A pasture somewhere east of Eisenach

Brennermann was barely managing to hold onto the pile of mailbags between his arms. It was impossible to see what was under his feet.

“Here, let me help you with that.”

Too late. His toe caught on the edge of a wheel rut. The whole load tumbled into the wagon with more of a thump than he’d intended. The unhitched mare over by the fence flicked an ear at the noise, then went on grazing.

He straightened up and passed the kneeboard he’d been carrying in his teeth to the postal clerk. “There you go, Franz. Inspect the seals, put your John Hancock here.”

Dortmeir looked at him with a pained expression. “Who the devil is John Hancock?”

“Some politician. I forget what he signed.”

“You’ve been hanging around the Americans too long.” He eyed Brennermann’s baseball cap, emblazoned with the Bamberg Charters winged BC. “You even dress like them.”

“Try flying a plane some time, and you’ll find out why.”

Franz glanced at the mailbags and scribbled his signature on the receipt. “Anyway, Erich, I’m surprised to see you on the ground. It’s usually just a drop-and-snatch out here.”

“Couldn’t. See the FRAGILE sticker on this box? The boss doesn’t want any damage claims. Well, there’s still some daylight left. I’ll be off as soon as the outgoing is strapped down.”

“Nothing today, except what went east on the train.”

“Oh? No sense burning fuel just to deadhead back to Erfurt, then. I’ll stake down the plane and sluice off the damn cow manure before it turns into rock, then go see Garsch about parking myself in his loft for the night.”

“Dortmeir! Dortmeir, there! Is this the driver who can speed me to Mansfeld in time for the creditors’ meeting?”

Erich and Franz both turned to look at the newcomer. The booming bass voice belonged to a beefy man in late middle age, dressed in a sumptuous but somewhat old-fashioned style. The floppy hat had probably belonged to his father. His full beard could have too, for that matter. He strode across the field like he owned it, which wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility.

Erich raised an eyebrow. “You wish to charter my company’s plane, Herr . . . ? That may or may not be possible, it’s under contract to the Air Post at the moment.”

“I am Councilman Felbers, and I have urgent business to attend to.” The corner of his mouth quirked for a moment. “Just how strongly do you wish to have this expensive dirt-moving work done that I keep being pestered about?”

“You have it exactly backwards, Herr Felbers. If you wish to have air service to this cluster of villages with any regularity, it will be necessary to construct a landing strip that doesn’t turn into a mud pit every time it rains. Not to mention putting it in a safer spot, especially if you want to be served by anything bigger and faster than this little butterfly here. Why do you think we pick up the mail on the fly? But that discussion is above my position in the company. On this immediate matter, when do you need to be in Mansfeld?”

“The meeting is at two o’clock tomorrow afternoon. Of course, I would need a little time to change out of traveling clothes and present a proper appearance.”

“Well, then, it’s simple. Is that your carriage on the other side of the fence? You need to get down to the trackside platform right away, flag the next eastbound train, and change at Jena. I hate to pass up business, but that’s the surest way of getting there by that time. And it would certainly be far less expensive.”

Felbers half-raised his hand, palm-down. “No doubt it would be. However, the mayor of Gotha is hosting a recital of nineteenth century waltzes and polkas tonight, and it’s of the greatest importance that my good Frau and I should attend. Only then could I depart.”

“Well, the plane couldn’t. If we don’t take off now, and I mean right now, the next opportunity will be at first light. That would be cutting it close, if there are any difficulties at all with the weather. In any case, I’d need to clear any new charter with my employer. Before this goes any further, I’d better go send him a radiogram. He should be at his desk right now.”

Franz shook his head. “Can’t. Something’s blown in young Eckert’s toy of a spark transmitter. He mailed an order for magnet wire this afternoon.”

“Hmm. Well, I’ll try the aircraft radio. Might be able to get a relay through somebody in flight.”

“If you can find somebody still flying this late in the day. Good luck with that.”

****

Erich stepped down from the lower wing and latched the pilot’s side door. Franz raised an eyebrow. Erich shook his head. No radio contact.

He mulled over the situation as he walked back to where the two men were standing. Everyone knew the crash the previous spring was still having its lingering effects on the company’s finances, so any chance to make some money was welcome—as long as it wasn’t made under false pretenses. The boss had a reputation to protect.

“Well, Herr Felbers, the Imperial Post has nothing for me in the morning, and I have no orders from the company. It seems to be my decision.”

Dortmeir smirked. “So what now, O Pilot in Command?”

Felbers snapped to alertness like a ram facing a challenger, one hand on his hip and the other flung out toward his carriage. “Command? My coachman doesn’t command, I do!”

Brennermann had seen it all before. The local big frog was afraid to show any sign of weakness, for fear of losing his grip on affairs. Fine, he could sympathize, up to a point. But he wasn’t about to start bowing like some well-trained servant. He shifted into a posture he’d picked up from some of his American friends. It wasn’t superior, and it wasn’t servile. It simply said nothing at all about status. It was just . . . plain. His tone of voice was equally plain.

“An airplane isn’t a coach. I carry the same authority as the captain of a ship, and the same responsibility, for the same reasons.

“Under the circumstances, I can offer only a best-efforts contract. If the weather or anything else is unsafe to fly, we stay on the ground until it is safe. I want to make that perfectly clear. Now, with that understood, do you want me to dig a charter form out of my map bag?”

****

The sun was well up when Felbers appeared on horseback, spotted with mud, accompanied by a groom. There was no way anything with wheels could have made it. A thin blanket of mist hovered above the wet grass. Erich had long since finished his pre-flight checklist; now he was enjoying the Rotvogel singing in one of the trees at the upper end of the field. Felbers barely glanced up.

“Ho, Brennermann! You and your flying coach are ready, I see? I regret the delay. Unfortunately, there were difficulties on the road.”

Erich sighed. “I can well believe it. It would have made no difference if you had been here at dawn. The way the heavens opened last night, it was like trying to sleep inside a drum. You can see all the puddles and mudholes here. It will be at least two hours before this field is firm enough for a takeoff. Let’s get your baggage secured, and then I’ll show you how to fasten and adjust the seat harness.”

Felbers goggled at the heavy leather belts. “What on earth is this? You tie passengers up?”

“No, Herr Felbers. I could just say ‘captain’s orders,’ but this is serious business, and you’d better understand what it’s about. You see this lever coming up from the floor? It’s called the stick. I control the plane with it. Now, right over there in front of us is a hill, and to get out of this field we have to take off straight at it. As soon as we clear the trees, I’m going to roll the plane steeply to the left and make a hard turn. If a wind gust hit us the wrong way, you could be thrown out of your seat and onto my right arm. We’d be dead two seconds later. So we strap ourselves into our seats.”

****

Erich looked one more time at the peeled stake he’d driven in the ground to mark the go/no-go point. This wasn’t going to get any better any time soon. If he’d had any sense, he’d have ferried the plane to Eisenach last night, or maybe Erfurt where they had something resembling a runway, and let his passenger join him on the first train. Well. He ran the engine up to full power and let go the brakes. The plane rattled like a haycart as the wheels bumped over the rough ground. The sticky, gluey ground. Even light and rolling down the field’s gentle slope, the airspeed came up a lot more slowly than he liked, but after fifty yards or so, a grassy hummock tossed them up for a moment so the straining engine could gain them some airspeed. She lifted, accelerating in ground effect to best-angle-of-climb speed. Back on the stick, and up above the treetops into a crosswind that bounced them sideways. Then hard over on the rudder pedals and stick, into a perfect air-show turn that squashed them straight down into their seats.

Erich was impressed. For someone who’d never flown before, Felbers showed remarkable steadiness. He stiffened as the horizon tilted and the hillside flashed by, but nothing more than a momentary hiss escaped his lips, and he kept his hands and feet well away from the controls.

Brennermann turned his attention to holding the departure heading and best-rate-of-climb airspeed.

“This is most uncomfortable.”

“I’m uncomfortable too. We can both loosen our harnesses a little as soon as we’re above the hills and on course to Erfurt.”

Felbers’ forehead furrowed. “What? Erfurt? That’s only a few miles away. Why would you stop there?”

“Because it’s the nearest place where I can get fuel and decent weather information. At the moment, we have only enough to reach Grantville safely, and that’s the wrong direction altogether. And everything about this trip will depend on the weather.”

“Wonderful. A pity you couldn’t have gotten it earlier. Well, we’re traveling, at least.”

****

Berthold Felbers turned to the side window, to watch the countryside pass by. It really was a glorious morning, with the dew still on the trees and the sun lighting a few puffy clouds to the east. Suddenly his eye fell on a new clearing a couple of miles away. What? I know for a fact that village doesn’t have a right to cut wood there. Hmm. Maybe I’ll pay them a visit, and pointedly do them the favor of not noticing it. Never hurts to be owed a favor.

****

By the time Erich got back to the plane, Felbers was leaning against the lower wing holding a bag of sandwiches from a workmen’s cook shop across the road. He stiffened at the expression on Brennermann’s face, and the railroad timetable clutched in his hand on top of a sheaf of handwritten notes and a navigation chart. He pointed his finger at it. “What’s that supposed to be for? Some kind of a switch?”

Brennermann shook his head. “Unfortunately, the weather situation is marginal. I’d hoped that if we could get off early enough, we could get there before the usual afternoon storms and set down in the field outside Mansfeld that we use for postal drops. But it’s impossible today. The railroad stations are reporting rain and low ceilings all the way up the Elbe valley, and the mountains are too close by to attempt a descent in those conditions. The alternative is to overtake the train that left last night and set you down at one of the towns that has a passenger station. From there you can get to Mansfeld. As of now, we have a good chance of success with that plan.”

“Hmmph. And if that doesn’t work?”

“Then we retreat to a safe airport where we can land without problems. Because we might still have to. For that reason, I’m loading the plane with all the fuel it can lift.”

Felbers shot to his feet. His hand clenched on a wing strut. “What? I’m paying you to get me to Mansfeld, not make excuses. I expect results!”

“Herr Felbers, you had your spectacles on when you read that contract. You know exactly what it says. Do you fully understand why it says that? If not, I will explain. Flying is inherently dangerous. The only way it can be made even slightly safe is by unswerving adherence to the rules. Every one of those rules was learned at the cost of somebody’s blood. If you think you’re testing me, let me inform you that this is not a business negotiation. My first duty as a pilot is to keep us safe.

“Now, then. I will get you there if the weather permits. The weather is in the hands of the Lord Almighty alone. Still want to go?”

****

“Bravo Charlie Zero Five taking the runway at Erfurt.”

“Charlie Zero Five, cleared for takeoff.” That was a surprise. The tower controller must have come on duty a few minutes early. Erich clicked his mike twice, to acknowledge.

Because of the nearby army depot, this airfield was roomy and well graded. Not paved, but dry and fairly level. This morning he needed all of it. He taxied right up to the fence, pivoted around with his tail wheel in the weeds, and held the brakes until the engine was roaring. The takeoff roll went on and on, and the climb-out was anything but lively. But it was a good long way to the mountains. Once out of the airport pattern and on course, he got the plane trimmed out so he could take his hand off the stick, and settled into a cruise climb.

He looked over at his passenger. Felbers had pulled some papers out of the portfolio he was using as a lap desk and started making marginal notes.

“If you don’t mind my asking, Herr Felbers, who are you suing?”

“Eh? No, this isn’t me. It’s my wife’s feather-headed nephew, Matthias. She’s a joy, but her relations!” He sighed. “They get themselves into hot water and it falls to me to fish them out. There isn’t anyone else to do it.”

“Someone is suing him?”

“Almost. He has no head for business. Didn’t imagine that called for serious study, I suppose. He was doing admirably with his studies in chemical engineering at this new college, until he let himself be talked into investing his whole inheritance—all of it—in a venture to get gold and silver from copper ore.”

“Oho. Fell in with some silver-tongued alchemist, did he?”

“That was my first thought, but no. I sent a man to make inquiries. The method is altogether sound, and it works. Rather, it’s just begun to work for him and his associates—the Grantvillers have been doing it for years. Our copper ore, it seems, is impure. Impure! The up-timers are so avid for insanely pure copper, that at first they set aside the sludge where the gold and silver lurk, as a nuisance to be attended to later. No, what the young bungler and his dreamy partners did was fail to watch the money. They ran out of it before turning a profit. And now the wolves are nipping at their heels, hoping to feast on something tasty, and I must drive them off for a little while.” Felbers looked like just the man to drive off a small pack of wolves.

“They really get gold and silver that way? We hear of something new every day, it seems. Hmm. Well, I’ll bear all of that in mind if I ever go into business for myself.”

****

Berthold caught himself. He was talking too much. What he’d said so far was harmless enough, but there was no reason this driver—no, pilot, that was the word—needed to know that dear, soft-hearted Grete had put some of their own money into this ill-planned venture. If she’d only consulted him first! The city guild masters were reaching with both hands for the fabulous industrial wealth that seemed to be springing out of the ground these days, but half their plans depended on the huge new-style millpond and everything that went with it. All the negotiating and cajoling he’d done to acquire the land and water rights! If he were unable now to put up his share of the capital, the damage to his reputation would be incalculable. In such fluid and unpredictable times, he didn’t even want to think about borrowing. Well, maybe he’d better think about it. No, what he’d better think about this minute was how to take the measure of these strangers from Hamburg he was about to meet, and decide what tone to take with them. The last thing in the world he needed was to have them react as unexpectedly as Brennermann had yesterday. If he could keep the metal refining enterprise from being swallowed up, the family could at least sell out their share and not lose too much.

Having all this happen now was just . . . awkward. The man had been truthful enough, the train would have been far less expensive. But if he and Grete hadn’t appeared among the prominent citizens at the recital last night, it would have been noticed. The impression would have been unfortunate. Very unfortunate.

****

The passenger was immersed in his legal paperwork again. Erich turned back to the chart on his kneeboard, and resumed checking off the landmarks against the clock on the instrument panel. There didn’t seem to be much wind drift; the villages and fields were passing astern just about when he expected them to. Occasionally the sun glinted off a pond in the distance. The engine droned on reassuringly.

At the end of the first hour the hazy edges of a cloud layer appeared below. Far off to the northwest, the Harz Mountains stuck up above it. He climbed a little more.

****

A military plane on a high altitude flight came on the air and started relaying weather reports from far-flung postal stations, ships, hams, and the very few airfields where there was someone who knew anything about weather. Maybe someday professionals would be making the observations, but even this was far better than nothing. Erich took notes, and soon a picture emerged. Beautiful, clear skies over most of the Netherlands. Scattered at Nordhausen and Wolfsburg. Broken at Hannover, but that was too far away to matter much anyway. A slow, steady rain almost everywhere further north. Then Magdeburg Tower started transmitting reports from railroad telegraphers, which the air force co-pilot dutifully repeated for everyone’s benefit. Halle was marginal, but the train would pass there before they did anyway. Feuchtenthal? It was raining cats and dogs there, they couldn’t even see the top of the church spire. And they’d heard thunder. Bad. Eisleben? Maybe. Eisleben was reporting broken cloud cover, and there was nothing very tall there. Aschersleben might be possible as a place to catch a southbound train, if the rain let up. Magdeburg was their ace in the hole. The control tower reported a reasonable ceiling and decent visibility. They had CB direction finding equipment and the best runway outside of Grantville. Magdeburg also had a cathedral and some very tall antennas.

Erich weighed his options, checked position, and set course for Eisleben.

****

He circled once more, gazing longingly at the couple of remaining holes from all angles. He could even see a little of the ground; a couple of the farm fields had distinctive shapes. Too bad there wasn’t a chart showing them. For that matter, too bad he didn’t fly here regularly. He’d have known where he was and whether there was any obstruction close to those fields.

“Well, Brennermann, what exactly are you doing? Are you ready to take us down?”

“No, Herr Felbers, we are not going down here. That hole isn’t big enough to manage it safely. We’d need one we could circle within, seeing out around us all the way. With some considerable margin, in case it started to close up while we were in it.”

Felbers threw up his arms, narrowly missing the bill of Brennermann’s cap. “For heaven’s sake! You can see that there are fields right below us, and you’ve already shown that you can land in one. What’s wrong with going straight at it?”

“Aside from this plane not being built to dive? Have you ever heard of cumulo-granite?”

“No. What is that?”

“Clouds with rocks inside. Great big rocks, like hills or mountainsides. Or trees for that matter. There are many tales from up-time of pilots who encountered them. I don’t care to.”

“You amaze me, Brennermann.” He gave Erich a sour stare. “I believe you’d speak that way to the emperor himself!”

Erich couldn’t stop himself from dissolving into laughter. “There was no need! The good Captain-General has no illusions about the nature of flying. Whatever the prime minister didn’t explain to him long ago, der Adler did.”

Felbers froze for a moment, staring wide-eyed at Brennermann. “You’ve driven for the emperor?”

“Flown. Yes, once. I was assigned to fly him and one of his advisers to a meeting, after I earned my multi-engine and instrument ratings.”

“Interesting. Interesting.”

Erich got back to work. He took a bearing with a hand-held compass on one of the distant mountain peaks, called for direction finder checks from Magdeburg and Halle, and turned for Aschersleben.

****

It wasn’t even worth bothering the railroad for a weather update when they passed Aschersleben. All Brennermann needed was a look from above at the solid cloud deck. Without local radio aids, there was no going down through that. Magdeburg, it would be.

****

Magdeburg was solid overcast. The ceiling was reported to be acceptable. Not comfortable, but high enough for a DF steer descent through the cloud layer to a visual approach and landing. The procedure was within Erich’s current qualifications. If conditions proved otherwise, well, the chart provided a course for that possibility. And there was one tenet of instrument flight doctrine he professed with the fervor of holy writ: the minimum descent altitude was never to be violated.

They crossed directly over the invisible control tower, and ran out the time to the turn point.

“Bravo Charlie Zero Five, cleared for the descent.”

“Charlie Zero Five. Starting down.” He hung up the mike. “Herr Felbers, we’re about to enter the cloud deck. I’ll ask you now to stow your portfolio under your seat and secure the netting.”

“Hmm? I can keep working perfectly well, with those little lights you just turned on.”

“Unfortunately, it can get very rough inside clouds, with no warning. We don’t need loose objects hitting us in the head. Those two overhead lights are there so I can read the instrument panel and the approach chart. You’ll notice that the board holding the chart is strapped to my leg. I’m sure you’ve noticed me tightening my seat harness just now, too.” He looked pointedly at Felbers as he said that. “And there’s one other thing I’d like you to do, while my eyes are mostly on the instruments. I’d like you to keep watch ahead, and tell me the instant you see anything outside the airplane.”

“Very well, Captain.”

The sarcasm didn’t bother Brennermann in the slightest. He’d been treated to far worse by rich buffoons with inflated egos. It satisfied him that his passenger had the good sense to do what he asked. The sun vanished behind wispy clouds that rapidly turned a dark gray.

He made another five-second transmission, so the tower could check their bearing.

“Charlie Zero Five, come right another ten degrees, there’s some wind drift.”

“Charlie Zero Five.”

Another minute passed. The plane bumped a couple of times. Felbers was about to say something, when it took a sudden drop, and then started bounding left, right, up, down, shaking like a wet dog. A couple of times the gauges themselves quivered for a moment.

Erich concentrated on scanning the instruments to stay upright, holding course, and keeping an eye on the altimeter to make absolutely certain they didn’t stray below the minimum descent altitude until he had visual contact.

“Have no fear, Herr Felbers. I’ve stressed the plane harder than this, getting in and out of tight fields.” He found half a second to glance at his passenger out of the corner of his eye. Felbers was staring rigidly ahead, jaw clenched, gripping his shoulder harness with both hands.

“Open that little paper sack there and hold onto it, will you? Nobody vomits in our airplanes.”

Just in time. Suddenly Felbers jerked and bent his face over the sack. Finally the fit of coughing and spitting passed, and he caught his breath. “That miserable sandwich. It must have been tainted.”

Not likely, the way the Erfurt city inspectors watched the food establishments these days, but Brennermann saw no benefit in arguing with his customer about that. Besides, this would be a stupid time to let his attention wander from the task at hand.

A couple more minutes passed. Now Erich was transmitting every thirty seconds. The turbulence seemed to be easing. Maybe they were close to breaking out underneath. They were still a little high . . .

“Charlie Zero Five, that last correction was the wrong way.”

Alarm bells went off in Brennermann’s head. The wrong way?? What’s going on? Are we . . .

“Brennermann, what’s that flashing red light out there?”

Jesus Christ!” Erich slammed the throttle wide open, punched the stopwatch, and rolled into a twice-standard-rate turn, spiraling into a steep climb as the airspeed came up. “That was a radio tower. Take the mike. Tell them ‘Missed approach, one-eighty.'”

Felbers must have caught sight of the expression on Erich’s face. He bit off whatever he was about to say. “How . . . ?”

“A finger width from your mouth, squeeze the red button to talk, let go to listen.”

Felbers lifted it from the clip on the panel and looked at it, then held it in front of his face. “And say . . . ?”

“Missed approach, one-eighty.”

Felbers pushed the button and repeated it.

“Who was that?”

“Tell them ‘Charlie Zero Five.'”

“Roger, Charlie Zero Five. Dutchair One Six, maintain four thousand.”

“Dutchair One Six, four thousand.”

Silence.

“They’re not saying anything to us now.”

“They know we’re busy. I’ll call them in a minute. How in the name of all the saints did we get that low?” He kept scanning the instruments, waiting for the seconds to tick off so he could roll out on the opposite course. Finally he straightened out, at maximum climb, and he had time to think again. A sick feeling grew in the pit of his stomach. He looked hard at the altimeter, then put out his shaking hand for the mike.

“Charlie Zero Five. Climbing out. Confirm altimeter setting two-niner-eight-seven.”

“Two-niner-eight-seven, confirm.”

Damn! Damn!

“Charlie Zero Five. Altimeter malfunction, west departure on top.”

“Roger, Charlie Zero Five. Dutchair One Six, watch for him to pop up. He’s a yellow biplane.”

“One Six.”

The bouncing eased. The clouds started to lighten. A few seconds later there were wisps around them, then below them, and the sun appeared high in the sky.

“Charlie Zero Five, Dutchair One Six. Rock your wings for me.”

Brennermann moved the stick gently from side to side.

“Dutchair One Six. I see him.”

“Dutchair One Six, Magdeburg Tower. You’re cleared for the approach.”

Erich pulled the power back to cruise-climb and held course. He looked at the mountains forty miles away, thinking.

“Well, Brennermann, what now? Figure out what happened and do it right this time?” Felbers was no coward, that was for certain. He had to have understood just how close that had been. But he waved the timetable at Erich. “There still seems to be time to catch the southbound local.”

Erich shook his head. “No, I’m sorry, Herr Felbers, it’s impossible. There’s a more involved procedure that would stop us from ending up on the wrong side of the direction finder like we just did. But it would be suicide to go into clouds with a bad altimeter. Never heard of that happening to anybody. We can only fly visually now. And that means . . . “

He twisted the channel knob on the radio.

“Janus, Janus, this is Bravo Charlie Zero Five.”

Felbers’ jaw dropped. “What are you doing now, praying to a mythic Roman god?

“No. Janus is the call sign of the government’s main relay station. They talk in every direction.” He held up his finger for silence.

“Bravo Charlie Zero Five, this is a military frequency. Are you declaring an emergency?”

“Charlie Zero Five, trying to prevent one. We’ve lost instrument flight capability. Is your little airstrip above the soup?”

“That’s affirm.”

“Request landing clearance. We’re about half an hour out, departing Magdeburg airspace.”

“Wait one.”

A woman’s voice came on the air. “Bravo Charlie Zero Five, if you have any military affiliation, give me your name, rank, and serial number. A mounted MP will meet you when you land. Follow him. Are you alone?”

“Negative, I have a passenger for Mansfeld. Is there any way to send him on his way?”

The voice chuckled. “I would certainly like to send him on his way. I’ll see what can be done. Call ten minutes out.”

Felbers was scowling at him from the right seat. “I believe I understood all of that, Brennermann. You propose to abandon the attempt? Is that what I just heard?”

“Yes, Herr Felbers. We gave it our best shot, it’s over, and we’re still alive. There’s no way to get you there today without killing ourselves in the attempt. Now I’m concerned with getting us onto solid ground as safely as possible.”

“What about that other plane we just heard? I heard the man say ‘Cleared for the approach.’ If they can do it, why not you?”

Erich sighed, and held course. “That’s a Royal Dutch Airlines flight. They have navigating equipment this little butterfly couldn’t carry, the fares from more seats to pay for it all, and two pilots to operate it. And I’m nearly certain they have two of everything, including altimeters. Maybe we will in a year or two. Maybe we’ll have a lot of things. There are rumors of progress toward a real instrument landing system, instead of this makeshift business with direction finders.

“So, yes, they can get into Magdeburg today. The only remaining possibility for us is to send your Matthias a telegram. We could call AT&L by radio for that. They charge, of course. Maybe he can get them to wait for you to come over from the mountain.”

Felbers was livid. “It will take at least another day to travel that far! More likely two. This is the best your airplane can do? What a fiasco!”

Brennermann nodded slowly. “I’m afraid so, and there’s no point in waiting until I can fly again. I’ll be stuck there until I have clear weather or working instruments.”

****

A short way below the summit, somebody sent up a signal flare from a more-or-less level patch of ground. Erich went around the pattern once to look it over. The grass field boasted a wind sock and nothing else. It was just as well the charter plane was built more for agility and short-field landings than for speed; with a crosswind on the approach, he didn’t dare fly it close to stalling speed. He came in hot, side-slipping so the wheels would roll straight, and dumped the flap lever just as he flared.

Two mounted troopers were waiting at the edge of the field. They waved the plane to a tie-down spot under a tree, near the beginning of a pathway. Up-slope a shepherd and two dogs watched the proceedings.

One of the soldiers dismounted and walked over to the plane as the two men climbed out. “You are Herr Berthold Felbers? There is a telegram.”

Felbers froze as he read it, then let his hand fall limply to his side, and just stood there looking up to heaven.

“Are you all right? You look upset. Not bad news, I hope.”

“No, no, Brennermann. It’s from Matthias. ‘Muntz and Schickelgruber delayed by bad weather. Meeting re-scheduled day after tomorrow.'”

Erich stopped unstrapping the baggage, and slid down to sit on the grass. After a couple of seconds he began laughing softly.

“What’s the joke?”

“I wish I knew. If I thought we were important enough, I’d think God was playing a joke on all of us. But what can we do anyway, but laugh?”

Felbers looked at the telegram once more and began laughing too.

****