I hate thunderstorms. Especially when Sam is just about to leap out of wherever the hell he’s been. Every time there’s a storm, there’s a problem with the power generator.
No power means no lights, no air conditioning.
And I hate it when it’s hot and dark.
The darkness slowly started to give way to light. It hurt my eyes. And they were closed.
Something was lifted off of me. Must have been one hell of an explosion. I wondered what the Chamber looked like.
Something else was removed from my body. I didn’t want to see what the Chamber looked like.
I didn’t want to see the bill for the repair.
Someone turned me over. “Captain, are you all right?”
“Who the hell are you calling capt…”
I opened my eyes and looked up at the face that was staring down at me worriedly. It belonged to an Army sergeant. An Australian hat was pushed back on his dark brown hair.
I closed my mouth and swallowed, closing my eyes.
Something was definitely wrong. We don’t have Army personnel at the Project.
I opened my eyes again. Another face was next to the first with a British beret on his head. He looked as worried as the first guy did.
I closed my eyes again and groaned. We don’t have any Brits at the Project either.
We were talking big time trouble here.
I opened my eyes a third time. This time I looked all around me, taking in everything.
Bright light reflected off of white sand. It hurt my eyes, causing my head to hurt even more. I blinked as I sat up and looked around. A third man was standing near some jeeps, a steel helmet on his head, a match or a toothpick dangling from his mouth.
“How many fingers am I holding up?” the American voice asked me. A couple of fingers waggled in front of my eyes.
“Two, and you’re not holding them up, you’re moving them,” I responded crossly.
“Well, even if he has a concussion, it can’t be that bad,” drolled a British voice. “He’s still able to make a snappy comeback.”
“C’mon Captain,” the American sergeant grabbed me by an elbow and helped haul me to my feet. “We have to get going.” He turned to the guy in the beret. “What about Schliemann?”
“Dead,” he answered.
That word had a finality to it. I didn’t like it when single syllable words were so final. They made little alarms go off in the back of my head. The kind that suggests it’s time to get myself somewhere else. Say a nice beach with a big drink and Tina on my lap….
“Precisely,” the British voice continued.
“We’ve come this far, Moffitt,” the American voice snapped. “I’m not going to quit now just because we lost one man.”
“Troy,” the man identified as Moffitt argued, “we can’t go on now. How are we going to get out of the fortress without Shleimann?”
“How were we going to get in?” Troy continued to assist me toward the jeep, his tone sharp and angry. “We can try and get out the same way.”
I stared down at the sand under my boots. Nice shiny boots. Not the kind of footwear that I normally wore. It seemed a long way down to the sand that was under my feet. Must have been some jolt I took.
“Troy, we’ve been over that.” The Brit’s voice was wearily patient. Like some teacher in some of my classes when I was in the orphanage. “The convoy goes in. It doesn’t go out. Because we blow up the road to eliminate the possibility of pursuit. And to cripple the S.S., which doesn’t belong here anyway. That was why we got Schliemann. Remember?”
“Well, we don’t have Schliemann now,” Troy snapped. “So we have to come up with another way out. But we have to get in or Hitch and Heinie will also be very dead.”
Troy let loose of my elbow, letting me maneuver the rest of the way to the jeep on my own. He moved toward the man standing by the jeep. “Give me some good news, Tully.”
“Well, the jeep wasn’t hit. And the Jerries have moved on. Musta thought they got us with one round.” He rolled the match around with his tongue.
“They got Schliemann,” Troy said shortly.
“Then they did get us with one round, didn’t they?”
“Don’t you start!”
The helmeted man slid under the steering wheel of the jeep. “Didn’t. But if you think I can get us out of there, you got another think coming, Sarge. I drive. I don’t fly.”
Fly? Why the hell would these ground-pounding Army-types be worried about flying out of anywhere?
“You’d better sit in front, Captain,” Moffitt suggested as I started to move to the back of the jeep. “In your condition, I don’t think you could handle the fifty with much finesse.”
It sounded like a reasonable suggestion. I preferred to fire things from F-4’s, not from the back of cars. Even if I am from New York.
I slid into the front seat and started to reach for a seat belt. There was none. Fortunately no one else seemed to notice.
The two sergeants climbed into the back, and the driver started the car. Over the road noise, I could catch bits and pieces of Troy and Moffitt’s conversation. Something about fortresses, convoys, planes and dead pilots. I gave up trying to eavesdrop and settled back to try to figure out what kind of mess I’d gotten myself into.
Who was I? They called me “Captain,” but they didn’t treat me like their commanding officer. They were respectful enough, and even seemed to care that I was OK, but it was obvious that Troy was in charge here. If I was really a captain I should outrank him…. I looked down at the uniform I was wearing, squinting at the insignia.
And froze as I recognized what I was wearing.
I was a captain all right. A captain in the German Army during World War II.
What the hell was going on?
Still reeling from the surprise, I looked up and met a second shock. Sam was standing in the middle of the road with his arms wide open. He seemed about to form the word, “Al!” as the jeep ran right through him. I looked back over my shoulder, but the figure was gone.
“Sam!” I shouted.
The driver startled; the jeep swerved abruptly, almost going off the road just as something hit the road right where we would have been and exploded. Troy swung the mounted weapon in the direction of the projectile and began firing back as Tully, the driver, shifted and sent the jeep down the road at speeds I would normally appreciate. There was answering weapons fire and the sound of another vehicle as it raced to catch us.
“Al, if they turn at the crossroads you’ll all be caught in a trap!” Sam’s voice sounded from in front of me.
I turned and stared at Sam in his fermi suit stuck in the hood of the jeep like some sort of fancy giant hood ornament.
"Al, you’ve got to get them to stop this jeep and now, or there’s going to be hell to pay!”
“Stop?!” I shouted.
Tully complied with amazing speed, nearly sending me over the windscreen and into Sam’s holographic face.
“Why the hell did you order us to stop?” demanded Troy.
I managed not to open and close my mouth like some stupid fish. Not by much, grant you, but years of having to think on my feet in front of gasbag congressmen on the Hill have taught me a few things.
“Tell him there’s an ambush ahead,” Sam said.
“Uh, ambush. Ahead.” Okay, so I wasn’t exactly up to speed, but who the hell is when whatever the hell happened to me happens to somebody.
“Ambush?” The Brit sounded dubious.
“Yeah, ambush.” I spared the guy a glance and gave the British sergeant my best superior officer glare. Doesn’t matter if they’re Army, Air Force, Marine or Navy, the glare is the glare. “I am a German officer, after all.”
“Why the hell didn’t you tell us about this before?” demanded the American sergeant.
“Well, uh,” I looked at Sam and wiggled my eyebrows in question.
“The ambush was a last minute thing, Al,” Sam filled me in. “And Hauptmann Dietrich didn’t know until after he and these guys,” he waved a hand indicating the three others in the jeep, “had split up last night.”
“I didn’t know when we talked last night.”
“So why the hell didn’t you tell us this morning?” pressed the American.
“Time?” I shrugged. “It seems to me we were a little hurried.”
I sure hope they’d been hurried.
“He’s right, Troy,” Moffitt said. “And I seem to recall that Herr Hauptmann had tried to tell us something about fifteen seconds before we got hit earlier.”
“Fine. So tell us what else you haven’t told us because of time,” snapped Troy.
Instinct wanted me to chew his anatomy out but good. Didn’t matter that I was a superior officer in the enemy camp, I was still a superior officer and deserved some respect. But common sense told me first things first. Find out what the hell happened, what the hell I had to do, do it, and then chew him out.
Troy was staring off into the distance, right through Sam. “They haven’t continued firing,” he finally said.
“True,” nodded Moffitt.
“Let’s find out why,” he decided. “Tully….”
“Got it, Sarge,” the driver cut the motor and slid out from under the wheel and grabbed a rifle before he disappeared around the rocks ahead.
Well, that was one out of the way. Now to get rid of the other two so Sam and I could talk in private.
“Answer the call of nature, Al,” Sam smiled at me.
I swear there was a devilish glint in his hazel eyes. I couldn’t say anything; I could only glare at him. He was getting me back for something, but what I couldn’t remember.
“Answer the call of nature, Al,” Sam repeated. “Get up, get out of the jeep, and find a nice quiet, private cluster of rocks. Now.” He made that last word an order. And he did it rather well for a civilian.
Rocks? I stared around me. Rocks. And sand. No privy in sight.
I slowly got out of the jeep. Moffitt stared at me, worry on his face.
“Uh, I have to go….” I waved at the rocks, hoping I wouldn’t have to go in detail.
“Watch your step,” he told me.
If he told me “don’t go far,” I was going to deck him.
Once I got far enough from the jeep behind the rocks, I folded my arms over my chest and waited for the super genius to show up. At least he didn’t drag his heels getting to me.
“All right, what the hell is going on Sam?”
“At least you’re not as swiss-cheesed as you were the last time we changed places,” Sam said. “You remember me.”
“I remember a lot of other things too,” I growled. “Like the last time I was a captain, too. And in the Army. But at least I was in the American Army. Now I’m in the Wehrmacht!”
“Good, Al,” Sam nodded. “And your name is Hans Dietrich.” He paused. “Nice guy, for a German officer.”
“Sam, where the hell am I?” I wiped the sweat off my face. I hate to sweat.
“Well, this is the Sahara Desert,” Sam looked around. “And it’s around March.” He whacked the handheld and looked at the blinking lights. “Yep. March, 1942.”
“What?” I managed not to yell too loud. I didn’t want company after all.
“March 1942,” Sam repeated. “I know, you were barely out of diapers then, but that’s why you’re here and I’m not.”
I kind of remembered that too. His string theory was limited to the beginning and the end of one’s life. And since the whiz kid wasn’t born until the mid-1950’s, it would stand to reason that he couldn’t leap back any further than the mid-50’s. And that since my birthday was a few years before his, I could.
“So why am I here? Besides the fact that my birthday is closer to this date than yours?”
“Well, Ziggy isn’t real sure,” Sam began.
“Ziggy knows,” I snorted. “That overpriced laptop just wants you to stroke her ego.”
Sam frowned at me. “Ziggy is not an overpriced laptop.”
“She is,” I insisted. “And she knows. She just doesn’t like to tell us all at once. She wants to make us work for the answers.”
I marched closer to my holographic friend and tried to grab the handheld. Hand went right through it. Damn. Forgot. It’s not solid. At least not for me.
“Ziggy,” I snarled low, “you tell us what I have to do to get out of this….”
“Captain are you all right?” A voice sounded from the other side of the rocks. At least the Brit had the decency to stay on that side and give me some semblance of privacy.
“I’m just dandy,” I answered. “Now leave me alone. I’ll be back in a few minutes Mother.”
“Captain?” the voice sounded puzzled. "Er, Herr Hauptmann?"
I took a deep breath and wondered just how much damage I had just caused. “I’ll be back in a minute or two. A button got snagged. A little embarrassing, you know?”
“R–ight.” He didn’t sound like he believed me at all.
“Okay, Al, Ziggy says there’s a 92% chance that you’re here to get a couple of guys out of a fortress prison.”
“Why me?” I demanded in exasperation.
“…doesn’t have all the details,” I finished for him. “I’ll take what she does have.”
“Well, according to what we can find, and it wasn’t easy finding it,” Sam began, "two men, Heinrich Bier and Mark Hitchcock, were captured by the S.S. They were taken to a small fortress where they were both tortured and killed. You—I mean Dietrich—and these guys, called the Rat Patrol…”
“Fitting name,” I smirked.
“…launched a failed attempt to rescue them,” Sam completed without missing a beat.
“So I guess I’m here to make sure they don’t fail,” I sighed. “What does Ziggy have about a guy named Schliemann?”
“Schliemann?” Sam frowned, inputting data into the handheld. “Well, that was the name of the guy that found Troy….”
“I think that this guy is a whole lot younger than he was. Although I have a Troy here, too….”
“Hauptmann Dietrich?” came the Brit’s voice again, somewhere on the edge between impatience and concern.
“Coming!” I called. I turned to Sam. “Get back to me as soon as you have anything more definite on our mission or on Schliemann.”
“Will do,” Sam promised and faded out. I returned to the jeep. My timing was excellent; no sooner had I climbed into the jeep than Tully returned.
“Dietrich’s right,” he said. “There’s a bunch more Jerries dug in down along that road that we couldn’t see because of the rocks. If we’d followed whoever was shootin’ at us, we’d’ve been in little bloody pieces all over the road.”
“Told you so,” I said with satisfaction. Troy gave me an odd look. Maybe German officers didn’t talk like that.
“Let’s move on to the warehouse,” Troy ordered. “We’ll sneak in on that convoy as planned.”
Tully obediently straightened out the jeep, which had slewed across the road when he stopped, and we continued on our way.
“And we’ll get out how?” I heard Moffitt ask.
“We’ll fly over that bridge when we come to it,” said Troy. That made me think. Hadn’t he, or someone, said something about flying before? None of these ground-pounders looked like they knew the first thing about flying a plane.
Warehouses look pretty much the same everywhere; in World War II, in the 1990’s, in North Africa, in the U.S. of A. We came to a plain rectangular building with a lot of wooden crates piled everywhere.
We all climbed out of the jeep. I found it awkward again; somehow, the ground seemed too far away, and my legs took steps way longer than I planned. Troy came over to help me when he saw me catch myself after stumbling out of the jeep. The rest gathered around.
“OK, here’s the plan,” said the American sergeant. "We wait inside the warehouse for the trucks to come. We want to climb inside after all the boxes are loaded. We don’t want to attract attention; don’t kill anybody unless you have to.” He looked at me. “Dietrich, I don’t want you to have to kill someone on your own side, even if they are S.S. Stay here by the jeep. You can keep an eye out just in case they come from the opposite direction, and we’ll let you know when it’s time.”
That worked for me. For one thing, once they all went inside the warehouse, it would give me a chance to talk to Sam. Assuming he noticed I was available. Assuming he had any more information for me.
The three disappeared leaving me alone at the jeep.
“Thought they’d never leave,” Sam’s voice sounded right behind me.
I swear he did it to get back at me for some forgotten wrong I’d done to him in the past. Future. Whatever.
“Well, they have. But I don’t think we have much time.”
“You don’t,” Sam agreed as he looked over the area.
I looked at him, expectantly. “Well?” I finally prompted him.
“Oh, sorry, Al," Sam apologized. “I was just looking at this place. I think it’s near an archaeological site I was on….”
“I don’t care if it’s over the cavern housing the Lost Ark! What the hell do I have to do to get me back home and you back in this position?”
“Don’t get your shorts in a knot, Al,” Sam said. That sounded more like me. I had to wonder if we did another trade of mesons and whatnot.
“I’m not. I just know that those guys aren’t going to take their time in there.”
“Well, it seems that those two guys I told you about, Hitchcock and Bier were captured in Matmata. Seems that they overheard a couple of S.S. officers discussing something in a bar.”
“They were in the bar together?” I looked at him in surprise. “But they’re not on the same side.”
“The city is—was—neutral. And the guys had apparently met in the desert a time or two and had to fight together so that the Arabs wouldn’t kill them. So there was a sort of mutual admiration. And when they’re in a neutral area, they take advantage of it. Anyway, the S.S. saw them, saw that they had heard them and after a chase through the town, captured them.”
“And they are now where?” I asked, wiping more sweat from my face and neck. Why couldn’t I have leaped into someone someplace more habitable?
“In the fortress of Kebili where they have a nice little prison. Where they are torturing the two to see if they told anyone else.”
“And how do we know about this?”
“Seems that Tully saw them get captured, and went for help,” Sam replied. “He got his buddies, the Rat Patrol, and tried to get them before they got out of town.” He paused a beat. “They didn’t get them.”
“So where does this Hans Dietrich fit in?”
“He’s Heinrich Bier’s commanding officer,” Sam answered.
That made sense. No C.O. worth his salt would let a non-com get treated like something coming from the south end of a northbound animal if he could help it. That was his job.
“And?” I prompted him again.
“And when the Rat Patrol couldn’t rescue them, they went to him to get some more help.”
“And?” I continued to prompt him.
“And he and they apparently came up with some cockeyed plan to sneak into the fortress, rescue the guys and get out.”
Sounded reasonable, in a strange sort of way. Those guys looked like they didn’t do things any other way.
“So, how does—did—Schliemann fit in?”
“He was going to be their way out.”
“He was?” I suddenly had a strange feeling that I wasn’t going to like what I was going to hear. “How was he going to be their way out?”
“Well, it seems that the fortress is up on a plateau, and they knew that once they were in and had shot up the place, blown up a few things including the road leading into and out of the fortress, they couldn't use the jeeps or half-tracks to get out. But the airstrip might still be a way out. And there’s always a plane ready for take-off. Seems the S.S. are—were—a bit paranoid.”
“Wonder why,” I snorted.
“And Schliemann was their pilot.”
“He was what?!”
“The guy that was going to fly them off the plateau.”
I swallowed. “How—“ I stopped and frowned. “Wait a minute, what the hell was a groundpounder doing with a flyboy?”
“Schliemann and Dietrich were old school buddies,” Sam said. “They both took lessons in flying when they were younger. Only Schliemann got bit by the flying bug and Dietrich didn’t.”
Well, I suppose not everyone was cut out to fly. But it sure made being this guy a lot more difficult.
“And when they came up with this scheme of theirs, he volunteered his friend.”
“And his friend just agreed to it?” I raised my eyebrows.
“Seems they both have the same feeling for the S.S.” Sam looked at me. “They both liked the S.S. ... far away from them.”
“And anything to tweak them was fair game, right?” I asked, rubbing my head.
“So what’s Ziggy’s assessment of what I’m to do?” There was a rumbling that was growing in the background. Must be Troy’s convoy.
“Help get them out.”
I glared at Sam. He shrugged back.
“Those are her exact words,” he apologized.
You’d think that super-inflated artificial intelligent thing would behave better for the guy she gushingly refers to as "father." Obviously that was not the case.
“Did she suggest how?”
“Well, yes. Do what you do best.”
“Sam, I am already involved with Tina. I think. And I try to be monogamous.”
“I’m not talking about your so-called skills with females,” Sam snorted. “Neither is Ziggy.”
“Oh, then you mean….” I stopped, my mouth snapping shut. “Oh jeez. You don’t mean…?” I stared into the distance, a tingling feeling starting in my fingers and working its way through my entire body. “You mean…?” I looked at Sam, a smile starting to form on my face. “Fly?”
Tully suddenly appeared and tapped me on the shoulder. I started, but managed to cover fast enough. I nodded and followed him silently from the jeep to the truck that they had commandeered. Moffitt was now in a Wehrmacht uniform, behind the wheel. Troy was also in a Wehrmacht uniform, sitting in the passenger seat.
“Just watch the potholes, Sarge,” Tully grumped as we walked to the back of the truck. Obviously he preferred to drive.
He helped me climb in, then jumped in and sat down on a box, shoving his helmet back from his forehead.
I found my own little box and leaned back against the boxes behind me.
I was going to get to fly!
It had been so long since I’d been in any kind of cockpit. They hadn’t pulled my pilot’s license when I got back from ‘Nam a wasted joke of a human being. I’d even gotten to fly in space. And they hadn’t stopped me from flying when I first headed the Project. But after that one little dizzy spell, the creeps in the white jackets had grounded me. Forever.
How I knew that I wasn’t sure. But it was so. I knew it.
They might as well have cut off my legs. Cut out my heart.
I was going to be able to fly again. Even if it was for just a little while.
“Psst,” whispered in my ear.
I jerked for a brief moment, then settled back.
“I’ve got some more information for you," Sam said quietly. “About your mission. No one’s supposed to know that the S.S. has a base here, including you. I can give you a little extra information that might be helpful."
"Shoot,” I whispered out of the side of my mouth, looking around to be sure no one was looking or listening.
Sam pulled a pencil out of his pocket and tried to sketch a few lines on the nearest crate. The point vanished into the wood without making a mark. Sam pulled the holographic pencil back, frowned, and stuck it back into his holographic pocket. For some reason I found this extremely appropriate in a funny sort of way, though I couldn’t remember why.
“I’ll just have to tell you,” Sam said, irritated. “You should have no difficulty sneaking in with the convoy; they didn’t, originally. The trucks will go to a supply dump on the north side of the fortress; you should be able to slip away during the offloading since they did. The problem occurred when they tried to get to the dungeon where they supposed the prisoners were being held.”
“They weren’t in the dungeon?” I asked.
“Nope. They were being held in a nearby building; I think it was a stable once. Anyway when they broke into the dungeon they set off all kinds of alarms and were taken prisoner.”
“Well at least they found out where the two fellas were really being held.”
“But they weren’t able to stop the S.S. from questioning Bier and Hitchcock about what they all heard and who they all told.” He stopped. “And if you can’t stop them from interrogating them, Hitchcock and Bier will die.”
“Geez Louise,” I said. I really felt for the prisoners. I'd been one and I didn't like remembering being one. The VC were vicious in the way they tortured their captives. Very vicious. Still the S.S. were masters of torture in their own right. Sort of wrote the book on ways to break the prisoner. "I can’t believe we’re gonna pull this off.”
“I’ve been talking with Dietrich back in the Waiting Room,” said Sam. “There’s a lot of stuff he’s not willing to talk about; he’s not convinced yet that I’m on the level. But he’s been quite happy to tell me about the Rat Patrol and gripe about how they’ve plagued his life. Trust me, Al, these guys you’re with can pull off miracles.”
“Miracles, huh? Maybe that’s why Troy thinks he can still get out of here with Schliemann dead.”
“Did you say something Captain?” Tully asked me.
“Private’” hissed Sam.
“No, Private,” I amended, “Just thinking out loud.”
Troy turned and shushed us. “We’re on the final approach.’
I could hear the truck engine straining and feel the boxes under us start to slide to the back of the truck as we started up the steep incline.
We got into the fortress without any difficulty. Moffitt pulled the truck out of the convoy and slid the truck into a space between an old castle and a wooden building that might have been a stable or some other kind of out-house. Tully hopped out of the truck and I followed suit. Troy and Moffitt were standing at the opening to the alley, rifles at the ready. Tully had his rifle held loosely in his hand. I sort of felt naked without any weapon.
“You might want to get that Luger out of your holster, Al,” Sam suggested behind me.
I unsnapped the holster and took out the gun, hefting it awkwardly. The other trucks were pulling around and their drivers and passengers hopping out and beginning to unload. There was enough commotion that we were able to slip away. Troy struck out for the castle. I hustled a bit and caught up with him, pulling him aside.
“Where are you going?” I asked.
Troy gestured toward the castle. “There, of course.”
Moffitt joined us. “These old castles left by the Crusaders come with built-in dungeons. It seems the safest bet, that our missing men will be there.”
I thought fast. Dietrich wasn’t supposed to know the layout, but I did. “Yeah, usually,” I hedged. “But these S.S. guys, they’re strange, you know?” Troy and Moffitt stared at me blankly. I tried again, putting an authoritarian tone in my voice. “I’ve had to clean up some leftover S.S. sites before, and they never do things the way you'd expect them to. The prisoners won't be in the dungeon. They'll be in an outbuilding.”
“Why?” Troy asked.
“Why?” I responded.
This would be a good time to show up, Sam, I thought. Did he? Of course not. So I pretended this was a budget meeting in front of a congressional committee, and made something up fast.
“They have a lot of electronic gadgetry, recording equipment and…other things…you don’t want to think about. Too much trouble to wire the dungeons.”
“Makes sense,” Troy grumbled. Whew. “So where the hell are they, Captain?”
“Well, uh,” I took a deep breath. “I can’t be sure, you understand, but I think…”
“You think?!” Troy nearly bellowed. “You mean you don’t know?!”
Allies or not, I was going to do some serious physical damage to him if he didn’t change his tone.
“That one,” Sam’s voice said as he appeared and pointed to one that looked a lot like the one we had parked by.
“…it’s that one,” I echoed Sam. “See how much activity is not going on around it?”
Troy looked at me skeptically. Apparently he didn’t really want to trust me. Dietrich. But he didn’t really have much of a choice.
“How are you going to get in there?” Sam asked.
I glared at him. Leave it to the super brain to ask a question I couldn't answer because of the folks around. And if he thought I was going to visit another rock pile, he had another think coming.
“Quit looking at me like that,” Troy snapped.
I hadn’t realized that Sam had decided to stand behind the Army sergeant. When I got my hands on him….
“Okay, I apologize,” Troy said grudgingly.
“Now we just have to get in there,” Moffitt mused.
“Any ideas, professor?” Troy looked at him.
“I haven’t seen anyone enter or leave the building,” Moffitt noted. “And it is nearly noon. Perhaps we could bring the hard-working torturers some much needed nourishment?”
“You mean lunch?” Tully said around his matchstick.
“I believe I said that,” Moffitt said with an amused tone.
“And perhaps a little something for the prisoners so they don’t die before the S.S. want them to,” Troy added. He turned to me. Nice of him to remember I was “one of the gang” even if only for this mission. “What do you think, Captain? Will it work?”
Sam shrugged behind Troy, then nodded his head as he read his handlink.
“Can’t hurt,” I said. Then, deciding I wasn’t sounding formal enough I added, “It sounds feasible. Now all we have to do is convince the kitchen that we are the waiters for today.”
“We’ll just tell them someone ordered us to do it,” said Moffitt. “No one should be surprised to see the S.S. making Wehrmacht delivery boys run a few more errands for them. And they won’t expect us to have recognized who it was.” He glanced at Tully and Troy, then directed a quirky half-smile at me. “May I suggest, Captain, that you and I are the logical candidates to make a foray to the mess hall?”
I desperately wanted to ask why, but it was obvious that this was some kind of inside joke that Dietrich was privy to, so I gave a knowing chuckle and looked inquiringly at Sam.
Educated, intelligent, knowledgeable, helpful Sam. He shrugged.
“And while you two are getting the grub, Tully and I will be setting the charges.”
It was in fact Moffitt who supplied the answer as we set out, following our noses to the smell of cooking food. “Some day,” he muttered, “I am going to sign the rest of the Patrol up for Berlitz lessons. Then they can go on some of the missions that require a German speaker.”
That explained why Tully and Troy didn’t come with us. They didn’t speak German. Apparently Moffitt did.
So did Dietrich. Like a native.
Like I didn't.
“Al, you don’t speak German,” Sam reminded me.
“I know,” I said shortly.
“Hauptmann, why would you want them to speak German?” Moffitt asked me.
“Maybe then they could enjoy some of the fun you’ve had to endure,” I tried to cover up. “The captures, the tortures…”
Moffitt looked at me strangely. “Are you sure you feel all right? That bump on the head…?”
“I am peachy keen,” I assured him.
Sam gave me a pained look and groaned. Then the damned handlink started blinking. I knew what that meant. Ziggy was acting up. Again. And she didn’t want to communicate with Sam while he was in the Chamber.
“I gotta go, Al,” he said. “I’ll be right back.”
And pigs fly.
Moffitt stared at me intently. “Herr Hauptmann?”
“There is nothing wrong with me that getting out of this mission alive won’t cure,” I assured him.
“Yes. Right.” He continued to stare at me strangely.
“Uh, I think we better stop with the English,” I pointed out as we neared the kitchen.
“Jawohl, Herr Hauptmann,” Moffitt agreed.
We entered the mess tent…
And was greeted with a flurry of action and a barrage of Italian epithets. Most of them proclaiming loudly that the Germans had no sense of taste. And that Germans didn’t take time to enjoy their meals.
I smiled and raised my eyes heavenward. And I had once thought there was no God.
As we left the kitchen, carefully balancing our trays of food, Moffitt looked at me and said, “Herr Hauptmann, you never cease to amaze me. When were you in Italy?”
I had absolutely no clue when or even whether Dietrich had ever been in Italy, so I managed as high-handed a tone as I could. “Why would you ask that, Sergeant?”
“Your command of Italian isn’t just fluent, it’s colloquial, and it’s not the kind that’s taught in schools. Trust me, I know,” said Moffitt. “So, where did you learn to speak Italian?”
“Do you really expect me to answer that?” I asked him.
“Well, no,” admitted Moffitt. “But we live in hope.”
As we walked to the building, Tully and Troy fell in step behind us. Stood to reason, there’d be a guard to make sure no funny business went on when we delivered the food. And that no one else got the food for the S.S.
“And what happens when we get there?” Troy asked softly.
“Why don’t you do what you do best?” I suggested. “Make trouble so we,” I pointed at Moffitt and myself, “can get those fellows out of there?”
Tully smiled around his matchstick. “Think he has our number, Sarge.”
“Yeah,” Troy said, almost smiling back.
Everyone was absolutely quiet as we neared the building. I was still sweating bullets. After all, I doubted very much if the guards were Italian.
“Do you want to speak to them,” Moffitt asked, “or should I?”
Sam suddenly appeared beside the British non-com and said, “Better let him do it, Al. First, you absolutely murder the German language, and second, I think one of the guards here knows Dietrich.”
Great. Just what I needed. Still, it gave me an out.
“You had better,” I said. “I think I know one of them.”
“Old friend?” Troy asked.
“I’ll ignore that,” I answered. “And I’ll keep my head down so he doesn’t get a good look at me. Perhaps you should too,” I added.
“I just hope they don’t know me,” Moffitt replied in a martyr tone.
Sam gave me a high sign. “Nope. Even though they probably should, considering how infamous the Rat Patrol was.”
“I don’t think so, Sergeant,” I assured him. “Now your compatriot…”
“Al, behave yourself,” Sam scolded me. “You need him to get you to the plane so you can fly them out of here.”
Pity. I still owed that guy a few lumps. Or something.
Moffitt took the point, head up, while the rest of us followed, head down. Tully even pocketed that matchstick of his. Moffitt saluted smartly, still balancing the trays of food and rattled off a plethora of German that I couldn't even pretend to follow. Sam, standing by Moffitt, nodded in agreement. Smart ass.
It took a few moments but finally the door opened.
Phase one completed.
Outside the building looked like a combination of stable and workroom. Inside, however was a different story. If it had ever been a stable, or anything else, all the stalls and everything else had been removed or replaced. And there had been additions made to the interior. Subterranean additions that made the building seem more like a dungeon than a real dungeon.
We were led through the halls and down corridors that finally led to some cells. Not the old-fashioned western cells that had bars all around, but the older fashioned dungeon-type cells with solid walls and doors except for a tiny barred opening to let a guard look in and make sure the prisoner hadn’t done something stupid like dying before his time.
I knew we were in the right place. I don’t care where in the world it is, there’s a peculiar smell that only exists in places of torture. Like here. I felt my stomach start to do things it hadn’t done since I’d been in ’Nam. And my brain started to remember things I’d thought I’d forgotten….
Sam stuck his head through the walls, and pulling his head out faster than it had gone in. He didn’t look too good. Well, the things that one so-called human can do to another in the name of torture is not pretty. And someone with a heart and soul like Sam’s has a hell of time believing that humans can do that to one another.
Finally he said, “They’re down here, Al, and they don’t look too good.”
Neither do you, I wanted to say. Instead, I subtly pointed down to where Sam was standing. Fortunately Troy and Tully understood. As the guard turned to open a cell, and not one of the ones we wanted, they whipped their rifles around and used the butts to knock out the guards before any alarm was raised.
Troy dropped to the ground by the guy he’d taken out and pulled the keys out of his hands, then rushed down the hall to the cell we did want, Tully and Moffitt not far behind. I didn’t stand still myself. Even if they weren’t tiger cells, they were bringing back those memories I’d just as soon forget for the rest of my natural life.
“Moffitt, you and Tully stand guard,” Troy said. I thought his voice was a little gruffer than usual. Well, if he’s pulled off as many rescues as implied, he’s probably seen it all before and not liking the rerun he was forced to endure.
He and I entered the cell together.
It was scene that made you believe you had gone to go to hell. At least, then you’d understand why you were seeing and hearing and feeling what you were seeing and hearing and feeling. There was a blond kid slumped on the so-called cot in one corner, looking like something a dog had decided to play with and then dump. In another corner, on another cot was a kid with slightly darker hair, who didn’t look any better than the first kid. No worse, but no better.
Troy went to the blond kid. Obviously that was his soldier. Which meant the other one was mine. Dietrich’s. I walked over to him, gently touching his shoulder, ready to move back fast. I remembered what it was like to be the kid and have your rescuer come up on you. After so long, you forgot there were folks that were friends out there.
“Herr Hauptmann?” the kid stared at me, his eyes holding that empty look that begged for hope, but afraid to hope. “Sie sind…hier?"
Sam came up behind me. “Al, he asked if it was you.”
Even I knew that the kid didn’t want a dissertation.
“Yes,” I said, then “Ja.” Not even I could murder that little bit of German.
He closed his eyes, practically falling in my arms. Poor kid. He was younger than even I had been in ’Nam. And probably more scared. After all, these guys that were doing their best to make him wish he were dead were supposed to be his allies.
Troy had the blond kid up and ready to move. I eased the kid, Bier, off the cot. He moved his legs under him. He wasn’t strong by any means, but he was sure as hell trying to help. I supported him the way Troy was supporting his kid and walked out of the hell hole that pretended to be a jail cell.
And continued on, leaving the dungeon behind. It might have been my imagination, but I swear both those kids seemed to get stronger the more distance we put between those cells and us.
I spared a glance at Troy's face. His face was still tense as he tightened his grip on Hitchcock. I recognized the expression from one I remembered on my face. Hell, I was probably wearing the same damned expression myself. It promised that if the kid on his arm didn't pull through, he'd make one more trip here. And when he left there'd be nothing left standing.
And if I was still here, I'd help him.
Suddenly there was a shout. “Alarm!”
Not even I needed a translator for that.
“Damn!” spat Troy.
I could tell he wanted to swing his weapon up and begin firing, but then he’d have to drop the kid and he wouldn't do that.
“Suggestions?” Troy snapped at me.
“Well,” I hemmed, wondering where Sam had disappeared to. As usual.
“Is there another way out of here?” Moffitt called from in front of us, his questioned punctuated by gun fire.
“This way!” Sam’s voice sounded from one side.
I turned toward his voice, seeing his frantic arm movements getting my attention. Finally he got the timing right. He was sweating. I’d say sweating bullets, but he didn’t have to try and dodge the flying metal slugs the way we were.
“There,” I pointed toward my holographic friend.
“That’s a wall!” Troy pointed out angrily.
I raised my eyebrow at Sam.
“Trap door,” he said, obviously knowing that now was not the time to go into detail. “Push the dark brick.”
“Push the dark brick,” I told Troy.
Troy looked at me suspiciously. I gave him my best angelic look, hoping Dietrich’s face mirrored the expression as well as my own had when I was trying to prove to the nuns I wasn’t guilty. From the look he continued to give me I figured it was working on him about as well as it had in the orphanage.
“Trust me,” I said. “Believe me, I don’t want to get caught any more than you do. They do nasty things to people like you. They do nastier things to people like me helping people like you.”
Troy continued to stare at me hard. It looked like he wanted to trust me, but something—maybe sheer dumb stubbornness—was holding him back. Great time for him to get cautious here.
"Look, your job was to get us in here and make sure those moronic nozzles couldn't follow us. My job is to get us out of here. Now damn it, push that damn brick before I use you to push that damn brick!"
I moved close to Troy and the kid, whose name I finally remembered, and literally took the kid off his hands. Hitchcock, like Heine Bier, was trying to help. Troy, free of his burden, moved forward, and pushed the dark brick.
The wall creaked, groaned, then slowly swung in to reveal a dark corridor.
Great. From one dark corridor to another. Well at least in there, with the wall closed, we wouldn’t get shot.
Until they got the door opened and started after us.
“And where does it go?” Troy asked me.
“At this point, does it matter?” I responded. “It goes away from those nozzles who are trying very hard to ventilate our hides. That makes it more desirable than staying here.”
Moffitt, catching that last, gave me another hard stare. “Hauptmann?”
“Look, it’s through this corridor,” I jerked my head toward the wall, “or that corridor,” I indicated the other way out of here now blocked by who knew how many guards with rifles that were still shooting at us. “Take your pick. Me, I’m taking Bier and going this way. You guys are welcome to join me or not as you please. But figure out which way you want to go and fast, ’cause I’m not going to stand around and wait for you guys.”
I adjusted my hold on both guys and started forward, noting that Hitch, the kid, wasn’t arguing with me. Smart kid. Might go far. Troy and the others stared at me, and I think Troy’s mouth was open in surprise.
OK, I guess I didn’t sound too much like his dear enemy Dietrich at the time, but I wasn’t about to find out what happened if this body got shot up while I was in it, thank you very much. I am very allergic to pain. I am even more allergic to death.
“Makes sense, Sarge,” Tully said from behind us. “Hard to shoot at us if they can’t see us.”
Moffitt added, “And an uncertain fate is better than a certainly fatal one.”
“All right,” Troy agreed grudgingly. “Let’s go.”
Once the wall closed behind us, we all breathed a small sigh of relief. But only a small one. We still had to get out of this and to the airfield and into whatever kind of plane we were going to get into and get out of here.
There was a quick scratching sound and a small light appeared.
"Now which way do we go?" Troy's voice from the other side the small yellow light demanded.
"Tell him to keep going down the corridor. There aren't any branches; this is just a straight in and out corridor," Sam's voice whispered behind me. Why he was whispering I don't know. Unless he figured anything louder than a whisper would have probably caused me to jump and hit my head on the ceiling. And considering how low the ceiling was, that wouldn't have required much effort on my part.
"Just walk, Sergeant," I answered. "It might be a secret corridor, but it's a simple secret corridor."
I made sure I had a firm grip on Bier and started off down the dark path squeezing pass Tully and his matchstick. Sam suddenly appeared in front of me, a flashlight in his hands. It did shed a little light on the path. Not much, but at least I could see if there was a pothole or a rock to trip us up.
Which was a good thing since the matchstick no longer was around to give us any kind of light. And wasn't replaced. Oh well, these guys were probably saving the matches for later when they could smoke.
"A simple secret corridor?" I could have sworn that Moffitt was trying very hard not to snicker.
"Al, whoever built this corridor wanted a fast getaway," Sam supplied.
"It's just a fast way out of that place," I passed along the information. "After all, the S.S. didn't build all this," I said. I hoped.
"No," Sam said. "They didn't."
"Does it matter?" I asked as I continued down the corridor, setting as fast a pace as I could with Bier.
Sam, ahead of me was oohing and aahing about whatever the heck he was seeing on the walls. Me, I didn't have time to take in the sights, what with ducking the beams which were way too close to the top of my head for comfort. I had to remember to move at a crouch to keep from beaning my noggin. Dietrich's noggin.
As my—er, Dietrich's—head made contact with yet another thick wooden beam (and where the hell had whoever gotten the wood when there wasn't a tree to be seen for miles?) I let loose with a particularly descriptive Italian epithet.
"Really, Hauptmann," I heard Moffitt snigger behind me. "I know I said you had the colloquial Italian down pat, but I didn’t think it included that part of the vernacular."
"Yeah, well, I'm just full of surprises, Sergeant," I snorted as narrowly avoided the next beam.
"Yes, you are," he responded.
Another particularly colorful Italian expression escaped my lips as I bashed my shoulder against the side of the corridor. If it wasn't the ceiling trying to brain me, it was the wall trying to rip off my arms and legs and create permanent bruises on my sides. Poor Bier suppressed a groan as the wall did a number on his arm and leg. I changed my grip on the poor kid, and turned sideways, then continued down the corridor behind Sam. It made traveling a bit slower—it's not easy to dogtrot sideways—but at least it cut down on the contact with the walls. Now if only I could figure out a way to avoid the damned overhead.
Poor Dietrich was gonna have one sore and bruised body when he got it back. And one hellacious headache.
"Uh, Al," Sam said, "I think we have company behind us."
Sounds behind us confirmed his statement. Well, the creeps probably discovered the corridors when they were renovating the building. But we had a head start on them. Hopefully it would be enough.
"I hear the pitter patter of troop feet behind us," Moffitt quipped.
"Uh-huh," I nodded. "Let's pick up the pace guys."
Easier said than done. Especially sideways. But Bier gamely kept up with me. And the others stayed close behind us. At least we didn't have any light that the Germans could see. Which still gave us a little advantage.
"Uh," I heard Tully behind me, "where does this thing dump out?"
As if I had a clue.
I managed to send a questioning glance to Sam who still moved ahead of us, keeping the flashlight on the ground so that even though we were attempting to bash our brains out and otherwise to bodily damage with the walls, we weren't tripping over our feet. At least I wasn't. I wasn't going to swear to the guys behind us.
"We're nearly there," Sam told me. "It's just ahead."
He let the flashlight play over what I guessed was the door to the outside. Then he disappeared through the door. He reappeared a moment later.
"There's some junk in front of the door," Sam warned me. "Watch your step."
He frowned as I walked through him and propped Bier against the wall.
"We're here," I announced.
Wherever here was.
"You're at the back of the building," Sam told me, as I examined the door. "You remember?" he prompted me to recall the area from when we first arrived. When I gave him my best 'so what?' expression, he went on, "and there's a nice little vehicle there that you can all get into and get to the airstrip about two kilometers from here."
"We're at the back of the building now," I said, as I attempted to push open the door.
"Uh, Al," Sam said patronizingly, "I think the hinges are rusted a bit."
I took a deep breath and pushed harder. No go. Bier joined me. Well, the kid tried. But the past several hours had taken their toll on the youngster.
"Uh, guys, I could use a little help here," I wiggled a finger under the nose of the nearest soldier.
"What's the matter?"
"Well, this isn't exactly a frequently used exit," I all but growled. "The door seems to be stuck. And I can hear that pitter patter getting louder. Now, if you want to see if you can avoid bullets in this enclosed space, just say so. But I think Bier and I are gonna pass on that."
There was a snort from one of them. I didn't bother to look and see who was snorting. But at least Tully came forward and added his shoulder to mine. This time the door moved. Slowly.
Then two more shoulders joined in as the sound of stumbling feet got louder. The door finally gave way.
Going from near blackness to bright light was not nice on the eyes. I squinted as I walked out, remembering Sam's warning and watching where I stepped, guiding my charge around the debris.
There were growls and curses behind me, good old American military curses as the others joined me in the bright light. Of course, they didn't have my knowledge of the junk pile that the Germans had around the door, and tripped over the stuff. I managed not to break out laughing at the strange ballet that they engaged in as they joined me outside. Actually it resembled break dancing without the head spins. I sniggered a lot, and so did Bier. It was hilarious.
"I didn't know that the American Army insisted on dance lessons," I said with a straight face. "Perhaps they know something that we don't, Bier."
"Herr Hauptmann?" Bier looked at me a bit confused.
"Well, I mean, their Army must insist on their foot soldiers being graceful in the field. Perhaps the Wehrmacht should insist on dance lessons for our soldiers."
There were rude noises from the three Americans. The Brit just glared.
"Uh, let's close the door," I suggested, "and move this stuff back where it was before we left the building. We wouldn't want to make it too easy for the S.S. to get out of there, would we? And since I know they didn't take dance lessons the way you folks obviously did, I imagine they won't be able to stay on their feet the way you did."
Troy threw me a most vicious glare. But he and the others helped me close the door and push everything in front of it. And then found a few more things to put in the way.
"Well, Captain," Moffitt looked at me, "what do you think?"
"I think, that if we didn't have to get the hell out of here, I'd love to stick around and watch them get out of there. See if they have the same moves you guys do."
"Enough with the dance routine," Troy growled. "Besides who would ever do steps like that?"
"You never know. You just might have invented a new dance craze," I responded tongue in cheek as I helped Bier into the half-track then slid under the steering wheel. "Hop in. Next stop, Liberty Airlines."
"What do you think you're doing?" Troy demanded.
"Driving," I answered. "Get in. Unless you want to play exchange bullets with the guys in the corridor, get in and hang on."
The motor turned over easily and I waited only until the last guy was hanging onto the door before I floored it. Okay, it was only a half-track, not a Ferrari, but it did respond nicely and we did burn rubber.
"What the hell—?" Troy gasped as he found himself clinging precariously to the vehicle frame.
"I told you to hang on!" I yelled over the sound of the wind whipping by me.
"Yeah, well, you could have waited for me to get in the damn thing before taking off!"
"Hey, I thought you guys were used to driving like this!" I hollered back. "Besides," I shot a thumb over my shoulder, "we have company coming!"
Troy somehow managed to get himself securely in the half-track and raised his rifle, firing at the German jeep that was trying to catch up with us. A bullet connected with a tire and the jeep did a rollover that would do Hollywood proud.
"Shouldn't those charges be exploding?" Moffitt demanded, his eyes scanning the horizon for trouble.
"Yep," Tully nodded, squinting against the bright glare. "Just about—"
The sound of multiple explosions from the front of the compound filled the air.
Nice to know the guy knew his job.
I spotted the airstrip in front of us and started studying the planes on the line. None of them would be my first choice. I'd rather have a nice Lear Jet. But since that hadn't been invented yet, I had to settle for what dear old Hitler had given these yo-yos.
Most of them were small planes, not really more than two-seaters. And since I was trying to get more than two folks off this elevation, they didn't fill the bill.
Then I saw it. Not pretty. At least my definition of pretty. But definitely serviceable. A Junker, if I remembered correctly. The workhorse of the Luftwaffe. It could handle our group of merry men easily.
About the same time I spotted the plane I wanted for this flight, I caught the sound of other vehicles. They were coming from the other side of the airstrip. And they were firing at us.
"Uh, guys," I yelled over my shoulder at the Rat Patrol.
I was answered with the chattering of automatic weapons behind me all directed at the vehicles that were coming at us.
"Just don't hit the plane!" I cautioned them as I started to whip the half-track around the other planes, trying like hell to make it harder for the bad guys to hit us.
I heard a muffled "oof!" and another common army expletive behind me. "Where the hell did you learn to drive?"
"Chasing you guys?" I hazarded a guess.
I heard another snigger from behind me. Guess it was the right answer.
"Sure you didn't spend a summer running moonshine?" Tully snorted.
"Nope," I answered as I brought the half-track to a screeching, turning halt by the Junker and headed for the ladder.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" Troy grabbed my arm.
"Getting this puppy ready for take off," I shook off his arm, then dodged a bullet before returning fire.
"What!?" Troy found himself dodging some gunfire and lifted his borrowed rifle and shooting at the Germans angrily, scoring a direct hit on one of the vehicles radiator.
"You heard me!" I fired at another vehicle, hitting a tire, sending it over on its side.
"What do you know about flying?" Troy demanded grabbing my arm again.
"A hell of a lot more than you do!" I snapped. "Schliemann was a friend of mine. An old friend. We went to school together. We went to flying school together."
"You know how to fly?!" This from Moffitt.
"More than any of you," I bit off the real answer I wanted to give them.
"Why the hell didn't you say so before?" snapped Troy.
"Probably because you were too damn busy bitching about Schliemann getting killed and trying to figure out how you were going to get off this burg without even talking to me!" I snapped back.
"Enough!" Moffitt's voice thundered over the sound of gunfire and our bellows. "Can you really fly this thing?"
"Yes!" I snarled. "Maybe not as good as Schliemann, but yeah, I can fly this thing and get us out of here."
"Then go!" Moffitt shoved me toward the ladder.
"What!?" Troy stared in shock at the Brit.
"Unless you have a better idea?" Moffitt leveled at Troy then shot at another carload of Germans.
Sheesh, where the hell were they all coming from?
Troy glared at the British sergeant, then at me. "Go!" he finally ground out.
"Gee thanks, Sarge," I responded sarcastically as I bounded up the ladder and made my way to the cockpit. "Get the kids in the plane," I ordered over my shoulder. "And you better do something about those other planes or we'll have company up there!"
There was a snort behind me, but I didn't check to see who snorted nor who helped Hitchcock and Bier into the Junker. I was busy getting my keester to the cockpit and hope to hell I wasn't going to have any trouble with the controls. Troy and his team joined the two kids a few minutes later, and continued to fire at the approaching Germans from the inside of the plane.
"Get this bucket airborne!" Troy snapped at me. "Before the other planes blow."
I was getting tired of that non-com giving me orders. Okay, he knew his business, and he was used to working without an officer around, but damn it, he could at least act like he had a little respect for someone of rank.
"This bucket," I bit out, as the engines started to warm up, "is not a race car, or a jeep. The engines have to warm up, and get up to speed or we won't do anything but taxi around the airstrip. How much time do we have?"
"You got five minutes!"
"Count to ten, Al," Sam said from beside me, appearing in the copilot's seat. "You need to keep everybody alive."
"Keep reminding me," I muttered. "Just keep reminding me. 'Cause otherwise I'm gonna do some serious damage to that non-com."
Sam chuckled. "Oh, I can imagine. Uh, Al, what are you doing?"
"Getting ready for takeoff," I grunted. "Sam, ask Ziggy what the magic number is for a Junker."
"Ziggy wants to know which Junker," Sam responded.
"Tell her to give me the max and min RPM's required for all the Junkers," I snarled. "I'll figure out which number to use."
"What is it with you and Ziggy?" Sam frowned at me. "She is a perfectly well-behaved…"
"Sam," I looked over at him. "Just get the numbers for me. Keep the editorial on that overpriced computer game to yourself. And for your information, she's only well-behaved because 'Daddy' is home for a visit. Trust me, that will change when you come home for good."
"What's the problem?" Troy stuck his head into the cockpit.
"Look, I studied flying with Schliemann a long time ago. They didn't have Junkers then for students. I’m trying to remember what I read on them, OK? Unless you know the takeoff speed of a Junker?" I glared back at him.
"Uh, Al," Sam's voice broke in. Pity I was the only one who could hear him. "You can get this Junker airborne in three minutes."
"Ladies and gentlemen, welcome aboard Liberty Airlines Flight One. Please take your seats and fasten your seatbelts. Return all trays to the upright locked position. And if anyone wants to, go ahead and do a little praying 'cause this is gonna be one hell of a takeoff. If I say so myself. And I do."
"Sarge," I heard a voice from behind me, "what the hell is Dietrich talking about?"
"Haven't a clue Hitch. He took a pretty good knock on the head and he hasn't been the same since."
"I don't care if he speaks Serbo-Croatian, quotes the Gettysburg Address and whistles Dixie, just as long as he can fly this thing to a nice safe landing field," I heard Moffitt respond.
"Everybody's a critic," I groused.
Fortunately things like throttles and the other controls looked the same in any prop plane. But Sam, bless his little leaping heart, stayed with me and read off the controls in German and then in English as I revved the baby up for takeoff. A ping along the windshield made me swear in something other than Italian this time. The years I spent in tiger cages had taught me more than those monsters ever knew.
"Uh guys," I called over my shoulder, "I know I said buckle up, but I think you had better pretend to be a bomber crew—you know right tail gunner, left tail gunner, turret gunner, whatever gunner. Just start shooting at those guys before they perforate the plane and make it impossible for us to take off."
Well, they didn't know from planes, but they sure knew from guns and they made those guns of theirs sing a very nice tune. Heine did send a whispered question my way which Sam promptly translated for me.
"The kid wants to know if you mean him as well," Sam said.
"Kid, I don't know about you, but I am not going back there to that particular hell-hole. I will fight for the Fatherland and Germany, but not those guys. As far as I'm concerned, they're the enemy for now. Shoot, kid." Maybe Dietrich wouldn't have agreed, but we needed every gun firing if we were going to get away from those monsters.
I just hoped he understood my English because I knew he sure wouldn't understand my German.
"Jawohl, Herr Hauptmann," he said, and damned if it didn't sound like he was grinning.
As the fifth gun began to chatter behind me, I saw the numbers reach the magic mark and I pulled the throttle back. The Junker was no F-4 and would never be one, but feeling that hunk of metal move down the runway sent a nice warm fuzzy feeling all over me. Damn it was good to feel a plane take off again. And know that I was the one that was getting to fly it.
Once we were airborne, things did settle down behind me. I mean, there were no fighters coming for us—the explosions that Troy and Tully had planted on the other planes had gone off just as we were taking off. Talk about cutting it close…. Although I doubted if they got all the planes, they probably got enough and the mess they made of the runway would ground the others. At least until they fixed the runway. Which wouldn't be until we landed somewhere.
I leaned back in the cockpit seat and let myself enjoy flying the old plane. Even if it wasn't a jet or a shuttle, it was a plane and I was flying it and the damn quacks couldn't do a thing about it.
"The odds are looking better," Sam's voice spoke from beside me. "You still have to land this thing successfully, though."
"Where?" I asked.
"A small abandoned German airstrip about three miles from Matmata."
"Uh, Sam, why was it abandoned?" I had a sinking feeling I wasn't going to like the answer.
"Well, uh," Sam hedged, "it might be because there was bombing raid not too long ago and it sort of…got…damaged…and the Germans decided to move the airstrip someplace more defensible."
"Just how badly did the strip get blasted?"
"Bad enough." Sam obviously didn't want to tell me how bad. Wonder if he thought I couldn't land this puppy since it wasn't my F-4.
"Look, Junior, this is a plane. I can land any plane any where. I was in the Navy for God's sake. You think those aircraft carriers were a piece of cake to land on?"
"Herr Hauptmann?" I heard someone query from behind me.
Moffitt moved to sit next to me. Sam moved. Even if he couldn't feel it, it must have seemed strange to have someone sit "on" him.
"Were you talking to someone?"
"Uh, no, not really," I responded. It was bad enough they thought that Dietrich had brain damage from the whack on the head; they didn't need anything more to solidify that thought. Poor guy was going to have enough explaining to do when he leaped back as it was.
"For someone who claims that he's not a very good pilot," Moffitt continued, "you are doing remarkably well."
"Yeah, well, it's like riding a bike," I said, determined that no one was going to ruin this moment for me. "You never forget how."
"According to the maps, the airfield should be coming up soon," he told me.
Party pooper. I knew that as soon as this beauty touched down, I'd take off. And I didn't mean as in flying either.
"Uh, yeah," I agreed. "Look, be sure everyone is secured back there. I haven't been to that airstrip and there's no telling what damage has been done since the last bombing raid."
"Too true," agreed Moffitt.
I sat up and began to ready the plane for landing. It hadn't been a long flight, unfortunately, but then it never was supposed to have been, either.
"Brace yourselves," I ordered the men behind me.
The airstrip looked worse than what Sam had led me to believe. Potholes were one thing; these were more like meteor craters.
Moffitt hadn't moved. In fact he started to buckle himself into the seat.
"Look, I know you want to help me, but if you don't know anything about planes, you'll help better by getting back there where you won't be a distraction," I told him.
"You sure you won't need some help?" Moffitt asked worriedly.
"I'm sure," I smiled at him. Hell, he'd been nice enough when he hadn't been hovering and he hadn't been nearly the pain that Troy had been. "Now go so I can land this baby without jarring every filling that everyone of us has loose."
"You think it's going to be that bad?" Moffitt looked at me steadily.
"Oh yeah. The takeoff was a blast and the landing is gonna be bumpy." To say the least. "I believe in giving my passengers a…memorable…flight."
Moffitt chuckled as he got up, careful not to touch any of the controls. "It is certainly that, Herr Hauptmann. It is most certainly that."
I set the plane down as gently as I could. Of course with potholes and craters every few feet, that was close to an impossible mission. Still I avoided the worst of the lot, which meant that I didn't blow any tires. Stopping wasn't exactly easy either, but I managed to do that too. And stay on the runway.
"Damn!" I heard behind me. "He did it!"
"He said he would," said a softly accented voice. "He is a man of his word."
"Yeah, but I didn't think anyone, not even an experienced pilot could do it with the shape that the strip was in." Troy's voice sounded just a bit awestruck.
I grinned. Damned, but I did finally get him. Didn't get to deck him, but I did get him. But good.
"Al, you did it!" Sam whooped from in front of me.
"Of course I did," I smirked back at him.
I patted the plane fondly. Who would have thought that the last plane I flew would have been this old German prop plane?
"What does Ziggy say?"
"Well, they all finish the war out alive," Sam answered, frowning, then slamming his hand against the side of the handheld. "Uh, Dietrich finished out the war in Europe; and so did these guys. And after the war…" He paused and looked at me, then over his shoulder, a funny expression on his face. "It gets a little sketchy here; the history I mean. Dietrich returns to Africa after the war and continues with some studies. So does Moffitt." He looked at me, a wide grin on his face. "Hey they even work on a few digs together here. And…" He stopped and gave me a real goofy grin. "And I even get to work with them! I didn't realize that he was that Doctor Moffitt! I mean, I remember reading his stuff. But I didn't get to work with him before, because he…well, you know, in the other time line…"
"What about Heine and Troy and Hitch?"
"Well," Sam began as I felt a funny electric tingle go through my body.
"Never mind," I shook my head. "I'll probably find out soon enough."
"Hey, Dietrich, you coming or what?" Troy demanded good-naturedly.
"Yeah," I answered him as I stood up and started walking toward the hatch. "I'm coming."
Well, actually, going would have been more accurate…
As the blue flash faded, I felt myself nearly trip, but caught myself before I could do myself any serious damage. I'd had enough of feeling bruised, even if it hadn't been my body getting bruised. I had still felt the pain.
"Welcome back, Admiral," Ziggy's voice greeted me.
"Thanks. Where's Sam?" I asked.
"Unknown," the computer replied. "He has not landed yet."
The holes in my memory were quickly filling with a lot of remembered information.
I looked at the handheld, waiting for the new memories to begin to imprint themselves on my memory. Yep, there it was in black and white. And a color photo of a younger Sam Beckett standing between Moffitt and Dietrich.
I studied the face of the man whose life I had lived for a short time. And undoubtedly complicated up the yin-yang. I hoped he forgave me. If he ever remembered any of it, that is. Hopefully he was able to blame that klonk on the noggin for all the problems.
Then I scrolled down the page, wanting to know about the others. Heine, Hitch and Tully. Oh, and let's not forget good ol' Sergeant Troy.
As if I ever could.
Sam was right. The information that Ziggy had was sketchy. And that was being polite.
"Admiral," Ziggy gently prodded me with that sultry voice of hers.
"What, dear?" I sighed. That ought to get her!
"It might be a while before Doctor Beckett lands," she responded, not fazed at all. "And there are…visitors…waiting to meet with you."
Visitors. As in nozzles and gasbags from Capitol Hill. Hell, how did they expect us to get any work done if we were always entertaining them?
"I don't suppose we could send them on their way without me seeing them," I sighed. I had put up with enough nonsense already; I didn't really want to put up with any more.
"Admiral, these are more than just the regular 'visitors' from the Hill." She said it as though she were trying to remind me of something. "While one is a senator, the rest of his party is not."
Great. Someone showing off a pet project to family and/or friends. And this was supposed to be a top secret project. Some top secret.
"And how did they get clearance to get here?" I asked crossly. Hell, might as well get the stuff out of my system before I had to meet them. Would save me a lot the next time I had to go to the Hill and grovel for money.
"They have had the necessary clearance," Ziggy responded. "The DoD computer wasn't really very happy about giving me the information, but I finally…convinced…it that it was in the best interest of the country to do so." I grinned at her tone. The poor DoD computer had never stood a chance. "Admiral, they are waiting for you. Patiently."
Which, of course, she wasn't.
I looked down at my attire. Slightly rumpled, but still flashy. Wonder what the visitors would say about this? Aw, the hell with it. I stepped out into the hall.
And there they all were. Not quite the same as when I left them just a few minutes ago. Then, I was older than all of them; now, they had a good twenty or so years on me.
Hitch still looked like a kid, though. His blond hair was silver now, but thick as ever, and a mischievous glint in his eyes that belied his all-grown-up-and-dignified pose. Wonder what he had been like on liberty. He came forward and extended a hand. "Senator Hitchcock," he announced. "Pleased to meet you. I appreciate being able to bring along my…colleagues… for the tour."
As he turned to introduce me to the others, I realized with a start that he didn't recognize me. Of course not, I chided myself. He hadn't see me as Al back in North Africa; he'd seen me as Dietrich. A more-than-slightly off-center Dietrich, but still Hans Dietrich.
I remembered as the "new" memories began to establish themselves in my brain, he'd been one of the few on the committee that had always backed me. Even if he was former Army, he saw me as a comrade in arms and the rest of the folks on the committee as "civvies" that needed to be taught how the military should be operated.
"I'd like you to meet my old patrol unit," he continued. "Sarge, uh, Sergeant Sam Troy."
I turned and smiled at the older man. No longer with dark hair, but still a sharp and judging eye. "Sergeant," I smiled at him, trying to forget I still wanted to deck him for some of his comments to me—Dietrich.
"Professor Jack Moffitt."
"Professor," I smiled at him as we shook hands. Grey hair, weathered features, but still that easy grin. "Seems to me I remember Sam, uh, Sam Beckett that is, mentioning working with a Professor Moffitt as an undergrad."
"Yes, we did," he nodded. "A very intelligent lad. I was rather hoping he would enter archeology; he had a knack for it."
"Sam has a knack for a lot of things," I replied.
"Tully Pettigrew. He and I were the privates of the group."
Grey-blond hair, maybe a little thinner on top, but not so you'd know it, and still that matchstick in the side of his mouth. "Mister Pettigrew," I shook hands. "Keep these two in line did you?"
"Nope," he shook his head. "Just kept their asses from getting' shot off."
"And this is Captain Dietrich, and his associate Heinrich Bier." Hitchcock seemed to become a bit more reserved. What'd he think we were gonna do? Throw them in the brig just because they had been Wehrmacht fifty-odd years ago?
"You the fella that tried to keep them in line?" I decided to play it dumb, for the moment. After all, he'd become an American citizen after the war, and had worked with his former antagonists on more than just desert digs.
Dietrich, like Moffitt, had weathered features from living in the desert for so long. His brown hair had touches of silver, a lot less than even Hitch. Bier, the kid I had been responsible for back then had aged quite nicely. Still quiet.
"No, actually," he replied in slightly accented English, studying me intently. "I was the person trying to 'shoot their asses off.'"
"That's for sure," Troy grumbled good-naturedly.
"Musta been a lousy shot," I commented trying to ignore the close scrutiny that I was receiving from Dietrich. "That or these guys were very good at ducking."
I thought the poor German was going to burst a blood vessel then and there, then he began to snicker, then chuckle and finally laugh out loud, joined by the other four.
"Actually he was a very good shot," Moffitt got out, being the first to recover—British reserve and all. "We were just better shots and much better at ducking."
"And running circles around my half-tracks in your little jeeps," Dietrich put in.
"Well, have you been able to see the Project yet, or…" I asked.
"We were given the nickel tour," Hitchcock said. "A tech named Tina showed us what she could. Have to admit it wasn't much."
"Well most of the stuff is right there," I pointed at the super computer. "Ziggy, bless her little diodes, is the most important and most expensive part of the Project. And without her we can't run the Project."
And if she tries to blackmail me with that remark I was going to personally pull each and every one myself.
"The computer has a name?" This from Troy in a slightly surprised tone.
"Not my idea, and I guarantee, I wouldn't have named her Ziggy if I had had any say in the matter. Besides, we all name our machines, the ones we love anyway."
"And what was that room you came out of?" Hitchcock asked.
"It's called the Imaging Chamber, but it's a big empty room." He started to go toward it. "Very big. Very empty. Only used when Sam has landed, so to speak. And unless you're me, it still seems very big and very empty."
I gently herded the group out of the Main Room and down the corridor. We passed the Waiting Room.
"Uh, we call it the Waiting Room," I said. "Where Sam is. His body anyway." And on the rare occasions when I have to Leap, my body. But I wasn't going to tell any of them that. I don't think that even Hitch would have been able to swing the vote for more cash if the committee found out that more than Sam was Leaping through time and space.
Dietrich stopped and stared at the door, then at the wall across from the door. There was a small furrow on his forehead for a brief moment.
"Was is loss?" Bier quietly asked the German officer.
"Nothing, Heine," Dietrich shook his head. "Just a brief…something. But, it's gone."
Only the look on his face told me that it wasn't entirely gone. Just…moved to the back burner for a while. Wondered what he did remember from his brief sojourn in the Waiting Room as me. And hoping it was really swiss-cheesed and elusive.
It wasn't. Dietrich motioned me aside and spoke quietly as the others moved down the corridor. "If I understand the ramifications of this Project correctly, Admiral," he said slowly, obviously still piecing things together, "There was a time during the war when you took my place and saved Heinrich's life. I cannot possibly repay you."
For a moment, I was back in that rickety little German plane, struggling to keep her aloft and land her in one piece. The S.S. were shooting at us, the controls were marked in German, the airstrip had more holes than Sam's memory and Ziggy's manners combined, and my passengers all thought I was crazy. It had been almost hell.... and my own little crackpot version of heaven. "You don't have to, Herr Hauptmann," I said. "Taking your place--gave me back my wings."