1633 David Weber and Eric Flint



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Chapter 15


Jesse waited patiently for Hans to recognize the situation and react. Come on, Hans, get your head out, he thought to himself, as he watched the student pilot in the left seat level off and enter downwind.

Jesse had always been a mild-mannered instructor, a reaction to one of the flight instructors all the way back at Purdue. That worthy had been a real "screamer," seeming to take delight in making an already nervous student miserable and prone to even more mistakes. Jesse thought the method was stupid. He preferred a more calm approach, giving students plenty of time to catch errors on their own. But he'd seen enough. Hans was obviously pleased with his earlier performance on this, his fifth training flight, and hadn't noticed his potentially fatal error.

"Hans! Airspeed!" Jesse said sharply.

Hans jerked his eyes back into the cockpit where the airspeed indicator was slowing below fifty knots. The throttle lever was back at idle where he'd placed it for the long descent to traffic pattern altitude.

Hans gasped, and cobbed power to the dependable VW engine. The monoplane gained speed quickly and Jesse noted with satisfaction that Hans, despite his surprise, hadn't throttle burst or lost altitude control.

He had, however, by now flown considerably past the final turn point. Jesse tapped the young German on the arm.

"Son, I believe the airfield is back thataway," he said with a jerk of the thumb, as his student searched for the large tree, now far behind, that marked the normal spot to "come off the perch."

"Uh," Hans grunted and banked left, pulling off the power he had added only a few seconds earlier. Descending quickly, he looked at the field and made his turn to final, using too much bank and failing to compensate for the additional distance to the field. As a consequence, the aircraft, though safe, was lower than it should have been, giving Hans a flatter than normal approach and an unusually shallow view of the landing zone.

Jesse, knowing what was coming, waited patiently for his student to make one of the two usual rookie mistakes. He nodded as Hans avoided the first by not descending at the usual rate and compounding his error.

"That's right, Hans. Level off and catch the normal glide path. Put your touchdown point about one third up the windscreen, just like always. Give it a touch more power."

The young man followed instructions and, momentarily swapping hands on the stick, wiped his sweaty right hand on his jacket. The feeling of well-being that had been with him only two minutes ago was obviously long gone and, in his nervousness, he committed the second mistake Jesse was expecting. Approaching the field from an unfamiliar angle, at a higher than normal power setting, he failed to catch the proper glide path. Suddenly, he was too high as he crossed over the small trees at the field boundary.

"Gott!" Hans exclaimed, as he pulled the throttle to idle and dove for the grass beneath him.

"Easy, easy," Jesse said. "Let it settle. Put some power in." Not for the first time, he regretted not installing dual throttles. While he could just reach the throttle across the narrow cockpit, now wasn't the time to stretch across his student to do so.

Hans flared too early, twenty feet or so above the ground. The aircraft slowed as he raised the nose and felt for touchdown.

"Too high! Lower the nose. Power!" Jesse pushed the heel of his palm against the back of the stick in front of him.

Feeling the instructor's pressure against the stick, Hans obeyed, adding power and leveling off ten feet in the air.

"Copilot's aircraft," Jesse said as he shook the stick and took control. "Set climb power."

Hans shakily set the throttle and sank glumly back in his seat.

"Not so good." He grimaced at his mentor.

"No, not very good," Jesse agreed. "Take a rest for a minute, Hans, and let me fly for a while. Tell me what you did wrong."

Jesse studied his student as he methodically recounted his own errors. Jesse was pleased to see that Hans knew exactly where he had erred, explaining what he should have done at each misstep. By the time he finished, Hans was calm and ready to try again.

"Okay, pilot's aircraft. Take it in for a full stop landing." Jesse smiled at his student. "We'll talk more about it on the ground. This time, try not to screw the pooch."

His student smiled back. "Roger that, no screwing of the pooch."

* * *

Once on the ground, and the airplane secured, Jesse and Hans walked toward the control tower. The structure had been erected hastily as soon as Mike Stearns had rammed through the new aircraft production policy after Jesse's first successful flight. There hadn't been much opposition, once the people backing the two alternate designs were assured that they'd get some of the funds being allotted.

Jesse smiled, as he did almost every time he looked at the control tower. "That has got to be the only log cabin control tower ever made," he chuckled. "And those old timers used to brag about their Quonset huts."

"What is a Konset hut?"

"Stick around, Hans. In a couple of years or so—advance of progress, all that—you'll probably be seeing 'em popping up all over the place. Maybe sooner, if Jerry Wright and his partners can make good on their boasts about sheet metal."

Jesse started to explain the design, but broke off when he saw that Hans' attention had suddenly become completely distracted.

Sharon Nichols had emerged from the door leading to the upper floor of the control tower and was striding toward them. Behind her came Mike Stearns.

"I didn't know she was here," exclaimed Hans. Jesse was amused by the expression on his face. Clearly enough, Hans was both delighted and chagrined to see that Sharon had witnessed the training flight. Delighted, simply because she was here; chagrined, because the flight itself had not exactly shown him in the best light.

As she drew nearer, and the expression on Sharon's own face became clear, Hans' pleasure vanished. Sharon seemed both angry and apprehensive.

"I didn't think it was that bad," Jesse heard the young man mutter.

But Jesse had been watching Mike, as he approached, and suddenly realized that Sharon's expression had nothing to do with the flight.

"The shit's hitting the fan, Hans. If I don't miss my guess."

* * *

Mike's first words were: "How soon can you have combat airplanes ready? And how soon can you have the pilots for them?"

Sharon didn't say anything. She just clutched Hans, her eyes wet, and started whispering something to him. "I don't want you to do this," was the only part of it Jesse overheard.

Jesse took a deep, almost shuddering breath. "Four to six months, for the planes. That's the test flight, you understand. We'll probably need some more time after that to work out the bugs and get all the other equipment up to snuff." He glanced at the young couple embracing next to him; then moved his eyes away, took Mike by the elbow and led him off a few paces.

"The pilots'll be ready by then. Hans, sooner than the rest of them."

Mike nodded, glanced at Hans and Sharon himself. Then, like Jesse, looked away.

"What were the casualty rates for pilots in World War I?" he asked softly.

Jesse shrugged. "I don't know, exactly. High. Real high, Mike. I saw the graveyard at Camp Talliaferro once, where British Royal Flying Corps instructors trained American pilots from 1917 to 1918. During the months British and Canadian troops were stationed in Fort Worth, there were something like forty officers and cadets killed during flight training. Eleven of them were buried there. And that was before they even went into combat. I do know that during the worst stretches, the life expectancy of a British pilot newly arrived in the combat zone was measured in days."

Mike's expression was grim. Jesse tried to find words of reassurance.

"Mind you, it shouldn't be that bad for us. We're not going to be sending newbies up against the likes of Baron von Richthofen, after all. And during World War I they really rushed people through flight training. We can—"

He broke off. "Well, I think we can, anyway. Just how much time do we have, Mike? And what exactly is happening?"

Mike ran fingers through his hair. "I can't answer your second question all that precisely, Jesse. The truth is, we still don't know much. But I got a message from Becky last night—the first one that's come over the radio—and she's just about dead certain the war is blowing wide open again."

He paused, his eyes moving back toward Hans and Sharon. Jesse followed his gaze. The two young people were kissing now. Despite the gravity of the moment, Jesse almost laughed. Sharon, clearly enough, was swept up in the passion of the moment. Hans, too, yes. But from the expression on his face, Jesse suspected he was mostly just astonished—and ecstatic—at the fierceness of the kiss.

Jesse wasn't positive, but he suspected that Hans and Sharon's relationship up till now had remained—technically, at least—short of what Americans called "going all the way." Hans was a proper German lad, for all the horrors he'd experienced in his two years as a mercenary. It wouldn't surprise Jesse a bit if he were still a virgin. Germans of the time were far from prudes, when it came to sex. But intercourse was still considered improper until a couple was officially betrothed. Then, typically enough, they wouldn't wait for the actual wedding. A good third of the German girls he'd seen getting married since the Ring of Fire had been visibly pregnant at the altar. As long as they'd been engaged, however, the families didn't seem to care. By their lights, according to traditional German law, a betrothal was legally binding—it couldn't be dissolved short of a court ruling, and dissolution of a betrothal required the same grounds as a divorce.

Jesse knew the whole issue was one of many which were causing the new courts established since the founding of the United States a passel of grief, since, obviously, American traditions on the matter were quite different. But, however the courts finally ruled, the customary attitudes remained—and Jesse had started noticing that more and more Americans were starting to look on "engagement" as something a lot more solemn than simply buying a diamond ring.

He'll get laid tonight, I bet. Proper engagement or not, Sharon ain't gonna take "no" for an answer.

The thought cheered him up. Quite a lot.

Mike, too, it seemed, judging from the little smile on his face as he watched the young couple.

"Screw it," Jesse heard him murmur. "It'll be good for James to have something else to worry about."

Mike turned back to Jesse. When he spoke again, his voice was firm and harsh. "But I can answer the first question. You've got as much time as you think it takes to train a pilot properly." The broad shoulders shifted, and Jesse was reminded that in his youth Mike Stearns had been one hell of a boxer. "I will be good goddamned if I'll send any half-trained kids up in a crate to go fight a war. Train 'em, Jesse. Train 'em till they're ready."

* * *

When James Nichols returned from the hospital that night, he found his daughter and Hans Richter sitting together on the couch in the living room. Side by side, holding hands. It was obvious they'd been waiting for him. Hans' face looked very pale and apprehensive. Sharon's dark face, simply stubborn.

He hadn't taken more than two steps into the room when Sharon spoke.

"Hans and I got engaged this afternoon." She lifted her hand, Hans' still clasped in it, to show him a ring.

"It belonged to my mother," Hans said, his voice almost trembling with nervousness. "I managed to save it, all these years since—since soldiers took her away when I was a boy. I kept it hidden."

Nichols was paralyzed, for a moment. He knew the history of the Richter family. Staring at that pale, tightly drawn, twenty-year-old face, he was suddenly reminded that there were worse things in the world—much worse—than gaps in age and education and race.

"Hans is spending the night, Daddy," continued Sharon. "With me." The tone of her voice now verged on sheer belligerence. "Don't give me a hard time about it. It's a good German custom, once you're engaged. They even have a name for it."

A bit wildly, Nichols' mind veered aside. He was familiar with the term, as it happened. Fenstering, the Germans called it—literally from the boy coming in through the window, but with the knowledge and consent of the girl's parents. Melissa had once explained the custom to him. Makes perfect sense, James. You know they don't usually get married until they're in their mid-late twenties, because it takes that long to put together the capital to form a household. So they get engaged way ahead of time and then . . . what the hell—

He remembered the impish smile she'd given him, and felt a sudden longing for her presence. An even deeper longing than usual. Melissa would have known how to handle this.

it beats outright fornication, doesn't it?



Even more suddenly, the realization of what must have triggered this act of defiance on his daughter's part came crashing down upon him. "Oh, Jesus," he whispered. There was a chair nearby. He took a step, pulled it under him, and more or less collapsed onto it.

For a moment, he stared at the two youngsters on the couch. Then, not being able to find any words, simply nodded his head. It was not . . . quite a blessing. More in the way of a simple acknowledgment of reality. If nothing else, James was too damn old to be staying up every night watching the windows.

The beaming smile which came to his daughter's face warmed him. Even more so, oddly enough, did the look of relief which washed over her fiancé's. Whatever reservations James had about the relationship, he had none at all about Hans himself. Outside of his reckless way behind a wheel, at any rate. He was a sweet kid, truth to tell. And the boy had had enough grief in his short life, without James Nichols adding any further to it.

The doctor cleared his throat. "I managed to get some eggs yesterday. May as well use 'em up for breakfast tomorrow. Sharon likes hers scrambled, Hans. How about you?"

* * *

After they'd gone up the stairs, James sighed and levered himself out of the chair. Feeling like an old man, he went over to the telephone and dialed a number.

"Mike? James here. Is it as bad as I think it is?"

Three minutes later, he hung up the phone and dialed another number.

"Stoner? James here. Look, I'm sorry, but I'm going to have to ask you to break off on the chloramphenicol project. You've already got production started anyway, so you can leave the rest to Sally. You're just fine-tuning now, trying to improve the yields."

He winced at the immediate eruption of protest and moved the phone an inch away from his ear. When the angry words died down, he spoke again.

"Yeah, I understand that it's our best bet against epidemics. But that's tomorrow, and today is today." He drew in a deep breath. "I'm going to need more sulfa drugs pretty soon, Tom. Lots of the stuff. We're going to have wounds to deal with before much longer."

For a moment, there was silence on the other end of the telephone. Then, simply: Shit.

"Shit is right," concurred Dr. James Nichols. "Sorry, Tom, but it doesn't look as if this century's going to be any kinder to hippies and flower children than the one we came from. Not even over-aged ones like you. Less, looks like. You're still the best pharmacist and—ah—" His lips quirked. "—drug chemist we've got."

Shit.

"Hey, Stoner, look on the bright side. At least your main crop's legal in this day and age—and, by the way, I'm going to be needing plenty of that, too. It's still the best analgesic we've got, in any quantity."


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