...Please fasten your seatbelts and remain seated. We kindly remind you this is a no-smoking flight.
NB : My second story ever written in English (first was actually the Life Leech). The mistakes are all mine, unlike Hogan's Heroes, quite unfortunately.
Edit : Fixed a few mistakes, nothing major. You shouldn't even notice. Hopefully.
The roar of the plane could be heard, first dimly, but then stronger and stronger, over the dark hills of Germany. It flew lower than it could be expected from an allied plane behind ennemy lines, on the 24st of december 1944. But then, the plane crew had an important mission to complete - or so they had been told. Major Stephen Harlan checked the time on his watch, and allowed a grin to spread on his face ; they were right on time. Now there was to hope that their "cargo" would be as well.
"Where are we, Bill ?" he asked his long time friend and navigator.
"Right where we should be at H minus ten minutes", lieutenant William Highway answered while trying to see something through the pitch-black night down. "According to the engines, at least. We should see the signal pretty soon."
"Good. And how are our guests faring ?"
"Last time I checked, they were quiet. I still don't understand why they came along. After all, it is just a "land-take off" operation."
"I suppose this has something to do with our cargo", Stephen answered, shrugging. "I'd wager we'll know more about it in a few minutes."
They kept working silently for a few more minutes. They both knew the odds of that operation ; flying over Germany was not something one would do lightly. But they had both volunteered for this top-secret assignment, as they knew it was important for the war effort of the Allies. Anything that could help end this war sooner was worth taking the risks. Besides, the whole thing had been very carefully planned, and some pretty high-ranking people were involved too.
They just had to hope everything would go smoothly. Fortunately, everything was fine for the moment. They had been careful not to fly above any big city, even if they had had to go round for several miles in order to do that right.
They had however not been told much about the purposes of the mission. A matter of security ; if they were shot down and didn't die in the process, well... One couldn't tell what one didn't know. It was better for everyone involved.
"Here !" Bill said excitedly, pointing at something. "The signal."
"Good ! We'll land then. Tell our friends in the rear compartment. I'll start the approach manoeuvers."
The navigator disappeared through the cockpit's door, whilst Steve started getting lower and lower. Now was starting the most dangerous part, where everything could go wrong at any moment. First, landing in these conditions was not going to be easy, despite the lack of ennemy fire. Second, they didn't know what was going to happen down there. If the operation had been compromised, they could well be greeted by a company of S.S., and taken directly away to be questioned. And the war would be over for them - in the bad way. Nevertheless, Steve wanted to believe lady luck was on their side.
Bill finally came back in the cockpit, and checked on the plane boards. He knew his job well, for he had been flying planes even before the war. He could do this thing with his eyes closed. And from what they had been told, the landing field had been selected carefully, and was way big enough. They had to take their superior's word that these informations were reliable. Yet, Steve felt a growing nervousness. He knew deep down that it couldn't be that easy. Never before had he hoped that much that his forecast would prove wrong.
But there was another reason he and Bill had volunteered for this mission. They had been told, under the utmost secrecy, that this thing had been set up by Papa Bear himself. Steve remembered all too well Colonel Hogan and his crazy schemes, and the way the "prisoners" at Stalag 13 had managed to keep the masquerade on for all that time, saving both his and Bill's hide. So, if this was Papa Bear's doing, nothing could go wrong, could it ?
"300 feet", Bill announced.
"Landing gear out", Steve responded after checking his lights.
The plane kept descending, until finally it reached the ground. The landing was a little rough, but went better than expected. The plane didn't crash, after all, what more could one ask for ? But Steve didn't let himself get drunk with that small success. He quickly checked that his gun was still tucked in his belt, slightly nervous now that they were actually on German ground. Even though he had known in the plane that he could be shot down any moment, he still got, as always when flying his plane, the fake impression that nothing really could happen to him. Well, this feeling had proved wrong already once, an experience he didn't care to repeat, but he still felt way more vulnerable when on the ground than in the air. Pilot bias, certainly.
"What now ?" Bill asked, trying to keep a casual tone.
"We're not supposed to go anywhere", Steve commented. "So I guess we wait. I'm going to check with our friends back there."
He left his seat and went in the rear compartment, where he found half a dozen men in black gear, already standing, their weapon at the ready. Their leader, someone he had been introduced to as being a Captain Bryan Leigh, turned sharply his gaze toward Steve when he entered.
"Open the hatch", the Captain ordered. "But be ready to close it on my order and to take off at once."
Steve nodded at once ; he had been notified that, while in the air he got to give the orders, on the ground Leigh had command of the operation. He was all right with that arrangement. They both did what they were best qualified for - even if Leigh was a little too tense for the Major's peace of mind. He knew something could go wrong at any moment, but being frantic about it wasn't going to help.
"They are late", Leigh said worriedly.
"Yes", Steve nodded after cheking his watch. "Only by ten minutes though. Give them some more time."
"Our orders are not to wait for more than an hour", the Captain reminded Steve uselessly.
"Which gives us plenty of time", the pilot pointed out. "Let's just wait quietly here. We are not doing the most difficult part ; Papa Bear is. If anything happens, we'll be gone before the Germans even realise we were here."
"Let's hope so", Leigh muttered under his breath. Steve pretended he had not heard that and watched outside, intent to find a light heading toward them. After all, someone had had to be here in order to give them the signal.
And, indeed, it wasn't long before he spotted a flashing yellow light, about a hundred meters away. He pointed it out to the Captain, who nodded quickly to acknowledge he had noticed it.
"They're probably waiting for an answer. Well, I can certainly understand that", he said. "No one would like to get shot on account for a mistake. Especially in such a black night."
He handed his torch to Steve, who directed it toward the outside of the plane and flashed it, twice quickly and thrice more slowly. The minute after, a black figure stood and headed toward the plane, hands to the fore, obviously empty. The man was not taking any chances. Who could blame him ?
As the man got closer to the plane, Steve frowned. He certainly looked familiar, but he couldn't quite make out his face in the dark, especially with the cap he was wearing. The cap of a German officer, no less ! No wonder he was so adamant getting the agreed signal before coming in plain sight.
But then, the "German" raised his head to meet the allied crew's eyes, and Steve snapped his finger, now recognizing the guy. This had to be Louis Le Beau, the tiny Frenchman and excellent cook he remembered from stalag 13. The prisoner of war also seemed to recognize Steve, as he waved his hand matter-of-factly. But the German uniform had aroused Leigh's suspicion, and in the silence of the night, the metallic sound of the gun was quite audible.
"Captain Leigh", Steve said at once, "I can vouch for this man. He is a part of the operation."
"You are sure of that, major ?" Leigh asked, eyeing suspiciously Le Beau, obviously itching to get a shot at a German.
"Yes I am ! Now if you would lower that gun... Louis, that's a pleasure to see again."
"The pleasure is mine", the Frenchman answered with a grin. "I see you fare well... major."
Steve had only been a lieutenant when he had been shot down, and he had got promoted only three month before. He grinned back to the man. Seeing a familiar face helped easing the tension, but a glance at his watch brought his mind back to the whole reason he was there in the first place.
"Our cargo seem to be late", Leigh said, having finally lowered his gun. "Unless you have it here ?"
"No", Le Beau answered quickly. "I was supposed to wait here for you and give you the signal, so I don't know what has been going on until now. I expect there might have been complications at some point. But there's still nothing to worry about. It was impossible to get an accurate schedule, as a lot of things depended on the German's part. Getting here twenty minutes ago was our best estimations."
"Wishful thinking, obviously", Leigh irritatedly pointed out. But he then met the steely eyes of the Frenchman, and Steve held back a shudder. Le Beau was just scary that way.
"It shouldn't be long now", the prisoner of war said firmly. "Besides, we were told you would give us an hour leeway."
"That's right", Leigh admitted, curiosity now shining in his eyes. "What are you doing here ? Are you a spy ? I can't really place your accent..."
"And you don't want to", Steve intervened. "I'm sorry, Captain, but that's top secret. Even I don't know much about it, and the little I know I'm not allowed to disclose."
Leigh glowered at him but didn't insist. After that, the three men fell silent. Steve cast a glance toward the Captain's five men, but they kept quiet and didn't even move much ; they could as well not have been there. Bill had stayed in the cockpit, ready to start the manoeuvers the moment Steve would tell him too.
The night was cold, and the pilot was glad to have his jacket. But maybe the weather was not totally responsible for that chill. The more time passed, the more he had a bad feeling about it. Papa Bear was thirty minutes overdue, now. On the other hand, no German had shown up, so everything was allright for them. And that might mean that at least there had not been any leak of information. But it didn't make the wait easier.
At last, a slight sound was suddenly audible from the road nearby. Le Beau straightened when he heard that, the first tinge of hope in the last fifteen minutes. But they wouldn't know before the car got closer.
The sound grew stronger and stronger, but suddenly several gunshots resounded through the night. Something obviously was not going as planned, and Steve bit his lip nervously. Any minute, now...
Finally, they saw the headlights of a car, which stopped dead on its track on the road, about a hundred and fifty meters away from the plane. Steve grabbed his gun, and heard Leigh's orders to his men to get ready to shoot if need be, on his order. That car could be the S.S. as well as Papa Bear, and Leigh wouldn't be taking any chances. But soon enough, a yellow light shone through the trees and Steve heaved a sigh of relief. Soon they would be away from this place. He tried not to think about everything that could still go wrong. Think positive.
"Hold your fire", Leigh ordered sharply his men as several figures appeared at the other end of the field, after Le Beau sent back the signal. "But remain ready", he added as if moved by a second thought.
"No, it's him", the Frenchman asserted, and Steve couldn't help but envy his sight. To be that sure, he had to have the eyes of a cat.
Soon enough, the figures arrived close enough for Steve to tell they were three, all clad in German clothes. There was a S.S. colonel, a Wehrmacht colonel, and an Abwehr general. They didn't do things by halves, he thought with admiration. The S.S. colonel climbed first the ladder which led to the rear compartment of the plane, and found himself facing several guns.
"Whoah, whoah, guys ! Hi, Louis, I see you made new friends", the colonel said with a grin, not the least in awe of the fierce looks on the commandos' faces.
"Well, you know, us frenchmen are good for frenchip", Le Beau smirked. "Captain, let me introduce you to Papa Bear. Papa Bear, I think you'll recognize the major here."
"Recognize..." suddenly Hogan seemed to sort out who was indeed Steve. "Hey, Major Harlan, glad to see you made it back safely."
He motioned for the remaining colonel and the general to climb in the plane, and they did so, quickly.
"Well", Hogan said, "I'd love to chat with you guys and everything, but we have to go. We were pursued by a group of S.S. in a car. We managed to shoot their tires, so they won't be here before at least another twenty minutes, but the faster we leave the better."
"Where is the cargo we are suppose to take back with us ?" Leigh intervened dryly, all business.
"Right here", Hogan said, with a nod towards the Abwehr general.
"What the hell... ?" Leigh started.
"You heard right. General Aldrich Kaltenhorst here is to return with you to London. He has been providing intel to the allies for almost three years, but his superiors have finally become suspicious. It became necessary to take measures, and London asked us to set that whole operation."
"Hold on", Steve exclaimed, "you mean to tell us it is a real Abwehr general here, along with a fake S.S. colonel and a..."
"A fake Wehrmacht colonel as well", the guy assured him. Now that he could see his face, Steve finally recognised Newkirk. Of course... they had removed a German general, just like that ! Papa Bear would never stop to amaze him. Even if the general had obviously been willing to come along, that was no little deed, especially under the nose of the Gestapo. Hell, how Hogan had even convinced the general remained a mystery. But Hogan had a way with people.
"Fine", he finally said. "Then all is good and we shall leave. You are not safe here, especially with the S.S. on your trail. You'd better hurry to get back to sta... to the Bear's house", he finished, cursing himself for almost having compromised his saviors by speaking of stalag 13.
"We're on our way", Hogan answered. "I bid you a good evening, gentlemen", he concluded with a loose military salute. "General Kaltenhorst, that was a pleasure. I hope we'll meet again, once this madness is over."
"I certainly look forward to it", the general answered, speaking for the first time. His voice, tinged with a German accent, was quiet but something in his demeanour still made him look taller than he actually was - in fact, he was rather short.
With a last nod, Hogan and his men were gone, and it was time to go.
"We are taking off right now", Steve said. "General, have a seat, it might be a little rough. The same goes for you and your men, Captain."
Now that they were going to fly again, he got to give the orders again. It disturbed him a little to see how much he enjoyed doing that. He had always thought he was a pilot before being an officer, but now he was not sure of that anymore.
He quickly made his way back to the cockpit and seated himself, readying the engines as he did so. The noise seemed excessive after the silence of the past forty minutes, but it couldn't be helped. Steve quickly made his aircraft turn round, and started to increase its speed so as to take of. The field was not exactly level, and Steve fervently prayed there wouldn't be any hole in the ground, but soon enough he was relieved from his anxiety ; he felt the plane leave the ground under him, and it rose in the air, still speeding up.
Fifteen minutes later, they were high in the atmosphere, and nothing save the Luftwaffe could do anything to stop them. But it was not unlikely the luftwaffe could be sent after them, if one of the S.S. pursuing Hogan had been smart enough to run to the closest town to give a phone call to Reichsmarshall Goering about the defection of a high-ranking military officer. Well, maybe not call Goering himself, but certainly it wouldn't do any harm to be ready for anything.
"Everything seems to be quiet", Bill said.
"For now. For all we know, hell could break loose in the next five minutes", Steve reminded him tensely.
At that moment, they heard a muffled noise in the rear compartment. The two men shared a concerned glance, and Steve rose from his seat.
"Care to replace me for a few minutes ? I have a feeling that this cannot wait", he said, trying to hide his anxiety.
"Don't worry, I could fly that thing with my hands tied behind my back", Bill assured him.
"Yup, well, now's not the time to try that", Steve said sternly as he left to check on what their passengers were up to.
He stopped when he saw the scene in front of him. The general, a bruise on his cheekbone, was face to face with Leigh, and the five commandos had their guns pointed at the German - who didn't seem to care at all.
"I demand an apology", Kaltenhorst said in a frosty tone that chilled Steve even though the German's anger was not directed at him.
"You son of..."
"Enough !" Steve cut in, noticing that Leigh was losing his temper way too quickly. He shouldn't have been alloted to this mission. In fact, he shouldn't have been alloted in the special ops at all, if he was not able to get a hold on himself. "We are behind ennemy lines, in a lone aircraft, and you are fighting !" His tone was disbelieving."Now, someone cares to explain what is going on here ? And first of all, who hit the general ?"
"I did", Leigh grudgingly admitted.
"And just why would you do that ?" Steve too could play the "icy stare" game. He outranked the Captain and was not going to let himself be cowed by his fierce attitude. This situation was no longer Leigh's field of expertise.
"He defended Hitler's Third Reich and the horrors it has done."
"General ?" Steve directed his gaze toward the German, who was wordlessly glowering at Leigh.
"I didn't", he said. "I defended Germany."
Steve couldn't tell who was lying or distorting the truth, but he was prone to believing the German. Though Leigh's anger was understandable, it was out of place.
"Captain", he finally said, "it seems to me that the mere presence of the general here is sufficient evidence that he does not condone the, uh... misdeeds of the Third Reich. You can't blame a man for being loyal to his country." He didn't add anything, but the coldness of his voice was enough. He intently waited, eyes nailed to Leigh's. Finally, the Captain seemed to understand Steve was waiting for more than a silent acceptance of his authority.
"I apologize", he finally grudgingly mumbled. Steve turned his gaze toward Kaltenhorst, who eventually nodded.
"Good !" Steve said. "So now, maybe we can..."
He never was able to finish that sentence, for the plane suddenly moved on the left, and everyone who was not seated fell on the floor of the aircraft, including Steve, Leigh and Kaltenhorst.
"What the hell..." yelled Leigh, but Steve did not spare him even one glance, and he headed back to the cockpit.
"What is it ?!" he asked as Bill gave him back the pilot's seat.
"Military planes", the navigator explained. "I don't know if they were looking for us, but now that they have found us..."
"How long 'til we are out of Germany ?"
"At least one hour", Bill said, trying not to let the despair show in his voice.
They were alone, against an unknown number of Luftwaffe airplanes, and suddenly the odds seemed not very heartening. Their only advantage was the darkness in which they were flying. The date of the operation had been chosen partly because it was a moonless night, therefore making it difficult for the German to aim at the allied plane. But against a whole squadron, it wouldn't do much good.
"Dodge on the left", Bill yelled as the fire of the German planes lit up the night, thus revealing the position of the ennemy.
They could retaliate, as their plane had machine guns of his own, but it wouldn't do much good to face the squadron. They were at least three, probably more. Steve didn't know how long they could go before being shot, but not a very long time, he feared. Strangely, he thought about the German general they were conveying. If they were shot, they might die in the crash, or they would be taken to a POW camp. But if Kaltenhorst was taken by the Germans... Steve inwardly shuddered at the thought. The man had guts, to betray Hitler and then to leave Germany like that... well, according to Hogan's story, he hadn't had much of a choice, but yet...
Steve's line of thought quickly came back to his current predicament when a new rafale forced him to dodge violently. He hoped his passengers were wise enough to fasten their seatbelts.
Suddenly, as the pilot was starting to lose hope, another noise became audible, and he heard Bill's startled gasp. He dared not look up from his controls.
"What's going on ?" he yelled over the sound of the machine guns.
"Seems like we'll get out of Germany finally, with a little help from our friends", Bill yelled back. "I think that's RAF planes !"
"What are they doing here ?!"
Steve's question quickly got an answer, when the radio crackled.
"Lieutenant Peacock to major Harlan, do you copy ?"
"Yes !", Steve answered, flicking the radio on. "What is the meaning of that ? I was told we had no backup on this mission !"
"We were ordered to fly around here to cover you if you made it that far", came the answer. "You can go now, be quick, we are holding them back."
"Copy that. Good luck."
Steve gladly left behind the sounds of the battle. Kaltenhorst must really be very important for the allies if they deployed such forces to get him to England safely. Maybe he had information to provide high command with. Well, whatever the truth was, he didn't care one bit. They had made it back, and that was all that was important.
Thanks for the christmas gift, Papa Bear...