Air Bridge (8)
April 20, 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!
Suddenly my shoulders were wrenched from their sockets, the inside of my legs cut by the hard pull of the straps. My legs fell into place. Sky and earth sorted themselves out. I was dangling in space, no wind, no sound — only the fading roar of the plane as it climbed, a black dot over the far side of the airfield. Above me the white cloud of the parachute swung gently, beautifully, the air-hole showing a dark patch of sky. Twisting my head I saw Tubby touch the ground, roll over and over in a perfect drill landing. Then he was scrambling to his feet, pulling in his parachute, legs braced against the drag of it, emptying the air till it lay in an inert white fold at his feet.
Traveling with the light wind the air was quite still. It was as though I were suspended there over the airfield for all eternity. There seemed to be no movement. Time and space stood still as I dangled like a daylight firework. The drone of the plane had died away. It had vanished as though it had never been. The stillness was all pervading, pleasant, yet rather frightening.
Though the movement was imperceptible my position gradually altered in relation to the ground. I was gliding steadily along the line of the east-west runway. I tried to work out my angle of drop in relation to the trees bordering the airfield near the quarters. But it was quite impossible to gauge the rate of fall. All I know is that one moment I was dangling up there, apparently motionless, and the next the concrete end of the runway was rushing up to meet me.
I hit the concrete with my legs too firmly braced for the shock. I hit it as though I’d jumped from a building into the street. The jar of the touchdown ran up my spine and hammered at my head and then all was confusion as my parachute harness jerked me forward. I had the sense to throw up my arms and duck my head into the protection of my shoulder as I hit the concrete. I remember being pitched forward and over and then there was a stunning blow on the front of my head and I lost consciousness.
I couldn’t have been out for long because I came round to find myself being slowly dragged along the concrete by my shoulders. I dug my hands and feet in, anchoring myself for a moment. Blood ran down my face and dripped into a crack in the concrete. Somebody shouted to me and I caught hold of the strings of the parachute, struggling to fold it as I’d been taught to do. But I hadn’t the strength. I dropped back, half-unconscious, a feeling of terrible lassitude running along my muscles.
The pull of my shoulders slackened. Somebody stooped over me and fingers worked at the harness buckles. “Neil! Are you all right? Please.”
I looked up then. It was Else. “What — are you doing here?” I asked. I had some difficulty in getting my breath.
“I came to see the test. What has happened? Why have you jumped?”
“The undercarriage,” I said.
“The undercarriage? Then it is not the engines? The engines are all right?”
“Yes, the engines are all right. It’s the undercarriage. Won’t come down.” I looked up at her and saw that she was staring up into the sky, her eyes alight with some emotion that I couldn’t understand. “Why are you so excited?” I asked her.
“Because ——” She looked down at me quickly, her mouth clamped shut. “Come. I help you up now.” She placed her hands under my arms. The world spun as I found my feet and leaned heavily against her, waiting for the airdrome to stop spinning. Blood trickled into my mouth and I put my hand to my forehead. It was the old cut that had reopened and I thought: This is where I came in. “What about Tubby? Is he all right?”
“Yes. He is coming here now.”
I shook the blood out of my eyes. A small dot was running down the runway. He shouted something. I didn’t understand at first. Then I remembered Saeton and the aircraft. Ambulance! Of course. The quarters were not five hundred yards away. “Quick, Else. I must get to the phone.” A muscle in one of my legs seemed to have been wrenched. It was hell running. But I made it in the end and seized hold of the telephone. My voice when I spoke to the operator was a breathless sob. She put me through to Swindon hospital and then to the fire brigade. Tubby came in as I finished phoning. “Ambulance and fire brigade coming,” I said.
“Goodl You’d better lie down, Neil. Your head looks bad.”
“I’m all right,” I said. “What about the plane?” The need for action had given me strength.
“Saeton’s stooging round over the field at about 5,000 feet using up his remaining gas.” He turned to Else. “You’d better get some water on to heat. He may be a bit of a mess when we get him in.” She nodded quickly and hurried out to the kitchen. “What’s that girl doing here?” he asked me. But he didn’t seem to expect an answer, for he went straight out to the airfield. I followed him.
Looking up into the sun brought a blinding pain to my eyes, but by screwing them up I could see the glint of the plane as it banked. The air was very still in the shelter of the woods and the sound of the engines seemed quite loud. Time passed slowly. We stood there in silence, waiting for the inevitable moment when the plane would cease its interminable circling and dive away over the horizon for the final approach. My legs began to feel weak and I sat down on the ground. “Why don’t you go and lie down?” Tubby asked. His voice sounded irritable.
“I’ll stay here,” I said. I wasn’t thinking of Saeton them I was thinking of the plane. There it was, flying perfectly. Only that damned undercarriage stood between us and success. It seemed a hard twist of fate.
“I have arrange plenty of hot water.” It was Else. She had a steaming bowl with her and she plumped down beside me. “Now we fix that cut, eh?” I winced as the hot water touched the open cut across my forehead. The water smelled strongly of disinfectant. Then she bandaged my head and it felt better. “That is finished. Now you look like you are a wounded man.”
“So I am,” I said. Her face hung over me, framed by the darkening blue of the sky. She looked young and soft and rather maternal. My head was in her lap. I could feel the softness of her limbs against the back of my skull. We should have been lying like that in a hay field in May. The distant drone of the aircraft was like the sound of bees. I caught the gleam of its wings just beyond her hair.
“Where the devil’s the ambulance?” Tubby demanded, “He’s coming in now.”
I glanced at my watch. It was twenty minutes since I’d phoned. “They’ll be here in about ten minutes,” I told him.
He grunted a curse. “They’ll be here too late then.”
I could see the plane gliding over Ramsbury, a black dot against the sunset. I thought of the engine we had labored to complete all these weeks, of Saeton alone up there at the controls. The pain of my head was nothing then. My leyes were strained on the sky over Ramsbury and every fiber of my being was concentrated on the plane, which was banking sharply as it disappeared behind the trees, turning for the final approach.
It seemed an age before it appeared again. Then suddenly it was there over the end of the runway, hanging like a great, clumsy bird over the trees, dropping towards the concrete, its landing flaps down, the props turning slowly. I scrambled to my feet and began to run. Tubby was running, too. Saeton leveled out for the touchdown and as the gap between plane and concrete lessened, the aircraft seemed to gather speed till it was rushing towards us.
Then the belly hit the concrete. Pieces of metal were flung wide. There was a horrible scraping. But when the sound reached me the plane had bounced several feet above the runway. It came down then with a splintering crash, swiveling round, the fuselage breaking up as the tail disintegrated, grinding the concrete to puffs of powder, the metal sheeting stripping from her belly like tin-plate. She slewed broadside, tipping crazily, righted herself, straightened up and broke in half. The appalling grinding sound went on for a second after she had stopped. Then there was a sudden, frightening silence. The plane lay there, a crumpled wreck, unnaturally still. Nothing moved. The sunset was just as red, the trees just as black, nothing had changed as though the airdrome had taken no interest in the accident. Somebody had pranged a plane. It had happened here countless times during the war. Life went on.
Tubby was running towards the machine. For a second I stood rooted to the spot, my stomach quivering in expectation of the sudden blossoming of the wreck into a blazing fury of fire. But it just lay there, inert and lifeless, and I, too, started to run.
We got Saeton out There was a lot of blood, but it was from his nose. He was unconscious when we laid him on the concrete, his hand badly cut and a livid bruise across his forehead. But his pulse beat was quite strong. Tubby loosened his collar and almost immediately his eyes opened, staring up at us blankly. Then suddenly there was life behind them and he sat up with a jerk that brought a groan from his lips. “How’s the plane? Is she——” His voice stopped as his eyes took in the wreck. “Oh, God!” he murmured. He began to swear then — a string of obscene oaths that ignored Else’s presence and were directed solely at the plane.
“The engines are all right,” Tubby said consolingly.
“What’s the good of engines without a plane?” Saeton snarled. “I got the tail too low.” He began swearing again.
“You better lie back,” Tubby said. “There’s nothing you can do about the plane. Just relax now. The ambulance will be here in a minute.”
“Ambulance?” He glared at us. “What damn’ fool phoned for an ambulance?” He got out his handkerchief and wiped some of the blood from his face. “Get down to the main road and stop them,” he ordered Tubby hoarsely. “Tell them it’s all right. Tell them there wasn’t any crash after all — anything, so long as you get them away from here without them coming on to the airfield.”
“But even if you’re all right, there’s Neil here needing treatment,” Tubby said.
“Then take him with you and pack him off to hospital. But I don’t want them on the field. I don’t want them to know we’ve crashed.”
“But why?” Tubby asked.
“Why?” Saeton passed his hand across his eyes and spat blood on to the concrete. “I don’t know why. I just don’t want anyone to know about this. Now for God’s sake stop arguing and get down to the road.”
Tubby hesitated. “That nose of yours looks as though it’s broken,” he said. “And there may be something else ——”
“There’s nothing else broken,” Saeton snarled. “If there is I’ll get to a doctor under my own steam. Now get going.”
Tubby glanced at me. “I’m all right,” I said. He nodded and started at a steady trot across the field towards the quarters. Saeton struggled to his feet and stood there, swaying weakly, staring at the wreckage, bitter, black despair in his eyes. Then, as he turned away, he caught sight of Else and his thick hands clenched with sudden violence of purpose. “I thought you were going back to Germany,” he said hoarsely.
“I go on Monday.” Her eyes were wide and she looked frightened.
“Wanted to be in at the death, eh? You timed it nicely.”
“I do not understand.”
“You do not understand, eh?” he mimicked her crudely. “I suppose you don’t understand what happened up there?” He was moving towards her, staggering slightly, the sweat standing out in great drops on his forehead and running down into his eyes. “Well, the connecting rod was snapped. We couldn’t lower the undercarriage. That surprises you, eh? You didn’t know the connecting rod was broken.”
The expression on his face held me rooted to the spot. It was a bloody mask of hatred. Else stood quite still, her eyes wide, her mouth slightly open. And then suddenly she was talking, talking fast, the words tumbling out of her as though in themselves they could form a barrier between herself and what was moving so inevitably upon her. “I do not touch your plane. I have nothing to do with what has happened. Please. You must believe me. Why should I do this thing? These are my father’s engines — my father’s and mine. I wish them to fly. I wish to see them in the air. It is all I have left of him. It is the work we do together. He was happy then, and I was happy also. I want them to fly, I want them ——”
“Your father’s engines!” The contempt in his voice stopped her like a slap in the face. “They’re my engines. Mine. Your father’s engine wouldn’t work. It crashed. I broke my leg trying to fly the bloody thing. It was no good. We had to start again. All over again. A new design.”
She flung up her head then, facing him like a tigress defending her young. “It is not a new design. It is different, but it is the same principle. Those engines belong to him. They are ——”
He laughed. It was a wild, violent sound. “You’ve smashed what I’ve lived for for three years. You’re happy now, aren’t you? You think now that Germany will get control of them again. But she won’t.” He was very close to her now. “You tried to kill us. Well, now I’m going to ——”
“That’s a lie!” she cried. “I have nothing to do with it. Nobody has touched the airplane.”
“Then why are you here — on the spot, gloating —”
“Oh, will you never understand?” she cried furiously. “I come to see them up there in the air. They are my father’s work. Do you think it is no excitement for me to see them fly? Please, I have nothing to do with the crash.” His hands had reached out to her and gripped her shoulders. She was suddenly pleading. “I have done nothing — nothing. You must believe what I say.”
But he didn’t seem to hear her. “You tried to kill us,” he whispered hoarsely. “You tried to smash everything I have worked for. First you try to bribe me with your body. Then you try to get control of my company. When you don’t succeed you try to destroy what I’ve worked for. If you can’t get what you want you must destroy it. That is the German in you. Everything you touch, you destroy. And always you work for Germany.”
“Not for Germany,” she cried. “Only for my father. Everything I do, I do for my father. Why could you not give him the credit for what he do?”
“You’re a part of the Germany I’ve hated since I was a kid,” he went on, his voice thick as though clotted with blood, his hands gripping her violently, fumbling blindly for her throat. “My father in one war, my mother in another. All you can do is smash and break things. And now I’m going to break you — break you in little pieces.”
Her eyes started wildly as his blunt fingers dug into her neck. Then she began to struggle, and in that instant I came to life and moved forward. But I needn’t have bothered. His hands clawed at her clothes and his body slowly sagged against her, his knees giving under him and pitching him forward on to his face.
Saeton had fainted.
Else stared down at him, fear and horror stamped on her face. I think she thought he was dead. “I didn’t do anything to the airplane.” The words were a strangled sob. “Neil!” She glanced wildly at me. “Nobody touched the airplane. You must believe that.”
Saeton moved suddenly, his fingers digging into the earth, scrabbling at it as he tried to rise, and when he had pushed himself up on to his knees, she broke and ran.
Tubby came back and we got Saeton to the quarters and put him to bed. His ribs were badly bruised, but nothing seemed to be broken. It was more shock than anything else. Still half-dazed he ordered us to get one of Ellwood’s tractors and have the wreckage dragged into the hangar. He wanted it done that night. He seemed to have an unreasoned, instinctive urge to get the evidence of failure under cover as quickly as possible. It was as though he felt none of his own injuries, only the hurts of the aircraft and wanted to let it crawl away into the dark like a dog to lick its wounds.
By ten o’clock that night it was done and all trace of the crash landing was concealed behind the closed doors of the hangar. The plane was a hell of a mess. The tractor took it in in two pieces, the tail having ripped off completely as soon as we began to drag the wreck along the concrete. Saeton himself came out to the runway to make sure there was no trace of the accident left.
Whether the plan had formed in his mind then, I can’t be certain. Personally, I don’t think so. It was a matter of instinct rather than planning. If nobody knew we had crashed there might still be a chance. At any rate, if the idea was in his mind, it didn’t show that evening as we sat over a drink and tried to sort out the future.
Tubby was through. That was clear from the start. “I’m going back to flying,” he said. His tone was obstinate and quite final. “You know Francis Harcourt? He’s got two Tudors on the tanking lift, and he’s back in England now negotiating the purchase of two more. Just before Christmas he wrote asking me to join him as a flight engineer.”
“And you’ve accepted?” Saeton asked.
For answer Tubby produced an envelope from his pocket. It was already stamped and sealed.
“We’ve still a month before we’re due on the airlift — if we hold the Air Ministry to their first date,” Saeton said
“A month!” Tubby grunted. “Six months wouldn’t see that kite ready to fly — six months and a lot of money.” He leaned forward and caught Saeton by the arm. “Listen, Bill. I’ve worked with you for nothing for just on two years. I haven’t got a bean out of it. If you think I can go on any longer, you’re crazy. Anyway, where the hell would you get the money from? You’ve cleaned me out. You’ve just about cleaned Neil out. We owe money all over the place. The company is broke — finishedl” His voice softened as he saw the bitter set of Saeton’s mouth below the bandages. “I’m sorry, chum. I know what this means to you. But you’ve got to face the facts. We can’t go on.”
“Can’t we? Well, I say we can. I don’t know how — yet. But I’ll find a way. You’ll see me on the airlift next month. I’ll do it somehow.” His voice was trembling, but it had no conviction, only violence. His fist beat at the table. “If you think I’m going to let a little bitch of a German destroy everything I’ve worked for, you’re wrong. I don’t care what it costs me, I’ll get those engines into the air.”
“How do you know she was responsible for what happened?” I asked.
“Of course she was,” he snarled. “Either her or one of the Rauch Motoren agents.”
“You can’t be certain,” I said.
“Can’t be certain! Damn it, man, how else could it have happened? She tracked me down to this airfield. How she did it I don’t know. But suddenly she arrived at the Manor and because we were short-handed I got her to come up and cook and clean for us in the evenings. I thought she was just a D.P. It never occurred to me she was Professor Meyer’s daughter.”
“When did you discover who she really was?” I asked.
“That night you arrived and found us together in the hangar.” He suddenly clicked his fingers. “She must have done it then. It’s the only time she’s ever been alone in the hangar.”
“Are you seriously suggesting the girl filed through the undercarriage connecting rod?” Tubby asked.
“She an engineer, isn’t she? And she had about half an hour up there on her own. She couldn’t be sure the plan to buy up the outfit through Randall’s mortgages would succeed. Anyway, what’s it matter?” he added, his tone suddenly rising. “Finding out whether it was German thoroughness or a natural break won’t put the crate back into the air. We’ll sort it out tomorrow.” He spoke through clenched teeth and his hands trembled as he thrust back his chair. I think he was in the grip of a bitter, raging anger, on the verge of tears. The man was dead beat anyway and his nerves must have been just about stretched ta the edge of screaming hysteria. He had risen to his feet and he stood, staring at Tubby. “Are you going to post that letter?”
“Yes,” Tubby answered.
“All right.” The veins on Saeton’s forehead seemed to swell. “But remember this; join Harcourt’s outfit and you’re through with this company. Understand?”
“I understand,” Tubby said in a level tone.
“You bloody fool!” Saeton said, and went out, slamming the door.
I was pretty tired and my head ached. I followed him out and was asleep almost before my head touched the pillow.
I awoke in a mood of despair. My job was gone and I was broke. The future was bleak. I longed to be back at the bench, driven beyond physical endurance to complete something that I believed in.
It was a chill, gray morning, frost riming the widows and the wind moaning round the building. Tubby produced tea and bacon and eggs in a mood of contrition for deserting us. Breakfast did nothing to lift us out of our gloom. We ate in silence and went out to the hangar. I suppose in the five weeks I had been there I had gradually come to identify my future with the plane. Seeing it lying there in the drab light, its metal all broken and twisted, the tail completely severed and lying like a piece of discarded junk gave me a sense of sudden loneliness. This was the end of our work together. We were no longer a team, but three individuals going our own separate ways. It was this, I think, that made me feel so wretched. I’d felt safe here and complete: I’d been doing something I’d come to believe in and there had been a goal to work for. Now there was nothing.
We cleared the torn metal away from the fuselage, working to reach the undercarriage and find out what had gone wrong. It was a useless investigation. Whatever we discovered, it wouldn’t help us. We worked slowly, almost unwillingly, and in silence. Shortly before eleven the phone rang. It was Harcourt asking for Tubby. Saeton and I stood listening. “Yes… Yes, I’ll be there. Diana is already in Germany… Well, maybe she’ll fix it to get to the Gatow canteen… Fine. I’ll meet you there.” Tubby’s eyes gleamed excitedly and he was whistling happily to himself as he replaced the receiver.
“Well, when do you leave?” Saeton barked in the hard, impersonal tone he used when he wished to hide his own feelings.
“He wants me down at Northolt at ten o’clock tomorrow,” Tubby answered.
“Then you’d better get moving,” Saeton said abruptly.
“It’s all right. I’ll get a train this evening. I don’t want to leave without knowing what the trouble was.”
“Hell, man! What difference does it make?”
“I’d like to know all the same,” Tubby answered woodenly.
Saeton turned away with a shrug of his shoulders. “Well, let’s get on with the post-mortem.”
It was useless for him to pretend that he didn’t care what had caused the break. He did care. He was looking for something to fight. He was that sort. But when we got to the connecting rod it showed a clean break and unmistakable signs of faulty casting.
“So it wasnt Else after all,” I said.
“No.” He threw the broken rod on to the concrete and turned away. “Better see if you can fix Fraser up with a job on the airlift,” he said to Tubby over his shoulder, and he slammed out of the hangar.
Tubby left that afternoon and with his departure a tense, brooding gloom settled on the quarters. Saeton was impossible. It wasn’t only that he wouldn’t talk. He prowled up and down, constantly, irritably on the move, lost in his own morose thoughts. He was racking his brains for a means of getting on the airlift with the engines by 25th January. Once he turned to me, his eyes wild, his face looking grey and slightly crazy with the nose covered with adhesive plaster. “I’m desperate,” he said. “I’d do anything to get hold of a plane. Anything, do you hear?”
At that moment I was prepared to believe he’d commit murder if he were sure of getting another aircraft as a result of it The man was desperate. It showed in his eyes, in the way he talked. He hadn’t given up hope. I think that was what made the atmosphere so frightening. He wasn’t quite sane. A sane man would see that the thing was impossible. But he wouldn’t. He was still thinking in terms of getting those engines into the air. It was incredible — incredible and frightening. No man should be driven by such violent singleness of purpose.
“You’re crazy,” I said.
“Crazy?” He laughed and his laugh was pitched a shade too high. Then he suddenly smiled in an odd, secretive way. “Yes, perhaps you’re right. Perhaps I am crazy. All pioneers are crazy. But believe me, I’ll get into the air if I have to steal a plane.” He stopped then and stared at me fixedly in an odd sort of way. Then he smiled again. “Yes,” he said slowly, reflectively. “I’ll get on to the airlift somehow.” He went out then and I heard his feet dragging slowly down the frostbound path until the sound lost itself in the noise of the wind blowing through the trees.
I went down to the Manor to see Else. I wanted to tell her that we knew she had had nothing to do with the failure of the undercarriage, that it was in fact an accident. But she had already gone. She had taken the afternoon train to London because she had to be at Harwich early the following morning to catch the boat. I returned to the quarters feeling that my last link with the past few weeks had gone.
The next two days were hell. I just drifted, clinging desperately to Membury, to the hangar and the quarters. I just couldn’t nerve myself to face the outside world. I was afraid of it; afraid of the fact that I had no job and only a few pounds left in my account. The memory of Else haunted me. God knows why. I wasn’t in love with her. I told myself that a hundred times. But it made no difference. I needed a woman, someone to attach myself to. I was as rudderless as the wreck lying in the hangar.
To give me something to do Saeton had told me to get to work with the oxy-acetylene cutter and clean up the mess. It was like operating on the broken body of a friend. We lifted our two engines out of her and she looked like a toothless old hag waiting for the inevitable end. I could have wept for what might have been. A thousand times I remembered those supreme moments up in the air over Membury when we had climbed, superbly, majestically, on the power of the engines we’d made. I had felt then as though all the world lay within my grasp. And now I was cleaning up the wredk, cutting out the sections that had been torn to strips of tin by the concrete of the runway.
Saeton didn’t even pretend that we were working to repair the plane. And yet he wasn’t morose anv more. There was a sort of jauntiness in the way he walked and every now and then I’d catch him watching me with a soft, secretive smile. His manner wasn’t natural and I found myself wishing that he’d begin cursing again, wishing he’d make up my mind for me by throwing me off the place.
Well, I had my wish in the end. He made up my mind for me. But it wasn’t at all the way I had expected it. It was the third evening after Tubby’s departure. We were back in the quarters and the phone rang. Saeton leaped up eagerly and went into the office, the room that Tubby and Diana had had as a bedroom. I heard the murmur of his voice and then the sound of the bell as he replaced the receiver. There was a pause before his footsteps came slowly across the passage and the door of the mess room opened.
He didn’t close it immediately, but stood there, framed in the doorway, staring at me, his head sunk into his shoulders, his chin thrust slightly out, a queer glint of excitement in his eyes. “That was Tubby,” he said slowly. “He’s found you a job.”
“A job?” I felt a tingle of apprehension run along my nerves. “What sort of a job?”
“Flying for the Harcourt Charter Company.” He came in and shut the door. His movements were oddly slow and deliberate. He reminded me of a big cat. He sat himself down on the trestle table. His thick, powerful body seemed to tower above me. “You’re to pilot one of Harcourt’s new Tudors. I got on to Tubby two days ago about it and he’s fixed it.”
I began to stammer my thanks. My voice sounded odd and far away from me, as though it were somebody else speaking. I was in a panic. I didn’t want to leave Membury. I didn’t want to lose that illusion of security the place had given me.
“You’re to meet Harcourt at Northolt for lunch tomorrow,” Saeton went on. “One o’clock at the canteen. Tubby will be there to introduce you. It’s an incredible piece of luck.” The excitement had spread from his eyes to his voice now. “The pilot he had engaged has gone down, with pneumonia.” He stopped and stared at me, his face faintly flushed as though he had been drinking, his eyes sparkling like a kid that sees the thing he’s dreamed of come true at last. “How much do these engines we’ve built mean to you, Neil?” he asked suddenly.
I didn’t know quite what to say. But apparently he didn’t expect an answer, for he added quickly, “Listen. Those engines are okay. You’ve seen that for yourself. You’ve got to take my word for it about the saving in fuel consumption. It’s about 50 per cent. Tubby and I proved that in the bench tests on the first engine. Now, suppose we got into the air as planned on January 10 ——”
“But we can’t,” I cried. “You know very well ——”
“The engines are all right, aren’t they? All we need is a new plane.” He was leaning down over me now, his eyes fixed on mine as though trying to mesmerize me. “We’ve still got a chance, Neil. Harcourt’s planes are Tudors. In a few days’ time you’ll be at Wunstorf and flying into Berlin. Suppose something went wrong with the engines over the Russian Zone?” He paused, watching for my reaction. But I didn’t say anything. I suddenly felt ice-cold inside. “All you’ve got to do is to order your crew to bail out,” he went on, speaking slowly as though talking to a child. “It’s as easy as that. A little play-acting, a little organized panic and you’ll be alone in the cockpit of a Tudor. All you’ve got to do then is to make straight for Membury.”
I stared at him foolishly. “You are crazy,” I heard myself say. “You’d never get away with it. There’d be an inquiry. The plane would be recognized when they saw it again. Harcourt’s not a fool. Besides ——”
He stopped me with a wave of his hand. “You’re wrong. To begin with an inquiry would show nothing. The crew would say the plane had made a forced landing in the Russian Zone. The Russians would deny it. Nobody would believe them. As for the plane being recognized, why should it? Nobody knows we’ve crashed our machine here. At least they dont know how badly. All that happens is that a plane disappears on the Berlin Airlift and on January 10 another flies in to take its place. Harcourt’s all right — he gets his insurance. The country’s all right, for the number of Tudors remains the same. God, man — it sticks out a mile. You’ll make a fortune. We’ll both of us make a fortune.”
“You’d never get away with it,” I repeated obstinately.
“Of course I’ll get away with it. Why should they ever suspect anything? And if they did, what then? Look. Part numbers and engine numbers can be altered to those of our wrecked Tudor. Our own two engines will be in her. As for our own plane, we’ll cut it up into small bits. You’ve already started on that work. In a few days we could have the whole plane in fragments. A load of those fragments can be strewn over Russian territory. The rest we’ll dump in that pond over on the far side of the airfield. God! It’s too easy. All I need is for you to fly Harcourt’s plane back here.”
“Well, I won’t do it,” I said angrily.
“Do you want the Germans to be the first to produce these engines?” His hand came out and gripped my shoulder. “Just think before you refuse. Damn it, haven’t you a spark of adventure in you? A slight risk and this country can have the biggest fleet of freighters in the world — a global monopoly.” His eyes were blazing and I suddenly felt scared. The man was a fanatic.
“I won’t do it,” I repeated stubbornly.
“When you’ve flown the plane in here all we have to do is drop you just inside the British Zone,” he went on. “You report back to Wunstorf with the story that you made a forced landing in the Russian Zone and got back under your own steam across the frontier. It’s child’s play.”
“I won’t do it.”
He gave an ugly laugh. “Scared, eh?”
I hesitated, trying to sort out in my mind whether it was because I was scared or whether my refusal was on moral grounds. I couldn’t sort it out. All I knew was that I didn’t want to be mixed up in anything like this. I wanted to forget that sense of being hunted. I didn’t want ever again to have anything on my conscience, to have to run and hide — I didn’t want to be afraid of the world any more.
He suddenly let go my arm. “All right,” he said, and I didn’t like the softness in his voice and the way he smiled down at me. “All right, if that’s the way you feel.” He paused, watching me with an odd expression in his eyes, “Do you remember the other evening I said I’d do anything to get hold of a plane?”
“Well, I meant that. I meant every word of it. I said I was desperate. I am desperate. If one man’s life stood between me and getting into the air, I’d kill that man. I’d brush him out of my way without a thought. Bigger things than a single life are involved. It’s not just my own future I’m thinking of. Don’t think that. I happen to believe in my country. And I believe that these engines are the greatest contribution I can make to my country. There’s nothing I won’t do to see these engines are operated by a British concern. Nothing. Nothing.” His voice had risen and there was a wild look in his eyes. “Forget about yourself. Forget about me. Won’t you do this for your country?”
“No,” I said.
“God, man! You fought for your country in war. You risked your life. Have some imagination. Can’t you fight for her in peacetime? I’m not asking you to risk your life. All I’m asking you to do is to fly that plane back here. What’s the trouble? You’re not damaging Harcourt. Or is it the risk you’re afraid of? I tell you, there isn’t any risk. Do it the way I’ve planned it and you’re as safe as houses. You’ve nothing to be afraid of.”
“I’m not afraid.” I answered hotly.
“What’s the trouble then?”
“I just don’t like it and I won’t do it.”
He sighed and eased himself off the edge of the table.
“All right. If that’s the way you want it—” He stood for
a moment, looking down at me. The room was suddenly very silent. I felt my nerves tightening so that I wanted to shout at him, to do anything to relieve the tension. At length he said, “If you don’t do what I want you to I’ll turn you over to the police.” He spoke quite flatly and my inside seemed to curl up into a tight ball. “You were in a prison camp, weren’t you? You know what it’s like then. Three years in prison is quite a slice out of a man’s life. Do you think you could stand it? You’d go mad, wouldn’t you? You were on the edge of hysteria when you came here. You’re all right now, but in prison —”
“You bastard!” I screamed at him, suddenly finding my voice. I called him a lot of other names. I had got to my feet and I was trembling all over, the sweat breaking out in prickling patches across my scalp and trickling down my forehead. I was cold with fear and anger. And he just stood there, watching me, his shoulders hunched a little forward as though expecting me to charge him, a quiet, confident smile on his lips.
“Well?” he said as I paused for breath. “Which is it to be?”
“You’re crazy,” I cried. “And you’re trying to drive me crazy, too. I won’t do it. Suppose one of the crew were killed? Suppose they did discover what had happened? And if I did it — then I’d have something on you. You wouldn’t stand for that. Somehow you’d get rid of me. You’re not doing this for your country. You’re doing it for yourself. Your love of power is driving you — driving you over the edge of reason. You can’t get away with a thing like —”
“Which is it to be?” he cut in, his lips tightening and his voice suddenly cold and metallic. “Do you take this job with Harcourt or do I telephone the police? I’ll give you half an hour to make up your mind.” He hesitated and then said slowly, “Just remember what it’s like to be locked away in a cell, seeing the sun through iron bars, with no hope — and no future when you get out. I’m offering you a flying job — and a future. Now sit down and make up your mind.” He turned abruptly then and went out.
With the closing of the door the room seemed suddenly empty and silent. The key grated in the lock. It was like the turning of the key in the solitary confinement cells — only there the door had been metal and had clanged. Stalag Luft I, with its lines of huts, the barbed wire, the endless march of the guards, the searchlights at night, the deadly monotony, was there in my mind, as vivid as though I had only just escaped. Surely to God I’d had enough of life behind bars. Surely to God….
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”