Aphelion Issue 291, Volume 28
February 2024
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Catch A Falling Starfighter

by Dan L. Hollifield

A Tom Darby Story

"Ever hear of a 'fate worse than death?' Welcome to the big leagues, kid..." Tom Darby.

Russian-controlled Berlin was a totalitarian paradise. Everyone was controlled. Any act of rebellion or independence was answered with instant execution or imprisonment. Case in point, when I was assigned to a batch of spooks in East Germany in the ‘60s. Must have been early ‘60s ‘cause JFK was still alive. I didn’t even know what the team was after. I was just their extraction pilot, not a real spook. Never even figured out why I was ground-side with them instead of just meeting them on some back road somewhere with a plane big enough for all six of them plus me.

Six weeks on the outskirts of Berlin and the entire team had either been captured, killed, or shipped off to Moscow to be tried in some kind of kangaroo court. Somehow, I’d evaded capture. But I was on my own, alone, behind the Iron Curtain. I had to get out of there before anyone on the team got tortured enough to give me up in order to make the pain stop.

Now look, I’ve been tortured by amateurs and experts alike. Once somebody reaches a certain point—different for everyone, I’m sure—they’d sell their own mothers or children to try and put a stop to it. I understand. Hell, I saw Mickey get picked up by a patrol as I was on my way to meet up with him. Right there on the street, in front of the café where we were supposed to meet. He was the last member of the team to be captured. Bobby was first, but he got off easy, they just shot him dead right there in that park we used for dead-drops. Well, he dropped dead all right. 7.63 Mauser bullet, right through his head. Buncha guys in heavy, gray coats dropped him, and then toted him off like a sack of rotted potatoes.  Brenda and Elsa were next—they just vanished. They were locals the team recruited, so I never found out if they just ran or got caught. Mack, Darren, Chuck, Artie, and Simon vanished in short order. Artie got in a hit-and-run with a black sedan. Kinda odd since he was on a freaking SIDEWALK at the time. Darren was poisoned—Simon told me there was a dart in his neck when he died. Then Simon got arrested half an hour after we’d last talked. Mack and Chuck just disappeared. Never did find out what happened to them. Just, poof, and gone.

So, I’m alone behind the Wall. Matter of time before I get picked up or assassinated. And the only thing I could do was pray the Commies didn’t know I was part of their, my friend’s, team—yet. Only a matter of time. My advantages were pretty damn few. I knew where the team had stashed some gear they couldn’t afford to carry around with them. My German and Russian language skills were the best I could manage, and I’d been assigned a different hotel than they had in order to distance myself from them. I knew the checkpoints across the border were impossible for a lone man. I’d been assigned some dinky Russian pistol instead of the Colt I favored—as part of my disguise. Wasn’t a bad pistol, just really small. I had documents that purported to show that I was a German National, or a Russian for that matter, but I decided to toss the Russian papers in a trash can ‘cause their records wouldn’t have me in them under that name at all. I turned my hat brim down and flipped my raincoat collar up because of the light, spitting rain and plodded back towards my hotel at a nice, easy, totally unsuspicious pace. I stepped into a coffee house for a cup of something hot and black and warming that wasn’t entirely disgusting for European coffee. Once the rain slacked off to almost nothing, I left and wandered around at random—checking to see if I had picked up a tail. I didn’t see anyone following me, so I went to a nightclub for a touch of the cheapest liquid courage my disguise would allow. Rotgut, really. But my language skills got polished as a side effect. A couple of hookers took an interest in me, but I told them I was broke and down on my luck, so eventually they went off in search of more suitable prey. Once I was sure no one was following me, I went back to my hotel to think. I hoped I could come up with a plan.

I sat there reading newspapers for two days. Only times I left the room was to get a meal and keep my disguise current by sticking to the routine I’d established for the past few weeks. I went to a couple of clubs, the regular café I’d been frequenting, an opera once although I slept through most of it, and kept up appearances as best I could.

I was scared to death the whole time. I mean, seriously, I’d much rather have been in a fighter jet getting shot at in a dogfight than walk those streets. But I had an act to perform. Any deviation from the identity I’d adopted could give me away. It was a really frightening time, Sport. I hate working for spooks. I sincerely hate working for spooks. But there’s nothing better for focusing the mind than being hyperaware of just how narrow a tightrope I’d been walking.

In my room, on the third day after the team had been “ghosted,” I read about something in one of the newspapers that gave me a glimmer of hope. Something about extra security at a nearby airport. I wondered why. So I dug a bit deeper and found out that something weird was going on there. Some West German pilot had been forced down and his plane was forbidden for the locals to go see. Seems it was an American-designed plane, a single-seater fighter jet, no less. It was only in one early edition of one single paper. No later edition mentioned it, and neither did any other paper. That told me that the Iron Curtain had come down well and truly hard on something the Russians didn’t want the German public to know about. The game, as the saying goes, was afoot.

The next day I risked going to the old warehouse the team had stored their gear in. The stuff they couldn’t afford to be caught with, I mean, and once I was sure no one was watching it, I broke in and grabbed a few choice items. I could only risk being seen with the briefcase my disguise had become known for, but I packed that sucker with everything I could stuff into it. My raincoat pockets, too. I even stashed a couple of packets of plastique under my hat. When I got back to my hotel room, I had three pistols within reach at all times. On my way up I had told the desk clerk and all the bellhops that I felt like I was coming down with something—from the rain and chill weather. I ordered some kind of hot soup from room service that night, and had coated my lips with beeswax and practiced a fairly convincing cough to make it look like I was sick and feverish. I gave my performance one more day, and then left without checking out. I’d spent the night making little “flash-bangs” out of the plastique and some pull-string detonators, as well as a couple of really sizable charges—for just in case. I went so far as to line the inside of my hat’s sweat band with enough explosives to blow my head off if I were to be captured. I had that dream about Korea again when I slept that night. All three pistols were under my coat, fully loaded, with one in the chamber, when I left the hotel.

I didn’t chance a taxi.

Once again it was misting rain as I walked across the city towards the airport where the newspaper said the jet was sitting, under guard. I didn’t really have that far to walk. About five miles. I bought a couple of newspapers along the way, looking for any mention it had been moved. I even stopped for an hour at a museum to check for tails, as well as window shopping so I could check the storefront reflections for signs of pursuit. Nothing, at least, nothing I could see. After I left the museum, I dropped packets of plastique in random trashcans—all set to go off at the same time.

When I reached the airport, I bought a ticket for a flight West—I don’t remember to where. Hungary, maybe Czechoslovakia. Wasn’t important, but it used up almost all my German cash. In a restroom at the airport I got a moment alone by hovering in a toilet until I couldn’t hear anyone else in the room, then I dropped an incendiary charge into a trashcan as I dried my hands. The timer was set for half an hour. Almost the same time I’d set for everything else.

On my way through the airport terminal, I managed to lose my coat. There was enough plastique in its pockets to make another nice little distraction. Its timers were both set to go off five minutes after the fire in the restroom. I kinda felt sorry for everyone at the airport, but I’d spread the plastique out thinly enough so that no one would be seriously injured, just scared shitless and running panicked. I really just wanted to get to the plane on the tarmac without getting shot, you know?

About the time I’d gotten to an exit that led directly out onto the airfield, I heard fire and ambulance sirens leaving towards town. I devoutly prayed that I hadn’t killed anyone with my bombs. Then the fire alarm went off. My former presence in the bathroom had activated. It was time for another brief performance.

I knew that the bombs in my coat would only be five minutes behind, so I dashed for the doors. A soldier even held the door for me when I shouted “Brand! Feuer! Das Gebäude brennt!“

He released the door after I got out and then heroically ran deeper into the building towards the little blaze I had caused. Knowing I had, at the most, three minutes before my other little surprize packages exploded, I took off my hat and pulled the pin on the detenator inside. Tossing it at the closed door I’d just exited, I ran like a frightened rabbit towards the American jet plane I could see in the near distance. I unfastened the clasp of my briefcase as I ran.

I could see the airplane clearly now. I even recognized it.

"Oh hell," I said. "It’s a Starfighter. I’m gonna die.“

Then I noticed that someone was shooting at me. Sparks leapt off the tarmac as bullets hit the gravel. I looked around quickly as I pulled the little Russian pistol and squeezed off a few rounds in their general direction, once I knew where they were, I mean.

I grabbed a bomb out of my briefcase after I’d emptied the Russian pistol, pulled the improvised detonator string with my teeth as I tossed the empty gun to the ground, I lobbed it in the general direction of the Russian guards who were shooting at me. How did I know they were Russian instead of Germans? They wore Russian uniforms. Four other, small improvised grenades followed the first as I ran towards the jet.

“The cockpit is open!“ I shouted as I ran. I tossed the rest of my little home-made grenades as far as I could towards everyone who was shooting at me.

“God help me if it hasn’t been fueled! I haven’t got time for this!“

I pulled and emptied the other two pistols as I ran. I threw them down as soon as they were empty. I was almost there!

When I reached the plane I swarmed up the ladder as if a swarm of angry hornets were right behind me. I pulled the cords on my improvised detonaters on the last three large bombs I’d made, then threw the ladder off the side of the plane, slammed the cockpit closed, and fired that mother up.

“Full tanks!“ I rejoiced as the instrument panel came alive. I shoved the throttle home and prayed I wouldn’t stall the engine out as it warmed up. It slowly began to taxi down the runway and I heard the first explosion of my homemade bombs going off. There was smoke and confusion behind me and open runway in front to me. Agnonizingly slowly, the damned Widowmaker built up speed as it crawled along the runway. I must have had all of 20 feet of runway left before that monster got up to speed. I pulled the stick back and let it climb for all it was worth. At 1500 MPH the bugger climbed as far as it could go. That took a minute and 12 seconds. At 50,000 feet I leveled out and headed West. Damn thing was shaking like Granny’s old washing machine. My teeth were rattling.

I got all the systems online and checked for any kind of pursuit. I didn’t like the readouts. I’d redlined everything and it hadn’t had enough warm-up time. But nothing was on the radar for at least ten minutes worth of distance.

That was about the time the first air-to-air missile detonated off my left side.

“Oooooo! That was not polite!“ I said as I pulled hard on the stick to go further towards the left—expecting my attacker to be trying to herd me into an easy target position on my right. I put the nose into a dive as I just barely sensed the explosion of the second missile on my right. But I had played this game in Korea. I dropped down like an express elevator and then faked to the right and left just baely above the treetops of some forest in West Germany at Mach 2—or as close as this particular Widowmaker could get. I vaguely heard other explosions behind me as my attacker, or attackers, totally failed to guess what I was going to do next. I was burning fuel as if it were prayer candles, or incense. If I were at altitude and a simple crusing speed, I might have been able to make 1500 miles on the amount of fuel I had at take-off. With these evasive manovers, I’d be lucky to get 700 miles.

And that’s about the time I chcked the readouts for the weapons systems. That didn’t take long. There weren’t weren’t any. Oh, the systems were there, but nothing had been loaded while the Widowmaker had been siting as a captive at that airport in Berlin.

“OK, either I fly my way out of this, or this is gonna be a real short ride,“ I said. Along with a colorful collection of words my Granny would have whooped me for knowing.

Right about that time I saw a missile climb above me, from where I was headed! I must have been well over France by then.

“I believe the Cavelry has arrived, Tonto,“ I said to the shuddering and overheating peice of crap this plane was. My teeth were still rattling from the shaking it was giving me, and I hoped that I would be able to convince the bugger to fully unfold its landing gear when I had a chance to set down. More missiles launched from planes I couldn’t see even on the radar because of the gyrations of this murderous, jinxy jet. Suddenly, Paris was in front of me and everything behind me became less important than getting this hunk of junk back on the ground in on piece. I pulled the throttle back, aimed at the nearest long runway, and hoped the air traffic controllers could hear me when I asked for emergency landing clearance. The radio died. Kaput. I lined the Widowmaker up on the first long runway I could see and flipped the switch for the landing gear.

I guess I‘d earned at least one more miracle. I managed to land it safely.

No more damn Spooks, I thought as the jet rolled to a stop on the runway.

Of course, I was wrong. Those buggers weren’t finished with me yet. The Cold War went on for decades.



To Be Continued…

© 2019 Dan L Hollifield

Bio: Dan L. Hollifield has been the Senior Editor and Publisher of Aphelion Webzine since its inception in 1997. His short story collection "Tales From The Mare Inebrium" was nominated for the J.W. Campbell Award upon its release in 2014. His early online work has appeared in several, now defunct, websites such as Dragon's Lair, Steel Caves, Titanzine, and The Writer's Workshop. One of his steampunk short stories, "Her Magesty's Gift" appears in the POD collection "Flash Of Aphelion," and "The Dark Side of Diablo Canyon" appears in Horrified Press' collection "Steam-Powered Dream Engines." He regularly attends the Chattanooga TN convention LibertyCon and recently became the Literary Track Director for the Atlanta GA convention AnachroCon. He is currently 61 years old, married to his beloved Lindsey Burt-Hollifield, and lives in the howling wastelands of Northeast Georgia, USA, outside of Athens GA. They have five children between their serial marriages and more grandchildren and great-grandchildren than modern mathematics is able to enumerate. They also are owned by a multitude of cats, and one very spoiled dog...

E-mail: Dan L. Hollifield

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