The temperature had been dropping rapidly for some time and the stowaways were shivering in their hideout.
‘Wadya reckon, Oiving? Guess we’re headin’ north much as east?’ suggested Fingers. ‘I t’ink I’ll try an’ get some coats fer us.’
He slipped silently out of the lifeboat, returning after a short interval with an armful of peajackets. Victoriana barely stifled a giggle as Rusty pulled on the huge warm coat and nearly disappeared from view.
‘This is great,’ he exclaimed in a muffled voice. ‘Hey, this is McHerring’s coat, I’ve found some papers in the pocket …’
He fell silent as he studied a parchment covered in drawings which reminded Victoriana of a spider’s web, with a spidery scrawl all over it.
‘Wass new?’ Irving muttered to Fingers.
‘All dat yellin’ we hoid? Turns out that food I took caused a lotta fightin’,’ chuckled Fingers, ‘McHerring’s set a guard onna pantry after da cook laid out t’ree guys wid a fryin’ pan.’
He sobered a little. ‘Could make it tricky fer me to get more grub, tho’.’
Just as they were settling themselves more comfortably there came a loud splash followed by an explosion, and the cover of their hiding place was drenched with water.
‘Waddin tarnation?’ exclaimed Irving, lifting the cover slightly and peering about.
There was another tremendous splash followed by an equally loud boom, and Irving received a soaking of seawater before he could get the cover back in place.
He twitched it back again and peered upwards into the sky.
‘Dere’s an airship up there,’ he said. ‘It’s a British B100 Scout by the look of it: dey’re lightly armed an’ fast.’
‘Oiving was a spodder,’ said Fingers in explanation. ‘He can tell fifty o’ dem t’ings apoit. We done our bit, y’know, da draft, like what you guys call Nat’ral Service.’
‘National Service,’ corrected Rusty automatically, ‘and what did you do?’
‘Camouflage,’ he replied. ‘Kinda came nat’ral after I … er … left da Pay Coips.’
At that moment there was a volley of shots from the deck aimed (along with a volley of Caledonian curses) at the attackers above, who appeared to be arguing loudly with each other. Victoriana could make out three irascible voices, with a fourth responding in a timorous fashion.
‘Drop another bomb, dammit, Brown!’
‘We ain’t got another bomb, Admiral Hawke, sir!’
‘That last one was a bit duff, Hawke. Get ’em from your brother-in-law, do ye?’
‘Egad, what are ye implying, Bligh? Ye’ll face a firing squad when we reach Plymouth.’
‘‘Those lubbers are shootin’ at us, Brown. Do something quick, ye lazy swab.’
‘Aye, aye Admiral Byng, sir. Shall I raise the deflector shielding?’
‘Carry on, seaman!’
After a pause, a series of overlapping metal wings were cranked slowly into position, and started ringing as musket balls from below ricocheted off them.
‘We’re drifting to larboard, Brown. Keep her on course or it’s a flogging ye’ll be getting.’
‘Sorry, sir, Admiral Bligh, but there is only me workin’ here.’
‘What? What? Is this a mutiny?’
‘No, Admiral Hawke, sir, that’s the …’
There was a loud clanking of chain running out, followed by a tremendous clang from the bows of the ship which juddered in reaction and set the lifeboat swinging on its davits.
‘Goodness me,’ exclaimed Victoriana, ‘our navy doesn’t sound very competent.’
‘It’s the cutbacks,’ explained Rusty, ‘Papa says that there has been a huge reduction in military spending. Small is beautiful is the motto, streamlining leads to efficiency and so on.’
‘Three admirals to an able seaman? It doesn’t sound very efficient to me,’ said Victoriana doubtfully.
At that moment, the airship shot overhead erratically, hauling on the anchor chain and causing the ship to lurch forward in its wake, pursuing a course dictated by the anchor embedded in the ironwork of the bridge. Rather than rolling on the waves, it was now smashing through them with some force as it was towed along at considerable speed.
For some reason, McHerring was doing nothing to dislodge the anchor and seemed content to allow the airship to continue unimpeded.
‘We’ll be bruised from head to foot if this carries on much longer,’ observed Rusty, after some time had passed.
‘We can’t launch the lifeboat goin’ at this speed, kiddo, so ya’ll have ta grit ya teeth fer now!’ growled Irving, who had squashed them all together at one end to help absorb the bumps.
Suddenly there was a series of loud bangs and crashes, and the ship slumped in the water, released from its hectic progress.
They all scrambled to peer out at the sky. A huge airship had appeared and was blasting away at the little British scout, and bits and pieces were splashing down into the sea around them. There was a confusion of shouting and the scout rapidly moved away in a cloud of steam and fire, accelerating into a bank of cloud which had been building up.
‘Dat’s a Vulgarian baddleship,’ grunted Irving. ‘Dat guy Molotok musta called in da heavies.’
The ship started moving again under its own power, approaching the cloud into which the British scout had vanished, which turned out to be a vast bank of thickly enclosing fog, completely hiding the combatants from each other. Peace of a kind was restored, and only the chuntering of the ship’s engine could be heard as it ploughed its way through the barely visible waves.
* * *
Having snatched a couple of hours’ sleep, Victoriana was wakened by a cry of ‘Land ho!’ from the lookout.
Peering out she found a cloudless day with bright sunshine and no mist to conceal the rapidly approaching coastline.
‘That’s Reykjavik, if I’m not mistaken,’ said Rusty excitedly, kneeling beside her.
‘An’ where’s dat?’ asked Irving.
‘Iceland, of course.’ said Rusty. ‘It’s marked on the map that I found in this jacket.’
‘No wonder it’s so damn chilly,’ grumbled Fingers. ‘Made of ice, an’ all.’
‘Well, it’s not completely ice like an iceberg,’ said Rusty. ‘There’s plenty of vegetation and there are also active volcanoes that …’
‘Ya kiddin’ me, kid,’ interrupted Fingers. ‘Dey’d call it Volcanoland if dere was volcanoes dere, wouldn’ dey?’
Rusty launched into a vivid description of the contradictory landscapes that make up the island, the black beaches and rolling meadows, the lakes and the glaciers, the hot springs and the black lava flows – all of which he had devoured from a guidebook his Papa had given him. He was describing a volcano when Irving interrupted him.
‘Look, we’re comin’ inna a harbor. Keep shtumm so they don’ hear us,’ he whispered urgently.
The crew, however, were fully occupied in manoeuvring the ship alongside a jetty close to a huge warehouse which bore the name McCavity and Brown. There was frantic activity on the shore as a crane was driven up to lift the Telectroscope and the attached Intensifier off the ship and on to a large steam truck which puffed noisily on to the quay. As soon as it was secured, McHerring and his crew climbed aboard and set off along the quay and into the town. Within minutes the whole area was deserted.
‘Quick,’ urged Victoriana, ‘we must follow them.’
The two men helped the youngsters out of the lifeboat and off the ship, then looked around for a means of transport. Close nearby stood a cart whose horse was idly champing at some grass growing around the post to which it was tethered. It took a matter of seconds for Fingers to untie the animal, clamber aboard and trot over to the little group.
‘Guess dis is a nat’ral ’moigency,’ he grinned. ‘All aboid!’
They set off in hot pursuit of the truck which lurched its way through the town and out into the country; nobody stopped to stare, as its ungainly load had been concealed under a giant tarpaulin.
Rusty became more and more excited as they crossed a green valley with a wide river flowing through it.
‘This is Ϸingvellir!’ he told them, pronouncing it with pedantic correctness as Thinkvetlir. ‘This is where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet!’
‘You know,’ he said impatiently, seeing their blank looks, ‘McHerring’s plan is to separate Scotland permanently from England by separating the plates the continents stand on. He must be planning to drill down to study the meeting point – he might even have done so already. I bet he’s working on creating a fault line along the Border.’
Irving and Fingers exchanged glances.
‘Bin a long joiney,’ muttered Irving, and Fingers nodded.
On and on they clopped, seeing nobody for miles, keeping far enough behind the truck in the hope they wouldn’t be noticed.
‘There’s a whale!’ exclaimed Victoriana excitedly.
‘Where? We’re miles inland,’ said Rusty.
‘There! Over there! Look!’ Victoriana shrieked, pointing beyond the truck.
Into the air rose a giant column of water, sparkling in the sunshine, and then as abruptly as it started, it ceased.
‘That’s not a whale, it’s a geyser,’ said Rusty. ‘It’s caused by volcanic activity and superheated water.’
They all watched in fascination as the water spout appeared again. The geyser itself was hidden from them by a ridge of lava which the truck, puffing and snorting and releasing clouds of steam, crested laboriously and then disappeared out of sight.
Urging the horse into greater effort, Fingers guided their cart up to the ridge and they gazed over: three large craters met their eyes, all of which appeared to have a surface of bubbling water, but of the truck there was no sign.
‘It’s gone,’ cried Victoriana in disappointment. ‘We’ve lost it.’
‘But I know where it’s going,’ said Rusty in triumph. ‘One of those holes is a tunnel. Look,’ he spread out the map he had found on his knee, ‘this looks like a spider’s web, but it must be a map of tunnels, and they all lead back to McHerring’s castle in Scotland. One of those three holes’ – he waved at the geysers – ‘is the entrance to the tunnel from Iceland.’
‘But which one?’ asked Victoriana.
‘Waal, let’s hope ya good at guessin’’, said Irving grimly, pointing over her shoulder.
There walking up the track towards them, in the shadow of the massive Vulgarian airship, was an ugly-looking gang of cut-throats, armed to the teeth, and led by a furiously scowling Molotok.
This chapter by HB. © Tachybaptus et al. 2017.