...Somewhere in the Bavarian Alps, late May, 1946
Major Heinrich Kessler was not pleased. From his lean form partially hidden in the shadow cast by the massive left wing of his Horten 18 B bomber, piercing ice blue eyes bore into the group of workers scrambling to tape over the newest fissure in the refueling hose. Frayed from years of use, the hose bore more patches than the original rubberized canvas it was made from. Any other ground crew would have discarded it ages ago. Unfortunately Kessler knew that if that happened his plane would have to be fueled by buckets and funnels. Replacements for even such mundane items as fuel hoses had disappeared ages ago.
Out of the corner of his eye he caught a crisp salute. He returned it wearily. Though he was only thirty years old his face was drawn and he walked with the measured steps of a man over twice his age. Dull aches throbbed in one leg, the result of a shell fragment too deeply lodged for removal. Mechanically he brushed fingertips under the left sleeve of his worn leather flight jacket to feel the rough, dry ridges of scarred flesh. It was his souvenir from the Battle of Britain. Though his bomber was riddled with bullets and a smoldering fire filling the cockpit with acrid smoke, he nursed the plane over the English Channel and held it steady as his crew bailed out. Doggedly he eased the plane back to base, landing so heavily the gear collapsed and his wounded machine burst into flames. A fire extinguisher doused the fire but not before leaving burns that would forever scar his arm and chest.
The man who saluted him fell in step as they rounded the wedge shaped faring surrounding the fixed landing gear. His step was livelier though his fading uniform hung loosely on a frame that once filled it snugly. "Good morning Herr Major," said Captain Hans Reitman. Pale light from a naked bulb in the hardened dirt ceiling of the underground hanger danced over Reitman's face. Deep scars furrowed one cheek, while a flight cap he never removed covered the burn scars across his scalp. He was a legend from the waning days of the Luftwaffe, one of the very few men to escape from an explosion while landing a Messershmidt Komet rocket fighter, a plane more dangerous to its pilots than to the enemy.
Eyeing with a never ending touch of envy the Iron Cross hanging like a weight around Kessler's neck, the Captain said, "I spoke with Dr. Kauffman. He assures me we will be ready for our mission tomorrow night."
Kessler merely nodded. Stepping away from the plane, he cast his eyes slowly around the huge cavern, his home and self imposed prison for the past year. A marvel of engineering, it had been hewn deep into an isolated mountain in the Bavarian Alps a stones throw from the Austrian border, far from the prying eyes and vengeful bombs of Germany's enemies. Stretching two miles deep and nearly three hundred feet wide, it was the product of desperate minds working feverishly against time.
A narrow road wound by the cavern, whose entrance was cleverly angled so it was nearly invisible from the air. As for the road, a convenient landslide blocked it downslope. Near the slide, an abandoned mine shaft had been widened to bypass the landslide so that trucks bearing smuggled equipment and supplies could still get through.
Secrecy was utmost. Kessler had long lost count of those killed by the remnants of the dreaded S.S. who still provided so called security. On the slightest pretense of betrayal, the sentence was death. The victim was forced to kneel at the edge of the road before the cavern, then shot in the back of the head. The body was then tossed into the crevice below, where it was eventually buried under the earth removed during excavation in a macabre display of efficiency. Many hundreds, slave laborers whose only crime had been inability to get out of the way of the Wermacht, had also died from disease, accidents or exhaustion. At night Kessler swore he could hear the howling of the dead despite knowing it was only the wind.
It was the middle of May, and despite the nearly mile high altitude, the air was nearly stifling. Outside the cavern, Kessler assumed the world was adjusting to peace after nearly six years of war. Germany was in ruins, saved from famine only by the mercy of the Americans, and to a lesser extent, the British. The rubble of war was being cleared away, fields were being planted, homes repaired or rebuilt, factories starting tentatively to resume production.
News was scant to reach the hanger. For security reasons there were no radios of any kind. It was too easy for their locations to be determined by the signals they transmitted. Only the intermittent supply trucks brought any news, and even then it was meager. The drivers were employed in the hanger as no one on the outside was to be trusted. It was known that Germany was divided into four districts by the conquering allies, but that squabbles had already broken out with the Russians. "Now that they've beaten us, they will make sure we remain divided and weak," spat Reitman. Kessler didn't reply. His thoughts were lost in the behemoth before him.
It was one of the two ultimate manifestations of German genius. Granted some "wonder weapons" did get involved in the war long enough to annoy the Allies and make them ponder the possibility of losing if they had been available earlier and in greater numbers. But they were largely futile gestures born of desperation. No one would doubt what Kessler was seeing fell into that category. Yet all in the cavern were convinced that this weapon would make a difference, even now when the war had been over for a year.
Kessler and Reitman turned as one to eye the bomber. A broken pattern of two shades of green covered the topsides, contrasting with the sky blue underneath. Stretching over one hundred thirty feet from wingtip to wingtip it had the appearance of a plane waiting for the rest of its parts to show up so construction could be completed. For all practical purposes it was just an enormous wing, swept at a thirty five degree angle with large, fixed landing gear housed below each wing in a streamlined pod. On each side of the pods was a long cylinder housing a jet engine. Designed by Heinkel just for this plane, the He S011's were twice as powerful as anything flying, including the turbojets that propelled the Messerschmidt 262 that terrorized so many Allied pilots late in the war.
At the apex of the wing was a canopy that gave the crew of three their view of the outside world. Inside the thick section joining the wings was a bomb bay, who's doors gaped open to reveal the tapered gray cylinder that took up almost all the space inside the bay. Underneath, a team of engineers in filthy lab coats stood on raised platforms doing the tinkering that seemed to be the lot of all technicians. They were never satisfied with even the most precise adjustments.
Among them was a wiry, balding man in his late forties. His glasses seemed to share his perpetual frown, while the lenses only intensified the fervor behind his gray eyes. Dr. Felix Kauffman was an assistant to Werner Heisenberg, the man who could not be shaken from his mistaken calculations on nuclear fission. It was he who convinced the Nazi leadership that an atomic bomb was impractical and not worth pursuing. Perhaps his errors were fortuitous. It was agreed that they would not have been made if he had kept his associations with the brilliant minds who fled Germany before the war, in particular Albert Einstein.
Kauffman was not as easily convinced as Heisenberg. Long and loud arguments erupted between the two, finally leading to Kauffman's banishment. Fortunately he was found by the same group of officers who now ran this hanger. Under incredibly difficult circumstances, the materials were acquired to allow Kauffman to continue his work in a nearby secret underground lab. Gazing with the adoration of the father of an olympic champion mixed with the worry of an overprotective parent, Kauffman barked orders while waving a slide rule around like a scepter.
"No, that connection is not to made until we are airborne," he snapped at a worker buried inside the bomb bay.
Kessler sighed. He intensely disliked Kauffman. Arrogant and abrasive, he never lost an opportunity to flaunt his intelligence and importance to this project. Reitman shared those feelings and spoke the words Kessler kept buried. "Can we gag him during the flight, Major? The thought of him being with us for ten hours is not pleasant."
Kessler forced a slight smile. "I wish, Captain, I wish. But let's leave him to his fussing and go over the flight plan once more." He then slowly walked to the tiny office, really no more than adjoining slabs of plywood to afford some privacy, to the side of the cavern. Reitman followed, his face betraying that he and Kessler knew the flight plan by heart. Reviewing it was just a means to cope with the incredible boredom of waiting, and the tension of the coming mission.
The lights flickered as Kessler and Reitman eased themselves onto the canvas covered chairs beside the battered table. The generators were patched together like everything else in here. Kessler prayed they would hold up for two more days, then it would all be over.
Stretched across the table was a chart of the North Atlantic. A thin pencil line stretched from southern Germany. Curving to the north, it passed just south of England, clipped the lower end of Greenland, then finally ended in a circle. Next to the circle was scrawled, 'Washington D.C.'. Reitman picked up a an aerial photo lying on top of the map. It was an old photo, taken before the war. A stain from a carelessly placed coffee mug marred a corner. Yet the details of the photo were unmistakable. All of America's symbols of power were in crisp detail, the White House, Capitol, Supreme Court offices, the buildings housing the headquarters for a dozen other agencies. Decisions affecting every life on earth emanated daily from these buildings.
"Amazing," said Reitman with awe. "They will all be there?"
"They should be," replied Kessler. "President, Vice President, all members of the Cabinet, Congress, Senate, and most the Supreme Court. To say nothing about the heads of the FBI and National Security Agency. In a few seconds they will be obliterated."
Reitman whistled softly. "Providing this monstrosity of Kauffman's actually works."
"And the Fledermaus gets us there."
The bomber didn't have an official name, but Kessler always referred to it as the 'Fledermaus' because of it's resemblance to a bat.
Reitman nodded slowly. "It is much too late to ponder if only we had these weapons even two years ago. A jet bomber that can reach America, flying too high and fast to be intercepted, and carrying an atomic bomb. And unlike the Americans, we're not just striking a minor city, we're taking out the heart of their government. A fitting justice, don't you think? The only country to use these horrible weapons should suffer from them."
Kessler only nodded. Reitman's eyes and eager voice betrayed genuine enthusiasm and commitment for this mission. It was an emotion shared by Dr. Kauffman. Kessler never told his motivations to anyone. He had deliberately concealed them deep in his soul.
That evening Kessler, Reitman and Kauffman retired early. Clicking the chain hanging from the light bulb in his tiny, spartan quarters plunged Kessler's to a gray twilight. Gaps in the plywood that made up the walls allowed filtered light from the cavern to seep through. But drowsiness quickly overcame the Major, who soon feel into a deep sleep.
"Papa! Papa!" the high pitched scream came from deep in the rubble that was once Major Kessler's home. Weisbaden had been hit many times before by Allied bombers, but they had always ignored the suburb with Kessler's house. Until today. With American and British forces less than a hundred miles away, Kessler had already planned to move his family, joining the throngs of refugees fleeing away from the advancing armies, though many of his neighbors refused to leave. To the East were the dreaded Russians, who had a deserved reputation for taking revenge on their hated enemies. Most held the blind hope that the British and especially Americans would be more gentle conquerors.
Kessler was on medical leave, the stitches in his side attesting to his latest encounter in the air. An anti aircraft shell had ripped through the cockpit of his Arado Blitzbomber, exploding into shards that opened a gash. Barely had he brought his crippled jet back to base, mechanically shutting down the engines as he stopped in front of the ruins of the hanger before passing out from loss of blood. Two weeks in the infirmary were followed by orders to take leave for two more. His doctor knew that order would be ignored after three days. Yet before returning to his squadron, Kessler took time to visit his family, knowing that any of these rare opportunities could easily be his last.
Hands raw and bleeding from pulling away broken masonry, boards and plaster, Kessler desperately dug towards the plaintive cries.
"Papa!" the voice wailed.
"Papa is here, Anna" he called hoarsely. Around him others also dug at the rubble. Only one wall stood of what had been a picturesque two story home, surrounded by a flower garden careful tended to by his wife Hilda. Glancing at the curb, Kessler saw her, dress still covered with dust and blood, sitting slowly rocking back and forth. Hilda's eyes were fixed vacantly, the only sounds she made soft grunts. Kessler was unhurt, a visit to a friend who's home was untouched during the raid possibly sparing him.
"That wall is going to collapse, Herr Major," shouted plump Oskar. Though his own house was also in shambles, the life long bachelor gladly pitched in to help his neighbors. A piercing scream shattered the air despite the crackling of flames consuming more buildings nearby. "Wolfgang," a woman sobbed, "they killed my Wolfgang." Kessler did not have to know anymore. Wolfgang was a neighbor who had also been a physician.
Kessler then felt a tugging on his arm. Instinctively he tried to pull away until Oskar shouted frantically, "the wall..." A loud crack then growing rumble was all Kessler needed to hear. Bounding away from his house with Oskar, he turned to see the wall topple over on top of the existing ruins. A cloud of dust burst into the air as the boom of the collapse hurt Kessler's ears. He felt wetness on his side and pressed his hand against his shirt. Grinding his teeth he knew he had burst several of his stitches.
When the tumult of the collapsing wall subsided Kessler ignored his injuries and resumed digging to where his daughter was buried. Desperation drove him, a desperation spurred by a weak, "Papa....help me, Papa." But then he heard no more. An hour later he uncovered a tiny hand. Tossing boards and broken plaster aside he finally uncovered seven year old Anna, still clutching her favorite doll, the lovely one from France with a painted porcelain face, and an embroidered dress suitable for a coronation. Gently Kessler pulled Anna out, then carried her to the curb. He sat next to Hilda. Hilda glanced at Anna as Kessler gently smoothed the girl's dust caked silky blond hair. She then glanced quickly at Kessler, her eyes burning with accusation that this was somehow his fault. Karl fixed his gaze on Anna, unable to cry, unable to think, unable to feel.
Overhead was the faint drone of aircraft engines. Kessler knew that sound so well he didn't have to look up to confirm his suspicions. American B-17's, loaded with more bombs, more death and destruction for yet another nearly defenseless city. The hardened soldier in Kessler accepted this grimly. In war mercy is a weakness. Reveling in victory was for the foolish, for the tide could turn easily and the once victorious could expect the same mercilessness they had once doled out. But the human side of his soul was not as accepting.
"I am sorry," he whispered, not sure if those words were really directed to anyone. Sorry for what? Sorry that his wife had seen her life torn away in just a few awful moments. Sorry that his innocent child was paying for the arrogance and stupidity of grown men. Sorry that he had placed duty and honor above all else and undoubtedly killed many children in the numerous bombing raids he had lead. And most sorry that he still believed in his country though he had come to despise its leaders. He would still fight, until death or disablement, for his homeland.
He was German, the men who lead her were interchangeable but his blood was not. His family had been in the military since the Prussians who had united the various groups of Germany into one mass, one culture, asserted their authority. German and a soldier, one who obeyed orders without question.
Hilda turned once more to him, only this time she did not have the round, cheery face that had first attracted him. It was different, gaunt and skeletal, with her skin darker, her hair black, the eyes glowing yellow. Pointing an accusing finger at Kessler she growled, "murderer.......murderer.......you cannot do this, you cannot."
Kessler tried to move away but he was rooted in place. Anna was suddenly no longer in his arms but was standing before him, cherubic in her new white Easter frock while smiling broadly. "Papa," she squealed excitedly, then suddenly her appearance changed. Her curly blonde hair turned straight and black, her fair skin tanned and her eyes changed from blue to dark brown. The frock morphed to a silk kimono, dark blue with silver and gold threaded patterns of flowers. The girl folded her tiny hands together and bowed. "Papa-san," she said. The words were not German yet Kessler understood them perfectly. He had only heard Japanese once, when demonstrating a Heinkel bomber to a visiting delegation just before the war, yet he suddenly comprehended it as if he had been born in Japan.
The girl who had been Anna smiled again. "Look, papa-san, look at what you will do." She then swept her hand in a graceful arc. Kessler followed her hand then was stunned by the sound of an explosion greater than he had ever heard. He threw himself to the ground as his eyes were seared by a blinding light brighter than a thousand suns. Then he felt himself lifted by an unknown force, and despite the grip of terror greater than he could ever imagine, forced his eyes open again. He was floating several miles above Wiesbaden, watching as a giant mushroom shaped cloud rose majestically into the sky, then somehow staying in place as he was blasted by the wind of a hundred cyclones.
He sensed rather than felt everything below become instantly incinerated. Concrete melted, wood houses vaporized, and two hundred thousand people ceased to exist in the blink of an eye. Anna appeared before him again, still in the guise of a tiny Japanese girl, still smiling. "Papa-san, I am Moriko. I died last August in Nagasaki." She smiled once more then was gone, replace by the beaming visage of Anna. Then she too vanished, and all Kessler could hear were her final cries, "Papa, help me papa!"
Kessler bolted upright in his cot, sweat beading on his face, his breathing ragged. Nightmares were something he had always lived with, but never one as intense or detailed as this one. So many images, so many horrible memories. After the burial of Anna he reported back to duty. Physically he was far from ready, and at first he was assigned to training the fledglings who substituted for what was once the elite of the Luftwaffe. But turning a sparrow into a falcon in one lesson never worked. In less than a week, he was back in the cockpit, flying hopeless missions against the forces surging across the Rhine River and pouring into Germany itself. Meanwhile, Hilda vanished. Yet Kessler continued flying. "I fight because I am a soldier, it is my duty," he wrote in his personal journal, one he had kept carefully hidden for years. "I fight for Germany. I cannot abdicate my role now though she is governed now by monsters, men who once gave us hope of returning to our glory. They lied to us in their quest for power, and cower now that the forces they unleashed have turned against them. Yet I will fly and fight forever. I fight for Germany, for the blood of my fathers, for the blood of my child."
Wiping the sweat from his face, Kessler clicked on the light, and reached under his cot, feeling for the special pouch that held his journal. Thumbing through the worn pages, he read another passage, one that always helped when he felt his resolve failing. "Long have I accepted that every flight could be my last. Yet I keep on flying. Visions of the terrible anarchy and poverty that haunted my childhood are the motivation. Days of hunger, my mother crying constantly as my father foraged the streets for work and any scraps of food he could find, enduring humiliation after humiliation but stubbornly refusing to give in to despair. Then Hitler came into power. A masterful orator, he shrewdly molded the hopelessness of the German people into a machine. Spectacular parades, the prospect of earning a uniform and insignia of accomplishment, a sense of greatness and purpose, all impressed me. I remember my hand shaking with excitement as I signed the forms placing me into military service."
Then he paged to his most recent entry, one he dared not share with anyone. One he felt made his favorite entry sound hollow.
"The year in this underground retreat has given me time, too much time, to think and reflect. I feel my sensitivities returning, the necessary numbness of not caring about my enemies eroding. 'Why do I do this?' I asked myself. The war is over, we are defeated and occupied. This is a gesture of madness. Even if we succeed, America will recover, elect a new government, and punish Germany more severely. They could strike back with atomic bombs of their own, but whom to strike? We in this cavern do not represent any government." Kessler allowed a slight smile. "A grievous blow, angering a nation that has no idea whom to retaliate against. This is a peculiar notion."
Kessler hid the journal in the pouch, then had a second thought and slipped inside his flight jacket. The slim volume would not show against the thick leather of the jacket. He then rose just as the punctual Captain Reitman called to him it was time to get up. It was three in the morning. At four they would take off.
A few minutes later, Kessler stood near the edge of the plane, down the line of dim light bulbs in the ceiling and others lining the floor. These were his guidelines to follow as the jet roared towards the cavern entrance nearly two miles away. The Fledermaus would then ease through a gap between a pair of nearby peaks as she gained enough speed to climb. Extra fuel was pumped into auxiliary tanks hanging beneath the massive wings. That and the plane's internal fuel would easily get them to Washington D.C. and beyond, to a bold landing in Havana. They would refuel, unfortunately with piston engine gas since Kessler doubted jet fuel was yet to be found in Havana. Kessler only hoped his engines would not disagree with that sustenance until they were safely at their final destination in Argentina at an out of the way location where they would be reunited with their Nazi brethren who had already escaped from Germany. At least that was the assurance given by Colonel Meyers, mastermind of this project.
The refueling would be the tricky, but Captain Reitman's devious mind had thought that one through. On one hand, it would seem the Americans would have them, after all they would be nearly out of fuel and unless lucky tracked on radar all the way to Havana. However, cooperation from the Cubans was all but assured. A second bomb bay had been built behind the main one that held the atom bomb. Inside was an identical cylinder. Of course it was no more than an elaborate fuel tank, but would anyone want to risk disputing if it was a second bomb, set to go off at the push of a button if the demands of the air crew were not met? Certainly the Cubans would not want to add their own lives, and those of thousands of more innocents, to the already horrendous toll in D.C. And if for any reason they did balk, there was the satchel with twenty million dollars worth of gold bullion tucked away behind the cockpit. Kessler could only guess from from where it was all stolen.
Reitman slipped quietly beside Kessler. His glee was hard to restrain. "Today we make history, Herr Major. Just think of the boldness of attacking during the day since destroying empty buildings at night is such a waste."
Kessler cautioned quietly, "If we even get there, Herr Captain. Consider that only two of these engines have even been tested because we are so short of fuel. And the fuel itself has been sitting around for so long it may be contaminated. Do not be surprised if we roll out of this cavern then tumble down the mountainside in a ball of flame."
"Ever the optimist, Major," replied Reitman with a smile.
"No, Captain, just a realist. You know as well as I do that every pilot must never forget that his next mission could be his last. And that his end will often not come in glorious combat against overwhelming odds, but from an accident caused by his own carelessness."
There was only the slightest sliver of a moon among the brilliant stars of a cloudless night. Kessler zipped his flight jacket against a chilly breeze that flowed the length of the cavern. This was a night for poets and lovers, he mused, not for death. Scurrying around the Fledermaus, fussing technicians dragged hoses, boxes, cables, anything and everything, out of the way in front and behind the behemoth. Kessler walked slowly to the rope ladder hanging from the open cockpit.
Despite the Fledermaus's size it only had a crew of three, pilot, navigator and bombardier. Reitman and Kauffman were already settled in the seats for the latter. The engineer had never been on a bombing mission and impatiently sat through training on using the bombsight. However, he was the only one who knew how to properly fuse the bomb, so he became the bombardier by default. Kessler climbed the ladder, wincing as buried shrapnel from old wounds screamed their presence. Stepping onto his seat then dropping to sit and strap himself in, he felt the rush of flying again. It was something he dearly missed, the feel of a powerful machine responding to his whims.
Many times had he sat in this cockpit wondering what it would be like to fly the most advanced plane ever built. And now he would know. Adjusting his helmet and microphone, he eyed the instrument panel he had long ago memorized. "Navigator, please respond," he said into the throat microphone. "Navigator present," Reitman's voice crackled in the headphones. "Bombardier, please respond." "Bombardier present," said Kauffman sharply. Kessler then said, "Colonel Meyer, this is Major Kessler requesting permission to take off."
Colonel Meyer was the head of the project. A dedicated soldier and Nazi, his brilliant and ruthless organization had carried off the impossible, secretly gathering the materials, tools and technicians needed to build the Fledermaus and the bomb as well as constructing the hanger. Kessler hated him with a passion as the man had not an ounce of pity or compassion in his soul. "Permission granted," came the cold reply. "Gentleman..." Kessler sighed, he expected a speech and could not hide his impatience. Meyer's authoritarian voice boomed,
"Today you make history. Today you make the ultimate statement to the aggressors who have destroyed our beloved Fatherland. By tomorrow morning they will realize that the arrogance of their power is hollow, that they are no match for the master race. They will slink away like the cowards they are from our country, and negotiate a just peace. This is just the beginning of the Party's return to glory, the continuation of the triumphs of our beloved Fuhrer......."
Kessler shut out the rest. He knew the truth. This was the only Fledermaus, and Kauffman's bomb was the only one built. Even if they did complete the mission it was a long shot that they would escape. Enraged Americans in Havana may try to kill them anyway despite the bluff of a second bomb on board. And even if that plan worked and they flew to Argentina, they would have to surrender to the authorities down there or try to escape. He didn't believe there were isolated ranches owned by ex-Nazis where they could quietly spend the rest of their lives. They would have to survive the best they could, perhaps as mercenaries or something equally dangerous and disagreeable. Of the Fledermaus, so painstakingly assembled under horrendous conditions, hidden charges would be set off as soon as the crew had safely abandoned her on a runway. Meanwhile Colonel Meyer would abandon the cavern, then order everything inside destroyed. He and the rest of the technicians would escape in small groups, selling their services to the highest bidder while biding their time for a return to power.
A noisy generator was manned by a worker who signaled to Kessler to try the throttles. He had already gone through the other controls and was satisfied that everything worked, so far. The generator produced enough juice to allow the canopy to close then serve as a starter for the engines. The generator's racket was thankfully reduced to a mild rumble by the shut canopy. Kessler flipped a switch then grasped the thick throttle handles and slowly pushed them forward to the engine start position. He felt a deep vibration in the plane, then a whine that grew in pitch. He felt the thrill of a child at Christmas as he flipped switches to start up the other three engines.
The Fledermaus shook violently for a few moments then settled to a steady vibration. A low pitched rumble greeted Kessler's ears as the engines settled to an even power setting. It was close to the sound of his old Arado 234, but more authoritarian. A signalman waved a pair of paddles striped with fluorescent orange. The cavern opening yawned like the mouth of a prehistoric beast. A final check of the instruments then Kessler gave a thumbs up to the signalman. At the same time unseen crewmen pulled away the wooden chocks in front of the wheels as Kessler released the brakes then eased the throttles forward. His experience tried to suppress the insanity of taking a plane with almost no testing on a flight that was going to be it's first, and in almost all probability, last.
Slowly the Fledermaus inched forward, the four turbines howling like banshees. Kessler felt at first it would roll slowly out the cave and down the mountainside, just as he had mused with Reitman a few minutes ago. He was at least thankful that inside the cockpit it was relatively quiet. He could barely imagine the din outside of four turbines echoing off the cavern walls. Finally the plane picked up speed. Kessler checked the instruments. Incredibly everything read normal. Focusing on the cave entrance, Kessler kept the flaps steady as the Fledermaus roared towards the mouth. It had been located inside the cave with little margin for error. Calculations had been made so that if Kessler and the engines worked perfectly, it would be airborne the moment it left the cave.
The entrance grew closer. Kessler's world shrank to the feel of the vibrating control stick in his hands, and his view of the ever growing cave entrance. The plane's acceleration felt painfully slow, though the instruments claimed it was picking up speed normally. Soon Kessler was past the entrance, and thrust into the dark night sky. The thumping of the wheels on the uneven cavern floor was no longer present. Somehow that was not reassuring. Suddenly Kessler felt the nose pitch downwards, and saw only the gaping blackness of the valley below the cave. He reacted on instinct. Yanking the control stick back, he felt the Fledermaus still slide relentlessly towards the valley floor and certain doom despite the engines running at full thrust. Then slowly he felt the nose rise. Stars dotted his view over the nose as the Fledermaus straightened it's flight path, then began to climb. Skimming between mountain peaks the bomber rose majestically into the pristine night sky.
Kessler watched the altimeter needle as the plane climbed. Thundering mightily, the engines pushed the bomber slowly upwards. In less than a half hour they were at forty five thousand feet and cruising at close to four hundred miles per hour. While the speed was within the range of the newest fighters, in particular the American Shooting Star or the British Meteor, the altitude was above them. And after the auxiliary fuel tanks were exhausted and could be dumped over the Atlantic Ocean, the Fledermaus could climb even higher and add well over a hundred miles per hour in speed.
The plane was remarkably smooth and stable. Kessler set the throttles for cruising power. "Perfectly on course," said Reitman. "So what do we do for the next ten hours?"
"Enjoy the flight," replied Kessler.
"Not much to see unless you fancy dark sky and later on clouds and ocean."
Kessler smiled briefly. "I bet someday the Fledermaus's successors will carry hundreds of passengers at a time on pleasure flights."
"Always the dreamer," scoffed Reitman.
From the back of the cockpit Kauffman's high voice crackled in Kessler's headset. "I will attach the arming fuses to the bomb when we are two hundred kilometers from the target. Remember all six must be precisely connected, so be sure to hold this monster as steady as possible."
"Will do," replied Kessler mechanically. He well knew when and how the bomb would be armed and resented Kauffman's constant reminders. "If only I could drop you with the bomb," he thought.
The thrill of actually being in the air again made Kessler almost giddy though prudence kept his eyes constantly roving over the instruments. He thought of them as lit, unblinking eyes staring back. He was still worried because so many of the systems on the Fledermaus were untested. Even if it had been built in the most modern of factories with the most highly trained technicians, flying such an advanced machine without thorough evaluation on the ground was close to suicidal. Yet she flew on, surprisingly quiet with only the muted rushing of air and the distant rumble of the engines disturbing the silence.
The wing edges obstructed view directly below, but to his right Kessler saw glittering city lights. "Munich," he thought, aghast at first that any lights should be on during a war. To the British bombers prowling the night sky, it was a homing beacon, practically screaming, "please drop bombs here."
Kessler then reminded himself that the war was over, and that Munich should be thankful it had any lights at all after being punished in repeated raids. Yet he still found himself constantly scanning the sky and as much of the ground as he could see, his experienced eyes looking for the passing faint shadow briefly betraying an intercepting fighter, or the streaks of bright light from the ground of anti aircraft gun tracers seeking out his plane. "No," he reminded himself again, "the war is over, this will be as serene as the training flights I took so many years ago."
To his back Reitman was suddenly silent. Concerned, Kessler craned his head as much as the narrow gap between his seatback and the canopy allowed and saw his navigator was sound asleep. No matter, even in the dark he had an excellent sense of direction and wouldn't need Reitman until well into the journey. Kauffman was also quiet. Kessler assumed he was buried in reviewing a notebook of his calculations and was furiously scribbling even more notes. Thank God for obsessions! If there was any good fortune in the world, he would not even look up from his work until it was time to fuse the bomb.
Kessler was alone, and suddenly uncomfortable. Solitude is never a soldier's lot. You train as a team, fight as a team, eat as a team, sleep as a team. Individuality did not exist, you were given orders and followed them without question. In the heat of battle individuality only rose in extraordinary circumstances. You were scared, your fellow soldiers were scared, the men on the other side were scared. No one wanted to die, yet wanted everyone on the other side to die. Such a paradox!
And now Kessler again wanted others to die, though he had already killed many, probably thousands. Perhaps most were good people, family members with kind hearts. Yet among them were men and women who lead the onslaught that destroyed his beloved Germany. A Germany led by men Kessler loathed but still his Germany. What right did the Americans have to bomb his homeland to oblivion? And then send her armies to crush what was left? "Ahh, fortunes of war," mused Kessler. "We failed to achieve victory and suffered the consequences. Now we will make that right." Yet he felt his convictions were empty. Perhaps what he had written in his journal was right, a year of isolation had given him too much time to think.
The hours passed quickly though this was by far the longest flight Kessler had ever flown. Reitman woke a couple of times from the warning buzzer of the radar receiver. Once was while over France, the second as the bomber skimmed southern England. Each time Kessler's instincts went to full alert. Unfortunately the Fledermaus was unarmed. No defensive weapons were installed as it was assumed her speed and altitude rendered them unnecessary.
Kessler gazed out the canopy, seeing only the inky blackness of the night sky. The faint glowing of dawn as he passed south of New Foundland was a relief. The intensity of the light grew, highlighting distant clouds in purple, pink and red. Through a break in the clouds, Kessler finally saw the faint line of the New Jersey coast. Towards the Southwest, a few of the Appalachians peeked in the distance through the cloud layer. Within a couple more hours the plane was bathed in the sunlight of a bright Spring day. Soon he could see the coast of Delaware passing below. They were now less than two hundred kilometers from their target. Then he saw a faint form, shaped like an opaque, writhing cloud, that expanded and contracted in front of the canopy. Instinctively reaching for the gun trigger then cursing because there wasn't one, Kessler kept flying, hoping that this wasn't a burst of flack.
The form split into two entities. Yet they were still linked by a thin band . As Kessler stared, they coalesced into two human figures. Ethereal spirits, slightly translucent yet still real, they smiled at Kessler. He blinked his eyes and shook his head, yet they were still there, floating beyond the canopy and staying just ahead of the hurtling bomber.
His sweet daughter Anna drifted hand in hand with Moriko. Soft blond and black tresses floated serenely as if caught by a summer breeze. "Papa," said Anna, her voice as clear as if she was sitting on his lap, being rocked to sleep as he always did on the rare occasions he was home. "I love you, Papa, but please, I beg you, don't drop this bomb. Remember what I showed you, don't let any more children die."
Moriko bowed her head and added, "please, Major Kessler, do not do this. My papa-san died in Okinawa. He crashed his plane into an American ship. He did it because of duty to his Emperor. What is your duty, Major Kessler? The war is over, there is honorable peace now. The Americans are kind and generous conquerors, they fought us because our leaders were evil men."
"I am a pilot and a soldier," replied Kessler softly, almost mechanically. "I fly and fight for my country."
"But our County," replied Anna, "is no more. "We were betrayed, Papa, by wicked men who led many to their deaths. Please, papa, remember how you were so gentle and kind to me. Be gentle and kind to others. The war is over, Papa."
The visions then faded. Kessler slipped his fingertips beneath his goggles and rubbed his eyes. Maybe he hadn't slept as well as he thought and was hallucinating. Glancing at the clock, he saw it was now seven thirty in the morning. He nearly jumped out of his seat when Reitman's voice boomed in his headphones. "Major, we are now two kilometers east of Washington D.C. Superb flying, Mein Major, slow her to three hundred fifty kilometers an hour and we will be on target in about a forty five minutes."
Kessler recovered from being startled to allow a brief smile. Reitman's compliment was a cover for the fact that he had slept almost this entire trip. Then Kauffman's voice assaulted his ears. "I am going to fuse the bomb now." Silently Kessler sarcastically mouthed his next words, "keep this plane steady and level until I'm done."
Kessler sighed. He knew Kauffman was easing his way through the narrow passage to the bomb bay. The fuses were lined up in a bracket next to the bomb. Kauffman would have to work quickly, since unlike the crew compartment, the bomb bay was not pressurized or heated in any way. To even breathe he was now dependent on oxygen flowing through a thin tube his mask as he grabbed hand holds then straddled the hulking cylinder of the bomb. Gloved hands then took each fuse in turn from brackets above the bomb then screwed them in place. He reported his progress to Kessler.
"Fuse one attached."
"Papa!" The vision returned.
"Christ, is anyone else seeing this?" Kessler thought as he watched the softly glowing ethereal figures outside the canopy. As if they could ready their thoughts, both girls said in unison, "only you can stop this madness." Then Moriko drifted away from Anna. Kessler threw his hand in front of his face to shield it from a sudden blinding flash. It faded to reveal Moriko, mouth open as the beginnings of a scream tried to get out. Kessler sensed time slow to a crawl. Wisps of smoke emerged from the child's body. Her sleek black hair began to sizzle, then caught fire. Quickly the remorseless flame ate away her hair until reaching her scalp. Her kimono seemed to melt rather than burn, the intricate silk patterns blackening as her slender body seemed to vaporize. Flesh then bone quickly dissolved as if they were a delicate ice sculpture left in the sun. All that was left was a residue of ash roughly the same shape as the girl.
Anna's face was locked in an expression of utter terror. Her eyes and mouth were wide open, and her face set as if carved in stone. She shrieked once, then whispered, "Papa, Moriko told me this is how she died. It was over in an instant, so she wanted to show us what happened. Papa, there was nothing left to even bury."
Kessler's breathing was ragged. He had only heard stories of the devastation of the American atomic bombs. He had seen firestorms from conventional bombings, fires so intense they created vacuums in which they were then sucked, becoming superheated gases consuming everything in their path. An atomic bomb behaved much the same way. Kessler reached under his helmet to wipe away a sheen of cold sweat. Germany had suffered firestorms, Hamburg and Dresden were nearly wiped off the map with over a hundred thousand dead. The American's were mostly responsible, so it was only right they suffer the same fate.
The bomber wobbled slightly as Kessler felt his hand on the control stick shaking. "Ach, Herr Major," Kauffman squawked. "Keep this thing steady. If I do not fuse the bomb properly we may as well drop rocks on the Americans."
Kessler took a deep breath to steady his nerves. Then he saw another ghostly form beside Anna. At first he thought Moriko was returning. Wavering like an image under water, the vision then formed into a young Japanese woman holding an infant. Petite with a delicate, porcelain beauty, she bowed and smiled shyly at Kessler. He tilted his head in return as Anna said politely, "This is Madam Yuki, Moriko's mother, and the baby is her sister Kumiko. She is six months old. Moriko told me she prayed for years for a sister and was so happy when Kumiko was born."
Yuki added, "I was visiting my Aunt in another part of Nagasaki when the bomb hit. Moriko was being watched by my mother."
The smile then faded. Huge patches of Kumiko's hair suddenly fell away. Her flawless skin was then mottled by dark red splotches and open sores. Her body shook as her face contorted in what hammered Kessler as indescribable nausea and pain. The baby cried weakly, her face also marred by the same afflictions that tortured her mother. Kessler could not tear his eyes away. These were not the injuries from bombing, it was some type of plague. But what? It wasn't cholera or anything else he had encountered.
Anna said softly, "They were far enough from the blast to have survived. But in days they fell ill, as did many thousands of others. They all had the same splotches and sores, and they could not eat without getting sicker. Kumiko died a week later, Madam Yuki a week after that."
Kessler was stunned. He had heard only bits of rumors of one of the most insidious affects of atomic bombs, the radiation sickness that infects many of the survivors of the initial blast. "My God," he whispered, "my God...did the Americans know? I am certain they did not until afterwards. Even if they did know, I doubt it would have changed their decision to use these horrible weapons. But I wonder if they now pray they never are forced to use them again."
He suddenly had to know more, know everything. He pressed the microphone button. "Herr Kauffman, tell me about the radiation from these bombs. Is it a property of all of them?"
Kauffman sighed sharply. Balanced precariously on a flange of the bomb bay, his heavily gloved hands trying to screw in the fuses as the intense cold air tried to find any breech in his clothing, he snapped, "Herr Major, I do not have time to discuss this." Kessler persisted. "Herr Kauffman, I must know." Then he paused and lied, "It is a matter of our safety. Can you be certain we are dropping this bomb at a high enough altitude to escape both the blast and radiation?"
Kessler assumed Kauffman thought this question to be inane. But Kessler also knew the engineer could not resist any chance to show off his knowledge.
"We will be far away from both, Herr Major. If the winds in the area are coming from offshore, as they usually do, they will probably carry the radiation further inland, across the states of Maryland and Virginia. The radiation will rise as high as the mushroom cloud, but no more. We have nothing to worry about.
"How long will the radiation persist?"
"The heaviest concentrations will be around for months, then eventually dissipate with future rain storms. Anyone within a twelve kilometer radius of the blast will be susceptible to radiation poisoning. At least that is what the American's discovered after Hiroshima and Nagisaki. I have heard that more people died from this poisoning than in the actual bombing. And it is not a pleasant way to die, your hair falls out, you have constant nausea, and often you get cancerous tumors. But after what the Americans did to us, I have no sympathy, we must..."
Kessler cut him off, "thank you, Dr. Kauffman, that is what I needed to know."
There was silence for a moment, then Kauffman said, "not that this will be a problem, but the fuses on this bomb are altitude fuses. I have set them to explode the bomb as soon as it is o one thousand meters from the ground. That is the perfect distance for creating maximum blast radius."
"How could it be a problem?" asked Kessler distantly as he was unable to get the images of Moriko and her mother out of his mind.
"Only if for some reason you decide to fly below one thousand meters. If you do the bomb will explode whether it is still inside us or not."
Kessler glanced at Anna again. "I love you, Papa."
Kessler's eyes started to mist. He was bound by duty and orders to complete this mission, insane as it was. Then his eyes lit with sudden inspiration. "No, Germany surrendered, the old government and military no longer exist, and have not in over a year. Colonel Meyer is a madman, just like the men he worshipped, Hitler, Goering, Goebbels, all mad. I am not bound to any of them."
Behind Anna the waking city of Washington, D.C. loomed. The sky was crystal clear, without a hint of cloud. "Radar warning," said Reitman. "We are being tracked, Herr Major. Suggest we keep our altitude at sixty five thousand meters. The Americans don't have any flack or fighters than can reach this high."
Kessler said nothing as he eased the throttles back, letting the reduction in power slow the Fledermaus to half it's designed speed. If dropped while flying too fast, the bomb could easily go off target. While the destruction would still be massive, it would more likely be in a residential part of Washington. Kessler sense the city stirring to another day. Dawdling children were being urged to get ready for school, husbands were kissing their wives good-by and braving the traffic to drive to work. Under the majestic dome of the Capitol, Congress was starting debate on the bills of the day. In the White House, President Truman was preparing to receive the new French Ambassador, a get acquainted meeting before the more formal reception later in the evening.
Anna still floated, slightly translucent in bright sunshine and blue backdrop of the sky. "I love you, Papa," she said once more. "I miss you, so does Mama."
Before Kessler could say anything Anna added, "she took her life after I died. Her heart was broken. She loves you too Papa."
Kessler shut his eyes tight but the tears could not be stopped. Again time slowed as he thought about what he was doing. He felt his soul tearing in two with one half arguing with the other. "Fifteen minutes to target" said Reitman. "Attaching last fuse now," added Kauffman excitedly. "There is no stopping us now."
"We will not do this!" shouted Kessler as he finally made up his mind. "No, this is insanity, we will not do this horrible deed!" He then banked the huge bomber around sharply so it was pointing out to sea again. "Major, what are you doing?" demanded Reitman. Kessler then felt the plane wobbling again. In an emergency, the navigator had enough flight controls to take over if the pilot was incapacitated. Reitman was fighting for those controls. "Major, I am ordering you to turn around and complete this mission."
"No," growled Kessler. "The war is over, we lost, we were misled by monstrous men who command us from their graves to continue their lunacy. I will jettison the bomb in the ocean then land and surrender to the Americans. They will know nothing of what we were going to do and will treat us well."
"Damn you," screamed Kauffman, his voice nearly drowned out by the engine noise inside the bomb bay. "I dropped the last fuse and cannot get it unless you hold this plane steady. Why the sudden turn? Are we under attack?"
Kessler then felt a hard pressing against his cheek. Reitman had reached around the back of the seat and was holding his pistol against Kessler's face. His voice was cold as he said, "now listen to me, Major. Whatever is going through your mind, whatever has happened to you, it is irrelevant. This is not a blow of lunacy as you put it, but the beginning of a new Germany. Colonel Meyer as we speak is putting into action his plan to move the technicians in small groups out of the hanger and then to Argentina. There they will gather and in a remote area start building a fleet of Fledermaus's. Kauffman will find the materials for more bombs. But even if he can't, we will find chemists to fill these bombs with poison gas, anthrax, anything that has the most impact. First the Americans, then the British, finally the Russians. They will be forced to withdraw from Germany unless they want to see their cities perish one by one. We cannot be stopped, Major, by you or anyone else. Accept your fate and turn around now, or I will kill you and take over this plane."
Kessler sighed and shook his head slowly in acceptance. Reitman did not withdraw his hand as Kessler put the plane into a shallow banking turn back on course. His headset suddenly cackled with Kauffman's excited voice.
"I found the fuse! The bomb is now armed, nothing, i repeat nothing, will stop it from exploding now."
Kessler felt very cold. His last maneuver clearly failed as the determined Kauffman by either luck or fate still managed to arm the bomb. No matter where it was released, at exactly one thousand meters it would detonate, ending the lives of hundreds of thousand innocent people in second. Shutting his eyes for a moment, he felt that last shreds of duty finally dissolve. In a near instant, he made up his mind what to do. He jerked the control stick hard to the right. The Fledermaus snapped in that direction, the suddenness of the maneuver throwing Reitman's gun hand away from Kessler and banging it on the canopy. Before he could recover, Kessler drew his own pistol from his holster. His movements seemed slow, as if his body was moving at a snails pace.
He tried to aim, but saw the barrel of Reitman's pistol swing back to point right at him. Though Reitman could not see him, the confines of Kessler's seat harness made it obvious where he was. Kessler saw Reitman's finger tighten on the trigger. Kessler would never escape the shot nor get a chance to shoot Reitman first. In a fraction of a second, he made his decision of what to do. The deafening explosion of Reitman's gun was simultaneous with the explosion of light in his head as the bullet penetrated below his right eye, tearing through his neck and nicking his spinal chord. At the same time, seemingly in the microsecond between the gun firing and the bullet hitting him, Kessler also fired, a deliberate shot despite appearances of randomness.
He never saw the bullet smash through the plexiglass canopy. Blackness engulfed him as he heard the canopy shatter when the pressurized air inside the cockpit pushed so hard through the bullet hole it burst into the thin air outside. Numbing cold of over eighty degrees below zero, whipped by an airspeed of close to three hundred miles an hour tore savagely at everything it touched. Because of the pressurized cockpit, neither Kessler or Reitman were wearing their oxygen masks. There wasn't enough oxygen on board anyway for the duration of the flight, so they had opted to save it in case of an emergency. Only Kauffman was on oxygen since the bomb bay was unpressurized, but it did not matter. There were no flight controls at the bombardier's seat. And the cold would soon make him unconscious.
The sudden cold and exposure to air too thin for breathing caused Kessler and Reitman to pass out almost at once. Kessler had a final vision, Anna again holding Moriko's hand, and both beaming at him. Blackness then engulfed his sight, and he felt nothing more.
The pilotless bomber began a slow descent that gradually steepened. On instinct honed by thousands of hours as a pilot, Kessler's last act
had been to almost subconsciously straighten the plane's flight path so it was pointed out to sea once more. Majestically it glided for the next half hour. When it was two hundred kilometers from the coast, it finally passed below one thousand meters. The bomb exploded with the brilliance of a thousand suns, a mighty blast with a fireball terrible to behold, yet complete ineffective.
A search plane would be dispatched to look for this mysterious intruder that showed up on radar at an amazingly high altitude and speed, then oddly turned away and finally vanished from all radar screens. And the explosion was witnessed from several ships. Intensive searches by air and sea continued for many months, obviously under the greatest secrecy especially after strong radiation was detected. But the Atlantic Ocean did not give up mysteries easily. No one would ever know about the disaster that was averted.
Author's Notes: While the events are totally fictitious, this story is based on a possibility that if a few things had gone differently in World War 2, Germany could have developed an atomic bomb. Werner Heisenberg was a real person who's wrong headed theories fortunately did much to dissuade the Nazi leaders from more vigorously pursuing building the bomb. The plane in the story, the Horten 18B "Fledermaus", was actually designed and two underground hangers built where it would be secretly constructed. Coincidentally, it bore more than just a passing resemblance to the Stealth Bomber. The cavern in the Alps is fictitious, though the concept of digging caverns from mountainsides for airbases has been used for years by the Swiss Air Force. Any suggestions are appreciated. I'm particularly interested in any technical details I may have overlooked that could significantly affect the plot.