Excelsior

by David Clarke

Chapter 31

"What state is my ship in?" I asked. "Can we fly?"

"Don't worry," the base officer told me. "The only things that we haven't done yet are patching up the hole in your middle turret, doing a little work inside your galley and fitting the new gas-bag, which we haven't been able to do because it hasn't arrived yet. Everything else is done, so you have four engines and no holes in the hull. How are you off for fuel?"

"If we've got four engines again we could probably do with a bit more, and the same for water. If you can arrange that – and a top-up with hydrogen, too – I'll go and sort my crew out. How long do you think we have?"

"Long enough, I should think. Most of the attack so far is aimed at the big cities, and Sélestat is too small to count. But I still want to be out of here in the next hour."

I nodded and ran back to the hangar. Some of the crew were already emerging from the ship, so I grabbed a couple of engineering petty officers, explained what was happening and told them that I wanted the crew assembled outside the ship in the next ten minutes. Then I ran into the command gondola and got the local charts out. Wolfie came and joined me a few seconds later, so I filled him in on the situation and then went on, "I'm intending to hop over to the other side of the Vosges. The French are going to try to hold the high Vosges, and I would think they should be able to do that, at least in the short term. There's a base at Saint-Dié, here, look," and I indicated a town level with Sélestat on the map but on the far side of the mountains. "That should be out of the immediate firing line."

"But what about Alex and Joe?" he asked me.

"We'll have to come back," I said. "We can probably get transport up to the defensive line, and then we'll just have to find our way through the lines and get back to the hole on foot."

"That'll be dangerous," he said.

"I know."

"But we've got to do it."

That surprised me a little: I'd expected Wolfie to try to stop me taking this sort of risk.

He saw the look on my face. "Look," he said, "I know how you feel about Alex, and Joe, come to that. And I feel the same way: they're part of our family now. So we're going to have to get them safely back here, although it might not be quite so easy to persuade their families to emerge behind enemy lines in a war zone… but let's worry about that when it happens. So wouldn't it be easier if you went straight back to them now? I can get the ship over to Saint-Dié."

"No," I said, firmly. "I'm the captain, Wolfie. The ship has to be my first responsibility. I have to get the rest of the crew to safety first."

"Well, then, do you want me to go back through the hole now?"

I stared at him. "Wolfie, every time there has been the least question of us ending up on opposite sides of a hole you've flatly refused to let it happen – and now you're volunteering?"

"They're our friends. I know you can't abandon them, and I also know you have to stay with the ship, so if this is the only way…"

"It isn't," I interrupted. "Wolfie, if anything happened to prevent me coming back it would be bad enough losing Alex and Joe – and at least they'll be in their own world with their families. I couldn't stand to lose you too, especially in a place where you don't belong. So, no, whatever else happens we're staying on the same side of the hole as each other. If we do what I said first – get the ship across the mountains and then make our way back – we'll find a way to reach them somehow."

"We could send Billy," he suggested. "He knows where the hole is and how to get from there down into the town. At least then they would know what was happening."

I thought about that. Billy was my senior helmsman, so I was a bit reluctant to fly without him. But Weasel was certainly fully competent, and Tommy Green could manage in a pinch…

"Where is Billy?" I asked. "Is he on board, or is he at the hotel?"

"He's probably on board, seeing that Alex is in the other world."

"Okay, find him," I said. "Tell him to go to the stable to hire a horse and then to bring it back here. I need to go and find Dr Harries – we've got to try to get our crewmen back from the hospital if we can, and especially Tim, obviously. Look, can you manage here? Get the refuelling done – the base Number Two is already sorting that out – and then get the boilers fired up and Number Two watch at their posts – we'll need to use your watch because too many of mine are missing, what with Alex and Joe and Billy. I'm going to the hotel to find the doctor. I'll be back as soon as I can."

I grabbed my hat, which Wolfie had brought from the cabin for me, and headed off into town at a steady jog, and when I reached the hotel I rounded up Albie, Graham and Chris, explained what was happening and sent them back to the ship. Then I grabbed the doctor and we made our way to the hospital.

Three of the crew were clearly not fit to travel: there were two head injuries and one complicated leg fracture. That patient was awake, so I explained the situation to him.

"You're almost certainly too young for the Russians to think you're soldiers," I said. "We'll take your uniforms with us and I'll leave some money for the nurses here to buy you some civilian clothes. But if the worst does happen, I want you to give the Russian officer my name and tell him that I will be prepared to ransom you. You're not going to end up in some grotty camp. And if they leave you alone, just stay here: we'll find a way to come and get you to take you back home."

The rest of the injured were fit to travel, so with a bit of help from some of the hospital orderlies we got them back to the base. Tim, whose arm was still strapped up, was more or less back to being his normal self.

"We should have anticipated this," he said, when I told him what was happening. "The Russians know that they can't just sit and wait, because if they give us time to use the material we took from Friedrichshafen we'll have overwhelming air superiority. So it's logical that they should attack now and try to put France out of the game before we can armour our ships and make more rockets."

Well, that made perfect sense to me, and I wondered why, if a fourteen-year-old boy had been able to work that out, the Allied High Command apparently hadn't. Or perhaps the Russians had just attacked a little sooner than anticipated. Of course, attacking over the Easter weekend was another good move, because probably a lot of the senior French officers would be off-duty with their families, which would make the French slower to react.

We got back to the ship and found that refuelling was under way. I was a little surprised that we hadn't seen any Eagles yet, but perhaps they were concentrating on the larger bases at Mulhouse and Strasbourg. This base did have some rocket emplacements, but I really didn't want the Eagles to arrive while we were still on the ground, so I did my best to hurry things along.

It didn't take too long, but by the time the ship was being towed out of the hangar ready for take-off we were already getting reports of Russian auto-cannon units on the far side of the town. Billy had returned with a horse, but I'd realised that I couldn't simply send him off on his own: what would happen if he reached the site of the hole and found it gone? He'd then be trapped on the wrong side of the mountains with nowhere to go. So we managed, with some difficulty, to get the horse aboard via the main cargo hatch.

"We'll check from the air," I told Billy. "If the hole is there we'll land on the road leading up to the castle – there's just about enough room – and let you out there. If the hole is gone you'll have to stay with us. Either way I suppose we'll owe the stable the price of the horse."

The base ground crew didn't bother attaching us to the mast: instead they just lined us up into the wind. I shook hands with the duty officer, wished him luck and stepped aboard the command gondola.

"Engines, station holding," I ordered. "Drop lines and release extra ballast. Are the ground crew well clear? Okay, helm, up five degrees and engines ahead one quarter. Come to bearing two-eight-zero. Chris, take us up to seven hundred and fifty feet… Now, the hole should be…"

I got my compass out.

"Chris, we might need to climb a little more steeply than usual. I want to try to follow the road that goes up from Kintzheim – that's the little village down there, see? Try to keep us a hundred feet or so above the trees. Weasel, you've already shown that you're good at this, so try to hold us above the road. And Sam, tell the observation posts I want to know about it the instant they spot another ship, all right?"

We followed the road up into the forest, and when we reached the point where the track we had followed to the hole began I could see a pocket of mist right where it was supposed to be.

"Right, Billy," I said. "We'll put you down in a few minutes, as soon as we find a big enough space. Don't forget that you have to go into the mist from this direction and then circle wide on the far side, or you'll just end up coming straight back through the hole. Make your way back to the camp site – and be really careful if you ride right into town, because you saw how fast those cars can move – and tell Alex and Joe to stay exactly where they are. We'll get to them as soon as we possibly can.

"If the absolute worst happens and the hole closes and stays closed, or if the Russians set up camp right next to it so we can't reach it, tell Alex that I said he was to look after you, all right? Eventually we'll find a way to get to you again, I promise, no matter how hard it is or how long it takes, understand? Good. You'd better go and get the horse ready, then."

Within five minutes Weasel and Chris had between them guided the ship to an area above the trees and a little below the castle, where the road was straight enough for us to be able to land. Wolfie went to supervise the unloading procedure and called me from the cargo area as soon as Billy and his horse were safely on the road.

"Close the hatch and come back here," I told him. "Chris, take us up to two thousand feet. Engines, ahead one quarter."

Now that Billy was safely on his way we were able to rise above the mountains and have a proper look at what was going on. I still couldn't see any other ætherships, but I could now see troops moving beyond Sélestat. I could also see that the French were digging artillery batteries into the lower slopes of the mountains, more or less at the edge of the trees, and also around the castle, but before I could look any further I was distracted by a massive sheet of flame between us and the town, and I realised that the base commander had burned off his hydrogen supply to prevent it falling into Russian hands. I hoped that he and his men had left themselves time to escape into the French defensive line.

There wasn't a great deal that we could have done to help because we were carrying no bombs, we had no guns, and our rocket supply was still very low indeed: I'd intended to ask about a resupply of weaponry once everything else had been done, and there simply hadn't been enough time to do anything about it this morning. Once we reached Saint-Dié it would be top of my to-do list, but until then we were reduced to the role of spectators, and at the first sight of an Eagle we would have little alternative but to run. But for now there were no Eagles in sight, and so I kept us more or less where we were and watched what was going on below us.

The Russian columns reached Sélestat and came around on either side of it – obviously no attempt was being made to defend the town - and as they came into range of the French batteries the defenders began to fire. The Russian infantry fell back and sought cover in the buildings at the edge of the town, but the auto-cannons kept coming, and now they began to return the fire. I sincerely hoped that Billy was safely through the hole by now, because if a stray shell landed anywhere near him…

"Captain, rear observation post reports a ship at about four thousand yards, bearing zero-five-three," said Sam. "They can't be sure of its nationality yet, but coming from that direction…"

"Agreed," I said. "Okay, it's time to go. Helm, new bearing two-seven-five and take us up to three thousand feet – and as steeply as you need to, Chris, okay? All engines, full ahead."

Now that we had four engines again there was no chance of an Eagle catching us, but of course the sooner we got to Saint-Dié, the sooner we could rearm and make ourselves useful, because I had now realised that if we could help to keep the Russians out of the mountains – and particularly out of the bit above Kintzheim – it would make it a great deal easier for us to retrieve our friends.

It only took us a short time to cross the mountains and reach Saint-Dié, which was nestled in the foothills on the far side. We had to wait a few minutes for a mast to become available, but once we were down I grabbed Chris to interpret for me – now we were in a purely French-speaking area – and asked what the base could do for us in terms of rearming.

"Rockets, yes, provided you're using a standard size," I was told. "Medium and light bombs, yes. Guns, sorry, no. We have plenty of shells, but you'll need a specialised engineering base to get guns fitted. The nearest one to here is probably Nancy, but the last we heard from them was that they were under attack. You might have to go to Troyes instead."

I asked him for as many rockets as he could spare and some medium bombs, but I was extremely worried to hear that Nancy was under attack, because it was a hell of a long way behind the French border, and if the Russians had penetrated that far already things were very serious indeed.

I decided that we didn't have time to go to Troyes, because even if they had some suitable guns actually available at the base it would take quite some time to get them installed. So as soon as we'd taken the weapons on board I headed us straight back towards Sélestat.

Unfortunately the rockets were the old type, not the new armour-busters, but of course there hadn't been enough time for the French scientists to build any more of those since the attack on Friedrichshafen. But at least we now had a good supply of the more usual type. I decided not to use the central upper turret – the rocket-launcher was apparently still fully operable, but the hole in the turret wall was still unpatched, and the blood had not been cleaned up, either. So instead I manned the other four turrets, and this time I also stationed snipers in every gondola, as Alex had suggested on our way to the Crimea.

As we crested the mountains we saw a lone Eagle over the lower slopes above Sélestat, apparently attacking the French positions above Kintzheim, so I sent us straight at him and succeeded in knocking out one of his engine gondolas, at which he turned and headed east. I didn't want to risk chasing him into Russian-held territory, so I let him go and took us a little higher so that we could see what was going on.

There was quite a bit more Russian artillery between Sélestat and the mountains than there had been earlier, and more auto-cannons were just arriving, too. So far the Russians didn't seem to have made a determined attempt to move up into the mountains, which was good news from our point of view, and so I decided that the best thing we could do for the time being was to act as a mobile weapons platform and try to keep the Russians pinned down where they were until nightfall, or until help arrived.

I thought about trying to drop a few bombs on them, but we quickly discovered that they had rocket batteries, and since the underside of the ship was vulnerable – we lacked proper armour where Gondola Six had been, and also in the places where the base had patched up our earlier damage – it would have been highly unwise to take the ship directly above enemy rockets. So we stayed where we were and used our two lower turrets to prevent the Russian auto-cannons from advancing.

This went on for a good two hours, by which time I was wondering where the hell the French air force was – surely they couldn't all have been destroyed on the ground? But, although we could see French ground troops moving down the mountain to reinforce their positions on the lower slopes, we didn't catch a single glimpse of a French æthership.

And then, at around four in the afternoon, the situation changed.

"Rear spotters report Eagles at zero-one-five," Sam told us. "At least six, range about four thousand five hundred yards."

"Helm, come around to zero-one-five," I said. "Let's see what we're dealing with here. Engines, ahead one quarter."

The ship swung around slowly until I could see that the spotters were correct: there was a complete squadron of Eagles heading in our direction along the edge of the mountains. Well, that's the end of that, I thought: there was absolutely no question of staying to fight.

"Turrets four and five, you have ninety seconds to destroy as many Russian auto-cannons as you can,' I said. "Weasel, can you get us above the road as it leaves Kintzheim on the mountain side?"

"Course I can!" he said, and the ship began to swing once more.

"Wolfie, grab a couple of men, get down to the cargo area and prime a couple of bombs," I said. "Then open the hatch and chuck them down onto the road. I don't want it to be passable by any Russian vehicle, and especially not auto-cannons, understand? And make it quick – we'll have to be out of here in the next two or three minutes."

Wolfie disappeared up the ladder. I waited until Weasel had us nicely lined up at the edge of the hamlet, ordered the engines to idle and waited. I opened one of the gondola windows and leaned out a bit, and so I was able to see the first bomb drop away from beneath the ship. It exploded right on the edge of the road, but the aim on the second one was perfect, and when the dust cleared I could see that there was a decent-sized crater almost in the exact centre of the road. The Russians would probably be able to fill it in, but it would take time.

I glanced out of the opposite window and saw that the Eagles were getting a bit too close for comfort.

"Sam, tell the bomb crew to close the hatch and hold on," I ordered. "Tell me the second the hatch is closed."

This only took a few seconds, but they seemed to pass very slowly indeed. Finally he told me that it had been done.

"All engines, full ahead," I ordered. "Weasel, make it two-three-five, and Chris, get us up to three thousand feet."

A missile whistled past us as we started to move, but I was confident that we could outrun them easily enough. And in fact they showed no interest in coming after us, so once we had reached the highest point of the ridge I held position so that we could see what was going on. Wolfie returned to the bridge and joined me at the window.

As soon as the Eagles reached the northernmost French positions they started dropping bombs, lots and lots of them, and they went on doing it as they moved along the French line at no more than half speed. The idea was obviously to destroy the French artillery positions, but it was a risky tactic because the French had some rockets, and as the squadron drew level with the ruined castle one of the Russian ships suddenly spouted flame and veered away, landing heavily on the plain below. But the rest kept going. I tried to distract them with a few rockets, but they ignored me and stuck to their task, and with no guns I certainly wasn't going to risk getting any closer.

Once the Eagles had moved away to the south I ordered us back to our previous position. There was still movement at the edge of the trees, so some of the French had clearly survived, but the ground was a mess. And when I looked down to where the hole had been I could see broken and fallen trees and smoking bomb-craters, but there was no sign of mist at all. It had disappeared between the arrival of the Eagles and their departure.

Wolfie and I looked at each other.

"Now what?" he asked. "Do you think we'll still be able to get through?"

I shook my head slowly. "I shouldn't think so," I said. "We might be lucky and find that the trees at the sides of the hole survived, but I really don't think so. I think that hole is gone for good."

"Are we going to go back home and see if there's been any change at the Great Circle, then?"

"No," I said. "I'm pretty sure there won't have been. No, we've got one chance left: we're going to have to go to Baden."

He stared at me. "Leo, we can't go to Baden!" he protested. "Now that we're fighting again there will be Russian ships coming and going all the time – it'll be on their main supply line!"

"I wasn't thinking of flying there. Sam, call Mr Sparrow, Mr Collier and Mr Reed to the bridge, please – oh, and Tim Duvallier, too."

Once Sparrer reached the bridge I sent him to relieve Chris and then took the officers and Tim over to the chart table.

"We'll hold on here for as long as we can," I told them, "but our priority has to be to get back to our friends. So half an hour before sunset we're going to fall back to Saint-Dié. And then tomorrow morning we're going to pay a visit to the Swiss Confederation – specifically, to Basel. As Wolfie has pointed out, we daren't fly into Baden, but we can drive there. We'll hire a carriage in Basel and take it up onto the mountain where we saw the mist, and hopefully we'll find a hole there that will take us back to the other world."

"What if we don't?" asked Albie. "Suppose the mist you saw was just mist?"

"Then we'll have to think of something else – and before you ask, I honestly don't know what else there is, other than doing what we were going to do before, which is checking out every ancient monument we can find. But that pocket of mist was the only one in sight, so I'm hopeful.

"Anyway, we'll need Chris to come with us because we'll need someone who can drive… I mean, you can, can't you?"

"I've done some driving," he assured us.

"Good. And also because he can speak French," I went on. "But everyone else stays with the ship. You'll be safe enough, it's neutral territory. Albie, you'll be in command, with Graham as your Number One. You'd better consider yourself an Acting Lieutenant-Commander. I'll expect you to do everything necessary to secure the ship and the crew, but really you probably won't have anything to do at all except wait for us. I'd expect it to take two or three days, but if we have to wait for the hole to open it could be longer.

"If we're not back in two weeks you should take the ship home. I'd suggest you go the long way around and avoid the Vosges, in case the fighting is still going on. Once you get home you can send the crew back to London. Tell my uncle we'll contact him as soon as we get back to Basel.

"Does anybody have any questions?"

"Why should we stop waiting after two weeks?" Albie asked. "You're our leader. As far as I'm concerned we should wait for as long as it takes, and I don't suppose there's anyone on board who would want to argue with that."

"He's right," agreed Graham. "We're not going to fly off and leave you behind."

"Thank you both," I said. "But I don't want the crew to miss school, particularly the kids from London. They're a long way behind already, and education's important. Besides, we'll be perfectly safe in Basel, and if we send a message to my uncle he'll either arrange for the French to get us home, or, if the situation in France is really bad, he'll get us out through Austria-Hungary or Italy. Come to that, by the time you get home Excalibur should have been properly armoured, so he'll be able to come and get us himself if he has to.

"And there's another thing, too: we need to get Tim here back to Abingdon, so that he can get back to work on making armour. We'll have plenty of material to work with now."

"The scientists do not need me to work," argued Tim. "I can wait 'ere for you. Or… per'aps it would be interesting to see zis uzzair world – so per'aps I could come wiz you?"

"I don't think so," I said, firmly. "We'd be in Russian-controlled Baden for quite some time, and if we have to wait for the hole it could be several days. We simply can't risk the Russians getting their hands on you. Sorry, Tim."

"I understand," he said, though he did look disappointed: I imagine that any scientist would die for a chance to visit a whole new world.

Nobody had any other questions, so we changed watch – Wolfie's crew had already been on duty for a fair bit longer than four hours – and resumed our job of policing the Russians and keeping them from moving forwards.

Over the next hour and a bit we headed off a couple of attacks by the auto-cannons and also did our best to discourage the infantry from moving closer to the hills. But then another quartet of Eagles came towards us from the East, and this time it did seem to be us that they were interested in, because when we started moving, they changed course to intercept us.

"All right, that's it," I said. "All engines, full ahead. Ben, climb and keep climbing until you reach four thousand feet or I shout stop. And Tommy, take us…"

I looked at my watch and saw that it was only ten to six, so there was still plenty of daylight left.

"Bearing one-eight-zero," I went on. "We'll head straight for Basel, I think. Desk, make sure the forward spotters are alert, because those other five Eagles are somewhere south of us, and I don't want to run into them. At the first sign of trouble we're heading due west over the mountains and back into France proper, all right?"

We speeded up and began to climb steadily. At first it looked as if the four Eagles were going to come after us, but I suppose they realised that they couldn't match us for speed, and so with a parting gift of a couple of rockets, both of which missed us by a distance, they turned away again. I suppose they'd achieved their objective of getting rid of us, anyway. I didn't like abandoning my French allies, but I told myself that it really wouldn't do them any good if we got ourselves shot down trying to beat off too many enemies.

We passed just east of the town of Colmar. The town itself was quiet, but there seemed to me some fighting going on at the foot of the mountains west of the town, so it looked as if the French were still holding the higher ground. And then we saw the city of Mulhouse coming into view, and now for the first time we saw some French ætherships: they were engaged in a battle with a number of Eagles north and east of the city. There also seemed to be ground troops in action in the same area.

"Ben, bring us down to the level of those ships," I ordered. "All turrets to stand by."

The ship began to descend, and at the same time our heading wavered too, just for a moment. I looked up from my chair and saw Tommy Green's face: he was biting his lip and trembling a little, too. I looked around the bridge and saw that he wasn't the only one who looked scared: Sparrer looked as stoical as ever, but at the ballast desk Speedy the street-kid was looking less than comfortable, while Georgie Reeves, who was a gardener's boy at Culham when he wasn't flying, seemed to be hanging onto the Comms desk in a death grip. And I realised once again just how young my crew was, and wondered how many others on board, out of my sight, were desperately trying to be brave while feeling anything but.

I stood up and put my hand over Tommy's on the wheel, feeling him trembling. I gave his hand a quick squeeze and smiled at him.

"We're not stopping," I told him. "I don't know if you saw those two Eagles at Regensburg, the ones who tried to ignore the battle and fly straight through, but this time, that's us, and nobody's going to intercept us, either. We'll fire on the Russians as we go past and hopefully distract them a bit, but we're not going to stop and get involved, all right? As far as I'm concerned we've more than done our bit already. The French will just have to manage without us from now on."

I was still slightly in two minds about this: perhaps some people would think it our duty to stay and fight alongside our allies. But for once I wanted to put the survival of my own crew first: I'd lost more than enough already and I wanted to get the rest home in one piece.

"Desk, tell Turret One they may fire at will," I ordered as the first Eagles came into range. "Other turrets may fire once they have a target – but choose your targets carefully. If you're firing at a ship with waist gondolas, aim for the engines. Otherwise, target the tail section and try to damage the control surfaces.

"Speedy, we'll stick to full speed unless I tell you otherwise. And Tommy, just keep us going due south. If anything gets in front of you, go underneath it, alright – just yell to Ben if that happens. I don't want any Eagle getting underneath us this time."

In the event nothing got in front of us, so we simply sailed straight through the fight, firing at the Russian ships on the way past. I know we knocked out one ship's port engine gondola, but I didn't really have time to see if we did any other significant damage. Two or three Russian rockets or shells hit us, but they didn't do any serious damage. And then we were through, and the city and the battle were falling away behind us.

"Excellent job," I told the bridge crew. "All right, now bring us to one-three-eight and drop to cruising speed. Ben, take us down to seven hundred and fifty feet."

Another fifteen minutes saw us reach the border with the Swiss Confederation. The city of Basel lay immediately across the border, and just to the south of the city was an æthership base, so I took us around it, brought the ship in on the approach and dropped the semaphore. But the base semaphore never even twitched, so after a minute or so I ordered ours raised again and brought the ship in towards the nearest mast. There was no sign of a base ground crew either, and so as we settled into position I ordered my own crew to go and secure the cables.

Once we were down – not moored to the mast itself, but right in front of it – I stepped ashore, and Wolfie, Albie and Tim came with me. And now there was a sign of life: a tall man in uniform emerged from a building off to our right and strode towards us. He didn't look happy.

"Good afternoon," I greeted him in German, but he just scowled at me and launched into a torrent of some Germanic dialect that was so far removed from anything we could understand that Wolfie and I were reduced to simply shrugging at each other. But then Tim stepped forward and replied in what sounded to me to be much the same dialect, and the Swiss guy looked positively taken aback.

"He says the Swiss Confederation is strictly neutral, and that this airfield is closed to all warships on both sides," Tim told me, in standard German.

"Tell him we're not a warship," I replied, and the Swiss officer burst out laughing even before Tim started to translate, thus indicating that he could understand High German perfectly well.

I looked at the ship, seeing it from his point of view: five rocket turrets, a row of gun ports, and clear signs of missile damage on the hull, and I could understand his laughter.

"Look," I said to him, not bothering to go through Tim, "I know what we look like. But if you come aboard you'll see that we're not carrying any guns and that we only have sufficient rockets to defend ourselves. We're here on a humanitarian mission: there are a couple of English families, relations of some of my officers, who are stuck in Baden, and we're just here to get them out. I don't want to fly into Baden because that would be certain to result in a fight: I just want to leave the ship here while we go into Baden by road. I hope not to be more than two or three days, but in any event my Number One has orders not to wait for us if we're gone too long, so we shouldn't cause you any embarrassment – and, of course, if you can find a hangar for us, probably hardly anyone will know that we're even here."

"You understand that the rules of neutrality prevent us from helping you in any way?" said the officer, in passable High German. "No fuel, no gas, no water, and certainly no armaments?"

"Of course," I agreed. "We won't ask you for any of those things. And obviously we're happy to pay your mooring fees, and the rental cost of a hangar, and if my crew might be allowed to use your canteen facilities we'll be happy to pay cash for that as well. If not I'll get them to eat in town."

"No, I expect we can accommodate you," he said. "Tell me something: I assume you're here because you all speak German, but is your captain injured? Because I ought to meet him before I prepare the paperwork."

"You're speaking to him," I said. "I'm Leo de Courtenay, and I'm the captain. I know I'm young, but then so is the whole crew. This is Acting Lieutenant-Commander Collier, who will be in charge while I'm in Baden. He doesn't speak German, I'm afraid, but Mr Duvallier here will be able to interpret for him if necessary. So, shall we deal with the formalities?"

We went to the office and I signed the necessary paperwork, and shortly after that the ship was towed into a hangar. Once that was done I assembled the crew once more and gave them another little speech, emphasising this time that I very much hoped we wouldn't have to fight again, and I could see the relief on a lot of their faces.

"I've arranged for you to eat in the base canteen," I told them. "The people there are quite happy to accept your French money, so you won't need to change it. You'll be sleeping on board as before, but this time if you go into town – and it'll be up to Commander Collier whether or not you're allowed to do that – I want you to go in ordinary clothes, not your uniforms. This is because strictly we're not supposed to be here, and I don't want any Russian spies reporting back that there's an Allied ship on this base. So far nobody has let me down, and I'm sure that isn't going to change.

"I'm not sure exactly how long we'll be here, but I expect it to be between three and ten days, so once again, don't spend all your money at once.

"Right, supper will be served from seven-thirty, so you're free until then. Dismissed."

The following morning I went into town with Wolfie, Chris and Tim, who was there in case I needed an interpreter: apparently the local Swiss dialect was almost identical to that spoken in southern Alsace. Mindful of the fact that we would now have quite a long journey on the other side of the hole I found a bank and drew out a fair bit of money and then found a jeweller's and used it to buy some jewellery, gold and diamonds mostly, which I would be able to sell for Euros once we reached the other Germany. Then we found a garage that rented out auto-carriages and I hired the largest one they had for a week. It wouldn't be possible to fit everyone into it on the return journey if both Joe's and Alex's families wanted to come with us, but it would be possible to squeeze seven or eight in at a time, which would mean that we would only need to make two trips.

We took it back to the base and loaded it up with a couple of small tents, a sleeping bag each, some changes of clothing, a couple of local maps and some food, and then Chris drove us through the city and out towards the border with Baden, which lay a couple of miles north of the city limits.

The border crossing gave us no problems: there were a couple of Russians on duty alongside the German guards, but when I explained that we were going to visit members of our family who lived near Todtnau, a small town which according to my map was three or four miles below the summit of the Feldberg, the guards waved us through without challenge.

It's not all that far from Basel to the top of the Feldberg – as the crow flies it's only about twenty miles. But it's also a very long way up, and the road, like most roads that climb mountains, snaked back and forwards, making the actual road distance considerably longer. Steam cars don't particularly like steep gradients, so it took us until early afternoon to reach the top. A little way below the summit there was a small village and I was able to arrange for the innkeeper there to look after our carriage for a few days, which I was sure would be safer than just leaving it at the side of the road.

We climbed the rest of the way to the summit. It was windy up there, but the sky was fairly clear and we had a spectacular view from the top.

I got out my compass and map, worked out exactly where we had seen the mist and headed in that direction, and in a little hollow about two hundred feet below the top of the mountain was… nothing at all. I wasn't surprised – in view of the strength of the wind I'd have been amazed if there had been any mist. But I was sure we were looking at the right place.

We could have just pitched out tents and waited, but since there was an actual inn only a mile away that seemed unnecessary. So we went back to the inn and asked the innkeeper if he knew what the weather was likely to do over the next few days. He told us that it was set fair, and that the wind was supposed to drop overnight, and when I asked him how sure he was he grinned and told me that his brother worked at the weather-station on the western arm of the summit, and so his information came straight from the horse's mouth. Encouraged by this I booked us a couple of rooms, and we spent the night a lot more comfortably than I had expected.

The following morning we left the inn early and walked back to the summit, and this time there was a lovely, welcoming pocket of mist exactly where I'd hoped to see one. There were one of two others about as well, so this one could have been purely natural – it was indeed a fine, still morning – but we made our way down to it regardless.

"Wait here," I told Wolfie and Chris, and I strode into the mist, emerging from the other side… to see that they were still standing where I'd left them. For a moment my heart sank like a stone… but then I remembered that the holes only seemed to work in one direction, so I turned round and re-entered the mist from the other side. And this time when I came out into the open my friends were nowhere to be seen, even though I should have been standing right next to them. I ran back through the mist and called them round to the far side, and they came and followed me through.

This time I was confident that we were in Alex's world. From the edge of the trees I could see what looked like a restaurant a short distance away and there was a proper tarmac road leading off down the mountain. There didn't seem to be any other buildings in sight, so I decided that it would be quicker to go back to the other side of the mountain: if there was another inn here in this world, maybe we could call for a taxi.

On top of the mountain we found a couple of towers and some sort of a monument, each on a different arm of the summit, and there was also a cable-car going down to a building complex a hundred feet or so below us. The cable-car didn't seem to be in use, so we walked down to the buildings, found an information office and asked them to call us a taxi, and at the same time I bought a map so that we could see where we were going.

The taxi took us down the mountain to a town called Hinterzarten, which had a railway station. It also had a jeweller's, but I found that selling a couple of items of jewellery wasn't quite as straightforward as I had hoped: the man behind the counter was quite suspicious and asked where they had come from.

"Family heirlooms," I told him.

"Oh, really? And which family might that be?"

I opened my mouth to give him my name but then had a flash of inspiration and gave him Wolfie's name instead. It's almost a hundred years since the last German Emperor abdicated, but the name of Hohenzollern still carries a lot of weight in Germany, and I knew that the family still laid claim to the Kingdom of Prussia and the rule of the German Empire here in this world, even though neither had existed since 1919. And so Wolfie's visiting card, which held his full name and his title of Margrave, could hardly fail to impress the man behind the counter.

"I see," he said, handing the card back. "In that case I'm sure I can help you..."

Once we had the money we were able to return to the station and buy tickets, and the rest of the journey was straightforward: we reached Sélestat in mid-afternoon.

We walked round to the camp-site. I'd never met Joe's parents, of course, and I wondered if I'd be able to answer the questions they were sure to have for me without actually lying to them about what was happening on the other side of the hole. Obviously if all went well we'd be able to take them straight back to Basel, get onto the ship and fly home, going as far to the west as we had to in order to avoid the fighting, and then maybe I wouldn't have to mention the war at all, at least not until we were safely back at Culham. But of course Billy had come through to warn Alex about the war, so probably they would already…

"Hey, Keith!"

That didn't register as being addressed to me, so I walked on, but a moment later someone grabbed my shoulder, and I turned round to find myself looking at Danny Carmody.

"Carmody!" I exclaimed. "What on earth are you doing here?"

"I asked if I could come. Simon's told me some stuff, and it seemed so mad that I wanted to see for myself… so is it true? Is there really another world?"

"Well, yes… so… are you okay?"

"Sort of," he said, not looking at me. "I got through it, anyway."

"Was it bad?"

He nodded sombrely. "Look, come on," he said. "I'll take you to our tents. I know Alex and Joe have been worrying about you…"

The tent we'd bought before I went back to my world was still in the same place, but now there was a smaller two- or three-man tent next to it. Carmody put his head into this, found it empty and took me into the larger one, and here I found Joe, who was talking to a smaller boy in glasses.

"Leo!" he exclaimed as I entered the tent. "You're okay! Billy said…"

"Yes, I'm fine," I interrupted. "Look, there's been a bit of a change of plan: the Eagles bombed the hole to hell and gone, so the only one left is in Baden… that's Germany, in this world. It's not as well sheltered as the one here was, so we might have to wait for it to reform – so I want to get back there as soon as we can. Is your family all here?"

He nodded. "My parents are in a hotel with Alex's, but this is my brother Simon. Si, this is Leo, and that's Wolfie, and the older one is called Chris Beeching – he's our French interpreter."

The younger boy turned to face me, and I saw that he'd managed to inherit all the good features that Joe had missed out on: Simon was genuinely good-looking, and if anything the glasses actually emphasised this, rather than detracting from it. He was two or three inches shorter than me, and he had a really nice smile, too.

"I remember you from school," he said. "You were in the football team, weren't you?"

"That's right," I said.

"I watched you play a couple of times," he said. "I mean, really I was there to watch Danny, but I remember you being pretty good. So is it really true about you being a Duke?"

"I'm afraid so. Weird, isn't it? I had no idea… But I don't act like one most of the time, unless my uncle's around, of course. Then you'll have to grovel and kiss my shoes and stuff."

"Sod off! I'm not kissing anyone's…"

"Joke!" I interrupted. "Joe's more like part of my family, rather than a member of the household. Same goes for Alex, and I suppose if you come through you will be too… I mean… are you going to come through to my world?"

"I hope so. Dad's not sure about it, but Joe and I are both working on him, and I'm pretty sure Alex has persuaded his parents to come, so it looks hopeful."

"Great!"

"Leo," interrupted Joe, "is there any chance of you letting Danny come too? Only he really needs to make a fresh start somewhere new, and Si and I thought…"

I turned to look at Carmody. "Is that what you want?" I asked him.

"Well, yes… look, I know I was a bit of a bastard back in England, shooting my mouth off all the time, but… well, I'm not like that any more…"

"He's not," Simon put in. "Really he isn't. Only it would be really hard for him if me and Joe went and he had to stay behind…"

"What about your parents?" I asked Carmody. "How do they feel about you just moving away?"

"My parents have split up," he told me. "My father moved out right after I got back home. And my mother says she's happy for me to do whatever's best for me, and since I don't think she'd be able to cope with looking after me on her own…well, if I could find somewhere else to go it would solve the problem. And I'd like to stay with Si, because he's been such a good friend since I got back home... I have nightmares, you see, and Si helps me… I've been sleeping at his house for a while, using Joe's bed, because I kept waking my mother up in the night and it was driving her mad, but Si copes with it really well… so, please, Keith… I mean Leo… I'd really like to come with you."

I was by no means sure about this. It's true that this didn't sound remotely like the loudmouth I'd known at school, and he looked different, too – sort of smaller and timid. But I really didn't want him to morph back into the old Carmody once we got back home.

"Joe?" I asked.

"He can certainly come with us as far as I'm concerned," said Joe. "And don't forget that Alex and I still owe him for not grassing us up."

"Well… okay, then," I said. "If it's okay with everyone else, it's okay with me."

"Thanks!" said Carmody, his face lighting up. "I really mean it!"

"Okay, I said. "So where's Alex?"

"He and Billy went to the shop," Joe told me. "He should be back any time. So when do we leave?"

"Tomorrow, provided I can fix it up with your parents. Will your dad be willing to travel during Passover, though?"

"He will if I explain how important it is. Look, Leo, once Alex gets back I think you ought to come and meet our parents straight away. I'm fairly sure my dad will agree to come after he's spoken to you and you've told him a bit about Culham. I think he just wants to be sure that we'll have a proper, safe future with you. And we will, won't we?"

Ah, I thought, now there's a question. If I'd been asked that question five days previously I'd have said yes like a shot. But now…now things were different. Yes, when we'd left France the French had been holding the Vosges, but further north things had apparently been very different: if the Russians had already reached Nancy on Monday, by now they could be more than halfway to Paris. What if we returned to my world to find France under Russian control? And if the Russians controlled the whole of mainland Europe, how long would it be before they crossed the Channel? There might even come a time when I would find myself seeking refuge here in this world…

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