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by D. Elizabeth Wasden


Mueller hadn’t thought much of it the first time the watch stopped and then restarted. He too had blacked out on one occasion early in his flying career, and he’d never owned a watch before the war. Many things appeared to die and then to resuscitate themselves on their own in the air above the treetops, above the cloud line. All a matter of pressure.

And luck.

His watch had paused once more as he pushed up on the stick. Flak burst around them like electric snowflakes. The starboard wing shuddered and heaved a crack as the plane plummeted towards the earth and their target a section of the front protruding with artillery. The closer to danger, the nearer to death, the clearer the photographs. Both sets.

His face reddened, colored by the slipstream slapping against his cheeks. He chanced a glance back at his partner, Schmidt the Bloodhound, the observer, who had his pistol camera ready, and leveled off the aircraft.

Another shell whined towards them; Mueller clutched the stick. He held his breath, unable to discern anything but the quickening pace of his heart. The sounds of war melded into a single beat. Another. The beat continued, stringing together as if the rhythm from a Munich beer garden on a summer afternoon.

The song finished, he pulled up and banked away from the enemy.

Once they drifted above the haze of smoke and the cloudline, he glanced at his watch. The second-hand ticked. He glanced back at Schmidt, who had resettled into his seat and gave Mueller a grin and a thumbs up.

He turned south-south-east. I wonder if God, too, views the world through an amber-colored lens, he thought.

• • •

Mueller and Bloodhound slid from the cockpit to the earth once the plane’s propeller had ceased to spin.

 “Good shots?” Mueller asked.

“Of course they were good, but we’ll see what the technicians make of them,” Bloodhound said. His grin slipped as he continued. “Your flying, though. A bit reckless lately. We don’t need to be that close. Angling for one of the Kaiser’s medals?”

Mueller gave a shrug. “I flew. You observed. We landed. It was a bit tight tonight. I did what was necessary for the mission.”

“I’m all for the mission. And having a next mission.” Bloodhound paused. “I think you’ve been reading too much about Jasta One. The ladies don’t care in Munich. A flyer is a flyer to them.”

“I think that’s it. I could use a few days in Munich.”

“Ah, the Munich ladies. I miss them, too. Long legs. Bright, full lips. It’s like alpine skiing when you slide your hands across their curves.”

Mueller snorted. “Thanks. I’m sure that will help.”

“A drink instead? After we’ve debriefed.”

“A drink. Once I’ve a copy of the photos.”

• • •

The debriefing ended with a stack of photographs, still warm from processing, in Mueller’s hands. He gazed down at them, studying them as the two crossed to the barracks.

“The captain seemed impressed,” Bloodhound said. “A few more flights, and you’ll have that medal. And a few more ladies.”

“So will you,” Mueller said, squinting at the photos.

“If I live long enough.”

“Such a pessimist.”

 “A realist with packs of Tommies on our arses and flak in front of us.”

“It’ll be over soon enough.”

“Then what?”

Mueller glanced at Bloodhound as they entered the barracks. He crossed to his sleeping area and shifted a box lid with his boot.

“In the sky, what do you see? How do you feel when you’re up there?” he asked as he lifted a half-empty bottle of cognac and tossed it to Bloodhound.

Bloodhound swished around the contents and then uncorked the bottle. “Everything. Nothing. Until we’re close.”

Mueller nodded. “Distance lacks detail, but you see it all. With the camera, you acquire the detail. I imagine It’s like God’s view of us. The feeling that I’ve something in common with Him, It’s quite satisfying. That’s why I like to see the photographs. They show me things I can’t see when I’m the pilot. I lack the details. The closeness. From my viewpoint, the world is empty except for those who try to shoot us down.”

“A minor detail.”

Mueller laughed. “An annoyance. And if the annoyances were no longer there? If you could see the world and the details and know that everyone was in the right place, if there were no enemies trying to shoot us down, if there was order, wouldn’t that be a beautiful thing? A worthy thing to aim for? A goal to pursue?”

“I suppose. Although the world would be a bit boring, wouldn’t it? The lack of spontaneity.” Bloodhound handed Mueller the bottle.

Mueller took a swig of cognac. “I wouldn’t miss it.”

“So this is what you’ll do after? Rob the world of spontaneity?”

“Bring order to the world, yes. I’m hanging up my goggles after this,” Mueller said, patting his sidearm, “but I’m keeping my holster.”

“A policeman. That could come in handy.”

“I’ll see what I can do.” Mueller smiled as he patted Bloodhound on the back.

• • •

An empty bottle of cognac, the damage inflicted largely by Bloodhound, made for an easy escape. Mueller left Bloodhound in the barracks. He slipped outside where the night blanketed him and his photographs both old and new. Although late April, the night’s air hung in his chest like a block of ice. He lit a cigarette and hunched over a flashlight.

He scanned the photographs, examining every corner. Searching. Seeking.

Buildings. Uniforms. Artillery pieces. Anti-aircraft guns. A smart shot of one of the Allied planes that had pursued them. One after the other, he flipped through the photographs, repeating the process once he’d reached the end of the stack. He did not stop until he caught the first glimpse of the other. The other side that the photographs showed as they shifted from past to some other future.

A burned out city, gutted like wild game, buildings hollowed as if the meat had been dug out of a sausage casing. A pair of boots in the corner of a room, placed so that they created a forty-five degree angle. A field grey tunic covering the back of a plump chair.

There, again. On the wall. Draped against the side of buildings. He stared at the ubiquitous symbol, studying it. He had seen it before, in several of these alternate photographs. It reminded him of an angular wheel, always spinning.

And what might it catch within its spokes? he wondered.

A scarf on a bed. A fedora next to it. A pair of gloves. A wedding band wrapped around his finger, but the woman in the bed with him showed only naked digits.

Papers dropped out of windows bearing his signature and the wheel. Barrel fires burned outside, hands full of more paper or the same paper just above the blaze.

Rubble and arms and legs. No tufts of hair, no thin lips or eyes opened, frozen at the moment of death, only limbs.

He reached the last photograph and flipped through once more, faster this time.

A Munich police badge on a bare table. Smoke rising above columns, a pool of blood on the pavement. Dim prison cells. Grey walls. A pair of wedding bands. A uniform of black in an unfamiliar closet.

Canned Goods. Red Orchestra. Operation Reinhard.

Rank, acrid odor hung in the air.

His cigarette had burned down to his fingers. He shook his hand, dropping the butt on the ground and crushing it with his boot heel.

Closer next time, he thought as he turned towards the barracks. Closer.

• • •

A trio of grey French fighters swarmed around them. Another three these yellow loomed ahead, descending towards their recon plane. Mueller squeezed his trigger, and Bloodhound did the same in the rear of the plane. The rat-a-tat of expelled rounds blended with the force of air pushing against Mueller. The crackle of wood splitting on both sides joined the cacophony.

Their target still lay another two klicks to the west. He continued to follow the flight path, zig-zagging as much as possible in their lumbering aircraft.

He released the trigger and pushed up on the stick; the plane dove towards the treetops. Five thousand feet. Forty-five hundred. He glanced at the starboard and then the port wing. Both had been splintered in certain areas but remained relatively intact.

Four thousand. Thirty-five hundred. He looked over his shoulder. Two Nieuports exhaled dark plumes of smoke and diverged in course. Another pursued. He resumed the twelve o'clock position; the three Spads above them were now tangled with a trio of Fokkers.

They passed above the line of trees, continuing their descent. Their pursuers remained, but Mueller could now see their target a series of artillery guns.

He turned and gave Bloodhound a thumbs-up.

He did not wait for a response.

The altimeter spun counter-clockwise.

Three thousand.

Twenty-five hundred. Roused soldiers escaped from buildings, scattering. Scrambling. He began to count them.

Two thousand. The smell of spring, of perfumed blooms, swirled into his nostrils.

One thousand. The insignia on uniforms no longer blurred and took form like drying photographs.

His watch had stopped, the second hand paused, measuring time of its own in its dormancy.

Mueller continued to sweep around the target, making tight circles in the air as flak exploded around them.

As he rotated, his pulse pounded in his head. All other senses merged into the singular rhythm. The song commenced, and he ached for Munich. More so, he ached for the future, to see the details the treasures buried beneath stone and sand and soil.

Each click of the pistol camera cracked through him, the stabs sharp, electric. He bit his lower lip and clenched the stick as he attempted to focus on the singular beat.

Part of him seemed to be drawn towards the heavens and part towards the earth. He slammed into the cockpit seat; he coughed as he tried to breathe. His watch cracked; glass shattered.

Still coughing, he banked to the east and straightened the plane. He began a slow ascent.

Eleven hundred.

Fifteen hundred.

Eighteen hundred.

Two thousand.

He glanced to his side. The Spad no longer pursued them, but he could still see two of the Fokkers through the smoke-choked atmosphere.

He lifted his wrist and studied the watch. The open face, the hands still intact, remained at rest.

Turning his shoulders, Mueller glanced behind. Bloodhound’s head and torso hung over the fuselage. The bottom half of his body dangled inside the cockpit.

“Bloodhound!” Mueller said, attempting to yell above the roaring propeller. “Schmidt!”

Bloodhound did not stir. Mueller twisted, keeping one hand on the stick, and reached towards his partner. He grasped him by the bottom of his jacket and tugged. As Bloodhound’s arms shifted, Mueller caught sight of the trigger end of the pistol camera in the crook of Bloodhound’s left elbow.

Mueller jolted and lurched towards the camera. His feet slipped from the rudder pedals, and he released the stick as he completed a 180-degree turn.

The plane began to plummet and slide towards the west. Mueller could hear the buzz of propellers in the distance. Bloodhound remained half inside the plane and half out.

Mueller glanced upwards; the Spad had returned, visible just in the distance.

The plane shifted; its nose had begun to point upwards and buckle, warning of an impending stall. The movement threw Bloodhound to the other side of the cockpit and threatened to throw him overboard. Mueller lost his grasp on his partner and watched as the camera drifted upwards, seeming to float for several seconds.

The engine had begun to whine. Mueller gripped Bloodhound’s shoulders with both hands and pulled him into the observer’s cockpit seat. The camera dropped below the plane and tumbled towards the earth.

Mueller slipped into his seat, grasped the stick and settled his feet onto the peddles. He pointed the nose down, and the plane soon broke through the clouds.

The Spad had disappeared above them; below them, the camera pistol spun towards the ground like a duck plucked by a hunter’s rifle.

Mueller followed. The camera rotated as it plummeted; like an acrobat, it hit a treetop on the trigger end and then somersaulted. The lens end impacted the dirt below.

He memorized the coordinates and continued home, one eye on the altimeter, an occasional turn towards Bloodhound, and the repetition of numbers in his head.

• • •

Mueller sat, his hands between his knees, the recovered photographs between his hands. The photographs had dulled into mundane still lifes of guns of various caliber since Bloodhound’s death and now the train chugged towards the east, towards revolution, deceit, destruction, towards a land without a true leader, without law.

The open-faced watch, resurrected with the transition from an old year to a new, ticked its beat.

Spontaneity ruled for the moment.

He watched the snow whisking past the train, settling on trees and the earth, burying beneath it whatever it could overcome.

He no longer required the truth or the reality shown in the photographs before. Each tick of the watch signaled the slow death of chaos and the victory of order, and Mueller knew that he would be order’s knight, pistol and shield in hand.



D. Elizabeth Wasden resides on the peninsula between the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. She dreams of blue crabs, the last Crassostrea virginica, U-boat bellies scraping sand, and all manner of things swallowed and mutated by water and time. She holds double degrees in history and Russian Studies, which she exploits for fictional purposes as often as possible. Her fiction has appeared in Talebones and Electric Velocipede; in 2009, her work will appear in Greatest Uncommon Denominator (GUD) and Fantasy Magazine.


October 2008