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The Price of Freedom

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Price of Peace
By JJJunky

 

Entering the conference rooms, Captain Franklin Sheppard inspected each of the men sitting at the briefing table before leading his men over to join them. In college, he'd studied people as well as engineering. Back then he had done so out of curiosity. Now it was a matter of life and death.

As the ranking officer of an espionage unit code-named: Jericho it was also his job. The likelihood that he and his team, Lieutenant Jean-Gaston André of the Free French Air Force and Nicholas Gage, a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy, would survive this war was slim. But Sheppard was determined to increase their chances by honing every skill he possessed.

At the head of the table was General Ed Britt. The Eighth Air Force Wing Commander was in charge of the operation, but he wouldn't be leading the mission. That responsibility rested with the man sitting to his left, Colonel Joseph A. Gallagher.

Sheppard had met Gallagher once before when the colonel and Gage took an ATA flight and were shot down in the North Sea. It was still difficult for the American to accept that such a young man could be in command of the 918th Bomb Group. However, the colonel's record quickly eliminated any concerns Sheppard might have had. Gallagher got the job done.

"You're late, Captain," Britt admonished.

Nodding a greeting to the third man at the table, Major Harvey Stovall, Sheppard apologized, "Sorry, sir."

"We made the mistake of letting Sheppard drive." Gage smilingly explained their tardiness. "You Yanks drive like me ol' mum."

Sheppard frowned at the younger man. "At least we know how to build roads. We don't make them curvier than Betty Grable."

"It gives them character."

"It makes them dangerous, especially when there aren't any lights."

Clearing his throat, Britt suggested, "If you gentlemen would care to sit down, we'll get on with the briefing."

One hand partially covering a grin, Stovall pushed a picture across the table to Sheppard. "These are the latest photos of the target area."

"The group is scheduled to fly the mission tomorrow," Gallagher informed them. "All we need to know is which building to bomb."

Sheppard studied the photo before passing it to André and Gage. "I can't tell. How about you guys?"

"Non," André concurred, while Gage shook his head.

His face flushed with frustration and anger, Gallagher demanded, "How are we supposed to bomb a building we can't find?"

"Can you not bomb the entire area?" André asked. "I believe you Americans call it saturation bombing."

"We'd rather not." Stovall rose. Leaning across the table, he pointed to one of the other buildings in the photograph. "We know this is a hospital. And this," his fingers slid along the glossy surface to another structure, "is a school."

Britt tapped his false leg with his cane. "As much as we dislike admitting it, saturation bombing may be our only recourse, Joe. That lab must be destroyed. According to what Jericho discovered, they're developing a weapon that could decimate a city the size of London with a single bomb."

"We know which building the lab is in," Gage informed them.

"You also said," Britt reminded him, "that you couldn't get inside to demolish it from the ground."

Frowning at his teammate, Sheppard nodded. "The building is too heavily fortified to allow an internal attack. I think what Gage is suggesting is that we go along on the mission." The frown deepened into a scowl. "We can identify the building for the bombardier."

"What do you think, Joe?" Britt turned to his subordinate.

Gallagher reached for the photo in Gage's hand. Carefully studying it, he took a long pull on his cigarette before deciding, "It could work, General. We can put them in different planes in separate squadrons . . ."

"We stay together," Sheppard interrupted.

"Captain," Gallagher carefully explained, "only one out of every three B-17's reaches its target. We can't put all our eggs in one basket. By the time we reach our objective, all the eggs could be broken."

Wondering how he could have thought a pilot's life was glamorous, Sheppard reluctantly acceded. "It's your mission, Colonel. We're in your hands."

*****

Komansky walked around the Picadilly Lily one last time. Though he would never acknowledge it to his superior, he was nervous about this mission. Maybe it was because it took them deep into Germany itself? Maybe it was because this was the first mission for almost half of the Lily's crew? Whatever the reason, Komansky viewed the changes as bad luck.

To add fuel to the fire, he had been ordered to set up an extra throat mic and oxygen unit in the nose. Their crew of ten had been increased by one. Eleven, as far as Sandy was concerned, was equivalent to having thirteen. He'd never thought of himself as superstitious until he went into battle for the first time. Now he knew you did whatever you had to make yourself believe you would live through another mission. Nothing seemed too strange or stupid anymore.

Komansky lifted his gaze to see a jeep bouncing across the tarmac. Unconsciously straightening his shoulders, he rested his eyes on the familiar figure behind the wheel. The young colonel had earned the feisty sergeant's admiration with his courage and dedication. In return, Gallagher had shown Sandy more trust and respect than anyone in his life. Komansky lived in fear of failing to live up to his superior's expectations. This fear had made him a better soldier, a better man.

Switching off the engine, Gallagher climbed from the jeep. "How does she look, Sandy?"

 

"Ready to kick some Kraut ass, sir." Pretending not to see the smile Gallagher was trying to hide, Komansky continued, "Everyone's on board, Skipper."

"Sandy," Gallagher indicated the man climbing from the jeep, "you remember Lieutenant Gage? He'll be positioned in the nose."

The identity of the eleventh man assuaged Sandy's fears to some degree. He'd met the Englishman once before. The most important thing he knew was that Gallagher like and trusted him. That was good enough for Sandy. "Yes, sir. I have everything ready for him, Colonel."

"Good job, Sergeant." Gallagher slapped Komansky on the shoulder. "We take off in ten minutes."

"Lieutenant," Sandy called to Gage, "will you follow me, sir?"

"As long as it's not to the grave, Sergeant." Gage adjusted the yellow inflatable vest slipping off one shoulder.

Deciding he liked the Englishman, Sandy felt some of his misgivings slip away. The lieutenant's wry humor was like a breath of fresh air. Sandy just hoped it would still be there at the end of the mission.

*****

"Pilot to crew, the fighters are leaving."

Sheppard released a sigh of relief as the news transmitted across his com unit. With wave after wave of German 109's and FW190's weaving through the group, he'd begun to believe Gallagher's estimated survival rate had been too high. It seemed impossible that the lumbering bombers could survive such a concentrated assault.

"Flak, dead ahead."

Unfamiliar with the term, Sheppard turned to gaze through the clear Plexiglas nose. Puffs of black smoke dotted the blue sky, playing tag with the formation. Sheppard wasn't worried until he saw one strike the wing of a plane, shearing off the tip. The aircraft wobbled before settling back into its slot.

Sheppard's admiration for these men grew. Despite the controls he'd lost, the pilot was determined to remain in position. Determined to protect the other aircraft in his "box" and complete the mission.

Piloted by Harvey Stovall, the B-17 Sheppard was in led the high squadron, almost dead center in the group. Gage was in the lead aircraft with Gallagher, while André was flying with the commander of the 614th near the rear of the formation.

Flak exploded in front of Sheppard, cracking the Plexiglas casing. Cold air streamed through the crack. He shivered in the draft. It didn't seem possible it could get any colder. His view of the war had become as splintered as the window in front of him. He wasn't accustomed to sitting back and doing nothing. How did he fight an enemy two miles below him?

Watching the Picadilly Lily make a sharp turn to her left, Sheppard forgot his discomfort. The single B-17 would drop her bomb on the structure housing the lab while the rest of the formation continued on to another target. If Gallagher and Gage failed, then it would be up to Sheppard and Stovall. If they missed, then the task fell to André -- if the Frenchman was still alive.

The German fighters disappeared into the gray horizon. Sandy took the opportunity to drop from the top turret into the cockpit. Squeezing into the narrow space between the pilot and co-pilot, he studied the instrument panel. He knew what each dial should read for optimal performance. Though 20mm shells had ventilated the waist and killed a gunner, there was no equipment damage. The B-17 wasn't called a Flying Fortress because of her size.

"Sandy," Gallagher ordered, his eyes never straying from the flight path ahead, "you'd better check on the bomb. We took some hits back there."

Flak exploded under the left wing, causing the aircraft to tilt. One hand gripping Gallagher's chair to help him keep his balance, Komansky nodded. "Yes, sir."

He slipped through the tunnel, down to the bomb bay with the ease of familiarity. Accustomed to seeing it loaded to capacity with ten 500lb. bombs, it looked strange with only a single explosive hanging from the middle of its belly. But the missile had the volcanic power of a hundred bomb. Called a "Blockbuster," it was aptly named. It would demolish the building, leaving the surrounding structures relatively intact.

Sweat beaded Sandy's brow when he saw a large hole in the bomb bay doors. A couple inches to the right and the flak gunners who had put it there would've had itsy bitsy pieces of B-17 and body parts raining down on them.

Pressing the mic to his throat, Sandy reported, "There's some damage, Skipper. The bomb looks all right, but one of its cables is twisted."

"Stick around, just in case," Gallagher directed. "We're coming up on the I.P."

"Roger, Skipper."

Komansky absently listened as the bombardier requested the aircraft be moved two degrees to the left. Sandy's muscles tensed as the bomb bay doors opened. Cold wind numbed exposed flesh, stealing his breath. His gaze shifted to the buildings flashing by below. The sight made him feel dizzy, nauseous, and exhilarated.

"Bombs away," the bombardier announced.

One end of the blockbuster dropped. Further descent was halted when the side with the contorted cable remained clapped around the tip. "Negative," Komansky contradicted, mesmerized by the swinging explosive. "The bomb did not release."

Flak struck the aircraft's underbelly, causing the plane to shift sharply to the right. Komansky's blood ran cold as he watched the bomb swing, coming close to striking the side of the plane.

"Sandy?"

Gallagher's calm voice was like a balm to the young sergeant. His white-knuckled grip on a strut eased.

"Can you correct the problem?"

Komansky looked across the wide open expanse. The bomb bay had never looked so big -- or so small. The only way to reach the explosive was to use the empty bomb racks to swing across. An extremely dangerous act. Yet leaving the bomb hanging wasn't an option. It would only be a matter of time before it made contact and exploded. Even Gallagher's superior flying skills couldn't keep the aircraft steady while under fire from flak and fighters.

"May I be of assistance, mate?"

Surprised to find Gage at his side, Komansky allowed his fear to reply for him. "Only if you can fly through the air with the greatest of ease."

"As a matter of fact," the Englishman smiled, "I can."

"Sandy." A note of impatience clearly audible, Gallagher demanded, "What's the verdict?"

The wonder on his face slipping into his voice, Sandy pressed the mic to his throat. "Lieutenant Gage thinks he can reach the bomb, Skipper."

"Gage, I know you grew up in the circus," Gallagher revealed.

Komansky raised his eyebrows at the revelation. He could still remember the wonder of his first visit to the circus. The joy and fear of watching the trapeze artists. Of course, they hadn't had explosives being shot at them while they performed two miles above the ground.

"But you won't have a net," Gallagher continued, a rough edge in his voice.

"Haven't needed one since I was six."

Silence greeted Gage's remark telling Sandy that, although he didn't approve of the plan, Gallagher had given the Englishman permission to proceed. There were no other options.

Unsnapping the hooks attaching the parachute to his back, Gage shrugged out of it.

His eyes drawn to the blurry buildings several miles below, Sandy suggested, "Shouldn't you keep that on?"

"Too cumbersome." The yellow inflatable vest was pulled over the blond head and thrown on the floor at Komansky's feet. The heavy leather coat and thick gloves the Englishman had been issued followed.

Another protest reached Sandy's lips only to go unuttered. You can't grip what you can't feel. Yet at this altitude, with the icy wind blowing against tender flesh, how long would sensation last?

All Sandy's senses went into simultaneous shock as Gage leapt into the bomb bay. Sure hands curled around the first strut. The force of his jump propelled Gage's slight frame. Using the momentum it provided, he swung to the next rack. Strong winds buffeted his body, obviously making it difficult for him to retain his grip.

As the incredible feat unfolded before him, Sandy wasn't sure if he should keep his eyes open or closed. He didn't want to miss a single second of the miraculous performance. But he also didn't want to see Gage fall to his death.

****

Sheppard stared in puzzlement as Gallagher's plane passed over the target without dropping its bomb. Instead, it dipped its left wing and made a slow turn.

In the mission briefing, Sheppard had heard Gallagher explain they would go right to rejoin the group. Bewilderment turned to frustration, becoming an overwhelming need to know what was going on.

Internal communications were no longer operational due to severed lines in the fuselage. But his feet still worked. Grabbing a portable oxygen tank, Sheppard unplugged his hose from the wall and attached it to the smaller unit. The parachute hanging low on his hips made it difficult for him to maneuver the unfamiliar passage to the cockpit.

Feeling like a fish out of water, Sheppard squeezed into the tight space between the two pilots and tapped Stovall on the shoulder to get his attention. Pointing to where Gallagher's aircraft had completed its turn, Sheppard asked, "What's he doing?"

"It looks like they're coming around to make another run at the target." Concern was audible in the major's voice.

"Why didn't they drop their bomb the first time? Near as I can tell, they flew right over the building."

Stovall's eyes remained on the lone aircraft. "Any number of reasons. Mechanical failure? Human error? There's no way to find out."

Sheppard bristled at the older man's unspoken accusation. "Gage knows what he's doing."

"So do the other ten men on that plane." Stovall defended his commanding officer.

"Then it's mechanical failure," Sheppard placated.

"Probably."

"So what do we do?"

"If they haven't destroyed the building by the time we reach the IP, I'll assume they can't. Then it's our turn to try."

His eyes returning to the Picadilly Lily, Sheppard felt a shiver creep up his spine. The closer they got to the target, the heavier the flak. The sky around the lone B-17 was black with explosives. How could anyone survive?

"Captain Sheppard," Stovall nudged the army officer with his elbow, "you'd better return to the nose."

Despite the cold, Sheppard felt sweat trickling down his temples as he watched a bomber in the squadron below explode. Unable to avoid it, the plane behind flew over the top of the fireball as two bodies tumbled from the disintegrating tail. Their parachutes flaming torches, they plummeted to the ground.

Sickened, Sheppard turned away. Would anyone survive this day?

*****

"Sandy, report."

Even above the noise of the wind howling through the bomb bay, Komansky could hear the anxiety in his superior's voice. Gallagher's first priority had always been a successful mission, followed by the safe return of his plane and the lives aboard her. Nothing angered him more than having the men under his command die needlessly.

Hanging upside down, his legs wrapped around a strut, Gage gave Sandy a quick thumbs up. Wondering how the frozen hands could feel anything, Sandy reported, "Lieutenant Gage should have the bomb free in two minutes."

"Coming up to the IP, Skipper," the bombardier relayed.

"Tell Gage he has one minute, Sandy."

Knowing Gallagher would never believe what he was asking, Sandy confirmed, "Yes, sir."

"Tell our impatient leader his wish is my command," Gage shouted, trying to hold the repaired cable steady as the plane buffeted.

Pressing the mic to his throat, Sandy announced, "The bomb is in position."

"She's all yours, Mike." Gallagher immediately responded, giving control of the aircraft to the bombardier.

"Five seconds." Mike counted down. "Four. Three. Two. One. Bombs away."

Komansky held his breath and crossed his fingers. The clamp retracted, releasing the powerful explosive. As he watched it drop, he could only hope it would hit the target it was intended for. He didn't want anyone else to go through what they were enduring.

A cry of pain returned his attention to Gage. Instead of retracting into its holder, the cable had snapped, whipping across the Englishman's back. Blood had already turned the green overalls red.

"Close the bomb bay doors," Sandy desperately ordered. Anxious to reach the injured officer, he stood poised on the catwalk, silently counting the seconds. When he felt sufficient time had passed, he impatiently growled, "Closing them now would be good."

"My controls indicate they are closed," Mike advised.

"Well they're not," Komansky angrily denied, realizing he was getting mad because he was so scared.

"Don't get your knickers in a twist, sergeant," Gage soothed, his voice cracking. "I got out here. I can get back."

Sandy didn't need it pointed out to him that Gage had made the first trip in relative safety. Relative to how he would be returning. Then his hands hadn't been so frozen they had no feeling, and he hadn't had a lacerated back oozing blood with every beat of his heart.

In saving the mission, Gage had accomplished an incredible feat. Saving himself could be deemed a miracle.

*****

Sheppard held the binoculars to his eyes and watched the target explode. Though smoke was all he could see, he continued to peer through the glasses. Would the other buildings in the proximity be intact? Or had innocents once again been immolated for the greater good? Sheppard had never doubted the importance of their mission. Hitler could not be allowed to win this war, no matter the cost. But seeing the parachutes filling the sky, he realized the people in the buildings below were not the only lambs being led to the slaughter. The men in these bombers were also being sacrificed.

He blinked away the tears blurring his vision. The action seemed to dispel the smoke coating the bomb site. Holding his breath, Sheppard waited. In a few more minutes, Stovall would have to turn their aircraft toward the main target. They couldn't take a chance; they had to be sure the building had been destroyed. He blew softly through pursed lips as though the action could fan the smoke away.

The gray cloud finally lifted, revealing a demolished building. While damaged, the other structures in the vicinity appeared to be intact.

Mission accomplished.

On legs wobbling from relief and fear, Sheppard climbed to the cockpit to relay the good news. Their bomb and André's would be released over the secondary target. If they lived long enough to reach it.

*****

Needing the flexibility, Sandy took off his parachute, Mae West, coat, and gloves. Gage had reached his limit; he could go no further. His exhaustion was obvious on his face. His hands and arms shook so violently it was a wonder they had any strength left at all.

Wrapping his left hand around a strut, Sandy stretched out over the open bomb bay doors. Cursing himself for being such a fool and risking his own life, something he never would've done before he met Gallagher, he curled his arm around Gage's waist. "I've got you, Lieutenant. You can let go."

"Sergeant, you'll merely get us both killed. You let go."

"No, sir."

"You are disobeying the direct order of a superior officer."

"It's not the first time."

Patches of frost dotting his wind whipped cheeks, Gage warned, "As we're climbing that stairway to heaven, I'm going to harp at you I told you so."

"As you wish, sir."

Cold bit through Komansky's thin shirt. His hands were already numb. Though he'd endured the frigid temperatures for far longer, not a word of complaint whispered past Gage's lips.

"I'm letting go, Sandy."

Recognizing the use of his given name as a sign of trust, Komansky tightened his grip. Betraying Gage had become tantamount in his mind to abandoning Colonel Gallagher.

As soon as Gage released his hold, Sandy could feel their combined weight pulling them toward the open bomb bay doors. Muscles strained to pull them back onto the catwalk, to no avail.

An explosion shook the aircraft, almost breaking Sandy's grip on the strut. The nose of the plane dipped sharply, throwing Komansky and Gage onto the catwalk. Sandy stared at the low ceiling, fear starved lungs gasping for air.

The sharp dive ended as abruptly as it had begun. The aircraft leveled off.

"I think you can let go now, Sergeant."

Sheepishly realizing he was still hugging Gage to his chest, Sandy let his arm drop. The two men scrambled to their knees and quickly pulled on their coats, gloves, and parachutes. The plane rocked with another explosion.

"Sandy," the pain-filled voice was almost unfamiliar, "you'd better get up here."

"On my way, Skipper." His hand sticky with Gage's blood, Komansky promised, "I'll send someone down to help you, Lieutenant."

"I'll be all right. Go." Gage waved the noncom away.

Moving stiffly, Sandy climbed to the cockpit, afraid of what he would find.

*****

"End of the flak bed," the bombardier rejoiced, patting Sheppard on the shoulder.

Relief washed over the American, turning his muscles to jelly. As dangerous as it was, the war the Jericho team fought had become a kind of game. Sheppard kept his knights and rooks moving, preventing his opponent from reaching his king. Each assignment challenged his ingenuity. Adrenaline had become addictive.

This mission had changed his perception of battle. Here, he'd been forced to sit and watch.

Helpless to stop the fighters.

Helpless to avoid the flak.

Helpless to assist Gallagher and Gage in destroying the target.

"Fighters, twelve o'clock high."

The tail gunner's announcement broke through Sheppard's numb senses. The nightmare wasn't over.

****

Komansky finished securing the board around his superior's shattered arm. Noticing blood had already stained the bandage he'd wrapped around it, he quickly applied another pad, ignoring the hiss of pain his ministrations engendered.

No longer able to put it off, he walled his emotions and turned to Rollins. Unbuckling what was left of the co-pilot's seatbelt, he pulled the shattered body from the seat. He tried to keep from looking at what was left of the handsome young face. The man's severed right arm dropped into the empty chair, putting a chink in Sandy's carefully built fortification. His stomach heaved. He gagged on the bile rising to his throat. There wasn't time to be sick. That would come later.

Dragging the body into the radio room, he laid it beside Plaines. The radio operator looked like he was sleeping. A lump on his head was the only visible sign of injury, yet he was as dead as Rollins.

Grabbing a blanket, Sandy returned to the cockpit and dropped it around the severed arm. Fighting nausea, he carried it back to its owner.

His task completed, he leaned his head against the cold metal skin of the aircraft and took deep even breaths. If by chance, he lived to see the end of the war, Sandy knew it would never really end for him. When he was old and feeble, he might not remember Rollins' name, but he would never forget the horror of this moment, this hour, this day.

"Fighters, three o'clock high."

A fist slammed into the hard surface next to Sandy's head as Palmer's warning echoed across the intercom. How much more were they expected to take? Shaking his sore hand, Komansky remembered the medical division of the Eighth Air Force was studying how far the human psyche could be pushed before it cracked. If they were here now, he'd tell them he had just reached his limit.

"Sandy, get up in the turret."

The voice renewing his courage, Komansky pushed away from the bulkhead. Swiftly crossing to the cockpit, he protested, "Skipper, you need help."

Indicating the black specks that were quickly becoming visible as fighters, Gallagher pointed out, "We all need your guns, Sergeant."

Komansky froze, torn between his duty to the men on this aircraft and the man in front of him. Gallagher meant more to him than any person in his life. It wasn't smart to care about someone in a war.

No one had ever called Sandy smart -- except Gallagher.

Before he could act, Gage slipped into the co-pilot's blood-soaked seat. His slight, agile frame finding a small gap around the vacillating engineer. "I must say, this is more comfortable than the chair I was occupying in the nose. Although, I could do without the ventilation." A gloved hand waved at the broken window.

"Lieutenant," Komansky protested, "no offense, but you're hurt."

"It's all right, Sergeant," Gage soothed, his eyes studying the instrument panel. "I've been in worse shape."

Uncertain how that was supposed to make him feel better, Sandy reluctantly pulled himself up into the top turret.

Arming his fifty caliber guns, he wondered about the vagaries of war. The explosion that had thrown him onto the catwalk in the bomb bay had saved their lives, but had cost Rollins his. Now Komansky was ready to do battle to save two men whose injuries were so severe they could die before they reached home.

*****

Sheppard helped carry the body of the bombardier to the nose hatch. If the ME-109's 20mm shell had struck six inches to the right, Sheppard realized he would be the one being lowered to the waiting arms below.

He would be the one being laid on a stretcher and covered with a blanket.

It would be his family who would be receiving a telegram informing them of their son's demise.

What was it that allowed one man to live and another to die?

Sitting on the lip of the hatch, his legs dangling over the edge, Sheppard stared at the blood on his hands. Dry now, the color was more brown than red. It made him think of leaves on a tree, vibrant with color just before they fell and died. One among so many no one ever noticed until there were none left. In this war, Philips was one of those many. Would anyone even notice he was gone?

"Son, is something wrong? Are you hurt?"

Sheppard felt a hand on his shoulder. The fingers gently squeezed pulling him from his morbid thoughts. Looking gratefully into Harvey Stovall's lined, worn face, Sheppard shook his head, not trusting himself to speak.

"It's all right to feel human."

Surprise flitted across Sheppard's features. As a close knit undercover unit, he expected Gage and André to read his thoughts. In fact, he counted on it. However, it scared him to realize a stranger could guess what he was thinking.

A sad, knowing smile curved Stovall's lips. "Everyone starts to wonder about their humanity sooner or later. It just happens sooner to those who fly a B-17."

****

The French coastline rolled into the gray waves of the North Sea. Komansky sighed with relief, realizing their chances of surviving had just improved. While it wasn't unknown for German fighters to continue the attack all the way to the B-17's home base, it was uncommon enough that Komansky felt it was safe to leave his guns and check on his commanding officer.

Dropping down from the top turret, Sandy was dismayed to find new holes had been punched in the windshield by attacking fighters. "Colonel?"

"It's all right, Sandy." Gallagher's voice couldn't disguise his agony. "There aren't… any new… holes… in us."

"That's good," Sandy grumbled, trying to hide his concern.

Tapping the bomb bay door light on the panel in front of him, Gallagher noted, "We do have one problem."

"One!" Gage muttered. "We have two engines out, no landing gear, and we're too low to bail out. Don't you Yanks learn to count in your schools?"

A small smile curving blood-flecked lips, Gallagher ignored the Englishman. "Sandy, we're going to have to make a belly landing. We don't have much of a chance with the bomb bay doors open."

"I'll get them closed, Skipper." Komansky's statement wasn't made with a false sense of bravado. He would get those doors closed if he had to pull them shut with his bare hands. Gallagher would survive if Sandy had anything to do about it.

*****

Sheppard stopped the jeep near a group of men walking towards the Debriefing Shed. Their parachutes, Mae Wests, and the shell-shocked look on their faces identified them as a B-17 crew returning from the mission.

A bomber flew overhead, honing in on a runway. Amazed at how long it took to land the group, Sheppard raised his voice so it could be heard above the roaring engines. "Do you know where Major Stovall is?"

One man pointed to a tall building at the edge of the airfield. "He's in the control tower."

Touching his fingers to the bill of his army hat, Sheppard pressed his foot down on the gas pedal.

He'd driven over to the 614th to pick up on André, skipping his debriefing. It was from the Frenchman that he'd learned Gallagher's plane had been too badly damaged to keep up with the formation. Their hearts heavy, the remainder of the Jericho team returned to the 918th to find the Picadilly Lily had still not returned. Refusing to believe the aircraft had been shot down, Sheppard sought the one man he knew and now trusted, Harvey Stovall.

Puzzled to find an officer's staff car already in front of the tower, Sheppard parked next to it and followed André up the steep stairs to the flat top of the structure. He was surprised to find General Britt standing at the railing next to Stovall, peering through binoculars. In Sheppard's experience commanding officers rarely left their offices except to eat or sleep. He'd never heard of one openly showing concern for a subordinate. He wondered if Gallagher realized how special he was.

"Any word, Major?" André inquired. The serene note in his voice wasn't reflected in his eyes.

"No," Stovall unhappily admitted, "but their radio could be out."

His hands gripping the railing until his knuckles turned white, Sheppard stared into the distance, willing the plane to appear. "Why didn't the 614th slow down to protect them?"

"If they had, they would've endangered the entire formation."

"Isn't Gallagher worth it?"

Stovall winced. "As a friend, yes. As a pilot, no. You don't risk hundreds of lives for one man or one airplane."

"Joe wouldn't have approved." Britt handed the binoculars to Stovall. "He himself was forced to leave General Savage when Frank's plane was damaged. Savage was shot down."

Staring at his hands, Sheppard wondered if Gallagher had followed his former commanding officer and taken Gage with him.

"I see something." Hope radiating from the still figure, Stovall straightened.

Britt reclaimed the binoculars.

"Is it the Picadilly Lily?" Sheppard shaded his eyes, straining to see into the distance.

"I can't tell," the general admitted.

"It has to be Colonel Gallagher, mais oui." André grinned, slapping Sheppard on the back so hard it almost knocked the smaller man flying over the railing.

"Not necessarily," Stovall cautioned. "We have two other planes unaccounted for."

As the black speck grew larger, Sheppard dared to hope, even with anxiety niggling at his faith. He knew from experience if it was the Picadilly Lily and if she did land safely, it didn't mean Gage was still alive. Like Philips, the Englishman could be one of those leaves, vibrantly red one minute, brown and withered the next.

****

Sparks flew as Komansky touched two wires together. Electricity flowed between the conduits, slowly forcing the bomb bay doors to close. Sandy's fingers started to tingle, then became numb. He ignored the sensation until the indicator light glowed green. With the clanging of metal flaps ringing in his ears, he headed back to the cockpit.

He'd only climbed a few rungs when the plane nosed forward. Realizing something was wrong with one or both pilots, he fought gravity and time to complete his ascent.

When he staggered into the cockpit, he found Gage slumped over the wheel. Gallagher's good arm was wrapped around his control stick. Sweat beaded on his brow as he fought to keep the aircraft from going into a dive.

Sandy quickly pulled Gage back into the blood soaked co-pilot's seat. Trembling fingers searched for the carotid artery. Though it was weak and slow, there was a pulse.

"Is he alive?" Gallagher demanded.

"Barely." Komansky didn't elaborate. Gage was alive, but he didn't know for how long.

Looking ahead at the airfield looming ever larger, Sandy realized that could be said for all of them.

As gently as he could, he lifted Gage and stretched him out on the floor. There wasn't time to carry him to a safer area. If there was such a place on a crashing airplane. Wondering how much of the blood on the seat was Rollins' and how much was Gage's, Sandy reluctantly slipped into the empty chair.

"Strap yourself in tight, Sandy," Gallagher advised. "This is going to be a rough one."

"Yes, sir." Komansky didn't bother to tell his superior there wasn't enough left of the seatbelt to restrain a child, much less a grown man. Knowing Gallagher, he would order Sandy to leave the cockpit. Komansky didn't want the last conversation between them to end with his disobeying an order. Not long after joining Gallagher's crew, Sandy had decided if he was going to die, he wanted it to be at this man's side.

Kept busy following Gallagher's instructions, Sandy didn't notice they were preparing to land until he started to see green instead of blue through the cracked windshield. He was almost sad they were going to tear up the beautiful, peaceful pasture. He could only hope there weren't any cows grazing in the lush grass.

"Sandy, cut the throttles," Gallagher ordered. "Then hang on."

Unwilling to watch his fate rush towards him, Komansky dropped his gaze and pulled back the throttles of the two running engines. Twisting sideways, he wrapped one arm around the back of his chair and grabbed Gage's belt with the other. Sandy didn't know if his hold would save the injured man, but he felt he had to do something.

*****

Sheppard watched the B-17 drift to the left. Puzzled, he demanded, "What's the pilot doing? He's going to miss the runway."

"It's Gallagher." Britt spoke softly, lowering the binoculars. "He doesn't have any landing gear."

"He's going to make a belly landing," Stovall clarified, quickly crossing to the stairs and descending.

Unable to tear his eyes away, Sheppard saw a wingtip rip leaves from a tree. The nose dipped, touching the ground. When the fuselage followed, the tail broke off. The remainder of the plane spun before slamming to a screeching halt.

Men, jeeps, and ambulances raced towards the stricken aircraft.

"Sheppard?"

Frozen, his eyes glued to the demolished nose, Sheppard felt André's hand on his shoulder.

"Mon ami, should we not offer our assistance?"

Though he was certain Gage was dead, Sheppard nodded. There were ten other men on that plane whose lives they might be able to help save. Going down to the crash scene was the last thing he wanted to do. And the one thing he had to do.

In a dazed stupor, Sheppard allowed André to guide him down to the jeep. He didn't try to argue when the Frenchman helped him into the passenger seat. He knew he was in no condition to drive.

When his superiors first approached him about heading an espionage unit, he'd never hesitated. He'd wanted to serve where his skills could best be utilized. The possibility the men he commanded would become more than just teammates had never entered the equation. The possibility -- probability -- that those friends would die had been considered and forgotten. Out of sight, out of mind. Until now. Now he was being forced to face the unthinkable, the unendurable. The war Gage and André had fought for the last three years was coming home.

Smoke filled the air, forcing them to park or risk crashing into men or machines obscured by the black cloud. Noticing a familiar figure heading towards the stricken aircraft, Sheppard tapped André on the shoulder. His arm pressed over his nose and mouth to try to keep from breathing the noxious fumes, Sheppard followed Stovall into the inferno.

Tears streaming from his burning eyes, Sheppard reined in his emotions. More than ever, he would need his famous reserve. A reserve which was reputed to be worse than any Englishman's. His control was shaken when they passed two bodies lying motionless in the grass. Neither was Gage.

Maintaining his pace, Stovall entered the demolished fuselage through what had been the right waist gunner's position. Sheppard never hesitated, all but glued to the older man's heels. They tripped over two bodies in the radio compartment. One man was missing an arm, the other looked as if he was sleeping. Sheppard turned away from the peaceful features. He'd seen enough death today to know its face.

In the narrow tunnel into the cockpit, Sheppard was forced to stop. He tried to look past Stovall to see inside, but smoke and an unnatural twist in the passage made it impossible for him to see anything.

"Have you found Gage, mon ami?"

Wondering if his own voice sounded as harsh as André's, Sheppard croaked, "I can't see into the nose. Or what's left of it."

"Gage is here in the cockpit," Stovall called back to them. "He's alive. So are Gallagher and Komansky, but they won't be for long if we don't get them out of here. If what's left of this thing doesn't blow up, the smoke will kill them."

Though he wasn't the ranking officer, command was as much a part of Sheppard as an arm or a leg. Though he wanted to take responsibility for his friend, he had to take Stovall's age into account as he reluctantly assigned positions. "Major, can you take Gage? André and I will get Gallagher and Komansky."

Stovall didn't bother to answer with words. He put his hands under the Englishman's arms and started to drag the slight body through the narrow opening. Sheppard and André pressed themselves against the metal skin, giving him as much room as possible to pass.

As soon as the entrance was clear, Sheppard entered the cockpit. Noting the bullet holes dotting the windshield, he was amazed anyone was still alive. Pulling off Gallagher's oxygen mask, he unhooked the seatbelt. His stomach churning as his eyes rested on the bloody mess that was the man's right arm, he tried to be gentle as he lifted the young colonel from the seat. With no room to maneuver, he was forced to drag the injured man as Stovall had done with Gage.

Pausing at the waist gunner's position, Sheppard glanced back the way he had come. What was left of the bomber shook from a small explosion. He sent a silent message to André to hurry. The plea had barely formed when the Frenchman appeared, half carrying, half dragging Komansky. Unspoken or not, it was uncanny how often the team heard each other's thoughts.

Eager hands reached into the plane, willing to assume Sheppard's burden. Harsh coughing sapping his strength, he lifted Gallagher into the waiting arms. Other hands latched onto Sheppard's arms and pulled him from the plane. His feet had barely touched the ground when he was pushed aside by the men attempting to assist André and Komansky.

Led to one of the ambulances, an oxygen mask was pressed against Sheppard's nose and mouth. As he collapsed to the ground, he gratefully breathed in the fresh air, allowing it to clear his lungs of the noxious fumes.

When his eyes stopped watering, he looked around. Two ambulances were already racing toward the base hospital. A body was being loaded into a third. Beside him, Sheppard heard Stovall and André gasping, their faces almost unrecognizable under the black soot.

"It's going to blow," a strange voice warned.

Lifting his gaze, Sheppard looked back at what was left of the Picadilly Lily. Flames spewed from one of the engines. Several small explosions were soon followed by a larger one. Engulfed in flames, the mighty bomber disappeared.

Sheppard found himself saddened by the sight. He could understand why the men who flew the B-17's imbued their aircraft with almost human qualities. The Lily had done her best to bring her crew home. Only when they were safe did she succumb to her own wounds.

A hand on his arm pulled Sheppard to his feet. With one last look at the burning plane, he allowed himself to be led to one of the ambulances. The hospital was his intended destination anyway. This was as quick a way to get there as any.

****

Blood. It was everywhere. It poured from Gage's back in a river. No matter how hard Sandy tried to stop it. His hands were sticky with it. Looking around, he saw Gallagher sitting in the pilot's seat. A pool of blood was lapping at his waist. Dismembered arms floated in the crimson tide. The red lake rose steadily until it was washing across the colonel's chest. Sandy realized Gallagher was in danger of drowning.

"Colonel!" The scream erupted from Sandy's throat, leaving it raw.

"Komansky."

A hand shook Sandy's shoulder. He turned to beg his benefactor to help Gallagher.

"Komansky, wake up. You're dreaming."

With a gasp that was equal parts shock and relief, Sandy forced heavy eyelids to open. A blurry, but familiar image was bent over him. "Major?"

"Welcome back, Sergeant," Stovall quietly greeted.

Surprise at the officer's rough voice turned to concern. "How's the Skipper?"

"In a lot of pain, but he'll be all right," Stovall soothed. "It'll take that arm a few months to heal. Doc Kaiser assures me it'll be as good as new eventually."

Realizing the injury was almost a blessing, Sandy muttered, "At least he won't be flying for a while."

"With any luck," Stovall agreed. "But you know Joe. He'll find a way to get in the cockpit."

Remembering another man who didn't seem to know how to quit, Sandy asked, "How's Lieutenant Gage?"

"Complaining about having to sleep on his stomach." Stovall smiled.

An answering grin on his face, Sandy shook his head. "Major, you're not going to believe what he did."

"I look forward to reading your report, Sergeant." Stovall patted Komansky on the arm. "By the way, in case you're interested, you're going to be all right, too. Though you'll have a headache for a while. Doc says you've got yourself a nasty concussion."

That wasn't all he had, Sandy realized. Every muscle in his body ached. It was all worth it though, if they accomplished their goal. "Did we hit the target?"

"Right on the nose. According to intelligence, there was some damage and some injuries in the other buildings but no deaths."

Sandy was relieved, but sad. The mission had saved lives on the ground. German lives. Yet how many planes, how many Americans died because those same people had put a madman in power? Even though he knew most of the population of Germany regretted their decision, Sandy found those past transgressions difficult to forgive. Too many friends had died for him to indiscriminately turn the other cheek. If Gallagher had been one of them, it would've been impossible. One day, Sandy knew he would have to forgive. They all would, or they could start counting the days to World War III.

A smile lifted Sandy's lips. Now he knew he'd been around Gallagher too long. Once Sandy had only cared about one man: himself. Now he was worried about the whole damn world.

"Why don't you get some sleep?" Stovall suggested. "Maybe next time you wake up, Joe will be allowed visitors."

Sandy obediently closed his eyes. No matter how many assurances Stovall uttered, Sandy wouldn't truly believe Gallagher was all right until he saw the man for himself. Next time he woke up, he would see the colonel whether he was allowed to or not.

*****

The chair was hard. Yet, even after several hours of occupation, Sheppard barely noticed. His knuckles turned white as he gripped the report with an unnecessary force. Komansky's debriefing had been thorough. Every minute of the mission accounted for in detail. Sheppard had known Gage for six months. He knew the man's courage. Even so, he found Gage's actions difficult to comprehend.

Lifting his gaze, he let it rest first on the frostbitten hands, then on the bloodstained dressing covering the torn back. Gage had come close to losing his fingers to the cold. The same frigid temperatures that had kept him from bleeding to death.

Aware he was being scrutinized, Sheppard glared into the dazed blue eyes staring at him. "Just had to be a hero, didn't ya?"

"Huh?"

"You couldn't leave the damn bomb and let someone else get that building?"

"Well . . ."

"Despite what Darwin may say, you are not part monkey. What were you thinking, swinging around a bomb bay two miles above the ground?"

"That I didn't want to blow up." There was a touch of anger in Gage's tone.

"Falling to your death was preferable?"

"Yes, actually."

A heavily accented voice interrupted. "Since none of us has died, mes amis, I think we should be happy. Mission accomplished."

At what price, Sheppard wanted to ask. Would peace ever be considered too costly? Would freedom? Those were questions he did know the answers to. This wasn't the first time the Jericho team had offered their lives to acquire those goals and it wouldn't be the last. As much as he wanted to, as much as he tried, Sheppard knew he couldn't keep Gage and André safe. All he could do was be at their sides when they needed him. That was the price for his peace.