The flak had come on thick and Henry had pulled his uniform cap down firmly over his head, subconsciously hoping for greater protection from flying pieces of shrapnel. It was night and the Jerries were shooting from below. Nobody knew which plane would take a direct hit…you just prayed it wasn’t yours.
When it did end up being his plane, Henry the Radio Operator remained strangely calm, as if his mind had been secretly preparing for the eventuality the entire time. They were already flying low and, though the pilots kept yelling up front, Henry silently began transmitting code through the radio.
“Pull up for the love of Jesus!” the co-pilot yelled.
When the treetops hit the bottom of the fuselage Henry’s heart finally gave a jump. He could hear crewmembers running about behind him, back in the cargo bay. As the pilot gave a scream Henry pushed himself as far back into his tiny seat as he could, bracing for impact.
Henry awoke later and felt his face and neck gingerly, his hand coming away red and sticky with drying blood. It was still dark. Engines didn’t catch fire, he thought as he slowly tried to move his legs, testing his movement and reflexes.
Silent inside the plane – not good.
Nothing felt broken, and Henry stood, his body protesting in agony. Christ, it hurts! he thought. He turned back to his radio, but the device was wrenched free from the cabin wall – useless now. He turned to his right and peered into the cockpit.
Barnes and Henderson, the pilots, were clearly dead. Tree branches had come in through the shattered windows. There was blood on the floor.
Henry grabbed the flight manuals, maps, and limped to the cargo bay, passing two prone airmen. More blood. One man’s neck was bent at an odd and unhealthy angle.
As his agonized muscles and tendons begged him to stop, Henry the Radio Operator, apparent sole survivor of Pathfinder Plane #10, searched for useful supplies. He remembered earlier in the day at the flight briefing back in England:
“You men are dropping these supplies over Bastogne. Krauts have our boys penned up something fierce and they’re running low on everything. Our intel hasn’t turned out anything good, so our only option is to try to hold on to this area as long as possible to hold Jerry down. If the town falls they’ll be free to divert forces to the north. The Limeys holding that sector aren’t as prepared and would be forced back by any German advance.
If the Krauts take Antwerp we’re in a mess of hurt. I don’t need to tell you about those things they’ve been shooting at London since September. If they cut off our supplies at Antwerp we’re dead in the water and won’t breach that Siegfried Line for several months. Have to build up supplies all the way from the goddamn beaches, y’understand?
So your planes will take this route toward the drop zone, get these crate airborn, and get the hell out of there. Krauts know we’re coming. Somehow it seems that they’ve known most of our moves.”
The Major had stood awkwardly at that moment, as if realizing that he had said too much. Most of the flight crews were tired and wired, hooked on caffeine and their cigs, and didn’t seem to catch the officer’s wide eyes and flash of confused anger.
“You men are free to go. Reconvene with your crews at 2100 for pre-flight. And I need to see all officers.”
Briefing ended. Henry went to write a letter to mail back home and smoke a Lucky Strike.
The sound of gunfire snapped Henry back to attention, and for the first time he felt the bitter chill of the late-December air. Winter in eastern France, he thought. Who the fuck needs it?
He knew from the briefing and the maps that he was behind German lines. How far behind them he did not know. The planes had been going fast and had struggled for several minutes after being hit. He could be many miles off course. Looking at his maps he saw numerous German units known to be in the area…or suspected to be, at least. Fucking Kraut offensive had caught everyone off-guard. And they’d thought the Germans were near done!
So much for being in Berlin by Christmas.
Now there was the sound of rumbling engines coming closer. Time to go.
The Tiger tank burst through the snow-covered saplings and raced toward the downed American plane. C-47 Transport, thought the Hauptmann. Maybe there was information of American and British maneuvers. Behind the tank came several more vehicles, including a few captured American Jeeps. Snow swirled in the night air and powerful floodlights lit up the brownish-grey metal of the plane.
The Hauptmann’s unit had overwhelmed an American supply depot the previous week and had switched most of its gear to the Jeeps, abandoning their malfunctioning Kampfwagens, which had obviously spent too much time in the East.
Now they were headed as far West as they could go, to test the new American positions. Nobody knew what state they were in. But it was slow going – they were low on fuel and needed to conserve it. The unexpectedly-deep snow was slowing down everything.
They had started with eight Tigers and were now down to four, having siphoned invaluable fuel from the four damaged ones before abandoning them with a group of older Hitlerjugend SS, who planned to push them into roadblock positions.
“Halt hier!” yelled the Hauptmann to his tank driver, who obligingly stopped the armored vehicle next to the wrecked plane.
“If anyone is in there, come out with your hands in the air!” the Hauptmann announced in slow, learned English. “There are many of us and you cannot escape!” Some of the men tried to aim the lights into the plane’s broken windows, searching for movement.
Silence from inside the fuselage.
From inside the tank came arguing as to whether or not the Americans could be planning an ambush. The Hauptmann assumed there would be no ambush – the Americans would likely get their prisoners back sooner or later and so nobody wanted to die if they could eventually return home.
“We search the plane,” he told his men.
A Hauptfeldwebel and two Unteroffiziers stormed the plane with their MP-40s at the ready, yelling in broken and imperfect English that the Americans needed to surrender. Eventually the three men came back outside, blinking in the harsh lights.
“Alles tod!” the Hauptfeldwebel, a grizzled veteran of the Ukraine, announced. Everyone was dead inside the plane.
Time to gather some intel.
Shivering, Henry watched the Germans from the trees. He had liberated armfuls of supplies and slipped out a large hole in the rear of the plane as the fearsome tank had approached, silhoutted by powerful klieg lights.
Yelling in German and English – the Krauts wanted to take prisoners. Interrogations, thought Henry nervously. Don’t want to be interrogated.
Three Nazi soldiers eventually rushed inside the plane, rifles ready, and Henry heard them clambering about noisily for several minutes. They came out, yelled in German, and more men left the vehicles, now including several captured American Jeeps, and headed inside the C-47.
Knowing he needed to keep his strength up, the young Radio Operator began listlessly eating food from the many C-Rations he had liberated from the cargo bay. He sank back into his nest of blankets and coats, confused and scared.
“They were going to Bastogne,” the Leutnant said, reading a map in the blood-spattered cockpit. “Drop supplies. Looks like they didn’t make it.”
“Well then, we’d better make good use of those supplies!” the Hauptmann replied jauntily, glancing back at the cargo bay that was being emptied by his soldiers. “I hear American rations are quite good.”
A soldier approached, saluting.
“Sir! An SS Captain is here!” the soldier said, eyes wide.
“What does he want?”
“He wishes to speak to the ranking officer who found the aircraft!”
“Very well, send him in.”
The SS Captain was a blond man, about thirty years of age, with a gleam in his eye and an aura of intense energy. Must not have been at the front long, the Hauptmann thought bitterly. Uniform too nice to have done any real fighting. The SS man introduced himself as Captain Frederick Sturm, with the Liebstandarte Adolf Hitler.
He wanted complete access to the plane, which was carrying secret documents. “I am so sorry,” Sturm said with an aristocratic air that grated on both the Hauptmann and his Leutnant, “but you must leave now so I can investigate.”
“What about the supplies? My men desperately need them! We must be allowed to continue unloading.”
“I am sorry – I must start my investigation immediately. You have five minutes to move the last crates you can.”
Henry watched the German units depart several minutes after the lone German officer arrived in a captured Jeep. The lights were extinguished as the four tanks rumbled away, followed by a trail of Jeeps and Kraut wagens. Most of the vehicles had crates strapped to them somewhere – the soldiers had been unable to open them before having to leave.
The lone Jeep remained, with the Nazi officer perhaps still inside the plane.
Why would he be here alone with the others gone? Henry asked himself silently. He fingered his .45 and his extra clips of ammunition.
Could he take this guy out?
A Jeep could help him escape back to American lines, maybe. If it had gas.
The German was alone. If anyone heard the gunshots they could not make it back before Henry could take the Jeep and escape.
If he stayed here the next German patrol might find him. Or he could run out of food. Or freeze to death.
Then he heard the voice, in perfect Americanized English, coming from inside the plane:
“Oh Henry, yes, Henry! Are you out there?!”
He was about to reply when he realized that the Kraut had probably gotten his name from a sheet of paper with the crew roster. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that one body was not in the plane.
The Radio Operator could be quickly determined to be the one who was unaccounted for. Sgt. Henry Rowles was that radio operator.
But still, it was spooky how good that Kraut’s English was. Too good.
He stayed quiet, hand on his pistol.
“Henry, come on back to the plane. The snow is only gonna get worse tonight! Come down here and let’s talk, all right? We can build us a fire to keep warm.”
Henry didn’t move.
After several minutes came a new voice, something louder and somehow inhuman – bone-chilling in its alien-ness. “Don’t make me come out there and get you.”
Henry’s blood ran cold.
The snow did grow harder, as that strange Nazi had predicted.
It was cold and wet and Henry shivered uncontrollably.
The outlines of the plane and the Jeep grew softer as snow piled on top of them.
Henry faded into unconsciousness after his shivering stopped.
He awoke inside the plane, staring up at the metal roof of the cargo bay. A crackling fire, small but hot, could be felt next to his side. His pistol was gone.
“I’m burning some of the empty crates,” the SS Captain said amicably, again in perfect, un-accented English. “Better in here than out there, right?” The man smiled above his SS runes.
“Uh, yeah,” Henry said as his teeth chattered. His body felt burning pain as blood returned to his extremities.
“Much longer out there and you would’ve frozen to death!” the German said. “Fortunately, I can see well in the dark, better than any man. I knew where you were the whole time.”
He looked down at the American and saw a look of skepticism and anger. Without a word he helped the airman into a sitting position, ignoring the man’s jump at his unwanted touch.
“You and me have got to plan, buddy,” the Nazi said. “We’ve gotta come up with a story.”
The German had good brandy, and it helped loosen Henry’s tongue. As the wind and snow howled outside the now-warm plane, they began having a surprisingly friendly chat about Henry’s life back in Virginia.
A chat which, for some reason, the German seemed to have anticipated. The man knew much about Virginia, though he had no southern twang in his voice.
Was this guy a spy? Henry thought during a lull in the conversation, sipping his brandy.
Eventually, after discussing his entry into the Army Air Force, Henry asked the man outright who he was.
“Henry, I’m your grandson,” the man replied with a gentle smile.
“Well, actually, this is your grandson’s body. I am another entity entirely. I replaced your grandson’s brain and now control his body.”
Henry was too shocked to say anything. This had to be a wild story, but the Nazi’s eyes showed truthfulness.
“I’m from far in the future, you see. Your grandson was an astronaut, of sorts…oh, right, you don’t know about those yet. Well, let’s just say that your grandson was a futuristic explorer who found, to his grave error, me.”
“What are you?” Henry asked, astonished and disbelieving. “You expect me to believe a cocked-up story like that? What are you playing at?”
“I’m a being composed of billions of invisible particles, called nanoparticles, that will not be invented for another almost 80 years in this dimension. Eventually such beings, including myself, evolved to be able to mimic the human brain. Which I, obviously, did. I ‘infected’ your grandson after he and others began exploring my dimension and hitched a ride with him. He is my host body now.”
“How far in the future are you from?”
“Oh, hundreds of years. Your grandson, when his expedition was sent, emerged into my dimension hundreds of years from even his future, which was about 75 years from now. My inventors were much higher-tech than his people. I’d occupied six hosts.
But my world was destroyed in a war and I’d spent too much time occupying lonesome survivors. To escape from my destroyed world I waited for centuries until inter-dimensional explorers happened by. I infected your grandson, himself unawares of what had happened, and only ‘turned on’ when he returned home.”
Henry was silent.
“If this is all true, what do you want with me?”
“His people found out about me and sealed me up inside their secure base. I could not escape. Fortunately, where I was sealed included all the inter-dimensional travel equipment. So, to break out, I entered the travel device and used my immense intelligence to re-configure it to take me here. His primitive people had so little control over inter-dimensional travel, but I chose this time and place.” The strange SS officer smiled, obviously pleased with himself.
Henry’s mind began formulating a plan. Keep this guy talking.
“Why this time and place? Why not to our future, where you said your kind began?”
“They are too powerful then, and could destroy me. I am not biological, and I am made of invisible particles. I can transfer from host-to-host quickly. Like a spirit. I cannot be killed by guns, knives, or any sort of earthly trauma But a thing called an electromagnetic pulse can kill me. In the future they can use them. Would destroy a city, but they might be willing to do that if they fear me so!” Sturm smiled again, this time showing teeth. “They were trying to set one off before I escaped from that base!”
Henry nodded, not understanding many of the terms.
“How did you know about this time? And the war? And why are you dressed as a German?”
“I know all about this. Your grandson’s mind is accessible to me, and he was a history teacher. Since this war is part of his history, he knew all about it. I needed to find his ancestors, and the easiest way to do that was go back to the early 1940s, speak fluent German, and blend in with the Waffen SS during this here Ardennes Offensive the Germans have going. I knew from your grandson’s mind when and where you would be flying overhead.
Posing as a General, I had anti-aircraft batteries transferred to your flight patterns, to be sure to get your plane!”
“How’d you know I wouldn’t die in the crash?” Henry asked angrily.
“I didn’t, which made the risk all the more fun! If my plan hadn’t worked I would have had to wait years and years to think of a new plan…but then again, I’m a millenium old!”
“So…why did you want me alive? Just to tell me this?”
“No, no, Henry – I came to replace you.”
With terrifying precision, the being masquerading as SS Captain Frederick Sturm laid out his plan: He was to use the fog and chaos of war to become Henry Rowles, downed U.S. Army Air Force Sergeant who had escaped from German-occupied territory. Assume a new identity and experience life in a vibrant new country.
His own nation, in his home dimension, had been decimated by war. He had lived in isolation and brokenness for centuries. He wanted the “American Dream.”
The grandson looked enough like the grandfather to pass, especially after three years away at war. The grandfather was a single man, early twenties, whose identity could be assumed easily.
The Sturm-thing pulled out a menacing handgun and pointed it at Henry.
“I have to kill you now and exchange our uniforms. You will become SS Captain Sturm, killed by me, U.S. Army Air Force survivor Henry Rowles, during an investigation of the plane. In about three weeks Allied patrols will sweep back through this sector and discover Sturm’s bodies. Probably be buried in an unmarked grave. I, as you, will receive a heroes’ welcome.”
Sturm-thing pulled sheets of paper out of his pocket – typed pages written in German.
“Oh, and I happened to find these documents on Sturm’s body after I killed him. These will make me a hero and help end the war faster! Perhaps get me a field promotion to an officer, even.”
Henry nodded grimly, too shocked for real emotion. He had to escape from this madness.
“Can I go look at some of my pictures at my radio before I go? I had a girl back home and would like to say goodbye.”
Sturm nodded, gesturing with the Luger. “Make it quick.”
Henry walked slowly toward his radio, toward the photo of an old girlfriend taped to the metal wall. He began snuffling, crying.
Then he bolted out the open door, into the snowy night.
The Sturm-thing was true to his word about having reflexes faster than any man, enhanced by a “full-body nano network,” and shot Henry clean through the upper arm. Henry ran, fueled by adrenaline.
With his other arm Henry already had his lighter in his hand.
Sturm-thing was behind him, running silently, hoping to catch the new body without further damage.
Henry tossed his lit lighter at the yawning engine cowling. There was still fuel in those engines. The engines hadn’t caught fire.
As Sturm-thing tackled him to the ground the explosion ripped through the night air. The Sturm-thing’s body covered Henry’s and protected it from the drenching of burning fuel.
Sturm-thing gave an unholy scream and stood up, horrified at its body being destroyed by burning aviation fuel. The Luger dropped to the snow, landing in a puff of white powder.
Rolling away, Henry snatched it with his good arm, and pulled the trigger. No safety.
Bullets slammed into the writhing Sturm-thing, and it collapsed onto its knees, not knowing what to do about itself in the midst of the fuel-fed inferno.
Henry Rowles emptied the clip into the thing and it lay silent, now just a burning body lying in the melting snow. Above them, the wing of the plane burned brightly in the snow-laced sky.
Krauts gonna hear this and come back, Henry thought. What do I do now? What the HELL just HAPPENED?!
He headed for the snow-covered Jeep.