"A Rocketman Story"
By John Pirillo
A slice through the shadows. Fall back deeper.
Heartbeat so loud his chest feels like it's going to explode.
Maybe this time.
Maybe the search has ended!
"Come on, bucket head." Jet whined.
Harry swiped at the sweat pooling across his brows, his concentration unwavering as he studied the battle plans before him.
Jet, leaning over the plans, anxious to get going, fretted like the little child he was sometimes. Got to love him, mused Harry as he finally swept his pawn across the board to block the only exit that Jet's king had.
Jet grinned so big that Harry immediately knew he had made a tactical error.
"You should have blocked the rook, not the castle." Einstein said, as he hovered over his shoulder, the sweet smell of his cherry blend whispering between his teeth from the pipe he was smoking.
"Easy for you to say." Harry complained. "You plan a hundred moves ahead."
"Well, one tries." Einstein replied humbly.
Harry gave him a scowl, then waited for Jet to close the game.
Instead, Jet yawned, stretched real big and got to his feet, stretching like a lion does before leaping upon its prey.
"I'm whacked. Think I'll catch some shut eye. 'Night!"
"Hey!" Harry complained.
"You win, Harry. As always." Jet said, the hint of a snicker in his voice as he swept off to the right and their bunks deeper in the underground fortress. A fortress that was deep inside a series of natural caverns inside the Swiss Alps. Left there by ancient Romans on their way to defeating the rest of Europe. You could still see some of their statuary in deeper pockets of the fortress, where even some of their simple columns supported the cavern roof with beauty, while not actual need.
Einstein sat down and pondered the board a moment. "Actually, he's right. You do win."
Harry looked at Einstein. "You're kidding, right?"
Einstein gave him a stony face, then broke into laughter. "Night, Harry."
He walked off slowly, heading a different direction, probably to work with one of his fellow scientists on suit modifications Harry had suggested. He just found it harder and harder to fly the damn thing. He felt like a walking tank. Not like a bird flying. More like a bomb flying the wrong direction.
Brenda, one of the Nurses on station, slipped into a chair opposite him and set down two cups of Java. "Thought you'd need this."
"Thanks." He said, grasping its warmth, allowing it to warm his numb fingers. While the base was comfortable enough, no amount of work could change the temperatures inside, which were usually just this side of freezing. You could always see your breath. When he complained about it, Einstein laughed. "Would you rather it got hot and our electronics blew up, causing a thermal nuclear meltdown of our reactors?"
"Boom!" Einstein made a cute explosion sound, then laughed.
So that ended that.
"Harry. Base to Harry. Come in, Captain!" Brenda teased.
Harry focused on her face, the hint of a smile on his lips. "Sorry, just thinking."
"Ask me flight boy, you ding that old noggin a bit too much for comfort. Some day you're likely to turn into one of those steel brains like Al."
Harry barked with laughter. "He'd love hearing that. Then he could have a real partner to beat chess with."
She smiled, then took a sip of her Java.
Harry did the same. Then his eyebrows rose. She gave him the hint of a mischievous smile. "Woke you up, did it, fly boy?"
"You shooting for bedpan duty, Nurse?" Harry quipped.
"No skin off my back. I've been doing that for years, Penguin."
He laughed. "Sometimes I wish I were."
"Yeah. Read you loud and clear."
They both sat there lost in their thoughts a moment, then Harry said what was really on his mind. "Do you think they're still alive...out there...somewhere?"
Betty's face grew impassive. "Facts are not always pleasant, flyboy."
"Atta girl, fast thinking. But not as fast as my jenny."
"Your jenny is nothing more than a firecracker with metal slung around it." She countered, then put a hand on his hand, not liking the direction their talk was taking.
"Sorry, Harry. Didn't mean to blow out your tanks."
"Likewise." He said with a grin.
She softened. "We would all like to think she was still alive, but..."
He grew somber with that thought. "So many gone. So many."
"You still seeing the split?"
"Must feel like being stuck in a Mae West double barrel salute when that happens."
"Worse." He admitted.
She looked into his eyes. "What's it like in that other world?"
"We were winning."
He didn't say anything more. What more could he say? On his own timeline the Allies were beating the crap out of those brown shirts, but here...they were on the run...hiding in rabbit holes and taking pocket shots, hoping for a big break.
"You live back then sometimes, don't you?"
"Yes." He sighed, put his head in his hands a moment, then looked back at her. "It's like a dream...this world...when I'm there, but now that world..."
"Like a dream?"
"Al or Nicolai come up with anything yet?"
"Not a damned thing."
She put a hand on his wrist and he could feel the warmth of her seeping into his body. He flinched at first, but she didn't let go. "Whenever you want to talk more about it."
She got up and smiled. "Why don'tchu come up and see me some time, big guy?"
"You been looking at those old reels, have you?" He smiled at her.
"Oh yeah. Those movie stars had it all down." She returned the smile, then walked off, the same time as klaxons blared throughout the underground cavern.
Harry bounced to his feet, spilling his Java on the table top. He ignored it as he ran as fast as he could to the rigging area. He, along with a myriad of penguins, who supported the operations, raced in every direction. Checking power. Checking radar. Checking entrances and exits. Checking fuel. Checking supplies. Hauling out fire equipment. All the things that penguins did to make sure the flyboys were safe and the secret base secure.
He mused over the term penguins a moment, thinking it funny that his fellow airmen would be called something as cute as that, but such was the slang of the times...even in this alternate reality. Which brought him back full circle to the klaxons blaring. Either there was a major battle coming, or something had gone terribly wrong.
"Suit up, Captain!" Ordered his commanding officer of the day. Colonel Windser. The man was an uptight asshole, without the slightest clue of good manners or mercy. He would just as readily swap a fellow airman down into the ground as a Nazi storm trooper.
Harry ignored him as always, leaped up the ramp into his suit, twisted around and slipped inside. The ground crew sealed him in quickly and made sure his electronic network was active and ready. Others manned the new electronic consoles that kept track of his heart rate, his air, his munitions and more importantly his amp out if need be. He'd only amped once, and it had cost him a month in rehab from the shock of impacting the ground. He was determined...not to let that ever happen again.
Amping was a term for bailing out, but in his suit, it just meant being enclosed with a super inflated cushion that was supposed to protect him from earth impact. It did, but it usually left him in shock for weeks from the violence of the impact. They had tested it once without him and deemed it okay, but he knew better. It was experimental. Which was why he was begging them for lighter suit.
As his helmet sealed off and his scanners lit to life, his screens for monitoring the outside of the suit, his armament, his flight navigator, his communications gear came to life as well. "Rocketman, loud and ready." He quipped.
"Gotcha, Harry." Jet rang in from a receiver near his right ear.
Harry activated his legs and began disconnecting from the ramp. He turned and faced the ramp he would be launching from. He began racing up it as the mountainside ahead began to part like the fabled walls of Ali Baba's forty thieves.
"Rocket!" Harry shouted, then shot up into the midnight black of the Swiss night. No moon, no stars. Clouds thick and dreary. Perfect for his flight to stay hidden from the Nazi base below, but bad for his systems readouts, as the fog caused a lot of false readings.
"Jet, what's going on? Nothing in range."
"This is Colonel Windser, you are to stay air born until further instructions. We have a bogey. I repeat we have a bogey."
"Colonel, that tells me zero!"
"Heads up." Jet ordered.
Harry turned his helmet up.
The clouds were thinner there. As he flew higher, they thinned further and he became aware of something metallic coming into view. It was larger than him, and armed to the teeth. Another Rocket suit...with a huge Swastika on its chest.
"Jet, we have a problem."
"What is it?"
Static blasted into his ears, then Colonel Windser's voice blasted through. "Shoot it down. Now!"
"Captain, are you disobeying a direct order?"
"No sir, just not interested in shooting my own self."
Long silence. "What?"
"It's me. Rocket me."
"Holy crap, Harry, how's that possible?"
"How are you possible, how am I?" He shot back. "Some kind of new split in the timeline. Jeepers, you're rattin' up the wrong tree, if you wanna make sense of this."
"Other suit is arming, Harry."
Harry did the only thing he could, he amped.
Inside his suit, he became compressed in a soft substance that would save him from any impact. The suit was made of a highly resilient metal that nothing short of an atom bomb could destroy. He was the only breakable part.
"Harry, you crazy!"
The last thing he saw was the face in the other suit as it closed in. His own. The eyes were in shock, then it shot to the right and vanished as he plummeted towards the earth.
That was the last thing he remembered for about a week. The next thing he remembered was Nurse Brenda's voice talking to Jet in a low murmur. Then he realized it was just him surfacing from dreamland.
He opened his eyes. He was hooked up to all kinds medical scanners and body fluids. "Hey!"
They both gave him looks of relief.
Colonel Windser stormed into the room, his face bright with anger, but instead of hollering at Harry, he wiped at his eyes, which were clearly wet with tears. He touched Harry gently on his shoulder. "Damn you, Harry!"
"Damn me, sir!" Harry joked back.
Colonel Windser jerked his eyes to Jet and Brenda. "You make sure he has everything he needs to recover fully."
He looked back at Harry. "And then you got a lot of explaining to do." He smiled. "I'm glad you made it, son."
He paused as if about to say more, then left in a storm as he had entered.
Jet whooped it up. "Harry, you just got cussed out by the meanest guy on the earth and survived."
"Didn't sound that way to me."
Brenda laughed. "You should have heard him when you amped. My ears are still healing from all the swear words."
"So what happened?" Harry asked, genuinely confused.
"You survived." Jet said gently, his smile warm and soothing. "You made it, fly boy!"
Harry laughed. "You should have seen the look on the other guy's face."
"I'll bet." Jet snorted. "Bad enough to have one loser in the air, let alone two!" He laughed. But what he was really thinking was "How could Harry be sure the other Harry would recognize the gesture of surrender and not blast him to kingdom come?"
Brenda joined the laughter, but Harry didn't. What had happened to the other him? Did he realize that Harry was not the enemy like he had the other? And why was he flying a suit with a swastika on it? Those questions boiled in his mind as he slipped into a much needed, and deep rest.