Lieutenant Frank “Ace” Egan felt the gnawing pains of hunger as his stomach growled a demand for food. One of his guards struck him none too lightly on the leg with the butt of his gun and said something in German; the other guards laughed. Ace didn’t need the telepathy he used to possess when he wore the alien belt to know that the sounds of his discomfort were causing the SS soldiers pleasure.
The truck rolled to a stop, remained that way for only a few seconds, then started to move again. It stopped again less than a minute later, and Ace knew that he had reached his final destination.
Beyond the canvas that had done little to keep out the frigid cold, there was a rush of booted feet and commands being given in German. A prison guard untied the ropes that held the canvas closed, then unlatched the tailgate. The SS soldier nearest the opening slid to the end of the long bench and hopped out of the truck. Holding his machine gun in a no-nonsense manner, he barked a command at Ace and motioned for him to get out of the truck. A spotlight from one of the guard towers illuminated the night as Ace exited the truck and found himself in a semicircle of armed guards.
Ace looked around. “Where am I?
“You are at the toughest prisoner of war camp in all of Germany.” The speaker spoke passable English. At the sound of the voice, the guards made an opening in their ranks to allow the newcomer entrance.
The man wore the insignias of a Luftwaffe colonel. His hat set level on his head, and his gray wool overcoat was pulled tight around him. One eye was shut tight, while the other was looking Ace up and down through a monocle.
Ace knew what protocol demanded of him, so he snapped to attention — to the best of his ability — and began to give his name, rank, and serial number. “Lieutenant Frank…”
“I know who you are,” the colonel said. He held up an envelope. “Major Hochstetter let me know you were coming. And before you get any ideas, forget escape. There has never been a successful escape.”
In one of the prisoner barracks, five men gathered around a window that was slightly ajar. One of the men, a Frenchman, was squatted down until he was almost even with the sill; he was watching through a pair of German opera glasses upon which were engraved the letters W.K.
“Well?” an American pilot asked, somewhat impatiently.
“Oui, Colonel,” the shorter man said, speaking the officer’s rank phonetically. “Let London know that the package has arrived.”
Ace was dead on his feet. He had been brought into camp late the previous evening and taken to the commandant’s office. He had expected to spend a couple of hours being processed in before being assigned to a barracks, but the commandant never arrived. The sun was starting to sneak in beneath the dull green shade that covered the window behind a large oak desk.
Behind him, he heard the guard who had been with him all night raising his considerable bulk from the chair upon which he had sat.
On the wall to Ace’s left, the door of a miniature alpine chalet opened, and a tiny mechanical bird emerged; it cuckooed seven times, informing the two men of the current hour. As the clock door closed, the office door opened, and in walked the commandant.
The Luftwaffe colonel walked slowly around his desk and took his seat. He looked at Ace and, with an exaggerated expression of innocence on his face, addressed the guard.
“Sergeant Schultz. Has our guest stood here all night waiting for me?” The man’s voice held a singsong quality that matched his slender form.
“Jawohl, Herr Kommandant!” the portly guard said, snapping to attention. “He has stood here all night.”
Ace realized that, since the conversation was in English, it was all for his benefit.
Glancing up as though he had just remembered that he was still wearing his hat, the colonel stood up, removed his hat, and walked over to the coat rack beside the door. Once his hat was in its proper place, he picked a riding crop up from the corner of his desk, tucked it under his arm, and then moved to stand in front of the prisoner.
“Had I known that you were standing here all night,” the commandant said, “I probably would not have slept as well as I did.”
Ace was too tired to play the bald German’s game, so he chose not to respond.
In Barracks 4, the five men who had spied on Ace’s arrival gathered around a coffeepot. The lid was lying at an angle beside the pot with wires connecting the two; a small speaker was nestled inside the lid.
“That’s just not right,” commented one of the men, an American sergeant with a Midwestern accent.
“Andrew’s right, sir,” an English corporal replied.
“I know he’s right, Newkirk,” the American colonel agreed, “but we need to know what’s going on. Colonel Klink has something up his sleeve, and I want to know what it is before I rush in. All London told us was that this guy was important, but apparently Klink knows more than we do.”
The next comment they heard answered the man’s question; it also caused the blood to drain from his face.
“I couldn’t believe it when Major Hochstetter told me he had captured the famous Ace of Space,” Colonel Wilhelm Klink said, “but… here you are.”
Jaws dropped as the eavesdroppers realized the implications of what they had just heard. Of the five, only the Midwestern sergeant was willing to vocalize what they were all thinking.
“Oh, boy,” was all he said.
Ace was not surprised that his identity was known by the commandant, and if truth were told, he wouldn’t have been overly surprised if he discovered that Berlin was preparing fliers to be sent out proclaiming his capture. Exhaustion helped him maintain an uncaring expression.
Without warning, the door flew open, and the American colonel stepped in. Behind him, two of the camp prison guards kept their machine guns trained on the man’s back. The commandant motioned the men away before turning his attention to the intruder.
“What do you want, Hogan?” the German asked.
“I learned that this man was not properly processed when he was brought in and has not been assigned to a barracks. Furthermore, it appears that he was kept up all night waiting for his assignment.”
“It was nothing more than a simple oversight,” the commandant replied.
“Oversight or not,” Colonel Robert Hogan said, “I intend to file a complaint with the Red Cross.”
The commandant sneered at his American counterpart. “I’m sure you will. Your precious Red Cross could probably paper the walls of an entire village with the complaints you have filed.”
The German turned back to Ace. “As I have said, your… discomfort was merely an oversight, Sergeant Schultz.”
“Jawohl, Herr Kommandant,” said Sergeant Hans Schultz, snapping to attention.
“Take Lieutenant Egan to Barracks 12.”
As the sergeant took Ace by the sleeve and turned him toward the door, Colonel Hogan spoke up.
“When do I get a chance to speak to the lieutenant?” he asked. “As the senior officer of the prisoners, I am supposed to have the opportunity to speak — privately — to all new men.”
Colonel Klink looked at Hogan, then at Schultz. “Sergeant. Colonel Hogan will be accompanying you and the prisoner to Barracks 12. If he wishes to speak to the lieutenant, you are to place your fingers in your ears and allow them their privacy.”
“Jawohl,” the sergeant said, with mock seriousness.
Before Hogan had a chance to voice any more complaints, the commandant declared everyone dismissed. Once outside, Colonel Hogan pulled the wool-lined collar of his bomber jacket up around his neck. “All right, Schultz,” he said, “put your fingers in your ears.”
The sergeant laughed and did as he was told. “I hear nothing,” he said.
Ace looked at the colonel, his eyebrows raised in surprise.
“Don’t let him fool you,” Hogan said, “Sergeant Schultz hears everything.”
This elicited a laugh from the guard.
“Get settled in,” Colonel Hogan said, patting the man on the back. “We’ll talk later.”
Ace paused, briefly, to see which barracks the colonel returned to. A shove from the big sergeant got him moving again.
“Goldilocks to Momma Bear. Come in, Momma Bear.”
Sergeant James “Kinch” Kinchloe released the mike button on the radio and waited for a response. As he waited, he heard Colonel Hogan climbing down the ladder that connected the barracks to a network of tunnels that ran beneath the camp.
Placing a hand on the sergeant’s shoulder, the colonel spoke. “Anything yet?”
Kinch checked his watch. “The sub should be in range by now.”
As if on cue, an American voice emerged from the radio’s receiver.
“Goldilocks. This is Momma Bear.”
“What’s London trying to do to us?” Hogan demanded, his demeanor suddenly becoming more aggressive. “We know who the package is, and he’s going to be kept under constant surveillance. There is no way we are going to be able to get him out of here.”
“Hold on a second,” the submarine commander said. “You know who the package is? London doesn’t even know who the package is.”
Sergeant Kinchloe couldn’t remember the last time his mouth had actually dropped open in surprise. Even when he arrived at Stalag 13 to begin this mission and was welcomed with open arms despite the color of his skin, he wasn’t this surprised.
“What do you mean London doesn’t know?” Hogan asked, somewhat perplexed.
“That’s just it,” the sub commander responded. “They don’t know. They received a request of the highest level to get this lieutenant out of Germany along with his equipment. Nobody but a select few knows why a lieutenant is so important.”
“Do you know who the man is?” Hogan asked.
“All we know is that you are supposed to get this Lieutenant Egan out of that camp and to the rendezvous, so we can get him back to England.”
“We saw him brought into camp,” the colonel said, “and we didn’t see any equipment.”
“Then get us the man. I doubt his equipment is that important,” the commander said.
“My God,” Hogan said, his voice barely louder than a whisper. “You really don’t know.”
There was a hint of frustration in the submarine commander’s voice. “For crying out loud, Hogan, tell me what you know.”
“My guess is that if our boys had a choice between the lieutenant and his equipment, they would prefer his equipment,” Hogan said. “Momma Bear, Lieutenant Frank Egan also goes by another name. Maybe you’ve heard of it — Ace of Space.”
The commander’s gulp was audible over the radio, and the voice of the sub’s radio operator suddenly cut in. “Sir, did I just hear Goldilocks right?”
“I pray to God that we didn’t,” the commander said to his subordinate. “Tell me we didn’t just hear that, Colonel.”
“I’m afraid you heard right,” Hogan replied.
“Then that means that the equipment we are looking for…” the commander began.
“Is a rocket ship that makes the V-2s look like toys,” the colonel finished his sentence.
“What do we do now?” the commander asked.
“For one, we don’t let London in on this secret,” Hogan said. “The less people who know about the lieutenant’s secret, the better.”
“What about the Nazis? Don’t you think they will let his identity out to the public?”
Colonel Hogan thought for a few seconds. “I don’t think so. If they let the world know who he really is, they risk making him a symbol. Someone who we all thought was from outer space turns out to be an American, it could be a source of inspiration to our side.”
“So why can’t we let his secret out first?” the commander asked.
“Trust me. We know firsthand what anonymity can do for a mission. If we can rescue the lieutenant and get his ship back, he can do a lot more good for the war effort and the folks back home if no one knows who he is.”
The sub commander thought for a moment. “I see your point. I’ll inform my men that this mission has just become a lot more hush-hush.”
“I’ll start working on this end,” Hogan said. “Tell London that we will get him out of here as soon as possible.”
“Will do, Colonel,” the sub commander replied. “Oh, and Hogan…”
“Best of luck… for all our sakes.”