Excelsior

by David Clarke

Chapter 34

"This doesn't look any different," commented Pasha suspiciously as we emerged from the mist. "Is this some sort of trick?"

"No. This place looks much the same on both sides, but if we climb back up to the top you'll be able to see the difference straight away."

"We'd better," he said darkly, but he followed me as I began to climb. And of course once we reached the summit he was able to see the difference straight away, not least because his enormous airship had completely disappeared.

"Oh my God, it's true!" he breathed.

"Yes, it is," I agreed. "Come on, and I'll show you just how different this world is."

I led them on across the summit, past the observation tower and down the path that led to the shops and bars below. The path came out next to a car park, and of course the vehicles in it immediately caught their eye.

"Is that an auto-carriage?" asked Pasha, staring at the first one we came to.

"Yes. Well, more or less," I told him. "The ones here run on liquid fuel rather than coal, but the principle is similar. The fuel – for this one, anyway – is called diesel. It's one of the technologies I decided not to bring back with me, because although the actual cars – carriages – are more efficient than the ones in our world, the fuel is hard to produce and has caused any number of problems for the other world. But I expect you'll find out about that once you start exploring the history here a bit."

I carried on towards the road, but just before we got there a man walked up, got into another of the parked cars and drove away.

"Bloody hell!" exclaimed Pasha. "He didn't have to light a boiler, or warm the engine up, or turn the cocks to let excess water out, or anything at all… we have got to get some of that fuel!"

"I know it looks attractive," I agreed, "but… oh, well, you'll find out soon enough. Now come on and I'll teach you some geography."

There was a small shop not far from the cable car station that sold food and drink and it also had a section that sold maps. These were mostly large-scale maps for walkers, but they did have some smaller scale ones, including a motoring atlas that covered the whole of Europe, so I bought that – I still had plenty of Euros left – along with five cans of Coke and a big bag of cheese and onion crisps, and then I led the Russians over to a table near the cable car station and sat down.

"Try this," I said, handing the Coke cans around. "It's different."

I started opening the crisp packet, but stopped when I saw one of the Cossacks produce a large knife and set it against the top of the can.

"No," I said, grabbing the can from him. "Like this."

I pulled the ring and handed it back to him, and the others worked out what to do and opened their own cans. I finished opening the crisp packet right up and placed it on the table so that everyone could get at the contents. Pasha was looking at his can suspiciously, so I took a drink from mine just to prove that it wasn't poisonous, and that encouraged him to take a small sip himself.

"It tastes… you were right, it is different," he said. "Sort of sweet and sharp…but interesting."

"You can buy that anywhere in the world," I told him. "And that includes Russia. Have a crisp."

I snaffled a couple of crisps and Pasha tried one for himself.

"What is it?" he asked, once he'd eaten it. "I mean, what's it made of?"

"Potato," I told him. "But it's flavoured with cheese and onion. These come in lots of different flavours."

"And is this supposed to be a proper meal?"

"No, this is just a snack. Proper meals aren't so very different to those in our world. I'll buy you some chips or something shortly… anyway, have a look at this."

I opened the atlas to the page at the front that had a map of the whole of Europe.

"In this world the empires have fallen," I said. "That means that there are a lot of independent countries that used to be part of either France or Russia – like Belgium and Holland, and over here, Lithuania and Latvia. Germany – most of what we call the Confederation of the Rhine – is united, but Prussia has lost its eastern territories to Russia and Poland…"

"Poland – that's what you called the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, isn't it?"

"That's right."

"So… when you were talking about those war games and planning scenarios… they weren't, were they? They're what actually happened in this world!"

"Yes, except that in 1940 it wasn't Russia that attacked France, it was Germany. They attacked just like you said, with motorised columns, tanks – that's autocannons – and with aerial support, and it was so devastating that it put France out of the war in less than six weeks, even though there was a British land army opposing them as well."

"And the attacks on Russia?"

"In 1812 the first Napoleon decided to attack Russia. In our world he stopped at Warsaw, but in this one he kept going until he reached Moscow. But his army wasn't equipped to handle the Russian winter, and it was severely weakened by the cold. Thousands died. In the end he had to retreat, and thousands more died on the way back, too. And that was more or less the end of the French Empire. Napoleon was deposed, and although he made a brief return in 1815, he was then defeated again and sent into exile, where he died.

"In 1941 it was the Germans who tried it, and more or less the same thing happened: the Russians fought back very bravely until winter came to help them, freezing the soldiers and making the autocannons unusable. The Germans reached the Volga and laid siege to Petersburg, but in the end the weather, and the Russian army, defeated them. They too were forced to retreat, and in 1945 the Russians entered Berlin and the war was over. That's why I really don't think the Allies will risk invading Russia proper."

"I suppose that's encouraging."

"So it should be – it means you're unlikely to have the French army knocking at your door in Feodosia. Oh, by the way: in this world the Crimea isn't in Russia. It's in Ukraine, which is an independent country. So if you moved here full-time you might have to find a new home. The other thing is that your family has no power here, any more than mine does. The last Tsar was Nicholas II, and he and almost all of his family were killed after the Russian Revolution in 1917. Alexei was killed with him – he'd have been about thirteen, I think – and so the main line ended there. Like most European countries, Russia is now a republic. This really is a completely different world."

"Well, I wasn't thinking of moving here," he pointed out, "just looking for useful technology to take back to our world – like that liquid fuel. I'm sure there are plenty of other things like that, too."

"There are," I assured him. "For example, look up there – see that white line in the sky, and how it's moving slowly away from us? Well, you can't see it because it's too high up, but at the front of that line is a flying-machine. That machine can fly at close to ten times the speed of an æthership, and at heights of around ten thousand metres, too."

Pasha stared open-mouthed into the sky and then gave what was presumably a translation of what I'd just said to his colleagues, who then also stared at the vapour trail. I almost laughed, because they looked like a bunch of kids who have just seen their first conjuring trick.

"There's plenty more stuff like that," I said, drawing Pasha's eyes back to me. "This world has even sent rockets into space, and people have walked on the moon. Compared to our world, this place is amazing."

"Yes, it is, and that worries me," said Pasha. "You must realise that I'm going to try to use the technology here to help our armies, so there has to be some serious flaw in that plan that you're not telling us about."

"Not really. Yes, there is technology here, but the problem is that it would take your scientists so long to understand how it works, never mind trying to replicate it, that the war will be over long before you can actually use it against us. At least, that's what I'm counting on. And of course our scientists have been working on most of it since last autumn, when Alex and Joe last came through the hole in England – and they still haven't really got very far. All I'm doing by telling you about it is levelling the playing-field: now you'll have what we've already got.

"Of course, it'll do wonders for you personally: you'll be the one who introduced the new technology into Russia, and you'll make an absolute fortune from it if you want to, not to mention becoming vastly more important than your father. And I don't mind that at all, because if you keep your word and let us go you'll deserve it. See, most of this stuff – the liquid fuel, for example – has plenty of civilian possibilities. Yes, it'll improve your autocannons, but it will also mean that anyone with a little money will be able to buy and drive his own carriage, just as happens in this world. And if you own the patent to the liquid fuel carriage…"

I could almost see the rouble signs in his eyes, and for the first time I thought that maybe he might keep his word and let us go.

"How about this?" I said. "Once the war is over we could become business partners and carve up the world between us: I'll sell stuff to Western Europe and Africa; you sell it to Eastern Europe and Asia. Our scientists could work together to crack the technology faster than they could working alone, and we'd both become as rich as Croesus…"

His eyes lit up even more, and then I could almost see him calculating that he would become twice as rich as Croesus if he killed me first.

"My uncle has the patents in England," I pointed out, "so if anything happened to me it wouldn't stop the English scientists from going ahead. The difference is that my uncle wouldn't work with you. I will. Go into business in opposition to my uncle and you'll lose out because of the head start we've got. Go into business with me and I'll share everything with you, including all the work we've already done."

I let him think about that for a bit: I wanted him thinking lovely selfish thoughts about making huge piles of money, and not boring patriotic ones about why it would be in his country's interests to shoot us out of hand or drag us back to Feodosia.

"Come on," I said, when I thought he'd had long enough to think about his bank balance. "Let's see what else I can find to show you."

I finished my Coke and stood up, dropping the can into a nearby bin and encouraging the Russians to do the same. Then I led them a bit further up the road to a small pizza restaurant. I parked the Cossacks at a table outside and took Pasha inside with me to order, and that gave me a chance to show him something else, because there was a television inside the restaurant tuned to a news channel.

"See that?" I said, pointing it out to him, and once again he went into gobsmacked yokel mode. While he was gaping I went to the counter and ordered a large ham and mushroom pizza with extra pepperoni and five glasses of Coke, and then I retrieved Pasha and towed him back outside.

"That's called a television," I said. "It would take too long to explain how it works, but basically the moving pictures are sent through the air and that machine picks them up and displays them. Virtually every house in this world has one of those. They don't just show the news, either: you get drama – think of a play on a stage, but instead it's played out in a real place, filmed – continuously photographed – and then sent to everyone's television. So you can be entertained without leaving your house. Good, isn't it?"

"It's unbelievable".

"There's also a version without pictures, called 'radio', and that's more interesting to you and me because it has enormous military potential, because it means you can speak to someone in a distant place without using semaphore, or even without being within a hundred miles of them. That's something we did try to bring over, but it's so complicated that our scientists haven't found out how it works yet, and they've been trying for about six months. But I'm sure we'll get there one day. Ah, here's the pizza…"

"What the hell is this?" Pasha asked me as the waitress put the pizza on the table.

"It's sort of bread with a cheese and tomato topping, and then you can put whatever you like on top of that. I like ham and mushrooms and… it's a sort of meat sausage. Try a slice."

It turned out that the Russians liked pizza even more than they had liked crisps. We had a slice each, which left three slices for them to fight over, although in the end they managed to divide it up without too much arguing. Welcome to the world of 'your slice is bigger than mine!' I thought.

Afterwards Pasha pulled out his watch to check the time… well, actually it was my watch, the one he'd stolen in Norway.

"Snap!" I said, pulling my fifteenth birthday present from my pocket.

"Oh, so you got a new one," he commented. "I don't blame you. This one keeps excellent time."

"It does, doesn't it? Look… is there any chance of us doing a swap? After all, my mother gave me that one…"

"No. I've got sort of attached to it. Of course, you could give me your new one as well if you like. You haven't forgotten that it's my birthday tomorrow, I hope!"

"I had, actually. Happy fourteenth in advance. But I'd have thought showing you the hole and all this is birthday present enough, isn't it?"

"You're right, it is. Anyway, I suppose we'd better get back before Lieutenant Bulanin decides something's happened to me and starts shooting pieces off your friends."

He led us back towards the cable car station, but on the way I popped back into the little shop and bought a cheap birthday card – I was ready to try anything to put him into a good mood. Then I bought us all one-way tickets – once again I thought it unlikely that I would be coming back this way - and we took the cable car back to the summit, walked to the north-east corner and made our way back to the hole.

At first glance, nothing seemed to have changed at the ship: my friends and some of the Cossacks were sitting on the grass, though they all stood up when they saw us coming towards us. But as we reached the ship I saw that one thing had changed, because when the lieutenant emerged from the gondola he had Chris with him.

"Sorry, Leo," he said.

"Not your fault," I replied. "I underestimated him, so it's down to me."

"So what happens now?"

"That's a very good question."

I turned to talk to Pasha, but he was busy talking to the lieutenant. But then he sent his Cossacks to change their clothes again, beckoned to Simon and me and led us into the ship and back to his cabin.

Before I could say anything Simon spoke to Pasha in Russian. He sounded serious, and I caught Danny's name in what he was saying, so I guessed he was asking if Pasha had really intended shooting Danny's balls off. And there was a 'nyet' in Pasha's reply, and Simon looked a lot happier, so this time I guessed that Pasha was lying to him.

They began to get undressed, but I still couldn't get a word in because Simon asked another question and Pasha answered at great length and with great animation, so I guessed that this question had been along the lines of 'so what do you think of my world, then?'

The conversation went on enthusiastically until they were both in their underwear, at which point Pasha bent down to pick up his shirt from the chair Simon had dropped it on, and as he did so Simon grabbed Pasha's waistband and pulled his briefs down, following it up with a sharp push. Pasha's legs got tangled in his briefs and he fell to the carpet.

Simon obviously found that hugely entertaining, but I didn't, because I thought Pasha might not be quite so amused. But I needn't have worried, because Pasha laughed, grabbed Simon's ankles, pulled him to the floor and started wrestling with him. When the cabin door opened a minute or so later and Sergei came in, they were still at it.

I looked at Sergei and shrugged, and he smiled and leaned on the wall next to me, apparently quite happy just to stay out of it and watch.

It was quite a close fight: Pasha was older and an inch or so taller, but Simon took his sport seriously and had some muscles. But eventually Pasha got on top and twisted Simon's arm until he submitted.

Pasha stood up, apparently not caring that he was naked (he'd kicked his briefs right off) and seriously erect, and helped Simon to his feet, still speaking to him. Then he picked up his briefs, paused, looked at Simon's boxers – which were in a two-tone blue stripy pattern – and asked a question, and without a moment's hesitation Simon slipped them off and handed them to him. And now I could see why Pasha had said he was jealous, because Simon was a very nice size indeed, certainly no smaller than me and probably a bit bigger, and he had more hair, too, even though mine was finally making some real progress. And Simon's wasn't stiff, either: I thought he'd definitely show me up if that happened.

Pasha asked a question, and the two of them stood side by side, discussing (I assumed) man-made fabrics and elastic, apparently unconcerned that neither of them had a stitch on.

"Hey, Leo," said Simon. "Pasha says it's his birthday tomorrow. Did you know?"

I nodded. "I even bought him a card," I said.

"Great! Can I sign it too?"

"If you like," I said, and I pulled it from my pocket, removed the cellophane cover and passed it to him. Simon took the card, went and found a pen in his jacket pocket and wrote a message on it before handing it back to me. It was in Russian, so I couldn't read it.

"I hope this isn't rude," I said, taking the card to the table and signing it myself without adding a message (I didn't know how to write 'Drop dead' in Russian).

"No, it isn't, said Simon, who was now showing Pasha his pen, which was a quite nice ballpoint. I generally use cheap Biros, not least because in this world the usual writing implement was a fountain pen, which called for an ink bottle and blotting paper to be carried too. A disposable plastic thing was a hell of a lot easier, and they lasted for months, too – in fact the one in my pocket had been there since before I'd left London.

I put the card in the envelope, tucked the flap in (it seemed pointless to stick it down) and went and handed it to Pasha.

"Happy Birthday," I said, in German and without enthusiasm.

And then Simon said something – presumably the same thing in Russian – and gave Pasha his pen. And a miracle occurred: for the first time since I'd met him, Pasha smiled – a radiant, happy smile, just like a normal kid, and there was a flash of Pasha-that-might-have-been – and not just a flash, either: it lasted for several seconds. He said something quietly to Simon, and Simon answered him, and then Pasha hugged him, and when he let go again he was actually crying. He turned away, found a handkerchief and wiped his eyes and then started to get dressed, and Simon did the same thing, though he looked concerned.

His next question was fairly obviously 'Are you all right?' and Pasha nodded, smiled at him again – a smile that was a million miles away from his usual manic grin – and said something reassuring. They both finished getting dressed and then Pasha went over to the table and wrote something on a piece of paper, which he tucked into his pocket. Then he turned to me.

"This is a remarkable boy," he told me. "I'd really like to keep him. Do you think..?"

I simply translated that into English, and Simon thought for a moment.

"It would be really interesting to stay," he said, "but… there's my family, especially as they've only just got here. I don't think they'd be very happy. I mean, I like him a lot… perhaps we could visit each other?"

"Simon, we're at war," I reminded him.

"Oh… I'd forgotten that. But after the war, perhaps?"

I translated that for Pasha, adding that I would have no objection at all to any visits once the war was over, and also saying that if he wanted to come and visit us even before the war was over I'd guarantee him safe passage – after all, I'd owe him a serious debt of gratitude for letting us go.

"I'm sure you'll understand, though," I added, "that I really don't want to come back to Feodosia myself. And I think that goes for the Margrave, too."

"Of course," he said, adding something that was halfway between a smile and a grin. "Well, come on: I'm sure they're waiting for us outside."

They were, and now I realised that all my attempts to charm him had been wasted, because as we stepped out of the gondola I saw that all the Cossacks were now carrying rifles. I was looking at a firing squad.

Simon, who presumably thought nothing of the armed reception, said something else happily to Pasha, and this time Joe was close enough to hear.

"He just said he's really looking forward to Pasha coming to visit us!" he told me. "What the hell happened in there?"

"Later," I said.

I turned to Pasha, pretending I couldn't see the Cossacks, and took out my wallet.

"I just realised I can give you a birthday present too," I said, extracting all my remaining Euros. "This is the money they use over there, so you can buy yourselves a lot more pizzas, or use it to travel about. I'd take some jewellery if you intend going far, though – you can sell it in exchange for the local currency."

"Thank you," he said. "Do you still want to swap watches? I expect your new one is as good as the old one…"

I was pretty sure this was nothing more than a pantomime – after all, he could take it straight back from my dead body after I'd been shot, provided of course that none of the bullets hit it. But I saw no reason not to play along.

"Thanks," I said, taking my new watch from my pocket and handing it to him. He gave me back my tenth birthday watch, and I carefully tucked it into my back pocket. He didn't miss the gesture, either.

"One more thing," I said. "Be careful to check the weather. The weather has to be clear and calm on both sides if the hole is to open. If you go through when bad weather is forecast, be prepared to spend some time there before you can get back. And it might not work at all in winter – I don't know whether snow on either side could block it, but it might."

"Thank you," he said, his face deadpan.

I knew there was no point in running: there was absolutely no cover except the ship, and it would hardly be dignified to play hide and seek round the gondolas for the thirty seconds maximum it would take them to hunt me down. So I nodded to him once more and offered him my hand, and when he took it I looked him in the eye.

"Good luck," I said.

"You, too," he replied, without a trace of mockery.

"Where do you want us?" I asked.

He looked at me. His eyes flicked to Simon, who was beside me, and then back to me, and miraculously I found myself looking at Human Pasha again.

"Your carriage is at the foot of the slope," he told me, indicating where the cable car station was in the other world. He handed me the piece of paper he'd written in his cabin and went on, "This is a safe passage. It'll get you over the border into Switzerland. I'll send Sergei with you to make sure the border guards accept this and don't think it's a forgery. Go."

I gaped at him.

"Pasha, I…"

"Go," he repeated, and he turned his back on me and spoke briefly to Sergei. At that the lieutenant almost exploded.

"He said, "What the fuck are you playing at?'" Joe told me.

"I think I could have guessed that. Come on, everyone – we're leaving."

Wolfie, Alex and Chris had clearly expected the worst, while the others didn't seem to have realised quite how close they'd been to being shot, but I didn't want to stop and explain now. We headed off briskly in the direction Pasha had indicated, trying to ignore the raised voices behind us.

"The lieutenant's going berserk," said Joe. "He wants to know why Pasha changed his mind… now Pasha's telling him that you're a weak captain, that you only care about saving your crew, and that once you're out of here they'll never see you again. The lieutenant doesn't agree – he thinks we're a dreadful security risk…"

"Yes, I think we get the picture," I said. "Come on, let's get out of here before the lieutenant wins the argument."

I hustled them down the slope. Our auto-carriage was parked at the bottom, but there was another vehicle parked right next to it and a couple of Cossacks standing guard. They raised their rifles when they saw us coming, but Sergei shouted something to them, and that was enough for them to lower them again.

When we reached our vehicle the guards still seemed unsure about letting us get into it, but Sergei said something to me and snapped his fingers at me.

"Give him the paper," Joe translated.

I handed him the pass Pasha had given me and the lead guard took it, read it, shrugged and gave it back to me. Somehow we all squeezed in – with Sergei there too it was a very tight fit, but I'd have clung to the roof of a cart full of manure if it would have got me off that mountain, so I didn't care that I was wedged uncomfortably between Alex and Joe.

"Fast as you can without coming off the road," I said to Chris.

Fortunately he'd only driven the final part of the ascent a few minutes before we arrived, and so the boiler was still warm and it only took about five minutes to get steam up. Throughout this time I kept my eyes on the summit behind us, expecting a horde of Cossacks to appear at any moment, but they didn't, and at last we started to move. I noticed that the guards were following us in the other vehicle, and I wondered briefly if I should be worried. But then I realised that they were probably only coming with us so that they could pick Sergei up for the return journey.

Chris drove fast, considering the steepness of the road and the many hairpin bends, but he seemed to be in control, even if he did cross onto the other side of the road a few times. The other car gradually fell back, but I was confident that it would still reach the border not too far behind us.

The road was better on the lower slopes, allowing us to go flat out, and we reached the border about forty minutes after we left the summit. This time the guards came out carrying rifles, but Sergei got out of the vehicle, spoke to the officer in charge and handed him Pasha's safe passage document. The officer still looked doubtful, but he clearly knew who Sergei was, and after a tense half-minute or so he shrugged, gave an order and the barrier was raised. Sergei came over to the car and said something to me.

"You can go," Joe translated.

"Thank you, Sergei," I said. I paused. "You love him, don't you?"

"With all my heart."

"Then go back to him," I said. "He's going to need you."

"I understand," he said, and, despite his youth I realised that he did indeed understand.

I nodded to him. "Back to the ship," I said to Chris, and the vehicle moved under the barrier and into Switzerland.

"Right, as soon as we get back to the ship I want the crew rounded up and brought…"

"It's done, Leo," interrupted Chris. "When I dropped the parents off I told Graham to fire up the boilers and Albie to get the crew back if they'd gone into town. By the time we get there the ship should be ready to go. I assumed you wouldn't want to hang about."

"Thank you, Chris, that's brilliant," I said. "I was afraid we'd have to wait half an hour to get the boilers going. Well done. All right, as soon as we're aboard I want Number One watch to their posts – except you, Billy. No offence, but you've been travelling all day, not to mention the stress back there… anyway, you can have a rest. I'll swap you and Weasel over just for this flight."

"Are we going home?" asked Joe.

"Yes, but there's something we have to do first. Wolfie, Alex, I want to talk to you in private as soon as we're back at the ship, please."

Chris took us through the centre of Basel as fast as was safe, dropping us all at the gate of the airfield while he went to take the carriage back to the hire firm. The rest of us walked over towards the ship, which, I was delighted to see, was already at a mast.

"Joe, we're just going to go and settle our bill," I told him. "As soon as you're on board call the first watch to their posts and tell Albie I want the ship ready to go as soon as everyone's on board."

I took Wolfie and Alex with me as I walked to the office, and once I'd thanked the officer in charge and settled our account I walked slowly back towards the ship.

"I'm not sure that I'm going to be able to do this," I told them. "Alex, I need you to be ready to take over command if necessary. Wolfie, you won't be on the bridge, so it'll have to be you, Alex. Are you okay with that?"

"Well, yes, but why… oh, I see."

"It has to be done, Leo," said Wolfie. "You know that, don't you?"

"Of course I do, but where I'd have done it without a qualm earlier, now it seems sort of dirty. He could have killed us so easily, and I think he was going to. If it hadn't been for Simon I think we'd all be dead now."

"What happened?" asked Wolfie.

"Later," I said. "Come on."

I strode ahead, but I could hear Wolfie say to Alex that he'd thought I'd have to be talked into this.

"He's a better captain than that," replied Alex, quietly. "I knew he'd…"

I stepped onto the bridge and out of earshot, and there I found the bridge crew already at their desks, with Sparrer on the elevators and Weasel at the helm.

"Ship is ready to go," said Albie. "It's all yours, Sweetie."

That actually drew a quiver of a smile from me.

"I don't believe that is ever going to catch on as a way to address your commanding officer," I replied. "At least, it had certainly better not!"

Albie grinned at me.

"Would you prefer 'Darling'?" he asked.

"No. And to be honest, Albie, I'm not in the mood, all right?"

He saw my face and realised that I meant it.

"Sorry, Captain," he said. "I was just happy you all got back safely, that's all."

"It's all right. I suppose that is something to be happy about. Where have you put the parents?"

"I assigned them cabins Seven and Eight, and I put Alex's sister in Six. Normally that's mine, but I can always share with Graham."

"I bet you can!"

"It's not like that," he assured me. "Graham likes girls. But we get on pretty well, so sharing for an odd night won't be a problem."

"Fine. Now, this is Simon and this is Danny. Simon is Joe's brother and Danny's his friend. Can you take them upstairs and put them in Cabin Two? Wolfie can come in with me."

"That'll make a change!" commented Albie, grinning again, but then he saw my face and added, "Sorry. I'll get straight to it," and he led Danny and Simon up the ladder.

Wolfie and Alex stepped aboard, and a couple of minutes later Chris appeared at the airfield gate and jogged over to join us.

"That's it," said Albie, who had just returned. "Everyone present and correct, captain."

"Very well. Signal the ground crew to release the lines. Are they clear? Okay, release extra ballast. All engines ahead one quarter. Helm, up five degrees and take us…" I took a deep breath. "Bearing zero-four-five."

Weasel spun the wheel straight away, but he gave me a sideways look.

"Are we goin' fightin' again, Captain?" he asked quietly.

"I hope not, Weasel," I replied. "I hope this is just going to be a short detour. But I want you and Sparrer to work together on this: we're going up into the mountains, but I don't want the ship to go any higher than it has to. If we can stay close to the ground we'll be a lot less visible. Ben, this goes even more for you: keep us low, but not so low we hit anything. You have full control of ballast and engines, so do whatever you need and shout out if you want Speedy to slow down or drop ballast. Speedy, you take orders direct from Sparrer, understand? And Ben, don't be afraid to take us up more steeply than normal. The main idea here is to keep us below the summit of the largest mountain.

"Joe, please broadcast a warning to the gondolas that we might end up pitching steeply. Make sure everything is fixed down. And when you've done that, call action stations and get the turrets manned."

I walked Wolfie over to the ladder.

"You're in charge of the bombs," I told him. "I'll try to hold us over the target. You'll see a rock splashed with black paint, and that should show even through the mist. Your job is to blow it to pieces, and when you've done that, unload every other bomb we have on the trees opposite it and on the ground between the rock and the trees. We're counting on you.

"I'm going to go and warn the families that the next half hour might be a bit bumpy. Alex, you have the bridge."

I followed Wolfie up the ladder, stuck my head around the doors of cabins Seven and Eight – Alex's sister was in with her parents, so that saved me one visit – and warned them that the ship would be climbing steeply for half an hour or so, and that they should stay in their cabins until we came to find them. Then I repeated the warning to Simon and Danny.

"Can't we come onto the bridge?" asked Simon.

"Not just yet. It's going to be a bit dangerous for half an hour or so. But as soon as it's safe we'll come and fetch you."

I went into my own cabin and sat at the desk, feeling pretty awful. I opened my writing pad, but I couldn't think what to say, because I didn't think that anything I could say would make any difference: I was about to commit what was sure to be interpreted as a massive act of betrayal. It didn't matter that we were at war; it didn't matter that I wasn't going to be breaking my word; it didn't even matter that in my position Pasha would have done exactly the same thing. For a short period he'd broken out of his shell and had managed, however fleetingly, to laugh and behave like a normal boy. And now I was going to destroy any chance of it ever happening again, because after this he would never let anyone inside his shield again.

'Pasha,' I wrote. 'I'm sure that part of you expected this, whatever you might have said to Lieutenant Bulanin, and I'm sure that you understand too that I have no choice: I can't leave Russia with sole access to the only hole there is. At least if I succeed we'll be on level ground again, because, as I told you, our scientists haven't made much progress yet. The one thing they have made good progress with, called 'electricity', has no immediate military use.

'Of course I'm not breaking my word by doing this, because we never discussed the possibility, and I know that in my place you would do the same thing. But after your generosity it still feels wrong. I thank you with all my heart for sparing our lives and I sincerely hope that when the war is over we can meet again as friends.'

I hesitated over the ending: the usual formula ('I remain your obedient servant' or something similar) seemed hardly appropriate, so in the end I just signed it 'Leo' and left it like that. Of course I didn't think there was a snowflake in hell's chance of us ever getting together as friends in the future, but I wanted to say it anyway.

I found a map-case and put the letter inside, and then I went back to the bridge. We were about halfway up the mountain by now, about a hundred feet above the trees and so well below the level of the summit.

"Joe, tell the rocketeers that if the black ship is still on the ground they are not to fire at it even if it fires at us," I ordered. "If the ship shows any sign of leaving the ground – mooring cables being untied, propellers turning, that sort of thing – they are to fire at the tail assembly only. The aim is to disable the ship, not to destroy it. Absolutely no rockets are to be fired at either the hull or the gondolas."

"Leo, that's not very sensible," said Alex quietly. "It would be a lot safer to destroy the ship the moment we see it."

"Yes, it would, but we're not going to," I replied. "After all, it would have been a lot safer for Pasha to shoot the lot of us, but that didn't happen either. It's going to be bad enough shattering his dream of being a hero, and a very rich hero at that, by introducing our technology to Russia. I'm not going to kill him or his crew too. Of course if it's in the air when we get there we might have no choice, but I don't think it will be."

"And what if he's already gone back through the hole?"

"I really hope he hasn't, but we've got to destroy the hole regardless. But I don't think he'll risk doing that until he's sure that we're completely out of the picture. He won't want to risk getting trapped on the wrong side. I think he'll wait until tomorrow for his next expedition."

"About five minutes, Captain," said Weasel. "We're almost at the top."

"All right. Keep us to the east side of the summit – if the black ship is there that's its tail end – and bring us across to a point off the north-east corner of the flat bit on the top. I'll want you to hold station once we get there. I'll guide you into position. Sparrer, I'll want the ship close enough to the ground for accurate bombing. We'll probably need to do most of that by venting, so I'll take care of that.

"Joe, tell the gondolas to lower their armour flaps."

I kept ours up to start with, because I wanted to see clearly what was going on, and as we crossed the road that led down to Hinterzarten I saw a column of Russian trucks approaching the summit. Two of them were loaded with ground-to-air rockets, and two more were carrying the launch assemblies.

"Too late, Pasha," I said quietly: clearly he had intended to use these batteries to protect the hole.

"Forward observation point has a view of the summit," reported Joe. "The Russian ship is still moored in place."

"Tell the turrets not to fire," I reiterated.

Fifteen seconds later we crested the summit and I could see the black ship for myself. It looked as if our stealthy approach had worked, because we'd made it half-way across the summit, and past the Russian ship, before its first turret started to turn in our direction. The first rocket glanced off the top of our hull. "Hold your fire," I said to Joe. "Ben, as soon as we're clear of the plateau drop us far enough so that our gondolas are out of sight of his turrets, and Weasel, turn the ship around to head…let's say one-eight-zero for now. I'll correct once we're below the plateau."

Once our gondolas were protected by the slope and our tail assembly was protected by the rest of our hull I relaxed a little: I wasn't too worried about him hitting the hull, as long as not too many missiles hit it in exactly the same place. I guided Weasel towards the hole, and once we were roughly in position Wolfie was able to fine-tune our position by calling instructions via the tube beside the main cargo hatch. There was still almost no wind, so holding position was easy enough.

I couldn't see the hole from the gondola because it was immediately underneath us, but I could hear the explosions as our bombs detonated.

"Rear spotters report two Eagles heading this way, bearing three-three-five, range four thousand yards," Joe told us.

"Too late again," I commented.

There were four or five more explosions, then Joe said, "That's it, Captain: Wolfie says all bombs gone. The mist is gone and the rock with the paint on is in several hundred bits."

"Tell him to close the hatch and get back up here," I said. "Now, I want us to top the plateau again just for a moment – I've got a letter to deliver. Weasel, as soon as I've done that, head on one-seven-zero and hold that course. Speedy, drop the ballast from points two, eight and fourteen. Engines at idle."

The ship rose slowly until the gondola cleared the crest and I could see the black ship once more. It had stopped firing, but there were crewmen around it by the mooring cables and the propeller I could see was turning slowly.

"Tell the turrets to hold their fire," I ordered. "Weasel, take us towards the ship. Engines One and Two, ahead one quarter."

A white-jacketed figure emerged from Black Lightning's bridge gondola and walked towards us. It was too small to be the lieutenant, so now at least I knew I hadn't stranded Pasha in the wrong world. I imagined that Sergei was still on his way back from the checkpoint, but Dmitri was hobbling along in Pasha's wake.

"All engines to idle," I ordered, and the ship drifted a little further forward and then slowed to a stop. I opened one of the gondola windows and threw the map-case out and watched as Pasha jogged forward and picked it up. He opened it, took out the letter, read it quickly and then held it up towards me and deliberately tore it in half, and then in half again, and threw the pieces into the air. Then he turned and strode back towards his ship.

"Looks like your apology was not accepted," commented Alex.

"I didn't think it would be," I said, sadly. "Still, I had to try. Right, then: all engines maximum speed. Weasel, one-seven-zero. And Ben, as soon as we're clear of the plateau you may start to descend at five degrees."

The ship accelerated forwards and began its descent. Looking out of the rear of the gondola I saw Black Lightning appear above the mountain and turn to come after us, but we were a lot faster, and fairly soon it fell away behind us. We crossed the Swiss border and turned west.

"Wolfie, please plot us a course that will take us through the Belfort Gap and then on towards Paris," I said. "If we fly through the night we won't have to land again until we get home. And while you're doing that I suppose I ought to go and tell the parents that there's no way for them to go back…"


EPILOGUE

We made it home with no further incident. I took Excelsior straight to the works in Abingdon for a full overhaul and for the missing armour to be replaced and a new electricity gondola fitted, and it's still there now, though Tim assures me it'll be finished soon.

It's now May 7th 2012, which is Wolfie's fifteenth birthday. It's also exactly nine months since the first of the London riots, and also nine months after this record started. Obviously a lot has changed since then…

Pasha's prediction about the war seems to be accurate so far: the Russians are still holding a large chunk of Lorraine and most of Alsace below the mountains, but they haven't advanced any further, and the French æthership works near Rennes has already started producing ships fitted with the new armour, as well as plenty of the armour-busting rockets, and once they have enough of both I imagine that a counter-attack will be almost certain to succeed. Our own plant at Abingdon is busy too: Excalibur has been armoured and converted to take four engines, and Sparrowhawk is next in line once our own repairs are complete. I've already spoken to Uncle Gil about the wisdom, or otherwise, of attempting to invade Russia, and he says he'll help me to pass my thoughts on to the General Staff.

In fact they might know my name already, because the French seem to be very pleased with us: not only did Admiral Giorgetti give us a glowing write-up in his report on the Freidrichshafen business, but apparently the officer in charge of the defence of the Vosges above Sélestat also reported that his men had been given the time to dig in and receive reinforcements because we'd helped to keep the Russians pinned down. So maybe I can use this fame – even if I do think it's unmerited – to help persuade the French High Command not to invade Russia, should the question arise.

I found Joe's parents a house in Oxford that was within walking distance of the synagogue. Joe and Simon live here most of the time but go to stay with their parents from Friday afternoon to Sunday morning, and also during major festivals, and so far that seems to be working out well. Mr and Mrs Demetriou have a cottage on the estate, so we see quite a lot of them. Alex's sister goes to the local school – she's a bit too young to study with us – but Simon and Danny have joined our classes with Mr Devlin. I have to say that they weren't too enthusiastic about his methods at first…

We now have the only house in the world with electric lighting: there's a generator in our cellar, and so far it's worked so well that we're seriously thinking of removing the gas-lights. I suppose the next step will be to put in power sockets, though since we have absolutely nothing to plug into one except our computers, I expect that can wait.

With the addition of Simon and Danny we were running out of guest bedrooms, so I finally had the ducal bedroom cleaned and opened up again, and I moved into it two weeks ago. Wolfie moved into my room, which is of course perfect because it means he can come from his room down to mine and vice versa through the secret passage and so avoid scandalising the servants, although I suspect that a lot of them know about us already, and nobody seems to be too scandalised. Still, there's no harm in being discreet. In any case, I need Wolfie with me at night, because that bed is so big I'd never find my way out of it on my own.

We're going to get the tunnel to the ice-house cleared and reopened, just in case. I hope I never need to use it again for its intended purpose, but you never know…

I haven't heard from Pasha. I didn't expect to, of course, but I had hoped… because I still feel bad about that: having seen a glimpse of the boy he could have been I really wish I hadn't had to abuse his mercy in the way we did. But of course if it comes to a choice between one boy's happiness and the security of your country there's only one possible decision, and I'd done what I had to. I didn't like it, though. Not that my regrets will do me any good if we ever run into each other again, because I'm absolutely certain that next time he'll simply shoot me on sight. I just hope he never gets the chance.

Stonehenge has been fully restored to its former glory (or decrepitude, depending how you look at it) but there is no indication that the hole has ever opened again: I have sent people to check on calm days, but we've received no reports of abnormal patches of mist in the area since the reconstruction was finished. Of course it could simply be that there hasn't been a weather match on both sides, but I don't think so: I think we have to forget about it as a potential crossing-point.

Of course I promised Mr Silver I'd do everything necessary to find a new one, and although he seems to be settling in nicely he hasn't told me not to bother, so I suppose I have to keep trying. I'm thinking of taking my friends on holiday to either Rome or Greece this summer, or maybe even at half-term: that way we can combine a search for holes in the Ancient Civilisations with some sunbathing. I think we're going to need a break by then, because we're almost ready to go public with our electric generators, and hopefully that will bring in plenty of money that will both give Alex a healthy bank balance and allow us to get some more kids out of the sewers.

There's only one more thing that I'd like to happen: it would be nice to grow a couple of inches taller – I'm now about five feet seven – and maybe a little more growth elsewhere would be nice too, although Wolfie says I'm perfect as I am. And if he's happy, who am I to argue?

All in all, it's been an interesting nine months but I won't mind at all if the next nine months are a lot less exciting. After all, I've got everything I could ask for: a home, money, my own æthership, good friends, and my very own beautiful red-headed Prussian aristocrat. Who could ask for more?


Thanks are due, as always, to Tim for hosting the story and to my two dedicated and long-suffering readers JJ and José. José also helped me out with the (pseudo) science of armour-making and gave me the basic idea for the character of Tim. The story would be infinitely poorer without their input.

Obviously this is a work of fiction, but I did my best to make the descriptions of the airships, and in particular their control gondolas and the equipment in them, as accurate as possible. For this I am deeply indebted to the website www.airships.net which has a wealth of information from the heyday of airship travel in the pre-war years.

Thanks also to those who wrote in with feedback. Writers write stories to be read, and it's always good to hear that there are people out there who enjoy reading them!

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