Excelsior

by David Clarke

Chapter 29

I stood at the front of the gondola looking down into the turbulent, muddy waters of the neither-beautiful-nor-blue Danube, going over in my head all the things I had done wrong. I should have tried to find somewhere to land at Pressburg; I should have thrown all eight guns overboard while we were still in Romania; I should have run the third engine all the way. Ultimately I supposed I should have told Admiral Giorgetti to sod off and taken the longer but far safer route home through Greece and Illyria. But it was too late for any of that now: in the next five minutes or so our gondola was going to hit the water.

"Captain!" said Sam Sullivan from the communications desk. "Forward observers say they can see æthership mooring masts above the trees off the port bow!"

"How far?" I asked.

"Less than a thousand metres," Sam told me. "But the wood goes on past them, so…"

So we weren't going to be able to get to them, because our gondolas were all below the level of the trees, and if we tried to bash our way through the woods the propellers would simply disintegrate on contact with any decent-sized tree. So near, and yet so far, I thought.

I got my telescope out and scanned the bank, hoping to see a place where the trees were thin enough to break through, but it seemed hopeless.

"'Ow abaht there, Captain?" said Weasel, pointing at something that just looked to me like more trees. "I reckon we might get froo there…"

Finally I saw what he was pointing at: there was a small river, maybe ten metres wide, branching off just ahead of us.

"Come on, Muscles," said Weasel to the stoker who was helping him with the wheel, "let's go fer it!"

They forced the wheel over to port and the ship slowly swung towards the bank. The ship was far too big to make it around the corner cleanly, and I could hear the scrape of the branches on the underside of the hull.

"Dustbin, Engine Four to idle!" I yelled, realising that the outer gondola was almost sure to hit the trees.

Now there were branches scraping both sides of the hull, and I thought we'd never make it. The screeching sounds of the wood on our armour probably made it sound worse than it actually was – after all, armour that can repel explosives should be able to survive a little scratching from a few branches – but it still sounded scary.

"Chris, is there any chance at all of forcing the elevators up a degree or two?" I asked.

Chris and his stoker wrenched away at the wheel and did succeed in moving the rope along by one spoke, but I couldn't feel any difference. And the drag of the trees was definitely slowing us down, too. Nor was the little river we were following straight, and when a waterway changes direction every hundred and fifty metres, it's hard to keep a two hundred metre long ship from hitting the trees on either side of it. But somehow we kept going, and at last the trees thinned out ahead of us and we were in the open. And now I could see the mooring masts our spotters had seen. The only problem was that the gondola was now only about six feet off the ground, and there was a ten foot fence around the æthership base.

"I fink we're gonna bend their fence," observed Weasel.

"Engine Four, full power!" I ordered, hoping a bit more push would help to take us through the fence.

"Sorry, Capting," said Dustbin, "Yer can't 'ave that. They gotta bent prop."

I wasn't surprised, and at least the propeller hadn't been spinning at high speed when it had hit whatever had bent it. But the two engines we still had were strong enough: the fence disappeared under the gondola with a screeching sound, and then we were into the landing area.

"See if you can get us to that mast," I said to Weasel, pointing at the nearest one. "Sam, tell the ground crew to release the ropes and stand by to leave the ship."

"Reception committee coming," said Wolfie, pointing in the direction of some buildings off to our right, and I saw a number of men running towards us. Most of them were probably the base's own ground crew, but I could see a couple of officers among them.

"Time to go and say hello," I said, picking up my hat and putting it on. "Let's see if we can dazzle them with your exalted rank. Albie, you have the bridge. Get her moored and then wait here for us."

By now it was getting on for ten o'clock, so technically Albie was officer of the watch anyway. But I'd held on to Wolfie's bridge crew: I'd thought it would be unwise to risk our least experienced team on the bridge during what had seemed certain to be a set of critical manoeuvres. And I'd been right, too: I didn't think Tommy would have spotted the little river Weasel had noticed, and he certainly wouldn't have dared to try taking the ship along it.

Soon our crew had the ship in position just short of the mast, and the base crew used the mast winch to finish the job. Wolfie and I stepped outside and walked forward to greet the base officers.

"Good morning!" I said in German. "I'm sorry about arriving the way we did, but we're critically low on hydrogen and so we didn't have any choice."

"Who are you?" asked the senior officer. "And where is your captain? I'm not going to waste time talking to the ship's boys."

"Oh, I'm sorry," I said. "I didn't introduce us. My name is Leo de Courtenay, Fifth Duke of Culham, and I am the captain. This is my first officer, Lieutenant-Commander Wolfgang-Christian Hohenzollern, Markgraf von Brandenburg-Bayreuth."

The officer gaped at me, then at Wolfie, then at the ship, and I could see exactly what he was thinking: what are a couple of kids doing commanding a ship like this? And then Wolfie's full name and title seemed to seep into his brain and his attitude changed.

"Ah," he said. "My apologies, Captain. You understand that as a neutral country we are unable to provide military assistance to the vessels of combatant nations?"

"Of course," I said. "We don't need any military assistance, just refuelling. We wouldn't dream of asking you for shells or rockets."

"Strictly, any assistance provided to a warship could be considered military assistance."

"Well, I won't tell the Russians if you don't," I replied. "Besides, there's nothing really military about coal or water or gas, is there? After all, trade vessels use those things too."

"As you say," said the officer. "Perhaps we can accommodate you after all."

"That would be very kind," I said. "Our most pressing need is hydrogen, but water and coal would be helpful. And if by chance you have a couple of spare propellers lying around…"

"I think that might be a little more than we could do as a neutral," the officer said. "Fuel, yes; mechanical repairs, no. I'm sorry."

"Don't worry," I said. "I expect we can cope with only two engines. Very well – if you'd like to arrange the refuelling, perhaps I can come and write you out a draft on my bank?"

Half an hour later I was able to stroll back to the mast and watch the tubes from the base's underground storage tank being connected to the ship. I swore to myself that I wasn't going to get caught out like that again: from now on, high flying was out. We hadn't overdone it by much: probably a thousand feet lower would have left us with enough hydrogen for positive buoyancy, but I decided that from now on I'd go around anything more than six thousand feet high.

While the hydrogen was being transferred I walked around the ship. There were significant numbers of black marks and scars on the surface, indicating where missiles had hit us, but only in a couple of places were there signs that the armour had been penetrated down to its third layer. Of course we'd only actually exchanged shots with a couple of ships, and only one at a time: I was sure that if we had found ourselves fighting five Eagles at once the armour wouldn't have protected us for very long. We were just lucky that the French had arrived when they did.

The water ballast had been loaded at the same time as the gas, and the tanks that supplied the three boilers had been restocked, too (there was no point in restocking the tanks for Engines Three and Four, of course), so now we were just waiting for the coal. And the last of that was just going aboard when the first of the French ships appeared overhead – at a decent altitude, too. I wondered how they had managed to retain their height so much better than we had.

I collected Wolfie and Chris – in case I needed an interpreter – and walked over to the mast at which the French flagship was just settling, and there we waited until the ship was safely on the ground, at which point two officers stepped out of the bridge gondola. The admiral was a short man with fairish hair who looked young to have reached flag rank: to me he looked to be less than forty, but I later found out that he was forty-nine. And he was similarly surprised by my appearance.

"You're the Duke?" he asked, in good English. "I was expecting someone…"

"Older, I imagine," I supplied. "Yes, I'm Leo de Courtenay, and this is Wolfgang-Christian Hohenzollern, my first officer, and Christopher Beeching, my chief linguist, among other things."

"Jean-Paul Giorgetti," he replied. "Pleased to meet you, and even more pleased to see that you got here in one piece."

"That makes two of us," I said. "So how did you manage to stay in the air so long?"

"We didn't," he admitted. "We stopped to refuel in Győr. We didn't think we'd get within eighty kilometres of Vienne otherwise."

"We should have done that," I admitted. "It would have made things a lot easier for us. Still, we got here. So can you tell me why it was so important to come back this way?"

"Yes, but not here. Please could you come onto our ship?"

There seemed no need for an interpreter here, so I sent Chris back to the ship, and then Wolfie and I followed the admiral to a small room inside the French ship's hull. Here he produced a map.

"First you should know what is the main objective of this plan," he told us. "In fact it was your trip to the Crimée that caused our High Command to advance the date, because it was felt that a significant action there would serve us admirably as a distraction. So as soon as your uncle informed us of your intentions a force was put together to support you and at the same time draw attention to the region.

"We were fortunate to arrive at the good moment – your ship was in the air, and so a number of Russians were also available for us as targets. And when our first attack met with such a success, we thought it good to continue with a full attack on their base at Alouchta, in which you were able yourself to participate. But this whole action was simply to distract, as was the land attack aimed at the capture of Hanovre."

"So what is the real target?" I asked.

"Ha! Now you will see why it was essential for us to return by this route. This morning we launched a major attack into the Kingdom of Württemberg. This is no small raid to snatch a little material, but a large attack intended to take the entire æthership works at Friedrichshafen and remove everything in it, including such ships as we can capture intact. Our part is to join our other ships and deny the skies to the Eagles until everything has been removed from the works and the buildings have been destroyed. This is why it was so urgent for us to arrive as soon as we could: when the Russians realise what is happening they will counter-attack, and we will need all available ships to hold them at bay."

I supposed that made sense: the æthership works would be considered vital by the Russians, and would certainly be the subject of a major counter-attack if the initial capture succeeded.

"Then we would be happy to assist you," I said, because if we could seize the Russians' entire stock of meteor material it would guarantee us no more dangerous or uncomfortable expeditions to the far north.

"Excellent!" exclaimed the admiral. "Your ship would be of great service, protected as it is by the new armour. Unfortunately we are low on our new rockets, but if we use them wisely we should be able to hold our sector until the operation at Friedrichshafen is complete."

"What new rockets?" I asked. "I mean, I saw what they did at Alushta, but how do they work?"

"What is the only thing we have that is harder than the Russian armour?" he asked me.

Somehow I couldn't imagine a rocket made of diamonds, so I shrugged.

"Our armour!" said the admiral. "We have devised a rocket with a nosecone made of the same armour as that on your ship. The concept is that the armour penetrates their armour and their hull, then there is an explosion from the warhead, and then there is a magnesium device which the warhead ignites. This should then set fire to escaping hydrogen and so destroy the ship. And to this stage it has worked extremely well.

"If we are to be honest, its invention was no more than a happy accident. When Timothée Duvallier had made sufficient armour for your ship and that of your uncle he sent what little remained of the catalyst to our research centre near Rennes. There was insufficient to armour another ship, and so our scientists tried to devise other uses for it – and the new rocket was their answer. And of course if we are able to capture the Russian stockpile intact, we will have enough material to armour our fleet and to make several hundred new rockets. We believe that this will change the course of the war."

I thought he was probably right: not only would this give us a chance to armour all our ships, but it would deprive the Russians of the chance to armour any more of theirs. Of course they would be able to collect more meteors, and if they had any sense they'd open a new æthership works somewhere out of our reach, probably in Siberia, but that would take time.

"Well, I'm certainly happy to help," I repeated. "But we're going to need some work done on the ship afterwards – we're down to two engines now, so we need a pair of new propellers fitting, and we also have some broken glass to replace on our rear observation post and in one of the engine gondolas. Could we arrange to have that done in France?"

"Of course. Most of our ships will be using the field at Mulhouse, but there is certainly capacity at the smaller base on the west side of Sélestat. Head there afterwards and tell them I authorised them to assist you with repairs."

"Thank you, Admiral."

Of course we could have carried out those repairs back home, but I wanted to be able to show my uncle an undamaged ship if I could, just in case he changed his mind and decided I couldn't be trusted to run the ship in a combat zone again. Yes, I knew he probably wouldn't react like that, but he might have been worried about my safety if he saw the state the ship was in now, and that might have led to a similar ban.

Half an hour later we were in the air again, flying in formation with the three surviving French ships and following a westward course along the north side of the Austrian Alps. Once we were in the air Albie told me and Wolfie to go and rest.

"You two were up all night," he pointed out. "Alex and I can handle it for the next four hours. We'll call if anything happens."

I wasn't going to say no to an offer like that, so Wolfie and I went to our cabin, shut the door, undressed and climbed into bed: this time I felt reasonably confident that nothing would disturb us.

"Next time you give me advice," I said, putting my arms around him, "please make me follow it, all right? If I'd done what you suggested and landed at Pressburg we'd still have three engines and I wouldn't have spent the following hour or so convinced I'd killed us all. And if I don't listen, just remind me that you've been doing this a lot longer than I have."

"No, I haven't – well, not really. We never made any really long flights like this while I was on Excalibur with your uncle, because if he thought the mission he was on carried any serious risk he made me stay at home. I suppose I've been flying longer than you, but I really don't know anything about commanding a ship in hostile territory. Besides, you haven't made any really serious mistakes so far."

"I'm glad that's what you think, but all I can say is, you can't have been watching very closely. Still, we made it, just about, and from now on the only thing we're going to need to worry about is a huge mob of angry Russians. What could possibly go wrong?"

"I think Albie was intending for us to rest, not spend the next four hours worrying," he pointed out. "Perhaps you need something to take your mind off things."

"What would you suggest?"

"Well, we could start with this…"

"Ah. Now I remember why I went all the way to the Crimea to get you back!"

The next half hour was a lot of fun, and afterwards we just curled up together and went to sleep. And I stayed asleep until someone shook my shoulder around three and a half hours later.

"It's your watch," said Alex as I peered up at him. "I thought I ought to come and get you myself, just in case you were… well, pretty much like you are, actually. I don't really think anyone in the crew would object to you and Wolfie sleeping together, but I thought it might still be best…"

"Thanks, Alex," I said, swinging my legs out of bed and trying to remember what I'd done with my clothes. "Anything happening?"

"Not really. We're in Bavarian territory at the moment, but we haven't seen any sign of the Russians. Albie thinks we'll reach Friedrichshafen in about two hours' time, so that's when things will start getting interesting."

I got dressed and made my way to the bridge. Not much seemed to have changed: we were still flying behind Magnan and alongside Gouvion-Saint-Cyr, we still had mountains to our left and lower ground to our right, and it was still a nice, sunny day.

"We're here," Albie told me, indicating a point on the map south-east of Munich. "We've been in Russian-controlled territory for the past hour or so, but we haven't seen any sign of them."

"Not surprising, really," I said. "They're probably all trying to recapture Friedrichshafen. Okay, Albie: I have the bridge. Go and have a rest, but I wouldn't bother getting into bed because we're likely to need you again before too long."

Another hour went by, and there was still no sign of the Russians. It was only when we reached the town of Kempten, which was perhaps forty miles short of Friedrichshafen, that we began to see signs of things happening on the ground: there were columns of vehicles moving along the streets leading out of town, and I supposed they had to be Russians, since they were heading towards the Lake. We ignored them and kept going, and about fifteen minutes later we were intercepted by another French æthership. This one lined up on our flagship and began to exchange messages, and since we were right behind Magnan Chris was able to read what the new French ship was sending.

"The perimeter is holding," he read. "More air cover needed to the north… I'm sorry, Captain, they're sending some sort of coded co-ordinates and I can't read them… now he's gone back to standard French: hold position until at least eighteen hours. After that you may break off and head for France. We expect evacuation to be complete by seventeen thirty."

"Well, that tells us what we need to know," I said. "It's coming up four o'clock now, so they need us to stay put for a couple of hours. After that we'll have a couple more hours to get to Sélestat, because sunset is supposed to be at about eight o'clock. It's about a hundred miles, so we should make it nicely. Okay, helm, stand by: let's see where they've sent us."

But at first there was no change of course: we just kept going the way we had been. Only after another fifteen minutes did the admiral's ship start to turn to starboard, and the rest of us held our formation and turned with him. By now we could actually see Lake Constance off to port, so it looked as if the perimeter was smaller than I had expected.

The city of Regensburg came into view just off to our right, and now we could see smoke on the ground, suggesting that fighting was taking place just south of the city. And ahead of us we could see a number of other ætherships, and not all of them were French: even as we watched a ship caught fire and began to sink towards the ground.

"Sound action stations," I said to Joe. "There's nothing for the gunners to do, since we haven't got any guns, so tell them to stay in quarters and wait to be deployed as needed."

Now we were close enough to see that there were five other French ships engaging six or seven Eagles, so we seemed to have arrived at exactly the right moment. Magnan's semaphore dropped down.

"We'll fly through them in formation," read Chris. "After that, break formation and choose your own targets. Good hunting."

"All turrets turn to port," I ordered, because if we were going to hold this formation we'd still have Gouvion-Saint-Cyr on our right. "Hold your fire until I give the order."

We flew steadily into the battle that was raging ahead of us, the admiral choosing a course that would takes us between the other ships.

"Make sure you're aiming at Russian ships only," I said. "Let's start with that Eagle at a hundred yards and five degrees above us. All upper turrets, fire at will."

After that first pass it was difficult to keep track of everything that was going on: all I could do was to pick out an Eagle and attack it whilst trying to ignore everything else, which wasn't easy when I could feel and hear missiles hitting us. By now we had Sam helping Joe with the desk, because there was too much going on for one person to man the desk on his own.

"We need to get a proper intercom system set up," I commented to Alex, who had come back to the bridge when the shooting had started. "These tubes aren't too clever when there's a lot of noise going on."

"I'm sure it wouldn't be too difficult to do that," he said. "Of course, that's always supposing we're still alive in ten minutes' time. This is a madhouse! Is this how this world conducts all its battles?"

"I've no idea," I said. "Apart from the day my mother died I'd done no more fighting before the Norway expedition than you had. Desk, tell Turret Four to target that Eagle trying to sneak underneath us… you were saying?"

"Nothing. I just had this vision of airship battles here being conducted rather like Napoleonic naval battles: two lines of ships sailing past each other in a nice neat line, shooting away at each other. This is more like a really messy World War Two dogfight, but supersized and in slow motion. How the hell do you keep track of who is trying to attack you?"

"You hope you see them in time, or that one of your observation posts does. Or you hope your allies are watching out for you… Turrets One and Two, your target is that Eagle at three-zero-five, the one that's attacking the French ship with the blue turrets!"

"Two Eagles coming up at speed, heading one-eight-zero," reported Sam. "Rear post thinks they're ignoring the fight and trying to break through towards the Lake."

"Bearing?" I asked.

"Wait. Bearing?" repeated Sam, into his tube.

"Zero-one-nine," he told me a few seconds later.

"Got them," I said. "I think the spotters are right. Helm, come about to bearing one-four-five and let's try to intercept them. Joe, tell Turrets Three and Five to pick them up now. All engines, maximum speed."

We swung onto an intercept course with the two Eagles, which were flying side by side and taking no part in the fight going on around them. If they were allowed to get through to Friedrichshafen they would be a threat to any French ships still on the ground there, and so I had to try to stop them. But I was handicapped by my lack of guns: as our courses converged the Eagle closest to us was able to fire continuously at us with guns and rockets, while we could only retaliate with our turrets. I could hear the shots hitting us as we drew closer and closer, and although I had confidence in our armour it was getting a serious battering at very short range. And then there was a louder crash than before and all the lights on the electricity desk went out.

"Turret Five reports a direct hit on Gondola Six," reported Joe. "I can't raise the gondola."

Gondola Six was our electricity generator. Of course we didn't have to have electricity: none of the ship's controls depended on it. We only used it for lighting and heating. But if the armour on that gondola had failed, the remaining gondolas must be equally vulnerable, including the one I was standing in.

"Helm, turn to one-three-five," I said. This would close the gap even more quickly, and indeed if the Eagle didn't change his own course it would mean a collision. Once again I was trusting that our armour was better than his, but I knew it was a risk. I just hoped the Russian captain would chicken out and change his own course.

"Are you sure?" asked Alex in my ear.

"No, but without any guns I can't think of any other way to stop him. I wonder if we could actually board him…"

"What! Leo, we're flying at sixty miles an hour, and there's no deck to swing onto with a cutlass in our teeth. How the hell do we board him?"

"Through his gun ports. And he can't do it to us because ours are all closed…. But, no, you're right. It's a stupid idea, but only because we're not prepared for it. Maybe next time. Desk, tell all hands to brace themselves for impact."

By now we were only seconds away from hitting the Russian ship, but the impact never came. I don't know if it was the Eagle's captain who panicked or his helmsman, but the result was the same: the ship swung to port to avoid us. Unfortunately for them, the Russian bridge crew had all been looking at us and so had apparently forgotten that there was another Eagle on their other side, and as the ship swung to port it collided with its colleague.

"Helm, come to one-six-five and climb five degrees," I ordered, and as we moved above the Russian ships I could see that the one on the far side was damaged: there was a dent and a vertical gap in its armour, and from the way it was falling slowly I came to the conclusion that one of his gasbags had been damaged.

"Turret Four, target the further Eagle and aim for the damage," I ordered: if hydrogen was leaking it would be mixing nicely with the air outside the ship, which would make it highly flammable. And indeed, although the rocket we fired missed the damaged section, the flame of its exhaust was enough to ignite the gas. The ship began to go down faster, and the first jumpshades appeared around it.

The first Eagle was still flying, though, and didn't seem to have suffered any significant damage, and its turrets began firing at us again.

"Helm, take us down to seven hundred feet," I ordered, because as long as we were above the enemy our upper turrets were useless.

Five seconds later there was a massive crash, but this time the sound came from the hatch at the top of the gondola ladder.

"Report!" I called to the desk, but both operators shook their heads.

"That was from inside the ship," said Alex. "I'll go and find out what happened."

He disappeared up the ladder, and the hatch had just about closed once more when there was another loud bang.

"Fire!" called the crewman monitoring the gasbags. "We have a fire in Section Fourteen!"

"Vent it!" I yelled.

"Doing it now," he replied, and at the same time the ship lurched a little and the floor tilted downwards, unbalancing me sufficiently to make me fall over.

"Mr Sparrow, can you get us level?" I asked, struggling to my feet.

"I'm trying! Oi, Speedy," he called to the boy on the ballast desk, "we're tail-heavy! Dump us some ballast off the back!"

The crewman looked at me for confirmation and I nodded, and a few seconds later the ship started to level out once more. I looked out of the window, just in time to see the central turret on the Eagle, which was still alongside and a little below us, swing round to face me until I was looking straight down its barrel. It was only about fifty yards away, and I realised that at this range it could hardly miss.

"Oh, shit," I said quietly… and then there was the swoosh of an incoming rocket, but it came from beyond the Eagle and struck it just behind the nose. The Russian ship belched flame and started to go down, and the rocket that I had expected to kill me was still fired but passed harmlessly beneath the gondola. I looked beyond it and saw Lemarchand turning away to look for a new target, and I told myself that I owed her captain a large drink, if I ever got the chance to buy one for him.

"Turret three says they're out of ammo," Joe called, giving me something else to think about.

"Ask the others what they have left," I replied. "Gas control, is the fire out?"

"Wait… yes, Sir, and it didn't spread. The bulkheads held."

So we were safe for a bit longer at least, I thought, but now we had other worries: we only had a handful of rockets left.

"Tell them to make every one count," I said, checking my watch and discovering that it was still only half-past five: we were supposed to keep fighting for another half hour, but we only had ammunition for another ten minutes at best. I decided on a new tactic: we'd try to chase the Eagles onto the guns of our French allies. After all, we were still big and scary-looking, and there was no way for the Russians to know that we were almost out of ammunition, so maybe if we sailed straight at them they'd back off, and if they were concentrating on us, maybe the French could hit them from another direction, as Lemarchand had done with the Eagle that had been attacking us a little earlier.

I looked around for a suitable target, but I could only see three Eagles still flying, and all of them were engaged in battles already. So I picked the nearest one and decided to try distracting it.

"Helm, come to zero-three-five," I ordered. "Both engines, maximum speed. Turret One, fire one shot only, and make sure it hits – somewhere close to his bridge would be perfect."

In theory this was a good strategy, but of course in practice it simply drew their attention to us, and soon there were more rockets heading towards us. Only one of them actually hit, and that one didn't seem to do any serious damage, but it was enough for me to decide that this wasn't such a good idea after all: maybe I should start thinking about my own ship while I still had one.

"Change of plan," I said. "Helm, come to three-zero-five. All turrets turn to starboard and fire when you have a target."

That was our last full attack of the battle, and the most successful: one of our rockets struck the enemy bridge and blew it to pieces. The ship, its control cables broken, began to swing to the left and also to go down. This wasn't the first ship we had shot down, of course, but it was the first time I'd actually seen the results in human terms, because I could clearly see bodies falling away from the shattered control gondola, and this time it seemed that none of them was wearing a jumpshade. Sickened, I turned away.

"All right, that's enough," I said. "We'll leave the others to the French. Engines, slow to one quarter speed. Desk, tell me if anyone looks like targeting us, otherwise we're done – we'll just wait for the French to mop up and then we can head for France."

I looked out of the gondola windows, but it looked as if the fighting was more or less over: there was one fight still going on a mile or so away, but there were only two ships anywhere near us, and they were both French. But it looked as if we'd done what the High Command had wanted us to: we'd kept the Russians away from Friedrichshafen, and it was almost ten to six, so the evacuation should have been complete.

As I watched the last Eagle broke off the fight and headed away to the north, and the two French ships it had been engaging decided to let him go. Instead, they headed in our direction. One of them turned out to be Bernard Magnan, and when it reached us it dropped its semaphore and started to signal us.

"Thank you for your help," read Joe. "It seems the sector is secure. We will regroup and then return to France. Go to Sélestat for repairs."

"Acknowledge that," I said to Chris, and then I went back to looking out of the window and saw that three other French ships had survived the battle. One of them was our old friend Laurent de Gouvion-Saint-Cyr, but there was no sign of Frédéric Lemarchand, so it looked as if I wouldn't get a chance to buy her captain a drink after all. The other two hadn't been part of the Crimean expedition.

The four French ships formed up in a single file and so I tacked us onto the back of the line, and then we began to head west, climbing gently as we went.

"All right, Wolfie, you have the bridge," I said. "I'd better go and see what it's cost us."

The first person I saw when I walked into sick bay was Alex, who was sitting on the side of a bed with a bandage around his head.

"God, are you all right?" I asked anxiously.

"Just a headache. I got hit by a piece of… well, to be honest, I don't know what hit me. There was a bang, and then I woke up lying on the deck with blood in my eyes. Did we win?"

"Just about. They breached our armour at least twice, though, so we're going to need a bit of patching up. We're on our way to France now."

I looked around and saw that all six beds were occupied and I wondered how many we'd lost.

"Alex, are you okay to return to duty?" I asked. ""Because if you are, can you take a roll-call? I need to know how many… you know."

"Sure," he said, standing up. "Tell Joe to order the crew to their quarters, other than the gondola crews on duty, and I'll pick up the roster and check for you."

"Thanks," I said, and I walked back through the ship to see the damage for myself.

The first missile to penetrate our armour had been a solid shell, and we'd been very lucky that it hit the oven in the small galley adjoining Crew Quarters One, because the oven was made of iron and it had stopped the missile. Otherwise if would have kept going through the ship and caused a lot more damage. The second one had been the rocket that had ignited the gas in Bag Fourteen, and again we'd been lucky that Tim's gypsum partitions had contained the fire. The galley was wrecked, but there was only minor damage to the crew quarters and little other internal damage – at least, not that I could see.

By now Joe had called for the crew to return to quarters, and so a steady stream of them was heading past me.

"We done 'em good, dint we, Captain?" said one rocketeer on his way past me.

"Yes, you did," I said, managing a smile for his benefit and trying not to think about tumbling Russian bodies. "You did an amazing job. I'm proud of you."

And I supposed that I was, because if they hadn't done such a great job it could easily have been me and Wolfie falling out of a wrecked gondola instead. But for almost the first time since the mission had begun I wished my uncle was with me, because I wanted to ask him if feeling guilty about dead enemies was normal or not. Maybe I wasn't cut out for this after all.

I stayed there, talking to some of the crew and answering their questions as best I could, until Alex arrived with his clipboard, and when he'd finished taking names and marking his board I accompanied him to Crew Quarters Two and watched while he repeated the exercise there. Then we went to the two surviving engine rooms and checked off the two crews in those, and finally we returned to the bridge.

"So?" I asked.

"Well…I've got seven unaccounted for. I've counted those in sick bay, including the four that are dead, the four observers on duty, the two engineer crews and those in their quarters and on the bridge, but I'm still missing seven. I suppose five of them will have been in Gondola Six, but I don't know where the other two are."

"Let's try the turrets," I suggested. "Maybe one of the speaker tubes is broken and they didn't hear the order to return to quarters. I'll take the upper ones, you take the lower."

I found the two missing crewmen in Turret Two. It had been struck by what must have been one of the last missiles fired at us: there was a hole in the turret wall and whatever had come through that hole had obviously struck one of the rocketeers in the back. There was blood everywhere, so much so that at first I thought they were both dead. But then one of them looked up at me, and I recognised him as the youngest stable-lad, Freddie. The dead boy was a stable-lad too: I recognised him as Ted Wilson, who had been at my New Year's Eve party.

Freddie stumbled to his feet and threw his arms round me, sobbing, and I held him and tried to calm him down, but he was shaking and obviously still terrified. And I felt horribly guilty again: these kids were far too young for this. I'd had no right to take twelve-year-old boys and put them in a position where they were likely to see a friend killed right in front of them.

"It's all right, Freddie," I said. "It's over. Let me take you down into the ship where you'll be safe."

I managed to disentangle myself from him long enough to reach the speaking tube, which was undamaged. I blew down it, and when Sam answered I asked him to send a couple of stokers up to Turret Two to retrieve a body, and once I'd done that I opened the hatch and helped Freddie down the ladder and through the ship to sick bay.

"Oh, my God," exclaimed Albie when he saw us. "You'd better bring him straight through to the theatre."

"It's not his blood," I said. "He was clinging on to his friend's body – that's why he's got so much blood on him. He's in shock – he just needs a chance to calm down a little."

"I'll look after him myself," promised Albie, and he put his arm around Freddie's shoulders and led him to the only vacant bed, the one Alex had been using. I left them to it and went back to the bridge to tell Alex that he could finish filling in his roster.

I didn't feel like speaking much after that. I'd have liked to go and hide in my cabin, but I supposed that a ship's captain would be expected to show some leadership even when he's feeling like crap, and so I sat in my chair beside Wolfie and watched the land scroll by beneath us. We'd changed the watch while I'd been off the bridge, and so now it was Weasel at the wheel beside me.

"Yer look like shit, Captain," he said, '"if yer don't mind me sayin'."

"I feel like shit," I replied.

"Well, yer shouldn't. Yeah, I know as we lost some, but we're still 'ere, ain't we? If yer'd lived in the sewers yer'd be used ter wakin' up an' findin' a mate dead beside yer. It 'appens, an' yer 'ave ter get used to it. An' if yer gonna fly a fightin' ship, yer'd better get used ter it fast."

"I know," I said, wondering why I was even discussing this with a sewer-rat I hardly knew instead of with my uncle or my best friend. "But I don't have to like it."

"Nobody sez yer 'ave ter like it, an' if yer did, nobody'd want ter fly wiv yer. It's 'cos yer care abaht us that we follow yer, 'cos if it 'adn't been fer you we'd all still be starvin' dahn Bazalgette's. We all chose ter be 'ere: nobody forced us. Yeah, it's bad that people died today, but it ain't gonna stop us comin' wiv yer next time. I reckon there ain't one kid on this ship wot would choose ter stay at 'ome next time there's a job ter be done. Me, I'm prahd ter be on yer ship at all, never mind akchully steerin' the fuckin' thing, an' that ain't gonna change. So look 'appy: yer ship's still flyin', an' we're goin' 'ome. An' in case it ain't obvious – though it fuckin' well should be – you didn't kill none of us. It wuz the Ivans wot done that. Right?"

"Right," I agreed. "Thanks, Weasel."

"Any time. Do I get a bonus fer that?" And he flashed his less-than-perfect teeth at me.

"Probably not," I said, managing to smile a bit myself. "By the time I've paid for all the repairs we're going to need I probably won't have any money left to pay you at all."

"Hey, Leo," said Alex, "come and look at this."

He was standing on the port side of the gondola next to the electrical desk, which was obviously no longer manned, so I went and joined him. He pointed down at something about a couple of hundred feet below us. There was a hill down there – actually it was a mountain, as I realised when I glanced at the elevator altimeter and saw that we were flying at almost five thousand feet. At first I couldn't see what he was pointing at, but then he said, "It's still a nice sunny day, isn't it? So what is that patch of mist doing down there?"

He was right: everywhere there was near-perfect visibility, but in that one little hollow on the side of the hill there was a patch of mist. I didn't think it could be due to water evaporating in the sun, because a short distance away was a round lake, and the surface of that was completely free of mist.

"Where are we?" I wondered, heading for the chart table.

"We're over the Black Forest," Wolfie told me from his seat at the front of the gondola. "That's Freiburg off to our right. Why?"

I found Freiburg on the map, checked the bearing and turned the map until I could identify our current position.

"I think that's this hill here," I told Alex, pointing at the map. "The Feldberg. Of course, it could just be natural…"

"It doesn't look it, though, does it?" said Alex. "In fact it looks just like Stonehenge."

"This is the Archduchy of Baden," I reminded him. "That means it's still Russian-controlled territory, and after today you can bet they'll have more troops around here to prevent any more French raids across the Rhine."

"I suppose so. But it's worth making a note of where this is, don't you think? Perhaps things will be back to normal in a month or so and then we might be able to slip across the border and investigate."

"Perhaps," I agreed. "I'd sooner find somewhere closer to home, though."

"Well, if there's one place like this, perhaps there are others. We'll just have to keep a lookout."

Once we were past Freiburg the admiral's ship dropped back alongside us so that he could signal us 'Bon voyage' – the other ships were heading for the larger facility at Mulhouse, which would mean that our paths would diverge from here onwards. We thanked him and watched the other four ships turn slightly to port while we swung in the other direction onto a bearing that would take us to Sélestat.

"You can start to take us down," I said to Chris, who was on the elevators. "There are no more hills from now on. Gently, though – there's quite a nice view from up here."

We flew on, across the Rhine and into France. The sun was starting to drop towards the Vosges Mountains that lay ahead of us, but it was a beautiful evening with hardly any wind, and so I expected the rest of the journey to be straightforward – and it was, except for the fact that we were still a little too high when we approached the town of Sélestat.

"Make a circle round the town," I said to Weasel. "We don't want to have to descend too steeply – we've got injured kids in sick bay and we don't want them falling off their beds."

So we made a large anticlockwise circle around the town, gradually getting lower. On the edge of the mountains overlooking the town was an old ruined castle, and I was looking at that when I spotted another isolated pocket of mist a little way beyond it, a bit further into the hills. I grabbed my compass and took a bearing on it, and then another a couple of minutes later: with two bearings I could triangulate onto it. I marked its position on my map, thinking that if it did mark another crossing point it would be a lot safer to use one in France than one in Russian-controlled Baden. Of course, it was probably nothing more than a natural patch of early evening mist…

The semaphore mast on the base signalled to us, telling us where they wanted us, so we followed their directions to a mast close to the administrative buildings, and when we stepped ashore we found the base commander waiting for us.

"We've received a signal telling us to offer you every assistance," the commander greeted us. He did it in French, but I remembered Tim telling me that Alsace was a German-speaking province, so I replied in German and found that we could converse quite easily in that language, which meant that I wouldn't need Chris to translate everything. I said that we'd be grateful for any help they could give us with repairs, and the commander said he would be pleased to do whatever he could to assist us.

Then we walked around the ship together and I realised that this was going to be no quick fix-up: the ship was a shambles. If I'd been worried about letting Uncle Gil see it after the Crimea, I thought that if he saw it now I'd find myself grounded for life: one gondola had gone, leaving only a collection of spars and struts; another gondola had broken glass and a twisted propeller shaft emerging from it; another propeller had two blades that were bent at right-angles; there were holes through the hull in a couple of places; the central upper turret had a hole in the wall; and there was hardly a place on the hull that wasn't showing the marks of missile impact.

"It would seem that you've been busy," commented the base commander. "It's going to take us quite a while to get this ship back into proper shape. I hope you have no urgent appointments in England."

"I suppose not," I said. "I'd like to get a message to my uncle, though, or he's likely to worry."

"I'm sure that can be arranged. One other thing: this is a small base, and we don't have a large barracks. Will your crew be able to sleep on board?"

I did a quick mental sum: we'd started with 106 men, plus officers, but we'd lost thirteen on the way back, and a further six were in sick bay. If I assumed that Billy was sleeping with Alex and Sparrer would be in with Joe, that meant that we needed 85 sleeping places for the crew, and we had eighty.

"If we can borrow half a dozen mattresses we can," I said.

"Good. That will make matters easier."

"But we've lost our galley facilities," I went on. "Can you provide food for us?"

"Tonight, no," he said. "We do not have the supplies on the base. But from tomorrow, yes."

Oh, well, that simply meant that we'd have a hungry evening, and I thought that most of my crew – certainly the ones from London – had plenty of experience of that. And I supposed that the fact that we had survived at all was what really mattered: now that I'd seen the condition of the ship I was amazed that we had only lost thirteen of the crew. Hopefully it would be a long time before we had to fight again…

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