Jesse felt the mist on his face and pulled up the zipper on his leather flying jacket as he walked past the aircraft toward the sea. Though the fog looked as thick as it had the last two days, he sensed a difference in the air, a slight freshening from the sea.
This stuff is gonna lift soon, he decided. About time.
For the past two days, he had chafed at the weather, knowing the enemy was out there somewhere, headed this way. While the fog wasn't as dramatic as the storm that had almost killed him three days ago, it could be just as deadly to a pilot caught above it while trying to land. So they had all waited helplessly for the fog to lift.
That's the problem with a seaside airfield, Jesse reflected.
Not that they had wasted the time. Jesse had carefully coordinated his reconnaissance schedule with the U.S. Navy contingent, making it clear to Lieutenants Cantrell and Wild that though he was the senior officer present, they were in charge of the defense of Wismar. The Air Force contingent was present in a supporting role, a fact he'd made abundantly clear to Hans and Woody, just as Admiral Simpson had made it clear to him. He might have his doubts about the naval plan, but he knew his duty. And right now, his duty was to get airborne and provide some useful intelligence.
Where is the invasion fleet? He wondered. He knew the Navy had a fishing vessel out there somewhere, but it couldn't be very far from the coast. I'll bet anything they're approaching from the north right now while my butt is here on the ground.
Jesse looked up and saw the disk of the sun trying to burn its way through the fog. Rubbing his unshaven jaw, he made his decision and turned back toward the aircraft.
Lined up into the slight wind, Jesse thought he could already see a lessening in the fog. Visibility varied between a sixteenth and an eighth of a mile as the fog eddied. The sky was still completely obscured. He had chosen the Belle II because of the slight power advantage it had over the original Belle and, for the same reason, had removed the four rockets that had been loaded on it. He wasn't taking much of a risk, probably, but after the near disaster of three days ago, he wasn't in the mood for any sort of risk. As Jesse reckoned, even if the fog closed back in, he could contact the captain of the fishing boat acting as their picket to seaward, perhaps orbit for a couple of hours and then divert to Magdeburg. If the fog lifted, Hans and Woody could go on a familiarization ride in the Belle I, just as they had planned for the past two days, while he would land to refuel and rearm. The Belle I was already armed with four rockets. All he had to do now was get airborne.
Advancing the throttle, he started rolling through the fog toward the end of the field and the sea beyond. The fog whipped past as he accelerated, lifted the tail, and let the aircraft fly off. He was immediately on the turn and slip, glancing at the altimeter to make sure he kept a positive rate of climb. He knew better than to look out at the fog—he could think of no faster way to get vertigo and crash. No more than twenty seconds later, he emerged from the fog into a dull sky dimmed by successive, thin cloud layers. As he climbed, he saw that almost the entire bay was enshrouded in fog. As he passed four thousand feet, he could no longer see much to the west, due to another cloud layer. If he remembered correctly that was where the friendly fishing boat waited. Jesse momentarily thought about going to find it. But in the distance straight ahead, he saw open water, and so he continued his climb and headed north. Piece of cake.
An hour later, he was reluctantly coming to the conclusion that he'd guessed wrong. The enemy wasn't coming from the north, as he had suspected. He'd swept the entire quadrant, going as far north as he dared, and hadn't seen a damned thing, except empty sea.
Perhaps they're not coming at all, Jesse thought as he flew back toward Wismar. Maybe they've gone on to Rostock, or something.
He was perhaps forty miles away from the town when he heard a partial radio call from what he surmised was the fishing boat.
"They come! The Danes come!" an excited voice said.
Despite his own jumpiness, Jesse tried to calm the disembodied voice.
"Station calling, this is the Belle II. Please identify yourself and give your location, over."
The reply was immediate, if only a little more helpful. "This is the Elizabet, on the port tack, west of Wismar. The Danish fleet is two leagues to the west of us with the wind on its port quarter. We're coming about. Uh, over."
Jesse puzzled over the Elizabet's message, but only for a moment. So much for airborne reconnaissance.
"Roger, Elizabet. Belle II understands and will relay your message. Break, break, Outlaw, this is Belle II. Did you copy the Elizabet?
"Negative, Colonel." Jesse recognized Cantrell's voice. "We only copied your transmission. Say again, Elizabet's message."
Jesse passed the message while looking at the conditions in Wismar Bay. The fog had burned off, just as he had predicted. He ended with a request.
"Outlaw, request you send someone to the airfield. Inform Lieutenant Richter that Colonel Wood directs him to take off and assist the defense of Wismar. I will land, load rockets, and return as soon as I can."
Hans must have been listening in the Belle I.
"No need, Colonel. I am rolling now."
"Roger, Belle I. Good hunting."
"I wish Jack were here," Larry muttered as the Outlaw went purring out of the harbor.
"You and me both," Eddie agreed. He stood in the well between the cockpit's two consoles, peering ahead through a pair of binoculars. Then he lowered the glasses and looked at his friend. "Sorry, Larry! Didn't mean to sound like I don't trust you, or anything. It's just—"
"Just that we both want him to be okay . . . and that he's a hell of a lot better at this than I am," Larry finished for him with a grin which combined nervousness with true humor. "That's the same reason I wish he were here, dummy."
"That's 'Dummy, sir,' from you, Lieutenant!" Eddie corrected him. They both laughed, and if the strength of their laughter owed itself to the tension coiling deep inside them, that was their business.
Eddie raised the binoculars again, sweeping them back and forth. They ought to be seeing something soon, he told himself, and wondered again if he'd made the best available dispositions.
The sheer speed and power of the Outlaw, even with Larry at the wheel instead of Jack, made it the logical choice for the first strike at the enemy. The Chris Craft and the Century were tagging along behind, but they were there strictly for backup this morning. The Chris Craft carried an eight-cell launcher like the one on the Outlaw's foredeck, but the Century had only a six-cell launcher . . . and neither of them carried any reloads. They were both slower than the Outlaw, as well. So the plan was to use the Outlaw to attack the enemy and the other two speedboats as threats. After all, the Danes could hardly be expected to recognize the differences in the capabilities of up-time power boats, so the Chris Craft and the Century ought to seem just as dangerous and threatening to them as the Outlaw.
Of course, if everything went perfectly and the Danish formation came unglued, the other two boats could certainly close in, as well. But for right now, Eddie would settle for just convincing the Danes to hesitate long enough for General Aderkas' reinforcing column to reach Wismar.
"I see them." Eddie lowered the glasses again as Hans' voice came from the Outlaw's radio. He looked up at the airplane buzzing steadily along above them. Jesse was still on the ground at Wismar, refueling while the understrength ground crew mounted rockets on the improvised hard points, but Hans sounded confident.
Eddie reached for the radio microphone and hit the transmit key.
"Oh!" Hans chuckled just a bit nervously. "Sorry, Eddie," he said. "I see them about eight to ten miles ahead of you, bearing roughly northwest and headed straight for Wismar."
Eddie frowned, picturing the chart in his mind, then nodded. If Hans was right about the distance and bearing, it sounded like the Danes must be coming directly from Luebeck, swinging around the curving headland between Luebeck Bay and Wismar Bay. Actually, Wismar Bay was virtually an inlet on Luebeck Bay's southeastern flank, and the oncoming enemy was about to enter it.
"It looks like there are half a dozen warships, and twice that many merchant ships," Hans continued. "They're not moving very fast, and there must be thirty or forty smaller ships and boats with them. I think they're using the little ones to carry the infantry. Over."
"Understood," Eddie replied. "Let me think about this for a minute. Over."
He gazed in the indicated direction, but although the morning sky had largely cleared, conditions remained too misty here at sea level for him to see anything of the enemy yet. So he lowered the glasses once more, and frowned in thought.
"What do you think, Larry?" he asked. "Think we should head further out to hit them, or let them come to us?"
"I'd just as soon get it over with, actually," Larry admitted with a quick, nervous chuckle of his own. "And remember what Jack said. The further out we hit them, the more sea room I'm going to have to handle this brute in."
"There is that," Eddie agreed. He frowned for a few more moments, rubbing the tip of his nose in thought, then shrugged.
"Makes sense to me," he said, and keyed the mike again. "Hans, we're going to attack," he said. "Head straight for them. We'll use you to make sure we're lined up properly. Over."
"Understood," Hans replied. "I'm changing course now. Over."
Eddie and Larry both craned their necks, staring up as the airplane adjusted its flight path. Then Larry eased the wheel to port, slowly and carefully, without waiting for orders from Eddie.
He opened the throttles slightly, and the purring engines snarled a deeper, harsher song. The Outlaw dug in its stern and headed for the enemy with the other two speedboats forging along in its wake.
"Look! What's that?"
Captain Tesdorf Vadgaard, commodore of the small squadron escorting the eight thousand men assigned to sweep up undefended Wismar, looked up irritably at the semi-coherent shout from his flagship's lookout. The man at Christiania's mainmast head was unaware that he had aroused his captain's ire, and Vadgaard started to open his mouth to administer a scathing rebuke. But that rebuke died stillborn as someone else shouted the same question and the lookout pointed wildly to port.
Christiania and the rest of Vadgaard's command were headed southeast, standing steadily into the mouth of Wismar Bay. The wind was on his ship's port quarter, blowing almost directly out of the north, with gradually increasing strength. The waves were making up as the chill wind strengthened, and the mist which had clung to the surface of the water since dawn was breaking up and rolling away on the breeze. The day wasn't going to be warm, but it was still a vast improvement over the last two days' rain and fog. The growing patches of sky between the broken banks of charcoal-gray cloud were a bright autumn blue.
The lookout was pointing at one of those patches of blue, and Vadgaard felt his own eyes widening in astonishment.
The shape headed directly toward his ship was formed like a cross, or perhaps like some seabird, wings outstretched as it glided effortlessly across the heavens. But small though that shape might appear, he knew that was an illusion. Whatever it was, it was bigger than the greatest bird the world had ever known. It must be, for him to see it at all at its vast height.
"Glass!" he snapped to the deck officer beside the helmsman. The officer handed over his telescope promptly enough, but Vadgaard could tell he didn't really want to. What he wanted to do was raise the glass to his own eye while he peered through it at the apparition. Vadgaard could understand that, but his sympathy for the other man was strictly limited by his own curiosity and instinctive dread.
He leveled the glass at the shape. Finding it was harder than he'd expected, partly because the shape was so small, but also because he was unaccustomed to looking up through a telescope at such an acute angle. The motion of the deck under his feet didn't help, but Vadgaard had first gone to sea over twenty years before. He'd looked through a lot of telescopes in the course of that career, and eventually he managed to find what he was trying to examine through this one.
His jaw clenched as he examined the bizarre sight. It was a machine of some sort, he realized. It was too unlike anything he'd ever seen before for him to fit all the details together into a coherent mind picture, but as he stared at it he remembered the spy reports. He'd dismissed them as the sort of wild, fantastic exaggerations Gustavus Adolphus' "American" allies seemed to generate so effortlessly. Winged machines? Machines that could fly?Ridiculous! Exactly the sort of fables someone trying to impress credulous fools might spin.
But it seemed he owed the spies an apology, and he wracked his brain in an effort to dredge up the details he had dismissed so cavalierly. There was supposed to be something on the front of the machine, the . . . "airplane," they'd called it. Something like the sails of a windmill, but smaller, and with only two arms. He didn't see anything like that through the telescope, but perhaps it was still too far away.
He lowered the telescope and blinked his eye against the muscle strain of his intense scrutiny. He could sense the shock coursing through his officers and men, not least because the same shock still echoed inside him, as well. If the Americans could truly fly like the birds of the heavens themselves, then perhaps they actually were the witches or wizards wild-eyed rumor had initially insisted they were. And if they could fly, who knew what else they might accomplish?
No, he told himself firmly. Whatever they may be, they aren't witches. For all of his faults, no honest man would ever accuse Gustavus of Sweden of consorting with servants of Satan. It's just one more of their wondrous machines, and surely it can do us no harm from so high above! Not even if whoever is controlling it has one of the long-ranged American muskets we've heard so much about. But if it can't harm us, then why is it headed so unerringly in our direction?
Then he heard the lookout's fresh cry of astonishment. The man was pointing to port once again, but not at the sky this time, and Vadgaard felt his mouth tighten as he raised the telescope once more.
So, he thought, studying the strange white shapes coming out of the vanishing fog in a rolling pile of even whiter bow waves. Perhaps it can't harm us, but it would seem it can lead toward us those who can.