentleman, and if I can't trust an English gentleman, who can I trust?"

He turned and handed my message to Sergei.

"Tell me how to get to your ship," he said.

Now it was my turn to hesitate, because I really didn't want him to know where the ship was. But there was no obvious way around it, and so I said, "Go along the beach for about two and a half kilometres until you're just past a stretch of woodland and then take a bearing of two-four-zero. That will bring you to the opening of a valley. Go up the valley to the end. You might find someone there, but if not continue on a bearing of two-three-two and you'll meet our sentries on the ridge ahead of you. They won't understand you, but show them the message and they'll take you to Alex."

Pasha translated that into Russian and wrote the two bearings on the back of the message, and Sergei nodded and left the room. Next Pasha spoke to two of the other Cossacks, and they too went out.

Ten minutes later we were on our way. Pasha had rounded up twenty Cossacks and armed them with rifles or machine guns, but I wasn't too worried, because I knew that we had forty rifles and plenty of men if it came to a fight. I was counting on Alex and Albie coming up with a plan: I'd done everything I could by persuading Pasha to bring Wolfie with us: the tricky bit was going to be getting Wolfie back alive without losing Tim, and at this stage I wasn't sure how we could achieve that: if I was Pasha I'd have a gun rammed into Wolfie's spine until Tim was safely in his hands. Ultimately I supposed we could just ambush and shoot the whole party on their way back, but it would be impossible to guarantee Tim's survival if we tried that.

I wasn't remotely worried that I might have to break my word. As far as I was concerned, anyone who is prepared to use torture loses the right to be treated as a noble, and if I could find a way – or if Alex and Albie could – to keep both Wolfie and Tim, then I'd grab it with both hands, and to hell with my word. But right then I couldn't think of any sure way to achieve that.

We set off along the beach. Pasha seemed to be in no great hurry, but when I commented on that he pointed out that he wanted to make sure that Sergei reached the ship well ahead of the rest of us in order to make sure that there were no misunderstandings, and I supposed that made sense. It would give Alex and Albie more time to try to think of an answer, too, so when Pasha stopped to pick up a flat pebble and send it skimming across the sea I didn't argue – in fact I found a pebble of my own, and for a few minutes the whole party played the game, almost as if we were a bunch of friends on a visit to the seaside. But then Pasha glanced at his watch and said that we ought to get on, and so we continued our journey.

Eventually we reached the head of the valley. There were no sentries here, but I thought it would be surprising if there weren't some on top of the ridge, so I waved in that direction in case they were looking out for us. Soon we reached the ridge ourselves, and here we were met by a couple of sentries, who joined us as we continued to the crest and started down into the valley.

"New ship?" asked Pasha, looking at Excelsior.

"Not really. It's just that the ship we took to Norway was my uncle's, not mine. That one belongs to me."

"I like the flag," he said, looking at it through a small telescope.

"Lessons from a master," I said, giving him a small bow.

"And well learned," he said, acknowledging it. "So what's it really called? Just so I know what to look out for if we run into each other again, you understand."

"Excelsior," I told him.

"Ah. And does it actually go higher? That's what the name's supposed to mean."

"I don't know. We've never taken her above about a thousand feet. I think the name is just because it's the sister ship to my uncle's Excalibur, so he wanted a name that started 'EXC'."

I led the party down into the valley, noticing that there was some smoke visible around the engine gondolas: obviously Alex had the ship ready to fly. There was also a welcome party waiting for us just in front of the ship's nose, a dozen crewmen with rifles and a couple of officers, so I headed in that direction, stopping when Pasha told me to about twenty yards short. As I'd expected, Pasha was standing right behind Wolfie with a pistol in his hand.

"Did you get my message?" I said to Alex, who was one of the two officers – the other was Chris Beeching.

"Yes, I did," replied Alex. "Can you just confirm exactly what has been agreed?"

"We get Wolfie, and they get Tim. And Tim has to be alive."

"Oh, he's alive – well, sort of. Doctor, maybe you'd better explain the next bit – and Chris, could you translate this for the Russians' benefit?"

Doctor Harries emerged from the front gondola, followed by a pair of stokers who were supporting Tim between them. Tim was clearly alive, but he looked as if he was on drugs or something, because he seemed completely unaware of his surroundings. He had a blood-stained bandage around his head, too.

"Do you know what a frontal lobotomy is?" began the doctor, and I scarcely heard Chris's translation because I was staring from Tim to the doctor and back again. I simply couldn't believe they'd actually done such a thing – it had to be a trick of some sort. I looked at Pasha and saw that he was clearly thinking the same thing.

"Well," continued the doctor, "it's a fairly simple operation, at least in theory: you make a small hole in the skull, stick a probe in, and scramble part of the brain. Or, if you want to be absolutely certain, you make a slightly bigger hole and cut part of the brain away – this part, in this case."

He took a small plate from one of the stokers and showed it to us. Obviously I don't know exactly what brains are supposed to look like, but this looked pretty close to me, and so did the blood that the small chunks of grey stuff were sitting in.

"Now, I said it's simple in theory," the doctor continued, "but the problem with this sort of thing is that we don't know exactly which part of the brain does what, at least not with proper accuracy. I was trying for the memory – and nobody is completely sure where that lives – and the higher reasoning functions, and we do know more or less where they are. But I don't seem to have got it exactly right, because he seems to have lost quite a bit more – in fact only the basic motor functions seem to be intact. Sorry."

"This is a trick!" said Pasha, and I thought he was probably right. "Take that bandage off his head!"

Chris translated that, and Alex shrugged and started to unwind the bandage.

"Bring him closer," ordered Pasha.

Alex nodded to the two stokers who were holding Tim's arms and they moved forwards. Tim walked with them, although he still seemed to be unaware of what was happening: his mouth was partly open and he was dribbling a bit, and his eyes looked completely vacant. The stokers stepped away, leaving Tim standing on his own, and Alex continued to unwind his dressing.

Eventually the bandage came right off, and immediately the wound beneath it started to bleed, the blood running down, touching the corner of Tim's left eyebrow and then continuing down towards his cheek. And he didn't seem to be aware of it at all.

At that point I began to think that this wasn't a trick after all: I could remember Tim trying to tell me about a plan before I had left the ship, and how he had said that we wouldn't need him any more now that he'd written down the process for making the armour. But I couldn't believe that he'd be prepared to go to these lengths – or that Alex would have let him.

Pasha now looked uncertain, too, but he wasn't ready to believe it just yet.

"Can he still feel things?" he asked the doctor.

"No, I don't think so. He doesn't seem to respond to stimuli, anyway."

"No? Well, I bet he responds to this," said Pasha, and he brought his pistol out from behind Wolfie and shot Tim in the left arm. The arm jerked back from the force of the blow, but that was just about the only reaction: Tim simply stood there, blood staining the sleeve of his jacket and then running down his arm and dripping from his fingers.

My mouth dropped open, and then I closed it again, walked up to Alex and thumped him as hard as I could.

"Why?" I yelled at him. "You didn't have to go that far! We could have rescued him – or at least tried! And you – how the hell could you do this?" I added, looking at the doctor. "You're supposed to save lives, not destroy them!"

"It was Mr Duvallier's own idea," replied the doctor. "The alternative was shooting him. If I'd got the operation right he'd have been basically all right, just without the ability to think quite as clearly as he could in the past."

"Yes, but you fucked it up!" I shouted. "Look at him!"

I went and stood in front of Tim, but he just stared blankly straight through me. I took his left hand, and there was nothing fake about the blood there, either, which transferred onto my hand. I was dimly aware that Chris was still translating everything for Pasha, but by now I was actually past caring: how could Alex and the doctor have done anything so inhuman? It was worse than Pasha's torture, because at least victims of that had a chance of recovery.

"There was no choice," said Alex.

"Of course there was a fucking choice!" I yelled. I was aware that I was crying now, but I could still see him clearly enough that my next punch landed exactly where I'd wanted, on his jaw. He went over, and I looked around for someone else to hit, but the two stokers who had been guiding Tim grabbed me and I couldn't break free.

Alex got to his feet, rubbing his jaw, and put his hat back on.

"Time to exchange, Romanov," he said. "Here's your scientist. We'll take the Margrave."

"You're joking, of course," said Pasha, though he didn't seem at all sure of himself. "You expect me to take this lump of meat in exchange for the Margrave? You can fuck right off!"

"That was the agreement," insisted Alex. "You and Leo both gave your word. The deal was Duvallier, alive, for the Margrave. Well, he's alive. Leo hasn't broken his word, and I haven't broken it for him, either."

"No! All right, then: let's see if I can blow just enough of the Margrave's brains out to leave him alive but a vegetable!" said Pasha, pointing his pistol at Wolfie's head.

"No!" I screamed. "It's not my fault, Pasha – I never ordered this! You can't!"

"Of course I can. Let's see…" He put the barrel of the pistol against Wolfie's left temple.

"Wait!" said Alex. "We can still deal here: we've still got Dmitri, remember. And Sergei, come to that. I'll swap both of them for the Margrave, provided that he's undamaged."

Pasha hesitated. "No, it's a trick," he said, uncertainly.

"No it isn't. Look at it this way; neither of us has the scientist, so let's at least settle for a consolation prize. Your two friends for our one."

"Yes," I yelled, shaking myself free from the stokers. "Come on, Pasha, please? You know you want Dmitri back. Give me my Wolfie – please?"

"Well… on one condition," said Pasha.

"Yes! Anything!" I agreed. "What do you want?"

This," said Pasha, and he swung his gun towards Tim and fired, taking him in the middle of the chest. Tim was knocked off his feet by the impact and lay splayed. A red stain appeared on the front of his jacket and started to spread.

"Just in case there was something tricky going on," Pasha explained to me. "Now we really both don't have him."

"Thank you," I said, wiping my eyes. "Truly, thank you, Pasha. He couldn't have lived like that. At least now it's over with. I owe you. Alex, get Dmitri and Sergei out here."

Alex turned and shouted in the direction of the gondola, and another pair of stokers appeared carrying a stretcher on which Dmitri was lying. Sergei was walking beside them.

"Is he alive?" Pasha asked me, and then called the same question in Russian to Sergei, who nodded and said something in reply.

"He's unconscious," translated Chris, for my benefit.

"Yes, I'm sorry," said Dr Harries. "We slipped getting him down the ladder and he jarred his leg, so I gave him some pain-killers. The leg's all right, but it would have caused him a lot of pain. He'll be awake in half an hour or so."

I walked over to Pasha.

"I'm glad you've got him back," I said. "Remember what I told you too: love isn't imaginary. And thank you for giving me Wolfie back."

I gently detached Wolfie from him and pushed him in the direction of Alex and the doctor. I still wasn't sure that Pasha wouldn't shoot him in a fit of pique, and I really think he was considering it, but then he looked at me and put the pistol back in its holster.

"You're too soft to make a good captain," he told me. "But if your friend ever wants a job, I'd take him like a shot. He knows how to be ruthless. You could learn a lot from him, de Courtenay. Next time we meet I'll have to watch out for that one."

"Like I said last time, I hope we never meet again," I said. "Nothing personal."

"Don't count on that," he said. "Our next meeting might be sooner than you think."

The stokers handed over the handles of the stretcher to two of Pasha's Cossacks and headed back to the ship. Pasha and I looked at each other for a moment, and then he grinned at me once more.

"Have a good trip!" he said. "And good luck – you might need it!"

He turned and led his men back the way they had come. In the meantime the stokers had picked up Tim's body and were carrying it carefully back to the ship, and I thought that was the right thing to do: he deserved to be buried in France next to his father, not here in a foreign country. I walked back to the ship and found myself almost bowled over by a rush of crewmen hurrying to the ropes that held the ship on the ground.

"Confirm engines ready and stand by ballast," ordered Alex as I stepped back into the gondola. "Helm, stand by. Okay, release moorings and get the crew aboard."

"What's the rush?" I asked, scowling at him. "In a hurry to get away from the scene of the crime?"

"In a manner of speaking," he said. "I want us to be well out to sea before Dmitri wakes up. Are the crew aboard? Right, drop ballast, helm, up five degrees and all engines ahead one quarter. Desk, make sure the observation posts are manned."

The ship started to rise slowly.

"Billy, as soon as we're clear of the hills bring us to one-eight-zero," ordered Alex. "Engines, ahead one half. Leo, I think you should go and talk to the doctor."

"Why?"

"Just do it."

"Okay, you have the bridge," I said, ungraciously, and I climbed the ladder and made my way to the sick bay. I hadn't expected there to be anything happening, but I found Dr Harries and Albie frantically working on Tim's arm.

"What's the point of that?" I asked.

"Mainly because I would prefer to 'ave two arms," said Tim, in a slurred voice.

I gaped at him.

"You're dead!" I said.

"I do not zink zo."

"But I saw him shoot you!"

"Albie – my jacket?" said Tim.

They'd cut the left sleeve away, but the rest of the jacket was still intact, with a blood-stain in the centre of the chest. Albie undid the buttons and pulled the jacket open, and I saw a number of little skin bags attached to Tim's shirt. One of these was holed and leaking blood onto his clothes.

"Now my shirt," said Tim, and when Albie undid that I saw something blue-grey underneath.

"He's got a breastplate made out of æthership armour," Albie told me. "He made it for fun while he was experimenting with the stuff and he brought it with him just in case. He has some for his thighs, too, but not for his arms, which is why we're trying to fix him up now."

"Yes, but if the first shot actually did hit his arm, how come he didn't react?"

"Because he's up to his ears in tranquillisers," said the doctor. "I gave him as much as I could without it actually knocking him out. We were mainly aiming for a proper facial expression, but we thought it likely that the Russian would try hitting him to get a response, and it was vital that he didn't give one. We didn't actually expect him to shoot him in the arm, but in a way that worked even better, because it was a lot more convincing."

"It convinced me," I admitted. "Why didn't anyone tell me?"

"Mainly because I wasn't sure you were a good enough actor," admitted Albie. "We were hoping that your reaction would help to convince Romanov it was real, and it seems to have worked perfectly – as long as you didn't actually break Alex's jaw, of course. I was watching from the gondola, and I almost felt that myself."

"He bloody deserved it for putting me through that," I said. "So where did that bit of brain come from?"

"We caught a rabbit yesterday evening," said Albie. "We thought it unlikely that Romanov could tell human brain from rabbit, so…"

There was a distant whistle, repeated three times.

"Bloody hell!" I exclaimed "Now what?"

I ran back to the gondola, where I could immediately see what the problem was: the ship had risen to about thirteen hundred feet and was swinging round towards the south, but immediately ahead of us and only about a thousand yards away was an Eagle, effectively blocking our route back to the sea.

"Rear observation post reports another Eagle flying low at zero-six-zero," said Joe, and I ran to the back of the gondola and looked down. Sure enough there was another ship down there, close to the ground, and I was virtually certain it was Alexander Suvorov – I should have known that Pasha wouldn't let us go quite that easily. Right now it was probably getting Pasha and his party on board. And that explained why he'd dawdled on our way back here: he wanted to give his stokers time to raise steam on Suvorov and to get a signal to one of the Russian bases, because I didn't think the Eagle ahead of us was there by chance.

"First things first," said Alex. "Your uncle said that the first Eagle we met would get a nasty surprise. Time to see if he was right, I think – after all, if we can get past that one we can certainly outrun Pasha's old heap. Desk, tell the port gun crews to stand by. Helm, full ahead at one eight zero and prepare to turn to starboard on my mark. Oh, and Leo… I'm sorry, okay? We used you a bit there."

"No, you were right," I admitted. "Hell, I was convinced, and because I was I think Pasha was too. It was a good plan – at least, it will be if Tim doesn't lose an arm."

"Even if he does it's still a better result than we'd have had otherwise," Alex pointed out, and I thought that maybe Pasha had been right: maybe Alex really was capable of being as ruthless as Pasha himself.

"Anyway," Alex went on, "you're the one with experience here, so from here on you have the bridge."

"I have the bridge," I acknowledged. "But so far you've done everything perfectly. Desk, confirm all turrets manned and ready to fire to port."

"Confirmed," said Joe a few seconds later.

"Very well. Now, he's probably expecting us to try barrelling straight past him, so you got it right, Alex: we'll do the other thing. Helm… wait… all right, now, Billy – hard to starboard. All guns and turrets may fire at will as soon as they have a target."

The Eagle's turrets were already firing at us but hadn't managed to hit us yet, but then so far they'd only had our nose to aim at. But now we began to swing around to run parallel with them, and that brought all of their weapons into play, as well as all of ours. Tim's armour was about to get its first serious test.

I dropped the armour shutters over the windows on the port side of the gondola – this was a serious weak area, of course, which Tim had dealt with by fitting all the gondolas with armour flaps that could be lowered across the windows. Each flap had a narrow horizontal viewing slit, and in theory even a direct hit on one of the flaps wouldn't penetrate. It was a theory I'd prefer not to test, however.

"Slow to one quarter speed," I ordered, wanting to match speed with the Eagle: in a direct exchange of broadsides I was confident that we'd win, and the longer we were able to keep firing, the more chance we had of finding a weak spot. I could feel missiles hitting our own armour, but I could see plenty of ours hitting the other ship, and suddenly there was a flash towards the Eagle's stern and then the ship was falling away, trailing flames.

"Right," I said. Now let's get out…"

There was a bang from somewhere behind us and the ship began to veer to starboard, and then another bang, also somewhere to our rear.

"Desk?" I said.

"Nothing yet," said Joe. "Rear observation, report, please."

"The wheel's stuck!" said Billy. "I can't shift it!"

Alex ran to his side and tried to help him move the wheel, but it wasn't going anywhere.

"Engines two and four, one half speed; engines one and three, full speed," I ordered, hoping that the engines could compensate for whatever was jamming our steering.

"Engine Three is gone," reported Joe. "Direct hit on the propeller from the ship behind us. We have some injuries in the gondola."

"Disengage the engine if it hasn't already been done," I said. "Tell the gondola crew to bank the furnace and evacuate. Send half a dozen men from the standby crew to help get the injured to the sick bay. What can you tell me about the steering?"

"I can't raise the rear observation point," said Joe.

"We're stuck with the rudder at five degrees to starboard," Billy told me. "Sorry, Leo… Captain, but it won't shift."

"Call Gondola Four and ask them what's happening behind us," I said.

I could hear rockets flashing past us, so clearly either Pasha's ship was attacking us, or another Eagle had appeared from somewhere.

"There's an Eagle about five hundred yards astern of us and maybe four hundred feet below," Joe told me. "That's where the rockets are coming from."

"Turret five, fire on it," I ordered. "Then please try to find someone who can sort out the steering. Find Graham."

"I'll go," said Alex. "I can get there in a couple of minutes."

He disappeared up the ladder. Ten seconds later there was a bang and the whole gondola shook, throwing me off my feet. When I got up I saw that there was a hole in the rear port corner, between the semaphore desk and the door. The armour had done a good job, but the rocket must have hit right on the join and so had managed to push two plates apart, and now we had a hole a foot or so across, and part of the wooden structure that made up the inner part of the gondola wall had caught fire. Chris Beeching had already grabbed a fire extinguisher and so I wasn't worried about the fire spreading, but one more hit in the same place and we would all be toast.

"Alex says we took another direct hit just beside the rear observation post," Joe told me a couple of minutes later. "One spotter is dead and the other unconscious. The rudder seems to be intact, but there's something jamming it – a bit of the rocket, he thinks. He's going to try freeing it."

"Tell him to wait for help, and under no circumstances to go outside without a rope!" I said.

Joe relayed that order. Then he turned to face me.

"Captain, forward observation post reports four Eagles heading straight for us, bearing two-four-five, range approximately four thousand yards," he said.

"Oh, shit," I said quietly, because I knew we were done for: we couldn't steer, and even if we could there was no way we could survive an attack from five Eagles at once. Worse, we were still over the hills, and with the rudder stuck where it was we couldn't get back over water. When we went down, it would be over land, which would give the Russians full access to our armour. And if we survived the crash we'd almost certainly end up back in Pasha's dungeon.

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