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Hostage to Fortune -- WW2 fiction

Old Guy

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I thought I'd post a serious work of fiction for a change.

The story will be posted in four parts.

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HOSTAGE TO FORTUNE
JR Hume


Orphan


Ice Box, a B-17G Flying Fortress, and Lieutenant Doone's temporary command, made it to Bremen unscathed.  Black flak filled the sky over the target.  The formation leader was hit just short of the release point.  Fire streamed along the fuselage; the stricken bomber dropped down and to the left.  One engine burst into flames.  The plane began a slow roll to the right, trailing dense black smoke.  Parachutes bloomed as it vanished into a cloud layer far below.  The formation drifted apart.  They dropped late and God only knew where the bombs went.

German FW-190 fighters slashed into the formation as the huge gaggle of bombers made a sweeping turn for home.  This time Ice Box did not escape attention.  One fighter shot number four engine to scrap while his wingman ripped the fuselage from nose to tail with a perfectly executed head-on pass.

A 20mm cannon shell exploded in the nose, killing the bombardier.  Machine gun bullets tore through the co-pilot's windscreen and shattered part of the instrument panel.  Two rounds struck the co-pilot -- one punctured a lung and the other smashed his shoulder.

Doone feathered number four and concentrated on keeping Ice Box upright and in formation.  The latter proved impossible, since he only had three engines to work with.  He slid in beside Zigzag, another damaged ship.  A pair of Forts could defend themselves better than one.  The two bombers began a slow descent toward the clouds far below.

The navigator, wounded by fragments of the shell that killed the bombardier, crawled back from the nose section.  At the same time, the flight engineer dragged the co-pilot out of his seat and began plugging holes.  Seeing that the co-pilot was in bad shape, the navigator set about bandaging himself.  The radioman worked his way forward and began to help with the wounded men. 

Doone touched his scarf once, just for luck.  So far it seemed to be working -- if sitting unscathed in the midst of disaster represented good fortune.  After completing 22 raids over occupied Europe, he understood how horror and dumb luck often paired up in the crucible of combat.  Each day the sun rose and spilled the entrails of a man's fate into the fabric of his life.  It was his task to observe and evaluate the greasy coils.  That morning, before the mission began, his personal omens failed of clarity.

*****
Lieutenant Doone laid his razor aside and examined his face in the tiny mirror.  He noted no sickly pallor.  Bloodshot, shadowed eyes framed with a network of deep lines told of too much drink, too little sleep, too long spent searching a bright sky for attacking fighters.  But, not even in the hazel depths around the iris did he detect the flat rigidity of death.  He grinned and wiped the last bits of lather off his chin.

After the long underwear (it's cold in the skies over Europe), uniform and coverall, he wound a silk scarf around his neck.  Two years he'd worn it, through flight training and every combat mission.  It was his lucky scarf, a physical embodiment of good fortune.  Doone did not think himself a superstitious man, but it was senseless to take unnecessary risks.

He thought of Captain Hardy and how he scoffed at the Doone's talisman.  He said a man's luck was given at birth and could not be altered thereafter.  His own stretched no further than Kiel, halfway through an easy mission on a day when Goering's fighters went the wrong way and the flak gunners forgot how to shoot.  All except one flak gunner.

Doone remembered the black smoke puffs and how Hardy's plane fell out of formation, one wing folding and tearing away.  The bomber spun, slow at first, then faster and faster.  There were no chutes.  He watched the broken-off section of wing fluttering down for a long time after the B-17 vanished below.

Lieutenant Doone left his hut and walked to briefing with Major Grant, squadron operations officer.  Neither man spoke until they neared the Ops shed.  A dark shape flashed overhead.  Grant stopped and swore.  "An owl!  Did you see it?"

"I saw something.  Was it an owl?"

"An owl for sure."  The major shook his head.  "Bad luck that."  With that he went inside, leaving Doone to ponder the owl as omen. 

He wondered how the major knew the mere sight of an owl was unlucky.  Inside the briefing hut he tried to find Grant, but could not.  Then the weather officer started his spiel and Doone hurried to find the navigator and co-pilot of Ice Box, the plane he had been assigned to the previous day, even as she winged back from Wilhelmshaven, pilot dying on the cockpit floor.  He hadn't met either man and he acknowledged their greetings with a mumble.  He shook hands perfunctorily, then sat down and began taking notes.  How could he relate to men he'd have to leave after three more missions?

Later, as they waited to take off, Doone asked the co-pilot if owls were bad luck.  The early morning omen still bothered him.

"Not that I know of.  Why, what have you heard?" 

"Nothing.  What do you make of the cylinder head temp on number four?"

"It's fine.  It's the gauge.  It's been reading high for a couple missions now.  It's fine."

Doone hadn't really been worried about the cylinder head temperature.  He'd mentioned it to avoid further discussion of owls and bad luck.  Sometimes just talking about an omen could make it active.  His gut told him that was true, even though he wasn't superstitious.

He touched his scarf and wondered where his old crew might be.  Probably still in England, getting ready to fly home, back to the good old USA, back to a world he could barely remember.  Their 25 missions in Doodlebug and Doodlebug Too were done and over, grist for a thousand tales told over beer and cigarettes.  Some of those wild stories were even true.

Doone shifted in his seat and watched for the takeoff signal.

The co-pilot kept quiet.  Few words were exchanged on the intercom.  Doone knew that wasn't usual.  Should he try to break the ice?  It hadn't been this hard when he took over Doodlebug.  Her crew was still new, inexperienced, with three easy missions over France to their credit -- three counters, in 8th Air Force parlance.  Their own pilot lay in the base hospital, maimed in a car accident.  Doone was brand new, a replacement pilot fresh from the States.  What little difference there was in experience between pilot and crew vanished in the next few missions.  Months later, they heard that the injured pilot had committed suicide.

Doone and his men flew Doodlebug through ten more counters, then completed a dozen round trips aboard Doodlebug Too.  The first ship brought them back from a disastrous strike on Schweinfurt, but a belly landing at an emergency strip finished her.

Doodlebug Too now had a complete new crew.  Her old bunch survived a wild farewell party, packed their gear and headed back to whatever their Great Uncle Sam had in store.  Doone stayed.  He had three counters to go.

The takeoff signal rose into the sky.  Across the field, bombers began to move.  It would be ten minutes or more before they would fall into line and move toward the runway.  Doone ran his hands over the control wheel, throttles, and switches as the co-pilot read from a check list.

He was a stranger to Ice Box.  On her previous mission, a ball-buster over central Germany and counter number nineteen for plane and crew, her pilot had taken a fragment in the chest and bled to death on the long flight home.  A green-painted patch near Doone's left hand marked the spot where the steel sliver had torn through.  He tried not to look at the freshly riveted metal.  To touch it would be to laugh in the face of Death -- something no sane airman would ever do.

Doone cleared his throat.  He ought to inquire as to the co-pilot's name.  It would be good to know that, at least.  The plane in front of them lurched into motion.  It was time to go.  One last touch to his lucky scarf and they were off.         

*****
"The Lieutenant's in a bad way," said a voice on the intercom.  Doone glanced over his shoulder.  The flight engineer met his gaze and shrugged.  "We got the bleeding stopped, but he don't look good."

"Right," replied Doone.  "Thanks."  It didn't seem to be the right moment to ask about the co-pilot's name.
 
The navigator reported back at his position.  "We got a bunch of holes up here, but the nose turret's okay.  The flak has stopped."
 
Doone took a quick look around.  He sent the engineer back to his turret and warned the others to be on the lookout for fighters.  Whoever was flying Zigzag had the same idea; the big bomber eased into position below and to the left of Ice Box.  Doone could see that the co-pilot position in Zigzag was empty.  He hoped a real pilot was flying her.  A touch of his scarf brought no reassurance.

"Focke Wulf!" cried someone, probably the engineer.  "Coming down from above!"  Guns hammered.  Ice Box shuddered as shells tore into the fuselage and riddled everything aft of the bomb bay.  Both waist gunners went down, one killed outright.  The other babbled over the intercom for a long minute. He called for his mother, cursed the krauts and, just before he expired, cackled about owing the ball turret gunner money.  After the man fell silent, the ball turret gunner reported himself as okay.  He didn't mention the money.

The tail gunner had been hit by splinters.  "I'm okay," he said.  "Just a scratch."  Doone debated sending someone back to check on the man, but he had no one to spare. 

Fighters clawed at the ragged bomber formations, but left the two wounded birds alone.  Fifteen minutes later, the flak began again.  Zigzag, which hadn't answered any radio calls, took a direct hit in the fuselage and began streaming smoke and flame.  The bomber drifted away, slowing and climbing slightly before it nosed over.  Parachutes popped open in its wake.  No one aboard Ice Box had time to count them.  Zigzag descended a few hundred feet and then exploded.  Doone was fairly sure the pilots hadn't had time to get out.  He wondered if he would be able to sit still and control the plane while the others jumped.  He figured he could, since there were only six able-bodied crewmen left, including himself.  The co-pilot would have to go down with the ship.  He was unconscious.  Doone was suddenly glad he didn't know the man's name.

They were well below and to the right of the bomber stream.  A B-17 in a passing group exploded and two others collided in the scramble to avoid falling debris.  Doone was looking right at the first bomber when it blew apart.  He didn't see any chutes at all.

The flak tapered off and stopped.  A horde of Focke Wulf fighters came at them from dead ahead.  Others attacked from above.  Ice Box vibrated to the recoil of her guns.  Spent shells littered the aft cockpit area, piling up around the wounded co-pilot. 

An eternity later fresh bursts of flak appeared, well to the left.  The attacking fighters dove away.  More bursts, closer, above and below.  Doone began to suspect owls might really be unlucky.  He thrust the thought away.

Flak bounced Ice Box.  Shrapnel peppered her wings and fuselage.  Number one engine began smoking.  He let it smoke.  Every minute it ran put them two miles closer to England.  They were losing altitude.  The peaceful looking Belgian countryside loomed below.  Number one sputtered and began to burn.  Doone said several vile words as he shut it down and pulled the fire extinguisher.  The fire went out.

Now they dropped faster.  The navigator crawled out of the nose and slid into the co-pilot seat.  He plugged into the intercom.  "Can I work the radios or something?"

"Don't touch anything," ordered Doone.  "There's nobody to talk to yet."

"Are we going to make it?"

Doone stroked the silk scarf.  "Sure.  Why not?"

The navigator glanced at the dead engines and the blasted cockpit.  "Why not, indeed."

Movement drew Doone's attention aft.  The flight engineer knelt by the co-pilot, tucking a blanket in around the wounded man.  "How is he?" 

The man looked up and shook his head.  "He's alive.  I don't know for how long."

Doone couldn't think of anything to say about the co-pilot's chances.  "Start tossing everything out.  Guns, too.  All but the top and tail guns."  The ball turret gunner responded from his position.  His own guns and those in the waist could go overboard. 

"Will that help at all?" asked the navigator.

"Who knows?  It can't hurt." 

"A philosophical statement if I've ever heard one."

Doone pondered philosophy and science of luck.  He'd come to understand that luck was a science, not an art.  One merely had to decide on a good luck charm and remain faithful to it.  His scarf was a prime example.  Here he sat, in a bomber shot full of holes, with two engines out, three men dead, others wounded and him without a scratch.

He didn't think the bomber would make it across the Channel on two engines and that worried him.  The scarf couldn't be genuine good luck unless he made it all the way home.  He wasn't interested in the kind of fortune that saw him survive the mission but end up in a prison camp.  That would be arbitrary and capricious, not scientific at all.

Captain Hardy had believed a man's luck to be finite -- and died proving it.  Major Grant had seen an owl -- an animal and symbol he knew to be unlucky -- and went on the mission anyway, suspecting that his number was up.  Doone marveled at Grant's courage, but had no desire to emulate it.

They droned westward, descending inexorably.  The Germans hadn't forgotten about Ice Box.  Over the Belgian coast a pair of fighters scoured her again.  One burst tore through the top gun turret.  The flight engineer slumped to the deck.  Both fighters departed after one pass, either out of ammunition or convinced the bomber was finished. 

Doone sent the navigator to check on the flight engineer and the others.  The man was a long time getting back.  He sat in the co-pilot's seat and reported.  "Kelly's dead."

"Who?"

"The engineer.  He'd dead."

"What about the co-pilot?"

"Dead.  I think he died before that last attack."

"Hell!" muttered Doone.  "He hasn't been much help and now he's dead."  He knew the words sounded awful, but it was how he felt.  It was damned ungrateful for the co-pilot to die like that, after all the trouble.  "What about the others?"

The navigator gave him a weird smile.  "There are no others."

Doone nodded.  He hoped the navigator didn't get violent.  Insane men are hard to predict.  "I mean the ball turret gunner and the tail gunner," he said gently.  "And the radioman."

"Gone.  Bailed out.  Before we crossed the coast."  The navigator emitted a shrill laugh.  "Jumped out.  Didn't say a word."  He cackled again and settled back into his seat.

They rode along in companionable silence.  The B-17 settled toward the Channel.  Doone was glad the others had gone.  He was no longer responsible for their well being.  Too bad the navigator hadn't jumped with them.  Doone pointed at the altimeter.  "We're too low to jump."

"S'okay," said the navigator.  "I can swim."  He stared at Doone.  "You're bleeding."

A stray piece of metal had gashed the lieutenant's forehead.  He touched the wound.  There was a sharp pain.  His hand came away bloody.  "Hell."

"I'll wrap it for you," said the navigator.  He whipped the silk scarf off Doone's neck and bound it around the pilot's forehead, right over his hat and earphones.

Doone didn't know what to say.  Clearly the navigator was unstrung.  He waved the madman back into the co-pilot's seat. 

Then the B-17 settled to within a few feet of the water and Doone had no time for anything but flying.  The crippled bomber labored on toward the English coast. 

Ice Box carried them to the coast, but not over it.  Doone paralleled the shoreline and looked for a place to land.  Soon enough, he found an RAF emergency base on a tiny island.  He flashed a thumbs-up to the navigator, who responded with an alarming grin.

Flaps down.  Gear down.  The engines roared, dragging the tired bomber forward.  Doone concentrated as he never had before.  No room for error.

Ice Box staggered toward the narrow strip, barely clearing a patch of gray-green bushes.  They were going to make it.  Doone reached for the throttles.  His fine silk scarf, symbol of philosophic, scientific luck and now soaked with blood, fell down across his face.

*****
Someone grabbed Lieutenant Doone's hand and thrust a cigarette into it.  For a moment he couldn't see anything beyond his shaking hand and cigarette.  A vehicle sped by, bell clanging.  Sirens wailed.  Yellow flames and thick black smoke rolled into the sky.  He managed a long drag on the cigarette.  Shock began to recede, like water down a drain.  He was lying on damp grass, propped against a vehicle wheel.  His last memory was of the scarf blocking his vision.  The smell of burning airplane filled his mouth and nose.  It was a unique stench, a random mix of aviation gas, rubber, hydraulic oil, cordite, leather, paint and flesh -- the component parts of a plane made for war.

"How -- how did I get here?" he croaked.  No one answered.  His left hand hurt.  He opened it and a piece of B-17 control wheel fell on his leg.  He remembered the flak and fighters passing in a blur.  He remembered the insane navigator.

"Where's my navigator?"

A man knelt beside him.  "You came out of the bloody wreck by yourself, mate.  You're one lucky bloke.  And that's a fact."

Lucky?  Doone reached for his scarf and found it gone.  He touched the blood-crusted gash.  No hat, no earphones, no navigator and no scarf.  He groaned.

"Easy, lad.  We'll bandage up your head in half a mo'.  It's just a scratch."

Of course it was just a scratch.  His lucky scarf had seen to that.  It was plain science.  Only an ignorant fool would deny it.

But now he had no scarf.  Two missions to go -- and no scarf.

Lieutenant Doone wept.  He didn't want to be brave.  It was better to be lucky. 

Back at his base, the flight surgeon gave him a pocketful of miniature whiskey bottles.  Two other pilots and the Group intelligence officer walked him through the loss of Ice Box and told him what they knew of other squadron losses.  Doone learned that Major Grant's plane had gone down before the strike force even got to the target.  A fighter rammed and tore the tail off his Fortress.  There might have been one or two chutes.  The fighter pilot was probably dead before the collision.  German pilots hardly ever rammed.

(tbc)
 

Old Guy

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Captain Doone

"I can't keep you off flying status," said the flight surgeon.  "You're forehead is healed and you've had a week to recover from that last mission.  You were damn lucky on that one.  I can't keep a man off flight duties just because he thinks his luck has run out."

"Why not?" asked Lieutenant Doone, shocked.  He hadn't anticipated any difficulty.

"How can you know your supply of luck is exhausted?  It's nothing but random chance."

"Chance!  How can you say that?  I finished 23 missions with barely a scratch due to my lucky scarf.  That's science, not chance.  Now my scarf is gone.  Burned up."

The flight surgeon eyed him for a moment.  Doone sagged in his chair.  The sawbones was going to send him back to duty.  And him with no luck.

"You can go talk to the shrink, if you like, but he's not going to buy your story either."

"No!" flared Doone.  "Not that quack!  He'll just tell me my mother was too tough on me during potty training."

The doc laughed.  "True."  He flourished an unlit cigar.  "Too many of them never heard of Freud's reminder -- sometimes a cigar is just a cigar."

Doone accepted the signed form and left.  There was nothing for it.  He was back on flying status.  Inexorable fate had a hand in all this.  He could see it clearly.

His squadron commander, a lieutenant colonel with a haunted expression and a constant facial twitch, met him in the Orderly Room.  The man's teeth were clenched tight and he was whistling in his usual, almost inaudible, manner.  Sometimes he produced nothing but random, irritating noise.  Other times one could actually recognize a melody.  The colonel stayed beyond arm's reach and never looked directly at the lieutenant, or anyone else.

"Doone. I've been meaning to tell you.  You were on the list for captain. Month ago, I think.  Maybe longer than that.  Congratulations."  He didn't offer his hand.  "The First Sergeant has your orders.  See him, then report to the Ops officer.  He'll assign you to another crew."  The colonel stalked away trailing a half-familiar tune.

Captain?  Hell.  Captains sometimes had to lead formations.  He wasn't up to that.  The First Sergeant murmured some congratulatory words and an excuse.  "The paperwork ended up on the Old Man's desk somehow.  Your date of rank is over three months ago.  I'll get the back pay figured out and make sure your records are corrected."

Halfway to Operations Doone realized that his luck had been at work again.  If his promotion had come through on time he'd have been leading formations and doing all sorts of other crap that plain old lieutenant airplane drivers didn't have to do.  He also recognized the tune the colonel had been whistling.  It was a children's jingle: Row, Row, Row Your Boat. He hated that song.  The premise that life was but a dream made him feel empty, a husk of skin and bone around nothing.

At Operations he learned that the major assigned as Operations Officer had been killed over Berlin that morning.  At least, he was presumed dead, since his B-17 had vanished in a titanic explosion about ten seconds before bomb release.

"The Germans made a lucky hit," said the master sergeant on duty in Ops.

"Lucky?" said Doone.  "Lucky for who?"

"Whom," said the sergeant.  "Lucky for whom, sir.  Not for the major."

Doone was appalled.  "That wasn't luck!  That was blind chance."

"Of course, sir."  The sergeant spoke in a soothing tone.  "I'm sure you're right."

"I wonder if I could be Ops Officer?"

"You'd have to be a major, sir.  And that wouldn't relieve you of flying missions."

"Right.  Right.  I knew that.  Do you have a crew in need of a pilot?"

There was one bomber needing a pilot.  She Pirate.

"She Pirate just got back from the Berlin raid, sir.  Her pilot has finished his tour.  The crew has completed fifteen missions.  Their original pilot walked into a prop after a strike on Kiel."

The new captain nodded.  "I'm out of choices.  Put me on She Pirate."  He hated the smug master sergeant.  The emotion came over him like a smoldering tidal wave.  It seemed grossly unfair that he, Doone, had to ride an aluminum monstrosity to Germany -- and back, 25 times -- while this man pushed paper and took no risks beyond possibly catching the clap.

"She's scheduled for tomorrow's mission, sir, assuming they had no major damage."

"Right."  Doone tamped down the flames of resentment.  "Fine.  Put me on She Pirate.  Two missions and I'll be done -- finished."  The words had a grim feel to them.  "My tour will be complete."  The sergeant laughed.  He thought Doone was trying to be funny.  The captain managed to control himself.  He walked all the way back to his hut with his face screwed into a ferocious grin.  People stayed the hell out of his way.

That night he wandered the flight line and hut area.  There were occasional glimpses of the moon and stars, but no omens.  He wanted a clear sign from Providence, for good or ill.  The science of luck required it.  Luck needed a repository, but he couldn't just buy a new scarf and say, "This is my lucky scarf."  There had to be a protocol involving the selection of good luck charms.  He tried to remember when he first knew that his old scarf was lucky.  Nothing came to him.  Too bad he hadn't kept a diary.

*****
There was fog in the morning, which could be good and bad.  Good, in that it messed up the German timing of fighter intercepts if bombers got off late.  It was even better, reflected Doone, if some bombers departed on time and drew all the fighters away from the later raids.  The idea held a grotesque feel to it, but he was a veteran and understood that staying alive was always better than being dead, even if you felt a little guilty about it.

Fog was bad if it was thin enough to allow takeoffs, but extended up into mid-level cloud decks such as appeared to dominate English weather.  Such were the conditions that morning.

An obliging corporal drove him out to the hardstand where She Pirate waited.  He had made no attempt to find the other crew members at briefing.

The bomber loomed out of the fog, a B-17G scarred from her fifteen missions over the Continent.  Doone wondered if he showed such rough edges and patched over parts.  It bore thinking about -- but not then.

A lieutenant stepped forward, hand extended.  The man was vaguely familiar.  They'd probably been seated next to each other in briefings any number of times in the previous months.  Doone held up his hand.  "My name is Pilot. I'm going to fly this plane for two missions.  That's it.  Two missions.  I'm not looking for new friends."

Someone laughed.  The lieutenant dropped his arm.  "Okay. Pilot."  He glanced back at the others.  "Call me Ishmael."

Doone ignored the ensuing laughter.  He touched his collar, hand automatically seeking his silk scarf, his luck.  Parachute in hand, he climbed into the bomber and made his way forward.  The 'start engines' signal came ten minutes later.

Assembly was a disaster.  The bright-painted assembly ship got lost.  At least, no one ever managed to find it in the clouds.  Two other ships slid into formation with She Pirate, then a steady stream of bombers joined up.  Soon they were leading a loose gaggle of planes in a large circle.  The radioman called on the intercom.  "Pilot, Stingray says our formation leader crashed off the end of the runway.  You're to take over lead."

It took Doone a long moment to make sense of the message.  Stingray was a command authority responsible for mission control while they were over England.  He noted and ignored the smirk on his co-pilot's face.  "Ask them to verify that.  I can't be the senior pilot."

The message came back.  Checked.  Verified.  Doone was senior.  Take the lead.  He cursed his promotion and pulled out a chart.  "Take over Mr. Ishmael."  In a moment, he had a heading to the first checkpoint, where their squadron would join with others in the bomber stream.  He gave the course to the co-pilot.

"I hear and obey, Pilot."

Doone didn't notice the sarcasm.  "Thank you."

Thirty minutes later the unit, now formed into combat boxes and part of a stream of heavy bombers, crossed the French coast.  Groups of fighters weaved above the heavies.  Doone spoke twice to the navigator and made several necessary calls to the group leader.  His co-pilot flew.  Intercom chatter ebbed and flowed.  He paid no attention.  When desultory flak began spotting the sky, he tightened his harness.  As the squadron climbed slowly to bombing altitude, everyone fastened their oxygen masks into place.  Like so many alien creatures, they hunched at their positions, watching for the enemy. 

Doone pondered his situation.  Can a man regain lost luck?  The idea had a certain attraction.  His natural cynicism made him sneer inwardly at the possibility.  A man out of luck might believe he could recover it.  That didn't mean it would happen.  What was luck?  Where did it come from?  His hand sought the scarf that no longer existed.  Did good fortune live in inanimate objects?  He didn't know what to believe.

The flak increased in intensity.  Doone saw a B-17 fall out of a box below and to the left.  Eight chutes blossomed behind the doomed plane.

"Somebody got hit," said a voice on the intercom.  "Nine o'clock.  I think it's B-for-Betty."

"Eight chutes," reported Doone.  It was an automatic response.  He'd been doing the same thing for months.  "I don't think anyone else got out."

The radioman responded.  "I'll make a note of it."

A dark shape slid into the windscreen.  Ishmael cursed and allowed She Pirate to descend a few feet.  The shape was a B-17 out of position.  A startled tail gunner peered at them across a disturbingly short distance.  Doone reached across to his co-pilot.  "Easy. Slide out to the left.  You're clear.  Whose plane is that?"

The engineer called from the upper turret.  "It's Sly Fox.  Lieutenant Green's plane."

"Call sign Crater Five," added the radioman.

Doone selected the squadron channel and called.  "Crater Five, you're out of position.  Do you have a problem?"

The errant B-17 rose abruptly.  One wing went down.  Doone called again.  "Crater Five!  Get the nose down.  We'll move out of the way!"  Bombers slid out of the tight combat box, giving the oscillating ship room to wallow around.

"Ah -- we got -- we got an engine problem -- ah, Crater Five here."

"Take it easy, Five.  Tell me what's going on."

Sly Fox had two engines running rough compounded by an electrical fire, which had just been put out.  Doone directed the crippled bomber out of formation and sent it home.  "Drop your bombs in the Channel, Five.  Keep a sharp eye out for fighters."

"Roger, lead.  See you at the O-club.  I owe you one."

"Think they'll make it?" asked the co-pilot.

"I don't know."  Doone glanced back at the retreating Fort.  "It's up to Lady Luck."

"They're a new crew.  Third mission.  They haven't built up much luck."

Doone stared at the co-pilot.  "Can they make their own luck?"

"Sure."  The man sounded positive.  "It's a function of experience."

"Astonishing," said Doone. "And scientific."  He said nothing for a few minutes.  Outside, in the cold air, the combat box slid back together.  "Have you thought much about luck?"

"Sure," said the co-pilot.  "We all do.  Me, I think luck is neither created or destroyed.  It just changes form -- balances back and forth."

"You sound like a physics teacher I had in college."

"That's no accident.  I used to be a math and physics teacher."

Something gave way inside Doone.  All of a sudden a good many things clicked.

The co-pilot spoke again.  "The Germans have luck too.  Sometimes our good fortune is transformed into theirs."  He shrugged.  "Everybody has a theory.  That's mine."

"I never had much of a theory.  Good luck charm.  Like that.  Your idea makes sense.  What's your real name?  Mine's Doone."

The co-pilot laughed.  "It really is Ishmael, sir.  That's what was so funny earlier."

"Jesus.  Ishmael.  Don't tell me we have an Ahab aboard."

"No, but the tail gunner is named Stub.  He's a sawed-off runt."

Another bomber reported fighters at three o'clock.  Doone took over from Ishmael.

An hour later the formation made a last turn and crossed the Initial Point inbound to the target.  The fighters dropped away and black puffs of flak appeared again.  Ishmael was flying again.  Doone and the bombardier were discussing drop settings.  The entire squadron would drop when She Pirate released her bombs.  Doone was on the radio frequently, keeping his group closed up.  On the bomb run a few Forts took hits, but none left the formation.

The drop went off like clockwork.  Stub reported hits in the target area.  Their group swung out to the right, following the lead squadron on the exit route.  Flak peppered the sky.  They overtook and passed a single B-17 with one engine shut down.

"Poor bastards," said Ishmael.

Doone nodded.  "Can you see who it is?"

"No."

"They need to get down low and run for it."

"I can probably get them on the command set, sir."  It was the radioman.

"Try it.  Tell 'em what I said."

Moments later the wounded bomber rolled up on one wing and dove towards a scattered cloud deck far below.  The radioman called.  "Morris here, sir.  I got 'em."

Ishmael glanced at Doone.  "It's a new plane.  I'll bet this is their first mission."

"Yeah.  Their luck is still pretty thin."

"Maybe not.  If they do what you said, they stand a good chance.  Maybe they borrowed some of yours.  I heard you're a lucky guy."

"Walked out of a burning B-17 without a scratch," said Morris.  "That's what we heard.  If that ain't luck I never seen it."

Doone rubbed the scar on his forehead.  "One scratch."  He hesitated.  "But I'm not lucky any more.  I lost my lucky scarf, the one I've worn since flight school.  It burned in the crash."

Ishmael shook his head.  "I'm sure the scarf was a comfort, but it wasn't your luck.  Anyone who survives twenty-three missions and walks away from a crash like that is saturated with luck."

"Damn right!" agreed Morris.  "Luckiest bastard alive.  That's you, sir."

"Fighters!  Eleven o'clock!"

Doone ordered the combat box to tighten up.  "How many fighters?  Sing out!"

The bombardier answered.  "Four fighters.  Eleven o'clock.  About two miles."

"Okay," said Doone.  "They'll be making a head-on attack.  Concentrate the chin turret and top turret on any that come for us."

"Sheeit!" said the radioman.  "They'll never get us.  Not with our lucky pilot along."

"To hell with that!" snarled Doone.  "Stand to your guns.  If Ishmael is right, Krauts can get lucky too."  He touched his new captain's bars for luck.  The scarf was a better talisman, he decided.  Tomorrow he'd get a new one.  He also decided to stand the crew to drinks and find out who they were, what they were like.  Ishmael, radioman Morris, a runt named Stub -- three names in his small branch of a much larger corporation -- whose business was war.  He grinned behind his oxygen mask.  Captain Doone, sales agent from Hell. 

(tbc)
 

Old Guy

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Fickle Finger of Fate

"But, sir . . ."  Captain Doone stopped to clear his throat.  He didn't want to sound whiny.  "Sir, I finished my 25th mission today.  I'm going home."

The immaculate colonel, a stranger to Doone, spoke up for the first time.  "I wasn't aware the war revolved around the desires of a mere captain."  He spoke in a derisive, cultured tone.  The man wore collar insignia Doone didn't recognize.

Doone's squadron commander stared at the top of his desk and said nothing, which was just as well.  He tended to speak in a whisper and dart for the nearest bomb shelter at the first sign of disagreement.  At the moment, he wasn't even whistling.

The civilian, introduced earlier to Doone as Carter Garret, spoke up.  "Captain Doone, perhaps if I explained further about this special mission I alluded to?"

"The mission doesn't matter -- ah, Mr. Garret.  I hit a target in Belgium this morning.  Mission number twenty-five.  I've completed my combat tour.  My next assignment is back in the States, training new pilots."  Doone's voice gradually sank to a whisper as he spoke.  Garret seemed sympathetic, but his eyes showed a flint-like finality.

That was when Doone knew for certain that fate, also known as the Army Air Corps, was about to screw him again.  He suddenly knew one other thing, too.  The obnoxious colonel wore the insignia of the Chemical Corp.  That mystified and frightened him.  His hand strayed to his collar.  A touch of his new silk scarf would have been soothing, no matter what Ishmael said about it.  But the scarf was back in his hut.

Mumbling something no one understood, the squadron commander scrambled from his own office, bent over like a man about to fill his drawers.  The elegant colonel sniffed and eyed Doone as if he fully expected the captain to scuttle away as well.  In fact, he would have, but he knew it would be futile.  Fate had him by the ass.

"Sit down, captain," said Garret.  He went to a small conference table and pulled out a chair.  "Sit down.  I'll brief you on the target we want to hit."  A tray on the table held coffee cups and a vacuum jug like the ones crews carried on bombing missions.

"We hit the target in Belgium," mumbled Doone as he sagged into the chair.  "That was my 25th mission.  Twenty-five."

Garret nodded.  "Last missions are an easy counter, I've been told.  A milk run?"  He arranged two cups on the table and poured coffee from the jug.

"Right."  Doone touched the coffee cup.  "On this milk run we lost two Forts before we got to the target.  Another went down in the Channel on the way back.  Eleven men wounded in the ships that made it back.  It was an easy counter."

"I'm sorry, Captain."  Garret's voice held understanding, but Doone mistrusted the man and his sympathies.

"Can we get on with it?" snarled the colonel from his chair across the room.

"Colonel, please leave us.  I'll call you when and if I need your expertise."  There was no doubting Garret's tone of command.  The colonel left without another word.  Doone took it all in.  A sour pit opened in his gut.

Now Garret placed an leather folder on the table.  "Open it."

Doone flipped it open.  A card inside bore the name 'Carter Garret' along with a picture of the man across the table.  The ID card was from the Office of Naval Intelligence.  Doone looked up.  "What does ONI want with me?"

Garret retrieved the folder and handed over a second one.  This ID was from the US Department of State.  The picture and identification was for one Carter Garret.

"Confused?"  Garret tucked both folders away.  "So am I at times."  He sipped at his coffee before continuing.  "I showed you those to establish that I'm in earnest.  Both those identifications are valid and proper.  But neither ONI nor the State Department are interested in Captain Doone, an experienced B-17 pilot who has just completed an all-expense paid, twenty-five trip holiday over the Continent.  The agency I'm working for at the moment has a different purpose."  He paused.  "At this point you're supposed to ask what that purpose might be."

Doone shrugged.  "Would it make any difference?  What sort of target are we -- am I going to have to hit?"

"Good!" exclaimed Garret.  "Very good.  Right past acceptance of fate and into the practical aspects of the thing."  He opened a manila envelope and slid a single photo across the table.  "Tell me what you see."

The photo was a typical oblique shot, probably taken with an camera mounted in a P-38 or P-51 recce bird.  Doone had seen many such prints before.  He examined the installation in the picture.  "A small factory.  Maybe a cement plant or even a refinery, judging from the towers and tanks."

"Correct.  A small plant.  But not for making cement or petroleum products."  Garret's face worked.  Doone noticed for the first time that the man was under a good deal of tension.  "Captain, could you find and hit this target in northwestern Germany?"  He held up a hand.  "Don't be hasty.  I'm talking a one plane strike.  A night mission."

"What?  At night!  Are you out of your mind?  Take this to the Brits!  They do all the night work over Europe."  A sudden surge of hope flowed over Doone.  Garret wasn't as bright as he seemed.  He'd simply assumed the Air Corps could pull off a night mission. 

Garret didn't seem perturbed.  "Ever heard of Oboe, Doone?  H2S?"

"Of course.  I mean, I've heard talk . . ."

"Did it ever occur to you that blind-bombing equipment might be useful elsewhere?  Say over Japan?  We have access to all the British gear and some of our own."  Doone could only shake his head.  Fate was not to be denied.

"Look," said Garret.  "Getting a bomber to the target will take a skilled pilot and navigator.  That's where you and your crew come in."

"My crew?  You mean She Pirate's crew?  I only flew with them for two missions.  They won't want any part of this."

"Ah, but they do.  I've already spoken to them -- to the officers anyway.  Does your navigator, Lieutenant Zibreski, have the skill to find a small target like this one?  He would have Oboe or something like it available, but God knows such equipment is all too likely to fail at a critical moment."

Doone opened his mouth to speak, but no sound came out.  It was too much.  The mission itself had all the markings of a mad, save-the-war-effort enterprise.  Garret had already discussed the thing with Ishmael and Zibreski.  God only knew what he'd offered them.  He had a sudden suspicion.

"One mission and home, Garret.  Is that what you told them?"

The civilian nodded.  "It was only fair."

"Fair!  Even from the little you've told me I know this is a suicide trip!  Six more regular missions and they'd be going home anyhow.  Why should they do this?"

"The loss rate for B-17s is such that they aren't sure their luck will hold that long."  Garret smiled.  "Besides, I told them you would fly the plane."

"God -- damn -- you."  Doone's heart wasn't in the curse.  It was all so predictable.  He couldn't have seen it coming, but looking back, his participation in the special mission was practically foreordained.  "Okay."  He tapped the picture of the mystery plant.  "So what are the Krauts doing at this place?  Making an atom bomb?"

The color drained from Garret's face.  For the first time he looked human.  "Where?" he choked.  "Where did you hear that word?"

Doone marveled at the change in the man.  "What word?  Atom?"

Garret nodded.

"I read science fiction.  I even went to college for a couple years.  Electrons and stuff."  He waved a hand airily.  That was all he could remember from college physics.

The State/ONI agent relaxed somewhat.  "Damn.  I should have figured on something like that."  He drank some more coffee.  "Science fiction.  God."

Doone laughed.  "There's been speculation that the Germans are building all sorts of wonder weapons.  Rockets, planes with jet engines, atom bombs, ray guns.  Pilots talk about that sort of thing all the time.  The Brits have a bomb that will take out a city block.  I suppose an atom bomb would do better than that?"

"Somewhat better, I imagine."  Garret stood up.  "Suffice it to say that the Nazis are working on such a weapon.  The plant in the picture is for processing the ingredients for the device.  Colonel Sneer knows the details."

"Sneer?  Is that really his name?"

Garret laughed.  "No.  His real moniker is one of those old money names.  You don't need to know it.  I'll get the good colonel in to explain what we know about the plant."

"No!  I mean . . . no."  Doone had no desire to see the colonel or to know any more about the processing plant.  "All I need is for someone to tell me how to get to the place and where to hit it when we get there -- if we get there at all."

"Smart man," said Garret.  "I can't stand the bastard myself.  And the less you know about our intelligence, the better."

"Yeah.  Thanks for keeping my welfare in mind."  This time Doone tried and failed to suppress the bitterness in his voice. 

Garret acted as if he hadn't noticed.  "No problem.  Have some more coffee.  Then we'll drive to an airfield north of here.  Your officers and a new bomber are waiting there."

Doone's hand shook as he poured the coffee.  He wanted to run and hide.  But, unlike his squadron commander, he still had a shred of dignity left.  The young man who had sworn an oath to the United States three years past was still there, although somewhat weathered around the soul.  He managed a grin for Garret.  A certain devil-may-care attitude was essential for a combat pilot.  "A new bomber?  Chock full of scientific gadgets?"

"Some gadgets."  Garret stared out the window.  "But gadgets fail.  It will be up to you and your men.  Success will mean at least a temporary respite for all humanity."

"I knew it," muttered Doone.  "A save-the-war-effort mission."  He rubbed at the stubble along his jaw.  "Men fail too."

"You won't."  Garret said nothing about the two other crews he would be putting together for the mission.  He suspected Doone knew.

******
Lieutenants Ishmael and Zibreski met Doone in a briefing room at the back of the only hangar on a small airfield some thirty miles north of their home base.  None of the officers could recall ever seeing the field before, although they must have flown over it on numerous occasions.  The hangar held a single black-painted B-17G.

"Mr. Garret will be along shortly," said Doone.  He took a seat at a table.  "Who will be going on the mission?"

"Me and Ski were talking about that," said Ishmael.  "No need for the whole crew to go, but anyone who doesn't will have to finish out their tour on another crew."

The captain nodded.  "Anyone who doesn't want to go can stay back.  In fact, I don't want the crew members to know about the go-home-free offer unless they elect to come along.  Is that clear?"  It was.

Doone looked at Ishmael.  "You and I have to go.  We'll need a navigator, a flight engineer, radio operator and tail gunner.  The mission has to be flown at low level, so a ball turret gunner isn't necessary.  For night work we don't need waist gunners."

"I'm going," said Zibreski.  "Garret arranged for me to take a training flight on a Lancaster equipped with H2S.  I'm leaving in a few minutes.  The Brits tell me that a few hours training is enough to be able to identify ground targets with it."

"What about the run in to the target?  How will that be done?"

The navigator chuckled.  "Nothing fancy.  A simple direction finder.  We'll use the system the Krauts set up for their own aircraft and U-boats.  There's a transmitter site about nine miles from our target."

Garret stepped through the door.  Zibreski left for his training flight.  A soldier pushed a covered cart into the room, then left.  Garret rolled the cart close to the table.  "Cold cuts, coffee and rolls, gentlemen.  I brought more photos of the target, along with maps.  You two need to work out a preliminary flight path and attack profile.  Your navigator can help you fine tune it tomorrow."

"How soon are we to make the strike?" asked Doone.

"Within the next few nights.  The moon is waxing.  You'll want enough moonlight to help you see the target."

"Will we need to see it?  What about this H2S?  In fact, what about Oboe and the other aids you hinted at in our first meeting?"

Garret laid out slices of bread and began building a ham sandwich.  "Misdirection.  Pure and simple misdirection.  The few people outside this room who know of the mission think we're sending in a squadron size raid, using all sorts of fancy electronic gizmos to aid in finding and hitting the target.  Instead, you will be going in alone using the German's own navigational system, a stopwatch and the old reliable human eyeball."

"But what about Zibreski and the H2S training?"

"Oh, you'll have H2S.  If the weather is bad it might be useful in finding the target.  But you'll be bombing from very low altitude.  H2S isn't much good down low." 

Doone watched as Garret finished making his sandwich and opened a cold beer.  "Zibreski says he can learn enough about H2S in a few hours to be able to use it effectively in the plant strike.  When will he be back?  Do you know?"

"I'm sure Ski will be reasonably proficient on the H2S by the time he gets back."  Garret glanced at his watch.  "That will be in about eight hours.  It takes that long to fly to the Ruhr and back you know."

"Jesus!" exclaimed Ishmael.  "Ski will be pissed!"

"I don't know," said Garret.  "He may enjoy it."

"Yeah," agreed Doone.  "He probably will.  Lieutenants are dumb that way.  I know, I was one myself not too long ago."


Bells and Whistles

Ishmael did the flying on the first approach to the Belgian coast.  Staff Sergeant Boggs, flight engineer, rode in his regular seat.  Flt/Lt Jenkins, a British Coastal Command pilot sat in a jump seat and coached the two American pilots on navigating along the coast of Occupied Europe.  Zibreski listened from his navigation position. 

"Jerry put these stations in last year," said Jenkins.  "Our electronics boffins wanted to jam them, but someone had the sense to point out that we operate far more aircraft at any given place along the coast than the Germans do.  So we left it alone.  It's rather handy having the opposition go to the expense of setting up a jolly good nav system for us."

"Don't they change station locations or anything like that?" asked Zibreski.

"No.  That would endanger their own U-boats and planes.  At any given time they have no idea who might be using one of the station signals.  They do shut stations down at random intervals.  Their own people know about it and simply switch stations.  We bloody well do the same, so it's not a serious problem."

Both pilots practiced navigating toward the enemy coast using the direction finder.  The system operated on a different frequency than American and British non-directional beacons, but the techniques involved were identical.

They flew back to the little airfield to take on a load of practice bombs.  Garret was on hand for their briefing, which was conducted inside the closed hangar.  Besides the civilian, only Zibreski, Ishmael and Doone were present.

"Part of the target is underground."  Garret moved to a display stand and uncovered an overhead layout of the plant.  "In fact, the important machinery is likely below ground.  But, we want to take out the tanks and sheds on the surface as well, so you'll be carrying two types of bomb.  The first to be dropped will be four 1,000 pound, delayed fuse penetrating types.  On top of those, there will be four 250 pound fragmentation bombs with parachutes attached."

"A huge parafrag!" exclaimed Zibreski.

"Huge, indeed," agreed Garret.  "Regular parafrags are 25 pounders, or so I'm told."

Two sample bombs lay on carts.  The penetrating bomb was nothing special.  Doone had seen and dropped those several times.  He walked around the parafrag.  "Have any of these been test-dropped?"  The bombs made him feel cold, though the hangar was a bit stuffy.  He knelt to inspect the packed parachute.  A wire loop hung from the rear of the chute pack -- obviously the connection for a static line. 

"Not one this big," said Garret.  "Your compatriots in the Southwest Pacific have dropped thousands of the smaller ones.  The concept is the same, regardless of size."

"Concepts and theories don't necessarily work with the scientific precision we too often believe," said Doone.  "I want to drop a couple of them in practice."  Ishmael and Zibreski nodded their agreement.

"The shop has only built six.  You need four for the mission."  Garret spread his hands.  "Drop the two extras."

"All right," said Doone.  He glanced at Zibreski.  "We need to work out our drop height.  I'll want to do this from 500 feet or less."

The navigator ran a hand over the display bomb.  "I need to see navigation charts and get a course figured.  Then we can calculate drop height and release times.  The big bastards will go first.  If we fly along the long axis of the plant we can release in train.  A second or so later the parafrags can go, also in train."

Garret was frowning.  "In train?"

"We release the bombs one after the other," explained Zibreski.  "Instead of dropping them all at once.  It gives us a better chance at success."

"Okay.  You three will find maps in the meeting room.  I'll order up coffee and lunch."

They elected to bore straight in from the sea, relying on the German navigation signal.  Over the signal station Doone would execute a hard left turn and fly a specific heading toward the plant, which lay on the north bank of a long inlet.  Over the inlet he would make a second left turn to line up with the long axis of the plant.  Elapsed time from coast crossing inbound to bomb release should be no more than nine minutes. 

"If all goes well," said Ishmael, "we'll only be over enemy territory for fifteen or sixteen minutes."  He looked up at the others.  "What if all does not go well?"

Doone walked to a side table and refilled his coffee cup.  "That's our next task.  Figure out what to do when everything turns to crap."

They gathered around the table and began the real planning session.

******
Late that afternoon, a single black B-17 droned toward a large rock about five miles off the coast of Scotland.  Two practice bombs arced down, followed by one larger projectile.  A pair of hollow explosions drifted over the sea.  Locals paid no attention.  The rock had been used for target practice since before the war.  No one noticed the large weapon until it exploded, well beyond its intended target.  The blast was much louder than that of the practice bombs.

Two fishermen mending nets turned to look as a huge plume of water erupted just behind a low-flying bomber.  The plane dipped toward the sea, then climbed away, engines howling.

One turned to the other.  "Bloody Americans.  Trying to kill themselves."

"Aye," said his companion.  "Are ye sure it was Americans?"

"Are ye a boobie?  It's a B-17."

No one aboard the bomber said anything until Doone and Ishmael wrestled her away from the water and into a slow climb. 

"Killed some fish back there," reported Stub, from his tail gun position.  "And we have a few holes in the tail section.  For a second there, I thought me mum was set to collect me GI insurance.  Scorched our Blackbird 's tail feathers."  Whether he meant to or not, Stub's name for the B-17 stuck.

Sergeant Boggs came forward from the bomb bay.  "The parafrag didn't work.  Chute popped open then tore to shreds."  He snapped his fingers.  "Like that."

Zibreski climbed up from his position in the nose.  Doone signaled Ishmael to take over.    "We know the bomb release marks we put on the Perspex down below are set correctly for 500 feet and 180 knots.  The two regular bombs hit the target."  He grinned.  "We also know the parafrag didn't para."  His crew chuckled dutifully.

Boggs dropped into his seat at the engineering position.  "What now, boss?"

What now? thought Doone.  He was convinced the mission was important or he'd have refused to go.  But he had others to think of.  Zibreski, Boggs, Stub, Ishmael and Maas, the radioman.  They'd all volunteered to go.  The enlisted men didn't know what the target was yet.  The captain wondered if his vaunted luck would stretch enough to protect five extra men.

"We tell the boffins to fix the chutes on the parafrags.  Then we go."

Nobody said anything or even made a gesture.  They just went back to their duties.

Doone watched them go.  He thought: Not much of a pep talk, I guess.

******
Fixing the parafrags was simpler than Doone feared.  Told of the immediate tearing of the chutes, the chief rigger just nodded and said, "We'll fix that bloody well quick.  I tried to tell the scientific sods a single chute wouldn't work in the first place."

The change involved installing three separate chutes, to be deployed in succession and each larger than the one before.  A second practice run on the target rock proved that the new chute setup worked perfectly.

Garret met Doone and his officers in the hangar.  Mechanics swarmed over the bomber.  The civilian nodded with satisfaction.  "How soon do you want to go?"

Doone laughed.  He wondered how many of those he had left.  "Never.  Is that okay?"

"Tonight," said Ishmael.  "We go tonight."

"The moon's right," said Zibreski.  "Our weather guys say the target area has decent conditions.  No worse than we ever expect to see in that part of Germany."

Garret eyed the three of them for a moment.  He nodded.  "Okay.  Tonight.  I requested a code name for the action phase.  They gave me Nemesis."

(tbc)
 

Old Guy

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Raid on Nemesis

Across occupied western Europe, in darkened rooms, German controllers watched streams of British bombers closing on their nightly targets.  France and southern Germany had clear skies.  A bank of low clouds covered most of the North Sea and inland, cloaking Belgium, the Netherlands and north Germany, bringing intermittent rain and low fog.

German night fighters orbited beacons scattered along the defensive perimeter of Fortress Europe.  Soon, their controllers would direct them onto the bomber streams and young men would die in the cold heights.  Radar-equipped British intruders entered into the mix, seeking enemy night fighters. 

In a far corner of Europe, below and to one side of this macabre ritual, a single B-17 slipped under rotating radar beams and crossed the German coast at 500 feet altitude and an airspeed of 180 knots.  Occasional breaks in the clouds revealed wet farmland below.

Zibreski clicked his stopwatch and called on the intercom.  "Five minutes to the turn point."  There was no answer.  Everyone expected the call.

It's a tunnel, thought Doone.  A tunnel filled with rain and cloud.  He made a minor power adjustment.  I've never seen it so dark.

Somewhere below, not far from Blackbird, a technician yawned as he read the schedule board.  He reached across a broad panel and turned a switch.

"Crap!"  Zibreski's voice cracked.  "I've lost the signal!"

Doone concentrated on his compass.  "Try the next one north.  Keep track of the time!"

"Roger.  Three minutes, fifteen seconds."  Ski began tuning in the next German navigation station.  "Got the signal.  I'll use it for a cross-bearing."

"Right."  Both pilots kept an eye on their heading.  With the first beacon turned off, they had to rely on time and distance for navigation.  The beacon to the north lay well away from the target.  Blackbird  slid through the clouds, water streaming off her wings and body.

*****
In a tin-roofed bunker not far away a feldwebel put down his tea and grabbed his phone on the second ring.  It was one of his listening posts.  "Ja, batterie drei."  He listened for a moment.  "Flugzeug?  Wo ist das flugzeug?"  Running a finger along a map, he listened to the report, then hung up with a muttered, "Ja, ja."  Another sip of tea and he began pulling on his rain gear.  His gun crews weren't going to like falling out in the rain.

*****
"Two minutes," said Ski.  "I can't see the ground at all."

"Welcome to Germany," said Ishmael.  "It's worse in winter."

The radioman, Maas, spoke up.  "I have an idea . . ."

"Let's let the Germans keep it!" chorused several other voices.

Doone grinned as he twitched Blackbird  a trifle to the left.

*****
Down below and a mile ahead, men stood by their guns and listened.  The low drone of multiple engines began to swell.  Gunners rotated their weapons toward the west.  How many planes?  "Ein flugzeug?" asked someone.

The feldwebel turned his head from side-to-side.  One plane?  Two?  "Schiess."  It didn't really matter.  He pointed to the west, zeroing in on the sound.  Gunners began tracking the grinding roar.  Down came the feldwebel's arm.  "Feuer!  Feuer!"

Muzzle flashes lit the clouds.  Covering his ears, the feldwebel rushed to report.

*****
Blackbird  shuddered to the impact of bursting rounds.  Doone shut out the explosions.  He eased forward on the wheel, allowing the big bomber to drop below crossing streams of tracers.  The change in sound must have confused the gunners because the next bursts went wide left and right.  In a moment they were past the guns.  He tried to take stock.

Ishmael was hunched forward, cursing steadily.  He pulled a piece of metal from his left arm and tossed it aside.  "Just a second, boss.  I gotta slap something on this."

Boggs loomed up between the pilots.  "Gimme your arm.  I got a bandage."

"Number four is on fire," said Ishmael, between clenched teeth.

Doone reached to adjust the other engines.  "Feather it -- once you get your arm back."

"Right.  Feathering number four."  Boggs moved back to his position.

"Who else is hit?" asked Doone.  He remembered someone screaming.

"It's Mr. Zibreski," said Maas.  Wind noise made his words hard to follow.  "There's a big damn hole up front here.  I need some help."

Boggs waved his hand and vanished below.

"Christ!" Ishmael pointed at the panel clock.  "We're at least a minute past the turn point!"

Doone racked Blackbird  to the left.  They were down to 300 feet.  He elected to stay there for the time being.  Every now and then he glimpsed patches of water below.  "How's number four doing?"

"Fire appears to be out.  What now?"

"Maas, what's Ski's condition?"

Zibreski himself answered up.  "I'm -- awake."  There were long pauses as he spoke.  "Boggs is -- Boggs is patching me up.  My right arm's busted.  Coupla holes.  Leaking a little.  What -- where are we?"

"We missed the turn by about a minute," said Doone.  "I'm on a heading of north.  Can we use the second station for navigation?"

"S-sure . . . wait one."  Ski was off the line for no more than thirty seconds.  "No good, boss.  Either the receiver was hit or -- well, something's busted.  Wait -- lemme check the H2S.  Christ on a crutch -- that's no good.  It's been knocked to one side.  Boss, I got nothing but marks on the windscreen."

"Okay."  The captain glanced at Ishmael.  The co-pilot shrugged.  They hadn't planned on being completely blind.

"We're at least ten miles north of the plant now," said Doone.  "I'm turning northwest.  We ought to be back over the North Sea shortly."

"Right," replied Zibreski.  "Wait a minute -- damn, my head keeps spin . . ."

"Maas, is he okay?"

"Yeah.  Just puking his guts out."

The two pilots laughed at the radioman's calm interpretation of Ski's condition.  Doone realized he hadn't heard from their sixth crewman.  "Stub, you still with us?"

"Sure.  It's dark back here and I can't see a damned thing and I miss my Mommy.  Other than that, I'm just peachy."

"Did you see those flak guns at all when we went over them?"

"Negative.  I didn't see nothing but a sky full of tracers.  And I humbly request we not go home that way."

"Roger.  We won't."

"I'm . . . I'm back."  It was Ski.  "There's a tower . . ."

Blackbird  lurched hard right, throwing both pilots hard against their harness.  The plane staggered forward.  A loud whining noise drowned out all other sounds.  Then the sound quit, suddenly as it began, and Blackbird  steadied up.  Doone and Ishmael were on the controls, pushing the nose down.  They were perilously near a stall.

"Left!" shouted Ski.  "Turn left!  We hit a guy wire for that damn tower!"

For one long, long moment Doone didn't think she was going to keep flying.  Then the nose went down and Blackbird  began picking up speed.  "Jesus Jones," breathed Doone.  "What tower are you talking about?"

Stub came on the line.  "Boss, I saw something falling back there -- when we turned."

"A radio tower.  About 200 meters tall."  Zibreski's voice became excited.  "Come left to a heading of 180, boss.  No!  Make it 175.  We flew a little past the tower."

"Okay.  We're coming left.  What's up?"

"That tower is due north of the plant," said Ski.  "Twenty miles exactly.  I noticed it when I was laying out our course.  Now I know where we are."

"Jesus, Ski," said Doone.  "Couldn't you have picked an easier way of locating us?"

"What the hell was that whining sound?" asked Boggs.

"Cable," said Ishmael.  He pointed out the ride side window.  "The prop is gone on number four.  We flew into a guy wire and busted it loose at one end.  It must have caught the prop on number four.  Took it clean off."

"Jesus," muttered Boggs.  "Good thing it didn't saw the goddamn wing off."

Doone wondered how much luck he had left -- how much any of them had left.  "Back to business, people.  We're gonna bomb that damn plant -- if we can find it."

Ski called.  "Can we maintain 180 knots?"

"Yeah, but not for long.  Not if we want to make it home."

"Okay.  I figure we're about two minutes from the plant.  What's our altitude?"

"Five hundred.  We're on the wrong axis to attack," said Ishmael.

"Yeah."  Doone reached up and tightened his harness.  "We'll overfly it and circle back for an attack.  If we can't see it, we'll go home.  Garret can send someone else."

"To hell with that!" exclaimed Zibreski.  "Let's finish the job.  I don't want anyone else to have to try this."

"The crap below is thinning," said Maas.  "I can see the ground most of the time.  We just crossed an east-west canal."

There was silence for a few seconds, then Ski said, "That's got to be the canal marked on the map -- three miles north of the plant.  One minute to target."

Doone reached for the throttles.  "I'm bringing her up to 180 knots.  Get to your posts."

"Maas is staying down here.  He'll spot for me."

Right on cue, the target loomed out of the mist.  Doone noticed nothing but the beating of his heart as they passed over the plant.  Zibreski called.  "Opening bomb bay doors."

Steady at 180 knots and 500 feet, Blackbird  flew south until Doone judged the time was right to begin a 270 degree turn to the left.  The ground below lay dark and dangerous.  No flak came up until they were halfway around the arc.  A double explosion lit the clouds at least a thousand feet above them.

"They're aiming too high," said Stub.

"That won't last long," predicted Ishmael.

Doone rolled out on the final attack heading.  "You ready, Ski?"

"I can't get any readier, boss."

Tracers arced from the left, passed overhead.  Heavy flak bursts bloomed on the right.  "Ten seconds."

Blackbird  lurched as the penetrating bombs fell away.  A heartbeat later, the parafrags fell free.  "Bombs gone.  Closing bomb bay doors."

Explosions bracketed the black bomber.  Doone began weaving erratically and varying his altitude.  Tracers criss-crossed the sky.  The Germans were having trouble getting fire down low enough.  A quick flurry of impacts shook Blackbird .

"Someone's getting the range."

"Goddamn!"  It was Stub.  "I can see the ground coming apart.  There goes a tower!  Hoooeee!  You oughta see this.  Plants blown all to hell, guys."  Bright flashes lit the underside of nearby clouds.  Blackbird  vibrated to the anvil beat of explosions.

Tracers flashed over the left wing.  Doone watched as the rounds burned out ahead of the Fortress.  "That wasn't ground . . ."

"Holy crap!" yelled Stub.  "There's a fighter back here!"  The plane vibrated to the recoil of his twin fifties. 

Doone stood Blackbird  on her left wing, then rolled back the other way.

Stub quit firing.  "Christ, he's got an engine on fire!  He's going . . . he's gone."

"What happened?" asked Ishmael.  "Did you get him?"

"I'll always say so.  But one of his own flak guns nailed the crap out of him.  Wing folded up and he went straight in.  Looked like a 110."

*****
A mile west of the burning plant, a Luftwaffe major glared at the mingled wreckage of a ME-110 and one of his flak cannon.  He knew without a doubt that his own gunners had brought down the night fighter.  A sick feeling grew in his gut.  The special plant looked to be heavily damaged.  It had to be special because of all the SS bastards he'd seen going in and out.  He didn't think they'd be at all understanding about the plant.

The drone of the British bomber faded away.  The attackers had to be Brits.  Americans didn't fly bombing missions at night.

"Scheiss."  The major stomped back into his command trailer, wondering how soon he'd be sent East.  He opened a desk drawer and extracted a bottle of vodka.  "Scheiss." 

*****
Blackbird  roared over the coast.  Doone reduced power and set course for home.  He touched his scarf -- something he hadn't done since before takeoff.  An hour and they'd be back on the ground.  He grinned at Ishmael, eliciting a feral smile in return.  He knew instinctively that fate hadn't carried him this far for nothing.  His Fortress was a beast of claw and fang, made for the clangor of combat.  And so was he. 



End
 

Old Guy

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Quick correction: the top gunner on a B-17 was the 'crew chief', not 'flight engineer'. 

I've corrected the text in my files, but I'm too lazy to fix the material I posted.  Heh.  :)

jim
 

Old Guy

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Hmm.  Nary a response.

Is straight fiction not something you lads want to see?
If not, then I'll stick with the occasional forum tale. 

Jim
 

SeaDog

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Outstanding read, Old Guy.  Greatly appreciated.  As we say in the navy "you spin a mighty fine dit".  Your attention to historical detail is suberb.  Not certain about the other readers out there, but for myself it is a detracts from a work of historical fiction when you come across to many technical errors.  Needless to say, it seems that you have done your homework on top of having excellent prose.  Do you write purely as a hobby, or do I detect a bit of professional penmanship there?  Cheers.
 

Fishbone Jones

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Old Guy

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recceguy -- It will have to be cyber beer for now, man.  If you ever get down to Colorado, I'll make it a real beer.
Your choice of beers, of course.  I don't inflict my plebian tastes (MGD - it's cheap and effective) on others.

Seadog -- I've written over a million words in straight fiction and forum tales (at another forum), so I think it's gone a little beyond the hobby level -- though I get a lot of pleasure out of providing a story people enjoy.

recceguy made reference to my current book, "Gehenna Station".  It's a military SF novel which has had a very good reception from the folks who've bought it.  Hopefully, I'll have a military fantasy and a WW2 novel out next year.  Right now I'm looking for a reputable literary agent who handles military fiction.

So, I guess I'm a hobbyist who would like to turn pro.

Thanks for your comments, guys.  My typing fingers appreciate knowing their work is not in vain.

jim :)
 

Bruce Monkhouse

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Sorry, Jim.....I haven't read this one or ordered your book like I said I would. [But I will]Renovations are taking control of life right now....
 

Old Guy

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Bruce -- no problem.  I have a bathroom remodel I can't put off much longer.  My wife isn't going to buy my excuses much longer.

:(
jim
 

Bruce Monkhouse

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BATHROOM!!!!...I'll trade your bathroom for my complete gutting and new addition... :crybaby:
 

SeaDog

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It would seem that I have yet another book to place on my now lengthy reading list! Thanks again, Jim.
 

Thompson_JM

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Excellent Story...... I may order a few of your books for training and going over... I always find reading to be theraputic while im away with the army

:salute:
 
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