by Jed Hartman
For Ed C. and Alex W.
Hugh Betcha parachuted out of the cloudy night sky to land hard on the flat roof of Building X-9 of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin airship works. As soon as he was down, he shrugged out of his parachute harness and let fall the heavy oversized duffel bag that was attached to the harness.
He kicked open the flimsy door that led to the stairwell, and charged down the stairs three at a time. When he was halfway down, a door screeched open a level below him, and loud footsteps clattered up the stairs toward him. Hugh grabbed the iron railing and swung over it and down into the stairway underneath, planting his boots solidly in the face of the uniformed Nazi guard there. The man smashed against the wall; Hugh landed on his feet, and two quick punches knocked out the guard. Hugh yanked the man’s gun from its holster and tossed it over the railing into the dark stairwell, then continued down the steps.
He moved more cautiously as he descended past the ground floor and into the underground levels. Sounds of industry echoed from elsewhere in the building: the clank and rumble of heavy machinery, orders barked in guttural German, marching feet and rolling wheels. In these dark days the factory’s army of technicians and workers never slept.
Hugh eased open the door from the stairwell into the subbasement. A concrete hallway led off to either side. Voices and footsteps were approaching from around a corner.
Hugh held the door open a crack, just enough to see through. He put a hand in the pocket of his leather flight jacket. “Keep still, Scraps,” he whispered; he felt the little ferret in his pocket sniffing inquisitively at his fingers. “Let’s just wait here a minute ’til these Nazis go past, then we can search for those plans. They’ve got to be somewhere around here.”
On the night Hugh had been given his orders, at a secret Corporation airfield near New York City, the weather had been cloudy and dark. Thunderheads had been gathering on the horizon.
Hugh strode onto the landing strip. General Bore—a wiry man in his sixties, gray-haired but hale—stood waiting, near the Corporation-owned passenger plane that had dropped Hugh off on many previous missions.
“Thanks for coming on such short notice, Betcha,” said the General. “We’ve received information that the Germans are developing a new class of zeppelin code-named drachenflieger—‘dragon-flyer.’ The new zeppelin will serve as an aerial platform for a powerful new weapon, a system that can shoot devastating beams of energy and lay waste to entire cities.”
“So you need me to stop the Nazis from building a death ray?”
The General’s brow creased. “I suppose you could put it that way, yes. The device will be so massive that only an airship can transport it effectively to inland targets. The blueprints are at the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin airship works in Friedrichshafen. They’ve completed a prototype drachenflieger—the LZ-132, christened the Hitler. Smaller, faster, and more maneuverable than its big brother the Graf Zeppelin II, but built along the same lines. The technical details are in your briefing packet. And they intend to begin construction on the weapon system in a matter of days.”
“You can count on me, General,” said Hugh. “Those Nazis won’t know what hit ’em.”
“Subtlety, Betcha,” the General said. “This can’t make the news. Best if the Nazis never know you were there. The last thing we need right now is an international incident—we don’t want anyone launching a war just yet.”
“I’m not afraid of the Nazis, sir—they’re a cowardly lot. I’ll do my darnedest to make sure that America won’t fall under Hitler’s tyrannical heel.”
“And I don’t mean subtle like that weapons cache you blew up in Czechoslovakia last fall—”
“We’re wasting time, General,” said Hugh. “I’d love to stay and chat, but the Nazis won’t wait.”
“All right, then,” said the General. “Oh, I almost forgot. Sally couldn’t come to see you off, but she asked me to give you this.” He handed Hugh a rubbery chew toy. “For the ferret.”
Hugh took the toy and saluted the General. “God bless America,” he said.
Hard-heeled German footsteps rang out, nearing Hugh’s hiding place behind the stairwell door. A voice, cultured and smooth as mother-of-pearl, gave rapid-fire orders in German.
Hugh knew that voice: Baron von Sturmdrang, evil mastermind behind many of Hitler’s recent political maneuvers. The last time Hugh had seen von Sturmdrang had been the day Hugh had shot down the Baron’s single-engine Messerschmitt 109 in a dogfight in the skies over Madrid two years before, but he should have known the Berlin Fox was too wily to fall in any ordinary battle.
Von Sturmdrang’s tall, gaunt figure strode into view, waving a long roll of blueprint paper, a black cloak billowing behind him. He was followed by a dozen other men in military uniforms. Hugh had one glimpse of the Baron’s chiseled features as he passed by the door: the pencil-thin mustache, the high cheekbones, the jagged scar won during the Baron’s days as an Oberkanone, a Top Gun, back in the Great War, not long before Hugh was born.
The Baron was still speaking to his subordinates. Hugh’s German wasn’t good enough to follow it all, but he caught the phrase verdammt Göring, the name LZ-132, the word Luftüberlegenheit (“air superiority”), the word London, and the word Todesstrahl—“death ray.”
The Baron and his men trooped through a nondescript office door at the end of the hall.
“Those blueprints must be the plans!” Hugh whispered to Scraps. “Now all we have to do is steal them.” The ferret squirmed in his pocket.
A few minutes later, the Germans came out of the office again, without the blueprints. An oberleutnant carefully locked the door and slid the brass key into his pocket, and the group departed.
Hugh released his hold on his diminutive pet for a moment— and Scraps leapt from his pocket and skittered across the corridor. “Scraps!” Hugh hissed. “This is no time for games!” The black-masked ferret glanced back at Hugh and then disappeared through a wide crack in the base of the wall. Hugh rolled his eyes and shrugged; he knew from long experience that the ferret could take care of himself.
After another minute of waiting, to be sure the coast was clear, Hugh went to the office door. He tested the handle; locked, of course. He considered simply shooting the handle off, but decided that it wasn’t worth risking the noise. Sighing, he slid a set of lockpicks from his pocket and knelt in front of the door. Just then, a chirp and a metallic clatter came from the floor nearby. Startled, Hugh looked down; it was Scraps, looking very pleased with himself, and in front of him, a brass key.
“Sometimes I almost think you’re smarter than I am,” said Hugh. “Good work, boy!” He fed Scraps a ferret treat from his pocket, then opened the door. Scraps rushed past him into the room.
The office was a model of German neatness and efficiency. The desks were clear, the filing cabinets locked. By the time Hugh finished trying the desk drawers—all either locked or empty— Scraps was standing atop the frame of a large painting hanging on the wall, darting back and forth excitedly, sniffing at everything in sight. The painting rocked to one side, and Hugh caught a glimpse of the metal behind it.
It was but the work of a moment for Hugh to lift the painting out of the way, crack the safe, and retrieve the plans. It didn’t take much longer for the duo to make their way (Scraps now safely back in Hugh’s pocket) back through corridors and stairways to the roof, where the heavy duffel bag still lay. The bag held a special collapsible autogiro, hand-built by the Corporation’s engineers.
Hugh assembled the lightweight machine quickly and unerringly despite the velvety darkness. He was just tightening the last bolt when a voice cried out, “Anschlag!” Hugh looked up and was almost blinded by a bright flashlight beam. He dove to one side and rolled as the crack of a gunshot shattered the night’s quiet. He came up firing his trusty Colt .45 automatic. The man with the flashlight staggered back off the edge of the roof, his falling scream ending in a crash. Lights began to flick on all over the compound.
Hugh slipped the roll of blueprints into the waterproof duffel and seated himself in the autogiro’s small open cockpit, checking to be sure that Scraps was safe in his pocket. The engine roared to life and the craft sped across the flat roof and took to the air.
It wasn’t until hours later, as he flew over a forest somewhere in northern France, that Hugh was sure he was being followed.
It began with a steady thrum in the distance, drawing ever closer; then the clouds parted and, looking back, Hugh saw a sleek dark shape silhouetted against the moon. “It’s the 132,” he told Scraps. “They must have had it ready to fly already—there’s no way they could get it moving this quickly otherwise. Good thing the death ray isn’t built yet.” The ferret chirped noncommittally in response.
Hugh knew the numbers all too well. If the Corporation’s intelligence was accurate, the Hitler carried fifty tons of fuel, and could travel for nine thousand miles at ninety miles an hour. Hugh could outrun it for a little while in his autogiro, but running the autogiro at maximum speed would quickly deplete even the special fuel provided by the Corporation.
Hugh zigzagged low over the trees, looking for a place to hide. Searchlights stabbed out from the airship. One swept across him, and quickly returned; he was pinned in its bright beam.
Hugh dove for the trees as the zeppelin’s machine guns clattered into action. He swerved and plunged into a small clearing, then sped along just above the ground, the autogiro’s stubby wings barely slipping through the gaps between trees. Bullets tore through the forest canopy all around.
A train whistle sounded from not far off. Hugh darted between trees and found himself in a long narrow break in the woods, the train tracks below him glinting in the moonlight. He spared a glance upward; the zeppelin hovered nearby, searchlights still sweeping the forest. One light swung toward him.
The train whistle came again, much closer. Hugh jerked his head around and saw a train engine steaming down the track toward him, a scant few dozen feet away. Hugh desperately pulled up, and the engine’s plume of black smoke engulfed him moments before the searchlight would have found him.
Hugh hovered in the smoke plume, coughing and spitting and wiping furiously at his goggles. Below him, he dimly saw a halfempty coal car approaching. He cut the autogiro’s engine and plummeted into the open-topped car, landing in the coal with a crunch.
Above him, the zeppelin’s searchlights swept across the smoke trail and were gone.
There was no sign of the zeppelin for the remainder of the journey to the coast. Hugh and Scraps crossed the Channel in the hold of a small freighter, and made their way to an R.A.F. base outside Ipswich, where Hugh’s old friend Captain Stephen Upperlip kept a watch on the skies for Nazis and other undesirables.
“I’ll come right to the point, Captain: I need a plane,” said Hugh, as the two shook hands on the airstrip.
“That’s what I like about you Americans,” said the Captain. “You come right to the point. ‘How are you? How are things in Old Blighty? How did you escape from certain death at the hands of Friedrich Blitzkrieg back in ’35?’ No, none of that for you; it’s just ‘I need a plane.’”
“It’s vital to stopping the rise of the Nazis.”
“And that’s another thing: You’re always helpful. Yes, when the R.A.F. need a hand fighting off Nazis, you’re always right there to lend aid, assistance, and succour. You would never hang back, three thousand miles away, and let your old friends the British prepare to save the world alone; no, you’re right there in the thick of things, helping with the war effort.”
“It would mean a lot to Scraps and me.”
“Scraps!” The Captain bent down to pet the furry beast as it poked its nose out of Hugh’s jacket pocket and snuffled at him. “How are you, old fellow? I think I have a bit of a ferret treat somewhere about me—ah, yes, here you go.” Scraps squeaked gratefully and nibbled on the food.
“Well,” said the Captain, straightening up. “When you put it that way, I suppose we can spare a plane, for old times’ sake. Not a big plane, mind you. The only one we can let go is a Percival Vega Gull one-seater. Not much to look at, but she was modified with extra fuel tanks a few years back.”
“That’s all right, Captain. Scraps and I will manage. Before I go, may I send a telegram?”
“Be my guest. Talk to Lieutenant Beasy over in the communications shed.”
“Thank you, Captain.”
“Good luck, Betcha. And good luck to you as well, Scraps.”
“We make our own luck, Captain.”
FROM: HUGH BETCHA
TO: GENERAL GARRULOUS BORE
HAVE ACQUIRED PLANS STOP RENDEZVOUS CORPORATION TRANSPORT
NEWFOUNDLAND USUAL LOCATION STOP GOD BLESS AMERICA STOP
FROM: GENERAL GARRULOUS BORE
TO: HUGH BETCHA
GOOD WORK BETCHA STOP SEE YOU SOON STOP SALLY SENDS LOVE STOP
WORLD COUNTING ON YOU STOP REMEMBER SUBTLETY STOP
The Atlantic crossing was nearly twenty-four hours of frozen hell, an endless rush through frigid air over bottomless water that stretched to the horizon in all directions. The only good side was that there was still no sign of any pursuit. “We must have lost them, Scraps,” said Hugh. Scraps didn’t respond; he was busy sulking in Hugh’s pocket.
As they neared Newfoundland, Hugh tapped the fuel gauge worriedly. “It’s going to be close,” he said.
A dark strip of land grew on the horizon.
The engine began to sputter as they flew over the choppy waves that beat steadily against the rocks.
Hugh fought the plane into an emergency landing. The wheels crumpled as they hit stone. He was hurled against the windshield, face-first.
The last thing he heard as he lost consciousness was the oily voice of Baron von Sturmdrang. “So. If it isn’t our old friend Hugh Betcha. Guards—schnell!”
Hugh awoke with a headache the size of Manhattan.
He was apparently in some kind of a warehouse. Darkness stretched all around; shadowy crates stood stacked nearby. The harsh tang of gasoline suffused the air.
“Excellent. Mr. Betcha returns to us.” The Baron stood nearby, smoking a cigarette in a long holder, looking out a window into the moonlight.
“What are you going to do to me, Baron?”
Von Sturmdrang turned, quirking an eyebrow. His cruel scar was livid in the moonlight. “I? I am not going to do anything to you, Betcha. Why should I? I have the plans safely back in my possession.” He took a puff of his cigarette and exhaled a perfect smoke ring.
“No hard feelings, then? So why am I tied up and”—Hugh shifted his arms behind him—“handcuffed to this chair?” He sniffed the air, coughed, and realized why his clothes were wet. “And soaked in gasoline?”
Von Sturmdrang laughed a suave and cultured laugh. “I personally bear you no ill will, Betcha. But the Fatherland cannot allow one of your ability to live, as long as you oppose us. The high explosives that my men have planted in this warehouse will, no doubt, leave very little of you, if you have not yet burned to death by the time they go off. Goodbye, Betcha.” He turned and strode away. As he reached the door, he turned again and said, “You have been a most . . . stimulating opponent these last few years. Even more so than your father was. I find that I shall miss you.” He considered his cigarette, then took it from its holder between thumb and forefinger and threw it to the ground as if tossing a dart.
Then his hand shot forward and up, palm down. “Sieg heil, Betcha!” He laughed again, and was gone.
A thin line of flame sputtered to life—a fuse, eating its way across the floor toward the boxes.
Hugh struggled with his bonds, but the Baron’s men had tied him too tightly.
There was a hiss from across the room; Hugh looked up to see the fuse’s flame split in two. The fuse continued toward the boxes; the new flame was igniting a line of gasoline that ran across the floor to where he sat.
He jerked in the chair and succeeded in shifting it a few inches. It still had one leg in the puddle of gasoline on the floor. He jumped the chair sideways again. The smell of gas filled his nostrils.
There was a muffled chirrup near his feet.
The ferret poked inquisitively at Hugh’s leg, which was still bound tightly to the wooden chair. There was a gleam of metal at the end of his snout.
“Scraps, up here. What’s that in your mouth, boy?”
The ferret obligingly climbed up Hugh’s leg, stretched, and curled up in Hugh’s lap.
The puddle of gasoline caught fire at all once, a small explosion. Hugh’s right trouser leg began to burn.
“Is that a key?” Hugh asked desperately. “Is it the key to the handcuffs? Come on, Scraps, bring the key around to my hands. Behind my back.”
Scraps whuffled to himself and attempted to burrow into Hugh’s crotch, wrinkling his nose at the gasoline smell. The chair leg was on fire now, and Hugh’s right ankle was in agony.
“Scraps,” he said through gritted teeth. “Look, there are ferret treats in my pocket, but I can’t give them to you ’til I get untied, okay? Now be a good ferret and—”
But at the mention of treats, the intrepid animal had begun clambering along the ropes, around to the back of the chair. Hugh opened his hand, and a bit of metal poked into it, along with a whiskered nose.
“Good boy, Scraps!” Hugh twisted and tugged. The key fit; the handcuffs clattered to the floor. Hugh grabbed his knife from the concealed sheath at his left ankle. He sliced the remaining rope and threw himself away from the flaming chair. His trousers were aflame; Hugh slapped at them, biting his lip to keep from crying out.
But there was no time to put the fire out. The door was ten yards away, past the tall stacks of explosive-filled boxes, and the bright sizzle of the fuse was a bare inch from the first box. Hugh stuffed Scraps into his jacket pocket and, ignoring his burning clothing, whirled and leapt through the window, arms bent over his head for protection. Glass shattered all around him as the explosives went off with a mighty boom, hurling Hugh across the clearing outside the warehouse. Hugh hit the boughs of a spruce tree hard, then plunged through the branches to the ground, followed by a cascade of flaming needles. He beat at his burning clothing and rolled in the dirt until the fire was out.
Across the clearing, the warehouse roof collapsed. Flames shot fifty feet into the air.
Scraps hissed. “It’s all right, boy,” panted Hugh. “Here. Have a ferret treat.”
There was no sign of the zeppelin or the Baron.
A Corporation car sat at the appointed meeting place; the driver they’d sent—a retired O.S.S. man named Jeeves—lay on the ground nearby, a dozen bullets in his back.
“You deserved better than this, old fellow,” said Hugh. “But don’t worry, they’ll pay—for this and for all their other crimes.” He observed a moment of silence. “Come on, Scraps, we’d better go.”
He stepped into the car and they were off.
Amalgamated Technologies Corporation’s main offices occupied the house and grounds of an old mansion outside of Trenton, New Jersey.
The sky was darkening into twilight when Hugh strode across the quiet lawn that surrounded the deceptively peaceful building. General Bore came out to meet him.
“Betcha! Welcome back,” said the General. And then: “Where’s Jeeves?”
“I’m sorry, sir,” said Hugh. “They got him. And they got the plans.”
“Hugh!” yelled a feminine voice, and a petite blonde form launched herself at him. It was Sally Firth, the general’s stepdaughter.
Hugh caught her up in his arms. “Sally!” he said. “Gosh, am I glad to see you.”
“Oh, Hugh!” Sally said, holding him close. And then, pulling away for a moment, nose wrinkling at the remaining gasoline smell: “Looks like you had a rough time.” She licked her finger and dabbed at the blood and soot on his face.
“I’ll gladly bear any hurt in the service of my country,” Hugh said.
“Never mind that, Betcha,” said the General. “Where are the plans?”
“The Baron took them back, sir. I assume he’s returning to Germany with them. I’ll have to follow him.”
“Scraps!” said Sally, laughing. The ferret was investigating the dark space at the back of her neck, under her shoulder-length hair, snuffling down the back of her blouse. Sally retrieved him and petted him. “Have you been taking good care of our boy? Yes, you have! Who’s a good ferret?” She slipped a hand into Hugh’s jacket pocket and came out with a ferret treat, which Scraps happily set to work devouring.
“You won’t have to follow the Baron far,” said the General.
“Too many people saw the Hitler on this side of the Atlantic for the Krauts to keep it quiet—it would look like spying, or worse yet, invasion. Germany has declared it to be an official goodwill visit from the Baron, so the zeppelin has made a brief stop in Washington to meet with officials and take on fuel and supplies. The Baron talked with Mr. Ickes and the Munitions Control Board one more time about buying helium from America—”
“But of course the big boys said nothing doing,” interjected Hugh.
The General nodded. “So the Baron and the zeppelin are heading back to Germany tonight—by way of New York.”
“Perfect!” said Hugh. “I’ll take an autogiro and recover the plans.”
“I thought you might,” said the General.
“Oh, Hugh,” said Sally. “Be careful.”
The General said, “And subtle. Don’t forget subtle.”
“Piece of cake, sir. I’ll be back in a few hours.”
As they walked around the mansion to the well-appointed hangar and landing strip out back, the General said, “Betcha, why are you so eager to get back into the fray?”
“Just doing my duty, sir,” said Hugh. “I love zeppelins and America too much to see the Germans get the upper hand. I owe it to my father’s memory.”
“What a fine zeppelin pilot that man was,” the General mused. “Such a pity he decided to take passage on the Hindenburg that fateful day. . . . I remember the time that your father and I had the Baron on the run, over Liechtenstein, back in— But never mind. He’d have been proud of you, Betcha.”
“I hope so, sir.”
It began to rain as Hugh took off in a Corporation autogiro, and by the time he reached the coast, storm clouds had blotted out the moon and stars.
A single lighthouse stood near the end of Sandy Hook, at the northeasternmost tip of New Jersey’s Atlantic highlands. The lights of Brooklyn and Staten Island glittered from a few miles across the water to the north, barely visible through the rain. The lighthouse beam swept out over the water and the land, piercing the growing storm.
In its light, Hugh could see the great zeppelin approaching from the south. The huge black swastikas on its tail fins stood out in stark relief against the blackness of the night. Hugh gunned his engine, and the autogiro leapt forward.
Hugh reached the zeppelin just as it overflew the lighthouse. He set down gently on the zeppelin’s upper surface, lit only by a bright flash of lightning, and leapt from the autogiro onto the airship’s rain-slick skin.
After checking to be sure Scraps was safe in his pocket, Hugh punched a grappling hook through the airship’s skin, hooked it around a duralumin strut, and walked himself backward down the zeppelin’s starboard side, paying out his long rope as he went. As the slope steepened, he began to rappel, kicking out, dropping, swinging back in, kicking out again. When he reached the zeppelin’s widest point, he kicked off with all his might and let the rope slide fast through his gloved fingers in a barely controlled fall. Lightning flashed, and the rumble of thunder merged with the engines’ throaty roar as Hugh swung back in and crashed through the broad starboard window of the control gondola in a shower of glass and rain.
“Der Amerikaner!” came a shout, and guns began blazing. Hugh drew his Colt and fired back, ducking behind a control panel. A stray bullet hit the overhead light, and the cabin was plunged into darkness except for a few small lights on the instrument panel. Wind and rain gusted through the broken window.
Hugh had apparently kicked the pilot in the head during his entrance; the man lay on the ground in a growing pool of blood, and nobody was at the wheel. Hugh spared a glance behind him, out through the still-intact front window; the zeppelin was headed directly for Brooklyn, and downtown Manhattan beyond. Another gunshot rang out, and a bullet whined past Hugh’s head; he ducked past the wheel, rolled, came up shooting. There was a scream, and the enemy fire stopped.
Scraps darted from his pocket. “Scraps, no!” Hugh whispered, but the ferret was gone.
Hugh crawled toward the bridge door, staying low, looking for enemies. He could hear muffled shouts to the aft.
In the passageway leading to the cabins, the lights were still on. Hugh shot them out, one by one, then reloaded. The passageway was empty. Hugh remembered the plans for the Graf II he’d admired on an earlier trip to Germany, and hoped this zeppelin had a similar enough layout. The first passenger cabin was probably the Baron’s. Hugh ran toward it.
Someone shot at him from further along the passageway. Hugh returned fire, and with his left hand tried the door to the cabin. It was locked.
There was no time to pick the lock. Hugh backed across the narrow passageway and then threw himself against the door. It burst open.
A flash of lightning from outside the low windows illuminated the Baron’s cabin as Hugh stumbled in. The cabin was trim and clean and very small, with a wash basin, a little collapsible writing-desk, and a neatly made bed. There on the writing-desk lay the roll of blueprints.
Hugh grabbed the roll, folded it in half, and stuffed it halfway down the back of his trousers. He heard careful footsteps approaching from down the passageway. He stole a glance out the window: they were over open water. There was only one place to go.
He fired a clip of special armor-piercing bullets into the ceiling in a circular pattern, then used the little writing-desk to smash a hole. He boosted himself up into the space above the cabin just as gunfire tore through the room. He had come up next to a catwalk, with the giant silk gas cells and the spidery infrastructure of the zeppelin’s interior looming in the darkness above him, a dark maze of wires and girders. The air inside the zeppelin’s body was as cold as the outside air had been. His breath steaming, Hugh ran along the catwalk toward the nose of the zeppelin.
Behind him, he heard shouts, confusion, more gunfire. Then silence. He leapt behind one of the gas cells and stood, heart pounding, listening.
“I know you’re in here, Betcha,” came the Baron’s silky voice.
Hugh fired blindly toward the voice.
A soft laugh in the darkness. “So that is the way you want to play it, eh? Be careful you do not ignite the hydrogen cells. This would be safer if your Mr. Ickes had given us the helium we asked for.”
“America will never succumb to your demands, Nazi!”
The Baron said, “It will go easier on both you and the girl if you give up voluntarily.”
And then a female voice, sounding more tired than scared: “Don’t listen to him, Hugh.”
Hugh stood uncertainly for a moment. Then he said, “Sally? What are you doing here?”
The Baron said, “Come out with your hands in the air and nobody will get hurt.”
Hugh peered around the curve of the gas cell. He could dimly see a pair of silhouettes on a catwalk not far away.
Sally said, “I thought you might need some help, so I took an autogiro and—”
“Silence!” the Baron interrupted. And then, conversationally: “I think the girl will look less pretty with a hole in her head, no?”
“He’s bluffing, Hugh,” said Sally.
Hugh cried, “Let Sally go, you monster!”
“Betcha. You know it doesn’t work that way. Throw your gun away and then come out.”
Hugh weighed the heavy Colt in his hand, and then threw it into the darkness. It clattered off into the distance below them.
He took a deep breath and stepped out from behind the gas cell.
The Baron’s gun flashed. A bullet whined past Hugh’s head, and the gas cell beside him tore open. With a soft whump, the escaping hydrogen caught fire, a small jet of light and heat from just behind Hugh.
Hugh hurled himself away from the cell as Sally let loose a wordless shout. There was a thud of flesh on flesh, and the Baron screamed a falsetto scream and tumbled from the catwalk. “Take that, you son of a bitch,” said Sally. Before Hugh could reprimand her for her language, or take her to task for following him into danger, she said, “I’m heading for the backup control room. I’m gonna bring this thing down—you get the plans and get out of here.”
She was gone before he could tell her he already had the plans.
Another gunshot came from below, where the Baron had fallen.
Hugh leapt for a girder above his head and pulled himself up. The flash and crash of gunfire followed him. He climbed a ladder, ran along another catwalk, up some steps, along another catwalk. The Baron’s mocking voice and gun were never far behind. Another gas cell ignited, and another—now half a dozen growing jets of flame glowed in the vast space. What a waste, Hugh thought. This magnificent machine, dying, all because of that Nazi rat. He ran between two gas cells toward the outer shell of the zeppelin—and tripped, sprawling forward and over the edge of the catwalk. He grabbed at a girder and caught it with one hand, swinging from it for a moment, and then pulled himself slowly up to kneel and then stand on it.
The Baron stood gasping for breath a few yards away, pointing a deadly-looking Mauser pistol directly at Hugh’s head. His black cloak hung from his shoulders.
“Betcha, it is imperative that you listen to me,” the Baron panted. “There is more going on than you know. Your Corporation—”
A ball of fur dropped onto the Baron’s face, hissing and spitting and clawing at the Baron’s scar. The Baron screamed and fired wildly into the air. Hugh leapt to another girder and ran.
He made his way silently past more gas cells, and finally dropped through a trapdoor and into a passageway. He was back in the control gondola, at the entrance to the main control room. He opened the door.
The Baron stood there, waiting for him, face bleeding. There was no sign of the Mauser, or of the ferret.
The pilot still lay on the floor; the wheel was still unmanned. The storm raged outside the windows. Below were trees; judging by the airship’s earlier course and the city lights dimly visible in the distance, this had to be Central Park. A dark tower loomed ahead and below: Belvedere Castle, the miniature castle near the middle of the park.
“Did I ever tell you I knew your father, Betcha?” said the Baron.
“You were defeated by my father, you mean.”
“He was a great man, and a great zeppelin pilot. Such a pity about his death. He and I were very close, you know. Yes, very close indeed.” The Baron smiled and licked his lips.
“Don’t talk about my father, you scum!”
“There are those who say that the destruction of the Hindenburg was not an accident. There are powerful forces arrayed against those of us who love the zeppelin, Betcha. Your father knew—”
“I told you not to talk about my father!” Hugh launched himself at the Baron, and his momentum carried them through the portside window with a crash. Grappling amid a thousand twinkling shards of glass, the two fell into the storm-wracked sky—
—and landed hard on stone a few feet down. The zeppelin had just cleared the top of Belvedere Castle. The airship slid by overhead, blotting out the clouds and the rain.
Hugh gathered himself to his feet, nursing his left shoulder. The Baron had rolled away and had regained his footing at the edge of the parapet; he stood arms akimbo, cloak trailing behind him in what little moonlight filtered through the clouds. Thunder rolled. Hugh took one unsteady step toward the other man, and then another, then threw himself forward with a roundhouse swing.
“This,” he gasped as his punch connected, “is for the red.” The Baron staggered back. “This is for the white!” Hugh said, his voice gaining strength, and he landed an uppercut that snapped the Baron’s head back. “And this,” Hugh yelled, “is for the blue!” And with one final mighty blow he knocked the Baron flat.
Hugh stumbled over to a corner, holding himself up against the low stone rail by sheer force of will. He bent over, hands on knees, gasping for breath. A gust of wind and rain made him lurch off-balance—just as the Baron leapt for him, a long jagged knife flashing in his hand with reflected lightning.
Hugh threw himself to the side, and the Baron went over the rail.
Hugh grabbed for the man as he went by, but only succeeded in catching his foot. It took all of Hugh’s waning strength to hold on. The Baron was flailing, dangling from Hugh’s hands over the long drop below. “Hang on, Baron,” said Hugh. “I’ll help you up—”
The Baron twisted, lunging upward, slashing at Hugh with his knife—and his foot came out of his boot.
“I’ll be back, Betchaaaaaaaa!” he screamed as he fell. There was a sickening thud as he hit the rocks below; then he rolled off them and into the icy waters of the shallow lake at the castle’s foot.
Hugh stood silently for a moment, but saw no movement. “In that case, Baron,” he said at last, “you’ll need your boot.” And he dropped the boot into the lake.
From Hugh’s left came a gigantic rending noise. He turned. The zeppelin, in flames, was grinding its way into the trees at the water’s northern edge.
“Scraps!” he yelled. He ran to the castle’s stairs, and leapt down them three at a time. As he hit the bottom, a huge ball of red and orange flame leapt from the trees as several gas cells exploded at once. The heat and light washed over him. “Scraps!” he yelled again. And then, “Sally! Oh my gosh.” And then, “Oh, that poor zeppelin.”
He ran through the rain and mud around the pond’s shore, toward the site of the explosion. There was no way anyone could have survived.
But the thrum of an autogiro’s engine made itself heard over the rumbling thunder, and in a moment Sally was leaping from the aircraft and into his arms, a sopping wet Scraps scolding them both from her shoulder.
In the midst of their joyful reunion, Hugh heard another engine sound, a growing rumble in the sky like approaching thunder. He looked up and saw a sleek black DC-3 airliner touching down in a perfect short landing on the new Great Lawn to the north. As it grew closer, Hugh saw that it wasn’t quite like any DC-3 he’d seen before: the fuselage and fairings were more streamlined, the engines smaller, the wings longer. It taxied to a stop not far beyond the edge of the burning copse of trees.
Hugh looked around for a weapon or a hiding place—but it was only the General who stepped out of the plane’s passenger door and jumped to the ground. Rain slid off the man’s gray fedora and trenchcoat.
Hugh and Sally—the latter still carrying a complaining Scraps—walked to meet the General near the still-burning remains of the zeppelin.
“Good work, Betcha,” said the General. He looked at Sally, an eyebrow raised under the brim of his hat. “The plans?”
Sally nodded in Hugh’s direction.
“Here you go, General—safe and sound!” Hugh pulled the battered blueprints from under his jacket. “Now we can build the death ray! With these plans, we can create a zeppelin fighting force the likes of which the world has never seen! America will become the greatest air power in the world! We can knock out those Nazi rats’ military capabilities before they even know what’s coming!”
The General took the plans, unrolled them, glanced over them, and rolled them up again. “Good,” he said, and tossed them deep into the zeppelin’s burning wreckage.
“General!” cried Hugh. “What are you doing?”
The General looked at him sadly. “I’m sorry, Betcha, but none of that is going to happen. The age of the zeppelin is over.”
Hugh gaped at him in shock.
“It’s the airplane’s turn,” the General continued. “Your mission was to keep the weapon out of the Nazis’ hands; you did a fine job. But the world doesn’t need superweapons any more than it needs zeppelins. This ‘death ray’ of yours is too horrific a weapon to unleash on the world regardless of who owns it. Anyway, we don’t have an airplane that can carry a device like that—and airplanes are the future.”
“What are you talking about?” Hugh managed. He started to move past the General, toward the wreckage. Maybe if he dove through the flames, the rain would protect him long enough to rescue the plans, and then—
The General pulled out a pistol, a shiny new black Luger of a model Hugh didn’t recognize, and aimed it at Hugh. “I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to let them burn, son,” he said quietly.
“But, but—” Hugh stammered. He looked at Sally; she was watching him sadly. Scraps was nowhere to be seen.
“Betcha,” said the General. “The Corporation has longer-range plans than this upcoming war. We envision a day when huge airplanes cross the skies, carrying hundreds of people. The war won’t last long—a half-dozen years at the most—and when it ends, we’ll be in a perfect position to take advantage of the new global economy.”
“But Germany has to be stopped!”
“Germany isn’t the enemy, Betcha. Men like Minister Göring are forward-thinkers who recognize what’s coming—now that the energy weapon is gone, you won’t see the German zeppelin program continue under Göring’s leadership. The enemy are the men who can’t see that the world is changing, men who don’t recognize the new age that’s dawning. Men like the Baron. Men like your father.”
“Leave my father out of this!”
The General held up a placatory hand. “It doesn’t matter. What matters is that the airlines see what’s coming, and are preparing for it. The Corporation sees it too; we’ll be launching new businesses after the war, a world-wide network of airlines. We’ll have a place for a man like you; we’ll need a lot of pilots. What do you say?”
Hugh drew himself up to his full height. “I would die first.”
“Just like your father,” said the General. “Well, have it your way.” He cocked his pistol.
“This can’t be happening,” muttered Hugh. “You must—you must be under the Baron’s control! That’s it—he must have had some kind of mind control device, and—look, General, I’m sorry about this, but you’ll thank me later.” He leaped at the General.
The General fired. Hugh felt the sharp pain of a bullet tear through his right bicep; it threw him off-balance, and he and the General went down in a heap together. Hugh scrabbled for the gun and knocked it away, but the old man’s fist slammed into his jaw.
Hugh rolled away, came up in a crouch. The General got to his knees, shaking his head as if to clear it. Hugh darted forward and punched the General one-two in the gut, clenching his teeth against the agony in his right arm.
The General went down. Hugh bent, grabbed the man’s collar in his left hand, and lifted, holding the General up off the ground one-handed. The General’s head lolled back, and a thin line of blood trailed from the corner of his mouth, but his eyes were open. “Betcha . . . ,” he managed.
Hugh cocked his right fist back for the knockout blow, ignoring the pain.
“Hugh,” said a voice.
Sally’s voice, from behind him.
“Hugh. Please don’t.”
Hugh half-turned, still holding the General off the ground.
Sally stood, chin high, in the rain nearby. A flash of lightning lit up the blonde hair framing her face. She said, “Let him go, Hugh. There’s nothing to be gained from this. Nobody will believe you.”
“Are you on his side?” Hugh said.
“Of course I am. I’m going to fly for one of the new airlines. He’s right, Hugh. Zeppelins have had their turn. It’s time to let go.”
“I can’t accept that.”
Sally turned slightly so Hugh could see what she cradled in her arms: Scraps. The firelight danced red on Sally’s face. She stroked the ferret gently, letting her fingers curl tightly around the little animal’s neck. She said, “Do you want your ferret to live?”
“Sally!” cried Hugh.
Sally said, “We can all still walk out of this. You go your way, we’ll go ours.”
A sudden roar made both of them turn. The last of the zeppelin’s gas cells went up in a magnificent gout of flame.
Hugh closed his eyes and took a breath. After a moment, he lowered the General gently to his feet.
Sally moved to take her father’s arm. She let the ferret jump to the ground; Scraps ran to Hugh, who picked him up.
Sally and the General walked off toward the DC-3, the General limping. Neither of them looked back.
Hugh watched them climb into the airplane, then turned to watch the last remnants of the zeppelin sputter and spark in the rain.
At last, Hugh said, “Never mind, Scraps.” He patted the ferret and winced at the pain in his arm. Then he turned away from the flames. “We’ll come up with something to do. I hear there’s a war on the way; America will need defending.” And as the last of the zeppelins burned behind him, Hugh Betcha strode off, whistling, to face a gray and uncertain dawn.
Thanks to Arthur, Mary Anne, Chris, Rick, and Don (for a little of Hugh’s dialogue).
This story was published in 2004 in All-Star Zeppelin Adventure Stories, ed. David Moles and Jay Lake.
For lots of notes about the origin and development of this story, and what I was trying to do with it, see my 2005 blog post about it.
On re-reading the story in 2023, I feel like there’s another influence that I wasn’t consciously aware of: I think in some ways I was trying to write a Howard Waldrop-ish story.