harrigan: (war big bang)
[personal profile] harrigan
Under a vast Sky
link to masterpost: here.

After months of digging, spending hours every day trapped in a tunnel barely wider than his shoulders, after clawing his way forward with a bowl at first, and then tools as they were engineered out of metal scraps, Jarek was finally a short vertical shaft away from freedom.

He could smell it: the cold crisp night air. Snowflakes fluttered down the shaft and he caught one on his lip. It tasted like freedom. Soon, he would climb out of this tunnel and never look back.

But first, he waited. Someone had to sit at the bottom of the shaft and reel in the rope, pulling the trolley along its wooden track. The flat panel trolley carried the men on the Escape List, each one balanced precariously on his belly, head tucked down, rolling through the tunnel as Jarek's muscles hauled them the last hundred feet underground. One by one, the officers ahead of him on the list would emerge into the exit chamber and then would crawl past him and up and out into the darkness.

There were two hundred twenty names of prisoners on that list - men who were cleared to go through 'Harry' that night. The first seventy were the POWs who had the best chance of success - the ones who spoke German, the ones who had evaded capture the longest on previous escapes, and the ones who'd contributed the most to this audacious undertaking. They were given forged identification papers and travel documents, disguises tailored from blankets and old uniforms dyed with ink or boot polish, and small amounts of money pick-pocketed from the goons or traded for cigarettes.

The other prisoners who'd helped with the escape drew lots for the rest of the places on the list. Those 'hard-arses' had little more to count on than their own determination to create as much chaos as they could, to keep the German forces engaged in hunting them down instead of preparing to defend against the Allied invasion everyone believed was coming soon.

Every prisoner on that list, no matter his position, dreamed that with a little luck, he might truly make it home. "Hit a home run," the Americans had called it. Now they were all calling it that.

Twenty. Jarek was number twenty on the Escape List.

After the first nineteen slithered through, another brawny prisoner on the Escape List would take Jarek's place in the exit chamber and haul the next twenty through before turning over the job to his replacement.

Jensen sat huddled beside Jarek in the bottom of the shaft, shoulder to shoulder, knee to knee. Jensen, who hadn't served on any of the Escape Committees, had been granted slot number one, first man out ahead of everyone else, because of the sacrifice he'd made. But because of what he had done, it turned out he couldn't go out first after all. He could hardly walk.

Jarek's voice caught; he stopped and wiped a trembling hand over his face.

MacKenzie picked up the bottle and splashed more vodka into Jarek's glass. He gave Jarek a moment to compose himself, and then he had to ask. "Who's Jensen? And what was it that he'd done?"

Jarek tossed the drink back, and began again.

Each of the prison blocks held a washroom, a coal stove for heat and cooking, and eighteen sleeping rooms, each crowded with bunks for eight men. Every hut also had three tiny rooms that fit only two men in each - and it was a rare privilege to get assigned to the comparative privacy of one of those.

As they got closer to breaking through to the surface, the key men on the Escape Committee were transferred to those rooms. Men like Smisek, the head forger, who needed the isolation and quiet to put the finishing touches - date stamps - on all the travel permits as soon as the final decision was made on when to open the tunnel and break out.

Jarek wasn't sure why he'd rated the promotion in accommodations. He just knew that it had come at the end of a very bad day - a day when 'Harry' had another cave-in - half a ton of sand had fallen with a deafening 'whoomph' and pinned Jarek to the tunnel floor. It had taken an hour to dig him out. The only reason he'd survived was that he'd been able to claw through the ground beneath him and unearth the air tube made of condensed milk cans that ran underground below the trolley tracks. Fingernails broken and bleeding, he'd managed to unclog it and breathe through it until Makoare, the big Maori New Zealander who worked the tunnel behind him filling sandbags, was able to dig him out.

Jarek had been as wobbly as a newborn colt when he'd been helped back up the ladder and through the trap door, and he must have passed out right there on the hut floor, because he dreamed he heard Jensen's voice, and Jensen wasn't on the Escape Team; he had no reason to be there. When Jarek came to, Big X was towering over him, checking on the tunnel's progress. He wouldn't let Jarek leave hut 104 until he could walk on his own, so the goons wouldn't suspect anything. Jarek sent the next couple hours waiting for the dizziness to pass, regaining his strength and using the time to braid string from Red Cross packages into rope for the tunnel.

By the time Jarek could stay upright again without buckling, he'd found his gear had been moved out of the regular barracks, and into a little two-person room, barely bigger than a train's sleeper car. Jensen had the other bunk, and Jarek had no idea how he had finagled that, but he was still coughing so harshly he couldn't ask. Maybe Big X decided Jensen needed extra privacy for those clandestine meetings with Werner.

Not long after, Jarek found Jensen pacing in their tiny room after a surprise summons from Big X. Nearly everything was in place by then. According to their primitive surveying tools, the tunnel was almost to the tree line. Another day or two, and then it was only a matter of digging the final upward shaft, shoring up the walls along the distance, and waiting until the moon waned to total darkness. Time was the biggest hurdle now - that and one more major obstacle.

No one really knew where to go once they hit the forest. The prisoners had arrived in a convoy of dark, covered transport trucks, and they hadn't seen daylight until they were securely behind barbed wire. Where were the roads? How would they get to Sagan - the nearest town? To the train station? Where were the armed roadblocks to avoid? They had maps of Germany and the rest of Europe, silk maps provided to each airman flying over Europe. Most had been confiscated when they were captured, but it only took one or two - smuggled in, copied painstakingly on paper, and then two hundred twenty duplicates produced on a makeshift mimeograph machine. The men had maps - each prospective escapee knew where the borders were, the rivers, the towns.

They just didn't know where Stalag Luft III was in relation to those.

On this particular day, two to three weeks before their target date, Jarek had limped stiffly into their hut, shivering and still wet from showering off the mud from another day spent digging in 'Harry'. He found Jensen nearly bouncing off the walls, hand scrubbing the back of his neck in agitation. Jensen whirled around at the sound of Jarek's entrance.

"Can you believe it?" he fumed. "Big X wants me to break out. Check out the lay of the land and then! And then! LET THE GOONS CAPTURE ME! On PURPOSE! So I can draw his Escape Committee pretty little maps when I get out of the cooler." He tossed his arms up in disbelief. "If I get out of the cooler! Hell, if that rat bastard Scharpwinkel in the Gestapo gets his hands on me again, I'll be lucky to live long enough to make it to the cooler!"

Jarek couldn't argue with that. With Jensen's record for escape attempts, it was something of a mystery around the camp why the Kommandant hadn't decided to just pull out his sidearm and put him out of their collective misery. But actually, the Kommandant wasn't a bad fellow. He was Luftwaffe, German Air Force, and an officer and a gentleman. It was the Gestapo that was the risk. If Jensen was turned over to the Secret Police...

Jarek shuddered. He couldn't blame Big X for asking. It was going to be impossible enough to get hundreds of men out, without sending them out virtually blind. Anything extra to give the prisoners a fighting chance...

But he certainly couldn't fault Jensen either. If Jarek had one chance at freedom, and someone suggested that he surrender that chance to help a fool's mission? One that was likely to fail anyway? And risk torture or death in the process?


"When I get out, I'm not stopping for anything," Jensen continued, mumbling to himself. He resumed pacing, despite the close confines of the drab, small room. "It's too soon right now, anyway. Got to wait for a night with no moon..."

He never was one for doing something just because someone higher up told him to. Jensen always had an escape plan he was working on, and it was always simple and elegant. And solo. The more people were involved, the more complicated it was, the more could go wrong, he always said. Jensen worried about himself and no one else, and maybe, Jarek thought as he sank into an exhausted slumber, maybe that's why Jensen was more likely than anyone else to succeed.

The next few days were a blur. Jarek was so tired he could barely keep his eyes open to eat. He was marginally aware that more of the pooled Red Cross packages were coming his way - whatever chocolate bars didn't go as bribes or barter to the goons went to the men breaking ground in the tunnel. He knew he needed the calories - and he didn't have the energy to argue.

Something ominous, though, hovered at the edge of his awareness. A recent sense that he was being watched. He thought the ferrets were sneaking furtive glances at him, caught them whispering to each other and then looking quickly away. As if they were the ones with something to hide and not him.

Jarek's thoughts sputtered and spun like a shot-up propeller. Had he given anything away? Tunnel dirt looked very different than the soil that covered the camp. He worked in his long johns precisely to keep the incriminating mud off his clothes, but had he somehow tracked some out? Or left tools where they could be spotted? Failed, even once, to camouflage the trap door?

God! Maybe the goons knew everything! Maybe they were already planning to lie in wait and shoot each one of the escapees, one by one as they emerged from the tunnel!

He was sitting on Jensen's bunk, head in his hands, when Jensen came in, sat down beside him, and listened to him rant. "You're an idiot," Jensen finally said fondly. "Our men would hear the shots and stop coming out." He put a hand on the back of Jarek's neck and kneaded the tense knots there with his thumb. "I know you haven't given anything away."

"Maybe they've noticed the food. I am eating more than my share."

"You're a moose. Of course you eat more. They wouldn't notice something like that." Jensen stopped massaging Jarek's neck, his hand lingering on Jarek's shoulder. "Which ferrets were talking? Werner? Willem?"

Jarek nodded mutely.

"I've got a little blackmail ammunition on Werner. Been saving it for the right occasion," Jensen said. "I'll talk to him. Find out if they really are watching you." He stood. "Get some rest. You need your strength." He walked out and when he left, the room felt colder.

The next day, Jarek dug. He dug until the blisters on his hands broke and bled, with filthy men behind him loading the dirt onto a trolley and sending it back three hundred feet to the entrance shaft. He dug to the cadence of favorite poems, and when those were exhausted, he counted as he shoveled. Counted the hours to go, then counted the minutes. Less than a month to the dark of the moon and freedom.

Two days later, Jarek didn't see Jensen when the men in their hut gathered by the cook stove for dinner. He asked Coburn, who said the last time he’d seen Jensen, he was on his usual rounds, chatting up the goons for any new rumors or gossip. But he should have been back by now. LeBeau, the nearsighted little compass-maker, told Jarek he'd seen Jensen walking the circuit inside the perimeter wire with Big X.

Jarek cringed. Only Jensen in the entire camp had the audacity to stand up to X. Jensen would defy anyone in order to do what he thought was right, and Jarek sighed. "What were they arguing about this time?"

LeBeau laughed. "Oddly enough, Jensen was doing the talking and Big X was just listening, not giving orders. They kept their voices low; I couldn't hear a thing."

Jensen finally turned up in time for evening appell; Jarek saw him coming from the direction of the chapel.

Roll call finished, and Jensen fell in beside Jarek as they returned to their hut. Jarek reached into his jacket, pulled out a small cloth bundle and set it on Jensen's bunk. "I saved you dinner," he said, setting aside the two slices of bread - no butter - and the potato and sauerkraut. Then he pointed triumphantly at the pièce de résistance. "Look! Minced horsemeat!" He straightened again, one hand on the small of his back as he groaned, but his smile was wide like a pleased child. "It's been - what - three weeks since we've had meat?"

Jensen sat down beside the food and folded the cloth back up without taking any. At his roommate's puzzled look, he tugged Jarek's sleeve to sit next to him. "If I break out tonight," he whispered, voice low and urgent, "would you come, too?"

Jarek blinked. "What? Where?"

"Come with me!" Jensen repeated, glancing around nervously, although they were alone. You could never tell if a ferret might have crawled under your hut trying to listen in. "Out! I've been testing the wire - I've found a blind spot where the goons in the tower can't see." He nudged forward the copy of the large Bible that he'd carried with him out of the chapel. The cover fell open and then Jarek could see a compartment had been carved out of the thick pages, a niche that hid a homemade wire-cutter.

Jensen put his hand on Jarek's knee. "You know the odds. Two men? Or two hundred? Two hundred is crazy, Jarek. But one or two men? Two men can do this."

Jarek stared at his friend. Jensen was right. Two had a chance. With a little judicious switching places in line by the other prisoners during the morning headcount, like a folk dance back home? They might not even be missed by the guards for a day or two! It had been done before. Successfully. And the cloud cover should be complete that night - no stars or moonlight to give them away.

But no.

He couldn't.

Jarek had two hundred nineteen men counting on his strong shoulders and tunneling expertise. And he owed them, too. Colin Pleasance had spent an entire month painstakingly getting every detail right on the yellow Urlaubshein form that would give him permission to cross frontier check points. Rex Moore, the lead tailor, had sewn him a laborer's jacket out of a heavy wool blanket. Hundreds of other prisoners had contributed to his tunnel in one way or another. He couldn't abandon them now.

He shook his head, and Jensen didn't even look surprised.

They weren't at all alike, but they had learned to understand each other. Jensen - he'd always been a loner. Jarek - he actually played on a rugby team in camp when tunnel work was shut down, or when he needed to make an appearance so the goons wouldn't wonder. He was a team player, and Jensen didn't need anyone. Jarek admired that strength in him.

Jarek was also, like many of the Poles, a big, open-hearted bear of a man who wore his feelings on his sleeve. Jensen, with his famous Norwegian reserve, was not. So in spite of the urge to wrap Jensen in a farewell bear hug, Jarek kept his distance. Then, impulsively, he reached for the Monopoly game in the corner of the room that had been abandoned after morning appell. Plucking out the Get Out of Jail Free card, he pressed it in Jensen's hand. "For luck," he said, with a dimpled grin. Jensen took it, and they clasped hands around it.

In the morning, Jensen was gone. He'd slipped out so silently that no-one in the prison block had heard him go.

Two days later, he was back, the Germans manhandling him out of their staff car. It was Scharpwinkel, Jarek saw - and his goons. He recognized the Gestapo chief by the ragged scar that ran from ear to jaw, remnant of an old saber wound that he wore like a badge of honor. Their limp prisoner, Jarek almost didn't recognize. Jensen couldn't walk. Jarek couldn't even tell if he was conscious. Both of his eyes were swollen shut.

Kurwa mać! Jarek rocked on his heels, practically vibrating with the urge to take Scharpwinkel apart with his bare hands, as Jensen was dragged to the cooler. But there was nothing he could do.

Nothing but go back down the tunnel, while the preparations for the mass escape continued.

It was the first of three moonless nights, two weeks later, when the Escape Committee finally decided it was time. They would open the tunnel the next night. The prison artists worked feverishly to stamp all the forged train tickets with the correct travel dates. Jarek was slipped his new identity papers with a deft sleight-of-hand as he entered his hut after evening appell.

He was just sliding them into the false panel in the wall of their hut when Jensen hobbled in, his time in solitary finally over. Two weeks in the cooler, and the swelling had gone down, the bruises faded from his face. But when he eased off his shoes, the soles of his feet, which had been brutally beaten by the Gestapo, reminded Jarek of raw meat.

Jarek dropped his papers in the hidden compartment, and felt the soft red wool of a hand-knit scarf catch on his fingers as he withdrew his hand. He looked down at it, then at Jensen's feet and finally met his eyes.

"You. You knew you would be back. You let yourself be caught," Jarek managed to sputter out. "Why?"

"Big X promised me first slot on the Escape List. First man out!" Jensen settled gingerly on the bottom bunk, now supported by ropes instead of the missing beech wood boards. "And a first class train ticket all the way through to Paris. He even threw in a contact in the French Resistance there."

Jarek stared at him skeptically.

"Hey. If you're going to forge a train ticket, might as well forge a first class one!" Jensen tucked his hands behind his neck and lay back, seeming relaxed and confident. "What is it the Americans here say? 'Easy as pie?' I'll be riding in comfort all the way back to England."

"Pie is not easy," Jarek grumbled. Something about Jensen's explanation didn't ring true and he wasn't going to let Jensen off the hook. But Jensen lay still and when he closed his eyes, he suddenly looked weary and almost frail. Jarek didn't have the heart to browbeat him anymore. So he climbed onto the upper bunk and sprawled his weight across the thin palette made of wood shavings and tried to get comfortable.

It didn't work. He tossed and turned and the bad feeling in his gut didn't go away, and finally he sighed. "Jensen?"

"It was worth it, Jarek." Jensen told him, just as softly. "Trust me. It was worth it."

"So, are you telling me that your suspicions were right? That's not why Jensen changed his mind and did what Big X wanted?" MacKenzie asked. "Then what was the reason?"

There was no answer, and he finally asked again, "Jarek?"

Jarek just stared at the back of his hands, seeing nothing. Then he slowly raised his head and continued the story.

In the morning, Jensen limped back from the showers with a towel still wrapped around his neck and a thoughtful expression on his face.

Jarek knew something was up. Jensen was an enigma to everyone else, but Jarek knew him better now. Or he thought he did. "What is it?"

"I've decided. I'm going to shave my head."


"You heard me. It will make me look more like an old man. No one who's looking for escaped prisoners would give me a second look."

Jarek figured it was because Jensen couldn't walk without a pronounced limp. He'd have problems trying to pass as a foreign laborer. But his German, like his English, was excellent. He was probably right - an old man with a limp was less likely to raise suspicions. It was a good plan, Jarek had to admit it.

The camp had a barbershop, where kriegies trimmed each other's hair in exchange for a few cigarettes. Jensen had been a regular customer, preferring to keep his hair short like a hedgehog, as Jarek jokingly called it, and he was a master at cigarette currency exchange. But this time, Jarek put a hand to Jensen's shoulder when he moved in that direction.

"I'll do it," he said. "In here. You don't want the goons to notice a big change."

Jensen glanced out the window, then looked up to meet Jarek's eyes, and nodded. He took a seat. Jarek settled his palm on the nape of his neck, and Jensen closed his eyes.

When the transformation was complete, Jarek sent word to a 'penguin' - one of the hundred or more kriegies who'd been smuggling sand out of the tunnel via socks hidden down their pants legs. Most recently, they'd been storing it underneath the risers in the camp theater. By the time Jensen had brushed the stray hairs off his scalp and tried on the new 'civvies' that Moore, the chief Escape Committee tailor, had whipped together for him, the penguin had returned with a cane from the theater smuggled out the same way he'd smuggled sand in.

Jarek studied Jensen as he moved across the room, getting used to the cane and the clothes and the wooden clogs that had been delivered with the costume.

Jensen looked down at the new/used footwear, then slowly up to the small shaving mirror and finally turned to see his faint reflection in the hut window. "It's like looking at my father," he said, his expression a mix of awe and amusement.

"You're close to your father?" Jarek asked, missing his own with a sudden pang. He busied himself putting away his shaving kit.

Jensen turned away. "My father and I - we aren't good at showing what we feel. I think... I would like to think he's proud of me." He blinked, like he'd surprised himself showing any signs of vulnerability, and huffed a rueful laugh. "Got shot down so early in the war, it's not like I ever had a chance to bring glory to the name of Jensen."

Jarek's hand started to reach for Jensen's shoulder, but he pulled back before Jensen could shy away. "We'll be famous, after tonight," he said lightly instead. "Hundreds of POWs escaping from the famous Stalag Luft III, the most escape-proof prison camp in the Luftwaffe? They'll have a parade for us when we get home!"

Home. As soon as Jarek said it, he froze. Norway was occupied by the Germans, and Jensen's family had emigrated to America. Where was home for him? And Jarek? He already knew that his village had been almost wiped off the map in an early bombing run. He had no home.

Jensen cheerfully poked Jarek in the chest, distracting him from his somber train of thought. "Children will be stopping us in the street to ask us for our autographs!"

A grin slowly spread across Jarek's face.

This was really happening.

Maybe they all really did have a chance, since Jensen had brought back that desperately needed Intel. The Escape Committee now had the latest train schedules and road maps. They knew now where the Oder River flowed, eight miles away. They knew that mountains lay between them and the Czechoslovakian frontier, sixty miles south. Most important of all, they knew how to reach the Sagan train station that led to Breslau, Frankfurt and Paris.

The train station was only a few kilometers away through the forest and then a short distance down the road. As lame as Jensen was, he could make it that far, Jarek thought. Even as slowly as he moved, as long as he was first out of the tunnel, he could make it to the train station under cover of night.

"This is still a crazy plan." Jensen wrapped his scarf around his neck as a finishing touch and inspected his disguise. "Two hundred or more prisoners loose on the countryside all at once? The Krauts will go nuts!" Jensen grinned with mischief, his eyes bright. "But you know what? You and your incredible tunnel? I think it could really work."

Jarek should have been pleased. Reassured by Jensen's vote of confidence. It was just... it was one hundred eighty degrees different from what Jensen had said the day before he escaped.

And if anything went wrong? There was no way Jensen could make a run for it.

MacKenzie drained his glass and poured another. He had long since stopped trying to take notes and was just listening, rapt. "Something did go wrong?" he suggested heavily.

"Yes. Something went very wrong."

Jarek and Jensen were deep in the tunnel, alone at the bottom of the ladder that would lead to freedom. Jarek was there because he was in charge of the exit station, the last hauler on the line, and as Chief Tunnel Engineer, he had the honor of breaking through to the surface. Jensen was right at his heels, first man on the Escape List scheduled to go out. One hundred feet further back in the tunnel, Big X and Scott, his second-in-command, waited in the small underground chamber they called Leicester Square, where POWs would slide over from one trolley line to another. One hundred feet behind them, another pair of escapees waited in the chamber called Piccadilly Circus. One hundred plus feet further back, over two hundred men were crowded into the prison block, waiting restlessly for their numbers to be called.

It was 9:30 at night. The tunnel was lit with electricity, courtesy of stolen wire and tapping into the German circuit board, but the top of the ladder was in darkness. Jarek punched up with the hand-carved wooden trowel, flinching to avoid the cascade of dirt. There was no other sound in the tunnel, just the scrape and thrust of wood against frozen earth. On the fourth stab, there was suddenly no resistance and Jarek almost lost his tenuous balance on the rung. A chunk the size of his fist caromed off his face and he caught it in the crook of his arm. Wedging the trowel in the wall of dirt beside him, Jarek turned the sod slowly in his hands, exploring what his eyes could barely see. He felt thin, cord-like, twisted roots, and when he turned the sod over, it was covered with green blades of grass, wet with melting snow.

They were through!

"Jensen!" he hissed and let it drop, ironically reminded of the last time he was in the air, flying escort on a mission to bomb the railroad station at St. Omer, back in 1942. He'd felt the same moment of triumph then, watching the bombs fall, until the Focke-Wulf jumped out of the clouds and shot up his starboard aileron and wing tip, and he went down in a cloud of black smoke.

That was the beginning of his journey as a POW. This, Jarek thought, climbing up the final rungs to poke his head through the opening, marked the end of his time as a POW. After the first nineteen men made it out the tunnel, it would be his turn. Too tall to try to pass unnoticed where any Germans might be on alert, his plan was to travel cross-county: hide during the day and travel at night until he found some friendly allies. For some reason, old people and widows with young children always seemed to love him, and he felt certain that if he could approach without endangering them, he would find people in occupied countries who would help him.

Eyes closed, he briefly savored the soft kiss of cold, damp (fresh!) air across his cheeks, and he tilted his face up to the heavens before opening his eyes. The sky was filled with stars! Then he looked around, and his heart plummeted.

"Jarek?" Down below, Jensen sounded impatient.

The ladder was twenty feet long; Jarek leapt the last six feet to the bottom and sank down on his haunches, eyes wild like a trapped animal. "We're thirty feet short."

"What? How?"

"I don't know how! The tunnel is thirty feet short. We're past the goon tower and the road, but we aren't to the trees."

Maybe it was a triangulation error: their primitive surveying equipment not quite up to the task. Maybe some of the diggers in the rotation had pushed the underground passage just a fraction to the left or right instead of true as they scraped the sand away. There was no way to know for sure. What Jarek did know for sure was that 'Harry', following a straight line, should have taken them three hundred-thirty-eight feet straight out from hut 104: under the warning wire, the perimeter wire, past the camp hospital, the cooler and practically right under the sentry tower, then beneath open field and a road and more snow-covered field to emerge above ground, finally, inside the forest.

Instead, 'Harry' had somehow veered off-center and popped up thirty feet short. Between the road and the trees, in the middle of pristine white snow.

Jensen ran his hand nervously over the stubble on his scalp. "Well, you're the Tunnel King. How long will it take to dig another thirty feet?"

"Three - four days." Jarek squared his shoulders, then slumped again. "Jensen, we can't. All the travel papers are dated. It must be tonight."

"Okay." Jensen thought some more. "Okay." He crawled over to where the flat trolley he'd arrived on was waiting to be sent back to Leicester Square, and he called out through the narrow tunnel. "Send down forty feet of rope!"

Understanding slowly dawned in Jarek's eyes. "A rope. We can set up a signal from the trees!"

Someone relayed the instructions back from Leicester Square to the trolley exchange station at Piccadilly Circus, and finally back to the chamber at the bottom of the entrance shaft.

Five minutes later, the trolley rolled into the exit chamber with Number Two on the Escape List stretched out on his stomach to fit through the two-foot by two-foot tunnel. It was Big X himself, with a coil of rope looped around his torso. They quickly filled him in.

"The goons are watching the camp, the perimeter fence. They aren't looking this way," Jensen added when Jarek finished explaining the situation. "We'll have to time it so the men get out whenever the sentry has gone past and the searchlight isn't heading this way. But someone manning the rope in the woods can signal when it's clear."

"Yes. It could work. It has to work." Big X nodded approval, and he ducked his head to wriggle out of the rope.

"I'll take it." Jensen grabbed the coil of rope, and started to anchor it on his shoulder.

Big X gave him a grim look, the twisted scar across his eye making him look even more fierce. "Jensen, you can't. Your feet - you'd be out in the open too long. We can't risk it."

"I've got it," Jarek said quietly, firmly, taking the rope from Jensen without meeting his eyes. Did Big X mean not at all? That Jensen had to stay behind, because he wouldn't be able to make it across the field before the searchlight swept back?

Big X clapped his shoulder. "Good. We need a fast runner out there. Take the rope and tie it off, and give it a solid jerk two times whenever the coast is clear. And for god's sake, be careful."

"Roger." Jarek slapped one end of the rope in Jensen's palm and closed his fingers around it, then disappeared up the ladder.

From just under ground level, he watched the pool of light sweep across his line of sight, and then he inched further up to watch for the sentry. They were in luck - it wasn't one of the hundfuehrers with the vicious attack dogs. It was Steiniger, a weary veteran of WWI who was too old now to serve at the front. He tramped past with his hands tucked under his arms to keep them warm, cradling his submachine gun against his chest.

When Jarek decided he was out of earshot, he planted his hands on the wet snow and launched himself out of the tunnel and across the field, unspooling the rope as he ran.

There were no gunshots. No shouts. No alarms.

He crossed the tree line and fell to his knees behind a big pine, chest heaving. A rough cough rumbled up from his lungs and the effort to hold it back felt like he was being stabbed in the ribs. The searchlight swept past while he was curled on the ground, trying to stifle the cough. By the time he could breathe again and had the end of the rope wrapped around the tree trunk, he had to wait for the searchlight to pendulum back. As soon as it was gone again, Jarek gave the pre-arranged double tug.

Big X came out first. His disguise was one of the most intricate Moore had devised - gray suit, business man's overcoat, even a fedora. His papers identified him as a middle-class Frenchman. He crouched beside Jarek waiting for Steiniger to stroll past. When the coast was clear, Scott, the head of the Escape Committee's intelligence team, came through. Most of the men were planning to travel in pairs, wanting the security of knowing someone would be watching their back.

"What about Jensen?" Jarek hissed as the two men made ready to start cutting across the forest toward Sagan.

"He's taking your place at the ladder," X said, as if it was obvious. "Someone has to explain to each person coming through the tunnel about the signal rope."

"But - "

There was no answer. The two officers were gone.

The next man across was Graham, the wiry South African kriegie who'd supervised the stooges - the prisoners who monitored all the German guards' movements and raised the silent alarm when trouble was near. Graham wore a uniform dyed with blue ink, with the lapel modified and civilian buttons replacing the military brass. He was joined by the Lithuanian POW who'd tirelessly worked the manual air pump so many hours, now disguised in similar attire.

And then the stillness was cracked wide open by a low, pained moan rising quick and shrill into the recognizable wail of the air raid siren. All the lights shut off, a chain reaction as a German manually flipped switch after switch in the kommandantur. The searchlights outside the camp snapped off. So, too, Jarek knew, would the lights strung inside the tunnel, feeding off the same circuit board.

He couldn't see the hole in the ground, couldn't see anything in the sudden darkness. He grabbed the guide rope in his hand and flew across the field so fast the rough fibers scored a deep abrasion across his palm. At the mouth of the tunnel he plummeted feet first down the ladder, crashing into Jensen who was fumbling in the dark for a fat lamp - one of the round cigarette tins that had been filled with boiled margarine. "C'mon!" Jarek felt around in the blackness for Jensen's arm. "We can get dozens out while it's dark!"

Jensen lit the bit of pajama cord they used as a wick, and then their eyes met in the flicker of the dancing flame.

Jarek grabbed his shoulder. "Go on!" he said, pushing Jensen toward the ladder. "In this blackout, you can make it to the trees!" Even lame, Jarek thought. Jensen could make it across the open field without being seen, as long as the searchlights were out.

It might be his only chance.

Jensen needed only a second to process his options. Then he set down the lamp and clapped Jarek on the shoulder. "Okay! Let's go!" He scrambled up, using his arm strength more than his legs to lift himself up the twenty feet ladder and catapult himself through the opening at the top.

But Jarek wasn't right behind him. He signaled with a tap of the trowel on the rails for the trolley to start down again and in a moment, muscles burning, he was hauling the rope that led to the next person scheduled to get out. Big X was right - someone had to pass instructions on to those who would come after. And they had procedures to follow. They'd gotten this far because everything was scrupulously planned. Jensen had finished his part, providing Intel to the mapmakers. Jarek still had a job to do - to man his station for the first twenty prisoners, and then turn the responsibility over to the Maori Porokoru Patapu Makoare, who would shepherd the next twenty.

After Jensen left, and he was alone now in the tiny alcove, it felt to Jarek as though the silence had weight, and every little noise seemed magnified precisely because he had to be quiet. Jarek thought he could hear the sand trickling down the walls of the tunnel. He could hear the faint clatter of the trolley wheels along the wooden track. He could hear his own hoarse breathing.

Shadows swayed and dipped like dancers on the damp walls. In the distance, Jarek could hear bombs falling, echoing like thunder on a summer night. The click-clack of trolley wheels grew louder, and Ashley, the slightly-built mastermind whose 'penguins' had carried fifty tons of dirt out of the tunnel, emerged.

Jarek filled him in. "We're thirty feet short of the woods. Don't ask. The searchlights are out. Go now!"

Ashley paused only long enough to shake Jarek's hand with both of his own. Then he picked up his makeshift briefcase and clambered up and out.

Instead of getting out a man every minute or two as originally planned, they were lucky to get ten out per hour. The long stretches of trying to be quiet, to listen for any signs of trouble above, were unnerving. Jarek's jaw ached from the tension.

Smisek, head of the forgers, rolled in, followed by his escape partner, the red-haired Dutch flyer Van de Boessche, who'd fabricated so many tools for the Escape Team out of scraps. They scampered up the ladder and disappeared into the night. Next man on the list was Coburn. No one was willing to travel with him and his ridiculous valise. He was planning to travel by train as a salesman and he insisted on having something that looked like a sample case. No one would suspect such a clumsy-looking figure of being an escaped prisoner, he said.

The problem with the sample case was, it got jammed against the shoring frames of the tunnel, and when Coburn tried to get it loose, the trolley overbalanced and came off the rails. The tunnel was so tight, it wasn't possible for a man in transit to get the trolley back on track. Jarek had to belly crawl along the tunnel floor and get Coburn to do a push up on fingers and toes, so he could wrestle the trolley back onto the rails underneath him. There was no room to turn around; Jarek had to scuttle backwards the way he'd come until he got back to the exit chamber, where he could sit up straight, and haul the trolley forward again.

Then the empty trolley was reeled back in by someone in Leicester Square, while Jarek shoved Coburn up the rabbit hole and hoisted the sample case up after him. Suddenly, the lights in the tunnel flickered back on. The air raid was over, and Jarek blew out the small fat lamp. Back to the rope! He hoped someone had stayed to man it!

Finally, Makoare rumbled in, his burly shoulders as broad as Jarek's and nearly skimming the narrow walls. Jarek filled him in, and got the same incredulous wide-eyed stare at the news that 'Harry' was short, the same quick resolve to fall in with the new plan. There was a reason these men were picked in the first group. They were selfless and solution-oriented, focused on the big picture, and kept their heads in a crisis.

Jarek felt the cold air tingling on his face as he climbed the ladder, arms aching. He was on his own now. For the first time in years, he was completely independent. And alone.

No one counting on him.

No one to lean on.

He waited at the top of the ladder, head down, for the quick double tug that would confirm the sentry had gone past. The rope tightened, jerk-jerk, and Jarek reached above ground, planted his bare hands on the snow-covered grass, and pressed himself up and out of the tunnel. His legs were stiff after being curled in the tight confines of the tunnel, but he forced them to move.

It was still a shock, coming out of the tunnel again, to see the guard's tower so close and the pine trees so far away.

It was a bigger shock to see Jensen manning the rope when Jarek reached the woods.

"What are you -"

"What does it look like I'm doing? Get down!" Jensen pulled Jarek into the trees as the searchlight started its arc toward them again. Jarek looked back across the field. The white rope was camouflaged against the snow, but there was a noticeable trail of footprints now. Thank goodness the guards on the watch tower were focusing their attention inside the camp. Their field glasses were trained on the perimeter fence, and Harry's opening was well beyond that.

They'd been lucky so far. The searchlight's broad beam swept past, and Jensen tugged the rope again. LeBeau, the little French compass-maker, popped up like a mole and then he scampered across the open area and skidded to a halt.

LeBeau had seen Jensen talking to Big X the night of his ill-fated escape. Maybe he understood the sacrifice Jensen had made, because he said quietly, "I'll take a turn on the rope," nudging Jensen off. "Go!"

Jarek clasped his hand in a heartfelt handshake, and then grabbed Jensen's elbow and pulled him deeper into the forest to the echo of LeBeau's "God speed, mes amis!"

The two men kept low and close to the trees, Jensen leaning heavily on his cane. They moved slowly and stealthily for the first hundred yards into the woods. Another pair of POWs passed them in the dark, moving fast. Then it was silent and black again. The night had been chosen because it was moonless; and when Jarek felt they were far enough away that it seemed as dark as the tunnel when the lights were out, he risked pulling out the compass.

That was a triumph of ingenuity, as so much in this escape project was. It took an entire day to make each compass. The case was constructed from a broken gramophone record, melted and molded into shape. A sewing needle had been dipped in luminous paint that a scrounger had scraped off the clock dials on the Kommandant's own alarm clock. Who knew how he had gotten his hands on that! The glass came from broken windows and a little glass-blowing set-up LeBeau had invented. Best of all, each compass had 'Made in Stalag III' carefully engraved on the back. Whimsically followed by "Patent Pending."

"This way," Jarek gestured, pointing north. "The train station is just a kilometer or two away now." Get Jensen to the train, he thought, and then get as far away from Sagan as he could on foot before daylight.

"Jarek. Stop. I can't."

It was too dark to see Jensen's face, but Jarek could hear the strain in his voice. "Your feet?"

"I'm sorry." The cane Jensen carried to improve his cover might have helped once they were in civilization, but his soles were too shredded to travel any sort of distance. Especially on this terrain. It was clear Jensen simply couldn't stay upright any longer.

"I'll carry you."

It was simple to Jarek. A problem presented. A solution proposed. Just like every other problem the Escape Team had overcome over the last year.

Jarek was disguised as a Hungarian laborer - Germany was flooded with foreign workers - so he had no suitcase or briefcase to encumber him. But he knew, too, that he'd grown lean with hunger. They all had. He might be one of the strongest prisoners in the camp - but that wasn't saying much anymore. He was far from what he considered fit. How far would he be able to carry another man?

Jensen seemed to read his mind. He shook his head. "No. You go on..."

Jarek shook off his doubts. It didn't matter. He had to try - because he wouldn't accept the alternative. "And if I go, you will what? If you can't go forward, then you can't go back. You will just sit here until the goons discover the escape and send the dogs out to hunt you down? Dogs they have trained to go for your throat?"

Jensen gave a rueful smile. "I guess that doesn't sound like a very good plan, does it?"

Before he could object further, Jarek had Jensen slung across his back, like a child clinging to an indulgent uncle. Jensen hooked his cane on the crook of his elbow and held on as Jarek started staggering through the dark trees.

Dawn was rising when they emerged from the woods, and Jarek set Jensen down so he could resume his old-man limp the rest of the way down the road. By the time they reached the train station, though, it was too late. The train Jensen had a ticket for had already left. The station was filled with other escaped prisoners who had missed their trains to Breslau or Berlin: anywhere far away where they could disappear into a crowd and begin to work their way back to England. Big X and Scott were there in the station. Ashley. Coburn. So many familiar faces, all pretending they didn't know each other. Those who had sufficient reichsmarks in hand to buy new tickets and whose German was fluent enough to make the transaction were waiting for a later train.

Jarek didn't have enough money or enough skill at German to manage the trains.

Jensen pulled him into the shelter over the subway stairs that led underneath the train tracks to the platform on the other side. Here, they wouldn't be seen. "You've got to leave me here, Jarek. Go cross country. I can't - I can't go that way."

"No! We should stick together." Jarek's mind raced. "We can both get on the next train. Wherever it's going. When they come through to check the tickets... we will just slip away. Jump off."

"That ends up with the same problem, Jarek. I can hardly walk." Jensen leaned on his cane for emphasis. "I can - I can get the next train to Frankfurt." Jensen had obviously memorized the train schedules and fares when he was on the loose two weeks ago. "From there, I can make a connection to the train to Stettin," he decided. "There are Swedish ships in that port. Neutral ships. I can stowaway."

"I don't - "

"I know you can make it cross-country, Jarek. You did it before, when the Soviets invaded Poland. Remember? You told me you escaped through Slovakia, Hungary... let me see... " Jensen ticked them off his fingers. "Yugoslavia, Italy... France to Marseille and then to Gibraltar, before you finally got to England and joined the RAF."

"You were actually listening? I thought you fell asleep when I told you about that. I could hear you snoring."

Jensen shrugged. "We were in the cooler. It was too uncomfortable to sleep. What else was there to listen to?"

"I still think we should stay together." Jarek didn't trust that Jensen would stay safe, unable to run if things went pear-shaped. But what could he say to convince him? "I know you always prefer to be alone," he tried, remembering all the other escape attempts. "But I need you to have my back. And I'll have yours."

Jensen shook his head vehemently. "Jarek, that's - you can't. You can't count on me to have your back. And you can't let yourself get caught!"

"I don't care about me - " Jarek blurted out, waving a hand impatiently.

"You have to!" Jensen grabbed his coat lapels, pulling him close so he could keep his voice down. "Listen, Jarek. You have to worry about getting caught. You cannot be captured. The Germans - they have new orders. I heard this from Werner just before I went out through the wire." Jensen let go of Jarek's coat and looked around to make sure they were still alone. "The Germans are running out of fuel," he explained, voice low and urgent. "They're getting desperate. They're building massive underground fuel production facilities, and they have a plan for slave labor.

"Jarek, Werner told me that Hitler's ordered the SS to pull all the Jewish POWs out of whatever camps they're in and send them to a concentration camp in Berga to work on this. Work them to death, Werner said."

"But they don't know - " Jarek's heart hammered in his chest, and he felt suddenly short of breath. He hadn't told anyone. Anyone. Not even Jensen.

"Jarek, they do. They know." Jensen grabbed him again, made him look him in the eyes. "They don't care if you're religious, or just have a Jewish name, or hell if they only suspect you're Jewish. They don't care, Jarek. They don't care." He let go and sagged back, leaning heavily on his cane. "They just follow orders from a madman."

Jarek's eyes searched Jensen's, and he saw the hesitation there, the moment when Jensen looked away as if he couldn't bring himself to say any more. A muscle in Jensen's cheek jumped as he seemed to find the resolve to say the rest, and he brought his gaze back up, held Jarek's look. "Werner told me. Jarek. Your name is on that list."

Jarek found it hard to swallow as the pieces of the puzzle fell jaggedly into place. He clutched at Jensen's arm. "Is that - is that why you agreed to scout for Big X, and get yourself captured? Because you knew they'd be coming for me?"

In the distance, a new sound emerged, growing louder, rhythmic and hoarse, like a big dog panting.

"Jarek, please. A train is coming now. Let me go."

Jensen pulled away roughly, and in seconds had transformed himself into a old man, shoulders hunched, looking small and frail, leaning heavily on his cane. He started making his way carefully down the stairs that led to the ticket office on the platform. Jarek watched him go, then bounded after him to thrust a fistful of reichsmarks, all he had, in his pocket. "For the ticket. For a bribe. Hell, in case you need a safe place to stay and the only option is a whorehouse in Stettin," he said, trying hard to smile. "Just - be safe."

He turned to jog back up the stairs, but before he could take a step, Jensen was taking off his scarf and winding it around Jarek's neck. "You'll need this more than I will. You can give it back the next time you see me!"

A stranger entered the stairway, heading toward the ticket office. A young woman. Not a stranger - Jarek recognized her as the censor at camp who read all their mail. He shrank back into the shadows and tried to look shorter, and she passed him without a second look. She even offered her arm to Jensen as he limped up the stairs. Jarek gave a sigh of relief that Jensen's disguise was holding up so far.

Jarek didn't look back when he returned to the road, and tried to melt into the countryside.

He was hidden in the trees when he saw an open German staff car come speeding down the roadway toward the train station. The officer inside looked like pinched-face Scharpwinkel, but of course, Jarek couldn't be sure. And he didn't dare turn to watch as it passed him.

He didn't even look back when he heard shots fired. But his eyes filled with tears.

link to chapter 4 of 4 here.

Date: 2011-07-15 01:37 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] jjinmo-356.livejournal.com
This is great, Jensen risked everything for Jared.

Date: 2011-07-15 01:52 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] harrigan.livejournal.com
You're so kind to comment on each chapter! And you know, interestingly, this was the initial idea behind the story - to write a J2AU war story in which Jensen made a huge sacrifice to save Jared (Jarek).

...and yet the first scene that emerged in my head to tell that story was Jarek walking into the Displaced Person's Camp with Rosie and being agitated by the barbed wire and guard towers and haunted by what Jensen did for him. And then -- it all turned into THIS!


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