From the author: Karl's job is to test an experimental technology to save the life of a fallen soldier, but that soldier turns out to be none other than the Red Baron himself.
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As Karl scrubbed his hands in the small allotment of water he could afford, he could hear the muffled scraping of Mueller pulling the heart-box out of storage on the opposite end of the operating room. Tarps dropped with a dull thud, and tiny wooden wheels wobbled as they rolled on the uneven floor.
Karl shook his hands dry and glanced at his cane, resting against the wall beside the washbasin. Sometimes he needed it after a long day’s work, but he was fresh this afternoon, and the last thing he wanted was to be berated for his human frailties should he decline the operation.
"Do we have enough of the right blood?" he asked Mueller.
"I believe so, Dr. Huber."
That did not inspire confidence in Karl, but there was little help for that. Blood transfusion was still a very new thing, and this ramshackle facility was a building apart from the rest of the infirmary. It had a special operating room for a unique purpose as ordered by the Kaiser.
Mueller placed sheets of paper on a tray beside the operating table, depicting the means by which Karl was to connect the heart-box to his patient. He had looked over those sheets far too many times, all in preparation for this.
The door to the operating room opened with a bang as Ostermann entered the room. "They’re almost here!" His orderly handed a set of hastily scrawled notes to Karl, who glanced at them perfunctorily before passing them on to Mueller. Mueller set them down by the heart-box instructions.
Karl was not happy, but at least now he would be given the chance to do his job. He would have gladly operated to save the life of a soldier, regardless of whether or not he had limbs, but the army would not bring any such man here.
Instead he had to deal with Dr. Steinfeld’s monstrosity. The good doctor would not risk his neck out so close to the front, where Allied bombing could conceivably blow him into his next life. Instead Karl and a handful of others were dispatched like jackals along the Western Front, each with a godforsaken contraption to use when a suitable candidate was found.
He needed a soldier who was dying or newly dead, but with a body that was intact enough to perform after resuscitation. And therein lay the problem. Soldiers in trenches frequently died after being blown to pieces or blistered by gas, and that was if sickness and disease did not claim them first.
The wait had made Karl idle, and frustrated.
Ostermann held open the door, ushering in a pair of men carrying a body on a stretcher. They moved their cargo smartly to the table, their movements quick and oddly reverent.
Karl took command, calling for his staff to remove their patient’s clothes and wash him down; then he spoke with the men who had brought his candidate.
"What killed him? He looks already dead."
"Believed to be a single bullet through the torso. He seems to have bashed his chin against the butt of his machine gun when he landed, but that should not have been fatal."
Karl glanced over his shoulder at the bruised face of the young man on the operating table and agreed. That would heal. If he got up again. He had hoped for someone who was dying rather than dead. He did not know how long after death Steinfeld’s heart-box would work, assuming it did at all, but aside from being already dead, he could hardly have asked for a better candidate.
"Landed?" he asked.
"His triplane, sir. Please,"–and now the soldier’s voice wavered–"you’ve got to bring him back. A lot of men died to retrieve him."
Karl grimaced. "Who in God’s name is this that men would be sent to die just to bring a body back?"
"Rittmeister Manfred von Richthofen. High Command wants…"
Karl had heard enough. Oh, he knew what High Command wanted, but he did not have to be happy about it.
He ordered the soldiers out and looked at his staff, who had wheeled the heart-box over and were ready to begin. The loathsome thing was almost as wide as a soldier’s bed and tall enough to reach a man’s waist. Mueller cranked it up and it thrummed as the orderly checked the medical notes left by the soldiers and added the first pints of blood. This would be Karl’s first attempt to connect the monster, but he knew the steps. Steinfeld had gone over them far too many times. The man did not trust him.
Karl scowled at the body on the table as he came alongside. Reaching out a gloved hand, he prodded it lightly. So this was Manfred von Richthofen. It would be his bad luck to get him. The body was cooling, but not cold. And if it was High Command that wanted Richthofen resuscitated, eyes would be on every detail if he failed. He wasn’t sure resuscitation would even be possible anymore, and throwing good lives after bad; sheer folly. What was one pilot in the grand scheme of things?
The way High Command paraded him around one would think der Rote Kampfflieger was single-handedly winning the war. Even the British had a name for him: "the Red Baron." Richthofen was worth more than a hundred men as far as propaganda was concerned, but how many of those men did they send to retrieve a body that may never walk again?
Certainly he had a friendly grin and an enviable kill record, making him the face of the best Germany had to offer. People at home could rest easy knowing men like der Rote Kampfflieger were fighting the Allies in the west. He was also an arrogant noble who thought so highly of himself that against all common sense he was willing to paint his plane completely red so enemies and allies alike would know when he took to the air.
He probably would have lived longer if he hadn’t been flying red.
But work was work.
Karl didn’t expect to resuscitate him, given how long he must have been dead, but he and his staff might learn something from the attempt. He expected he would get reprimanded by the military for failing to save an already dead man, but honestly what worse could they do to him? He was already working in a hospital in spitting distance of the Allied bombers.
Richthofen recuperated with an orderly on duty in his room at all hours of the day and the heart-box ever whirring at his side. For days he did not regain consciousness and the machine pumped blood for a heart that no longer beat. The bullet that had claimed Richthofen’s life had entered beneath his right armpit, punctured one lung, clipped his heart, and exited just above his left nipple. He had probably remained conscious for only moments after, and despite himself, Karl was impressed to know that Richthofen had managed to land at all before succumbing to such a wound.
The man had a way of defying the odds. Karl knew this was not the first time that Richthofen had been shot down. He had been in the hospital previously after having been shot in the head and again the man had managed to land his plane.
Karl checked on his patient at least twice daily, more frequently when Richthofen regained consciousness, though the man was addled as though from a fever and would not remember him six hours later. As Karl waited for his patient to change one way or the other he paged through Der Rote Kampfflieger, Richthofen’s autobiography. Mueller had brought it for his own reading, but pushed it on to Karl, telling him that he might like his patient a bit better if he understood him.
Karl only accepted it out of tedium. It was foolish for a man in his twenties to think he had a life story worth telling, but Karl supposed it was all for propaganda. People loved to know their heroes. Karl used to, but Steinfeld had turned out no hero. Famous people never lived up to being the picture that others had painted.
Ten days after Richthofen’s arrival, he greeted Karl upon his entrance and said, "I am told that I have you to thank for reviving me."
Karl pulled up a chair beside him and said, "There is nothing to thank. You have an inhospitable road ahead of you."
The heart-box thrummed beside the bed across from Karl, a box of pumps and tubes, four of which ran to the harness around Richthofen’s torso and from there into his back. The moment the machine stopped, Richthofen’s life would end.
And the young man seemed well aware of that, because his eyes traveled to the box on hearing Karl’s words.
"I must confess," he said, "I don’t know entirely what this is about."
"There is a medical researcher, Dr. Hermann Steinfeld, who has been working on a mechanical heart to keep people alive when their own stops working. The Kaiser agreed to provide funding, believing that such a machine could be invaluable to the military. He thinks Steinfeld might eventually be able to create a device that would allow a previously killed soldier to return to combat. But for now, all we can hope for is to prevent someone from dying. We need physically healthy candidates to test the machines with, to rule out any complications due to weakness of the body, and since we can hardly ask for someone who is not dying to volunteer…"
"You pick from the fallen, who would otherwise die."
"Healthy in all ways aside from the bullet that would kill them."
"So what is to become of me?" And in his voice, Karl heard a challenge.
"I don’t know," said Karl. "To my knowledge, you are the first success we’ve had. Truthfully, I did not expect to save you at all. I suppose the next step is to see how long you last."
He would probably be reprimanded if word of his bedside manner left the room, but his orderly said nothing, well acquainted with Karl’s disposition, and der Rote Kampffliegersimply nodded. "I suppose you are right. I shall have to ask though, is it possible that I will eventually be disconnected from this machine?"
Karl inhaled and said, "We expect that based on our observations of you and others we will eventually be able to improve on the design, but we could not repair your heart, nor do we expect that it will regain its function on its own. The machine beats for you, and I’m afraid you will remain connected to one for as long as you live."
Disappointment flashed across Richthofen’s face, but only for a moment and then it was gone again. Karl knew from his autobiography that he had been an active man: an avid horseman, a gymnast as a boy, and possessed a love of hunting. He would do none of that now, not with a machine that had to be wheeled on a cart, and charged and cranked every day.
Karl felt a twinge of sympathy, but then he remembered this was a man who had hunted men with the same precision and thrill as hunting game.
"What day is it?" Richthofen asked.
"May 2nd, your twenty-sixth birthday."
Richthofen sighed. "I don’t suppose I’ll eventually recover enough to fly again, will I?"
"I don’t see how that would be possible," said Karl.
But for the second time, Karl was wrong.
Over the coming weeks, members of Jagdgeschwader 1, Richthofen’s fighting wing, came to visit him. The news given to the general public was simply that der Rote Kampfflieger had been shot down, but was recuperating. It was not unheard of, or even unusual, for pilots to emerge alive from downed aircraft, so there was no reason for anyone to think there were facts hidden beyond any official statement.
Richthofen’s wing was another matter entirely. They had dearly wanted to visit their commander as they had the last time he had been shot down, and it was only out of concern that pilots on leave would share conjectures with friends and family that the military bureaucrats finally allowed a few of the officers to visit.
But they had restrictions, and Karl had been the one to relay them to Richthofen.
Do not tell them that the heart-box cannot be removed. Do not tell them you will never fly again. Do not let them worry. They must know you are recovering for the sake of the Fatherland.
"I am tired of lying," he said to Karl, "so I decided to do something about it."
Richthofen had lost weight since his resuscitation, though once he had been able to get out of bed he had begun daily calisthenics, as best he could manage on such a short leash. And when he was not exercising, he was writing. Writing letters home, orders to his men–Karl did not know, but Richthofen had kept both Ostermann and Mueller running to the dispatch carriers every other day. He was a stubbornly busy patient for a man who could not leave his own room without assistance.
"I am alive and grateful," said Richthofen, "so do not misjudge me. For now, you even let me out of bed, but I cannot go more than two meters before the cords go no further. I should like to tear them out, but we both know where that would take us."
"You will not have to face a military investigation if you die," said Karl.
"Is that a jest?"
Karl shrugged. "Maybe. I tend to find myself in a black sense of humor. I know many people will be unhappy with me if you die. I may end up unhappiest of all."
"And yet your manner does not indicate that you place a priority on my well-being." There was a thin smile on Richthofen’s lips. The man was not stupid. Whatever injury the earlier bullet had done to his skull, it certainly hadn’t dulled his perception.
"You will have to forgive me if I am less than excited that one soldier should be given special treatment over another, especially since we do not expect you to fly again."
"They will want to give me an administration job for certain." Richthofen grimaced. "I turned one down, you know. They did not want to lose me on the battlefield. I am worth more as an ideal than as a pilot, no matter how many planes I shoot. I could be the greatest pilot in history, and still they would put me behind a desk, only to wheel me out when they want to show off a war hero."
Karl said nothing, but he did not believe Richthofen would ever have such a job. The machine, his heart-box, would have to be carried everywhere he went. The public would not want to see Richthofen as a cripple. There would be no tours of the countryside, no waving to the people who believed in him. He might still be useful for propaganda, but not as a man to stand before the masses.
Germany still had a few aces though. Wilhelm Reinhard, who was leading JG 1 in Richthofen’s absence, was no laggard, having recently bagged three planes in a single day. Even Richthofen’s younger brother, Lothar, was quite the pilot himself. The only thing that made der Rote Kampfflieger unique was that over time he had downed more aircraft before dying than other pilots.
"I thought of something else I can no longer do," said Richthofen, reclining on his bed. He stuffed a pillow under his back, so he could lay a little more comfortably, but true comfort would never be possible with the tubes behind him. "I was trying to think of a way to exercise in here and I remembered my old gymnastics classes at the academy. I can still stretch, and if I’m careful I can even cartwheel,"–Karl cringed, trying not to picture what a tangle of tubes Richthofen could have made–"but the thing I miss the most, is the horizontal bar."
"I remember reading about that in your autobiography."
Richthofen rolled his eyes and shook his head. "I wrote that under orders and they edited me terribly. I am not that person anymore. I wish I could fix it. Maybe now I will have the time."
The door opened and Mueller stepped inside. He nodded respectfully to Richthofen and then handed a telegram to Karl. Karl opened it and frowned.
"Bad news?" said Richthofen.
Karl shook his head. "No, but it looks like you will not have to worry about being carted all over Germany to wave at civilians anymore."
Richthofen’s face crumpled, and he looked to the large box by his bed, still churning for all it was worth. Karl pitied him, just a little, knowing that he must be coming to a terrible conclusion about his future, but he could not in good conscience allow the mood to remain.
He sighed and said, "You are a real devil, if you have not been told already. Now I know what all those letters were for. You know what they want and still you push…"
"Then it can be done?" said Richthofen. He lifted his head, his bearing returning. "You told me the heart-box was a test, to see if you could revive soldiers and send them back into combat."
Karl nodded and handed him the telegram. "High Command has consented, with Dr. Steinfeld’s encouragement. He agrees that the box would be a real bother to wheel everywhere you go, but there’s no reason it could not be installed into one of the biplanes. High Command has set aside one of the new Fokker D.VIIs, and they are customizing it just for you."
Much to Karl’s dismay, as Richthofen’s attending doctor, he and two of his orderlies were assigned to accompany him, which meant they had to be ready to pack up and move every few days so that Jagdgeschwader 1 could focus on where the fighting was heaviest.
The modified version of the Fokker D.VII arrived in late June, specially rebalanced to allow the heart-box to be stowed in a space behind the pilot’s chair. The life-giving tubes would run through slots in the backboard of the seat, which was inserted between pilot and machine after Richthofen was seated. It did not allow for an easy entrance or egress for the pilot; indeed, he could not manage without a team of three men to aid him, but Richthofen was flying again.
A part of Karl did not like to see a man who was clearly still a patient flying alone in the air, but the men of JG 1 were clearly pleased to have him back. They barely gave a thought to the box behind him and Richthofen downplayed the danger. Whether he had a heart-box or no, the risk of being fired upon was the same as always.
After a day’s dogfight, Richthofen would retire to his quarters in whatever facilities Karl and his team had available to them. On this particular day, it was an abandoned farmhouse, and Karl had set Richthofen up in the master bedroom.
Ostermann wheeled the heart-box beside the bed and a weary Richthofen lay down, careful not to damage the tubes that sprang from his back.
"You know," he said to Karl, "it is so much different flying than it is here on the ground."
"I suppose it has always been that way."
"No. I do not mean different as in anything an ordinary man would feel. Do you know how they connect the heart-box to the biplane?"
"I saw the schematics and read Dr. Steinfeld’s notes."
Karl had only had been present for Richthofen’s initial "installation" into his plane, to ensure the life of his patient was not in danger, but beyond that he saw attending as a pointless exercise. He could not be there every time Richthofen flew, and it was best that his ground crew be the ones familiar with the procedure since in the event of an emergency they would be the first ones available to extract him.
"The Fokker itself powers the heart-box when I am in the air," said Richthofen. "It’s more powerful than the box alone. I can feel the blood rushing through me, I can feel excited again. This box… it only beats at the pace it likes, and it’s not enough for a fighting man in the sky, but together with the Fokker I can feel the wind in my lungs again."
"I am glad it is working out for you."
"Is there a way we can get a Fokker’s engine to permanently power the heart-box?"
"Only if you never want to move again outside of an airplane."
Richthofen frowned, but his voice was wistful. "I barely move outside of one already. I don’t know… How do you deal with it?"
"Deal with what?"
"Mueller told me that you used to be a gymnast as well. A good one."
"Used to be. I broke my ankle and it didn’t heal well." Karl tapped his cane against the floor. "I can manage walking just fine, standing long enough for surgeries most days, but no tricks anymore. I’m not lucky enough to break the same bone twice and still be pronounced fit for combat duty."
Richthofen laughed, a soft sound. "I broke my collarbone and you your ankle. One of them still allows a man some maneuverability, the other does not. Still, you have my sympathies."
Karl did not see what for. He hadn’t cared about gymnastics in years. With two children and an anxious wife far away in Bonn, all he wanted was to survive this job and see himself home again. It wasn’t as though he had ruined his only means of living. His ankle was nothing compared to what so many soldiers had lost.
"Our supply lines are struggling," said Richthofen. "I don’t like to talk about it in front of the men, but you, my skeptic friend, must have noticed. We’re not going to hold the land we gained this past spring."
"It was bound to happen," said Karl. "This whole war has been a mess, what it has done to our country, to our people, to soldiers like you."
"I have downed ninety planes now. Clearly Germany could not be better off. Shall I shoot a hundred? Then perhaps the Allies will turn tail and run home."
"I doubt that will happen."
"And then we will lose the war. Can you tell me something, good doctor? I know you will not mince words. Right now my life is bearable because I am among good company and I can stretch my wings in my Fokker and feel like an eagle again, but what will happen to me when the war is over? Will I ever fly again?"
Karl did not know.
It was late September, 1918, and Karl could feel the war was ending. The Allies were making their push, forcing the Germans back to the Siegfried Line. Men talked about an armistice in hushed tones, as though too fearful to believe. Germany could no longer hold on, and yet the men of the Imperial German Air Force still flew sorties. So long as Allied bombers threatened the men on the ground, JG 1 would fly.
Karl entered Richthofen’s room to find the man performing push-ups. It was difficult for the already lean pilot to keep muscle on his body. They had constructed a rudimentary treadwheel for him outside, a little something they could haul around in trucks along with their tents as they moved from battle to battle, but he could only go in good weather and if Mueller or Ostermann were free. One time one of the cart wheels had fallen into a rabbit hole and nearly dislodged the heart-box from its cradle. Richthofen had turned a pasty white, but he did not stop his requests to go, and reluctantly Karl had allowed him to continue.
If Richthofen was not fit he could not fly, and if he could not fly, then what purpose did he have as anything other than a test subject for Steinfeld’s machine?
"Here is the checklist from the mechanics," said Karl, handing him a few sheets of paper.
Since Richthofen could not reasonably inspect his plane himself, he had to rely on his ground team to perform to his satisfaction. Part of that involved filling out the list he had created to make sure nothing was overlooked. It was supposedly for his peace of mind, but Karl did not think that it actually helped. Richthofen took the checklist, glanced at all the marks made, and set it aside on the stand by his bed.
"The plane looks fine," said Karl.
"It looks fine, but it never flies fine," said Richthofen. "The balance is different with the heart-box inside. Fokker did an admirable job trying to adjust the plane for me, but I can tell the difference."
"You haven’t been downed a third time."
"I was never the kind of pilot who becomes one with his machine, just a man who knows how to use a tool he’s been given. I can compensate for some things."
He sat down and sighed.
"It feels very odd to say this, but I am not looking forward to the end of the war."
"The end will be a good thing."
"It will be, for most people, and I am not selfish enough to wish to prolong it when there are so many good things that will come from its end, but I am still saddened by the thought." Richthofen looked at the heart-box beside him. "This device works so well. Sometimes I wonder that it does not jam like our guns. It is not natural. We should have you doctors building our weapons instead of the engineers that we have."
"The heart-box is not without its flaws," said Karl. "We have fitted other patients with them since. You have been lucky, but others have not, and we’ve been able to address issues in yours before they have become a problem. Even though it has never stopped, we have still replaced parts, turning off one pump while the other remains active, so it is not as though it has never worn down."
"I try to picture myself going home, seeing my mother, with this blasted contraption behind me, and the image never works. I do not know whether she would be sad or grateful. Do you have family you will be returning to when this is over?"
"Yes. In Bonn. My children are still young, the eldest ten and the youngest six. My wife has been very good, looking after them while I am gone."
"Girls I had never met would write me proposals for marriage," said Richthofen, with a sad smile. "Though I am still young and still a war hero, do you think they will when I come home?"
Karl refused to answer such a question. "Self-pity doesn’t become you. Crippled or no, you are still the highest scoring ace this entire war."
"That is high praise, coming from you."
"It is not praise, just a fact. With the heart-box you are doing more for the Fatherland than most soldiers could ever hope. You are not just a name for propaganda purposes. You are still der Rote Kampfflieger."
Richthofen looked out the window and said, "I suppose so, but I cannot win this war single-handedly. What are a hundred planes to the battles in which thousands die in a single day? The best I can do is fly my red Fokker at the head of my hunting wing and bring some relief to the men below, so that at least for one day they can fight without worry of bombs dropping on their heads."
Outside, Karl could see a Great Dane bounding around the airfield. Moritz. He was Richthofen’s dog, but the pilot could only approach him with caution after the rascal had nearly severed his tubes from the heart-box without understanding better. Moritz was a pleasant dog, normally well mannered, whose only vice was the common want of something to chew.
"A part of me still cannot believe that Loewenhardt is gone," said Richthofen. They had lost the Jasta 10 squadron leader earlier this month. Parachutes were more common now, but his had not opened when he jumped. "Everyone is gone. Wolff, Voss, and Schaefer last year. Now Udet’s mind is so broken we’ve had to send him away and Lothar is in the hospital due to his injuries–again. Wenzel isn’t much better. Reinhard is dead, not from our enemies, but from a simple accident. We’ve lost every single one of JG 1’s squadron commanders this month, and yet there is still me, and I would have died last April."
Karl had met a few of them, and they had been fine men, nearly all of them aces of the highest order, and many of them dead or incapacitated by the age of twenty-two. Only Richthofen had died clean enough to recover. This heart-box had been a good idea, but Karl did not think it was as useful for returning soldiers to war as Steinfeld had promised.
"I am not going to give up," said Richthofen. "You do not need to worry. I think if we were down to the last plane in Germany I’d still fly…"
In the silence that followed, Mueller appeared in the doorway.
"Dr. Huber, an enemy fighter wing has been spotted and the men are scrambling. If you deem der Rote Kampfflieger healthy, his ground crew will be ready."
"He is," said Karl.
Mueller nodded and jogged off to relay the message.
"It is time to fly." Richthofen stood, the smart and confident grin on his face completely at odds with how Karl had seen him only moments before. This was the hero, this was der Rote Kampfflieger that people believed in. "Seeing as Ostermann is not here, would you be kind enough to help me move my machine?"
Karl wrapped his hands around the handlebar of the cart and pushed as Richthofen carried the gathered tubes in his arms so there was no risk of running them over. They rolled out the door and down the short hall to the front door.
The ground crew was ready by the time they arrived. One of the men had Moritz under leash and Richthofen risked giving the dog an affectionate scratch on the head while someone else held his tubes.
Karl watched the crew hoist the heart-box into the plane, the tubes just barely long enough for Richthofen to stand on the ground while the box was fitted into the body of the Fokker, then the crew lifted the man himself. For a former gymnast, who would leap into his plane as easily as he would over a vault, it must have been agonizing. Karl remembered the pain in his bad leg and turned away as they lowered him in.
"Huber!" shouted Richthofen.
Karl looked up.
The crew was fitting the backboard of his seat between him and the heart-box. Richthofen leaned forward over his control stick to give them room, but he also looked over the edge of the cockpit at Karl.
"You’re still here!" said Richthofen, with a smile. "Usually you don’t stay."
"I need to take the cart back when they’re done," he said, waving at the heart-box’s erstwhile cradle. The crew had placed the toolkit for the machine back in the cart. "Since you had me come out instead of Ostermann or Mueller."
Richthofen grinned as though he knew better. He seemed inclined to say more, but then the seat backing was set and his crew jumped down to get ready for flight. Everyone on the ground stepped back, and the moment passed.
Der Rote Kampfflieger settled back against his seat, the only time he could rest his back against another object without feeling the pressure of the tubes between them. The propellers spun, kicking up dust as the plane rolled forward. Moritz whined.
Then the plane lifted into the air, a bright red eagle taking to the sky to join the many colorful planes of JG 1, the hunting wing that their enemies called the Flying Circus. But it wasn’t a circus to Karl. There was nothing entertaining about the show they had to perform.
Late that evening, Mueller entered Karl’s room and said, "Richthofen has not returned. He is the only one unaccounted for from today’s sortie. The men think we’ve lost him. One of them spotted a red biplane landing in no man’s land."
Another lucky landing. Karl grunted and said, "Then the army can send another detachment to retrieve him. If they hurry like last time they’ll have him in our bunker in time to hook him up to a new machine. If he’s still alive and the heart-box undamaged, it should keep pumping for a few more hours."
And even if he died again, he might just be lucky enough to be resuscitated again.
But though they waited, no rescuers came.
Perhaps the war is ending, thought Karl, and so High Command had decided they no longer needed der Rote Kampfflieger. Why throw good lives away after one that had already ended, when there was no longer a purpose to fighting?
He should have been pleased that High Command would be so sensible. Instead he found himself outside in the cold September air, smoking a cigarette in the dark where no one would see.
Days later, Jagdgeschwader 1 moved on without them. Days after that, the battered remains of Richthofen’s plane were carted over to the empty airfield. Karl counted no less than forty bullet holes on the left side alone. The heart-box was still installed behind the pilot’s seat, but Richthofen himself was gone. Karl was told that his concern was the box, not the man, and that the body was no longer worth looking at for research purposes, given the time that had passed.
He did not believe that.
Karl did not know enough about planes to tell whether this shot or that would have brought the eagle down, but he knew the heart-box. Mueller and Ostermann removed it for him and he found it almost entirely intact. Certainly it was scuffed and battered about its protective casing, which was only natural given the roughness of combative flight, but the mechanics on the inside were no worse for wear. The heart-box was no longer running, certainly. The batteries would have drained within hours once fuel from the plane stopped coming, but he saw no reason the heart-box shouldn’t work the minute they refueled or recharged it.
But then Karl held up the tubes that had led from the box to Richthofen’s body and frowned. There was blood on their ends, of course, as the blood circulated from his body to the machine and back again, but…
"Mueller, did you say the army only retrieved his plane after JG 1 had moved on?"
Richthofen’s blood should have congealed long before the time the army retrieved him, so why was there blood on the outside of the tubes unless Richthofen had been separated from them while he was still alive?
He stood up and climbed the ladder beside the plane, leaning over to peer inside the cockpit. It didn’t appear as though any bullets had penetrated the interior. There were no perforations, no blood.
Richthofen had likely been alive, possibly bruised, but not bleeding, when he landed.
Karl looked down at the seat back, which lay on the ground where they had placed it after removing the heart-box. There was a tiny splash of blood right where Richthofen’s back would have rested, but no damage.
He jumped from the ladder to the ground, pondering. Could Richthofen have been so unlucky that a bullet had shorn the harness that held the tubes to his body? It would explain a hasty landing, and the outside blood, but the odds of that happening were astronomical.
And the army had taken his body.
Had Richthofen himself disconnected the tubes? Was that why they had taken him? For Germany’s highest scoring ace to commit suicide…
Karl could well imagine the frustration of being trapped between enemy and allied lines, unable to move, realizing that help would never come. But he frowned, unsatisfied.
"Did you find something, sir?" asked Mueller.
"By any chance did anyone say whether Richthofen’s body was found inside the plane?"
"Do you mean whether he fell out?" Sometimes in the violent death spirals of a plane, the pilot would be ejected. "I don’t think that would have been possible. The ground crew always straps him in tight before letting him go, and his seatbelts seem to be fine."
So they were.
Karl tried to remember if Richthofen had been wearing them when he had taken off, but he knew he had not been paying attention.
"Yes, you’re right," he muttered. "Richthofen would have been in his plane when he landed."
They had denied him a body.
But Richthofen would not have killed himself. No. Karl could not believe that. If he had disconnected himself, there had been a reason, and if he died perhaps it had been with the anticipation that he would be found and revived again.
Karl wanted to believe that.
But all he wrote in his report was that the heart-box had survived intact, and did not appear to have been a contributing factor in the pilot’s death.
In another two months, the war was over. Karl would be heading home, and he could give up on thinking about the heart-box and waiting for a suitable young candidate to land on death’s door. His family would be waiting. It was almost his eldest’s birthday, though he knew with the country’s food supply so low he could not afford to give her the kind of dinner she really wanted.
Karl carefully packed his tools and his few personal possessions in preparation for his journey home, among them a simple black-and-white commemorative postcard, in memory of der Rote Kampfflieger.
He stared at it before placing it in his bags, until he no longer saw the man in the photo at all. Karl could not help but remember his own time as a boy in gymnasium, when he would practice on the horizontal bar. Release. Twist. Catch. Release. Flip. Catch. Every catch he missed he risked pain and agony below, but nothing would have stopped him from letting go. All he could think of when he took to the air was: This must be what it’s like to fly.
This story originally appeared in Galaxy's Edge.