Excelsior

by David Clarke

Chapter 32

Alex and Billy returned five minutes later, and as soon as he saw me Alex dropped the shopping bag he was carrying and hugged me hard, apparently not caring in the least that Simon, Danny and Chris were watching.

"God, I've been worried sick," he told me, letting go of me and then, rather to my surprise, hugging Wolfie as well. "When Billy told us the Russians were coming, and then we didn't hear from you again… I was really scared. I thought we'd never see you again."

"There was a moment when I was pretty worried about that too," I admitted. "Once the Eagles splattered the hole I really thought we were in trouble…"

"What do you mean?" he asked, staring at me. "Do you mean we're stuck here now?"

"No – at least, I hope not. Remember that other patch of mist in Germany? Well, we got lucky. At least, we've been lucky so far – if anything happens to that one we'll be right back at square one. That's why I want to get back home as soon as possible. What's the position with your parents?"

"They want to come to your world. It took a bit of work, because after all, there's more to family than just the four of us. But I convinced them that I've got far more of a future with you than I would have in London, and I'm pretty sure I've got them convinced this is the right thing to do. As long as Joe's 'rents don't talk them back out of it, of course."

"Are they likely to, do you think?"

"Well… I'd say they're a bit less enthusiastic than mine. I'm sure that there's still a part of them that doesn't believe in the other world at all and thinks this is just some massive hoax, or something. And it's hard to blame them – after all, if someone had told us a year ago there was a completely different world right next to this one we'd have thought they were barking."

"More like Upminster," said Simon.

"Huh?"

"Upminster. It's way beyond Barking," he explained.

Chris and Wolfie both looked totally baffled, so I explained that on one of the London Underground lines there's a station called Barking, and a long way past it, at the terminus of the line, is a place called Upminster. I also had to explain 'barking mad'. Somehow cross-culture humour doesn't seem to work very well…

"Well, anyway," I said, "maybe I should go and talk to the parents now, because I really want us to be on our way tomorrow morning."

So we all walked round to a hotel that was about five minutes' walk away, only to discover that Joe's parents weren't there.

"They've probably gone for a look round;" said Joe. "I'm sure they'll be back soon."

"Well," I said, "while we're here… Chris, it might be a good idea if we book you a room. There won't be room in the tent for five of us, and if all goes well you'll have to do a lot of driving tomorrow, so maybe it would be a good idea to get a decent night's sleep."

"That's fine by me!" he assured me, and so we booked him a room on the same corridor as the two sets of parents and Alex's sister. And when we got back down to Reception after checking the room out and explaining what a television was and how it worked – and it took a while to drag Chris and Wolfie away from it – we found that we'd timed it perfectly: Joe's parents had just returned from their walk. So we went up to their room to talk.

I thought it might be a good idea to try to impress upon them that we'd be able to offer them a comfortable life in my world, and so I introduced myself and Wolfie formally, including titles, although I made no mention of our military rank, and I simply introduced Chris as "our friend and interpreter", because I certainly didn't want war to raise its ugly head too quickly.

Next I gave them the short version of my history, telling them only that I'd stumbled through the open hole at Stonehenge following a bang on the head and suppressing everything that led up to it. Finally I told them, as Joe had already done, that the Stonehenge hole had been destroyed in an accident and that we'd only just been able to find another way to get from one world to the other.

"Joe tells us that this world you live in is quite primitive," said Mr Silver. "Apparently you don't have proper cars or aeroplanes, or even electricity. Is that right?"

"Well, we do have cars – they're just steam-powered, rather than by petrol. And we have airships instead of planes. And as for electricity, we don't have it at the moment, but we will very soon, and it's likely to make us a lot of money. Most of my share will be going to charity – I'm fairly well-off already…"

"He means he's rolling in it," interrupted Alex.

"But I'm intending for my friends to benefit from it too," I went on, ignoring him. "The point is that financially you'll all be assured of a good future with me." Provided the Russians don't mess it up, I didn't add.

"Well, that's good to know, and it's obvious that Joe is very happy in your world. But I'm sure you can understand that it's a really big step. We're not too badly off in London, and we need to be sure that we're making the right move if we decide to uproot and make a completely new start somewhere else. Joe told us that what you're suggesting is for us to come and see where you live and find out a bit about your world and then make our minds up, and if we decide to come to your world to stay we'll be able to come back here to sort everything out before moving there on a permanent basis. Is that right?"

I hesitated. With the only surviving hole where it was it wouldn't be easy to do a lot of coming and going, especially if things went badly in France. In fact in that event it might not be possible at all.

"That's right," said Joe, as I hesitated. "Isn't it, Leo?"

I took a deep breath. "No," I said. "Not any more. You're right, Mr Silver, this is a major step, and it wouldn't be fair to ask you to make it without knowing what's going on…"

"Leo, no!" interrupted Joe, urgently.

"Joe, we have to," I said. "I wouldn't lie to you, and I'm not going to lie to anyone else who's going to be part of my family either. You see, Mr Silver, there's a war on at the moment. It's not war as you understand it: it's more like war was in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries, where the fighting is purely between the armies and there is virtually no civilian involvement. The fighting is nowhere near England - the front line until this week was the River Rhine. But it affects us because the only hole between this world and mine is in… well, you'd call it Germany, and that's currently behind enemy lines. Imagine that we were living in 1970 or so and the only place we could cross was in Communist Poland, and you'll get an idea of the situation.

"Now, we can get back to the hole this time fairly easily, and I don't think we'll have any real trouble getting back to my world. But as well as being in enemy territory, the hole is also very much dependent on good weather conditions: it has to be fairly still and, as far as I can tell, dry. This time we'll be waiting for it to appear, if we have to wait – and I'd like to look at the weather forecast on TV a bit later – in this world, and clearly there's nothing dangerous about that. But it could be dangerous if we had to wait for any length of time on the other side. That's why it might not be so easy to come back again once you're in my world.

"Now I'm pretty sure you'd like to talk about that amongst yourselves for a bit, so we'll go and wait in Chris's room – that's 216. Come and find me if you have any questions."

I gathered up Alex, Billy and Chris and left the family, plus Danny – who seemed to be a sort of honorary Silver at the moment – to talk about it. I was sure that Joe would be trying his hardest to convince them to come, and probably his brother and Danny would support him, but I know that if I'd been a father I'd have been a bit less enthusiastic.

"Why did you tell him?" asked Alex.

"For the same reason that we're going to tell your parents when they get back. The war's important, and it wouldn't be fair to tell them all the good stuff without giving them the bad news as well. And I honestly believe that it'll be hard to use this hole very often, so they may very well find that once they're in my world they won't be able to get back. And they definitely have to know that before they decide, don't you think?"

"Yes, I suppose so," he admitted. "But they weren't sure about coming before, and I should think they'll be a lot less happy about it now. We'll just have to hope they give Joe the choice of whether to stay with us or go back with them. I think if they do he'll choose to stay – I think I would if my parents gave me the choice."

We sat in Chris's room for about ten minutes. I'm not sure if the fact that it was taking some time was good news or not: on the one hand, it seemed that Mr Silver hadn't just put his foot down and said that they were going home straight away, but on the other it was equally clear that Joe hadn't been able to convince him straight away of the benefits of coming with us.

The TV could pick up German programs as well as French ones and the hotel had included listing magazines for both, so I checked out when the next German news and weather broadcast was due, and since nobody had yet come to look for me when it was due to start I turned it on. The news wasn't particularly exciting, but the weather forecast was interesting, if not exactly what I wanted to hear: the next two days in the Black Forest were likely to be wet and windy, but Friday and Saturday were supposed to be dry and bright. The innkeeper in the other world had said that the weather there was supposed to be set fair for the rest of the week, so it looked as if we would be able to cross over on the Friday.

"At least that gives Joe a couple more days to work on his father," I observed. "There's no point in us leaving here before Friday now."

Five minutes later there was a knock and the door opened, but it wasn't Joe or his father: instead it was Alex's dad. I knew both Alex's parents pretty well, because I'd been In and out of his house a lot when I lived in Palmers Green and I was happy to see him again now.

"Hello, Mr Demetriou," I said, standing up.

""Hello, Keith…. No, it's not Keith any more, is it? Anyway, how are you?"

"Well, thanks."

"Good. Could you come with me for a moment?"

I supposed that he wanted to ask me the same sort of questions as Mr Silver, so I followed him out of the room, along the corridor and into another bedroom. Alex's mother and sister were there, but so was someone else.

"Auntie Megan!" I exclaimed. "I thought… I mean, you said you couldn't…"

"I didn't think I could," she told me. "But then when I found out that George and Anna were coming I changed my mind and asked if I could come too. So here I am."

I went and hugged her.

"Did you understand what I said in the letter I gave Alex to give you last October?" I asked.

"I think so. Of course it's hard for me to understand how my little Keith can actually be a duke, but it explains a few things: didn't I always say how grown up you were for your age? You'd obviously been very well brought up before we met you."

"Actually, my uncle – that's my real uncle, Uncle Gil – said he'd like to meet you, because he thought that you and Uncle Jim had done a wonderful job with me. So… will you be able to? I mean, do you want to come and live in my world?"

She smiled sadly. "No, I don't think so," she said. "You have your own family now, your real one. And you're growing up, too – you're a lot taller than the last time I saw you. You don't want us under your feet. Besides, Jim and I are happy where we are. Of course if you want to come and visit us occasionally we wouldn't mind that at all…"

"I'm not sure if I'll be able to do that," I said. "I expect Alex has told you that the hole between worlds we used before has gone. There's only one left now, and we won't be able to get at that one very often, if at all. Of course, if we could find another one, one in England, it would be different, but otherwise there probably won't be any way to get from one world to the other."

"Hold on," said Mr Demetriou. "I thought there was a supposed to be a hole close to here, one that we could get at without too many problems?"

"Well, there was," I told him. "But there isn't any more… look, how much has Alex told you about my world?"

We more or less went over the same ground that I had already covered with the Silvers.

"I see," said Mr Demetriou. "So what you're saying is, we can come with you now, but we might not be able to get back here again afterwards?"

"Well, we might… No, I'm not going to lie to you either. That's pretty much the position, yes. Look, I'm sure you'll need to talk about it, so maybe I should go. Auntie Megan, is there somewhere we can talk?"

"Of course. My room is just next door."

The next fifteen minutes or so were nice: we had a conversation along the lines of 'Do you remember…?' and I enjoyed thinking about all the things that had happened to me while I had lived in Palmers Green, even if most of them were fairly mundane – first day at school, first match for the school football team, the week we spent in a caravan at the seaside, and so on. That life had completely lacked the excitement of flying my own æthership or rescuing my best friend from the clutches of a Russian aristocrat… or, I realised, nearly getting killed several times in the past two weeks alone. Maybe there was something to be said for a quiet life…

Just for a moment I wondered how my life would work out if I simply went back to London with Auntie Megan and picked up my life where I had left it the previous summer. But it was only for a moment: that world might be safe – well, safer, because there was always a risk of being caught up in a terrorist attack – but in it I would just be an ordinary kid, with no real freedom and little money. It was a world without ætherships and – the final, overwhelming decider – it was a world without Wolfie. Really, it was no choice at all.

But I couldn't change Auntie Megan's mind either: she and Uncle Jim were happy where they were and wouldn't know what to do with themselves living in some huge aristocratic mansion. Maybe if a stable hole could be found somewhere in Britain they might come to visit, and of course I would always be welcome to come and visit them, but otherwise…

But I realised that there was at least one thing I could do. I excused myself for long enough to go back to Chris's room and collect my bag, and when I got back to Auntie Megan's room I presented her with a necklace, one of the pieces I'd bought at the jeweller's in Basel.

"The diamonds are real," I told her. "Of course you could just wear this if you go to a party or something, but if you ever need money – like if anything happens to Uncle Jim and he can't work, or something – you'll be able to sell it, and it should give you enough to get by on for quite a while. Consider it a late birthday present."

She argued a bit, but this time I insisted, and in the end she gave way. And a couple of minutes later Alex knocked and put his head around the door, and as he was smiling I deduced, correctly, that it was good news: his father had said that he was still prepared to make the journey, provided that he could make some arrangements with his relatives in London to look after the house for him while he was away.

There was no sign of a resolution from the Silvers, though, and I didn't blame Mr Silver for that in the slightest. If anything I'd been pleasantly surprised that the Demetrious had decided to go ahead as quickly as they had – after all, it's a massive step to walk away from your job, your home, your other relatives and everything you know in favour of a new life in a world that you know next to nothing about and that you've never visited. And when you find out that that world is in the middle of a major war… well, to me the only real surprise was that Mr Silver still hadn't delivered a categorical 'no'. It was probably a little easier for the Demetrious, because they knew me personally, and because Mr Demetriou was self-employed, so he wouldn't be walking out on a normal nine-to-five job, but even for them this was a pretty enormous step.

Eventually, at around half past six, Mr Silver came and found me, taking me down to the lounge on the ground floor and parking me in a chair facing him.

"You should know that I'm still far from happy about this," he told me. "But it would appear that Joe's happiness depends on him staying in your world, where he assures me he has definite prospects. Does he?"

"I guarantee it," I replied. "There'll be no problem putting him through university, if that's what he wants, and there will definitely be a job for him afterwards – or before, if he would prefer that. The same will go for Simon and Danny."

I wasn't actually sure that I wanted to pay Danny's way through university – after all, I'd always thought of him as a complete dick. But maybe he really had changed, and if helping him was what it was going to take to get Joe's family on board, then it certainly wasn't too high a price to pay.

"Well, I admit that's a major consideration," said Mr Silver. "Joe's by no means certain that he'll get the grades he'll need for a university place, and the job prospects in London aren't exactly wonderful at the moment, even if he does get a half-decent degree.

"If it wasn't for the difficulty with getting back here I don't think I'd have any problem, but as it is… I've decided that we'll take a chance with you. But I want you to swear to me that if things don't work out you'll do everything in your power to get us back to this world. Joe says I can trust you, and while I'm not in the habit of trusting boys I've only just met I do trust my son's judgement. So, would you be prepared to swear to that?"

"Without any hesitation," I assured him. "Just as long as you understand that it might take quite a long time, and that it might not be actually be possible at all. But I will guarantee to do everything in my power to arrange it, if it can be arranged."

"Then… very well. We'll come with you. Can you give me a little while to make some phone calls?"

"Take as long as you need. Now that I've seen the weather forecast there's no point in us leaving here before Thursday at the earliest. We need clear, calm conditions, and that's not going to happen before Friday."

That evening Joe and Alex ate supper with their families, so I took Auntie Megan, along with Wolfie and Billy, to a reasonable-looking restaurant in town – I thought that the situation called for a bit more of a celebration than eating at McDonalds – where we ate steak followed by an enormous ice-cream concoction that I'm sure Auntie Megan would have never dared order at home. Heaven only knows how many calories it contained. Afterwards we walked back to the hotel with her and then went to the camp-site to wait for the others.

We couldn't have actually slept all seven of us in the tent, and I thought even five might be a bit of a squeeze – I was assuming that Simon and Danny would be sleeping in the smaller tent next door – but there was plenty of room for us to sit and talk. Joe and Alex were both relieved that their parents had agreed to make the journey, and so was Billy, who had been scared that Alex wouldn't be allowed to come back with us, although since Simon and Danny were in the tent with us Alex and Billy were pretending to be no more than friends – as, of course, were Wolfie and I. Of course once we got back to our own world I had no intention of pretending any longer, and if Simon or Danny didn't like it, well, that would just be their problem.

But in fact Simon and Danny were both so excited about the journey that they probably wouldn't have noticed if Alex and Billy had sat and kissed each other all evening: they just kept firing questions at me about what my world was like, and what it was like to fly in an airship, and did I really live in a huge house, and what was school like in my world…

Okay, that one calmed them down a bit: I don't suppose our description of Mr Devlin was much of a recruiting poster. Nor was the lack of TV, let alone computers, although I was able to say that once we had electricity, all sorts of things might become possible.

Once the flood of questions had dried to a trickle I had a question of my own for Danny: what had prison been like?

"I told you, it was bad," he said, not looking at me. "I don't really want to talk about it."

"Danny… look, you probably know that I didn't really like you very much last year," I told him. "But you've definitely changed, and… well, you're going to be part of my family from now on, more or less, and I'd really like to know what happened. Maybe I didn't see the real you at school, but I'd like to find out a bit about the real you now. Please?"

He looked around us and saw – or, at least, I hope he saw – only friendly faces.

"Okay," he said. "I've told Si, and I suppose I don't mind telling the rest of you. But just this once, all right? It's not something I'll want to talk about again.

"I didn't realise at first how serious it was. Even when they smashed my door down at six in the morning I thought they were just being dicks for the sake of it, because if they'd knocked we'd have let them in and I'd have gone with them without arguing. But apparently the police never just knock these days – I suppose a regular criminal would be ready for them and would be off out of the back door the moment the doorbell rang. But I was asleep in bed. At least they didn't burst into my room and drag me out of bed – my father stopped them from doing that. But one of them came into the room and watched me getting dressed, and then they just took me to the police station. They showed me my baseball cap, I admitted it was mine – well, it had my name in, and I'm sure they could have got DNA from it if they'd had to – and then they charged me with… well, it was all in Legal, but it meant breaking into a shop and nicking a pair of trainers, basically.

"The court appearance only took a few minutes. My dad had found a solicitor, but there wasn't much he could do except to advise me to plead guilty and tell the court I'd never been in trouble before. I thought I'd get probation, so when the magistrate gave me eight months in a secure establishment, or whatever it's called, I couldn't believe it.

"They stuck me in a van and it took me to some place miles out of London. I didn't really know what was going on: I'd expected to go to Feltham, but it turns out you can't go there unless you're fifteen, so I had to go to some other place about a hundred miles away."

What was it like there?" asked Alex.

Danny shrugged. "I suppose it could have been worse," he said. "I had my own room, so at least I didn't have to share with some psycho, and the food wasn't as bad as I'd expected. But some of the other kids were total bastards, and the staff didn't do anything to stop them. I suppose it was obvious I'd never been in trouble before, so they gave me a really hard time: I got beaten up a few times, and I had to give them sweets and stuff I bought at the canteen. Most of the time I just kept my head down and hoped they'd pick on someone else.

"Lessons weren't too bad, although I don't think I really learned very much while I was there. Perhaps your Mr Devlin won't be so bad after all, Leo. Anyway, I only had to stay there for four months, because apparently if you behave you get time off for good behaviour, but… well, it was a bad four months, and I still have nightmares about it – I dream I'm back there, and… well, anyway, I suppose that's about it."

Joe and Simon both looked at him, but Danny just looked at the ground and clearly wasn't going to say anything more, and so Alex changed the subject.

"Who fancies a game of cards?" he asked.

Of course we all knew where this was going – well, probably Simon and Danny didn't, but neither tried to back out when Alex explained the usual rules: clothes first, then forfeits, except that the forfeits were limited to things that could be done inside the tent, and you could demand a truthful answer to a question instead of a forfeit. The person with the best hand of the round got to choose the forfeit or the question.

Of course I hadn't had a lot of luck with this in the past, and the last time I'd played with multiple players, at Seaforth's place in Scotland, I'd been the first to lose. But tonight the cards were far friendlier and I never looked like being the first person to lose. That honour – or dishonour – fell to Alex, who removed his underwear without hesitation. Danny turned out to have the best hand, but he seemed unsure of what to do about it.

"Truth," he said at last. "Alex, are you really and truly happier in Leo's world than you were in ours?"

"That's easy," said Alex. "Yes. I miss a few things, like computers and TV, and playing football, I suppose, although there's no reason why we can't do that at Culham. But otherwise I've got everything I need at Culham, and I've got a far better future there than I would have here."

"Actually I think maybe we should change the rules," I said. "We'll carry on playing strip, but whoever gets the best hand has the right to ask everyone else a question, the same question for everyone, and we all have to answer it truthfully. It'll be a good way for Danny and Simon to find out more about where they're going, and it'll give the rest of us a chance to find out a bit about them. So let's all answer that question – well, Simon can't, because he's never been there, and I suppose it's hard for Wolfie and Billy because they don't know much about this world, but maybe other questions will be suitable for everyone. So: well, obviously I like my world better because I'm rich and I sort of matter there, which I certainly didn't in London."

"You did to some people," said Alex.

"Yes, but not very many. Joe?"

"Same answer as Alex, really," said Joe. "I can achieve a lot more there than I could here. And I've got good friends there, too."

We played another hand. Joe lost and removed his tee-shirt, and Wolfie, who had the best hand, looked at us, grinned and asked "Who do you love most in the world, not counting family?"

I don't think he was trying to put me on the spot, but I thought it was a rather unfair question. Still, we'd sworn to tell the truth.

"You," I said. "But you're not the only person I love. It is possible to love more than one person at once, you know."

I was looking at Alex when I said that, but he seemed to be finding it an even harder question to deal with than I had.

"Leo," he said, finally. "But that's just because of how long we've been friends. Otherwise I'd have to say Billy. And Leo's right: you can love more than one person. I love Wolfie too, even though I'm going to try to think up a really nasty question for him later."

"Alex," said Billy, who was next person along. "I love Leo too, for taking me out of the stables and for changing my life, but Alex is the most important."

"Ben," said Joe. "You two haven't met him yet, but you will once we get back to Basel. And I really hope you'll get to like him, too."

It was Danny's turn, but he seemed embarrassed. "What if there's nobody you love?" he asked.

"Then you can say that," I told him. "As long as it's the truth, of course."

"Then there's nobody… yes, there is. I don't think I'd have called it 'love', but I suppose I'd have to say I love Simon. I don't mean it like that," he added, quickly, even though none of us had suggested by word or expression that we cared how he meant it. "But… he's been more than just a friend since I got out of… you know. I couldn't have got through the nightmares and stuff without him. So if thinking someone is a proper friend counts as loving them, then I suppose I love Si."

"Simon?" I asked.

"Well… I'm like Danny," he said. "I probably wouldn't use the word 'love' because that makes it sound well gay, but I like Danny a lot. He's never cared that I'm way younger than him – he's always been ready to hang with me and do stuff, and it's obvious he trusts me because of the sort of stuff he tells me – like when he found out about… something to do with my brother…"

"It's okay, Si," interrupted Joe. "They all know about it."

"Really? Oh… well, anyway, he shared it with me straight away. And he's told me all about being in… where he was last autumn, too, even the really bad stuff. And you only tell big secrets to special friends, don't you? So I suppose you'd have to say Danny and me are really good friends, even if we don't actually love each other…"

"I wouldn't worry too much about it sounding gay," said Alex. "We don't have a problem with that. Your brother isn't the only one – in fact most of us are, I think, or at least, we are at the moment. Some of the others might grow to like girls, but I'm not going to, for one. So perhaps – and I know we're not really due for another question yet, but still – perhaps I should ask if it would bother you, sharing a house with gay people?"

Simon and Danny looked at each other.

"I already have, obviously," said Simon. "Joe and I shared a room, and it didn't bother me at all. Of course I teased him loads, but I still felt really bad when he never came back last October. In fact I wondered if it was my fault…"

"It wasn't," Joe assured him.

"I know that now, but back then I thought it was. And I couldn't even talk to Danny about it, because I think they listen in on your phone calls when you're in prison, and they read your letters, too. When he got out Danny told me that it was far more likely to be his fault than mine, because he was the one who'd outed Joe to me in the first place, and suggested all the stuff… I mean…"

"It's okay," I told him. "We know about that too."

"Really?"

"Really. Joe trusts us," I said, deciding not to bother mentioning that it had been Sparrer who had first raised the subject of Joe's lack of hair. "You'll find that about us: we really don't keep a lot of secrets from each other. So, anyway, some of us being gay doesn't bother you too much. Danny?"

"Well… I'm not gay," he said. "At least, I don't think so… and it does seem a bit sort of weird to actually want to do stuff like… you know… with another boy. But Joe… even when I was being a total bastard to him, he was still sort of my mate, and sometimes we just hung together, or went bowling down Wood Green or stuff like that, and I thought we got on okay. And him being gay didn't bother me when we were doing stuff like that. That day he came to visit me… I never thought he'd do that. Simon, yes – we were friends, and I'd hoped he'd be allowed to come. But I thought Joe would be happy to see me locked up, after what I did to him. But he wasn't: he was worried about me, and tried to cheer me up, saying he'd take me bowling soon as I got out, and stuff.

"At first I thought he was just being nice because I never grassed him up, but then I realised that wasn't it, that he was being a proper mate. So him being gay doesn't bother me, and so I don't see why anyone else here being gay should bother me either. As long as they don't try it on with me, of course."

"Wait till you meet Albie!" commented Alex. "I don't think the rest of us will, though. Sorry, Danny, but you're not really a pin-up, are you?"

"Sounds like that's a good thing. Except… if you live in a proper stately home, Leo… does that mean you've got maids?"

"Yes, I have. So maybe you'll get lucky, if that's what you're after."

"Only if you can find one who's desperate," commented Simon.

"Bet I find one before you," retorted Danny.

"Well, you're two years older than me. Still, we both know I've got more to offer a girl than you have."

I expected Danny to challenge that, and the fact that he didn't suggested that maybe Simon was telling the truth. After all, Joe had more or less hinted as much the previous year…

"Have you ever actually been out with a girl?" asked Alex, who by now had pulled his boxers back on – clearly the card game had stalled in favour of conversation.

"Well, no. I have asked, though, only she told me… well, she said no, anyway."

"Don't let that put you off," said Alex. "Seriously… I mean, you might not want to be told this by a raving queer, but you're not bad-looking. It's just your personality that needed some work, and that seems to have happened while you were… away. I'm sure you'll find a girl eventually. Just keep asking, because if you don't ask, you'll never know. I just wish I'd asked a couple of years ago."

I knew he meant me. "I think that might have made things a lot more complicated when we got to Culham," I said. "If we'd been proper partners… well, I wouldn't have wanted you and Wolfie to end up fighting a duel over me."

"I don't know," said Joe. "I think it sounds romantic. I don't think anyone's ever likely to fight a duel over me."

"It might sound romantic, but would you really want your two best friends to be trying to kill each other and knowing that you're responsible for it? I think things worked out pretty well…"

We went on talking about this and that – school, sport, the difference between the two Londons – for another hour or so, and then we settled down to sleep. The tent was a little crowded with five, so Joe went to sleep with his brother and Danny in the smaller tent, which could take three comfortably, leaving the rest of us a bit more space. Not that we needed a lot of space, because the four of us were only using two sleeping-bags.

The next couple of days passed quietly. We did some shopping, walked around the town and went up into the mountains to have a proper look at the castle, which in this world was a lot bigger and in an almost perfect state of repair, though it had been built a lot more recently than the version in my world.

On Thursday morning I said a difficult and, to be honest here, tearful goodbye to Auntie Megan, who was travelling back that afternoon. I promised that I would get back in touch the moment I found a suitable hole between worlds

On Friday morning we took down the tents and made our way to the hotel, where we met the others. Mr Silver wasn't very happy about travelling on the penultimate day of Passover, when traditionally work – which includes travelling, other than on foot - has to be avoided, though by citing 'necessity' and allowing the rest of us to carry the family's luggage he was able to talk himself into it. I'd have taken a taxi, but it wasn't too far to the station and we managed to get there eventually despite the amount we had to carry.

"Do you realise that today's Friday the Thirteenth?" commented Danny as we waited on the platform. "There are thirteen of us, too. That could be a lot of bad luck."

"Well, if you want to stay behind, so there are only twelve of us…" I suggested.

"No, thanks. I'll take my chance with the rest of you. I was just saying, that's all."

I didn't think I believed in omens or fate or bad luck… well, not in the sense of 'It's Friday the Thirteenth so something bad is sure to happen'. All the same, I wished he hadn't mentioned it, and if the bridge over the Rhine collapsed while our train was halfway across it I told myself that I'd make sure Danny drowned before I did. But in fact the journey went thoroughly smoothly: even though we had to change at Strasbourg, then again at Offenburg, and finally yet again in Freiburg, we didn't miss any of our connections and all the trains ran on time. We reached Hinterzarten at about a quarter to twelve.

Here we did run into a problem, though not one that was completely unexpected: the local taxi company only had one vehicle capable of taking seven passengers at once. All of their other vehicles could take no more than four passengers at a time, so we'd have needed four ordinary taxis if we all wanted to travel together. But of course there was little point in doing that, because our own autocarriage could only carry seven passengers at a time, which meant that half of us were going to have to wait for Chris to drive the first load down to Basel and then come back, and I knew how long that was likely to take. It made more sense for Chris and his first five passengers, together with most of the luggage, to go now and to ask the taxi-driver to come back for the rest of us once he'd dropped the first batch off.

I sent the four parents and Alex's sister with Chris in the first load, leaving the seven of us boys to sit outside the station to wait for the taxi to come back. It was quite a nice day, clear and bright with hardly any wind, as the forecast had predicted, so I was confident that the hole would be there, and that meant that I could just sit back, relax and enjoy being with my friends.

About three-quarters of an hour later the taxi returned and picked us up, and we were driven back up to the Feldberg. Today the cable car was running, so I bought us all one-way tickets – I sincerely hoped that we wouldn't have to come back down in this world – and we travelled up to the summit of the mountain. The sky was clear and the view was magnificent: we could see the Alps off in the distance, and to the west the Vosges were also visible.

I led the others to the north-east corner of the summit and far enough down the slope beyond it for us to be able to see the patch of mist, exactly where it should have been. Alex made to continue the descent, but I stopped him.

"Not yet," I said. "We don't want to have to wait around on my side of the hole in case some passing Eagle sees us and gets curious. It'll take Chris at least three hours to get to Basel and then back up here again, so it would be a lot safer to stay where we are for another couple of hours or so. That way we'll only have a few minutes to wait for him on my side."

Alex agreed that this sounded sensible, and so we went back to the top and spent a couple of hours sightseeing. There was a memorial to Chancellor Bismarck on one arm of the summit, and a little way away from it there was an observation tower, from which there was a clear view in every direction.

"I bet it gets damned cold up here in the winter," commented Danny. "There's nothing to block the wind, whatever direction it comes from."

"That's one reason why this isn't likely to be a particularly useful hole," I said. "As far as we can work out, they only form when there's no wind. The one in France would have been a lot better because it was quite well sheltered. It probably means we'll only be able to use this one during part of the year – and that's without taking the fact that it's in enemy territory into consideration. If your dad decides he wants to go back, Joe, maybe we'll have to go off hunting for other ancient monuments after all."

Shortly before three o'clock we made our way back to the north-east corner of the summit, but this time we climbed down to the hollow that held the hole. I led them through to the far side.

"It looks exactly the same," said Simon, in a disappointed voice. "Are you sure we're not still where we started?"

"Look over there," I said, pointing. "In your world there's a restaurant a couple of hundred metres away. Here that part of the slope is covered in trees. We're where we should be. You'll be able to see better when we get back up to the top, because in this world there's no cable-car, no Bismarck Memorial and no tower – the only building is the weather station on the north-west arm."

"Really? Come on, then, Danny – let's go and see!"

Simon set off up the slope as fast as he could with Danny behind him. The rest of us took it more slowly: Wolfie didn't like climbing up slopes as steep as this, and Billy and I stayed on either side of him so that he could grab us if he needed to.

Danny and Simon disappeared over the crest, but a few seconds later Simon's head reappeared.

"You're right about the top," he called. "And there's a massive airship up here too. Is it yours, Leo?"

"It might be," I said. "I can't think why anyone else should land up here. I suppose Albie thought it would be quicker to fly up here to pick us up. It's a bit risky, though – it would have been a lot safer to wait for us in Basel. Better make sure, though. Can you see what it's called?"

"I'll have to get a bit closer," said Simon, and he disappeared again.

The rest of us continued up the slope. A minute or so later, just as we were approaching the crest, Simon's voice reached us from beyond the top of the slope.

"Hey, Leo," he called, "Why did you give your ship a Russian name?"

"What?!"

"It's called Chornaya Molniya," Simon told me. "That's a funny name for a ship – it means 'Black Lightning'."

"Oh, my God… get back here!" I yelled. "And get Danny back here, too!"

Simon said nothing – presumably Danny had run on ahead and he'd gone to call him back. I carried on up the slope until I could see the top of the mountain, and it was all I could do not to vomit: the ship moored on the top was painted black all over, except for a white circle over the nose. This didn't hold an eagle: instead there was a single black bolt of lightning, just as there had been on the sides of Alexander Suvorov.

"Run!" I yelled in the direction of Simon and Danny.

"Too late," said Alex, and when I turned to see where he was pointing I saw a quartet of Cossacks in red shirts on the slope fifty yards to our right. And they were all pointing rifles at us.

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