"A single event can awaken within us a stranger totally unknown to us. To live is to be slowly born."

—Antoine de Saint Exupery

"Just perfect," Jesse muttered in disgust.

"What was that, Herr Oberst?"

Jesse jammed his hands into the pockets of his flying jacket and looked at his copilot, Lieutenant Emil Castner, who was leaning against the wing, studying his map. The lieutenant had moved there to get away from the crowd of mechanics swarming around the nose of their aircraft. Jesse had likewise moved away, after earning a glare from Chief Matowski for repeatedly butting in on his work.

"Nothing, Emil," Jesse said. "Nothing at all."

The young German nodded uncertainly and turned back to his map. Approving of his copilot taking the chance to get better prepared for the flight, Jesse rubbed his neck and moved slightly toward the mechanics, then thought better of it. He always hated it when a supposedly ready aircraft broke down before takeoff. Standing around, waiting for the wrenchbenders to work their magic, never failed to grate on his nerves and this time was no exception. He strolled away and, for about the tenth time, patted the left sleeve pocket of his flight suit, where, in another world and another time, he had carried his cigarettes.

Damn, he thought. You'd think I'd have gotten past that habit. What's it been—two years, since I've last had a smoke?

Sometimes, such as when he was flying or waiting to fly, he could almost forget the circumstances that had brought him here. The cataclysmic Ring of Fire that had mysteriously transported the West Virginia town of Grantville into seventeenth-century Germany had created a psychological crisis for all of the Americans caught in the event. Their subsequent battles against the threats of hunger, disease, and hostile neighbors had quickly pulled the Americans together, though it had been a hard struggle. And still was.

The United States of Europe and their allies were still engaged in a desperate struggle against formidable enemies. Only the fall before, through the machinations of Cardinal Richelieu, the countries of Spain, England, and Denmark had joined the French in the so-called "Ostend Alliance," with the intent of capturing the Baltic, crushing the independent Netherlands, and, eventually, eliminating the growing power of the USE. Luckily, the Alliance's initial attacks had been thwarted at Luebeck and Wismar, in no small measure through the impact of American technology, hastily adapted for war. Now, in the early spring of 1634, the struggle continued on land and sea.

The Battle of Wismar had been particularly hard on one Colonel Jesse Wood, retired USAF tanker pilot and, by appointment of Prime Minister Stearns, chief of staff of the USE Air Force. For it was at Wismar that he had first taken his unprepared air force to war and had learned the price of combat. In the course of the action, Jesse had watched his protégé, Hans, turn the tide of battle by diving his aircraft into a Danish warship. Though helpless to prevent it, Jesse still blamed himself for Hans' death. Over the months since, his grief and guilt had gradually turned to a cold rage against their enemies and Jesse wanted nothing more than to get back into the war.

* * *

"Hey! Colonel Wood!"

Jesse mentally shook himself and looked back toward the aircraft. Harvey Matowski was waving a greasy rag at him, while his assistants replaced the engine cowling. Resisting an impulse to run, Jesse deliberately strolled back to the aircraft. Emil had already climbed back into the rear cockpit and was strapping in.

Walking up to Matowski, Jesse asked, "So okay, Harvey, what was it?"

"Just dirty plugs, sir. Maybe some water in the line, too. Can't tell till we crank her up. You still want to go?"

"Yes, of course, Chief. The war isn't waiting on us, you know."

"Yeah, I know, sir, but . . . "

"Spit it out, Chief," Jesse said grumpily. "Is the aircraft ready to fly or isn't it? They're waiting for us in Hessen."

"Well, yessir, it is." Harvey paused to spit. "But you know as well as I do how touchy that supercharger has been. I don't much like the idea of it cutting out on takeoff with this load you've got."

Jesse looked at his chief mechanic and considered his words. Glancing up at the clear blue sky, he noted that the day had already started to warm a bit. Still no clouds.

An unseasonably nice day, Jesse thought. Be a shame to waste it. And we better do this before Stearns changes his mind. Still . . . Damn it!

"Okay, Chief. Call those munitions troops back here. We'll take off all but the two inboard rockets. That way we'll still be able to take off, even if the blower quits. The real payload's underneath, anyway. Does that suit you?"

Matowski nodded and walked off. Jesse gave the cowling fasteners a couple of thumps and did another quick walk around. Everything on the exterior was as it should be, though it never hurt to check a second time. He paused a moment to admire the aircraft's paint job. He had to admit, the Gustav was a damned fine looking machine, the best that American technology and German craftsmanship could build. Compared to the Belle, it was big and low slung. The sun glinted through the now open sliding canopies. The wings and fuselage were painted blue-gray overall, so new that there were few blemishes anywhere. White star wing flashes gleamed, as did a large red numeral "1" on each side of the vertical stabilizer. His eyes drifted to the nose art and he unconsciously grinned. One of the young pilots had read about the American Volunteer Group and his excitement had fired the imagination of the aircraft riggers. The result was a leering shark's mouth painted on the nose and cowlings, complete with predator eyes.

If nothing else, maybe we can scare 'em to death, Jesse thought.

Twenty minutes later, the rockets had been removed. Jesse and Emil had run their checklists and the engine was purring as if nothing had ever been wrong with it. Tower confirmed there was no traffic inbound. Jesse pushed the throttle forward and flicked the supercharger switch with his little finger. Hearing the whine of the fan, feeling the engine surge, he noted the time and released brakes.

His mission was to put the fear of God into Grantville's primary enemy.

His target: Paris.

Takeoff was uneventful and Jesse felt the familiar rush that comes from leaving the earth behind. The anxiety and uncertainty that waiting always generated in him quickly faded as he began a cruise climb on a heading just south of due west. The small southerly wind, so unusual at this time of year, required only the slightest of drift correction. Switching off the supercharger, he set climb power, trimmed the aircraft, waggled the rudder pedals, and spoke over the intercom.

"Copilot's aircraft. Take her to eight thousand on this heading, Emil. Set altimeter at 29.92"

From the rear cockpit, "I have the aircraft, Herr Oberst. 29.92."

After Emil shook the stick, Jesse clicked twice and removed his hand. He wrote the takeoff time on his kneeboard and picked up his map, already folded for the route of flight. A carefully drawn line cut across Germany, over the mostly empty green of the Thuringenwald, past Fulda, towards a small village north of Frankfurt am Main and Weisbaden, to a temporary field where they were scheduled to refuel.

Ambach, Omberg, Ombach, he suddenly realized he'd forgotten the name of the place that hadn't warranted a name on his map. Doesn't matter. I've been there before and I can find it, no sweat. An hour or so on this heading should get us there. About forty minutes late.

Jesse stretched his back and shook his arms, trying to get comfortable. He'd been flying too much, he knew, and it was taking a toll on his body. He now had two pilots he could count on to instruct the others in the replacement Belle, but the workload had risen again when Hal Smith and his team had rolled out the first Gustav. Hal had poured every bit of his knowledge and talent into the sleek plane, assisted mightily by their experience with the Las Vegas Belle and her twins. The Gustav's improvements were enough to gladden Jesse's heart, considering he intended to send pilots to war in it. Sturdier and much faster than the Belle, the Gustav also boasted numerous improvements visible only in the cockpit, including G-meters, rotating compass repeaters directly in front of the pilots, a heater/deicer, and a speed brake. Most importantly, it could carry a really usable war payload on the multiple hard points under the wings and fuselage. Such as they carried now.

But the very high quality of the Gustav had urged Jesse to fly even more, so eager was he to get it into the fight. An abbreviated flight test program had shown the Gustav to be a nimble flyer, yet with a solid, steady feel. That encouraged Jesse to begin immediately experimenting with dive-bombing techniques on a hastily acquired field outside of Weimar, using sand-filled practice bombs. He packed as much training into each flight as he could, taking a different copilot on each sortie until they were all comfortable with the aircraft and could extend and retract the heavy speed brake with little trouble, though most were sweating when it came time to land.

Still, he had driven none of them harder than he drove himself and the effort had begun to tell. The repetitive four or five Gs experienced in each dive gradually wore at him, straining his back and arms terrifically. Kathy had taken to meeting him at the end of each day he flew, so frightened had she become about his health. But, despite the scolding of his wife, Jesse refused to stop. Only after she had appealed to Dr. Nichols, who pulled duty as senior flight surgeon, had Jesse relented and taken two days off. But only two. Then he'd gone back to a full schedule of flying, trying to will his young charges into the proficiency he knew they would need all too soon.

The Gustav was approaching the temporary field when Jesse realized all was not well. Fearing what a bad landing would do to their load, he had decided to do the honors. The two pilots had already performed the Before Land Checklist and, as a precaution, Jesse had planned a low flyby before landing. He was immensely glad he did.

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- The Grantville Gazette Staff