Excelsior

by David Clarke

Chapter 28

I wasn't anything like as good at history as Alex, but one period that I did know something about was World War Two. In 1941 the German battleship Bismarck, a very powerful and well-armoured ship, had made its way out into the Atlantic but had then been attacked by torpedo-bombers, one of which had successfully jammed her port rudder. The result was that the ship could no longer steer, and so was unable to avoid the large number of British ships chasing her and was eventually sunk, although the German crew helped matters along by scuttling the ship to avoid it falling into British hands. And now I was facing a similar fate: unable to steer and faced by superior numbers, it seemed almost certain that we were going to be shot down. We didn't even have the choice of scuttling the ship unless we could get back over water, which seemed unlikely with our rudder jammed at five degrees starboard.

"Joe, you'd better call Sam to the bridge," I said. "Once those ships reach us it's going to need two of you on the desk. And could you ask Albie to join us too? Maybe he can think of a plan."

Actually I didn't think it likely, because there was virtually nothing we could do here. Our only options were either to push both port engines up to full speed, which would have the effect of exaggerating our turn to starboard, or to climb and keep climbing in the hope that our gasbags were better than theirs, because the higher we went, the more the gas in the bags would expand. Neither was really a solution: climbing might take us out of range briefly, but once we reached a certain point we'd have to vent gas to avoid bursting the bags, and while the Eagles could afford to do that – they could refuel easily – we couldn't: once we came back down to a normal operating level we'd find that our lift was reduced. And turning to starboard might make us a bit harder to hit, but once there were five ships around us it would just be a matter of time.

Wolfie came back to the bridge. He'd been to our cabin to get changed – he'd been given his clothes back before we left Pasha's villa, but since I had optimistically brought a change of clothes and his uniform along for him he'd thought he might as well look the part. And that reminded me of something else.

"Desk, call turrets one and three, gun ports one and two and engines one and two and tell them to release the guy ropes for the canvas," I said. "Then call the forward observation post and tell them to open their hatch and pull the canvas aboard. If we're going to go down, let's at least do it under our own colours."

I opened the window at the front of the bridge and untied the guy rope there, and while I was there I looked at the approaching Eagles. They seemed to be getting closer terribly quickly.

"Got any ideas?" I asked Wolfie.

"Pray?" he suggested.

"Thanks. I meant practical ideas."

"Not really. I suppose that if we survive long enough a long starboard turn might bring us out above the Sea of Azov, which would at least give us the option of sinking the ship, but I really doubt if we'd last long enough to get there."

"No, that's what I thought," I said. "Oh, well… let's just see how many we can take with us, then. I'm sorry, Wolfie: this hasn't been much of a rescue, has it?"

"I'd far sooner die like this than on Romanov's bloody rack," he said. "I don't know about you, but I don't think I'm going to bother putting a jumpshade on."

I could understand that: if we jumped and lived we'd end up back in Pasha's torture chamber. It was strange how similar our position was now to my last memory of this world when I was ten, the day my mother's ship had been shot down. On that occasion there hadn't been any jumpshades: this time we had the shades but we recognised that we'd be better off not using them and going down with the ship, as my mother had done. And while this wasn't exactly chaos – this time I knew exactly what was going on – we still had the smoke from the smouldering wood where the rocket had hit the gondola, and we still had a hole, albeit a smaller one, in the bridge wall..

"There's another ship out there!" cried Wolfie, who was looking out of the port side of the gondola – he'd raised the window-flaps. This fit so perfectly into my mental rerunning of my recurring dream that I didn't even react, and when he went on, "It's the Gouvion-Saint-Cyr!" I thought he was somehow telepathically receiving what I was thinking.

"I know," I said, "'Trust the damned Frogs to turn up when it's too late', huh?"

"No! It really is the Gouvion-Saint-Cyr!" he insisted, pointing out of the window.

I grabbed my telescope and ran to join him, and he was right: there really was a French ship about two thousand yards away heading on a converging course with us, and it really was, unless my eyes were deceiving me, called Laurent de Gouvion-Saint-Cyr. At this stage I was thinking that it was some sort of an illusion, and that the ship was there as a harbinger of death, just as it had been for my mother and her crew. Surely there was no way that a real French æthership could suddenly materialise over the Black Sea? But if it was a ghost we weren't the only ones who could see it, because two of the Eagles that had been heading towards us changed course to head for the French ship instead.

Even then I didn't think our situation had improved very much: okay, so now it was two against five instead of just one against five, but Gouvion-Saint-Cyr wasn't carrying the new armour, which made it almost suicidal for it to actually attack a small fleet of Eagles. But then I saw the trail of a rocket coming from beyond the French ship, and suddenly the Eagle closest to the sea burst into flames.

"Bloody hell, that was a lucky shot," I exclaimed, grabbing my telescope again and aiming it past the French ship – and there were more of them out there, at least three more. Suddenly I started to think that we might just get out of this mess after all.

Of course, we still had our own personal nemesis to deal with: Alexander Suvorov was still firing at us, and since Pasha's ship had already destroyed one of our propellers, jammed our rudder and holed the bridge, it was clear that we couldn't take it lightly. I decided to try to spoil his aim.

"Engines two and four, maximum speed," I ordered. "Engine one to idle."

The crewman manning the telegraph and ballast desk adjusted the telegraphs, and a few seconds later the ship started to veer a bit more sharply to starboard.

Things were definitely looking up: the other three Eagles had now lost interest in us completely and were turning to face their attackers instead. But rockets were still hitting our ship, and if we lost another engine, or the elevators, we'd be in serious trouble, and of course our right turn was taking us away from the French and further over the interior of the Crimea.

Then Joe exclaimed "Yes!" and turned to face us once more.

"That was Graham," he said. "Alex has cleared the rudder. Billy, try the helm."

Billy spun the wheel and found that it responded normally.

"Great!" I said. "Right, then: helm, come to two-four-five. Engine one to maximum speed, engines two and four to three-quarters. Let's see if we can still fly this thing."

Now that the helm was responding I was no longer interested in running away: if the French ships had been sent to help us, as seemed likely, then it was now our duty to help them. So I decided to ignore Pasha for the moment and go where we were needed.

A couple of minutes later Alex returned to the bridge looking a bit dishevelled.

"That was fun!" he commented. "You get an amazing view from the back end of an airship when you're swinging on a piece of rope. If it hadn't been for Graham and Stoker Gardner I'd have been hoping I could learn to fly before I hit the ground, and somehow I don't think I'd have been able to do that. Anyway, I managed to knock the chunk of rocket clear before I fell and they managed to hang onto the other end of the rope, so no harm done. What's been going on at this end while I was away?"

"We've got some allies," I told him. "Someone – probably my uncle – seems to have arranged a rescue party."

"They seem to be doing rather well, too," observed Wolfie. "They might not need us after all: they've already shot down two of the Eagles. Maybe they've developed a rocket that is magnetically attracted to open gun-ports or something."

"That doesn't seem very likely," I said. "But who cares, as long as it works?"

And by the time we got close enough to join in we found we were too late: a third Eagle had been destroyed and the fourth one had had enough and was heading back towards Alushta as fast as it could fly. But the battle wasn't over yet, because apparently Pasha still wasn't prepared to pack up and go home.

"Okay, I've had about enough of this," I said, as yet another rocket rattled the gondola. "Helm, reverse bearing to zero-six-zero. Desk, tell all turrets to cease fire and await my command. Why won't he do the sensible thing and let it go?"

"Probably because Dmitri has woken up by now," said Alex. "See, Dmitri knows Tim is neither brain-damaged nor dead. He needed the toilet, and when nobody answered his shout he managed to get out of bed and drag himself as far as the sick bay, where he saw Tim putting his armour on. He probably saw the dead rabbit with its head cut open, too. That's why the doctor had to drug him. Any money says he's now told Pasha what he saw, and Pasha isn't very happy about it."

"Ah. Well, I suppose I can understand that. Still, it was his decision to walk away and leave Tim lying on the ground, and fairly obviously I didn't break my word to him, any more than he broke his when he captured Wolfie. As far as I'm concerned, we're quits, and if he isn't prepared to see it like that, too bad.

"Helm, take us to port of his ship and drop us to a thousand feet – or to his level, whatever that is. All starboard guns and turrets, prepare to fire. Let's see if we can shoot as well as the French."

I went and lowered the starboard window-flaps, just in case, and then watched as the other ship headed towards us.

"Engine Four to idle," I ordered. "Engines one and two, one quarter speed."

The two ships were only about fifty yards apart and there were no flaps on Pasha's command gondola, so when his bridge was level with mine I could see him looking towards us. On impulse I raised the flap in front of one window and waved to him, giving his a cheery smile at the same time, and for once he wasn't grinning back at me. His own guns and turrets were firing and I could hear and feel the impact of every shell and rocket, but I was confident that this time he wouldn't be able to damage us – in this position he didn't have our control surfaces or propellers to aim at. I waited until our bridge was level with the halfway point on his ship and then ordered "Fire!" and watched as a full broadside of shells and rockets crossed the short gap between us and impacted on his hull. Most of them caused only surface damage, but one rocket hit his starboard waist gondola and blew it to pieces, leaving him with only one engine.

"Helm, come about to two-four-zero," I ordered. "Engines one and two, half speed. All port guns stand by; all turrets rotate to port."

My intention was to pass him on the other side: if we could knock out his other engine the game really would be over. I was half-hoping that he'd accept the inevitable and retreat inland, and if he had I wouldn't have gone after him: I had no objection to killing Pasha, but I did quite like Dmitri and I had nothing against any of Pasha's other crew either. But his ship began to turn, so apparently he was still angry enough to attempt another pass.

Once again the two ships began to approach each other. Then Suvorov dipped down a little, but I'd been half-expecting that: Pasha was trying to line his guns up on our gondolas rather than our hull, and I didn't like that idea at all.

"Helm, down five degrees," I ordered. "And try to stay on the same level as him."

Once again he started firing as soon as the ships' noses passed each other. We were still both angling down, so I ordered Sparrer to level off

"Turrets one and four, concentrate on his tail," I ordered. "Turrets two, three and five, aim for his gondolas. Ready? Fire, and fire at will until I shout 'Stop!'"

We didn't hit either gondola, but we didn't need to. Maybe we managed to hit an open gun port, but in any event we got something past his armour and the ship blossomed with flames.

"Cease fire. Helm, up ten degrees and come to one-eight-zero; all engines, maximum speed," I ordered, just in case the fire reached his powder-room and we got caught in the explosion.

I watched from the back of the gondola as Suvorov fell away. I saw a number of white jumpshades open as people leapt from the burning ship and I hoped that Dmitri was wearing one of them. I also hoped that Pasha would go down with his ship the way my mother had, although I was fairly sure that he wouldn't if he could possibly avoid it.

I kept watching until the wrecked ship hit the ground. It didn't burn for very long: once the hydrogen was gone most of what remained was metal or ceramic. But the twisted metal skeleton was enough to demonstrate clearly that at least this was one ship I'd never have to fight again.

I went back to the front of the gondola.

"Helm, level us off at twelve hundred feet and bring us back to two-four-zero," I said. "All engines to cruising speed. Billy, tell me if you can steer comfortably like that or if you'd prefer to run the ship on two engines only."

"I think as I can manage like this," he told me a few seconds later. "It just needs a little touch of port rudder to balance her out."

"Good. Now, where are the French?"

"I can see one ship just off the starboard bow at about three thousand yards," said Wolfie, looking through his telescope. "I can't see the others, though."

"Okay," I said. "Let's go and have a chat with him. Helm, two-four-five, please."

Before we reached the French ship Albie arrived on the bridge.

"Sorry I couldn't come earlier," he said. "We were a bit busy in sick bay."

"Ah. Do you know how many…?"

"Three dead, two serious injuries, a few cuts and scratches," he told me. "That's not bad for a full-on battle, I suppose."

"It's still three more dead than I think is acceptable," I said. "Do you have the names?"

I didn't recognise any of them, so I guessed they were part of my collection of sewer-boys from London. I made up my mind that I was going to get to know everyone by name once we got back home – if we got back home, of course.

"Dr Harries recommends a burial at sea," Albie went on. "We don't really have anywhere to store the bodies, and it'll be better for morale to have a proper service and get them off the ship."

"Yes, okay," I agreed, wondering what I was supposed to say at that sort of service. "How's Tim?"

"He's going to be fine. His arm's a bit of a mess and he's got a broken radius, but the doctor's patched him up and it should mend. Tim's still more or less out of it at the moment: the doctor says it would be better to let him wake up of his own accord, rather than risking giving him stimulants."

"I won't argue with that," I said. "Just let me know as soon as he's awake. I want a word with him."

We drew level with the French ship and matched speed with it. This one was called Frédéric Lemarchand, who was presumably yet another French Marshal I'd never heard of.

"Lower the semaphore," I ordered, and watched as the French ship did the same. His semaphore began to move.

"Is your ship intact?" read Joe.

"Tell him we've lost one engine but are otherwise fine," I said to Chris.

"Do you still have armaments?" read Joe.

"Wait," I said, and I asked Sam to call round the turrets and gun crews.

"Plenty," I said to Chris once the inventory was done.

"Good. Follow me," said Joe, and the French semaphore arm swung up and the ship accelerated away. I ordered Billy to follow him, deciding after a couple of minutes to set Engine Four to idle – with three engines we were still faster than the French ship.

Once we were in line behind him I took a bearing and went to the map table, where I was amazed to discover that we seemed to be heading directly towards Alushta. An hour previously I would have said that this was a sign of insanity, but since then we had between us shot down four Eagles, so maybe it wasn't quite as mad as that.

We followed the coastline, gradually flying lower and lower. Alushta sat in a gap in the chain of hills that ran along the coast, and by the time we were drawing close we were flying at only two hundred feet. I was amazed that nobody had shot at us yet, but when the town came into view I discovered that the defenders were far too busy to worry about us, because there were four French ships already creating chaos there – I could see three Eagles burning on the ground, and although there were rocket batteries defending the base the French ships were too low for the rockets to be aimed at them. This seemed too good an opportunity to miss, so I targeted a couple of æthership hangars on the far side of the base and ordered my turrets to attack them.

By the time we broke off the attack the place was a shambles, and there didn't seem to be any enemy ships left intact. I still had no idea what the French were playing at: this seemed to me to be just begging for retaliation. Still, I saw no good reason not to join in.

Once we'd broken off the attack we headed south-west for a couple of hours, which was probably long enough to take us well out of range of any attack by surface ships out of Sevastopol, and also far enough to make us hard to find if Russian ætherships came looking for us in force. And then another of the French ships dropped out of line and came to fly alongside us. This one was called Bernard Magnan and carried a rear-admiral's pennant above the tricolour.

"Are you the Duc de Cullam?" read Joe, spelling it for me.

Chris sent 'yes' without disputing the spelling.

"This is Admiral Giorgetti. Thank you for your help. Is your ship structurally intact?"

"I think so," I said. "We've lost one engine, but still have three that work."

"Can you fly to three thousand metres?"

Bloody hell, I thought - three thousand metres? That was near enough ten thousand feet, a ludicrous height for an æthership.

"What do you think, Wolfie?" I asked. "Could we go that high?"

"In theory, yes, but we'd have to vent an awful lot of hydrogen at that height. I think the calculation is something like 10% for each thousand metres, so we'd lose almost a third of our hydrogen. We'd be heavy as hell by the time we came back down, even if we dumped all our ballast."

"Could the ship still fly?"

"Just about. We might end up having to throw some of the guns overboard and dumping excess coal, though."

"Okay. Chris, send 'Possibly. Why?'"

"We need to head back to France by the shortest route," read Joe. "We're going to fly direct over Romania and Austria-Hungary."

"Can we do that?" I wondered aloud. Chris assumed I intended that to be sent, and so he sent it.

"We'd be over Romania at night, and AH is neutral but no friend of the Tsar," read Joe. "We can do it. Do you have sufficient fuel to return direct to France?"

"Yes, we have," I said. I'd made sure that we took on a full load of coal and water at Thessalonika in case we ended up having to run for Turkey, in which case we wouldn't have been able to land again until we'd reached Cyprus. Besides, we'd probably only be using two engines from now on, and we had enough coal for four.

"And do you have enough crew to fly through the night?"

Ah. That was trickier, because we only had two competent helmsmen and two assistants, and we could hardly ask them to work for more than four hours at a time – even that was stretching it. But if it came down to it I thought we'd manage, even if it meant that I'd have to learn to do it myself.

"We'll manage," I said to Chris.

"Good," read Joe. "In a while we'll turn onto a bearing of two-nine-zero and start to climb. Follow us. In emergency it is safe to land in AH but not before."

The French semaphore swung up and the admiral's ship moved to the head of the line.

"Wolfie, can you find me our third-choice helm and assistant?" I asked. "Then I want an officers' conference in five minutes, so Joe, you'd better get Graham down here."

Once Wolfie came back I handed the assistant, a street-kid called Mouse, and the helmsman, who was Tommy Green, one of my stable-lads, over to Sparrer and Billy respectively and told them in no uncertain terms that I needed them to be able to fly unsupervised before it got dark that evening.

"Your dad's my uncle's chief helmsman," I added to Tommy, "so if he can do this, there's no reason why you can't. Billy, we're going to be busy for a bit, so I just need you and Sparrer to latch on to the last French ship in the line and follow it. Shout if you need anything. Sam, if the observation posts spot anything, yell at me, all right?"

I gathered Wolfie, Alex, Albie, Joe, Graham and Chris Beeching around the navigation table and opened the map that covered south-eastern Europe.

"If we stick to the bearing he gave me we'll be going straight over the Carpathians," I said. "According to the map they go up to around eight thousand feet or so, which means we'll be pushing our limits hard. When you're on duty you'll need to monitor the gas desk closely, because we're going to have to vent quite a bit of gas but it's vital that we don't lose any more than is absolutely essential. Alex, I'd really like you on the desk when we're flying at our highest because you know what you're doing with it. Albie will be nominally in charge of the third watch, but I'd like you to work together if anything crops up. Wolfie, you have the second watch and I'll take the first, which will be back on duty at midnight."

We divided the stokers into three watches – since we were now only running two engines and the electricity generator we had plenty to go around – and arranged to rotate the observation post crew every two hours. The rest of the crew would be able to sleep – we now had almost exactly as many bunks as there would be off-duty crew.

Before we turned towards Romania we held our funeral service for the three dead crewmen. I made it up as I went along, and Albie, who had known two of them personally and who of course had been brought up in the house of a churchman, was able to add some suitably religious thoughts. The doctor had found some sheets to wrap the bodies in, and once the service was over we dropped them from the cargo hatch between the two lower turrets. It still seemed a bit like dumping rubbish to me, but I acknowledged that there wasn't really a good alternative, especially as we'd need to be carrying the absolute minimum extra weight once we'd lost thirty per cent of our gas.

About five minutes after the service had finished the lead French ship turned onto the new bearing and began to climb slowly, and we followed the last one. We were only climbing at a shallow angle – presumably the idea was to reach a high level only shortly before we reached the Carpathians.

My watch ended at four o'clock, and as soon as I had handed over to Wolfie I went to the sick bay to see how Tim was doing. I found him awake and sitting on a chair beside his bunk, his arm strapped to his body and a fresh bandage around his head.

"How do you feel?" I asked, in German.

"Not too bad," he replied. "It'll probably get worse once the drugs wear off, but for now I'm fine."

"Good. So whose bloody stupid idea was that frontal lobotomy stunt?"

"Mine. I thought it worked pretty well."

"It might not have done, though. What if Pasha had wanted to take you anyway?"

"We didn't think that was likely, but the doctor had given me some more pills to take just in case. With the amount I was already on he's confident it would have caused a fatal overdose."

"And suppose Pasha had chosen to shoot you in the head instead of the chest? What then, genius?"

"Well, then I'd be dead. But we thought he'd almost certainly aim for the body - it's a bigger target, and he'd have looked a fool if he'd aimed at the smaller target of my head and missed. And Albie reckoned that since I already had a head wound he'd be more likely psychologically to shoot me somewhere else. And he was right, wasn't he? Besides, even if I'd died for real, at least you'd still have Wolfie back."

"And how do you think I'd feel about that, you moron? Do you really think I want my friends to start chucking their lives away?"

"Leo, it worked," he reminded me. "We couldn't think of anything else that had any chance of success: if we'd started a shoot-out, lots of people might have died, including you, me and Wolfie. My plan worked and nobody got hurt… well, apart from my arm, and the doctor says it'll heal. So there's no point in worrying about what might have happened."

I supposed that was true. I still wasn't very happy about the risk he had taken, but as he said, it had worked.

"All right," I said. "Next question: can we fly at a height of three thousand metres?"

He stared at me. "Why would we want to do that?" he asked.

"Ask the French - it's their idea."

"What French?"

So I filled him in on what had been happening over the past three or four hours, adding that the bearing we were now on would take us over the Carpathian Mountains.

"I don't fancy that," he said. "In theory we can fly at that height, but in practice we'd be outside our safety margins if we lost that much hydrogen. When I was testing to see what we could lift I built in a good margin, obviously, but not as much as that. You'd have to be prepared to throw overboard almost everything that isn't bolted into place."

"That's pretty much what Wolfie said," I told him. "Well, the French think they can do it, and we ought to be lighter than they are, so we're going to give it a try. You just rest here and get some sleep if you can, because if we find ourselves in trouble in the middle of the night I'll probably want your help."

I went to my own cabin, removed my hat, jacket and shoes and lay down. I didn't manage to go to sleep straight away, because as usual I was worrying about all the things that could go wrong, but eventually I told myself that my position now was a whole lot better than it had been when I rolled out of Pasha's bed ten hours or so previously, and that this showed there was no point in thinking too much about what might lie ahead – at least, not when there was nothing I could do about it.

I woke up some time later to find Wolfie lying next to me, so obviously it was by now after eight o'clock and his watch had ended.

"How's it looking?" I asked him.

"Sorry," he replied. "I was trying not to wake you up. Anyway, it's fine so far: we're over Romania and up to around six thousand feet, and the ship's still handling normally. Maybe we're going to manage this after all."

Well, that sounded hopeful, so I cuddled up to him and went back to sleep.

I woke up to find someone shaking my shoulder, and when I turned on my flashlight I saw that it was Bert Whitacre, one of my stable-lads, who was also one of our electricians.

"What is it?" I asked, because a glance at my watch showed me that it was only quarter past eleven – my watch wasn't due to start until midnight.

"Sorry, Captain," he said quietly, obviously not wanting to wake Wolfie up, "but can you come to the bridge? We're in trouble."

I sat up and got dressed and then followed him back to the bridge.

"Sorry to disturb you," said Albie, "but we need you."

"Where are we and what's happening?" I asked.

He led me over to the navigation table.

"We're approximately here," he told me, pointing to a range of mountains east of the town of Petrozsény. "As you can see, we're close to Hungarian territory, but we're not there yet so we still have to be really careful not to crash. If I knew exactly where we were I could avoid this range of hills ahead – those go well over seven thousand five hundred feet – but since we can't see where we're going we're going to have to stay high, and that's causing a bit of a problem. We're starting to ice up."

"What?" I exclaimed. "How can we be? It must have been at least sixty degrees when we left the Crimea!"

"It gets colder as you get higher, apparently," Albie told me. "Chris Beeching warned me about it before he went off-duty – apparently the outside temperature drops by around ten degrees for every two thousand five hundred feet you climb. So now that we've climbed over eight thousand feet the outside temperature is well below freezing."

"Can we do anything to get rid of the ice?" I asked.

"Not really. It'll melt once we get down to a lower level, but we can't risk that until we're out of the mountains. We can turn all our heaters on, but that will have no real effect because the heaters are only in crew areas, not the hull. So there's not much else we can do except to keep dumping ballast, and now there's no more ballast to dump. How's it handling, Mr Mouse?"

I decided I was definitely going to have to do something about my street kids' names: at least half of them seemed to be known by nicknames, and while I supposed I could just about say 'Mr Weasel' with a straight face, 'Mr Mouse' was pushing it. And one of my ballast and telegraph operators rejoiced in the name 'Dustbin' because when he'd lived on the streets he used to sleep in one, and I hadn't yet been able to bring myself to call him 'Mr Dustbin'. In fact that was one reason why he was on Wolfie's watch and not mine – that way Wolfie could make up his own mind what to call him.

"She's still pulling dahn," said Mouse. "I've had ter rope the wheel, like wot Sparrer showed me. I 'ope there's nuffink too big in front, 'cos I sure as fuck can't get 'er to go any 'igher. An' – look, Captain: the Froggie in front is goin' lower. D'yer want me ter follow 'im?"

I wondered if the French ship we were following knew something about the terrain that we didn't, or whether he was having more problems with icing up than we were. Either way, his red tail light was dropping.

"How much gas have we lost?" I asked Alex, who was monitoring the gas bags.

"We've lost just over a million and fifty thousand cubic feet," Alex told me. "Provided we don't go any higher we can keep it to that, but that's still borderline as far as lift goes. Like Mouse says, if we see anything tall in front of us we'll have to go around it."

"Which might be tricky if we can't see it," I pointed out. "So no, Mr Mouse, don't follow the Frog. Keep us at this altitude as long as you can."

"I dunno if I can. The dial-fingy sez we're droppin' slightly even wiv the planes at level."

I went and looked at the altimeter by the navigation table and found that he was right: it was unwinding slowly. The French ship was dropping faster than we were, and now I could see that it wasn't following the line, because I could now see another red light that indicated that the ship ahead of it was more or less holding the same level as us.

"Mr Mouse, try to keep us behind that other light," I ordered.

"There's another problem," Albie said quietly. "Some of the crew are starting to feel sick. In fact, I don't feel too good myself: I've got a headache and I feel a bit dizzy. It could just be because I'm worrying about our situation, but I don't think so."

"Go and see Dr Harries," I said. "It's better to be safe. I've got the bridge now. Except: before you go to see the doctor, could you find me eight off-duty crewmen – stokers, preferably? Ask them to report to the bridge, then go and see the doctor."

I went and sat in the captain's chair next to Tommy Green, who was wrestling with the wheel. He didn't look well, either.

"Are you all right?" I asked him.

"Not really, Sir. It's the ship – I can hardly move the wheel. It's like trying to steer a brick. If we have to turn… well, I'm not sure as I'll be able to."

"All right, Tommy, just do your best," I said, checking my watch. "Another twenty minutes and you'll be able to go and rest."

The ship sailed on. Three or four minutes later a group of stokers came down the ladder onto the bridge, yawning. I noticed that one of them seemed to have a nosebleed, but he needed me to point it out to him.

"I need you to go up to the gun deck," I told them. "Open the outer hatches and shove guns three, four, seven and eight overboard."

"All right, Captain," said the one petty officer among them, "but can I ask why?"

"Because we haven't got any more ballast and the ship's going down," I told them. "Once you've dumped those four guns, close the hatches and go back to Crew Quarters Number Two, but don't go back to bed – we might need to dump the rest of the guns before too much longer. I'm sending you back to quarters because it'll be a lot warmer there than it will on the gun…"

"Bloody hell!" exclaimed Tommy, staring out of the gondola.

I ran to his side and saw a fire blazing out on a tree-covered hillside about three hundred feet below us. The ship that had been immediately in front of us had apparently crashed and caught fire.

"Go now," I said to the stokers. "As fast as you like. Get rid of guns three and four first, then seven and eight. And if you want to chuck their shells out as well, that would be no bad idea."

I wondered if any of the French crew below us had escaped. If they had they might well find themselves stuck high up on a mountain in hostile territory, because as far as I could tell we were still over Romania. Of course my main aim now was to keep us from following them. I hoped no poor sod of a Romanian woodcutter was about to get a ship's gun plummeting through his roof, but I couldn't see any other way of keeping us in the air long enough to get over the next set of mountains.

The ship limped on. It was too dark to see the guns falling away into the night, but the altimeter slowed its movement a little, suggesting that we had bought ourselves a little more time.

At midnight the watch changed. I asked Mouse and Tommy to tell Sparrer and Billy what had been happening before they went off duty, but it didn't take the new watch very long to discover that the ship was about as manoeuvrable as a drunken elephant. All we could do was to fly in a straight line and try to keep from sinking too quickly. At least the lower we went, the less likely the crew were to succumb to altitude sickness, but a bit of a headache and some nausea were probably preferable to ramming a Romanian forest at fifty miles an hour.

I went back to the map and did some hasty calculations. If we could survive for another two and a half hours we'd be past the mountains – or at least, past the highest of them – and from then on it should be a lot easier, because there would be nothing in front of us higher than about three thousand feet - at least, not until we reached Austria. And in much less than two and a half hours' time we'd be over Hungary. I didn't particularly want to have to land in Hungary because nobody on board spoke Hungarian, but at least if we had to we'd be on neutral territory.

But the next two and a half hours were going to be tricky. The altimeter was still unwinding, even if it was doing so very slowly. I was reluctant to dump the remaining guns until we absolutely had to because we obviously wouldn't be completely safe from attack until we were back over France, but if I had to offload them in order to stay in the air I supposed I'd have to do it.

I went and sat down next to Billy again and watched the red light on the tail of the French ship ahead of us. It stayed where it was relative to our own position, so if we were descending slowly, so was he – and that at least meant that we would get a brief warning of an imminent crash, because he would hit the ground before we did. Whether I could actually do anything to prevent us from following him down was a different question, of course.

An hour passed, and then another. We were down below six thousand feet by now, and according to the map there were mountains not too far north of us that were higher than that, but still the French ship ahead of us sailed on without hitting anything. And by the time the third hour of my watch had passed I was starting to relax a bit. When Wolfie came onto the bridge to relieve me at four o'clock I was reasonably confident that we were out of trouble.

"We're here," I told him, indicating a point on the map a little to the north of the city of Szeged. "We're at about four thousand five hundred feet, which is a lot higher than we need to be, but the problem is that we're still descending and we can't actually stop that. Our aim now has to be to reach Austria before we have to land, so we can at least make ourselves understood when we ask for a refuel. I estimate that we're now losing roughly a thousand feet an hour, so we have four and a half hours' flying time left. There's no ballast left and I've already thrown half the guns overboard. It looks to me as if we should just about make it."

"I don't know," he said, studying the map. "There are a few hills we still need to get over, and if we fly in a straight line that might be difficult. Still, we're fine in this direction for a while yet. Let's see how things look when we reach Lake Balaton."

"Sunrise is at twenty-five past six," I told him, "so we should be able to see where we are by the time we reach the lake. We'll also be able to see what the French are going to do. Okay, then: you have the bridge. I'll take a walk around the ship and see how everyone is."

Of course most of the crew were asleep. I'd sent my team of stokers to bed as well once we were clear of the mountains, so the only people still around were the observation teams in the nose and tail and the crews of the two engine rooms and the electricity generator, and they all seemed to be working quite happily. Obviously they were unaware of our situation, and I saw no reason to enlighten them.

Once I'd finished my tour I went back to the bridge and sat in the captain's chair once more: I wasn't particularly tired and in any case I'd have to be awake when we reached the lake, which would probably be in another two hours' time. Nothing much happened during those two hours: the ship flew on, gradually losing height, and there was nothing to see except for the tail light of the ship ahead of us.

Eventually the sky behind us began to lighten just a little, and once there was enough light in the sky we were able to see water ahead: we'd reached Lake Balaton, a little further south than I had expected, but considering the distance we'd flown on that single bearing I thought the navigators on the French flagship had done an amazing job.

"We've got a problem," said Wolfie, beckoning me to the map table. "We need to get into Austria, but we also need a large enough town to have proper æthership facilities. We could try for Graz, but that would leave us south of some very high mountains. If we can get to Vienna we'll be able to carry on north of the Eastern Alps instead, which would make the next part of the journey much easier. But if we head direct towards Vienna we're going to meet this range of hills just north of this lake, see? The Nordsiedlersee. They're not very high, but at the rate we're sinking they'll be too high for us."

"So what do you suggest?"

"If we fly due north from here we'll hit the Danube, and then we just have to follow it to Vienna. No hills at all if we stay over the river. But obviously it'll be further doing that, and we might not have enough lift to get us to Vienna."

I looked at the map. "We'll do that," I said. "At least if we don't make it there should be enough flat land to put down in."

"Another thing," he went on. "I'd suggest that we fire up Engine Four again. If we move a bit faster, we'll get further before we have to land, and it'll also mean using up a bit more coal, which will help to reduce our weight. I know it'll make the ship a bit harder to steer, but I'm confident that Weasel will cope. If necessary, one of us can help him turn the wheel."

"Good idea," I said, thinking that I should have realised that myself a lot sooner than this. "We'd better tell the French what we're doing, then."

I composed myself and then managed to say, "Mr Dustbin, Engines One and Two to full power, please. Mr Sullivan, see if you can find Mr Reed for me. He's probably in his cabin, so try that first."

A minute or so later we started to speed up.

"Mr Weasel, can you try passing the French ships to starboard?" I asked.

Weasel wasn't a big kid by any means – in fact he'd told me that he'd got his name because of his ability to wriggle through small openings, like the sort of small window you sometimes find over a door or in a pantry. This was a very useful ability for a housebreaker, but not much help when it comes to shifting the wheel of a ship that is far heavier than it ought to be, and it took a fair bit of heaving from him and me together before we could edge the ship past the rearmost French vessel. I decided to ask Graham to supply us with a couple of his strongest stokers to help with the wheels from now on.

We moved past the ship we'd been following, which turned out to be Lemarchand, and then past Gouvion-Saint-Cyr, eventually drawing level with Magnan, at which point I ordered the speed to be reduced to cruising and the semaphore to be lowered. Chris was able to leave the elevator wheel because it had been roped into position for the past several hours, and so he was able to undertake the signalling for us. Joe was asleep, but Chris was able to read and send. I explained my reasoning to the admiral, who said that this seemed a good idea, and that if all went well he would meet us at the first æthership station we came to as we approached Vienna.

"Looks like the French lost two ships last night," I commented as we raised our semaphore. "I really don't know why it's so urgent to get back home, but it's starting to look like a bad idea."

I helped Weasel move us onto a bearing of three-five-five. Once the third engine was going we gradually drew away from the French, and although we were still dropping the land beneath us was still far enough below us to increase my confidence that we would make it. But by the time we saw the city of Győr off our port bow we were flying at something close to our normal level of around eight hundred feet and Vienna was still a hundred miles away.

"We're not going to make it," I said quietly to Wolfie.

"We might," he said. "We're using up more coal now, and we still have four guns we can lose, haven't we?"

"I don't think it'll be enough," I said.

The Danube appeared ahead of us and Weasel, with a lot of help from the brawny stoker Graham had found for us, managed to get the ship into position above it.

"All engines, maximum speed," I ordered, once we were over the water. I'd been reluctant to order this while we were still heading north, because the imbalance between our two port engines and our one starboard one had a tendency to push us to starboard, which would have been away from Vienna. But now it didn't matter so much, because at this point the river had a gentle curve to starboard anyway.

On we went, still getting lower.

"We'll have to lose the rest of the guns," I decided, and we dumped them into the river close to the Hungarian border. It slowed our descent, but didn't stop it. By the time we'd passed Pressburg we were only two hundred and thirty feet up and we still had more than thirty miles to go.

"Do we start looking for a landing place?" asked Wolfie quietly about fifteen minutes later. "Only we're coming up into some woods, and if they go too far we might not be able to land at all."

"Not yet," I said. "The closer we can get to the city, the easier it'll be to get some sort of help. Let's keep going."

Before long there were trees on both banks and we were flying barely a hundred feet above the river. I realised I'd made a serious mistake here, because the river was flowing quite fast, and if we set down on the water the ship would be swept onto the banks and wrecked against the trees. But I couldn't see any end to the woods on either side.

"Is there anything else we can dump?" I asked.

"Only the crew. Look, Leo, suppose I ask for volunteers to jump with me? If we can find fifty or so…"

"No!" I said, sharply. "We're far too low for shades, and if you jump into the river you'll be swept away. Either we all make it, or none of us do."

Our gondola was now below the level of the treetops, which meant that there was no longer any question of leaving the river. It was too late now to realise that I should have tried to find a landing-place near Pressburg. I hadn't because I was still worried about the language problem: most of the people there were Slovaks. But if I'd thought about it logically I'd have recognised that there must have been some German-speakers in a town of that size.

Instead I'd taken the ship into a trap: with no way to turn to left or right because of the trees, and with a fast-flowing river below us, it seemed certain that within the next few minutes the ship would hit the water. At best my stupidity was going to destroy the ship, and at worst it was going to kill a lot of the crew, including myself.

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