“Tsar Trek: the Next Generation”
A Crusader Dorm Tale
by Simon Barber
It was getting warm in Spontoon, Nancy Rote decided as the squirrel sleuth panted across the finish line in the loose sand of the Eastern Island dunes, a pack full of numbered bricks on her back and heavy steel-lined Songmark boots on her foot-paws. She gasped in relief, swinging the pack off and sitting on it as her year’s tutor Miss Windlesham clicked her stopwatch and recorded her time.
“Da. A useful thing, a pack of bricks.” Svetlana had crossed the line a minute ahead, the stocky wolverine excelling at endurance events. “Maybe, we can borrow them tonight – and make a softer bed than we have in the dorms!”
“I’ll be glad to see my bed tonight no matter how hard it is.” Nancy stretched, the vertebra in her back and tail almost popping audibly. “Still, one more week then it’s the holidays!”
As she watched the rest of her year struggle through the sand towards the finish line panting hard in the hot Spring sunshine, Nancy ticked off significant points of a very dramatic term. Much of it had been the Case of the Wrong(ed) Wolf beginning in February where cunningly concealed evil-doers had actually managed to overthrow the respectable Police Chief Pickering and his trusted secret detective Miss Lamm – who had fortunately escaped her accusers but Inspector Pickering was still wrongfully imprisoned. The locals had not grasped the chilling significance of the fact that Beryl Parkesson had been the one to deliver the evidence; how the villainous mouse had faked the photographs and other evidence was something Nancy had still not figured out. This was a case that might take some time to solve. If only she could get Miss Lamm’s testimony, Nancy thought, the case had a chance of being re-opened and justice served.
“Holidays! Yes, and home to Vostok for me. You will like my country, Nancy – we have respect for tradition, law and order. High standards. Unlike some,” Svetlana cast a glare at the slight figure of Rosa Marquetta, the Spanish anarcho-surrealist crossing the line wearing her unofficial black head-scarf. The fact that Rain Islanders often wore the same in solidarity for anarcho-syndicalism was a sore point with her.
“I’m always keen on seeing new sights and travel broadens the mind as they say,” Nancy assured her. “I’ve noticed Vostok has rather a bad press – but the press isn’t always right. All countries have problems of some sort. An unfriendly foreign press just loves to magnify them. Just look what the Spontoon Mirror did to their own Police Chief – let alone what they’d do to anyone else’s.”
Just then the rest of Crusader Dorm came into sight, Maureen and Isabella evidently not in the running for any Olympic distance medals. Isabella was trailing badly, but with their short legs moles were rather short-changed when it came to endurance running races. Still, Isabella was powerfully built and over fifty yard sprints did well enough. Nancy was pleased to see Maureen helping her along, the Ulster bulldog pacing her dorm-mate and cheering her on towards the finish line.
“Not a bad run considering,” Nancy looked at her own wrist-watch. “We can surely use the points. Our Tutors don’t appreciate our sleuthing as they should.”
The wolverine snorted, though was careful to stand well clear and down wind of Miss Windlesham before replying. “Nancy – we should leave it for the holidays. I have supported your sleuthing, yes, and we have run down some furs who richly deserved it. But it is costing us marks we cannot afford, and failing Songmark is not an option for me.”
“Nor for me.” Nancy reassured her. The squirrel’s ears were down for a few seconds. “Well. At least the holidays are coming up – I promise no more investigating till the end of term. Not even Rosa.” She mentally crossed off her planned investigation of Songmark’s kitchens; The Case of the Mystery Meat would just have to wait.
Svetlana breathed a sigh of relief. She knew all about fanatics, and indeed the foreign newspapers tried to make out most of the population of Vostok were fanatics in one direction or another – so Nancy would probably feel right at home there.
“So.” It was ten minutes to lights-out that evening and Nancy’s dorm room was crowded with the addition of Eva Schiller and Alpha Rote, though in truth the shrew took up little space. If the Tutors one year enlisted half a dozen heavyweight furs such as rhinos or polar bears, Nancy mused, they would have to spread them between the dorms just to physically fit everyone in, even now the first-year dorms had bunk beds that would hopefully become standard. “Svetlana has arranged with her Embassy to get us visas and suchlike – which isn’t as easy as getting a Spontoon three week tourist visa. They’re rather selective.”
“Rosa the Anarchist would not be invited – and neither would Miss Liberty Morgenstern.” Eva Schiller’s fine vulpine muzzle crested slightly as she spoke the name. “Ach! A Yiddisher Bolshevik and a mischling besides – no, not wanted in Vostok, or other places with high standards.”
Nancy cast Alpha a sympathetic glance. Although Alpha was to all appearances a shrew her mother was a gorgeous mink; if Eva had not spotted the fact Nancy felt under no obligation to point out her wife was a “mischling” too. From the pictures she had seen on Cranium Island, Alpha’s sadly missed elder brother Primus had resembled his mother rather more.
Although the Rotes were not allowed to privately speak with other in term time on Songmark property, their Tutors had not forbidden Alpha to overhear general conversations as long as she did not directly talk to her wife. Writing each other letters was allowed under the rules, but after a week’s use of the system Miss Devinski had “disqualified” the thin twin-strand telegraph wire running through the hut’s loft space between dorms which they had strung for nightly Morse code communications. Alpha’s well-reasoned argument that highly motivated Morse code practice was a very useful exercise had actually earned her dorm a point, but the wire still had to go.
“Indeed,” Nancy inclined her muzzle. “I think we can say we’re all of good character and no reprehensible politics? Now would be the time to decline the trip if anyone has any inconvenient secrets. The Vostok police have an excellent reputation for ferreting these things out. And we’d better be careful when packing our bags. No bottles of Nootnops Blue – and nothing controversial in our travel reading.”
Isabella’s sea-anemone like snout wriggled. “Nancy! I have been checking what you cannot bring into Vostok. Seditious books and films, as one might expect.” She pulled out a drab booklet issued by the rather rudimentary Vostok tourist industry. “But who would ever produce seditious…” she read the most recently added items of a long list in growing disbelief “fretwork, tapestries, stained glass, poker-work, wax castings or ceramic items?”
“Maybe someone just tried to bring in a “20 years of Bolshevism” commemorative teapot,” Nancy offered. “Or a “Workers, seize the means or production!” beach towel or two?”
Eva looked smug. She spotted the equally slim pamphlet of Spontoon’s legal code that Nancy kept handy on her shelf, and tapped the cover lightly. “In a properly run country, one need not wait till a crime has been committed before writing laws,” she asserted. “Why, otherwise the first wrong-doer would get away with it! We have laws for everything that is even in theory criminal. Better, we have Laws that nobody has yet been charged under!”
“Anyway,” Nancy steered the meeting back on track “Svetlana’s arranging us to meet some furs who work over there in law and order, and we should have an interesting time. Our Tutors have approved.”
“With our luck, ‘tis likely enough they’re thinking ‘tis like in England, where most country manor house weekends in the social season have a murder – and we’re meant to be it.” Maureen was her usual cheerful self. “Though in England foreign guests are never murdered, truth to be tellin’. Nor are servants, cubs or any lady till ten years after they’ve been a debutante presented at Court.”
Nancy had needed a lot of convincing to accept the odd-seeming truth of higher class British social weekends where, apart from a necessary but bitterly begrudged five year break from the social seasons of 1914 to 1919, properly arranged crimes were a respected part of the social calendar. It was rumoured that the tradition was how the great families were pruned of diseased and sickly branches like any other well-maintained fruiting tree; certainly those suspected of dubious attitudes and opinions were given the chance to redeem themselves by providing a suitable opportunity for keen amateur sleuths to investigate their tastefully staged demise. It would have been any family’s social ruination for the Police needing to be called out to a mansion-house murder; the uniformed branch existed to investigate sordid mundane crimes in the towns where pockets were picked or drunken workmen knocked each others’ heads in with lead pipes or pickaxes. Scions of the aristocracy were properly slain with exquisitely selected Burmese orchid poisons or very distinctive Western Nyasaland ceremonial daggers snatched from the conveniently unlocked trophy displays that every well-appointed library and drawing-room possessed.
That squirrel sleuth laughed. “I’m sure we’ll be well looked after. Well – all we need to do now is survive next week and then it’s the end of term. Definitely something to look forward to.”
“Some gemutlich, that is, 'polite', company,” Eva mused, a smile on her silver-furred muzzle. “Ah, that end of term night. Such a thing to cherish! An evening at Lingenthal’s on Casino Island perhaps – they serve roast pork knuckle with potatoes and sauerkraut in the authentic Berliner style, with coffee and cakes, then perhaps some fine Rhineland wine. A welcome change from the 'fine dining' at the Songmark tables.”
“It is wholesome food they serve us here, and there is no shortage.” Isabella pointed out. “Eva, you have gained five kilograms since arriving and none of it is fat. We have all done the like.” Her nose tendrils drooped slightly. “If in Germany your Government wishes to pass a law against Poi though – that one I will vote for.”
“It is hardly likely – we have no Poi in Europe.” The fox’s tail twitched at the imprecation. But then an eyebrow raised. “Still – one cannot be too careful. When I see my Uncle, I will ask him to pass the idea on.”
“End of term at last!” Meera Sind enthused a few days later, the lithe mongoose’s ears perked up brightly despite her fatigue as she and Nancy Rote staggered into their dorm block after a final three-hour swimming marathon around Eastern Island. It was scorching hot already in April, and the way their Tutors worked them in the water would have most of the heavier-furred girls collapsing with heat exhaustion on land. “I’m heading off tomorrow with Jasbir – two relaxing weeks on Gull Island for us!”
Nancy’s muzzle wrinkled. “I’ve heard about that place. By all accounts it’s nothing but a pile of guano in the Nimitz Sea, and the morals of its inhabitants match. I’d have thought you’d end up robbed to your bare fur. Whatever do you go there for?”
Meera looked pensive. “Well, Jasbir showed me how to oil my fur like a Native girl so that’s about the way we start out. We don’t take much more than a grass skirt with us – in fact we don’t even take our own names. We’ve not lost anything there we weren’t prepared to. Actually we’ve found the natives there jolly friendly. You just expect to keep your … attitudes open.”
Just then Svetlana reappeared, waving a large envelope. “Nancy! I have our tickets for Vostok. Tomorrow there is a direct flight at nine in the morning.” She winked. “At last. Some proper culture that is not hula-dancing. Our Tutors will want a report afterwards of course, but that is the Songmark way. They never miss a chance to work us, even in our holidays.”
Nancy smiled. “Goethe said, “It is not enough to know, one must act. It is not enough to Will, one must Do.” Our Tutors generally agree.” She took the proffered tickets, and glanced at the details. “Svetlana. This has me listed as still single and Alpha under her maiden name.”
The wolverine’s ears dipped. “Trust me, Nancy – you do not want to argue the point with our Customs officials. In Spontoon they accept such things – in Vostok they do not. And regardless of whose names are upon it a Cranium Island marriage certificate is about as accepted as …” she cast about for an idea until her gaze settled on Meera “as a legal contract signed on Gull Island.”
“I say!” Meera’s fur bristled. “Jasbir’s been going there for years. She says she always got exactly what she expected there.” Her eyes crossed slightly. “And so have I.” Her eyes gleamed. “If you signed a legal paper on Gull Island you can bet it’d be a cast-iron contract; about the only Natives who go outside for their education become lawyers. Gull Island and law are like my homeland’s mountains and war – there’s always so much of it around. And everyone knows the hill Pathans are famous as top-rate soldiers.”
“Anyway,” Nancy’s own tail twitched. “Tomorrow at nine, we’re off!”
The Shawnee Pacific Airpaths flight from neutral Spontoon was one of the few foreign-owned airlines allowed into Vostok, a nation whose nearest neighbours uncomfortably included Imperial Japan, Starlingist Russia and the anarcho-syndicalist confederacy of Rain Island. Having aircraft from any of those powers flying over their territory with possible reconnaissance cameras hidden in the nose or secret agents in the baggage hold was something the Vostokite authorities were justifiably worried about.
“Once bitten, twice shy,” Nancy Rote put down her “History of the Vostok Islands”, which her Embassy had recommended as the most even-pawed account of that embattled nation. “When you think about it, everyone who made it to Vostok from Western Russia lost almost all their friends and relatives in the Great War, the Russian Revolution, their Civil War or just vanished into Siberia under Starling. A whole population suffering the same way and Starling’s armies still a few hours’ ride away on a troop ship; you would expect them to be cautious.”
“Si,” Isabella agreed, looking through the airline edition of “Film Frolics” that she had found in the seat’s wicker reading-rack. “They are cautious indeed! All kinds of things are forbidden on principle. It says that the Little Shirley Shrine films are distributed across Starling’s Russia, but are banned in Vostok.” She cocked her head to one side. “I would not be amazed if they have a generic sign at Customs saying “IT IS FORBIDDEN” that would cover all events.”
“There’s some good in everybody, as that third-year Amelia Allworthy keeps saying,” Nancy replied enigmatically. “Even in Little Miss Shrine, some people think.” The month before on Casino Island she had actually paid to see the most recent Shrine offering “Fuzzy top”, and was unsure whether screening it was used as reward or punishment in the famous open-air holiday and labour camps the Soviet North and Siberia was infamous for. Either way, she thought the film publicity shot Isabella was looking at of the annoying moppet on location for filming “The Little Commissar” sitting happily on the feared Comrade Bearia’s knee was downright disturbing.
“Nancy!” Alpha squeezed her wife’s paw, glad to be able to talk with her freely for awhile. “They even have what you could call a reactionary language.”
“Is that something like the reverse of a revolutionary language? About a tenth of the words Liberty Morgenstern uses, nobody else knows or cares about. If she can’t fit the word 'dialectic' into every other sentence she worries what she’s doing wrong.” Nancy squeezed back lovingly. She had slept through most of the flight, having spent the previous night catching up on lost opportunities with Alpha, who seemed to be able to live on two hours a night sleep.
“Not precisely.” The shrew rapidly sketched out two sets of Cyrillic alphabets in her newsprint-clear paw writing. “This is the one now used in Starling’s Russia – they had a spelling reform after the revolution, discarded eight ancient letters that they really could do without. They weren’t used much anyway, and a lot of perfectly traditional Tsarist academics had been saying for years they should go. It was a good idea, efficient, yes! Vostok hated that idea just for the sake of it – they use them a lot more now than they would have if the Bolsheviks hadn’t banned them. Deliberately use them as initials for Government departments, public brand names and such.” She tapped one of the symbols appearing on the Vostok page, something like a small ‘b’ crossed with a ‘t’ stroke. “That’s the letter 'Yat', it’s on the side of every Vostok-registered aircraft even.”
Nancy nodded. The squirrel looked out of the small square window, catching a glimpse of land as the aircraft descended out of the heavy clouds. “I think we’re about to find out – that should be Romanov Island coming up ahead. Vostok, here we come!”
“Welcome to Vostok!” It was an hour later when the Songmark party had landed, got through the expected Customs interrogations and made the acquaintance of a short, rounded and cheerful-looking Siberian Marmot wearing a long black coat and round felt hat. “I am Irina Berezhin, your guide.” Her eyes lit as she evidently recognised the wolverine in the party. “Miss Tiemoshenko! It is an honour to meet a Heroine of Vostok, saviour of our beloved Grand Duchess!”
Svetlana nodded modestly. “It was only my duty. Any true daughter of Russia would have done exactly the same in my place.” She followed with something in voluble Russian.
Nancy privately wondered if absolutely any of the elegantly dressed émigrés she could see around the airport would have the biology let alone the inclination to tear another fur’s throat out with their teeth. It had been Plan B even for Svetlana after breaking her right arm in a struggle with the two bomb-equipped Bolsheviks on the apartment building roof that had sent the first one screaming six storeys down into the alley with the ten pounds of primed kropotkinite explosive following him after. The wolverine had refused a public parade of thanks but had her request granted to study at Songmark – a far more expensive reward but the Grand Duchess was probably counting on getting a loyal and Songmark-trained subject back in three years time.
The guide Irina beamed. “Da. And these are your friends, yes! We must speak English, yes? It is what you all speak on Spontoon. I have been the postcards seeing.” She glanced at the clock; it was half past five and a time zone behind Spontoon. “And now, welcome to Vostok. Tonight we dine Russian style!”
It was an hour and a half later when Nancy and Alpha found themselves alone at last in the room they were sharing in the Saint Peter Prospekt hotel, a grand building in the centre of the capital. Irina had left them in the foyer announcing that Dinner would be served at ten that night; Nancy was already hungry.
“Dinner only starts at ten. That’s almost lights-out time at Songmark in Winter.” The squirrel sat down heavily on the bed, cautiously felt the unaccustomed soft mattress beneath her then threw herself back luxuriously with a sigh. “At least the beds are something I can get used to.” She smiled, looking at Alpha neatly putting away their unpacked clothes. “You speak Russian, don’t you? What was Svetlana saying to our guide when we got into the foyer?”
“Me? Speak Russian? No, Nancy – not a word!” Alpha held out her crossed fingers to show she was fibbing and pointed up at the ceiling lights, then to her snout. Silently she mouthed THEY LISTEN. EXPECT IT HERE. All Crusader Dorm could lip-read each other, though with such a variety of muzzle-shapes it had taken months of practice.
<We can speak in Spontoonie. That’s rare around here. They might not have any qualified listener handy.> Nancy patted the bed. “Maybe she was asking if any more Vostok girls were applying to Songmark next year? I know our Tutors are looking through applications already.”
Alpha nodded. To someone brought up with rigorous scientific discipline, lies and deception came very hard for her. Nancy had taken months of persuading her that in particular situations for a sleuth disguising one’s opinions were as vital as disguising one’s voice or fur. “Yes yes! I expect so. Miss Devinski has her system, I know. She can cross-check on most qualifications a Songmark girl needs except one vital one – luck. But she has a foolproof way of finding even that out.”
“And just how does she do that?” Nancy asked, the curiosity in her voice perfectly genuine. Alpha did not think like other people; it was a constant wonder to her just what the hyperactive shrew would come out with next.
“She takes the unopened application envelopes, mixes them up then picks out ten at random every year.” Alpha’s eyes gleamed. “Those applications she throws away unread. By definition, those are the unlucky ones!”
Nancy laughed, her ears perked up. “So that’s how she does it! I always wondered.” Her eyes roamed around the suite, looking for likely locations for hidden microphones. “Alpha – we have our own bath-room in this suite. It’s an actual bath, not showers! And we’ve two whole hours before we have to start dressing for dinner. It’s been a long, hot trip, I could definitely use a long soak.” She mouthed silently AND IF YOU CAN GET THE MICROPHONES – IT’LL BE JUST THE TWO OF US.
Alpha nodded eagerly. “Yes! I’ll definitely help. Nancy, just this once – I’ll let you scrub my back.” She felt her tail twitching. There was probably a good reason only needing sufficient experimentation to discover, she told herself, why deception in a good cause could be fun. Falsifying data was the ultimate crime on Cranium Island, and on Spontoon it was something the Tutors would throw a Songmark girl out for without appeal. But here…
“On Vostok, as Svetlana frequently says,” she mused “they do things differently.”
Dinner in the grand dining-room of the Saint Peter Prospekt Hotel was served in the classic Russian style, Nancy realised a few hours later – a profusion of courses not expected to finish till well past midnight. Her party was down promptly at ten, looking famished and even so were the first table dining.
“’Tis not my idea of suppertime,” Maureen grumbled under her breath. “We keep farmer’s hours at home, and Songmark’s close. This isn’t.”
“True. If Starling ever attacks, I think he will choose to arrive at nine in the morning. Not dawn – everyone in Vostok will still be up then,” Eva Schiller’s well-groomed platinum blonde tail was drooping noticeably; the night before the Arctic vixen had been up late celebrating the end of term at Lingenthal’s on Casino Island, and was short on sleep. “We need to get used to that idea. In September we’ll be second-years and take our turn on gate guard. Up at three and out into the rain.” She shivered despite the warm evening.
“They seem to have solutions to unemployment here,” mused Nancy, counting the staff. “I know this is an exceptional hotel, but they’ve a lot more staff than they would if this was Spontoon – more staff than customers. Eight waiters, a Maitre d’hote, half a dozen maids in sight, and who knows what behind the scenes. I’m not sure what they pay them, but the costumes are very nice.” She turned to Alpha with a smile. “You’d look lovely in one like it. As you did before.” That Spring, in repayment for a favour Alpha had spent a weekend acting as uniformed personal maid to the gangster doe Molly Procyk, much to the doe’s amusement and the shrew’s embarrassment.
“There is no unemployment here,” Svetlana volunteered. “It is an old Russian saying, the devil finds work for idle paws. Since the Revolution – we believe it. A subject of the Grand Duchess will have a job or one will be found for them; no idlers or loungers on the street corners spending their days preaching sedition.” She shrugged. “Not a pleasant job perhaps, but that is an incentive for them to find a better. We have public projects with logs to saw, streets to sweep and suchlike – all things that need doing.”
Just then their guide appeared, beaming. “Is excellent! I have been talking with my people here – tomorrow, first you will take the tourist ride to see the city and then” she dropped her voice conspiratorially “some people, they have interest in meeting you. Maybe they are wishing to compare notes, about how things are done in your homelands.”
Nancy inclined her muzzle graciously. “I’m sure we’ll be very interested to meet them. Vostok has such a reputation.” For an instant an incongruous image worthy of any pulp magazine flashed through her mind; a panel of high ranking Secret Police furs sitting hooded and masked, drenched with artificial scent that hid their sex and species even from each other.
Isabella’s snout tendrils wriggled in distrust. She whispered in Spontoonie <How do we know if they are the real Secret Police? Have you ever thought of that? Who would question them and what they do? All this secrecy runs both ways.>
Nancy laughed. But the squirrel sleuth made a careful note. “Qui custode custodes?” as her Father often quoted when discussing law enforcement; “who shall guard the guardians?” She had heard Vostok took it seriously enough to have two equal and independent Secret Police forces who not unnaturally hated each other, and (by repute) would believe anything of their rival. If a real threat did sneak into local society disguised as its own nemesis, would it be spotted in time?
“And now, our supper!” Irina clapped her paws imperiously and half a dozen servants entered with laden plates; yellow fish soup with caviar was followed by hearty dishes with names like “Plov” and “Babka” accompanied by potatoes prepared in many strange and wondrous ways. Poi was happily conspicuous by its absence.
“Qui custode custodes?” That was the thought which stuck in Nancy’s head. Although the supper was a sumptuous one and she ate as ravenously as the rest, at the back of the sleuth’s mind a seed of doubt began to grow.
The next day dawned bright and clear; to her embarrassment Nancy slept in till seven lulled by the unaccustomed comfy bed after the late evening before. Breakfast was not scheduled until nine, but she had been accustomed to be up and doing with the sun even when away from Songmark. Yawning, she blinked and looked at the other bed, noting Alpha was nowhere to be seen. She listened hard, but there was no sound of water from the bathroom either.
“Alpha?” She called out quietly. Just then her shrew wife trotted in, a pocket toolkit in her paw and a mischievous smile on her long, twitching muzzle.
“You’re awake!” Alpha flew into her arms. Nancy returned the hug, eagerly. But then she stopped.
<You aren’t worried about them listening?> She pointed towards the light fitting, which she had noticed had one bulb unlit. Given the otherwise excellent quality of the hotel it rather stood out. <Svetlana says they do not like the idea of us together – like so many things here.>
Alpha relaxed with a rarely-seen contented smile. “Nance. Is very very simple wiring job. Some circuits I switch off, some I change round. Anyone listening, will find it hard to recognise voices now – they should still be able to tell what their guests are doing though.” Her eyes gleamed, and she pulled out of her capacious pocket an obviously home-made circuit box. “When I engage the switch like this – the re-routing will kick in, they will think here they are listening to Eva Schiller’s room.” She winked, and pushed a jury-rigged switch.
It took Nancy a second to catch exactly what she meant; her tail twitched and a slow smile spread over her muzzle. The previous night she had not dared to do more than hug her wife chastely before sadly returning to their separate beds, rather inhibited by the idea of unfriendly ears. Her final thought before falling asleep had been that they might as well have still been at Songmark, although at least the beds were far more comfortable. She returned Alpha’s wink. “Oh, Eva!”
“Maureen!” Alpha kissed her passionately, the bed creaking loudly as the pair embraced. She had no affection for the German vixen and her constantly championing her nation’s ideology – and like Nancy, revenge was very sweet.
“And here we have the Duma building – that is, the Parliament, or assembly,” It was a few hours later and Irina had gathered the Songmark party together for a tour of the city. The best views, she had assured them, were from the top deck of a tram or “Elektro-drohzky” as she called it – Nancy would have called it a streetcar. There was little private traffic, with most of the people riding in trams and the goods in surprisingly uniform lorries. In fact, Nancy mused, there were about ten standard models of vehicles on the road, and they tended to be in unpainted aluminium varying from shiny silver to weathered grey. Vostok made a lot of aluminium and it was visible everywhere from the street lights to the roofs of buildings. The few conventional cars tended to be conspicuous black sedans – probably secret police trying to double-bluff, was the irreverent thought that sprang to mind.
“You have a Parliament?” Maureen’s eyebrow rose. “And here I was a-thinkin’ you started a Revolution in 1917 refusing to listen to one with Prince Kerensky and his supporters.”
Irina sniffed. “We have a Duma, it is their job to listen to the People and give ideas and opinions to our beloved Grand Duchess; they present her with options. She then makes her own mind up. That is her job.” For some reason Irina seemed less than keen to talk with Maureen that morning.
“What are those towers, over on the hilltop? They look rather strange for church towers. Almost medieval, I’d call them.” Eva pointed to what might have been a water-tower had it not been so slender, with a flat top. Oddly enough, although it had radio masts they were suspended from the sides of the tower rather than the highest point. “Autogyro platforms?”
Irina looked at the German fox with a hard to read expression. “Should Starling send his aircraft over one day – he will find out. Enough said, yes?” Her tail swished. “Anyone could tell you though – they stand up above most Winter fogs. You can get – oh yes, a fine view of everything from there. No buildings in the way.”
Eva nodded thoughtfully. “Our Leader is also doing a lot of useful building around Berlin and other cities, with other towers with … a clear view. Very good for aircraft spotters. Interesting.”
The tram ran along through neatly built suburbs for another two kilometres before arriving at its terminus, a land airport built in much the same grand style as the seaplane port they had arrived at the day before. To one side was a recognisable international terminal in white brushed concrete and gleaming tile art deco style, the runways of which had an aircraft assortment of native Severskis and license-built German models; with a thrill Nancy spotted a huge Junkers G38 taxiing in such as she had seen on Spontoon’s Eastern Island the month before. Just as Alpha had noted, the registration was in the Old Russian alphabet with the “Yat” letter standing proud against the ravages of sinister progressive spelling reformers.
The far side of the airport was quite another story. What looked like rolling low hills were revealed to be vast concrete hangars easily eighty metres across. As to their inhabitants…
“Balalaika Mark 3 bis, 'Misha' as informally the crews call the model,” Alpha had obviously memorised the entry in “Jane’s All the World’s Dirigibles” as she spotted a huge shape beginning to roll down the runway. “New Orilov 20 radial engines with single-stage supercharger. Improved range and maximum altitude over previous models, a hundred and twenty knots observed speed, war load specified as either 1800 kg of crude gravity-guided explosives or sixty cordite rockets on wing pylons depending on fuel load and available runway.”
“Gravity guided?” Eva queried, her ears perked up. Then she laughed. “Oh. You are meaning – they drop them and down they go.”
“So crudely destructive.” Alpha’s ears went down. “But the flight mechanisms are interesting, yes! Observe – on takeoff the stub wings and engines pivot to give more lift and thrust – quite efficient.”
Nancy looked on in interest. The “Balalaika” was evidently heavily laden today, taking four hundred yards of runway to get off. Dimly through the open windows of the Elektro-drohzky came the sweet thunder of aircraft engines as the distant pilot switched on the supercharger, opened up to full military power and the great plump shape lifted into the skies looking somewhat like a melon seed. I wonder if the passenger aircraft have a setting for full civilian power, she mused to herself, looking around at her party. Eva, Isabella and Maureen were gazing at the distant sight with their ears right up (in the bulldog’s case that meant little) and a rapt expression of pure desire.
Of all the Songmark girls I know, I must be about the least interested in aircraft, as such. One of Nancy’s ears dipped wryly. She was there to train as a flying sleuth, and the wide range of Songmark classes on the ground were just as much use to that career as anything purely aeronautical. Her marks were decent in every technical class and she hoped to pass Songmark’s brutally comprehensive course able to fly anything from a hot-air balloon to a modern fighter, but when it came to raw tail-flagging passion for powerful machines clawing their way into skies shaking with the throaty bellowing of thousand-horsepower engines – somehow she did not respond quite as the rest of her class did. Alpha was the exception – most things about Alpha were different, and coming as she did from Cranium Island the shrew was difficult to impress. To her, praising the latest dirigible would be like an inventor of a static 1780’s steam engine boasting to a modern engineer about the new James Watt technology condenser of his fifty-foot beam engine mine pump.
“Last stop, all off!” Irina waved expansively. “Is Duke Alexis Airport – named for hero of Civil war, a great man and true Russian patriot martyred by the Bolsheviks. Duke Alexis kept his last Siberian Cossack aircraft squadron flying to the end, covering retreat to Vladivostok. Many tens of thousands of women and cubs escaped to Vostok so.”
“T’would be a happier omen had they named it after a fur who’d actually won,” Maureen grumbled under her breath. “’Tis like calling your airline 'Hopefully Trans-Pacific' or some such. Not what I’d be callin’ encouraging.”
As they piled out of the vehicle, Nancy handed Irina her Kodiak Brownie camera and gestured at the impressive façade of the airport. In a generous concession to the tourist industry foreign visitors were now allowed to bring their cameras into the country, but only approved tour guides were allowed to take photographs with them and all film had to be developed at State labs before leaving Vostok. Irina considered the request and fired off a few shots for the travel scrapbook.
“I just hope they’re in focus,” Nancy whispered to Alpha. “If I put blurred or over-exposed photos in the report the tutors will mark me down regardless of who took them.” She looked around the scene; the road ended at the airport in a wide turning area with room for four stands for the local trams. A twin-track railway could be seen leading into the military area, with olive green petrol tanker and box cars visible in a distant siding.
Just then Irina’s ears and tail went up in delight, and she waved happily at one of the furs in the crowd outside the entrance. The one who waved back proved to be a tall grey-furred boar, dressed in a practical “safari jacket” not unlike the ones Nancy wore at Songmark except his was light grey twill rather than khaki. “Vladimir! He is in the police and is being the fiancé of my good friend Anneka. Who is being of his species, naturally.”
“But naturally,” Eva Schiller nodded, smiling.
The boar gave an elegant bow. “Mesdames,” he looked around at the Songmark party, his deep-set eyes flashing over them with a hard but not unfriendly scrutiny. “Welcome to Duke Alexi Kirimov Airport!” He winked. “Had you arrived on a land plane, I would have made the acquaintance of such lovely ladies a day sooner. It is my loss.”
Nancy curtseyed, glad she was wearing a semi-formal frock rather than her Songmark shorts. Despite the warm day she had not seen any Vostokite ladies wearing short trousers. “We’re pleased to meet you, I’m sure. Irina said you’re in the police here? My father is Governor of my home state, and a staunch supporter of the fight against crime.”
“Oh, indeed! “ Vladimir looked hard at Nancy; the squirrel had a mental image of neatly typed index-cards being rapidly shuffled. “Miss Nancy Rote. Your name is known to us – yes, even here. The solution you found to the Gibbering Samovar Mystery was a fine piece of deduction. And the Spontoon newspapers have told us how you saved last year’s Christmas meal, with the Christmas pudding thefts.”
“That was only my duty to Spontoon – and Alpha here helped a lot.” Nancy tried to suppress a blush as she remembered there had been three investigators on that case – the handsome zebra Mr. Simmons who had made such a good impression on her and Alpha until they had discovered his real plans for them. “We’re honorary Spontoon citizens, while we’re studying at Songmark.”
“Ah, yes. It is reported that part gave our dear Grand Duchess some pause when she considered whether to send Miss Tiemoshenko there. It is a thing we have been given reason to dislike – divided loyalty.”
Alpha looked up at the boar; in her case the mental index cards were probably moving at a speed where Albert Beerstein’s equations would start to apply. “Excuse? In Vostok official history, it says current regime was defended in early years by, quote, “a rag-tag collection of Czech Legion, French Foreign Legion and international adventurers caught up in the Civil War,” unquote. Does that fit?”
The boar raised an eyebrow. “Miss Zarahoff, expert scientist of Cranium Island.” There was more than a hint of respect in his voice. “It is a fact that anyone who would fight the Bolsheviks alongside us was welcome, as indeed they still are. Where they came from is not so important to us. Almost all of us are exiles here; thirty years ago there were not fifty thousand people in the whole Vostok isles, and now we number three million. So many full Russians turned Bolshevik that … we cannot trust that alone. We ask only true loyalty to the Throne – and that is a thing that can be acquired – or lost.”
“Statement acceptable.” Alpha paused. “Query – does that explain the Vostok dislike of religions and organisations with international links?”
The boar gave a curt nod. “One cannot be loyal to – say, one’s Masonic Lodge Master in London, Protocol Elder of Sion in Geneva or Pope in Rome and be a true Vostokite. We have learned that the hard way. The International Conspiracies hate us for what we know of them.”
“Svetlana’s always said as much,” Nancy added smoothly. “She’s a credit to your nation.”
Vladimir laughed, and clapped his paws together. “And now! I have much to show you.”
Nancy was familiar with the workings of a standard police station in her homeland, but the organisation of an international airport and Customs department was new to her. For two hours Crusader Dorm were shown around behind the scenes; most interesting was the rank of desks where furs pored over the names of passengers due to arrive.
“Every passport and its details is photo-telegraphed in advance,” Vladimir beamed. “Has limitations, yes! Today is only eleven airports permitting flights direct here, and all need direct undersea cable and coded transmitting equipment. But is worthwhile.” He picked up a grainy, newspaper-quality grey image from the “passed” section on one of the desks. “Here is case. Ivan Ushenko, exiled Russian engineer coming from America where he has lived since Revolution, travelling in through Hawaii. First step, we believe this is him. Trusting people, are we not ? Name is telephoned to central headquarters. They have card indexes – so very many indexes – and Vostok-designed machines sort cards faster than any in the world. Yes, the first cards say, we know that name, he has published in engineering journals. Yes, other cards say, here is interview with him where reporter mentions his age and species, it is matching passport. So far so good. But Ioseph Starling is not stupid enough to send in agents with such basic details wrong.”
“I expect you have other indexes. Files on everyone, as far as you can.” Eva nodded appreciatively. “It is the only way.”
The boar winked. “Oh yes! Congratulations, Miss Schiller, on your winning the Härz Mountain gliding trophy last July! It was reported in several of your newspapers, and in our indexes a week after.”
“The so-called allies let us fly gliders if nothing else all my cubhood,” Eva nodded. “That will turn round and bite them one day. When you know gliding, you know flight. And being cheap to make and free to fly, tens of thousands more have learned than if they had to pay for regular aircraft lessons.”
“Well said!” Vladimir nodded. “And we have taken note of your article in the junior section of the “Geopolitische Zeitung” on how all Germany is menaced by President Hasek’s air force, being within two hours flying range of the Czech bomber airfields – yes, a fine piece of work.”
“It must be expensive, having enough trained people to keep up with everything,” Nancy mused. “Just the newspaper subscriptions alone, seven days a week and having it all airmailed out to you.” She had read another article about some American company who made census sorting machines attempting to sue the Vostok government for flagrantly stealing their patented designs, but did not think it politic to mention it. By all accounts suing Vostok was whistling in the wind and far dearer on lawyers. National law here superseded any International law, and anything copyrighted or patented elsewhere in the world was rapidly put into Vostok production.
“Expensive – yes. But our Grand Duchess finds it worthwhile to know these things. Anyone might have guessed but she knows as a fact now – she looks much better in a dress than does America’s Mr. J. Edgar Hoover.” The boar winked, and drew breath. “And now – is time for luncheon!”
to be continued