"Jesus!" Eddie Cantrell snatched desperately at his seat to keep himself in it as the Outlaw heeled in a sharply angled, sliding turn to port. "You're gonna kill us all, Larry!"
Larry paid him no attention. In fact, it was extremely unlikely that he'd even heard Eddie in the first place. The big cruiser was smashing across the lively outer waters of Wismar Bay at a speed of over forty miles per hour. That had never seemed particularly fast to Eddie driving a pickup truck down a well-paved road. On a chill, gray October afternoon in the Baltic, with white water flying back from a knifelike prow like huge, angry wings and icy spray lashing his cheeks while the shock of the big boat's collision with each succeeding wave slammed through him like a train wreck, it seemed extremely fast.
He sat in one of the bench seats at the rear of the cockpit, watching Larry hunch over the big chrome wheel while the huge, twin inboard engines howled against Eddie's spine. At that particular moment all he wanted to do was to strangle his friend. But that would have required him to climb out of his own seat, which was something he had no intention whatever of doing just now.
Larry straightened the wheel, and the boat snarled around onto a new heading. At least there was plenty of open water, so it wasn't like they were likely to run into anything, Eddie consoled himself. And Jack Clements was perched in the left-hand seat, watching Larry like a hawk. Now if only the hawk would take the wheel back from the lunatic sitting behind it!
"Slow it down, Larry!" Eddie shouted into the wind of their passage. Uselessly, of course. Neither of the two maniacs driving this death machine showed the least interest in anything their putative superior might have had to say. All Eddie could do was grit his teeth, hang on for dear life, and remind himself that it had been his own stupid idea to have Larry "checked out" at the Outlaw's controls. He also tried to find some peace of mind with the thought that Jack must know what he was doing, and the old man didn't actually seem too worried himself.
Jack leaned close to bellow something into Larry's ear. Larry nodded, then reached for the throttle quadrant at his right hand. He inched both levers open a little further, cautiously, and the Outlaw lunged ahead, faster than ever. Eddie found himself staring at the ungainly framework of Ferrara's rocket launcher as it bounced up and down, obviously trying to shake itself to pieces. It was ugly as hell, and he hated to think how George Watson was going to react to the gaunt abortion which had been permanently epoxied just forward of the hatches on his pride and joy's once-sleek foredeck. At least the work had been done solidly enough to survive the beating Jack and Larry were giving it, Eddie told himself moodily.
Jack sat back and watched Larry for perhaps another ten minutes, although it seemed much longer to Eddie. Then he slapped the younger man on the shoulder and made a "shut it down" gesture with his other hand. Larry looked up, nodded obediently, and throttled back the howling engines.
The boat lost speed quickly. The repetitive shocks as it leapt across the waves eased, but its motion became even more lively as it lost way and started pitching up and down. Jack waited until they were moving at no more than a few miles per hour, then waved for Larry to get up and took his place at the controls. He cracked the throttles a little wider, to put a bit more speed back onto the boat and ease its motion, then swiveled the comfortable chair around to face Larry and Eddie.
It was hard to believe they were still in the same boat. The ear-smashing bellow of wind, wave, and engine noise had eased into a gentle burble of exhaust, and the furious sense of movement had abated into something that was almost lulling. It was actually possible to hear someone speaking in normal tones, as Jack proceeded to demonstrate.
"All right, boys," he said, paying no attention to their official ranks with no other ears present to hear. "Larry got her up to about forty, forty-five knots. That's about the speed of one of the old World War II PT boats. It's also not a whole hell a lot more than half of what she's capable of."
"Half?" Eddie knew the word had come out half-strangled, but he couldn't help himself, and Jack laughed.
"A bit more," he conceded. "In smooth water, this baby will turn out about sixty-five, sixty-eight knots. Call it seventy miles an hour." Eddie's eyes bulged, and he shrugged. "Give us some wave action like today's or maybe a little stronger, and at full throttle you'll get her up to maybe seventy-five miles an hour."
"She's faster in waves than smooth water?" Larry asked.
"Sure. This is basically a racing hull, Larry. Get a little air under it and you reduce drag even further." He shook his head. "George always was an idiot. Oh, I'll agree that getting behind the wheel on something like this can be a hell of a lot of fun, sometimes. I'll go further, and admit I've enjoyed playing with it even under these circumstances. But I'll also say it again—fun or not, this thing is nothing but a speed machine, and I've seen him handling a dinky little fifteen-footer. He'd've killed his sorry ass in nothing flat the first time he cranked her wide open."
"I wouldn't've been surprised, either," Larry said. "I thought I'd seen fast fooling around with Uncle Evan's ski boat, but this thing—!"
"That's the point you need to keep in mind, if it comes down to it," Jack told him soberly. "Truth to tell, I'd sooner never see you behind the wheel for real. Nothing personal, Larry, but this is a lot bigger handful than you're used to. In some ways, she actually handles better at higher speed—that's what she's designed for, after all. And as long as you've got plenty of open water to play with and you're careful, you ought to be all right. But when we actually have to go in against the Danes, we're not going to have a lot of open water. So, while I agree with Eddie that it makes sense to train someone to back me up, I trust you won't be offended by the fact that I hope to hell you never have to do it."
"You and me both," Larry said with a fervor which surprised Eddie. Larry had always been up for the craziest, most risky stunts he or any of the other Four Musketeers had been able to come up with for dirt bikes or skateboards. And if Eddie wanted to be honest, the four of them had also occasionally stepped ever so slightly across the line from driving habits their parents would have been likely to approve. But there was no mistaking the sincere respect in his eyes when he gazed back at the Outlaw's controls.
"Yeah, well," Jack said, "the one other thing you've got to remember here is that people on the other side are gonna be shooting back at us. I know, I know!" He raised a hand as Eddie opened his mouth. "We're gonna be a hard target to hit, especially with those damned smoothbores of theirs. But hard ain't the same thing as impossible, and speed—even the speed this thing can crank out—ain't the same thing as a cloak of invulnerability, either. You two just keep that in mind. And at the same time, you remember you can kill yourselves just as dead with this thing as the bad guys ever could."
"Where are they?" Colonel Karberg muttered.
He'd thought his voice was too low to be overheard as he stood in Luebeck's Teuffelsorth Bastion and gazed down the Trave River toward the Baltic, but the King of Sweden had surprisingly acute hearing.
"I presume you mean the Danes," he observed, and Karberg flushed.
"Forgive me, Majesty," he said quickly. "It was only an idle question, not—"
"Come, my good Colonel!" Gustavus chided. "It was not at all an idle question. It was, if I may be permitted, something of a burning question, in fact."
Karberg's flush darkened, and the king chuckled. Karberg looked up quickly to meet his blue eyes, and relaxed as he realized Gustavus had chosen to be amused rather than angered.
"Well, yes, Majesty," the colonel acknowledged. "If I'm honest, I suppose I really must admit it preys upon my mind."
"And mine, Colonel," Gustavus assured him in a tone which was far less amused than it had been. "On the other hand, I'm not inclined to question God's goodness in granting us this delay. This city is as close to prepared to withstand a siege as it could hope to be. In that regard, it's most fortunate that we had made it one of our major supply magazines, because it is as well provisioned as any city awaiting a siege has ever been. And thanks to the advance warning the Americans' radio was able to give us and Christian's tardiness, our troops are ready here and General Aderkas is no more than a week's march from Wismar."
He smiled, and that smile was thin and cold.
"They've missed their best chance, Colonel. They may still strike in time to secure Wismar, unless the Americans truly are able to work a miracle to stop them. And we cannot, I fear, prevent an attack on Stockholm before winter closes the Baltic. But they will not take Luebeck, and so long as Axel Oxenstierna can draw breath, they will not take Stockholm, either. And when the Americans are ready, and their ironclads enter the Baltic behind Christian's ships . . ."
The smile which had been thin and cold became a razor of ice.
As Jesse sized up the situation, there was a very good chance he would die today.
No, things are much worse that that, he berated himself. Odds are you're going to kill yourself, three others, and the whole concept of an Air Force, all at one time.
He looked over at his copilot, Lieutenant Eugene Woodsill. Woody appeared to be having the time of his life. Right at the moment, he was making faces at Hans and Sharon, who were in the Belle II, just ten yards off Jesse's right wing. He'd been doing it all flight, at first surreptitiously and then, as Jesse hadn't seemed to care, more and more openly.
Ignorance is friggin' bliss, Jesse thought, though he didn't bother to make the young man stop. Time enough for him to be frightened later.
He understood the young man's high spirits, of course. When the prospect of their first combat assignment had presented itself, Jesse had naturally chosen the two best pilots—himself and Hans—to do the honors. The other pilot officers had been almost inconsolable, especially since the mission required taking both of the Belles, leaving nothing for them to do but study and bother Hal Smith.
Things had changed soon after he and Hans had arrived at the field outside of the coastal town of Wismar, on their first flight up there. The field was a good one. Located on a slight rise above the beach, it was easily equal to the Grantville airfield; large, smooth and covered with short grass, thanks to the local sheep.
There was a somewhat boisterous reunion scene once Jesse and Hans were down. Eddie Cantrell and Larry Wild were good friends with Hans, whom they'd lived with in the same trailer complex after their best friend Jeff had married Hans' sister Gretchen. But, soon enough, the two lieutenants settled down and gave Jesse a tour of the facilities they'd manage to prepare for the Air Force.
He was genuinely impressed. However rambunctious they might be, the two youngsters had done well, in the short time they'd had available. They'd even erected a makeshift windsock, something which he hadn't expected young naval lieutenants to even think of. They'd also managed to shift a sizable quantity of fuel and rockets up to the field, storing it all in an old shed of some kind. Before the tour was over, Jesse decided to commend them to Admiral Simpson at the first opportunity and told them so. Their boyish grins in response went a long way toward making him forget the misgivings he had about this shoestring operation.
A long way, but not all the way. "Don't get too cocky," he'd warned Hans. "Enthusiasm and hard work will get you far. But the weather doesn't give a damn, just for starters. And you can backslap a handful of rockets and some fuel cans all you want, and tell them how great they are. They're still just a handful of rockets and some fuel cans."
He gave Hans a crooked grin. "Trust me on this one. The engine in your aircraft isn't going to be impressed if you run out of gas, just because you assure it you're still in high spirits."
After unloading the two aircraft, he and Hans had immediately refueled the Belle II and had gone on an area familiarization flight. Jesse would have made that his first business anyway, but he also wanted to impress on Hans that their main function up here was to provide the Navy and Gustav Adolf with reconnaissance—not dramatic heroics.
They'd started with a circuit of Wismar Bay, then ventured along the coast to the west, marking their charts all the while, turning north and continuing across to the Isle of Ruegen before returning. They hadn't seen anything larger than a fishing smack the entire flight.
When his early morning flight the following day had given the same results, Jesse had made his decision. They would fly to Magdeburg that afternoon, returning with First Sergeant Tipton and some tools. After all, there was no telling how long they'd have to operate from their remote location. Besides, Lieutenant Cantrell had gotten word over the radio that Mike Stearns and Veronica Dreeson had arrived in Magdeburg. Jesse wanted a chance to confer briefly with the President and Admiral Simpson one more time, just to make sure nobody had any signals crossed.
And . . .
He'd stared at Hans, standing on the field and gazing out to sea. Such a fine and splendid young man he looked—and was, too. The confidence with which Hans stood there was almost palpable.
Jesse sighed. And that was something else that, all too often, the world didn't give a damn about. At his age, Jesse had no illusions. So he also wanted to give Hans a chance to see his grandmother, for what might be the last time. The tough old biddy, as people tended to think of her, who had shared with his older sister Gretchen the task of mothering him after his own mother vanished into the cauldron of the Thirty Years War.
The wind remained strong out of the south—dead foul for any invasion fleet. Since immediate combat seemed unlikely, Jesse had also decided to bring another pilot to Wismar and left word for Woody to get ready—they'd two hop it to Grantville the next day and get him. And capping all of those fateful decisions, when the son of the Wismar burgermeister suffered a severe head injury while playing near the American speedboats, Jesse had confidently agreed to bring modern medical assistance. He'd like to have that available anyway, in case of casualties.
In retrospect, with Hans involved, he should have counted on that medical aid being Sharon. Still, Jesse hadn't worried overmuch, particularly when he saw the young pilot's joyous face. And after all, what could happen on the flight to Wismar?
This could happen, Jesse thought grimly. The barometer had started falling while they were at Grantville, wispy mare's tail clouds had begun to gather in the east while they were at Magdeburg, and the wind had started to shift westerly. A storm was approaching. Fast.
I should have seen it, damn it, Jesse told himself. Winds move counterclockwise around a low pressure area. And this must be one hell of a low.
They were still okay for the moment, of course. Flying in formation at ten thousand feet, they were in bright sunshine and smooth air. As the three young people enjoyed themselves, Jesse alone had noticed the low clouds closing in behind, then beneath, and now ahead of them. The undercast looked innocent enough, a white, smoothly undulating blanket at about six thousand feet. He wondered how thick it was, realizing it would inevitably get thicker. As he had done every minute for the past half hour, Jesse looked to the western sky and knew he saw death in the distance. Dark, bulky thunderstorm cells, their high tops obscured by flying scud, marched shoulder to shoulder across the western horizon. Any of those cells would be fatal to enter in these aircraft—probably in any aircraft. They had to get on the ground ahead of them. Magdeburg was out of the question. They were well past the equal time point, the point of no return, even with the wind shift.
"Ah-huh." Jesse cleared his throat. "Lieutenant, if you're finished amusing Lieutenant Richter, will you take the stick for a minute?"
"Certainly, sir," Woody said, as he turned a bright pink. "Copilot's aircraft."
Jesse reached for the radio mike, considering how to tell the others. Hans will need confidence.
"Two, this is Lead."
Hans answered promptly enough, "Lead, Two."
"Ah, Two, I'm going to push up the power. Pull it in a bit and stay with me."
Jesse shook the stick. "Pilot's aircraft."
"Pilot's aircraft," came the standard acknowledgement. Jesse felt Woody staring at him. The young man was finally starting to realize that something was wrong.
Thank God, Hans is flying the Deuce, thought Jesse, as he pushed the throttle up. More than enough power to keep up. He's gonna need it.
With the throttle near redline, Jesse watched the airspeed climb and settle at about 110 knots. Where the hell are we? At least, Hans is hanging in there.
"Woody?" Jesse looked over at his copilot.
"Take the stick for a minute, will you? Stay on this heading and keep your eyes peeled for Lake Schwerin, okay?"
Jesse picked up his whiz wheel and forced himself to concentrate, to not look out to the west. Assume the wind has blown us, what? Twenty miles east. At a 110 indicated, we must be going . . . Christ, Jesse, this is just guesswork.
Slowly, deliberately, Jesse reached up and carefully wound the clock on the instrument panel. He tapped the wheel against his teeth and stared at the white clouds below. Referring to the computer again, he made some calculations, checked them, and nodded to himself.
"Woody, turn ten degrees left to a heading of three-four-five degrees."
There was no talking now and Jesse realized that Woody was staring at the wall of clouds off to the left. Probably Hans and Sharon, too. A glance in the mirror told Jesse the storm had curled behind them.
No going back now. Time passed slowly, as they raced for the coast. The white undercast stretched endlessly before them. Curiously, Jesse felt calm, as if the bet had been made and he was just waiting for the results of the game. He spent the time thinking about how to get down.
How deep is it? he considered. Maybe all the way down to the ground, but if that's true, who gives a shit? Okay, so there's a ceiling down there, somewhere. Can Hans fly formation in the soup? No formation lights. He's good. But how good? How good are you?
Jesse rubbed his chin, looked up and stared at the storm, a moving juggernaut looming closer.
Come and get us, you bastard. If you can.
He noted the time and checked his kneeboard. Time to go down. He picked up the mike.
"Two, Lead. Hans, bring her up the reference line into fingertip. Just keep your reference marks in place and stay with me. We're going down. One thousand feet per minute. Copy?"
Hans answered promptly, all business. "Copy, Lead. Two's in." He had brought his plane within six feet of the other, slightly behind Jesse's right wing.
Jesse took the stick. "Pilot's aircraft."
The undercast looked peaceful, harmless as they slid down to it. As they neared, it became less smooth, less uniform. Jesse unconsciously braced himself and concentrated on his turn and slip. He deliberately loosened his grip on the stick, using only his fingertips, as they touched the mist.
Darkness. Jesse felt the aircraft heave, buck, as it passed through succeeding layers of cloud. He used a light touch, didn't fight it, small corrections, sought to swim down through it.
One thousand feet per minute. Ball centered. No bank. Keep it straight. Needle, ball, airspeed, altitude. His crosscheck became a blur, eyes darting, his mind working, not thinking. Ball. Airspeed. Bank. He couldn't tell how long it had gone on. He wasn't steering, he was the aircraft, sliding down ever deeper. Smooth, wingtips bouncing, no rudders, touch of down, now up, down elevator. Gently sinking, sinking. Airspeed. Needle. Ball.
Jesse was surprised when he burst out. Over water at 600 feet. Made it, by God!
Jesse didn't have time to be relieved, they weren't down yet. Heading. He was shocked to see they were still on heading 345, steady as a rock. He saw land ahead, which could only be possible if . . .
Mary, Mother of God. It was the north shore of Wismar Bay. There. The shore battery guarding the entrance to the bay. He'd hit it on the button.
He cleared left and made a gentle turn, rolling out south toward the field. Ten minutes later they were both down.
Jesse switched off and looked out. The first big drops of rain splashed on the Belle's windscreen. He looked over at Woody.
"Lieutenant Woodsill, would you mind getting out the chocks? I think I'll watch the rain for a bit."
"Colonel Wood and Captain Richter are on the ground in Wismar."
Mike looked up quickly at the announcement. John Simpson stood in the doorway of the office Mike had appropriated here in Magdeburg with a folded piece of paper in his hand.
"The radio room just got word from Lieutenant Wild," Simpson continued. "Apparently the weather was closing in and they just got down in time, but they made it safely. I thought you'd like to know."
"You certainly thought correctly," Mike told him, and heaved a deep sigh of heartfelt relief. The pounding rain which had swept over Magdeburg just before sunset had made him more than a little anxious about Jesse and Hans. Wismar was over a hundred miles from Gustavus' capital, so there was a lot of room for local differences in weather. But, judging from the difficulty they'd been having with radio transmission to Holland, the rain seemed to be part of a storm front crossing over a large stretch of northern Europe.
"Sounds like things are looking up in Wismar," he said after a moment.
"Yes," Simpson agreed, but his own expression was much less relieved than Mike's. "At the same time, however, the situation there is scarcely what I'd call secure. Lieutenant Cantrell and Lieutenant Clements seem to have managed rather better than I'd allowed myself to hope they might where jury-rigging the speedboats is concerned. But General Aderkas is still several days from the city. And until he arrives, the prospect for Wismar's managing to stand off a serious Danish attack is hardly a favorable one."
Mike started a quick, caustic retort about how the suggestion which had sent Eddie and Larry to Wismar had come from Simpson in the first place. But the quick comeback died unspoken before the worry in the other man's eyes. Yes, it had been Simpson's idea. But Mike had signed off on it, and he'd done that because it had also been the right idea. And if John Simpson was worried about the safety of the men his suggestion had sent into harm's way, then Mike Stearns had no intention of mocking him for it. Particularly not when it was a worry—and a responsibility—he shared in full.
"Yeah," he agreed instead. "We're still hanging in the wind at Wismar. But the situation's getting better, even there. And Luebeck, on the other hand, looks pretty damned secure. Which," he acknowledged, "is largely due to the effort you made to get reinforcements and supplies into the city."
"Only common sense," Simpson replied a bit gruffly. "Like I said, I'm not going to put half of our ironclads out at the end of a supply line which might not be there when they arrive."
"Of course," Mike said.
"And whatever the situation in Luebeck," Simpson resumed in a stronger voice, "the fact remains that we still don't know what the Danes think they're—"
"Excuse me, Admiral. Mr. President." A lieutenant (junior grade) had trotted up behind Simpson. The stocky young German came to attention as Simpson and Mike turned toward him. "This dispatch just came in from Luebeck, sir," the jay-gee said, extending another folded slip of paper to Simpson.
The admiral took it with a crisp nod of thanks and unfolded it quickly. His eyes flipped over the neatly printed lines, then stopped. He raised them to meet Mike's gaze, and his voice was flat.
"A fishing boat just put into Luebeck, Mr. President," he said formally. "According to her crew, the Danes aren't more than an hour behind her."