Air Bridge (19)

By: Hammond Innes
July 2, 2015

innes air bridge

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!




I dropped out near some bushes and slid into their shadow. Overhead the stars still shone, bright and cold, but to the west the sky was black with cloud. The wind seemed warmer now. I pulled my coat round me and slid along the wall of the house, ran past the gate to the farmyard and crouched in the shadow of the barn. I stood there, quite still, the barrel of the gun cold on the palm of my left hand, listening to the sounds of the night. One by one I identified them — the wind tapping the branch of a tree against the wooden side of the barn, a cow moving in its stall, the grunt of a pig, the tinkle of ice knocked from some guttering by the flutter of an owl. And over all these sounds the solid thumping of my heart.

I tried to tell myself that I was a fool to be standing out there, scared of every shadow that seemed to move, waiting with a gun in my hand. But every time I nearly convinced myself that I was being a fool, the memory of Tubby’s face came to remind me that Saeton was now a killer. For a long time I stood quite still with my back against the wood of the barn, hoping that somewhere in the darkness round me I should hear a sound, see a movement that would prove he was really there. I longed to know, to end the suspense of waiting. But nothing stirred.

It was out of the question for me to stand there doing nothing till dawn. Kurt was waiting down on the road and he would not wait much longer. The thing to do was to go down there and get the truck up. If he left without us… The memory of that other journey into Berlin spurred me to action.

Moving warily I slid along the wall of the barn, past a piled-up heap of manure, through a litter of decaying farm machinery. A twig snapped under my feet. I stepped in a rut where the water was all frozen and the ice crunched under my weight. They were only little noises, but they sounded loud, and once away to the left, I thought I heard an answering movement. But when I stopped there was nothing but the sounds I had already identified.

I circled the farm without seeing any sign of Saeton. Then I started down the track to the road. I kept well clear of the ruts, moving slowly along the grass verge, brambles tearing at my trousers.

And then suddenly, out of the darkness ahead, a beam of a torch stabbed the night. As the dazzle of it touched my eyes I flung myself sideways. But I wasn’t quick enough. There was a spurt of flame and the bullet thudded into my body, knocking me off my feet and sending me sprawling into the brambles that bordered the track. Boots crunched in the frozen ruts as the beam of the torch probed my shelter. I lifted the shotgun and fired at the torch. The kick of the gun wrenched me with pain, but the torch went out and above the sound of the shot I heard a cry. I fought my way through the thicket, the thorns tearing at my face and hands, all the right side of my body racked with pain. Behind the screen of brambles I crouched down and very gently ejected the spent shell and reloaded. My right hand had no strength in it. The fingers were stiff and clumsy and the cartridges sticky with blood. The click of the catch as I closed the breech seemed unnaturally loud in the stillness that had descended on the lane.

My eyes had been momentarily dazzled by the torch, but as they became accustomed to the darkness again I saw the line of the brambles bordering the track, and on either side of me and behind me the slope of the ground was visible against the stars. I was in a slight hollow. If he tried to circle me I should see him against the stars. The danger lay to my immediate front. The strange thing was that now I knew he was there and was at grips with him I was no longer afraid.

Away to my left on the main road the engine of a truck broke the silence, headlights cut a swathe through the night and began to move. Frightened by the shots Kurt was pulling out, leaving us to find our own way back to Berlin. I cursed under my breath as I listened to the sound of the engine dying away. Soon all that remained was a faint glow in the darkness to the south. Then that, too, was gone. The wind rustled in the brambles. A night bird cried its call. There was no other sound.

Then something moved in the bushes to my left. It moved again, nearer this time. I raised the gun to my shoulder. There was the sound of earth being dislodged and the rattle of dry bramble branches aimost at my side. I fired at the sound. From behind me, echoing the sound of my own shot, the revolver smacked a bullet into the ground at my feet. I swung round, realizing how he’d fooled me by throwing earth into the undergrowth. I saw his figure crouched against the stars and let off my second barrel at it. There was a grunt and a curse as something thudded to the ground. Desperately I broke my gun and fumbled in my pocket for the cartridges.

When the gun was loaded I started forward. I knew I had to finish it off now. If I didn’t I should lose my nerve. I sensed that in the trembling of my hands. I had to finish it one way or the other. Crouched low I could see his body close to the ground as he waited for me. Whatever happened now I was close enough for the shotgun to be effective. I steeled myself to the jolt of a bullet hitting. I’d let him have both barrels. Wherever he got me I’d still have time to fire.

But I didn’t have to. Even when I was so close I could have blown the top of his head off he did not move. He was crouched in an unnatural position, his head bent almost to the ground, his fingers dug deeply into the hard earth. Beside him his torch glimmered faintly in the starlight. The chromium was all wet and sticky as I picked it up and when I flicked it on I saw the metal was badly dented and filmed with blood. I turned him over on to his back and as I did so his service revolver slipped from between his fingers. His left arm was all bloody, the hand horribly pitted by the shot. There was a livid bruise above his left temple and the skin had split. But apart from this he didn’t seem badly hurt and his breathing was quite natural. I think what had happened was that the main weight of my shot had struck the torch and flung it against the side of his head. There was no doubt that he’d been knocked clean out.

I picked up the revolver and slipped it into my pocket. I turned then and went back into the lane through a gap in the bramble hedge. It was fortunate that the torch hadn’t been put out of action, because I was feeling dizzy and very faint as I staggered up the track and without its light I’m not at all sure I should have been able to find my way back to the farm.

I was pretty well all in by the time I reached the side door. I remember slumping against it, beating on it with my hands. But they had no strength and all I achieved was a faint scrabbling as I slid to the ground. Probably Else was listening for me. At any rate I never sang a bar of the Meistersingers, but when I came round I was in a chair by the kitchen fire and Else was cutting the blood-soaked clothes away from the wound in my shoulder. As she saw my eyes open her hand reached up and she pushed her fingers through my hair. “You are always in the wars, Neil…” She smiled softly. “I think you need someone to look after you.”

“Where’s Kleffmann?” I asked her.

Hier.” His big figure bent over me. “What is it?”

I gave him the revolver and told him to go down the lane and get Saeton. “If he’s still there I don’t think he’ll give you much trouble,” I said.

“What happened?” Else asked.

As I told her Frau Kleffmann came in with a bowl of hot water. Else began to bathe the wound and the warmth of the water took some of the numbness out of it. “I think the bullet is still there,” Else said after peering at the torn flesh with the aid of a torch.

“Well, patch me up the best you can,” I said. “I’ve got to fly.”

“To fly?”

“Yes. The truck is gone. Kurt cleared off as soon as he heard our shots. Our only way out now is Saeton’s plane.”

“But the airfield is more than a mile from here,” Else
 pointed out. “I do not think you will be able to walk so

“Perhaps not. We’ll borrow a horse and cart from the Kleffmanns. I’ve no doubt they’ll be only too glad to speed the parting guests.” I tried to smile at my little joke, but I didn’t seem able to make the effort. I felt sick and tired. As soon as Else had finished dressing my wound I got her and Frau Kleffmann to harness one of the farm horses. They had got Tubby’s body on to the cart and I was sitting in it by the time Kleffmann returned with Saeton. It was lucky that the farmer was a big man, for Saeton was still unconscious. He carried him slung over his shoulders in a fireman’s lift and when he reached the cart he dumped the body into the muck of the farmyard like a sack of potatoes.

“Ready?” he asked me.

“Yes, I’m ready,” I said. I was anxious to be off. The plane was my only hope of getting back to Berlin. I knew the Kleffmanns wouldn’t shelter us after what had happened, and every minute the plane stood out there in the airfield it ran the risk of being spotted by a Red Army patrol.

Else helped Kleffmann load Saeton’s body on to the cart. Then he climbed up and clicked his tongue at the horse. Frau Kleffmann opened the gate for us. She spoke quickly and urgently to her husband. He nodded and the cart jolted over the frozen ruts into the lane. I called good-bye to her, but she did not answer. She just stood there, a frozen expression on her face, glad to see us go.

Kleffmann had returned the revolver to me and I kept my left hand on the butt as it lay in the pocket of my coat. My eyes were on Saeton’s unconscious body as we jolted towards the woods. Rain clouds were spreading across the night sky and when we entered the woods it was as dark as pitch. Nobody spoke and the only sound was the creaking of the cart and an occasional snort from the horse. I kept my foot against Saeton’s body. The cart jolted in the ruts and each jolt was like a knife stabbing at the blade of my shoulder. Else had seated herself so that I could lean against her and she seemed conscious of my pain, for when it was very bad she would slip her hand over my left arm.

We must have been about half-way through the woods when Saeton stirred. He lay groaning for a moment and then he sat up. I could see his face, a pale oval in the darkness. My hand tightened automatically on the gun in my pocket. “Don’t move,” I told him. “I’ve got a gun. If you move I’ll shoot.”

There was a long silence. Then he said, “That’s you is it, Neil?”

“Yes,” I told him.

He was sitting up now and he gave a little cry of pain as he shifted his position. “What happened?”

I didn’t say anything. He could think it out for himself. The silence became heavy as the memory of Tubby’s death came to all of us. “Where’s Tubby?” he asked at length. “Did you — bury him?”

“No. His body is beside you in the cart.”

He said, “My God! Why couldn’t you leave him there.” And then silence descended on us again. I tried not to think of what Tubby looked like there under the blanket. The pain helped. It wrenched at my mind and made it difficult to think. I clung to the gun. If he made any move I’d use it. Maybe he sensed that, for he stayed quite still all the way through the woods.

At last we were out of the trees and dragging slowly across the flat expanse of the airfield. It was very dark. Isolated drops of rain began to fall. “Where did you leave the plane?” I asked Saeton.

He didn’t answer. Maybe he thought if he said nothing we might fail to find it. I peered anxiously into the darkness ahead. The cart jolted endlessly in the black void. Maybe the horse could see when we couldn’t. At any rate the plane was suddenly there right in front of us, a shadowy, insubstantial shape. Kleffmann reined in the horse and turned to me. “I think it is better if one of us goes and has a look round there.”

“I will go,” Else said. She eased herself gently away from me and dropped to the ground. In a moment the darkness had swallowed her. I waited, my nerves tense for the challenge of a Russian sentry. But no sound broke the stillness, only the soft whisper of the rain falling. Then Else was back. “It is okay,” she whispered and we started forward again. Else was at the horse’s head and she backed the cart against the door of the fuselage.

It was queer to think that that plane was the bridge between us and Berlin. Standing there, it was just an inert piece of metal. And yet with a pilot’s direction it would set us down at Gatow. It seemed to me symbolic of the whole airlift, symbolic of the ingenuity of man to do the impossible, to jump in a few minutes from alien to friendly ground. But it required the direction of a pilot and my body cringed at the thought that it was I who had got to bridge that gap — in a night of black darkness, without a navigator and with a bullet wound in my shoulder. At least it was a Dakota. I don’t think I could have handled a four-engined job.

Else helped Kleffmann to get Tubby’s body into the fuselage. Saeton and I were alone in the cart. I saw him shift his position. “Keep still!” I ordered him.

“What are you going to do?” he asked.

“Fly your plane back to Gatow.”

“What about me?”

“You’re coming, too.”

There was a pause and then he said, “You’re wounded, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” I said. “But don’t worry. I’ll make it.”

“And if you don’t?”


“If I don’t you’ll be able to take over and fly where you like.” It wasn’t subtlety on my part that made me say that. But looking back on it I think that was why he didn’t make a break for it there on Hollmind airfield. Maybe he was too weak. He had been out for a hell of a long time. But if he’d jumped from the cart right then he’d have had a chance.

Else and Kleffmann appeared at the fuselage door again. “Get in!” I told Saeton. I had the gun in my hand now. “And don’t try anything,” I said, “I’m quite willing to fire.”

He got up without a word. His movements were slow, but that was the only indication he gave that he had been hurt. I followed him, feeling sick and a little giddy as I moved my cramped limbs. Kleffmann dropped into the cart and picked up the reins, clicking his tongue to the horse. I called my thanks to him from the door of the fuselage, but he didn’t answer. Where horse and cart had been there was nothing but the blackness of the airfield and only the faint creaking of the cart told me that a moment before it had stood there beside the plane.

“Herr Kleffmann is glad to go, I think,” Else said in a strained voice.

I couldn’t blame him, but I wished I could have done something to compensate him for what had happened. He and his wife had been very good to Tubby. “All right, get the door closed,” I said. I switched the lights on and for the first time I saw Saeton’s face. It was streaked with mud and blood and the skin was quite white. His left arm hung limp at his side and blood trickled from his shot-pitted hand. “Sit down,” I said.

He began to move towards the long line of seats that flanked the fuselage. Then he stopped and faced me again. “Neil. Can’t we come to an arrangement?”

“No,” I said. “You know damn well we can’t.”

“Because of Tubby?”


He grunted and pushed his hand across his face, smearing the blood. “It was necessary,” he said heavily. “You made it necessary.”

“It was cold-blooded murder,” I said.

He shrugged his shoulders. “You left me no alternative. It’s a pity you can’t see the wider issues. What’s one man’s life against what we planned?”

“The man was your friend,” I said.

“Do you think I enjoyed doing what I had to?” he said with a trace of anger. And then, almost to himself: “He took time to die and he knew what I was going to do as I pulled the pillow from under his head. I hated doing it. And I hated you for making me do it.” My hand clenched round the butt of the revolver at his sudden violence. “Now it’s done,” he added, “why not leave it at that? Why make his death pointless?”

It was the same argument that he’d used before when he had been trying to stop me making that report The man could see things only from the standpoint of his own ambition. “Sit down!” I said again and turned to Else. “You’ll have to watch him. Do you know how to use one of these?”

She took the gun from me and examined it. “Is the safety catch on now or is it off?”

“It’s off,” I told her.

She nodded. “That is all I have to know. I understand how to use it.”

Saeton had sat down now. “Sit over there,” I told her. “And keep well away from him. If he moves from that seat, you’re to shoot. You understand? Are you capable of firing just because a man moves?”

She glanced at Saeton. “You do not have to worry. I know how to shoot.” Her hand had closed over the gun and she had the muzzle of it pointing towards Saeton. Her eyes were steady and her hand did not tremble. I knew she would fire if Saeton moved and I started forward towards the cockpit. But she put out her hand. “Are you all right, Neil? Do you need some help?”

“I’ll be all right,” I said.

She smiled and pressed my sound arm. “Good luck!” she whispered.

But I wasn’t so sure I would be all right. When I had struggled into the pilot’s seat a wave of dizziness came over me and I had to fight it off. The engines started without difficulty and I left them running to warm up while I went back to the navigator’s table and worked out my course. It would be easy enough getting back to Berlin once I had got the plane into the air. What worried me was the airlift. I could go in above the lift-stream, but when I was over Berlin I should have to come down to the line of flight of the other planes. Somehow I’d have to fit myself into the pattern and with the weather closing in I might have to do this in cloud. There would be a big risk of collision then.

For a moment I sat there, fighting a growing weakness and the frightened emptiness of my belly. I needn’t go in to Berlin. I could make for one of the base airfields — Wunstorf, or Celle, which was nearer, or I could fly north to Liibeck, which was nearer still. But I had no navigator and I was very conscious of the fact that I was in no fit state to pilot a plane. Lübeck was the better part of 150 miles away, nearly an hour’s flying, whereas I could be in Gatow in twenty minutes.

I reached up to the throttle levers and revved the engines. It would have to be Gatow. I switched on the twin spotlights, released the brakes and taxied out to the runway end. As I swung the plane into position for takeoff I called to Else: “All set? Have you fixed your safety belt?”

“Yes,” she called back. “I am okay.”

“Fine,” I shouted and reached up to the throttle levers. Reaching up to control the engines stretched the muscles of my back and I bit my lip with the pain of my shoulder. My right hand was useless. To adjust the engines I had to let go of the control column. Again I was conscious of that feeling of emptiness in my stomach. I was a fool to try and fly in the state I was in. But there was no alternative. We had to get out of the Russian Zone.

The plane rocked and juddered as the engines revved. My eyes ran over the dials of the control panel. Everything was okay. I peered through the windshield. It was sheeting with rain now. The spotlights showed a few yards of weed-grown concrete streaming with water and then lost themselves in the steel curtain of the rain.


For a moment I hesitated, unwilling to commit myself to the take-off. Then, quickly, before reason could support my instinctive fear, I released the brakes and the plane began to move forward into the steel rods of the rain. The concrete came at me out of the murk and streamed beneath me, faster and faster. I braced my knees against the control column, steadying it as I adjusted the engines. Then the tail lifted and a moment later my hand was on the control column, pulling it back, pulling the plane up off the ground. Something slid away beneath us — it may have been a tree or the top of one of the ruined airfield buildings. After that I was alone in the lighted cockpit, riding smoothly through the inky blackness of the night, seeing nothing in the windshield but the water washing down it and the image of my own face, white in the glass.

I trimmed the engines and banked slowly on to my course, climbing all the time. At 7,000 feet I leveled out clear of the rain clouds in bright starlight and relaxed in my seat. I checked oil pressure and engine revs. Everything was okay. I felt drained of all energy. My eyelids closed for a second, and then I forced them open. It would be so easy to slip into unconsciousness. I fought off the faintness, holding myself against it as one does when one is tight and refusing to go under. I glanced at my watch. It was a quarter to five. By five o’clock I should be approaching Gatow. I was shivering with cold.

Once Else came through into the cockpit to see if I was all right. She looked tired and her eyes seemed very large in the pallor of her face. She held the gun firmly in her hand and her gaze was concentrated on the door to the fuselage as she spoke to me. “Is Saeton all right?” I asked her.


“Has he tried to move?”

“No. He do not try anything. I think he is dazed by what has happened. Also, he has lost much blood. He is very weak I think.” She put her hand on my arm. “Can you land all right, do you think?”

“Yes,” I said. “Better get back to your seat. And strap yourself in tight. I’ll be going down in a few minutes.”

She nodded. “Good luck, Neil!”

I didn’t say anything and she went back into the fuselage. Below me I could just see the gray fluffy sea that marked the topside of the rain clouds. It was one thing piloting the plane up here in the clear, starlit night. But I had got to go down through that stuff. Somewhere, only a few minutes ahead of me, I had got to go down and contact a single square mile of ground through the impenetrable murk of the rain. The thought of it made me feel sick and I wished now that I had gone north to Lübeck. Maybe the weather would have been better at Lübeck. But I was committed now. It was no good turning back.



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”


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