by Estevana Rey
WWII Alternate Universe
Chris Larabee was flying on the mental equivalent of autopilot. The only reason he didn't just ditch the Fortress was because he knew Buck wouldn't leave JD, and there was still a chance that some of them would survive this.
Plus, he owed it to JD to at least get him back to England, and with luck, it would all be over before JD felt anything.
Standish hadn't said hardly a word. Usually, the co-pilot relieved the stress of a mission by talking his ear off non-stop once they had dropped their bombs and were flying for themselves. He didn't mind, really. Standish had been a lot of interesting places and he was an intelligent and observant man. Right then, he would have given anything for the relative normalcy of Ezra's chatter.
They were fifteen minutes from the field when yet another tremendous jolt shook the Fort. Standish's face blanched as the plane banked to the right.
"Buck! What's happening back there?" Larabee shouted into his mike. When he failed to detect the slight echo of his own voice, he remembered the radio was out. "Shit!" he spat. "I think we might have lost the tail section."
Standish was thinking the same thing. While it was remotely possible that the Fort could still land without her tail, it was extremely unlikely to be a successful landing - with 'success' being defined as any landing you walked away from.
Despite the numbing despair of the past few hours, Ezra Standish didn't want to die. He immediately began struggling with the controls, attempting to do what he could to help Larabee even out the erratic descent of the big plane.
The ultimate irony of the situation hit him when he spotted the first landmark that would guide them to the airstrip.
They were so close.
He knew ground crews and off-duty air crews alike were standing down there, counting the Forts as they returned, squinting their eyes through binoculars trying to make out the images on the nose, or the battle scars that matched this plane or that.
There's Larabee, someone would observe.
Looks like he ain't got no landing gear.
And a few of the more entrepreneurial among them would be making wagers as to whether or not they would land in one piece. Admittedly, the present situation in which he found himself would no doubt color any future inclination he might have to engage in such speculation.
Holy fuck, his tail is gone!
So close... they had almost made it.
Standish looked over at his pilot. Larabee was cooler than ice, didn't even react when the plane, after tremendous effort, straightened itself out.
Ezra's legs were trembling with the exertion of holding the plane steady. Flying the B-17 was always physically demanding and by the time they'd return to base, his legs would be aching from the effort. He knew Larabee experienced the same fatigue, so that now, in these last moments of the flight, their physical endurance was being taxed to the limit.
"She's doin' good, Ez," Larabee said almost casually.
The words were of little consolation. As they passed another landmark, Standish was gripped by cold terror. Even if they could set the Fort down, she'd still be landing flat on her belly. She could break apart, cartwheel, explode... any number of things that would ensure the same catastrophic outcome.
And, no matter what happened, in a few seconds, JD Dunne would be dead, crushed like a helpless insect under the massive weight of the Fortress.
"Red flare," Larabee ordered calmly.
With mute resignation, Standish prepared to release the red flare that would signal that they had wounded on board, although in a technical sense, they didn't.
JD wasn't wounded.
JD was about to be obliterated.
+ + + + + + +
Tanner wasn't asleep, but his mind had drifted off into some twilight state of nothingness so that he didn't have to think about JD. Wondering what that final moment was going to be like, when pieces of the shattered turret - and maybe JD, too - came shooting up into the fuselage like some obscene geyser had eaten away at his gut until he'd puked again. There wasn't much, and what had come up had dripped down into the pile of spent shell casings that were ankle deep in places. After that, he'd just closed his eyes and shut everything out.
But, an unexpected jarring of the aircraft jolted him to awareness, and the sudden flurry of activity inside the plane had him instantly alert.
The tear in the fuselage was now three times as long as it had been... but the turret's support ring was no longer wedged up tight against the ball. Wilmington had continued to maintain his vigil beside the turret, and Jackson and Sanchez had rushed toward it when they saw it move. In a frantic assessment of the situation they concluded that even though they still couldn't open the damaged sphere, it might now be possible to drop it clear of the aircraft.
Tanner glanced out the door of the plane. Days of continuous rain had left the ground soft and spongy. If they salvoed the turret, it would mean JD's body would be recovered, and he could be buried in one piece. And maybe just as important, it would mean Chris would have a better chance of landing the crippled Fort on her belly without her breaking apart.
There was another possibility he almost dared not think about... if they were close enough to the ground when he was dropped... maybe... just maybe... JD would somehow survive the fall.
"THE WRENCH! WHERE'S THE FUCKING WRENCH?!" Josiah raged as his big hands shoveled shell casings out of the way.
Tanner knew the general vicinity where the tool had landed when Josiah had thrown it earlier. Now wide awake, he joined the frantic search and in seconds was holding the standard-issue crescent wrench aloft like it was a sacred idol. The big sergeant snatched it from his grasp and all regard for rank and formality forgotten, ordered, "Now find the goddamn hammer!"
Tanner did as he was told. There was no time to lose. If they made it to Sudbury, Larabee would have to land on his first approach. There was no way the injured Fortress would survive a 360-degree turn. Procedure recommended an ideal allowance of forty minutes to disconnect the turret, although it could be done in half that time if you sacrificed the electrical connections, the O2 line, and the expensive computing sight. They had less than fifteen.
Jackson and Wilmington held the turret steady in the dangerously bucking airplane while Josiah worked the retaining hooks that held the ball in its support ring, some of which were already damaged or broken off. Ordinarily - if such a thing were ever ordinary - he would have disconnected the turret from the gear box directly above it, first. But with the support ring damaged like it was, it was possible that once that was done, the turret would just come loose, and they had to wait until they were closer to the ground for that.
Just in case there was a chance...
Vin found the hammer and crawled back to the turret with it, disregarding the pinch in his side and a new, wet warmth that told him the wound there was bleeding again. Josiah had him take Jackson's place, since the larger man would be better able to hit the hooks with enough force to break them.
Josiah and Nathan worked at an inhuman pace and almost had the turret disconnected when another jolt caused the gear box to twist precariously. Vin looked out at the ground below. They were still about a hundred feet in the air, but they were descending rapidly.
Josiah got the first two of the four gear box bolts loose with no problem, but because the damage to the fuselage crowded the box on one side, he couldn't get to the third.
Tanner took the wrench from him. He was smaller and knew he could get to the bolt more easily.
He could see the ground clearly now. They were no more than thirty feet in the air. Larabee would bring her in slow and easy, but it was still happening way too fast.
The others stood back, not wanting to impede the separation of the turret when it was finally freed.
Tanner worked feverishly, his mind calculating their rate of descent.
His muscles strained as he put all of his strength into removing that bolt.
The bolt came loose. Vin immediately started on the last bolt, feeling a tremendous surge of elation that was cut savagely short an instant later. A horrendous popping sound echoed through the aircraft as the weight of the turret sheared off the remaining bolt. Before anyone had time to react, the turret dropped, leaving Tanner perched precariously over a gaping hole in the floor.
Reflexively, Josiah grabbed Vin's arm as the officer lost his footing and fell through the opening.
The sudden tug of Tanner's weight almost pulled Sanchez out, too, and it was only with that inhuman strength born of abject terror that he managed to remain in the plane and keep a tenuous grip on Tanner's forearm.
Sanchez felt first Jackson's, then Wilmington's arms wrap around him, steadying him, as he closed both hands like steel clamps over Tanner's leather-covered wrist.
The bomardier was looking up at him, his lips pursed with determination as he tried to pull himself back into the plane.
But even though the Fortress was now moving at a reduced speed, there was still too much wind force trying to pull Tanner away from the plane, and Sanchez could feel the Texan's arm slipping inside the sleeve of his jacket.
Tanner's other arm groped blindly for a handhold, but Josiah could see the ground coming up at them too quickly. They were still over dirt, not the hard surface of the runway.
What the hell is Larabee doing?
It didn't matter. The drag of the aircraft had pulled most of Tanner's body underneath the fuselage, and the irony was that the fate they had managed to spare JD now awaited Vin. Even if they could do it, there was no time to pull him back in before he was crushed.
Josiah made eye contact with the young officer, but there was no way to tell him... no time to explain... what he did next. With a hasty prayer to whatever gods or guardian angels might be listening, he released his hold and Lieutenant Tanner was gone.
When Chris Larabee felt the belly of his Fortress make contact with the ground, it did more than jar his bones. It ripped out his very soul.
He'd chosen to land on the grassy strip alongside the main runway. It was dangerous and violated every protocol, but he held out the slimmest of hopes that the earth would cushion the impact of the turret and minimize the degree to which it would be unavoidably mangled.
Methodically, he had cut his engines as he neared the ground, adjusted the flaps down 3/4 and pulled the controls towards him to bring the nose of the plane up so that the tail - if he still had one - would hit first. Ezra had fired off the red flare and he was dimly aware that there were ambulances coming down the runway towards them, intermixed with the emergency crews that would work quickly to move the damaged bomber out of the path of any other approaching aircraft.
His hopes of preserving the turret crumbled away when the Fort hit the muddy ground with a sensation resembling that of a hand slapping wet concrete.
The B-17 screeched in protest as her metal skin scraped along the ground. Slowly, ever so slowly, she finally came to a stop.
Larabee sat unmoving and silent, the controls still clutched against his chest. Standish buried his head in his arms and didn't move except for a rhythmic heaving of his shoulders. Larabee didn't know if he was puking or crying or both, and couldn't blame him if he was doing either.
+ + + + + + +
After salvoing the ball turret - and Lieutenant Tanner - Jackson, Sanchez and Wilmington had scurried into the radio compartment, which was supposedly the safest place to be in a belly landing.
Once the plane had come to a stop, Sanchez remembered to rotate the top turret forward so that Standish and Larabee could use the barrels to pull themselves out of the cockpit if they had to, and then he followed Jackson and Wilmington as they dashed for the exit.
Dirt and debris had been scooped into the fuselage as the Fortress had skidded along the ground, but miraculously, she had stayed together. The fuel tanks were almost empty, but if the B-17 had one fault, it was that it tended to explode with little provocation and even less warning. However, that concern was only secondary to the need to alert the ground personnel that Dunne and Tanner had been ejected from the plane and were possibly seriously injured.
The three enlisted men jumped out the door on the undamaged starboard side of the plane and ran to meet one of the jeeps that had come to pick them up. When the driver refused to backtrack the approach path of the Fortress without the proper authorization, Buck pulled him out of his seat and deposited him on the tarmac and in seconds the three of them were headed towards where they hoped they would find Vin and JD.
+ + + + + + +
When Larabee felt someone tapping his shoulder, he was suddenly aware that he was still sitting in the cockpit, and hadn't moved since the plane had stopped. He turned, expecting to see Sanchez or one of the others, but it was the ground crew Chief. Chris couldn't remember his name. Everyone called him 'Yosemite.'
"Sir? You and Lieutenant Standish need to get out so we can move the plane."
Chris nodded and with an even voice said, "My ball turret gunner... He was... we couldn't get him out. His name is JD Dunne... If you can..." He couldn't finish the rest of it.
"Sweet Jesus," Standish moaned from the seat beside him. He still hadn't raised his head from his arms.
Yosemite looked at them, perplexed at first, and then he sympathetically clapped a meaty hand on Larabee's shoulder. "You don't know? Your men salvoed the turret right before you touched down. One of the other guys fell out with it... but, y'know, you weren't that high... Maybe..."
Larabee didn't let him finish. He pushed open the cockpit hatch and, with Standish literally on his heels, was out of the plane and on the ground in less than a heartbeat.
He spotted an empty jeep and hopped in, waiting only long enough for Ezra to grab on before he threw it into gear.
"Hey!!!" someone shouted as he ran towards them. "You can't do that!"
Ezra gave the man a two-fingered salute as they sped off down the tarmac.
Buck slammed on the brakes to slow the jeep down when they spotted the flash of khaki fabric in the gray mud. As they approached, they saw the bundle move and then an arm reached into the air and with a shaky movement tried to wave them down.
The three men slogged through the muck and found Lieutenant Tanner lying face up, his body having made an impression in the mud that resembled a half-assed snow angel.
Josiah got to him first and bent over the young officer.
Before he could open his mouth though, the same arm that had been waving at them so feebly a few seconds before came flying upward with the fist at the end making a solid connection with the big Sergeant's jaw, knocking him on his butt.
"YA THREW ME OUTA THE FUCKIN' PLANE, YA GODDAMN SONOFABITCH!" No one would have guessed the normally reserved lieutenant could yell that loud.
Josiah took his punishment gamely. "You okay?" he asked Tanner as he rubbed his jaw. No one would have guessed the scrawny young officer could hit so damn hard, either.
Tanner, apparently deciding the score was settled, shook his head. "I don't know."
"You hurtin' anywhere?" Nathan asked.
"I'm hurtin' everywhere," Tanner admitted.
Josiah grabbed his arm to help him to his feet, but Tanner cried out in pain. "Ain't no good, Josiah," he gasped. "I think my back is broke."
"Easy there," Nathan cautioned. He began checking Vin for injuries and sucked in his breath when he discovered blood seeping from beneath Tanner's coveralls on his left side. The Lieutenant was still wearing his Mae West, and he gently moved his left arm to see if whatever had caused the injury had penetrated the vest, fearing the worst. The vest was intact, but there was a frightening amount of blood. Nathan noted that some of it had already dried, and Tanner's clothing appeared to be stuck to the wound. The injury obviously hadn't happened in the fall -damn it Tanner, does something have to be falling off before you say something?- so it was probably best to leave it alone. Disturbing it would likely increase the rate of flow. "Lie still, Lieutenant. We need to wait for the medics."
Buck looked up and saw that an ambulance was fast approaching. Tanner saw it, too, and knew what Wilmington was thinking. He looked at the three men. "I'm okay... they'll take care of me... Go find JD."
+ + + + + + +
Captain Larabee and Lieutenant Standish had joined the three sergeants in scouring the ground for the ball turret. Other ground crew personnel were looking, too. The search area wasn't large, but the mud was hampering the effort. It camouflaged anything it covered, and it covered everything.
Wilmington had his eyes glued to the ground when he caught site of a spherical shape in the mud. He pointed it out and was racing towards it before the jeep could be pulled to a full stop.
He wiped the mud away to reveal the plexiglas surface underneath, but it turned out to be only part of the turret. Closer examination revealed that it must have cracked like an egg on impact. Its precious occupant was nowhere to be seen.
Methodically, they narrowed the search area as their efforts became more desperate. Time was something they didn't have to spare. Even if JD had survived the fall, and if he wasn't critically injured, he still had enough morphine in his system to kill him.
They had to find the boy as soon as possible.
"OVER HERE!" Standish yelled, waving his hat in the air. The other men raced towards him.
Tanner's head throbbed and his back was a conflagration of agony. He realized he must have passed out when instead of open sky he saw ceiling lights above him. The motion of them seemingly wheeling about his head as he was rolled along on the gurney resulted in a sudden wave of dizziness and nausea. He clamped his eyes shut and swallowed hard and that helped a bit.
He felt hands poking at him, squeezing his arms and legs, prodding his ribs. He jumped when they lifted his arm and prodded the wound on the side of his chest, causing his back to go into a painful spasm. He gasped as someone ordered them to be careful of his side, which was funny because whatever was there didn't really hurt all that much.
There was tugging and ripping and he felt the cold steel of a pair of shears running up his sides from ankle to armpit, then up his arms as his muddy clothing was cut away. His one thought was that he was thankful that he hadn't pissed himself or shit his drawers. It happened, and the hospital crews had probably seen it plenty of times, but it was enough of an embarrassment that he found himself suddenly lying there stripped naked.
The fabric of his undershirt stuck painfully to his chest, and he looked down when he felt a warm, wet gauze pad placed over it. He was surprised to see the left side of his torso smeared with blood, because his back hurt so damn bad, he couldn't even feel whatever had happened to his chest. The fabric quickly loosened and the medic pulled back the scrap of shirt to reveal a deep gash about 4 inches long right below the pectoral muscles on his left side.
Vin looked away, because it hadn't hurt as much before he'd seen it as it did after.
He felt a pull at his neck and remembered the medicine bag Rory Selkirk had given him. His eyes flew open in time to grab the hand that was about to cut its leather cord.
"NO!" He tried not to sound panicked but it didn't work.
The medic nodded in understanding. "Good luck?" he smiled.
Tanner nodded and he didn't feel a bit stupid about it. Hell, there had to be some reason why he was still here after that sonofawhore Sanchez had tossed his ass out of a goddamn moving plane.
The medic carefully slipped the cord over his head. He wrapped it around the little pouch and then placed it in Vin's hand.
A doctor named Major O'Neill checked him over, deciding that the injury on his side hadn't penetrated the chest wall, and that whatever had caused the cut over his eye had probably given him a mild concussion as well. Both wounds would need stitches.
The man was gratifyingly dumbfounded when the medic told him Vin had fallen from a plane.
"I didn't fall, I was dropped!" He wanted to be sure they knew that, but as soon as he said it, he realized he could be making big trouble for Josiah, so he shut up. They stuck a needle in his arm connecting him to a glass bottle of plasma hanging over the bed while the doc had him move his arms, wiggle his toes, flex his ankles, bend his knees and lift his legs. It hurt like hell, but he was able to move everything.
"I don't think we have a cord injury here," O'Neill said, "but we need to get some pictures. He's shocky... keep an eye on his b.p., and suture those lacerations."
Vin was shaking, partly because he was cold lying there in his birthday suit. When the medic strapped warmed blankets around him, he could have kissed the guy. He couldn't believe that, as bad as he was hurting, they apparently hadn't found anything seriously wrong with him yet. The pain in his back was making his eyes water. The medic seemed to sense his distress and placed a reassuring hand on his arm. "After we get some x-rays we'll see about something for the pain, okay?"
Vin nodded gratefully. "Do you know anything about JD? Corporal Dunne?" he dared to ask.
"Ball turret gunner?"
The medic shrugged. "Don't know if they found him yet. Some of the guys saw the turret bust apart when it hit."
Vin was hoping for better news, but he appreciated the medic being honest with him. "Thanks." At least he had the peace of mind that came from knowing that if JD was dead, he had escaped the grisly end Fate had planned for him.
"I'll let you know if we hear anything. Rumor is you guys had quite a ride."
Vin tried to change his position a bit to ease the pain in his back, but he was strapped down tight. Considering what he'd experienced in the past few hours, he found that oddly comforting. "Yeah, reckon we did at that."
+ + + + + + +
JD was completely covered with gray mud, but Standish wisely did no more than make sure his airway wasn't blocked by it. Jackson knelt beside him and pushed his fingers against the young man's neck while at the same time listening for breath sounds.
JD's pulse was weak and erratic, and his breathing was shallow and labored. He was clearly in trouble, but Nathan couldn't help feeling like he was witnessing a miracle. "He's alive," he said, awed by his own words. "By God, he's alive!"
Buck was on his knees beside the boy, talking to him, touching him lightly for fear of aggravating any unseen injuries he might have. JD was completely unresponsive which they all knew was not a good sign.
Dear Lord, don't take him now, Josiah prayed.
The ambulance was there in seconds and the medics pushed them out of the way. Nathan tried to step in and explain to them that JD had been drugged, but they were too focused on their task to listen.
The other ground crew personnel, thinking that Larabee's team was over-excited by the emergency landing, pulled all of them away, including Chris and Ezra.
Nathan turned his attention to their pilot and hastily explained to Larabee what they had done to JD when they thought he was going to be crushed to death in the turret.
JD had already been loaded into the ambulance and it was speeding off towards the base hospital. The five remaining members of Larabee's crew jumped into one jeep and raced ahead, actually beating it there. Chris ran into the casualty entrance, ignoring anyone who tried to stop him, and found Major O'Neill, the doctor in charge. He quickly explained the situation, hoping O'Neill didn't think he was the raving lunatic he knew he sounded like.
He then stood back against the wall as JD was wheeled in and the doctor and the medics went to work.
Medics stripped off JD's clothing, revealing large, deep bruises on his left thigh, lower back, and right shoulder, but there were no broken bones poking through his flesh and no blood on him that Chris could see.
They started an IV and gave JD a stimulant in the hopes of counteracting the morphine. The medics shouted his name while they rubbed their knuckles up and down his breast bone and slapped the bottoms of his bare feet. One of the medics had carefully removed the medicine bag from around JD's neck, mentioning something about Lieutenant Tanner not wanting to part with his. He slipped it into a small cotton bag along with JD's dog tags and tied them to the gurney.
Knowing there was nothing he could do here but get in the way, Chris went to check on Tanner. Josiah had assured him the young bombardier was okay, but 'okay,' he knew, was a relative term. And Vin would want to know that JD was still alive.