Air Bridge (7)
March 15, 2015
HiLoBooks is pleased to serialize Hammond Innes’s 1951 espionage thriller/Robinsonade Air Bridge. Set in England during the Berlin blockade and airlift of 1948–49 (during which time the British RAF and other aircrews frustrated the Soviet Union’s attempt to gain practical control of that city), the novel’s protagonist is a mercenary pilot… but is he a traitor? Hammond Innes wrote over 30 adventures, many of them set in hostile natural environments. Enjoy!
It wasn’t until the following day that I realized how much Diana had been doing for us. It wasn’t only that she’d cooked our food, made our beds, kept the place clean and neat and done all the little odd jobs that are so boring and yet are an essential part of the act of living. She’d done more than that. By her brightness, her cheerfulness — her mere presence — she had cushioned the tense exhaustion of our effort. She had provided a background for us in which we could momentarily relax and gather strength for another day’s sustained effort. The place seemed flat without her.
I cooked the breakfast that morning. Tubby hadn’t got back until the early hours of the morning. He looked all in when I called him. His round, friendly face was hollow and drained of all its natural cheerfulness. And Saeton looked like death when he came across from the hangar. His face was gray and the corners of his eyes twitched nervously. He was suffering from a hangover. But I think it was more than that. He was hating himself that morning. There was something inside of him that drove him on. It wasn’t exactly ambition. It was something more urgent, more essentially a part of his nature — a frustrated creative urge that goaded him, and I think he’d been fighting it through the long, drunken hours of the night. He wasn’t a normal human being. He was a cold, single-purposed machine. And I think that part of him was at war with his Celtic blood.
It was the grimmest Christmas I have ever had. We spent the day in bench tests on the new engine and in getting the first engine in position in the nascelle. The hangar was equipped with overhead gear for this purpose. It had been a maintenance hangar in the days when the Americans had had the airdrome. Without that gear I don’t know how we should have done it. But no doubt Saeton had thought of that when he decided to rent the hangar. I was looking after the commissariat and though it was all canned food that I served it took time. I was thankful that we were so near the end of our work.
It wasn’t only the fact that Diana had gone. There was Tubby. No set-back ever discouraged him and his cheery grin had seen me through many bad moments. But now his end of the bench was silent. He didnt whistle any more and there was no friendly grin to cheer me. He worked with stolid, urgent drive as though the work itself as well as Saeton stood between him and his wife. It was only then that I realized how much I had leaned on his good-natured optimism. He had never asked me any questions. To this day I don’t know how much he knew about me. He had just accepted me and in his acceptance and in his solid ordinariness he had created an atmosphere that had made the airdrome reality and the past somehow remote.
That was all gone now. A sense of impermanence crept into the hangar as though we were on the fringe of the outside world and I began to worry about the future, wondering whether, when we flew out of Membury, the police would get on my trail again. I suddenly found myself in dread of the outside world.
That first day after Diana’s departure was hell. A tenseness brooded over us in the din of the hangar where the new engine was being run in on the bench. But on the following day Saeton had recovered from his hangover. He came down at six-thirty and got our breakfast. He didn’t talk much but a quiet, steadying confidence radiated from him. I never admired him more than I did then. The following day would see the work of installation completed. He was face-to-face with the first test flight. Three years of work were concentrated on the results of that one day. The previous flying tests had resulted in the plane crashing and the man’s nerves must have been stretched to the uttermost. But he never showed it. He set out to instil confidence in us and renew our interest and enthusiasm. A forced cheerfulness would have been fatal. He didn’t make that mistake. He did it by the force of his personality, by implanting in us his own feelings. The mood sprang from deep within him and was natural and real. I felt as though he had stretched out his hand to lift me up to his own pitch of excitement. And Tubby felt it, too. It didn’t start him whistling again at his work and there was no good-natured grin, but as we heaved on the pulley chains to jockey the second engine into position for lowering into its nascelle I suddenly realized that his heart was in it again.
We didn’t knock off that night till past ten. By then the two engines were in position. All we had to do the next day was connect them up, fix the airscrews and prepare the plane for the first test. “Think she’ll make it, Tubby?” Saeton asked.
“She’d better.” Tubby spoke through his teeth and there was a gleam in his eyes as he stared up at the plane as though already he saw her winging into Gatow on those two engines we had sweated blood to produce.
I knew then that everything was all right. In one day Saeton had quietly and unobtrusively overlaid Tubby’s bitterness with enthusiasm for the plane and an overwhelming interest in the outcome of the flight.
December 28 — a Tuesday — was the last day of preparation. As the light faded out of the sky we slid back the doors of the hangar and started up the two motors. The work bench whitened under a film of cement dust kicked up by the backlash of the two props. Nobody cared. Tubby and I stood in the dust and grinned at each other as Saeton revved the motors and the whole fuselage quivered against the grip of the brakes. As the noise died down and the props slowly jerked to a standstill, Tubby gripped, my arm; “By God!” he said. “They work. It’s good to see something you’ve made running as smoothly as that. I’ve never built an engine from scratch before,” he added.
We were building castles in the air that night as we sat over the remaining bottle of Scotch. The airlift was only our springboard. Between us we swept past the work — out into the airways of the world. Saeton’s imagination knew no common bounds. He drew a picture for us of planes tramping the globe, able to cut steamer rates as well as steamer schedules, of a huge assembly line turning out freighters, of a gigantic organization running freight to the ultimate ends of the earth. “The future of the passenger plane lies in jets,” he said. “But freight will go to any company that can offer the lowest rates.” He was standing over us and he leaned down, his eyes shining, and gripped the two of us by the shoulder. “It’s queer. Here we are, just three ordinary types — broke to the wide and living on credit — and tomorrow, in the air over this derelict airfield, we shall fly the first plane of the biggest freight organization the world has ever seen. We’re going to be the most talked-of people in the world in a few months’ time. It’s been tough going up here.” He grinned. “But not half as tough as it’s going to be. You’ll look back on this period as a holiday when we start to get organized.”
And then, with one of those abrupt changes of mood, he sat down. “Well, now, let’s get tomorrow sorted out. To begin with I’d rather not taxi out of the hangar. You never know, something may go wrong and she may swing. Neil. You know the Ellwoods. Suppose you go down and arrange for them to send one of their tractors up here. I’d like it here by eight.” He turned to Tubby. “Ground tests will take most of the morning I expect. But I’d like to be in the air by midday. How are we fixed for petrol? Are all the tanks full?”
Tubby shook his head. “No. Only the main tanks. They’re about two-thirds full.”
“What about checking over the controls?” Tubby asked. “I’d like to run over the plane itself.”
“We did it after she was flown in,” Saeton said.
“Yes, I know, but I feel—”
“We haven’t time, Tubby. She came in all right and we went over her before we finally closed the purchase. If she was all right then, she’s all right now. Neil, go and fix that tractor, will you? The sooner we get to bed the better. I want everyone to be fresh tomorrow.” He jerked back his chair and got to his feet. “A lot depends on it.” He pushed his hand through his thick hair and grinned. “Not that I shall get much sleep. I’m too darned excited. I haven’t felt
so excited since I did my first solo. If we pull this off——” He laughed nervously as though he were asking too much of the gods. “Good-night.” He turned quickly and went out.
I glanced at Tubby. He was tying endless knots in a piece of string and humming a little tune. He was nervous, too. So was I. It wasn’t only the test flight. For me there was the future. Membury had been a refuge, and now the outside world was crowding in on us. I pushed back my chair. “I’ll go and arrange about the tractor,” I said, but I was thinking of Else. I needed to feel that there was somebody, just one person in the world that cared what happened to me.
The Manor seemed in darkness, but I could hear the sound of the light plant and when I rang Else opened the door to me. “I was afraid you might have gone already,” I said.
“I leave on Monday,” she said. “You wish to come in?” She held the door open for me and I went through into the lounge where a great log blazed in the open hearth. “Colonel and Mrs. Ellwood have gone out for this evening.” She turned quickly towards me. “Why have you come?”
“I wanted to arrange with Colonel Ellwood for a tractor tomorrow.”
“To bring the airplane out of the hangar?”
I nodded. “We’re flying tests tomorrow.”
“Das ist gut. It will be good to see those engines in the air.” Her tone was excited. “But——” She hesitated and
the excitement died out of her, leaving her face blank and miserable. “But he will not be here to see.” She turned back to the fire and almost automatically took a cigarette from the box on a side table and lit it. She didn’t speak for a long time, just standing there, drawing the smoke into her lungs and staring into the fire. Something told me not to say anything. Silence hung between us in the flickering firelight, but there was nothing awkward about it. It was a live, warm silence. And when at length she spoke, the intimacy wasn’t broken. “It has been such a long time.” The words were whispered to the fire. She was not in the room. She was somewhere far away in the reaches of her memory. She turned slowly and saw me again. “Sit down, please,” she said and offered me a cigarette. “You remember I ask you not to come here again?”
“I say that a wall separates us.” She pushed back her hair with a quick, nervous gesture. ”I was afraid I will talk to you because I am too much alone. Now you are here and——” She shrugged her shoulders and stared into the fire again. “Have you ever wished for something so much that nothing else matter?” She didn’t seem to expect a reply and after a moment she went on. “I grew up in Berlin, in a flat in the Fassenenstrasse. My mother was a cold, rather nervous person with a passion for music and pretty clothes. My brother Walther, was her life. She lived through him. It was as though she had no other existence. My father and his work did not mean anything to her. She knew nothing about engineering.” She shifted her gaze from the fire and stared at me with a bitter smile. “I think I was never intended to be born. It just happened. My father never spoke about it, but that I think is what happen, for I was born eight years after my brother when my mother was almost forty.” Her smile ceased suddenly. “I think perhaps it was a painful birth. I grew up in a world that was cold and unfriendly. I seldom saw my father. He was always working at some factory outside Berlin. When I left school I took a secretarial course and became a typist in the Klockner-Humboldt-Deutz A.G. There I fell in love with my boss.” She gave a bitter laugh. “It was not difficult for him. I had not had much love. He took me away to Austria for the ski-ing and for a few months we shared a little apartment — just a bedroom really. Then he got bored and I cried myself into a nervous breakdown. That was when I first really met my father. My mother did not wish to be bothered with me, so she sent me to stay with him in Wiesbaden. This was in 1937.”
Her gaze had gone back to the fire. “My father was wonderful,” she went on, speaking slowly. “He had never had anyone to help him before. I looked after the flat and did all his typing. We made excursions down the Rhine and took long walks in the Black Forest. His hair was white even then, but he was still like a boy. And for my part, I became engrossed in his work. It fascinated me. I was not interested in men. I could not even bear for a man to touch me any more. I lived and breathed engineering, enjoying the exactness of it. It was something that had substance, that I could believe in. I think my father was very impressed. It was the first time he discover that women also have brains. He sent me to the University at Frankfurt where I took my engineering staatsexamen. After that I return to Wiesbaden to work as my father’s assistant in the engine works there. That was in 1941. We were at war then and my father is engaged on something new, something revolutionary. We work on it together for three years. For us nothing else matters. Oh, I know that my father does not like the régime, that he is in touch with old friends who believe that Germany is doomed under Hitler. But apart from the air raids, it is quiet at Wiesbaden and we work at the designing board and at the bench, always on the same thing.”
She threw her cigarette into the fire. Her face was very pale, her eyes almost luminous in the firelight as she turned to me. “They came when we were working in the engine shop — two officers of Himmler’s S.S. They arrested him there in the middle of our work. They said he was something to do with the attempt on Hitler’s life. It was a lie. He had nothing to do with the conspiracy. But he had been in contact with some of the people who were involved, so they took him away. They would not even wait for me to get him some clothes. That was on the 27th July, 1944. They took him to Dachau and I never saw him again.” Her lips trembled and she turned away, stretching her hand down for another cigarette.
“What did you do?” I asked.
“Nothing. There was nothing I could do. I try to see him, of course. But it is hopeless. I can do nothing. Suddenly we have no friends. Even the company for whom he has worked for so long can do nothing. The Herr Direktor is very sympathetic, but he has instructions not to employ me any more. So, I go back to Berlin, and a few days later we hear my father is dead. It means little to my mother, everything to me. My world has ceased. Within a month Walther also is dead, shot down over England. They give him the Iron Cross and my mother has a breakdown and I have to nurse her. Her world also is gone. Her son, the pretty clothes, the music and the chatter all have disappeared and the Russians take Berlin. I do not think she wished to live any longer after Walther’s death. She never leave her bed until she died in October of last year.”
“And you looked after her all that time?” I asked, since she seemed to expect some comment.
She nodded. “I have never been so miserable. And then, when she is dead, I begin to think again about my father and his work. I go to Wiesbaden. But the designs, the experimental work is all disappeared. There is nothing left. However, the Rauch Motoren is still in business and they are willing for me to try to—” Her voice died away as though she could not find the right words.
“To try and recover the engines?” I suggested.
“And that is why you are here at Membury?” It was so obvious now she had told me about her father, and I couldn’t help but admire her pluck and tenacity.
“Why have you told me all this?” I asked.
She shrugged her shoulders and kicked at the big oak log, sending a shower of sparks up the chimney. “I do not know.” Then she suddenly flung up her head and looked straight at me almost defiantly. “Because I am alone. Because I have always been alone since they took him away. Because you are English and do not matter to me.” She was like an animal that is cornered and has turned at bay. “You had better go now. I have told you, we are on two sides of a wall.”
I got slowly to my feet and went towards her. “You’re very bitter, aren’t you?” I said.
“Bitter?” Her eyes stared at me angrily. “Of course I am bitter. I live for one thing now. I live for the day when my father’s work will be recognized, when he will be known as one of the greatest of Germany’s engineers.” The fire suddenly died out of her and she turned away from me. “What else have I to live for?” Her voice sounded desperately unhappy.
I reached out and put my hand on her shoulder, but she shook me off. “Leave me alone. Do not touch me.” Her voice was sharp, almost hysterical. And then in a moment her mood changed and she turned towards me. “I am sorry. You cannot help. I should not have talked like this. Will you go now, please?”
I hesitated. “All right,” I said. Then I held out my hand. “Good-bye, Else.”
“Good-bye?” Her fingers touched mine. They were very cold despite the warmth of the fire. “Yes. I suppose it is good-bye.”
“Will you give my message to Colonel Ellwood? We would like his heaviest tractor at the airfield at eight o’clock.”
“I will tell him.” She lifted her eyes to mine. “And you fly the test tomorrow?” Her fingers tightened on my hand. “Alles gute!” Her eyes were suddenly alive, almost excited. “I will watch. It will be good to see those engines in the air — even if no one knows it is his work.” The last few words were little more than a whisper.
She came with me to the door then and as she stood there framed in the soft light of the lounge, she said, “Neil!” She had a funny way of saying it, almost achieving the impossible and pronouncing the vowels individually. “If you come to Berlin sometimes I live at Number Fifty-Two, Fassenenstrasse. That is near the Kurfurstendamm. Ask for —— Fraulein Meyer.”
“Ja. Else Meyer. That is my real name. To come here I have to have the papers of some other girl. You see — I am a Nazi. I belong to the Hitlerjugend before — before they kill my father.” Her lips twitched painfully. “Goodbye,” she said quickly. Her fingers touched mine and then the door closed and I was alone in the dark cold of the night. I didn’t move for a moment and as I stood there I thought I heard the sound of sobbing, but it may only have been the wind.
It was a long time before I got to sleep that night. It was such a pitiful story, and yet I couldn’t blame Saeton. I was English — she was German. The wall between us was high indeed.
Next morning the memory of her story was swamped in the urgent haste of preparations for tests. It was a cold, gray day and it was raining. A low curtain of cloud swept across the airfield. But nobody seemed to mind. Our thoughts were on the plane. Apparently Else had delivered my message, for promptly at eight o’clock a big caterpillar tractor came trundling across the tarmac apron leaving a trail of clay and chalk clods on the wet, shining surface of the asphalt. We slid the hangar doors back and hitched the tractor to the plane’s undercarriage.
It gave me a sense of pride to see that gleaming Tudor nose slowly out. of the hangar. It no longer had the toothless grin that had greeted me every morning for the past five weeks. It was a complete aircraft, a purposeful, solid-looking machine, fully engined and ready to go. The tractor dragged it to the main runway and then left us.
“Well, let’s get moving,” Saeton said and swung himself up into the fuselage. I followed him. Tubby wheeled out the batteries and connected up. First one engine and then another roared into life. Saeton’s hand reached up to the four throttle levers set high up in the center of the windshield. The engine revs died down as he trimmed the motors. Tubby came in through the cockpit door and closed it. “What about parachutes?” he asked.
Saeton grinned. “They’re back in the fuselage, you old Jonah. And they’re okay. I packed them myself last night.”
The engines roared, the fuselage shivering violently as the plane bucked against the wheel brakes. I was in the second pilot’s seat, checking the dials with Saeton. Tubby was between us. Fuel, oil pressure and temperature gauges, coolant temperature, rev meters — everything was registering correctly. “Okay,” Saeton said. “Ground tests.”
He released the brakes and we began to move forward down the shining surface of the runway. Left rudder, right rudder — the tail swung in response. Landing flaps okay. Tail controls okay. Brakes okay. For an hour we roared up and down the runways, circling the perimeter track, watching the fuel consumption, oil indicators, the behavior of the plane with four motors running and then with the two new inboard engines only. Tubby stood in the well between the two pilots’ seats, listening, watching the dials and scribbling notes on a pad.
At length Saeton brought the plane back to the apron opposite the hangar and cut the engines. “Well?” he asked, looking down at Tubby. His voice seemed very loud in the sudden silence.
For answer Tubby raised his thumb and grinned. “Just one or two things. I’d like to check over the injection timing on that starboard motor and I want to have a look at the fuel filters. We got a slight drop in revs and she sounded a bit rough.”
Saeton nodded and we climbed out. As we did so I saw a movement in the trees that screened the quarters. It was Else. Saeton had seen her, too. “What’s that girl doing up here?” he muttered angrily. Then he turned quickly to me. “Did you tell her we were flying tests this morning?”
“Yes,” I said.
“I thought I warned you to keep away from her.” He glared at me as though I were responsible for her presence there on the edge of the airfield. Then he switched his gaze to the fringe of trees. Else had disappeared. “It’s about time the authorities took some action about her.”
“How do you mean?” I asked.
“She here on false papers. Her name isn’t really Langen.”
“I know that — now,” I said. And then suddenly I understood what he was driving at “Do you mean to say you’ve reported her to the authorities?”
“Of course. Do you think I want her snooping around the place, sending reports to the Rauch Motoren. They’d no right to let her into the country.”
“Haven’t you done that girl enough harm?” I said angrily.
“Harm?” He glanced at me quickly. “How much do you know of her story?” he asked.
“I know that it was her father who designed these engines,” I said. “She worked on them with him.” I caught hold of his arm. “Why don’t you come to terms with her?” I said. “All she really wants is recognition for her father.”
He flung my hand off. “So she’s got round you, as she got round Randall — as she nearly got round me. She’s just a little tart trading her body for the glorification of the fatherland.”
I felt a sudden urge to hit him. “Don’t you understand anybody?” I exclaimed through clenched teeth. “She loved her father. Can’t you understand that all she wants is recognition for his work.”
“Recognition!” He gave a sneering laugh. “It’s Germany she loves. They killed her father, but still it is Germany she thinks of. She offered to be my mistress if I’d allow the Rauch Motoren to manufacture the engines. My en gines! The engines Tubby and I had worked on all these years! She traded on my weakness, on the fact that I was alone up here, and if Diana hadn’t come——” He half- shrugged his shoulders as though shaking off something he didn’t like. “Her father has got about as much to do with these engines as you have.”
“Nevertheless,” I said, “it was his prototype you stole—”
“Stole! Damn it, man, a country that has gone through what we have on account of the blasted Germans has a right to take what it wants. If Professor Meyer had completed the development of those engines —” He stopped and stared at me angrily. “You bloody fool, Neil. Why waste your sympathy on the girl or her father? She was a good little Nazi till the S.S. took Meyer to Dachau. And Meyer was a Nazi too.” His lips spread in a thin, bitter smile. “Perhaps you’re not aware that Professor Meyer was one of the men who developed the diesel engine for use in bombers. London is in his debt to the tune of many hundreds of tons of bombs. My mother was killed in the blitz of 1940.” He turned away, his shoulders hunched, his hands thrust deep into his pockets, and walked across the tarmac to the hangar. I followed slowly, thinking of the tangled pattern of motive that surrounded these engines.
For over an hour Tubby worked on the engine. Then he checked over the others. It was just on one o’clock when he climbed down and pulled the gantry away. “Okay,” he said. “There’s nothing more I can do.”
“All right,” Saeton said. “Let’s have a bit of food.” His voice was over-loud as though by speaking like that he could convince us of his confidence. I glanced at the plane. The rain clouds had broken up and she was caught in a gleam of watery sunlight. It was one thing doing ground tests, quite another to commit ourselves to the take-off. But she looked just like any other Tudor. It was difficult to realize, seeing her standing there on the tarmac, that this wasn’t to be a routine flight.
Saeton had brought a loaf and some cheese and butter up from the quarters. We ate it in the hangar, none of us talking, all of us, I think, very conscious of the emptiness of the place and of the aircraft standing out there on the apron waiting for us. As soon as we’d finished we got into our flying kit and went out to the plane. Saeton insisted we wear our parachutes.
Once more we sat in the cockpit — Saeton and I in the pilots’ seats, Tubby in the well between us — the engines ticking over. Saeton’s hand reached out for the throttle levers. The engines revved and we moved away across the apron, along the perimeter track and swung on to the runway end, the concrete stretching ahead of us, a broad white path shining wet in the sunlight. “Okay?” Saeton looked at us. His jaw had broadened with the clenching of the muscles. His features looked hard and unsmiling. Only his eyes mirrored the excitement that held him in its grip.
“Okay,” Tubby said. I nodded. Again Saeton’s hand leached up for the throttle levers, pressing them slowly down with his palm. The four motors roared in unison. The fuselage shuddered violently as the thrust of the props fought the brakes.
Then he released the brakes and we started forward.
I wont pretend I wasn’t nervous — even a little scared. But it was overlaid by the sense of excitement At the same time it was difficult to realize fully the danger. Viewed from the cockpit all the engines looked ordinary standard models. There was nothing to bring home to us the fact that those inboard engines were the work of our own hands — only the memory, now distant, of the countless hours we’d worked at them in the hangar. In a sense it was nothing more than I’d done hundreds of times before — a routine take-off.
I tried to concentrate on the dials, but as we gathered speed my eyes strayed to the concrete streaming beneath us, faster and faster, and from thence to the plowed verge of the runway and to the woods beyond. I caught a glimpse of the quarters through a gap in the trees. It suddenly seemed like home. Would we ever again sit at that trestle table drinking Scotch in celebration of success? Would we again lounge in those hard, uncomfortable chairs talking of a huge freighter fleet and our plans for a constant stream of aircraft tramping the globe? And as these questions appeared in my mind, my stomach suddenly became an empty void as panic hit me. Suppose those pistons I’d worked on when I first arrived were not quite true? Suppose… A whole stream of ugly possibilities flooded through my mind. And what about the engine that had been completed before I arrived? My hands tightened automatically on the control column as I felt the tail lift.
I glanced at Saeton. His face was tense, his eyes fixed unblinkingly ahead, one hand on the throttles, the other on the control column. I saw his left foot kick at the rudder to counter a sudden swing of the tail. The end of the runway was in sight now. It ran slightly downhill and a bunch of oaks was rushing to meet us. No chance now of pulling up. We were committed to the take-off. The new starboard engine was still running a little rough. The tail swung. Left rudder again. I held my breath. God! He was leaving it late. I should have been watching the rev counters and the airspeed indicator. But instead my eyes were fixed on the trees ahead. They seemed to fill all my vision.
Then the control column eased back under my tense, clutched hands. The wheels bumped wildly on a torn-up piece of concrete. The starboard motor still sounded rough, the tail swung and the engine notes changed to a quieter drone. We were riding air, smooth, steady, the seat lifting me upwards as the trees slid away below us. Through the side window Lsaw Membury dropping away to a black circle of plow criss-crossed by the white pattern of runways and circled by the darker line of the perimeter track, the hangars small rectangles that looked like toys. We were airborne and climbing steeply, the full thrust of the motors taking us up in a steady, circling climb.
I glanced at Saeton. His body had relaxed into the shape of his seat. That was the only sign he gave of relief. “Check undercarriage up,” he shouted to me as he leveled out. I glanced out of the side window. The starboard wheel was up inside the wing casing and I nodded. His eyes remained hard and alert, scanning the instrument panel. Tubby was jotting down notes as he read the dials. Oil Pressure 83 — Oil Temp. 68 — Coolant Temp. 90 — Revs 2300, with the exception of the inboard starboard engine, which read 2270 — Vacuum Pressure 4V£ ins. — Height, 1-500. We cruised around for a bit, checking everything, then we began to climb. Oil Pressure 88 — Oil Temp. 77 — Coolant Temp. 99 — Revs 2850 plus 9 — Vacuum Pressure 4 1/2. I glanced at my watch. Rate of climb 1,050 feet a minute.
At 6,000 Saeton leveled out. “Okay to cut out the other motors?” He glanced down at Tubby, who nodded, his face unsmiling, his eyes almost lost in their creases of fat as he screwed them up against the sun which drove straight in through the windshield. At the same moment I saw the outboard engine slow. The individual blades of the prop became visible as it began to feather. The noise in the cockpit had lessened, so had the vibration. We were flying on our own motors only. Airspeed 175. Height 6,300. Still climbing. Swindon lay below us as we turned east, banking sharply.
The two motors hummed quietly. Saeton pulled back the control column. The nose of the plane lifted. We were climbing on the two engines only. Six thousand five hundred. Seven thousand. Eight thousand. Rate of climb 400 feet per minute. Half a dozen banking turns, then a long dive to 4,000 and up again. The motors hummed happily. The starboard engine was a shade rough perhaps, and engine revs were a little below those of the port motor. But there was plenty of power there.
Saeton leveled out. “I could do with a cigarette.” He was grinning happily now, all tension smoothed out of his face. “From now on we can forget all the hours we’ve slaved at those engines. They’re there. They exist We’ve done what we set out to do.”
Tubby was smiling, too, his face wreathed in a happy grin. He hummed a little tune.
We swung south over White Horse Hill. The racing gallops at Lambourne showed like age-old tracks along the downs. Climb, turn, dive — for two hours we flew the circuit of the Marlborough downs. Then at last Saeton said, “Okay. Let’s go back and get some tea. Tomorrow we’ll do take-off and landing tests. Then we’ll try her under full load and check petrol consumption.”
“I want that starboard motor back on bench tests first,” Tubby shouted.
Saeton nodded vaguely. For him it was all settled. He’d proved the motors. It only remained to get them to the highest pitch of efficiency. “Okay,” he answered. “We’ve plenty of time. I’ll fix airworthiness tests for the latter part of next week.” He eased the control column forward, and we slid down towards the rounded brown humps of the downs. Ramsbury airfield slid away beneath us, the Kennet showing like a twisting ribbon of steel in the cold light of the sinking sun. Membury opened out on the hill ahead of us. The two outboard motors started into life.
“Ready to land?”
Saeton looked down through the side window. “There’s a bottle of whisky down there.” He grinned as we peered down at the felted roof of our quarters. “Pity Diana isn’t here to see this.” He said it without thinking. I glanced at Tubby. His face gave no sign that he’d heard. “Better get your undercarriage down,” Tubby said.
Saeton laughed. “If you think I’m going to prang the thing now, you’re wrong.” His hand reached down and found the undercarriage release switch automatically. He pulled it up and glanced out of his side window. Then he turned quickly, peered down at the lever and jerked at it. In the tenseness of his face I read sudden panic. I turned to my own side window and craning forward, peered back at the line of the wing. “The starboard wheel is down,” I reported.
Saeton was flicking at the switch. “It’s the port wheel,” he said, staring out of his window. “The bloody thing’s jammed.” I don’t think he was frightened for himself. The panic that showed in his face was for all our achievement that could be set at nought by a crash landing.
“I told you we ought to check over the plane,” Tubby shouted back, peering forward over the lever.
“That’s a hell of a lot of use now,” Saeton’s voice rasped through his clenched teeth. “Neil. Take over. Climb to 7,000 while we try and sort this bastard out. Tubby, see if she’ll come down on the hand gear.”
I felt the control column go slack under my hands as he eased himself out of his seat. I took hold of it, at the same time reaching out for the throttle levers. The engines responded to my touch and Membury dropped away from us as I pulled the control column back and climbed under full power, banking steadily. Saeton and Tubby were trying to wind the port wheel down, but the handle seemed to be alternately jamming and running free.
At 7,000 feet I leveled out. They had the floorboards up and Tubby was head down in the gap. A steady blast of bitterly cold air roared into the cockpit. For an hour I stooged round and round over Membury. And at the end of that hour Tubby straightened up, his face blue with cold and stood there blowing on his fingers. “Well?” Saeton demanded.
Tubby shook his head. ”Nothing we can do,” he said. “The connecting rod is snapped. A fault probably. Anyway, it’s snapped and there’s no way of lowering the port side undercarriage.”
Saeton didn’t speak for a moment. His face was gray and haggard. “The best we can hope for then is to make a decent pancake landing.” His voice was a flat monotone as though all the weariness of the last few weeks had crowded in on him at this moment. “You’re absolutely sure there’s nothing we can do?” he asked Tubby.
The other shook his head. “Nothing. The connecting rod has snapped and —”
“All right. You said that once. I’m not that dense.” He had pulled a packet of cigarettes out of his pocket. He handed it to me. I took one and he lit it for me. It was a measure of his acceptance of the facts of the situation. He would never have smoked in the cockpit unless he had abandoned all hope.
“The light’s fading,” I said. “And we haven’t much gas left.”
He nodded, drawing in a lungful of smoke.
“Better make for Upavon,” Tubby shouted. It was an R.A.F. Station and I knew what was in his mind. There would be crash squads there and ambulances.
“No. We’ll go back to Membury,” Saeton answered. “You two get aft. Have the door of the fuselage open. I’ll take you over the airfield at 3,000 ft. Wind’s easterly, about Force 2. Jump just before I cross the edge of the field.” He climbed back into his seat. “All right, Neil. I’ll take over now.” I felt the pressure of his hands as he gripped the other control column and I let go of mine. Tubby started to protest, but Saeton rounded on him. “For God’s sake do as you’re told. Jump at the edge of the field. No point in more than one of us getting hurt. And as you so tactfully point out, it’s my fault. Of course we should have checked the plane.” Out of the tail of my eye I saw the starboard wheel folding into the wing again.
“I’m sorry, Bill,” Tubby said. “I didn’t mean ——”
“Don’t argue. Get aft. You, too, Fraser.” His voice was almost vicious in his wretchedness. And then with that quick change of mood: “Good luck, both of you.”
I had hesitated, half out of my seat His face was set in a grim mask as he stared straight ahead of him, thrusting the control column forward, dipping the nose to a long glide towards the airfield. Tubby jerked his head for me to follow him and disappeared through the door that communicated with the fuselage. “Good luck!” I murmured.
Saeton’s eyes flicked towards me and he gave a bitter laugh. “I’ve had all the good luck I need,” he snarled. I knew what he meant. Whether he came out of the plane alive or dead, he was finished. For a moment I still hesitated. I had a crazy idea that he might intend to crash the plane straight into the ground.
“What the hell are you waiting for?”
“I think I’d better stay,” I said. If I stayed he’d be forced to make an attempt to land.
He must have sensed what was at the back of my mind, for he suddenly laughed. “You don’t know very much about me, do you, Neil?” The snarl had gone out of his voice. But his eyes remained hard and bitter. “Go on. Get back aft with Tubby, and don’t be a fool. I don’t like heroics.” And then suddenly shouting at me: “Get aft, man. Do you hear? Or have I got to come down there myself and throw you out.” His eyes narrowed. “Ever jumped before?”
“Once,” I answered, my mind mirroring the memory of that night landing in the woods of Westphalia, hanging in the straps with my parachute caught in a tree and my arm broken.
“Scared, eh?” The sneer was intentional. I knew that he was goading me to jump. And yet I reacted. I reacted as he wanted me to because I was scared. I’d always been scared of having to bail out after that one experience. “Of course I’m not scared,” I snapped and turned and moved awkwardly to the fuselage, the weight of my parachute bouncing against my buttocks.
Tubby already had the door of the fuselage open. The rush of air made it bitterly cold. The plane was turning now over the hangars, losing height rapidly. He didn’t say anything. You haven’t room for anything else in your mind when you are faced with a jump. We caught a glimpse of the quarters, looking very neat and snug in its little patch of trees. I could even make out the hen-run at the back with the white dots of two or three fowl. Then we were banking for the run-in. The trees slid away under us. I saw the snaking line of the road coming up from Ramsbury. Then, over Tubby’s shoulder, I made out the edge of the airfield. He glanced at me with a quick, nervous grin, gripped my arm tightly and then, still looking at me, fell outwards into space.
I watched his body turn over and over. Saw his hand pull at the release of his parachute. The canopy of nylon blossomed like a flower and his body steadied, swinging rhythmically.
We were right over the airfield now. My limbs felt cold and stiff. The sweat stood out on my forehead. I heard Saeton scream at me to jump, saw him clambering out of the pilot’s seat. He was going to leave the controls, come aft and throw me out. I closed my eyes quickly, gripped the cold metal of the release lever and fell forward into the howl of the slipstream. My legs swung over the back of my neck. Opening my eyes I saw the sky, the sun, the horizon coming up the wrong way as though I were in a loop, the airfield rolling under me. Then I jerked at the release; jerked at it again and again in desperate fear that it wouldn’t work.
RADIUM AGE SCIENCE FICTION: “Radium Age” is HILOBROW’s name for the 1904–33 era, which saw the discovery of radioactivity, the revelation that matter itself is constantly in movement — a fitting metaphor for the first decades of the 20th century, during which old scientific, religious, political, and social certainties were shattered. This era also saw the publication of genre-shattering writing by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Sax Rohmer, E.E. “Doc” Smith, Jack London, Arthur Conan Doyle, Aldous Huxley, Olaf Stapledon, Karel Čapek, H.P. Lovecraft, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Philip Gordon Wylie, and other pioneers of post-Verne/Wells, pre-Golden Age “science fiction.” More info here.
READ GORGEOUS PAPERBACKS: HiLoBooks has reissued the following 10 obscure but amazing Radium Age science fiction novels in beautiful print editions: Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague, Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail (and “As Easy as A.B.C.”), Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt, H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook, Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins, William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land, J.D. Beresford’s Goslings, E.V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man, Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage, and Muriel Jaeger’s The Man with Six Senses. For more information, visit the HiLoBooks homepage.
SERIALIZED BY HILOBOOKS: Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague | Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail (and “As Easy as A.B.C.”) | Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt | H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook | Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins | William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land | J.D. Beresford’s Goslings | E.V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man | Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage | Muriel Jaeger’s The Man With Six Senses | Jack London’s “The Red One” | Philip Francis Nowlan’s Armageddon 2419 A.D. | Homer Eon Flint’s The Devolutionist | W.E.B. DuBois’s “The Comet” | Edgar Rice Burroughs’s The Moon Men | Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland | Sax Rohmer’s “The Zayat Kiss” | Eimar O’Duffy’s King Goshawk and the Birds | Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Lost Prince | Morley Roberts’s The Fugitives | Helen MacInnes’s The Unconquerable |
Geoffrey Household’s Watcher in the Shadows | William Haggard’s The High Wire | Hammond Innes’s Air Bridge | James Branch Cabell’s Jurgen | John Buchan’s “No Man’s Land” | John Russell’s “The Fourth Man” | E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” | John Buchan’s Huntingtower | Arthur Conan Doyle’s When the World Screamed | Victor Bridges’ A Rogue By Compulsion | Jack London’s The Iron Heel | H. De Vere Stacpoole’s The Man Who Lost Himself | P.G. Wodehouse’s Leave It to Psmith | Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” | Houdini and Lovecraft’s “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” | Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Sussex Vampire”.
ORIGINAL FICTION: HILOBROW has serialized three novels: James Parker’s The Ballad of Cocky The Fox (“a proof-of-concept that serialization can work on the Internet” — The Atlantic); Karinne Keithley Syers’s Linda Linda Linda (which includes original music); and Robert Waldron’s roman à clef The School on the Fens. We also publish original stories and comics. These include: Matthew Battles’s stories “Gita Nova“, “Makes the Man,” “Imago,” “Camera Lucida,” “A Simple Message”, “Children of the Volcano”, “The Gnomon”, “Billable Memories”, “For Provisional Description of Superficial Features”, “The Dogs in the Trees”, “The Sovereignties of Invention”, and “Survivor: The Island of Dr. Moreau”; several of these later appeared in the collection The Sovereignties of Invention | Peggy Nelson’s “Mood Indigo“, “Top Kill Fail“, and “Mercerism” | Annalee Newitz’s “The Great Oxygen Race” | Flourish Klink’s Star Trek fanfic “Conference Comms” | Charlie Mitchell’s “A Fantasy Land” | Charlie Mitchell’s “Sentinels” | Joshua Glenn’s “The Lawless One”, and the mashup story “Zarathustra vs. Swamp Thing” | Adam McGovern and Paolo Leandri’s Idoru Jones comics | John Holbo’s “Sugarplum Squeampunk” | “Another Corporate Death” (1) and “Another Corporate Death” (2) by Mike Fleisch | Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer and Frank Fiorentino’s graphic novel “The Song of Otto” (excerpt) | John Holbo’s graphic novel On Beyond Zarathustra (excerpt) | “Manoj” and “Josh” by Vijay Balakrishnan | “Verge” by Chris Rossi, and his audio novel Low Priority Hero | EPIC WINS: THE ILIAD (1.408-415) by Flourish Klink | EPIC WINS: THE KALEVALA (3.1-278) by James Parker | EPIC WINS: THE ARGONAUTICA (2.815-834) by Joshua Glenn | EPIC WINS: THE MYTH OF THE ELK by Matthew Battles | TROUBLED SUPERHUMAN CONTEST: Charles Pappas, “The Law” | CATASTROPHE CONTEST: Timothy Raymond, “Hem and the Flood” | TELEPATHY CONTEST: Rachel Ellis Adams, “Fatima, Can You Hear Me?” | OIL SPILL CONTEST: A.E. Smith, “Sound Thinking | LITTLE NEMO CAPTION CONTEST: Joe Lyons, “Necronomicon” | SPOOKY-KOOKY CONTEST: Tucker Cummings, “Well Marbled” | INVENT-A-HERO CONTEST: TG Gibbon, “The Firefly” | FANFICTION CONTEST: Lyette Mercier’s “Sex and the Single Superhero”