But it was the aircraft that really bothered him. This thing, with its stubby nose and thick-waisted bulk and clumsy-looking fixed landing gear, seemed to Michael a relic more suited to the last world war than the one in the unfortunate present. As Michael understood, the Lysander had been an antique even on its maiden flight in 1936. This was the year 1941, and what in the world was this thing even doing on a landing strip, much less about to take to the air as soon as the three Spitfire fighters went up. Michael shifted his bottom in the hard leather seat, whose rips were oozing cotton, and mused upon the fact that the Lysander was named after a Spartan general.
He knew what Spartan soldiers said about their shields: With this, or upon this.
Somehow, it was not comforting.
The airfield at the Bir Al Kabir oasis was a slapdash construction of tents and prefabricated buildings brought in by cargo planes from Cairo, two hundred and twenty-four miles to the east. The scraggly palm trees around the waterhole were not pretty and the water was not sweet, but even water that smelled and tasted of rotten eggs was life in this climate of a hundred and twenty-two degree days. A hot wind sometimes blew in, nagging at the tents and hissing through the aircraft engines to find their weak places, as more spinning sheets of dust painted machines and men alike the blanched shade of misery.
There was a war going on, and it was not always necessarily Churchill's British versus Hitler's Germans and Mussolini's Italians; sometimes it was the Brit versus the invasion of a hundred thousand biting flies, or the Brit versus the month of burning days so stunning saliva dried within seconds to white crust on the cracked lips, or the Brit versus the empty horizon upon which heatwaves threw mirages of huge lakes that shimmered like molten vats of white glass.
The first of the Spitfire fighter planes was taking off. Woe to the other pilots behind him, including the Cockney kid at the Lysander's controls, due to the amount of dust the takeoff stirred up. "You must be an important chap, sir," came the next comment. "Three Spit escort and all, beggin' your pardon."
"I have my uses," Michael answered. The way the Lysander's engine made the plane vibrate did not make him talkative. The pilot would be throttling up and rolling out onto the runway when the third Spit took to the air, any minute now.
"Roger that. We're waitin'. Over," said the pilot through his headset microphone.
The second Spitfire roared off into the sky. The third was taxiing into takeoff position.
Michael checked his Rolex wristwatch. He figured he'd be in Cairo in time for a debriefing meeting at HQ and then on to lunch on the shaded veranda of the Piper's Club. He hadn't realized how much he missed their small filets, a platter of orange rolls and a fine cold beer. Two beers would be doubly fine. Then on to sleep for about twelve hours, on sheets of Egyptian cotton.
The third Spit took off, trailing dust. "Here we go, sir," said the pilot cheerfully, and Michael thought he must be a budding sadist, for the kid gave the plane a little jerk as it rolled forward onto the strip, as if it wanted to leap into the air without benefit of a proper sprint. The noise of the engine was like hammers beating hollow metal drums to a madman's rhythm, and over that unholy racket Michael could hear what sounded to him like loose bolts jumping in the wings.
"Roger, on our way," the pilot told his controller. "Over." He throttled up and the Lysander began to roll.
The Lysander's chief talent was that it didn't need a very long runway. They were off the ground in about ten seconds, and Michael placed his hands on his knees and squeezed the blood out of them as the craft rose quickly to meet the three Spitfires circling above the field.
"Goin' up to fifteen thousand today, sir," the pilot told him. "Get yourself a good look at the desert from way up there."
Another look at the desert was the last thing Michael Gallatin needed or wanted.
His entire four-day mission out here had involved looking at the desert. He knew what they'd called him at the airfield: Majorly Strange. That was because after every sundown he drove through the guards' position in an open-topped Morris truck and drove back in an hour before sunup. They knew that he was a reconnaissance officer, but they were puzzled as to why he went out alone. What they didn't know was that, once out in the desert at a distance of a couple of miles or more, the recon major stopped his truck, took off his uniform, folded it and put it away, and then Majorly Strange became a creature that the word 'strange' utterly failed to describe. Over the sand and fist-sized stones of the hammada he ran westward on four legs, and cloaked by the night he travelled mile upon mile to make note in his human mind of the brutal landscape: the soft pits of sand that could swallow a truck or a tank, the series of dunes that would turn a soldier's legs and willpower to jelly, the vast flat plains stubbled with cactus that rose to mountains and fell off again into chasms of jagged red rock. He was searching also for the German mines that lay in their thousands under the sand or the stony crust, and these he could smell by the metallic tang of danger that thrust at him, snake-like, as he approached. So much metal, and so much high explosive. The air reeked.
He used his heightened sense of direction to place these minefields on the map he'd learned to carry in his head, and so on he went alert for German patrols or the movement of troops and armored vehicles or the almost imperceptible blue lamps of an enemy outpost whose machine guns were trained on a maze of barbed wire, tank traps and Bouncing Betty mines designed to burst up from the ground and explode red-hot shrapnel into a man's groin.
His job was to find a path for the British Army to move westward and destroy the Afrika Korps' seige of Tobruk, which had trapped over twenty-four thousand Commonwealth soldiers in a ring of steel since the tenth of April.
At the airfield on his return, Majorly Strange would retire to a radio room and send his findings to his contact in Cairo in a code based on British nursery rhymes. Therefore the future of the war in North Africa and the lives of many thousands of men hung on the likes of Old King Cole, Strutting Cock Robin and the hungry wolf at the door.
"Easy peasy," said the pilot. "Lemon squeesy."
They had taken up their position just behind and below two Spitfires with the third guarding their tail. They flew east. The Lysander's engine noise became a dull rumble. Michael did not care to sightsee what his sight had already seen, so he closed his eyes and tried to rest.
Yesterday had happened one of those rare encounters that made life, to Michael, such an interesting mystery. Such things could not be written in books and be believed.
He'd been walking to his quarters after he'd sent the radio codes when someone had fallen into step beside him.
"Excuse me, sir. Major?"
"Yes?" Michael was tired and ready for sleep, his senses a bit dulled. He saw the young man in the dusty Western Desert Force uniform and the two-bar chevron of the corporal's rank. The corporal saluted, Michael returned the salute and then smiled and offered his hand. The young man took it.
"I thought it was you, sir!" said the young man, with an equally dusty smile. He'd been wearing goggles and around his eyes was the only area the desert hadn't gotten to.
"Our company pulled in for water awhile ago, sir. May I ask...what you're doing here?"
"On duty," said Michael.
"Oh...yes, of course. Well..I felt I had to do my duty too, sir. What with all this going on. She asked me if I wouldn't rather have joined the Navy, but I told her I'd had enough of the sea." He paused to make sure the major understood. "We were married last April, sir. Marielle and I. Three years to the day we met."
"Billy," Michael said, "that's wonderful to hear."
"Thank you, sir. I think she's pretty wonderful, myself."
"I have no doubt. Your company's heading east?" Michael saw some of the trucks around Bir Al Kabir's pool, and he noted the direction they were facing. "Yes sir, we're being pulled back. Last night we ran into some pretty stiff opposition. A few Jerry tanks out looking for trouble."
Michael nodded. Whatever had happened, Billy's story was an understatement. When he was on his recon runs, Michael never failed to see the flash of artillery on the horizon, and sometimes he heard gunfire and the hollow whump of grenades going off as close as two hundred meters. There might be a lull between official Army battle operations, but there was never a lull in the small battles that went on between companies and platoons out on the raw edge of reckoning.
The major and the corporal talked for a few minutes and then it was time for Billy to return to his men. "Goodbye, sir," he said, and Michael wished Billy Bowers and his bride all the good fortune in the world. They saluted each other, and they went on.
At fifteen thousand feet above the desert, Michael had a dream of a wolf tumbling from the sky. He opened his eyes with a jolt. "Everything all right?" he asked the pilot, in a voice more reedy than he would have wished.
"Fine, sir. Just relax."
Michael checked his watch. A grand total of nineteen minutes had passed since they'd left the airfield. He gave an inward groan and shifted again on the seat as much as the belt would allow.
"Oh, Keyrist!" whispered the pilot, and Michael's heart jumped because he knew something had just gone terribly wrong.
One of the Spitfires veered away and dove to the right. Through the plexiglass canopy Michael saw the glint of metal rising from the earth. Two airplanes? They were coming up fast, from about twelve thousand feet. He made out the shapes of German aerial predators: Messerschmitt Bf 109s, painted in desert camouflage hues. The one in the lead had a solid black tail with the Nazi symbol painted in white upon it.
"Jesus! Jesus!" said the pilot, whose head was on a swivel searching for more enemy fighters. To the credit of his nerve, he kept the lumbering Lysander steady. Then the black-tailed 109 flashed past between the Lysander and the second Spit, on its way to a higher altitude. The Spitfire behind Michael's plane took after it. "Steady!" the young man said suddenly, and very loudly; he was speaking to himself.
The second Bf 109 came up firing. Tracers zipped across the sky. The remaining Spitfire on point tipped its wings over and fell away. Michael saw it roll in order to get a position behind the 109 as it passed. The Spitfire's wing guns sparkled, and again tracers reached out for their target but fell short. Michael looked out the canopy to his left and saw that the black-tailed 109 had gotten on the rear of the first Spitfire and was gaining on it. The Spit jinked to the right; the Messerschmitt followed. German tracers shot out in a pattern that might be called beautiful in any other situation, and as the Spit jinked to the left the bullets caught it and tore pieces of metal from the fuselage. The Spit dove and the black-tailed 109 dove after it, even as the third Spitfire got on the 109's rear and hung there at incredible speed.
"That's Rolfe Gantt's 109," the Cockney pilot said, his voice thick with both fear and awe. "We're gettin' out!" He throttled up, the engine screamed as much as a sand-scraped antique engine could, and the Lysander nosed down with an effect that lifted Michael off his seat and made the belt feel as if it were slicing him in two. He had no inclination to scream, but the desire was there.
They went down fast.
Suddenly something was coming down faster. The burning front half of a Spitfire, its wings and fuselage pierced by machine gun bullets and fist-sized twenty-millimeter cannon rounds. It fell past the Lysander, its control cables dangling from the torn-away rear half, and the black-tailed 109 turned away from the tumbling wreckage.
Michael watched the Messerschmitt evade tracers from the Spit on its tail. The aircraft was ascending again, and suddenly it cut its speed and rolled to the left and the Spit went past it just a little too far. As the Spitfire tried to correct its course, the black-tailed 109 made a complete roll and came up shooting at the Spit's belly. Pieces of metal flew. A bright red flame rippled along the right wing. The Spitfire turned over on its back and the 109 raked it with a burst of cannon shells. Ebony smoke and crimson flames erupted from the Spit's engine, the prop froze and the aircraft went down to the desert ten thousand feet below.
Michael craned his neck to see the third Spitfire fighting for its life in a battle with one German eagle, and then the black-tailed ace joined the fray. Tracers flew in every direction. The planes crisscrossed each other. But in a matter of seconds, the 109 with the camouflage-painted tail made a mistake of timing and ran into a line of slugs that floated sinuously across the sky. Black smoke bloomed from the engine. The prop spun off, one blade missing. As the 109 started to fall in a slow spiral, the canopy was pulled open and the pilot jumped with his parachute pack on his back. He disappeared from view.
"Down, baby, down!" the Cockney pilot shouted, about to tear the Lysander's wings off. In the rear seat was a man who was bracing himself with hands, elbows, knees and feet and seeing his thirty years of life pass before his eyes.
The remaining Spitfire and the Messerschmitt came down twisting and turning around each other. Michael watched, transfixed, as their pilots battled for position. Tracers hit empty air that had not been empty the second before. A collision was narrowly missed. One plane zoomed upward and one shrieked down. Michael realized, with dry mouth and feverish brain, that the black-tailed 109 was turning toward them in an elegant curve, and it was going to get them in its gunsights.
The tracers reached out. Slowly, it seemed. With great, deadly and terrible grace.
The Cockney pilot abruptly chopped the throttle and turned the plane on its side to fall to the left, but the tracers were upon them and there was nowhere to hide.
The feeling, to Michael, was as if the aircraft had run over a cobblestoned road.
It was a rough shake. Amid the shake, the windshield popped and cracked as at least one slug passed through it. Holes punched through the bottom of the plane and then through the roof. The pilot gave a strangled cry. Michael smelled scorched metal and fresh blood. A red mist swirled in the air before it was sucked upward. Then the 109 streaked past and the Lysander rolled over in its wounded agony, its engine cylinders gasping for air.
Michael Gallatin was stretched up against the belt one second and the next he was smashed into the seat. The Lysander was tumbling down. The pilot was slumped forward. God save the King, Michael thought crazily as sky became earth became sky became earth. He clasped hold of two rubber handgrips on the back of the pilot's seat and thought how utterly ridiculous it was trying to brace himself from an aircrash at roughly two hundred knots per hour.
Metal flashed alongside the Lysander. The Spit and the black-tailed 109 were fighting on their way down. The Spit had taken some damage and smoke was curling from the engine, probably blinding the pilot. Rolfe Gantt's plane bore a dozen bullet holes along the fuselage. The two combatants went at each other again, head-to-head and guns blazing. In the middle of another roll Michael's bloodshot eyes saw Gantt's 109 lose a section of its right wing in a burst of flying metal, but an instant later the German's bullets hit home. The entire front of the Spitfire exploded. The Spit seemed to collapse on itself, the wings folding, the fuselage crumpling like a tin can that had been stepped on. It simply fell apart, and what might have been a burning body dropped away with arms and legs outspread.
"Got it, sir! Got it, sir!" the Cockney pilot moaned, as he fought against unconsciousness and the violence of the spin to gain control of his aircraft.
Michael was near passing out himself. The blood swelled in his face and roared in his ears. He hung onto the handgrips with desperate and perhaps terrified strength.
"Got it, sir! Got it, sir!" the pilot kept repeating, over and over, in a voice that sounded mangled.
And then, quite suddenly, he did have it. The Lysander righted itself. They were still going down fast, onto a terrain of yellow sand and black rocks about a thousand feet below. The pilot pulled back on his yoke and the nose came up. "Got it, sir!" he said, with bloody triumph in his mouth.
Something huge and dark swept over them. An extended wheel hit the Lysander's left wing and knocked the bulky airplane through the sky. Michael saw the belly of Gantt's 109 pass overhead. Fire was licking around the motionless prop. The Messerschmitt headed down.
Again the young pilot fought for control. This time it was obvious he was almost done. When Michael dared to look to the left, he saw the wing on that side torn to tatters.
"Can you get out, sir?" the pilot asked, which demonstrated his state of mind since Michael wore no parachute.
"Put us down!" Michael told him.
The pilot nodded. He coughed from deep in his chest and blood spattered the cracked glass before his face.
"Yes sir," he managed to say.
The Lysander slipped to the left. The pilot corrected. The Lysander slipped to the right. The pilot corrected. He cut all power and lowered whatever flap was still working. He moved with slow and maybe dying deliberation. The Lysander began to turn on the side of its disabled wing. The ground was rising to meet them; it was all sand-shiny and hard angles of rock. Michael judged a hundred feet to go. He braced, if bracing would do any good.
"We're in for it, sir," said the pilot, in a voice that now sounded distant and almost childlike, as if he were falling down through time itself
Fifty feet, Michael thought. The beads of sweat on his face were sweating.
"Yes sir," said the pilot, answering some unknown command.
There was a bone-jarring crunch. Michael was thrown against the side of the plane so hard he heard his left shoulder either separate or break with a noise like the pop of a broomstick being snapped. His cap flew off. The left side of his face smashed into the canopy, which surprisingly did not shatter. Maybe his cheekbone and jaw had shattered, he didn't know. Pain fogged his vision. His left arm had gone cold. He lost his handgrips. There came a sound of metal being ripped away, and the Lysander was skidding on its belly because its wheels were gone. It went on, banging into and over stones and across the slithering sand. In its progress the Lysander turned to face the way it had come, and when at last it ceased its motion Michael Gallatin sat facing westward, bleeding and groggy amid a symphony of metallic moans and creaks and ticks and muffled thumps like a dying heartbeat.
It came to him, sometime in the next few seconds, that he smelled the hot sweet friction of sheared-off metal and the bitter aroma of smoke.
He blinked. Was his jaw even still connected to his face?
Smoke was starting to fill the cockpit.
He had to move.
His left arm would not, and pain speared from shoulder to collarbone when he tried. He got his seatbelt unbuckled with his right hand. Blood was in his mouth. He spat it out. He unlocked the canopy and shoved the cracked plexiglass open. He flung his kitbag from the plane. Then he climbed up and tumbled over the side onto the stony ground, an effort that again sent vicious pain through his injured arm.
Small flames were starting to curl up around the engine from beneath the wrecked plane. "Get out!" he called to the pilot, but the young man didn't move.
Michael pulled himself up and instantly fell to his knees again, his balance for the moment a matter of past history. He realized the fire was growing, and he had to get the pilot out. He stood up, stumbled and righted himself. The sun's power beat down upon his skull and he was nearly blinded by the glare. Blood was trickling from both nostrils. His left eye was rapidly swelling shut. He wiped his nose with the back of his hand and got hold of one of the metal reinforcement strips that ran along the pilot's canopy to flip it up. His right arm strained, but the thing was locked tight from within. He banged on the blood-spattered plexiglass. The pilot stirred, turned his head to display the gore that had streamed in a torrent from his mouth, and stared numbly at Michael Gallatin. The front of the pilot's shirt was red where at least one bullet had hit him in the chest.
"Unlock it!" Michael shouted. And then again, if the young Cockney hadn't heard: "Unlock your canopy!"
The pilot just stared at Michael, his swollen eyes heavy-lidded.
With a flash and a low hollow whump the engine burst into flames.
"Unlock your canopy!" Michael urged, and began to beat against the plexiglass with his useable fist.
Fire rippled from the engine toward the cockpit. The heat staggered Michael back.
A gout of red flame jumped into the pilot's cabin. The young man continued to stare without speaking at Michael Gallatin, and even as he caught fire and began to contort into a shape no longer human he made no sound. Before Michael's eyes he became a blaze, and one crisped hand reached up to press feebly against the blackening canopy. Then it fell back into the flames, and what looked like a swarm of a thousand glowing red bees swept around and around at the center of ashes and smoke.
The Lysander was being consumed, sending up a black smoke column. Michael backed away from the heat. The canopy exploded with the noise of a shotgun going off.
At a distance away from the conflagration Michael sat down on the ground, like a boy before a summertime campfire. He felt himself let go, because he had nowhere to get to in a hurry. Then the darkness came upon him as suddenly as if the sun had gone out, and when he fell onto his injured shoulder he gave a small gasp of pain but his eyes were already closed and he was for the moment also extinguished.
"Hey, Englisher!" said the voice, speaking English. "Are you dead?"
The toe of a boot prodded Michael's side.
He heard the voice and felt the prod, but it took him a few more seconds to fight up from the dark. When he opened his single working eye, he was in a world of blinding white light and dry heat that baked the lungs with a breath. He sat up and saw the gun pointed in his face.
"Easy," cautioned the man behind the Walther P38 pistol. "Do nothing fast. As if you could. Friend, you are in one hell of a condition."
Michael looked up at his visitor.
The man wore a tan-colored short-sleeved shirt open to show his white undershirt and a pair of tan-colored trousers tucked into dusty black boots. On the pocket of his shirt was pinned his Iron Cross and his Luftwaffe airman's badge. He was an example of the handsome Nordic breed, with the touselled blonde hair of a wild little boy and sardonic amber eyes that belonged to a worldly-wise man. He was of compact, powerful build with a chiselled face, a hooked nose and a firm jaw, and he stood about five feet ten. Across his right cheek the slash of a fencer's scar showed pale against his desert tan. A second smaller scar divided the left blonde eyebrow into two halves. Michael thought that this man had definitely seen his share of action, and perhaps another man's share as well. The way he held the gun said he knew how to use it and would use it at the slightest provocation. The amber eyes focused fully on Michael and the pistol was unwavering, yet the man had also today seen his share of injury. Blood from a gash at his hairline had coursed down his forehead and along the right side of his face. His lower lip was split open and blood had dried on his chin. A blue knot swelled over the left eye. He had been through some rough weather.
Behind the man, maybe two miles away, Michael could see the black smoke rising from another aircraft wreck. This pilot had not come down with his ship, however, for he still carried his parachute pack slung over one shoulder and folded up within it could be seen the white chute itself.
"Name?" the man asked.
"Gallatin," Michael answered. His jaw felt dislocated, but so be it.
"Gantt," the pilot said. "This is yours?" He motioned quickly with a tilt of his head toward the open kitbag on the ground a few feet away. Michael figured the man must have carried it over from beside the still-burning Lysander, since it was scorched by flames.
It had been gone through. Michael noted his Colt automatic in Gantt's waistband under the outer shirt. Michael's change of clothes was scattered around, and the canteen with its black leather shoulder strap lay atop his second pair of shorts. He could not fail to see the three bullet holes in the kitbag's canvas and the bullet hole about midway up the canteen. Gantt had pushed a knot of cloth into the hole. "Unfortunately most of the water was lost," Gantt said, "but I did squeeze some back into the canteen from your clothes." He frowned and glanced toward a third plume of black smoke many miles away. "The talented bastard who shot me down had a superb Immelman, but he was not quite so good at his snap roll. What was his name?"
"I don't know. I'm not a flyer."
"No, you're a faller," came the reply. "You should feel lucky you're not dead. Most who tangle with me end up that way."
"Do most who tangle with you," Michael said carefully, "not have guns on their planes? What was the point of shooting down the Lysander?"
"You got between me and a Spit. The bullets go where they go." Gantt quickly scanned the horizon. "Now it's time for us to go. They'll see the smoke and come looking. Stand up."
"No," Michael said.
"What did I hear, Englisher?"
"I said...no. Meaning I'm not standing up. You go where you please, but I'm staying here."
"Are you?" Gantt stepped forward and placed the gun's barrel against Michael's injured shoulder. "I can hurt you a little more, you see."
"Go ahead. I'll just bleed some and wait for the RAF to arrive. As you say, they'll see the smoke and come looking."
"I didn't mean your air force will come looking," Gantt said. "You're too far from your base and you're off the regular patrol route. I'm talking about the Dahlasiffa. The Death Stalkers. You have heard of them, yes?"
Michael had heard rumors. Supposedly the Dahlasiffa was a warlike tribe of scavengers who stripped corpses of anything valuable after a battle. They knocked out gold and silver teeth, took money, watches, medals, helmets, boots, and it was speculated they were likely stockpiling rifles, pistols and grenades to use against enemy tribes. Michael had never seen a Dahlasiffa or met anyone who'd seen one, but the word at HQ in Cairo was that the Dahlasiffa not only stripped corpses but also made short work of the wounded.
"They're real enough," Gantt said. "They usually travel in packs of six or seven. We're in their territory. They'll see the smoke and they'll come looking to strip corpses. And they won't care who's wearing what uniform, either, or how close to being a corpse you are. They'll finish that job. What's the brand of your watch?"
"Breitling." Gantt showed Michael the watch on a brown leather band on his wrist. "I intend to keep it, and my arm. Shall we go?"
Michael thought about it, but not for very long. The Lysander, burned to its metal framework, cast no shade. The world was made up of yellow sand, black rock and white glaring sun. It was a furnace. He stood up.
"Carry your bag," Gantt told him. "And...oh, yes...I have your nice straight razor in my pocket, if you're wondering. I'll carry the canteen. But you should put those clothes back in your bag, as well. They might be useful."
Michael did what he suggested.
"Your left arm's broken?" the flyer asked.
"Possibly. Whatever, it's not working." Michael had already considered his situation regarding a change to wolf form and tearing this man into pieces even the Dahlasiffa could not loot. The problem was, he couldn't run on all fours. He couldn't leap to avoid a bullet. So in this particular instance he had more power on two legs, as a man.
Gantt nodded. "Bind it up," he said, as he once again cast his gaze along the horizon.
Michael spent a moment getting the dark blue collar scarf tied around his neck and then forcing the arm into it. The pain made him growl deep in his throat. When he was done, fresh sweat stood out on his face. He picked up the kitbag, moving as slowly as a hobbled old man.
"Go!" Gantt pointed to the west. "This way!"
It was no surprise to Michael that Rolfe Gantt, the German Messerschmitt ace who since the beginning of his career in the 1939 invasion of Poland had shot down forty-six enemy planes - and now added four more credits to that number - wished to head toward the German lines instead of toward the British in Cairo. Michael was more versed in the ground war but he'd certainly heard and read of Gantt's prowess. There were other Luftwaffe aces in North Africa, among them Richard Thess and Franz Ubevelder, but it was Rolfe Gantt who'd appeared on the cover of last month's German Signal magazine, standing with his arms crossed and a wide grin on his face in front of the black-tailed 109.
Michael walked, carrying the kitbag. Gantt held the pistol on him for a while, but then lowered it to save his arm strength.
Michael knew exactly what Gantt wanted: to find a German patrol or outpost as soon as possible, to give up his prisoner and maybe get a truck ride back to his airfield.
Then it was off to a POW camp for Michael Gallatin, and it would be a very long war for a caged lycanthrope.
They crossed a landscape that seemed to have no beginning and no end. It was a world apart in its solitude, its merciless fury, its silence but for the hissing of a sudden wind that brought a further blast of heat and a scatter of sand thrown into the eyes.
They hadn't gone very far when it was obvious to Michael that they weren't going to get very far. His shadow upon the stony hammada was the blackest ink. The sun drove a white-hot spike into his head, he was already craving water and the flies had found them. Found their wounds, to be more exact. First one or two came to feast upon the crusted gashes, and then they summoned others to the banquet. Within thirty minutes of leaving the Lysander's charred skeleton, Michael was the victim of a moving mass of flies that clung to a cut above his left eye. A score of flies tried to get up his nostrils at the tasty gore he was breathing around. They fastened themselves to his lips and crawled into his mouth, and no amount of head-shaking or slapping them away could keep them from their food. Also, they did have a taste for sweat. Likewise, Rolfe Gantt's forehead wound was the focal point of a fist-sized clump of flies that writhed and rippled in nearly orgasmic delight to get at what he was made of. They got hold of his split lip and tried to winnow into the fissure, to break it open so more blood would flow. They dashed themselves against his eyes as if to blind him and make him drop. They spun around his head like a dark halo, and settling down into the thick blonde field of his hair they sucked at his scalp for salt.
Michael spat out a few flies. "The survival manual says the first thing to do is get your head and face covered. Then only to travel at night."
"The survival manual doesn't have Dahlasiffa in it," Gantt replied. Squinting against the midday glare, he looked back the way they'd come. "We'll keep going for awhile." As they walked, he opened the canteen and took a quick drink. The disturbed flies buzzed with indignant anger. "Here," he said. "One swallow only."
Michael took the offered canteen. The water tasted of his laundry soap. He returned the cap to the canteen and the canteen to Gantt, who returned the strap to his shoulder.
"Keep walking," Gantt told him, and motioned with the Walther.
"You're sure you'll find anything out there?" The out there Michael referred to was the shimmering wasteland that stretched before them, mile upon empty mile.
"I have a very good sense of direction."
"So do I, but that doesn't mean you'll find an outpost before you run out of water."
The canteen had held maybe enough for each of them to have two or three more swallows. Flies whirled around Michael's face and darted at his good eye, trying to get the moisture there. He suddenly decided he'd had enough of this, and if the German ace wanted to shoot him it would be a bullet put to good use. He stopped walking.
"Go on! Don't stop!"
"I'm putting something over my head. And you stop waving that damned gun around. Does it look like I'm in any shape to give you trouble?"
Gantt had lifted the pistol to take aim at Michael's battered face. Now he slowly lowered it. "No," he said, with the hint of a smile. "I suppose not."
Michael put the kitbag down amid the stones and knelt beside it. He found his small bottle of Trumper Lime aftershave, thankfully neither broken by a bullet nor the impact, which had enough alcohol in it to heal small razor cuts. It would do as well as anything on wounds suffered in an aircraft crash. Working with one hand, he got the bottle open and splashed liquid on the cut over his eye. It stung like the devil's own joyjuice, but surely it would do some good. At least the way the flies buzzed meant they didn't seem to like the smell. He rubbed more of the liquid all over his face and felt small stings from chin to forehead.
"You English," said Gantt, with a note of disdain. "That's why you won't win this war, you know. You're too addicted to your comforts and your little...what is that? Aftershave lotion?"
"That's right." Michael screwed the small crown cap back on. "Here." He threw it to Gantt, who caught it by reflex in his left hand. "The alcohol will help."
"I don't choose to smell like a small British island in the Caribbean," Gantt answered, but he didn't throw it back. "Don't you people take this war seriously?"
Michael decided to ignore the man. He brought a tan-colored shirt out of the kitbag. Shaking the flies off his wounds, he tore the shirt in a couple of strategic places and began to wrap it around his head and face in his best approximation of a desert tribesman's keffiyeh. "Take, for example, your tea breaks," Gantt went on. "Why does everything stop at a certain hour for you people to drink tea? You even stop during an advance to drink tea. Don't you understand the value of discipline?"
"I don't stop for tea breaks," Michael said as he continued to adjust his head covering, "but I think they are a form of discipline."
"You Englishers are children living in a dream world."
Michael got the shirt arranged so he had a torn slit he could see through. Otherwise, everything was covered. He tucked in a bit of cloth here and there to make sure it stayed on. "And I suppose you Nazis are living in the real world?"
Gantt frowned, his eyes darkening. "I'm not a Nazi." He opened the bottle of aftershave with his teeth and splashed some on the flies that feasted at his forehead wound.
They lifted up with a noise like little airplanes and flew wildly in search of another landing strip. Gantt winced at the pain but poured some more of the stuff on for good measure. "Never a Nazi," he continued, as the liquid ran down his face. He glanced quickly up toward the burning orb of the sun, measuring its force upon his skull and his willpower. The flies were already coming back, one by one. He shrugged off the canteen and the parachute pack.
"What's your first name?" he asked.