Excelsior

by David Clarke

Chapter 30

I slept better that night than I had expected to. Having Wolfie beside me probably helped, as did the feeling that it was all over, at least as far as this mission was concerned. And it was dark in our cabin, too: obviously we no longer had any electric lighting, and there weren't enough oil lamps to go around, so I had decided that we could manage with just my flashlight, and once it was off it was very dark indeed.

The ship had been towed into one of the base's three hangars, which of course made it darker still. And that meant that when I woke up the following morning it was still pitch black in the cabin. I used the torch to check my watch and found that it was a little after seven, which I supposed meant that we ought to start thinking about getting up; we had a number of things that needed doing today. I left the torch turned on, putting it on the little bedside table and pointing it at the far corner of the cabin, and then I woke Wolfie up.

"Feeling any better?" he asked me.

"A bit," I told him. "But it was still my fault that some of the crew got killed. I walked around the ship when we were at the base outside Vienna, so I knew there were places on the underside of the hull where the armour had been weakened – after all, Pasha was pounding away at us there for quite a while. But I still took us above that Eagle. If I hadn't done that the hull wouldn't have been penetrated and we wouldn't have lost some of the crew."

"It's easy to be clever afterwards," he said. "For all you know, if we'd stayed on the same level he'd have hit the bridge instead, and then not only would we have died, but so would everyone else, if what happened to that last Eagle is anything to go by."

"Yes, and I don't feel good about that, either," I told him. "Okay, it's true that in a battle it's often going to be either us or the other guy, but I'd like at least to think that most of the Russian crews had shades and so would have survived. Seeing that bridge crew falling… it didn't make me feel good, Wolfie."

"Nor should it. If you started to enjoy killing people you wouldn't be the boy I love any more. Anyway, what matters is that we're both alive and the ship is still just about in one piece, so let's get up and see if we can find out how long it's going to be before we can go home."

We followed the scent of coffee to the base canteen, where we found coffee brewing and a mountain of fresh rolls which had apparently just been delivered by the local bakery. We also found the base commander, and so we grabbed a cup of coffee and a roll each and sat down with him.

"That depends," he answered when Wolfie asked his question. "We'll need a bit of time to replace the shaft and check over the engine on your port side, but provided the engine itself is undamaged it won't take too long to fit a couple of replacement propellers. We can get the glass replaced in a couple of days, but if you want a new gondola to replace the missing one…"

"We won't," I interrupted. "We can deal with that when we get back to England."

"That will save us some time, then. As for the rest of it, you need to understand that we can't replace your missing sheets of armour – at least, not with the same stuff. We can patch up the holes and put basic armour over them, but obviously we don't have any of the special stuff."

'That's fine," I said. "Again, we'll worry about that in England. Just patch her up for now."

"As you wish. The other matter is replacing your burnt-out gas-bag. We can do that, but we'll need to get one in from elsewhere, because your ship is rather bigger than most of the ones we deal with. We might have to wait a few days for it to get here, but once it's with us we should be able to fit it in a day or so. Of course there are things we can do while we're waiting for it to arrive – putting your galley back together, for one, although we'll lose a bit of time next weekend because it's Easter, and so we won't be working on the Monday.. Altogether, and allowing for it to take four or five days to get the replacement gasbag here, I would say we should be done by the middle of next week. Earlier if the bag gets here promptly and we don't get any other work, but I'd prefer not to promise too much at this stage. Let's say by Wednesday of next week, which will be the eleventh."

So I was going to be stuck here over Easter. I supposed that might save me from having to go to church quite as often as would have been expected of me at home, but it meant that I was going to miss out on Cook's Easter Sunday lunch, and that would be a pity. Oh, well…

"That will be fine," I said. "One other thing: I have five dead crewmen on board, so could you contact an undertaker for me?"

"Of course," he said. "Is there anything else you need?"

"Not right away. I'll come and find you if I think of anything."

The rest of the crew arrived for breakfast in drips and drabs. Ours was the only ship currently in dock, and so we had the place to ourselves, and that meant that I was able to keep everyone in the canteen once they'd finished eating. And once I had everyone's attention I gave them a little speech about how well they'd performed and how proud I was of them, especially considering that this was our first voyage together.

"I'd like you to stay on the base this morning," I concluded. "I'll be going into town to find a bank shortly, and once I've got some money I'll be able to give you an advance of pay, and after that you'll be free to go into town yourselves. We'll be here for at least a week, though, so don't spend all your money straight away. Right, that's it: you can go…"

"Just one moment," interrupted Alex. "I agree with everything the captain said about how well you did yesterday, but I want you to remember that we're in a foreign country, and when you're off the base you'll be wearing His Grace's uniform. If anyone does anything to embarrass His Grace, I can tell you that that person will have to make his own way back to England, because he won't be flying back with us. Is that understood? Good. All right, now you can go."

"Sorry," he added to me as he sat down again, "but I thought it would be a good thing to make sure none of them reverts to type: the last thing we want is a spate of pockets being picked and locals being fleeced by card-sharps and con artists. I know you think they've changed, and probably you're right, but they could easily be tempted."

Out of the corner of my eye I could see Wolfie nodding his agreement, and although personally I'd have trusted the crew enough not to issue that sort of warning, maybe it was no bad thing to remind them of their responsibilities.

Before we went into town I spoke to Dr Harries, and he said that he thought it might be as well if some of our wounded went to the local hospital for a few days, because facilities on board the ship were a little limited. I asked him to contact the local hospital and make whatever arrangements were necessary.

While we were in town I not only went to the bank but also found the Post Office and sent a message to my uncle, telling him that we were safe, that Wolfie was back with us, that the ship was undergoing what I called 'minor repairs' here in Sélestat, and that I hoped to be home in a week or so. This wasn't a very big town – it was quite a bit smaller than Abingdon – but it had a reasonable number of shops, so the crew would have somewhere to spend their money.

Once we got back to the base Wolfie dealt with paying the crew, and after lunch most of them wandered off in the direction of the town centre. I was thinking of heading in the opposite direction, up into the mountains. There was a brisk wind blowing today, and so I thought there would be no point in looking for the mist patch we had seen from the ship, but I was interested to see the ruined castle up close, and I thought there would be quite a good view from up there too.

But before we could leave we found that we had visitors. We'd been sitting in the canteen looking at a local map provided by the base commander when the door opened and Admiral Giorgetti came in accompanied by a tall, distinguished looking man in an æthership captain's uniform.

"Hello, Admiral," I said, standing up. "I didn't hear the base landing signal."

"No, we came by train. Both our ships are being repaired at the moment, but I thought you would like to know that the attack was a great success: we cleared out their stores and also captured three ships intact, as well as a number of German technicians who have said that they would be much happier working for us than for the Russians. It was as near to a perfect operation as I have ever seen."

"Well, good," I said. "Does that mean we've now got enough meteor material to armour our fleets?"

"More than enough. We will send a quantity to the British research base at Abingdon, and then you will be able to make a start on improving your own ships. And I should tell you that your own part in the battle was included in my preliminary report to High Command, and will certainly be mentioned in the full report that I am currently compiling. I found your performance to be most impressive, especially if your entire crew is of an age with yourself. Are these your officers?"

"Yes. You've met my second-in-command, and this is Lieutenant Demetriou, my second officer, Lieutenant Reed, my Chief Engineer, Sub-Lieutenant Silver, my Chief Electrical Engineer, and Sub-Lieutenant Collier, my third officer and medical assistant. And you met Lieutenant Beeching, my interpreter, yesterday. He's on detached duty from the Oxfordshire Militia, but I very much hope he'll be able to join the crew on a more permanent basis in future."

"I'm pleased to meet you, gentlemen. Now, Your Grace, is the base providing you with everything you need?"

"Yes, thank you. They think the work should be finished by the middle of next week."

"Good. Obviously while you're here you are to consider yourselves our guests: the cost of the repairs and any incidental expenses, such as providing food and accommodation for the crew, will be picked up by the French Government. So you may relax a little and enjoy our hospitality. I will probably return before you leave us next week.

"Now, this is Philippe Bichot," he went on, indicating the other officer. "He's captain of Laurent de Gouvion-Saint-Cyr, and he asked if he could come with me today. His English is not so good, but I am happy to translate for him."

"Good afternoon," said Captain Bichot, via the admiral. "I've wanted to meet you since our first encounter in the Crimée. You see, I knew your mother – we flew on missions together on several occasions, and you may be aware that I was unfortunate enough to witness her death…"

"Yes, I know," I said. "I was aboard Daedalus at the time."

"So I understood. Indeed, the following day we were involved in the search for you. But what I wanted to say was that your mother was a great captain, but what I saw of your conduct yesterday was of at least as high a standard. You should know that if your mother was still alive she would be proud of you."

I didn't know how to answer that. For a start, my own recollection of the previous afternoon's fight was one of more or less complete chaos, and I'd done nothing more than any of the other captains present: all I'd been interested in was making sure we stayed in the air while taking down an enemy here and there if we could. Indeed, I'd messed even that up so badly that our hull had been punctured in two places, and it was sheer luck that we hadn't ended up as a heap of twisted metal on the ground. At the same time I was aware of a lump in my throat at the thought of my mother. I wasn't quite so convinced that she would have been proud of me, but it was still nice to hear that opinion from someone who had known her.

"Thank you," I managed to say. "Most of the credit should go to my crew, though. Considering that this was our first mission I thought they were amazing. "

"I would agree," said the captain. "But a crew is only as good as its leadership. Don't be too quick to give others the credit for your achievements."

Well, I didn't think it would do any good to argue, even though I thought that the ship had survived despite my best efforts to get it destroyed, rather than through anything good that I might have done.

By the time the French officers left it was around three o'clock. We would still have had time to get up into the hills, but then the undertaker arrived, and by the time I'd dealt with him it was close to four o'clock and I didn't really feel like it any more: there's something about ordering a coffin to fit someone who was barely five feet tall that puts you off going out and having fun. So I decided that the visit to the castle could wait.

By now the repair crew was hard at work on the ship, and that made it difficult to relax in our cabin, so I grabbed Wolfie, walked a short way into town and booked a room in the first hotel we came to. My first thought had been that I ought to stay with the ship, but then I realised that nothing was going to happen to it while it was in dock, and that it would probably do me good to get away from it for a day or so. And so I spent the rest of the afternoon lying on the bed with Wolfie beside me.

"I feel a bit guilty about this," I told him. "I wish I could find a hotel big enough for everyone."

"Nonsense. Most of the crew lived in the sewers, remember, so a bunk in our crew quarters must feel pretty good. If Alex and the others want to join us, that's up to them, but right now I'm more than happy for it to be just you and me. I'm quite sure that the crew won't mind in the slightest if we're sleeping off the base – in fact I imagine that they would expect that. It would probably be a good idea if at least one officer stayed on the ship, but if the others fancy sleeping in a hotel instead I'll be happy to draw up a rota for that. So relax, Leo: we've got a week to unwind, so let's make the most of it."

I supposed that made sense. Then I thought of something and chuckled.

"What?" he asked.

"Oh, it's just something we used to say in Alex's world: when we saw two people who were obviously engrossed in each other, or smooching if it was a boy and girl, we used to say 'Get a room'. And now we have got a room."

"What's 'smooching'?"

"I'll show you, shall I?"

We spent the rest of the afternoon smooching and so forth, and by the time we walked back to the base for supper I was feeling a lot better, and I was starting to look forward to getting home, rather than looking backward and beating myself up over what had gone wrong.

During the meal Wolfie drew up a rota for the officers, telling them that we needed one of us to be on the base at all times, but that if the others felt so inclined there was a perfectly decent hotel ten minutes away, and I wasn't too surprised when everyone decided to book a room.

That night I slept properly for the first time since the mission had started: I had Wolfie beside me, the ship was safe and there was nothing to worry about. I began to feel as if I was properly on holiday – the school holidays had just started, after all. I could do a little walking in the hills, explore the town and just spend time with Wolfie and my other friends. Maybe the next few days would be exactly what I needed.

The following day it rained, so we didn't do very much at all, just hanging around in the hotel for the most part. But when we got up on the Wednesday morning the weather was a lot better, and so I decided to go and do some exploring in the hills. But Wolfie was a bit less enthusiastic.

"It's quite steep up there," he said, "and I'm not very good at steep climbs. Would you mind if I hired a horse?"

"No, and that's a great idea!" I said. "Let's all do that!"

Of course, not everyone could ride a horse, but Alex and Joe could manage, even if they weren't too enthusiastic, and they both said that they wanted to come if we were going to look for the mist, just in case it offered them a way home. Albie had the short straw of being duty officer, but he didn't ride anyway, and Chris said he'd stay and keep him company because he wasn't all that keen on riding either. Graham wanted to come, and Billy tagged along too, "in case you need any help with the horses," he said, although I think that really it was just that, like Graham, he'd been too long without a chance to get on a horse.

The hotel manager had shown me where the nearest stables was, and so the six of us – me, Wolfie, Alex, Joe, Graham and Billy – took ourselves there shortly after breakfast. Graham insisted on checking all the horses over first, just to make sure we weren't being palmed off with animals that were sick or injured, but once he'd done that we rode back to the base, where we got changed into civilian clothes, because if the hole really was there and we were able to get back to Alex's world, I thought that we'd attract far too much attention if we appeared in a modern French town wearing Germanic uniforms.

Once we had changed we set off up into the mountains. The first two or three miles or so were fairly flat, and so we cantered along at a comfortable speed, but then the land started to rise. We went through a hamlet called Kintzheim and after that the track began to get quite steep, so we slowed to a walk. The road ran into the forest and stayed under the trees for the next three miles or so, only emerging into the open once more just before we reached the castle. Actually there wasn't that much of it left: half a tower, some stretches of outer wall and the mostly collapsed remnant of a central keep. Looking at it I guessed it had been built in the sixteenth century or thereabouts.

It was perfectly placed to command the plain below: we could see Sélestat, Colmar and the stretch of open land between them, most of which appeared to be farms and fields. We explored the ruin for a while, stayed long enough to eat the packed lunch we had brought with us, and then remounted and rode back down the hill. I had hoped it would be possible to ride directly to the location of the mist patch we had seen, but the hill behind the castle was heavily overgrown and far too steep for horses, and so we were obliged to retrace our steps for a couple of miles until we came to a point where a much rougher track led off to the left. We followed this for a mile or so and then, when I judged that we were in roughly the correct place, we left the path and headed off to the left.

The trees were thinner here, and in places we emerged into open ground, which allowed me to take a bearing on a couple of hills. It was hard to be sure because this whole region was made up of hills and forest, but I was fairly sure that the area we were looking for was only a short distance away… and, sure enough, another hundred yards or so and we could see mist ahead of us.

"Do you really think..?" asked Alex.

"Well, we haven't seen any mist anywhere else, have we?" I replied. "It has to be worth a look, anyway."

"Wait!" said Wolfie, grabbing my arm. "How do you know it's going to take you where you want to go?"

"What do you mean? Either it will, or it's just mist, in which case we won't go anywhere."

"Are you sure? How do you know it won't take you to a different world completely?"

"Oh, come on!" I said. "How many worlds do you think there are?"

"One, until last summer. And I bet all of you only thought there was one before then, too. Now we know there are two. How do we know there aren't three, or fifty, or a hundred million? You might end up anywhere."

"You really think there are millions of different worlds?" I asked. "So what do you think we're going to find – a world that has been invaded by space aliens? A world where reptiles are in charge? A world ruled by the Lost Continent of Atlantis? Come on, Wolfie, places like that only exist in stories. I'm sure there are only two. Something happened a long time ago to split them apart, and so they followed different paths and turned out differently, but it must have been something really unusual to cause a split like that. I'm sure it couldn't have happened more than once. Anyway, I assume you're coming with us, so even if we do end up in some weird place, we'll still be together. And unless this is completely different from Stonehenge we'll be able to turn straight round and come back if we don't like what we find. All right?"

"I suppose so. But let's be careful!"

"Of course we will. Anyone else not sure about coming?"

"I don't really understand any of this," said Graham. "Billy has sort of explained what happened to you four years ago, but I really can't imagine a whole other world. So… you think as there's another hole here?"

"Possibly. It might be nothing but normal mist, but I want to try to find out."

Nobody else spoke, so I urged the horse forward. The trees had thinned again, and I could see that we were in a small valley that rose slowly into the mist ahead of us. I found myself thinking about what Wolfie had said: was there any risk of this patch of mist leading us into a different world, and if so, might it be dangerous? I wasn't seriously worried about the outlandish suggestions I had made about aliens and so forth, but what if this hole – if it was one – led to a world where the Russians had conquered France? Or suppose there was a world where the Nazis had won – did I really want to risk going to a world like that?

But then I pulled myself together. That was pure fantasy – I was sure there were only two worlds, and therefore there was a fifty per cent chance that it would take us back into Alex's world. But just suppose…?

No. I shook my head and rode on, and the mist closed in around me. I rode slowly forward until I reached a point where the horse stopped moving and didn't seem too keen to start again: we were, I could just about make out, between a pair of trees that grew about twelve feet apart. Personally I could neither see nor feel anything different about the ground ahead of us, but the horse apparently could, as I had to urge it forwards before it would start moving again. Once we were past those two trees it walked steadily again, so whatever had spooked it was obviously just in that one spot, not everywhere in the mist, which suggested that those trees marked the threshold of the hole – if indeed it was one.

The mist thinned and then cleared ahead of me, and I could see absolutely nothing different about the ground ahead of me, which was still a gently sloping wooded valley with a stream running through it. One by one my friends came to join me, and I wondered if Wolfie, Graham or Billy had felt anything change while they were in the mist. But if they had, none of them said anything.

"It doesn't look any different," commented Alex.

"No, it doesn't," I agreed. "Let's try heading back towards Sélestat – if we are back in your world we'll pretty soon know it when we reach the road. We'll have to go around the mist this time, though."

I led them off to the right, where the valley was a bit less overgrown than on the other side, and allowed the horse to pick its way back in the direction we had come, making sure to keep the thicker mist off to my right. I had my compass out, and once we were clear of the mist I led us back the way we had come. To start with there was no visible difference, but as the track appeared before us we could see that this was not the one we had followed on the outward journey: this one was wider – wide enough for a car – and the trees to the left of it had been cleared completely, giving up a great view off to the north.

"Are we home?" Joe asked me nervously.

"Possibly," I said. "After all, if Wolfie's right we could be in any world except the one we left ten minutes ago. Keep an eye out for space aliens and Atlanteans!"

We followed the track until it met the road, and now there was no doubt at all that we were in a different world: there was a gate across the track just before it reached the road, and when we had – with some difficulty – led the horses around it and reached the road, we saw that it had a tarmac surface. Either this was Alex's world, or another that had a very similar level of technology, because as we stood there a couple of cars drove past.

"Unless the aliens have learned to drive Peugeots, I would say that we're where we want to be," I said.

I was a bit nervous about taking the horses back down the road towards Sélestat because it was quite steep and there were some fairly sharp bends, and if a car came down the hill too fast it could easily run into the back of us. To start with there was no real alternative, but a couple of hundred yards down the road we found a track that seemed to head in the right direction, so we followed that instead, and eventually we came out in another village that was situated at the edge of the trees and a short distance above the level of the plain. There were plenty of cars parked in its streets, and I was fairly confident that the registration plates were standard for French cars in Alex's world, so I was by this stage almost certain we were back.

"Are those steam-cars?" asked Graham. "If so they must have very small boilers, and they don't have chimneys, either."

"They're not exactly steam-cars," I said. "They're similar, but they run on something else. They can go quite quickly, too, so watch out for them."

I led my friends through the village. There was a sign in the centre pointing towards Sélestat, and so I took that road, which dropped down to the level of the plain, emerging from the last few houses into an area of vineyards. I turned round as we left the village and saw that the sign said 'Orschwiller', and underneath it was another sign in a darker colour that read 'Fief du Ht. Koenigsbourg'. And on the skyline immediately above the sign was a castle, substantially bigger and in better repair than the one we had visited earlier that day.

We rode on until we reached Sélestat. Just before we reached the town the road took us over a motorway.

"Bloody hell, those things can move!" observed Graham, looking down at the cars below. "I've never seen an auto-carriage as could go as fast as that!"

There was, I was not remotely surprised to see, no sign of the æthership base here. Instead there was what looked like a radio station of some sort, with three tall masts supported by guy ropes where the æthership hangars should have been. I rode straight past the base, and then changed my mind and stopped, dismounting.

"It won't be safe to stay on the horses in town," I said. "There's sure to be a lot of traffic, and I don't suppose these horses are used to a lot of motor vehicles. We'd better leave them here and go on without them. Sorry, Graham, but could you stay here with them? If we just leave them on their own someone might take them."

Graham looked a bit disappointed, but he didn't argue. The rest of us walked on into town.

"If this is my world we need to find a telephone," said Alex. "I want to call home."

"That might be a bit difficult," I said. "I bet we haven't got any coins that would fit in the slot, and I don't suppose for a moment that they'll take our notes, either."

"I've got some sterling notes – from my world, I mean," said Alex. "If we can find somewhere to change them I can get some euros, and then maybe we can find an internet café…"

We found a bank, and that led me to realise that I'd slipped up again: in my world this was a German-speaking province, but here people spoke French, and we'd left both our French speakers behind. But we still managed to change some of Alex's English money into euros, and we even managed to make the bank clerk understand that we wanted an internet café. He scrawled a little map on a piece of paper and handed it to us, and we followed it to an internet café not too far away.

The next problem was that this was early in the afternoon, which made it most unlikely that any of our parents or guardians would be online. Alex thought that his sister might be, but was unable to contact her, and Joe found the same thing when he tried to reach his brother.

"I'm pretty sure there'll be someone at home this evening," said Alex, "but I don't fancy trying to find the mist again after dark. Should we stay here overnight, do you think? If we book into a hotel I can recharge my mobile, and then I'll be able to text home even if I don't have enough credit to phone."

"I don't think we've got enough money to book all six of us into even the cheapest hotel," I told him. "We should have planned this a bit better: if we'd brought a couple of tents we could have camped somewhere, and if we'd brought some jewellery we could have got enough money for tickets back to England. Except I wouldn't be able to travel with you because I haven't got a passport."

"Neither have I," said Joe.

"Then maybe we ought to ask your parents to travel here," I suggested. "I'm sure they wouldn't mind doing that if it means seeing you again."

"But that would mean staying in a hotel for a few days, because I'm sure my father can't just drop everything and catch a plane to France," objected Joe. "I've got some English money too, but not very much."

"Why don't you buy a tent?" suggested Wolfie. "It's sure to be cheaper than a hotel."

"That's an excellent idea!" I said. "And I'm fairly sure I saw a sign to a camping ground on the way into town. And I've still got some of my other-world money, too, so if we all club together I'm sure we can get a decent tent and some sleeping bags. That way I can stay too, because I'd really like a chance to talk to Auntie Megan this evening if I can. So…Wolfie, do you want to stay or go back?"

"That's a really stupid question," he replied. "You mean, do I want us on opposite sides of a hole again? What do you think?"

"Okay, so you're staying," I said. "So we want a tent big enough for four, and four cheap sleeping bags, preferably two of them of the type that you can join up into a double. All right, let's find a camping shop and do some shopping, and then the camp site, and then… well, let's just get that far first."

None of that gave us any problems, and soon we were busy putting up the tent.

"I think maybe I should go back as far as the hole with Graham and Billy," I said. "Just to make sure they find it okay. And it'll be easier to manage the horses with three of us."

"Four," said Wolfie, glaring at me.

"Sorry, I meant four," I corrected.

"You mean I can't stay?" asked Billy.

"Sorry," I said. "Graham won't be able to get six horses back through the forest on his own. And we only hired them for one day, so they'll all have to go back this evening. But if the hole is fairly stable, maybe you can come back here later in the week."

So we left Alex and Joe putting the flysheet up and walked back to where we had left Graham, and then the four of us rode back up into the forest, leading the two spare horses. We found the hole without any real difficulty.

"Tell the others we'll be back sometime tomorrow," I said to Graham. "I don't think we'll have any trouble with the weather, so the hole should still be here, but if not, just wait for us. We'll be back as soon as we can. If anything comes up, I'm sure you and Albie can sort it out between you."

Wolfie and I watched Graham and Billy lead the horses off into the mist, and once we were sure that they'd got through the hole we turned and made our way back to the track and started out on our walk back to town. It was a really nice day for early April, so we took our time, resting now and again and enjoying the surroundings and each other's company. Just being together was perfect, even when we weren't talking, and once again I found myself wondering how I'd ever survived for four years without him. I supposed that Alex had helped a lot, but he and I hadn't been living in the same house and frequently sleeping in the same bed the way I had with Wolfie…

It took us a couple of hours to get back to the campsite, and when we got there we found them both looking really happy: they'd managed to get their phones recharged, and Joe had then texted his brother and got a reply.

"Apparently they thought I was dead," Joe told us. "It's been about six months, after all. Anyway, my father will be home at about six, so they're going to phone me after that. I think I've got enough credit on the phone to accept a call from England, but if not we've found a couple of public phones, and I'll just text them the number of one of those. I've almost forgotten what their voices sound like…"

"It might be a good idea not to mention what we've been doing for the past week or so," I suggested, "especially if you're hoping to persuade them to come through to my world."

"I am," he said. "London's dead boring compared to your place. And obviously I'm not going to mention the war. I'm not stupid, you know."

It was already half-past five, so we decided to postpone supper until after the phone call, but we'd forgotten that there was an hour between British time and French time, and by the time we remembered it was once again too late to go and eat. So we sat around twiddling our thumbs and then, at about five to seven, went up to the camp office, where the two phone kiosks were situated. I was a bit surprised that such a thing still existed – surely everyone in this world had a mobile phone by now? But when I mentioned this Joe pointed out that if you were on holiday abroad your mobile might be more expensive to use than a public phone box, especially if you were calling for a taxi or something else that was also in France.

We had barely reached the office when Joe got a text from his brother to say that the network had refused the call, so Joe texted back the number of one of the public phones, and a few seconds later it rang. The rest of us stepped back to give Joe a little privacy, but we still heard most of his half of the conversation.

He explained that the hole at Stonehenge had been destroyed and that we had only found another one in the last few hours, which was why he had been out of touch, but that he was alive and well and there was nothing to worry about (and I wasn't surprised to hear that that comment started a bit of an argument).

Joe also explained that he couldn't get back to England because he didn't have a passport, suggesting that his family should fly to France instead. But apparently that wouldn't be too easy.

"Yes, Dad, I know it's almost Pesach," said Joe. "And I know you won't be able to get a ticket very easily because it's also Easter. But we can wait. We've… Yes, I know you don't want to wait. Perhaps the train, then?..... Yes, I know it's likely to be booked as well… What about next week? … Yes, but aren't we allowed to travel during Pesach in case of necessity? What? Yes, of course I've been observant. There's a synagogue in Oxford…. Look, Dad, you need to get here before Wednesday if you can, because that's when we're supposed to be going back to England, and Leo needs me… Leo. That's who I…. No, he used to be called Keith Lambert…"

At that point I walked away, because I didn't want to get involved in something that Joe really needed to sort out with his father. I stayed on the other side of the room until Joe hung up the phone.

"He says I have to stay here until he can come and get me," Joe reported. "But that might not be until next week. He's going to try getting a flight for tomorrow, but if he can't I might have to wait a while."

"When you say 'Come and get you,' does that mean you're going to go back home with him?" I asked.

"I hope not. I really want to stay with you. But it might be a bit hard to persuade him to let me stay. What I really want to do is to persuade him to come through and see what your world is like, because I think once he's seen Culham he'll understand why it would be better for us to live with you than in this world. So I've asked him to bring Mum and Simon with him, and then, if I can talk him through the hole, maybe you can fly us back to England. I should think the journey alone would go a long way to changing his mind."

"Obviously I'll do anything I can," I assured him. "Um… are you going to tell them about Ben?"

"I don't think so, do you? I mean, that's hardly an incentive for them to let me come back to your world, is it? I really don't think they would approve of me having a boyfriend, somehow. So I'll keep it quiet until we're safely back at Culham."

Ten minutes later the phone rang again, and Joe answered it and spoke briefly to his father.

"The earliest he can get a flight is Tuesday," he reported. "He's obviously serious about seeing me again, because that's still in the middle of the festival, but that was the first day that he was able to get a ticket for everyone. And he won't want to travel back until after the festival finishes, so that'll give me four or five days to work on him. Of course he might be prepared to come straight back through the hole with me, but I'd be a bit surprised…"

The phone rang again.

"That'll be for you, Alex," said Joe. "I asked him to phone this number through to your parents."

We left Alex to talk to his family in peace, but we didn't get a lot of chance to hear his report afterwards before the phone rang again and it was my turn. I'm going to skip over the next few minutes, which got quite emotional, but that bottom line was that Auntie Megan was happy for me. Uncle Jim was away at the moment, and so they wouldn't be able to come and visit for a couple of weeks, but they hoped it would be possible towards the end of the month. I explained that the temporary nature of the holes made it hard to be able to say with any certainty when I might be able to cross over again, but that I could see no reason in theory why I shouldn't come back here in three or four weeks' time. It would mean taking time off school, of course, but I thought maybe Mr Devlin would accept that this was a good reason.

We swapped 'Love you" farewells and I hung up and headed back to the tent with the others.

Apparently Alex's parents were also going to come to Sélestat straight after Easter, so if all went well we could get everyone through the hole and fly them back to Culham. We'd then have a couple of weeks to persuade them to move to my world permanently, after which we could travel back here – probably by train, rather than flying, because I didn't want to take all my crew out of school just to save us a few train fares – take the two families back through to their own world so that they could return home and do whatever needed doing in the way of selling up and so on while I spent some time with Auntie Megan and Uncle Jim.. Then we'd just have to fix a time and date to pick them up again when everything had been done, and there we would all be, with all three families in my world and everyone living happily ever after.

Obviously I knew it might not run quite as smoothly as that, but at least I felt that we were now in the home straight. The only major hurdle might be persuading Joe's parents in particular to take the enormous step of moving to a completely new world, but I decided that for now I'd settle for getting them through into my world.

That evening we ate at McDonalds. This wasn't because we didn't have a lot of money to throw around, but rather because I didn't expect to get too many more opportunities to eat a quarter-pounder with cheese. Although perhaps opening a chain of burger restaurants would be another way for us to make some money for the orphans…

No, I decided. I knew nothing about making a good burger, and I wasn't sure that the Victorian palate was quite ready for chicken nuggets.

I'd half-expected Alex to get his cards out when we got back to the tent, but it turned out that both he and Joe were thinking about their families and so not really in the mood. So instead we had a fairly early night.

Next morning there was once again virtually no wind, so it seemed likely that the hole would still be open – as long as conditions hadn't changed on the other side, of course. We'd decided that it would be best if Alex and Joe stayed here in case the weather did change over the weekend: if the families arrived and found nobody to meet them they might just decide not to wait, whereas if Alex and Joe were here when they arrived it would be fairly easy to persuade them to stay here long enough for the hole to reopen.

"If all goes well we'll come back on Tuesday," I said. "If we don't turn up on Tuesday it'll be down to bad weather, in which case just sit tight until we get here. We'll be back as soon as the hole opens even if we have to camp out right next to it for a few days."

"Okay," said Alex. "We'll be fine. If we're not going to be here when you get back – I suppose my dad might want to use a hotel instead of camping – we'll leave a message for you at the office."

"See you next week," I said, giving them both a quick hug. Then Wolfie and I picked up our bags and walked the short distance to the station, where we took a cab up through Kintzheim to the end of the track that led back to the hole. Yes, I suppose we could have walked. I could pretend I was thinking about Wolfie's leg, but really I was just feeling lazy.

The hole was still there, and we were back at the æthership base in time for lunch. Work on the ship was progressing nicely, so we stayed out of the way and left the base crew to get on with their work. Instead we walked into town and found a bookshop, because with the Easter weekend looming I thought the next three or four days might involve a lot of sitting around, and while I was sure that Wolfie and I could find some interesting ways to fill some of that time, four days of non-stop physical endeavour was probably beyond us.

There were no books in English, but I had expected that. This was a German-speaking province, and so, as I had expected, we found that the majority of the books were in that language. We went and browsed in the Thriller section. I didn't recognise the names of any of the authors, so in the end I just picked up a book at random. It was called Hinter der Linie, or Behind the Line, by an author called Theodor Köninger, and according to the blurb on the back it was about a detective working for the Royal Bavarian Police in the days just before and just after the start of the Russian occupation. It looked interesting, so I bought it. Wolfie bought a couple of books too, so by the time we got back to the hotel we were confident that we'd be able to fill the time, once way or another.

The next three days went by without incident. We read our books, we spent some time in bed (awake and asleep), we went for walks around the town or up into the hills, and generally we had a relaxing time of it.

On Easter Sunday night I was duty officer, and so we both slept on board the ship that night, as indeed we intended to do the following night, when it would be Wolfie's turn for duty. I suppose there wasn't really any need for an officer to stay on board: so far the crew hadn't even looked like letting us down, and tonight in particular it would be quiet: the next day was a holiday, and so the base crew wouldn't be working.

So after I'd taken a quick walk around the ship to make sure everything was as it should have been I went back to the cabin, got undressed and curled up with Wolfie, intending to have a bit of a lie-in next morning. Instead I was rudely awakened shortly after six in the morning by a klaxon going off, loudly and repeatedly. I jumped out of bed, got dressed in a hurry and rushed out into the hangar, where I found the main doors already halfway open. I ran towards the base administration building, but I met the base second-in-command before I got there.

"What's going on?" I demanded.

"It's an attack," he told me.

"What, a raid?"

"No, it's a full attack in force. The Russians are already across the Rhine. We've been ordered to evacuate..."

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