The droplet formed at the bottom of the clump of snow still tenuously attached to the leaves of the bush Captain Wilhelm Finck of the USE Marines 1st Reconnaissance Company was hiding under. Slowly it grew, until it reached critical size and fell.
Wilhelm flinched as the near freezing drop of water landed on his neck and started its journey down his back. He glanced at his wristwatch. Sunrise wasn’t that far off. “Come on,” he muttered.
“What was that, Captain?” Sergeant Christoph Fels asked from the nearby bush he was hiding under.
“Nothing,” Wilhelm muttered. “I’m just getting impatient.”
“Fabricius and Dinckeler were the right choice, Captain,” Christoph said in a reassuring voice.
Wilhelm had to agree with that. Lance Corporals Johann Fabricius and Albrecht Dinckeler were the two best men he had when it came to skulking in the shadows. “I’m worried about what they might do,” he said. “I should have sent you or Corporal Müller to supervise them.”
“We agreed that any more than two men would significantly increase the risk of discovery, Captain.”
Wilhelm sighed. “But maybe those two shouldn’t have been Fabricius and Dinckeler, Sergeant.”
That was a truth so evident that Sergeant Fels didn’t bother replying.
Moments later they heard faint rustling that didn’t fit with the gentle breeze they could feel. Wilhelm gripped the lead-pellet filled flat sap he was holding tightly and prepared to use it.
“Captain?” Johann Fabricius called in a loud whisper.
Wilhelm relaxed. “Over here,” he called.
“Mission accomplished,” Albrecht “Al” Dinckeler said.
“Did anyone spot you?” Christoph asked.
“Not even a dog, Sarge,” Johann said.
“Good.” It was good because it meant Dinckeler and Fabricius hadn’t needed to use their saps on anyone. He’d been prepared to accept the consequences if they’d done so, but it was much better that they’d managed to get in and out without being discovered. “Let’s rejoin Böhm and Müller and get out of here before anyone notices what you’ve done,” Wilhelm said.
It took nearly half an hour to stealthily make their way to the Schrote where Corporals Stephan Böhm and Nikolaus “Nik” Müller were waiting with the canoes they’d used to insert themselves via the narrow and shallow waterway. The creek had been a tight fit for the two-man canoes, but that was good. Surely no one would think to check such a small waterway for escaping intruders. Once back with the canoes it took them less than twenty minutes to make their way down the Schrote to the River Elbe, where Sergeant Melchior Dietrich was waiting for them with a motor boat.
A couple of days later, USE Marine Corps HQ, Magdeburg
Wilhelm stepped into Colonel Friedrich von Brockenholz’ office and saluted. “Captain Finck reporting, sir.”
“Take a seat, Captain,” Friedrich said, gesturing towards a group of chairs.
Wilhelm removed his cap, selected a chair, and brought it closer to Colonel Brockenholz’ desk before sitting down. “You wanted to see me, Sir.”
Friedrich nodded. He rifled through some papers on his desk; selected one, and slid it across to Wilhelm. “A couple of nights ago a person or persons unknown sneaked into the Army camp to the northwest of Magdeburg and painted that symbol on the commander’s house. Colonel Joachim Bassewitz is most upset.” He looked pointedly at Wilhelm. “Would you happen to know anything about it?”
Wilhelm glanced at the paper. He looked up. “A Volvo symbol?” he suggested, referring to the grill symbol he’d seen on a couple of up-time automobiles.
Friedrich rolled his eyes. “There is no need to be facetious, Captain.”
“The symbol for iron?”
Friedrich shook his head. “Try again.”
“The male gender symbol?” Wilhelm said.
Friedrich nodded. “And why is that symbol used to indicate males?” he asked.
Wilhelm was trapped. There was no way he could avoid saying it now. “Because it is the symbol for the god Mars,” he said.
“There is one other rendering of the symbol that comes to mind,” Friedrich said. He looked pointedly at the Marine Advanced Reconnaissance School qualification badge on Wilhelm’s blouse. “The jig is up, Wilhelm. I know your men were responsible.”
“They’re bored,” Wilhelm said defensively.
“And to alleviate their boredom you decided to break into an army base and paint your unit symbol on the front of the commander’s house?”
Wilhelm shrugged. He hadn’t actually told Fabricius and Dinckeler where to paint the symbol, just that it should be noticeable, and that they weren’t to get caught doing it. “If their security had been any good my men wouldn’t have been able get close enough to tag Colonel Bassewitz’ quarters, Sir.”
“Yes, there is that. Which is why, even as we speak, the men detailed to guard Colonel Bassewitz’ quarters are busy whitewashing the whole building.” Friedrich paused to smile at Wilhelm. “I’m sure they’ll learn their lesson, but rumors have reached the admiral that those same guards will be marching on Magdeburg as soon as they finish, looking for retribution. As such, it has been suggested that it might be better if you were to remove your unit from Magdeburg until the dust settles.”
“We can take care of ourselves,” Wilhelm said.
“I know you can,” Friedrich said. “That’s what I’m worried about. That is why Admiral Simpson and I have graciously offered General Stearns the services of the USE Marines 1st Reconnaissance Company for the war down in Bavaria.”
Wilhelm’s eyes lit up. “They want us to scout for river crossings?” he asked, excitement entering his voice.
“Yes. You and your men might finally get to demonstrate their value. I want you to take your unit to Regensburg, where you will report to General Stearns of the 3rd Division.”
“Can we have Sergeant Dietrich and his motorboat, Sir?”
Friedrich smiled. “I assume he was a party to your recent escapade?” He shook his head slowly. “I’m sure it would be useful for you to have Sergeant Dietrich and his bass boat down in Regensburg, but I can’t authorize it. Not when I consider how much losing George Watson’s Outlaw cost the government.”
George Watson’s Outlaw motorboat had been lost in the battle of Wismar when Eddie Cantrell, Larry Wild, and Bjorn Svedberg had plowed into the Johannes Ingvardt. Neither vessel had survived when the anti-ship rockets the Outlaw had been carrying exploded on impact. The government had been forced to pay him nearly three million dollars in compensation for losing his priceless up-time-built speedboat. “We wouldn’t be using it in combat, Sir,” Wilhelm said, trying to differentiate the risk to the Bass boat from what had happened to George Watson’s Outlaw. “We’ll only be using it as a delivery and recovery vehicle.”
“I’m sure that is your intention,” Friedrich said. “However, even assuming the railways can transport the boat from Magdeburg to Bamberg without damaging anything, do you really think the teamsters will be able to carry it the hundred miles between Bamberg and Regensburg at this time of year without breaking her, possibly irreparably?”
Wilhelm winced. The colonel had him there. Teamsters were notorious for just how careless they could be with fragile goods at the best of times, and traveling between Bamberg and Regensburg in early April was not the best of times. Not only was the road not much more than an improved goat track, but firstly the SoTF National Guard, and more recently the 3rd Division, had marched over it. It was probably a sea of mud right now. “No, Sir,” he conceded.
“Right. So, unless Sergeant Dietrich and his boat can grow wings, you’ll just have to make do with your collapsible kayaks.”
“Yes, Sir,” Wilhelm muttered. The kayaks were quite good. They could be packed into two bags about five feet long and a foot square weighing about fifty pounds each, and could be assembled or disassembled in under ten minutes. However, they were limited to the speed two men could paddle them. Sergeant Dietrich’s bass boat was capable of nearly sixty miles per hour, or twenty to thirty times the speed—not that they’d tried towing the kayaks regularly at more than twenty-five miles per hour, but having Sergeant Dietrich and his bass boat would have meant rescue wasn’t far away if they ran into trouble.
“Right. Dismissed, and do the Marines proud, Captain.”
Wilhelm got to his feet, put his cap back on, and saluted Colonel Brockenholz. “We’ll do our best, Sir.”
“I know you will, Captain Finck.”
A couple of days later, Magdeburg Naval Base
“All right, who’s first?” Sergeant Leonhard Fechser called out from his position behind the counter of the Marine Armory.
Wilhelm got to his feet and walked over to the counter. “Finck, Wilhelm, Captain, number M14132,” he announced as he laid his ID card down on the counter.
Leonhard compared the photo on the ID card with Wilhelm. Then he checked his logbook before selecting a rifle from the rack behind him. He checked that it was unloaded, and with the action open, laid it on the counter. “One lever-action rifle, butt number two hundred thirty-two,” he called out as he wrote the number in his book. He then placed ten boxes of ammunition on the counter. “Two hundred rounds .40-72.” Again, after calling out the item he wrote it up in his book. He then turned the book around and slid it towards Wilhelm. “Please sign that you have taken possession of your rifle and an issue of ammunition.”
Wilhelm checked the weapon. It was his usual rifle, and it was in the same excellent condition as it’d been when he last returned it to the armory. He then checked the boxes of ammunition. All the spaces were full, so there were two hundred rounds. However, two hundred rounds weren’t going to go very far if they got caught up in a firefight down in Bavaria. He said as much.
Leonhard shrugged apologetically. “I’ll get a couple of reloading kits and see that they catch up with you. But I’m afraid you’re going to have to police your brass.”
Wilhelm glared at Leonhard. He knew it wasn’t the storeman’s fault, but he was fed up with the penny pinching they had to go through to keep the unit going. “We’re going into combat,” he said. “We can’t afford to waste time worrying about policing our brass.”
“I can let you have half a dozen brass catchers, sir.”
Wilhelm turned up the power of his glare. None of them liked the brass catchers. They’d used them in training and found them to be a complete pain. They got in the way when they needed to recharge the magazine, altered the balance of the rifle, and once they contained more than a couple of empty cases, they made silent movement next to impossible. He sighed. They were also the only way they were going to be able to save their brass if they got caught up in a firefight. “I’ll take them,” he said.
Leonhard laid a brass catcher on the counter. “If you’ll just sign for everything, Sir.”
Wilhelm released a pent-up breath and dutifully signed his name against each item of equipment he’d just drawn.
“Who’s next?” Leonard called as Wilhelm walked back to where he’d left his pack and webbing.
Wilhelm was distributing his ammunition in various pouches of his webbing when a Navy messenger entered. “Herr Captain Finck?” he asked the room.
“Here,” Wilhelm said.
The youth approached Wilhelm, started to salute, only to stop half-way when he realized Wilhelm wasn’t wearing a hat and thus didn’t need to be saluted. A tide of red hit his face as he stood to attention. “Orders from Colonel von Brockenholz, Sir,” he said, offering Wilhelm a sealed letter. “You are to immediately make your way to the railroad station and board the train to Grantville, which is currently being held for you.”
“They’re holding the train for us?” Johann Fabricius asked from the bench where he had just signed for his rifle, ammunition, and brass catcher.
Wilhelm held up a hand for silence while he quickly skimmed through the contents of Colonel von Brockenholz’ letter. “That’s what it says.” He held up a travel warrant. “And this confirms it.”
“We haven’t finished drawing our equipment, Captain,” Sergeant Christoph Fels said.
Wilhelm glanced around. A couple of his men still hadn’t been issued their weapons and ammunition. “We’ll limit ourselves to a tactical loadout and Sergeant Fechser can send the rest of our equipment on after us.”
“But who is going to sign for it?” Leonhard protested. “Someone has to sign for it before it can leave the storeroom,”
Wilhelm released a frustrated breath. “Give me a blank form to sign.”
Leonhard dug out a form and handed it to Wilhelm. “This is very irregular, Sir.”
“Tell me about it,” Wilhelm muttered as he signed the blank form and handed it back to Leonhard.
Leonhard stared at the form. “But what do I send you?” he asked.
Wilhelm shrugged. “Just send us everything in our unit store.”
Leonhard’s brows shot up. “Everything?”
“Yes,” Wilhelm said. “We don’t have time to worry about details. Send us everything. We’ll sort it out in Regensburg.”
“Everything it is,” Leonhard said, writing the word clearly in the space provided for what was being signed for. “You do realize that you have accepted liability for everything?” he asked.
“Just do it, and finish issuing our weapons and ammunition so we can catch the train before the passengers start a revolt over the delay.”
Leonhard did as he was told and Wilhelm led his men at a dogtrot to the railroad station where they were hustled aboard. They hadn’t even taken their seats before the train started moving.
“Who’s for a game of cards?” Al Dinckeler asked as he pulled a deck out from his battledress breast pocket.
Ten days later, Regensburg
The 1st Marine Reconnaissance Company returned to their lodgings in Regensburg after yet another training exercise to find a welcome sight waiting for them. Wilhelm didn’t exactly run up to Sergeant Leonhard Fechser and hug him, but it he was sorely tempted. “Sergeant Fechser, it’s so good to see you at last.”
Leonhard saluted Wilhelm. “It took a while to pack everything, Sir,”‘ he said.
Wilhelm pointedly looked around. “Speaking of which . . .”
“It’s over there,” Leonhard said jerking his head in the direction of a warehouse.
“You brought everything?” Wilhelm asked.
“You said to bring everything, Sir.”
“Yes, yes, of course,” Wilhelm hastened to placate the storeman. “I was just wondering if everything included the men’s PT kit?”
Leonhard emitted a loud sigh. “Everything includes the men’s physical training kit, Sir.”
Wilhelm smiled. “Perfect.” He turned to Sergeant Fels. “Get the men changed and take them for a run.”
“Will you be joining us, Sir?” Johann Fabricius asked.
Wilhelm sighed dramatically. “I’d really like to join you.” That remark was met with varying signs of disbelief. “However, as the officer responsible for our equipment, I have to check that everything I signed for has been delivered.” He turned to Leonhard. “Isn’t that correct, Sergeant?”
“Oh, yes, definitely, Captain Finck,” Leonhard said, nodding his head vigorously. “Everything has to be checked off.”
Wilhelm turned back to Johann. “It’s a hard job, Fabricius, but someone’s got to do it.”
“You’re all heart, Captain,” Christoph said.
“What do I have to do to become an officer?” Johann muttered.
That brought a smile to Wilhelm’s eyes. Johann Fabricius was always on the lookout for a cushy billet that paid more while expecting less. He remained by the door to the warehouse as Leonhard led his men to the packs that contained their PT gear. He was still standing there when they filed past, dressed for their run. “Enjoy yourselves,” he said. There was a smug smile on his face as he turned towards Leonhard. “Let’s get the paperwork started.”
“So you can join your men on their run?” Leonhard asked.
“Don’t be silly,” Wilhelm replied.
Twenty minutes later
Sergeant Christoph Fels was happily leading the rest of the company across the stone bridge that spanned the Danube River when he realized he couldn’t hear the footfalls of the other runners. He glanced back over his shoulder. “What the!” he muttered at the sight of four Marines leaning against the bridge’s stone parapet. He turned and strode menacingly towards them. “Who told you lot that you could stop running?” he demanded.
“We saw that,” Corporal Nik Müller said pointing into the distance.
“You saw what?” Christoph asked as he turned his attention to the direction Nik was pointing. “Oh!” he said when he saw the enormous balloon hanging over an island in the river. “What the heck is it?”
“It’s a Swordfish-class hot air dirigible,” Stephan Böhm said. “I saw a couple of them when I was doing the advanced medic course in Grantville.”
“Could we get a closer look, Sarge?” Johann Fabricius asked.
Christoph thought about it for a moment. There was a stairway and drawbridge separating them from the island, but that would give them easy access. The island, being mostly grass fields, also offered a better running surface than the cobbles they’d been running on. “Follow me,” he called as he headed for the guard house overlooking the stairs to the island.
Mary Tanner Barancek was tempted to sulk as she waved at the departing Pelican. She should have been aboard, but Stefano Franchetti had insisted that she stay behind while his cousin Giovanni flew as his co-pilot. He’d spouted some rubbish about power-to-weight ratios, completely ignoring the fact that a lot of Giovanni’s weight was the belly hanging over his belt. She spun round and stalked away, looking for something to kick. Unfortunately, the people who’d prepared the farmland as an airfield had done too good a job clearing away any stones.
It was in this less than sunny mood that she sighted a group of men running towards her. They weren’t actually running. It was more like they were jogging, in formation. That, as well as the pale blue t-shirts and shorts they were wearing, told her they were probably military.
There was a large symbol in a darker color emblazoned on their t-shirts. Mary stared at them through squinted eyes as she tried to identify it. Then she smiled. How like men to emblazon that symbol on their t-shirts. She walked towards them. “Who are you guys?” she called out.
Christoph and the others halted. “We’re the men from MARS,” he said indicating the astronomical symbol on his t-shirt.
“Really?” Mary’s mood was brightening up rapidly.
“It represents the shield and spear of Mars, the god of war,” Johann Fabricius said. “We’re graduates from the Schule der fortgeschrittenen Aufklärung für Seesoldaten.”
As an American, Mary knew all about creating cool sounding acronyms from an organization’s name but this one had her stumped. “How do you get Mars from that?” she asked.
“From the English,” Nik Müller said. “The Marine Advanced Reconnaissance School.”
Mary grinned. “That is so ‘finding a cool acronym and making up a name to fit it’,” she said. “Did an American pick the name?”
“Yes,” Al Dinckeler said, “but you have to agree, it’s a cool name.”
Mary continued to stare at the guys. She was remembering some news stories. “Are you the guys that did the parachute display at the opening of Arts Week in Magdeburg last year?” she asked.
They nodded. “That was us,” Christoph confirmed.
“So are you guys planning on parachuting from the Pelican?” Mary asked. She waved in the general direction of the departing airship.
“That thing has enough payload to carry all of us and our equipment?” an incredulous Christoph demanded.
Regensburg had turned out to only be a brief stop on the long journey to join General Stearns and the 3rd Division. They’d stayed there long enough to collect and sort out all the equipment Sergeant Fechser had brought with him and settle him into his own little storeroom before setting out for Mainburg.
They covered the thirty-odd miles in a little over ten hours—a little slower than would normally be expected, but they were carrying an extra fifty pounds each in the form of their collapsed two-man kayaks. However, the rapidness of their transit was wasted. No one was expecting them, not even General Stearns, who was of course too busy to be disturbed.
“Hurry up and wait,” Johann Fabricius muttered as they were led to an obscure corner of the 3rd Division’s camp. “Effing typical,” he added with heat.
“Now that’s settled, I think we should make ourselves comfortable. Have a brew and something to eat. And then we can all go for a run.” Wilhelm smiled at them. “Won’t that be nice?”
The chorus of agreement was a little forced and lacked enthusiasm
The 1st Marine Reconnaissance Company were warming up gently before going on their morning run when an army runner ran up to them.
“Captain Finck?” the runner asked.
Wilhelm stepped forward. “That’ll be me.”
The runner saluted. “General Stearns would like to see you, Sir.”
“Now?” Johann Fabricius protested.
“I’m sure the general won’t mind if you take a few minutes to change, Sir,” the runner said.
Wilhelm turned to his company. “I’m sorry, men, but it seems General Stearns wants to see me.”
The snorts of derision from his loyal followers brought a smile to Wilhelm’s face. “I would accompany you on the run if I could, but one doesn’t keep a general waiting.” He turned to Christoph. “Take them away, Sergeant.”
The first thing Wilhelm noticed when he was shown into General Stearns’ HQ tent was the trestle tables set up in the middle of the space. There were a number of officers grouped around the tables. One of them he easily identified from various photographs he’d seen as General Mike Stearns, otherwise known as the Prince of Germany. He was, Wilhelm was pleased to note, no bigger than one would expect an up-timer to be. He stepped in and stood to attention. “Captain Wilhelm Finck of the 1st Marine Reconnaissance Company reporting, Sir.”
“At ease, Captain,” Mike said. “Please come over here,” he added, gesturing to the table. “You’re probably wondering why I requested your presence?”
Wilhelm smiled. “With Ingolstadt falling to the SoTF National Guard, I assume you are planning a move against Munich, Sir. And with several rivers blocking the 3rd Division’s path, I’m hoping that you want my unit to reconnoiter for suitable crossing places.” He smiled at the surprised looks he was getting from some of the army officers gathered around the general. It seemed they hadn’t expected such thinking from a Marine.
“That is correct,” Mike said. “We need to locate suitable crossing points on the Amper River.” He planted a finger on an area of the map. “How soon can you get your men down there?”
Wilhelm leaned forward for a better look. The map was similar to the one he and his men had been examining for the last week or so, only larger scale. “That’s about fifty miles as the crow flies. If it was friendly territory we could march there in a couple of days, but as it is potentially hostile country, it could take four or five days just to get there.” That didn’t go down well with his audience, but then, he hadn’t expected it to. “It would mean we’d have to carry over a week’s rations, which would slow us down some more.” He smiled at the general. “There is a faster way for us to get into position,” he said.
“Yes?” Mike asked.
“We could parachute in,” Wilhelm said. That elicited a few shocked intakes of breath from the army officers. He grinned at them before leaning over the map and pointing to a spot on the map where he thought his team could land and disappear into the trees before a Bavarian cavalry unit could arrive to look for them. “I think this location would be possible, although we’d have to overfly it first to make sure it isn’t too heavily wooded.”
Mike leaned closer to examine where Wilhelm was pointing. “You need a Jupiter, am I right?”
Wilhelm shook his head. “Not necessarily, sir. A Jupiter is the only airplane big enough for a parachute drop by more than one or two men. But we could do it from the Pelican.”
Mike frowned. “That thing would be visible for miles. There’s no way to use it for a mission that needs to be surreptitious.”
What the general was saying was essentially correct. The Pelican was something like One hundred fifty feet long and fifty feet wide at her widest point. However, there were ways to make even something that size almost invisible. “It depends on the time of day, sir. If we make the drop very early in the morning, there will be enough light for us to see but the airships won’t be very visible from the ground—and we certainly won’t be, falling over the side. If any Bavarian soldier does spot the airship they’ll simply think it’s on a reconnaissance mission.”
Wilhelm watched the emotions flash across the general’s face. He hoped General Stearns would go for the parachute drop. It would be a grand demonstration of one of his company’s unique capabilities, making the future of his unit a little more secure. It might even result in them getting the resources to expand the training cadre of six men into a real company.
“All right, Captain. We’ll make the drop. How soon can you be ready?”
Wilhelm shrugged nonchalantly, working hard to conceal his excitement. “That really depends more on when the Pelican can be placed at our disposal than it does on us, Sir. Me and my men can be ready by tomorrow morning.”
“Tell Franchetti—no, tell Major Simpson to tell Franchetti—to give you top priority.”
“Top priority.” They were such sweet words to Wilhelm’s ears. “When we find a good place to cross the river, Sir, what do you want us to do?” he asked. “Return or stay in place?” He so hoped the order would be to stay in place. The longer they stayed in the field the more chances there would be to prove themselves.
“Stay in place—if you can do so without being spotted. But don’t take any unnecessary risks, Captain. There’ll only be a handful of you and even allowing for your weaponry you’ll be overwhelmed by any sizeable enemy force.”
Wilhelm suppressed the urge to tell General Stearns that they were trained to do their job without being spotted. Instead he just acknowledged the order. “Yes, Sir. Shall I be off, then?”
“Yes. Good luck, Captain.”
Wilhelm was out of General Stearns’ HQ tent in a flash, and if he didn’t run—that would only overexcite and maybe panic anyone seeing him running—he certainly returned to his unit’s temporary accommodations at a very fast walk. He took a glance at his watch and smiled. He’d have time for a cup of tea before the rest of the unit got back from their run.
Wilhelm wasn’t a completely hard-hearted monster, and besides in such a small unit everyone had to chip in, so by the time Sergeant Fels led the rest of the unit back to the tent after their run he had a brew and enough food for everyone almost ready to serve up.
“Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die,” Wilhelm said by way of greeting.
“What’s happening tomorrow then?” Johann Fabricius asked as he grabbed his mess kit.
“We parachute from the Pelican behind Bavarian lines so we can find a suitable crossing point for the 3rd Division’s advance on Munich,” Wilhelm answered before taking a sip of his tea.
“Seriously?” Christoph demanded his eye lit with excitement.
“Seriously,” Wilhelm confirmed. “Right now, Major Simpson should be passing on General Stearns’ orders to the Pelican’s pilot.
“We’d be doing a HALO jump . . . no.” Wilhelm paused to consider what to call the proposed jump. He doubted that the Pelican, being a hot air airship, could get high enough with a cargo of six fully-equipped Marine parachutists for it to count as a high altitude-low opening jump. “Make that a LALO jump at first light tomorrow morning.”
“How low will we be opening?” Johann asked.
Wilhelm shrugged. “I’m thinking we’ll need to open as low as we dare if we want to avoid being spotted.”
“So, it’ll be a bit of a waste of time taking the reserve chutes,” Al Dinckeler suggested.
Wilhelm thought about that. The reserve chutes were there for a reason, but it did take time to cut away a failed main canopy and deploy a reserve chute. And, given how low he was thinking they should deploy their main canopies, time was likely to be something they wouldn’t have a lot of if they had any problems during the jump. Still, having the reserve chute, even if you are unlikely to have time to deploy it, did give some degree of reassurance to a man. “It’ll be up to the individual whether or not he wants to carry a reserve chute.”
“It’ll be twenty pounds we don’t have to carry around once we land,” Johann said.
Wilhelm totally agreed with Johann, but he wasn’t prepared to order a man to jump without a reserve chute. “As I said, it will be up to the individual to choose whether or not he wants to carry a reserve chute.” He ran his eye over his men. They all had their mess tins full and were eating. “You’re all welcome to continue eating while I brief you,” he said as he opened up his map.
5:15 AM the next morning
The sun was still below the horizon as the Pelican drifted with the breeze. Three thousand feet below them Captain Wilhelm Finck could see the silvery ribbon of the River Amper. “Fabricius, do you have a lock in on the landing zone?” he asked the team scout.
Johann Fabricius lowered the pair of borrowed binoculars he’d been using. “Yes, Sir.”
“Can we get there from here?” Wilhelm asked.
Johann chewed on his lips for a few seconds, glanced down at the river, then back at Wilhelm. “I’d like another five to ten minutes drifting, Sir.”
Wilhelm glanced eastward, towards the lightening sky. Then he looked up at the enormous balloon that held the Pelican aloft. The moment the sun peaked over the horizon its rays would strike the gas bag like a spotlight. “We don’t have that much time,” he said. “Pick an alternative.”
Johann glanced eastward, then back at the ground below. He’d been aware that they might not get in range of their preferred landing zone before the sun got too high, so while he’d been searching for that landing zone he’d been checking out possible alternatives, so it didn’t take long to find one that should be within range. “I’ve got one,” he said.
“Then we go now,” Wilhelm said. He turned to the rest of his team and the two pilots. “Places,” he said.
The six Marines waddled over to their places on the railing, then, with Wilhelm calling out their numbers, each man dropped off the airship and plummeted groundward.
Giovanni looked over the edge of the airship’s gondola. Below him he could make out four of the six men who’d jumped from the airship against the ground below. “Where did they find those guys?” he asked his cousin.
“Mary said they were from Mars.”
“Ah!” Giovanni nodded in understanding. “Foreigners.” He glanced over the side of the airship once more. Below him he saw the parachute canopies open one after the other until there were six little rectangles of silk gently floating to the ground. He shook his head in disbelief at what he was seeing. “I didn’t think they could be Germans. Not even they are that foolish.”