Extract from letters received, 1951
"I am writing to thank you again for your generous donation to our institution. Your patient, young Mr Summers, is settling in, and is only a little behind the other nine year old boys. I will report further, as you have requested."
The salvage yard was a cemetery for planes. Scott was quiet when he visited, running his hands over the hulking bodies, fingers exploring the chipped paintwork and divots. When a pilot dies, there's rarely something to visit – a burned-out shell, or a hole in the ground. Sometimes nothing at all. Would the pilots know who came to visit them? Did his dad feel the brush of waves over his plane in the Pacific? Scott pushed his fists hard against his closed eyes until he could see dancing red lights instead of his father trapped in his P-38, sinking below the surface. At least for his mother it was quick; one rosy blossom of flame on the snow, then nothing.
They thought he was sleeping in the infirmary with a headache. Scott was a fast learner, though, and he knew that once he had been sent to bed, they didn't check on him until evening. They said that it was best for him to remain in a darkened room, then draped a wet towel over his eyes, and left him for the rest of the day. Scott had better things to do with his time, and as far as he could tell, the sun never made the lights or the pain worse. Sometimes he thought his headaches got better when he was outside. It was easy to pry the screen away from the window and escape for a few hours.
The orphanage backed onto an industrial wasteland, relics of Omaha's contribution to the war effort. Scott had found the salvage yard on his fifth day, having pushed through a hole in the fence to hide from the daily beating that was the inevitable entitlement of the newest and smallest. Now it was his favourite place to hide, and his fondness for it had earned him a small and precious degree of respect from the older boys, among whom it was generally held that the yard was haunted. Standing in the open space, with a sky the colour of iron above him, and the wind humming through the ribs of a skeletal B25 bomber, Scott could understand why the rumour had spread, but he wasn't afraid of ghosts.
The wind pushed against his body in sharp gusts, and he shivered as he darted between the planes. The best place to be on cold days was in the Hurricane; the fuselage had few holes. It was the most intact plane in the yard, maybe because it wasn't an American make, so it hadn't been cannibalised for parts like the Mustangs and Mitchells. Hidden by a well-patched tarp, the tail section bore the Canadian flag. Across the nose, someone had lovingly stencilled a snarling, drooling mouth full of sharp white teeth and named the plane in bold, dark letters under the cockpit window; "The Fightin' Wolverine". It was where Scott sat on rainy days, in a single-man cockpit just the right size for one boy to curl up on the seat and read comics. With practiced ease, he hoisted himself up over the wing, and threw back the tarp to expose the cockpit. He hunched his weight against the glass canopy till it slid open, then slithered onto the pilot's seat, pulling the canopy closed after him. He kept all his important stuff under the seat – a photo his dad had sent from the Pacific, his brother's files stolen from the archives at the orphanage, and a collection of well-thumbed Captain America comics. He tried to focus on Cap and Bucky's exploits in Berlin, but his headache bloomed into shades of red under his eyelids. The metal seat was still warm from the morning sun, and he slipped easily into sleep while rain spotted against the glass.
Someone was whispering to him. Scott woke slowly, straining to hear the voice that faded in and out amidst crackling static. It wasn't the rain – he could hear a man's voice, very soft, coming from the instrument panel.
"This is Wolverine to base. Please respond, over... Repeat, this is Wolverine to base, over. Ah, come on guys, this ain't funny."
Scott sat upright in the chair, and ran his hands over the instrument panel. It was more complicated than the Stinson his mom had used for the mail run back home, but all the dials were dead. There was no radio, that he could identify.
"Wolverine to base, please respond, or, so help me, I'm gonna fly down there right now and blast the crap out of your puny asses. Over."
The voice was coming from a square of smoky black glass, sitting right under the altimeter. Scott's mother had told him, when they flew together, that all the important stuff goes right in the middle – altimeter, artificial horizon, fuel gauge, compass. And this – he traced his fingers over the bronze identification plate bolted above the glass panel – the Pilot Interface Unit – must be some kind of radio? He ran his fingers over the glass surface, looking for a switch to turn it off. The glass was warm, and darkness swirled around his fingers, following their path across the surface. He jerked his hand away.
"Someone there?" The static fell away, and the voice was stronger. Scott crouched down on the seat, and wished he'd pulled the tarp all the way back so that he was hidden from view. Where was the voice coming from? There was a control tower over at Offutt Air Force Base, but that was miles away – there was no way they could see him in an old wrecked plane. Was there?
"This is Wolverine to base, reporting an intruder… Engaging security protocol." The voice was more urgent now, and faint whirring was coming from the console. Bolts clicked home above Scott's head, locking the sliding canopy closed. He hammered at it with his hands, but it wouldn't budge. Under his knees, he felt the seat bob up and down, as though weighing him up. "Pint sized intruder, too. Adolf must have sunk to recruiting from Hitler Youth. Hey? Sprechen Sie Deutsch, kid? Wer sind Sie? Wo bin ich?"
Scott curled his legs up in the metal seat, and thought hard. He didn't want to get caught in the plane, that would put an end to the small amount of freedom he'd enjoyed since he had left the hospital. And he didn't want to stay in the plane till he died of hunger or suffocation or something. Scott shivered, and thought of waves beating against the glass. Growing nausea boosted him into action, and he clambered over the back into the cramped area behind the seat. One panel in the tail section was damaged, hanging by two rivets, and he kicked at it with his foot, hanging onto the seat for leverage. It popped off with a clang, and he slid through, falling to the ground with a thud, his legs scraped raw by the edges of the metal. He could hear the voice from inside the cockpit, shouting in German and English. Scott dragged the tarp over the plane again, then ran all the way home.
It was a week before he dared venture back to the salvage yard. For three days, Scott slunk around the corridors, waiting for the police or the Air Force or someone to show up at the door, but nothing happened, and he stopped ducking every time he heard the doorbell or the telephone. As panic receded, curiosity grew. He started to wonder if he'd really heard the disconnected voice coming from the console. Or maybe it was true, what the other boys had said, about the salvage yard being haunted. Maybe that was the ghost of the pilot of the Fightin' Wolverine? The lure of the unknown was too strong. When the next headache struck, he made his escape through the infirmary window and over to the salvage yard.
The Fightin' Wolverine was still shrouded with the patched tarpaulin, but something about the shoulders of the plane looked like it was crouching forward ready to pounce. Scott rolled the tarp back to the leading edge of the wings, and scrambled up to the cockpit. The bolts that locked the canopy were pulled back into their housing, so he inched the canopy back. The cockpit was silent; no static, no voices. There was an atmosphere of anticipation, and Scott felt the hair on his neck and arms prickling. Something was waiting.
"Is there someone here?" Scott was glad there was nobody from the orphanage to see him talking to thin air.
The dark cloud under the glass panel swirled. "Been waiting for you to come back, kid. Took you long enough." The voice was clear of static, but still soft and far away.
"Who are you? Where are you transmitting from?" Scott's voice was wary – he was ready to bolt back to the infirmary and deny he had ever set foot in the salvage yard.
"I'm not transmitting. I'm talking to you." The voice was tense. The darkness on the glass drew sharp-lined, sketchy patterns.. Scott's skin crawled with gooseflesh; maybe this was a ghost.
Scott's mouth was dry, his tongue felt thick. "Are you, I mean, were you the pilot of the Fightin' Wolverine?"
There was a pause, and the black cloud on the glass plate pulsed contemplatively, before contracting into a single, sharp point. "Kid, I am the Fightin' Wolverine. Used to be a soldier. Used to be a lot of things till I volunteered for a project I should've stayed clear away from. Next thing I know, I'm a plane. Secret weapon."
Scott narrowed his eyes. "You sound like a person to me."
"Used to be a person." The voice was even softer now, and Scott thought it sounded a little sad. "Listen, you seem like a good kid, and I'm gonna have to trust this isn't some kind of Nazi plan. I'm running out of juice – can you tell me if there's something over my wings? There's photovoltaic panels there – they make fuel from sunlight. I must have run the battery dry getting to this junkyard."
Scott dragged the tarp all the way off, picking his way along the spine of the plane to heave the canvas over the rudder. Across the wings were long sections of black glass that swirled and eddied like the panel on the console. Crouching down on the wing, he touched the surface of one panel gingerly, watching the liquid under the glass pool around his finger. It was blood-warm, and he thought he felt it pulse.
"Well done, kid. Get in here so I can talk to you without burning too much juice. It ain't exactly the tropics here, gonna take a while to charge up." The Wolverine's voice was getting stronger already, and there was an exuberance to it that made Scott's heart beat faster. He slid the canopy further back, then pulled off one of his shoes. When he'd jammed it against the sliding track, blocking the bolts from sliding home, he felt safe to slip into the cockpit.
"I ain't gonna lock you in again, kiddo. You're all right. What's your name?"
Scott thought about making up an alias, or using his dad's call sign, but really, it didn't matter. "I'm Scott." He didn't offer a surname, just to be safe.
"Scotty, you did good. I'm going to shut down for a while, let the batteries charge up. Don't tell anyone you spoke to me, okay? Loose lips sink ships, you know."
Scott wanted to correct the plane, tell him his name wasn't Scotty, but the smoky threads in the glass panel had faded away.
Eyes Only Bulletin, 1937:
"Weapon X may be tentatively declared a success. The procedure acquired from Department H has produced only a limited number of craft, but all have great potential. In developing the beta group, however, we would recommend that subjects be selected for their patriotism and respect for the hierarchy of the Service, as the alpha flight have clearly retained aspects of the original subjects' personalities. Unfortunately, they were not selected for their pliant natures. "
A week later, Scott had taken to monitoring the weather reports in the newspaper. It was an old habit from home, helping his mom out – checking cloud cover, wind speed, sunrise and sunset times. The Fightin' Wolverine had been silent for most of that time - like a hibernating animal, when he did speak, it was slurred and drowsy. Scott worried that there was something wrong with the sun-collectors, so on the weekend, when he was guaranteed at least six hours of uninterrupted sleep in the infirmary, he borrowed a scrubbing brush and a bucket from the janitor's closet, and spent the day cleaning the Hurricane, finishing by polishing the dark glass panels with the towel that he was supposed to have draped over his eyes. His hands were purple and chapped by the afternoon's work, and he sat in the cockpit chafing the colour back into his skin.
"Scotty. Thanks for the bath." The voice was clear and unaffected by static, and the glass panel showed a thin line that pulsed with each word.
Scott touched a finger to the panel, feeling inexplicably happy as the inky colour swirled around it. "You didn't sound so good a couple of days ago."
"It's hard to switch back on, think there's a problem with the coupling to the battery bank. I'm working on it, now I've got some power to the servos. Stay here, kiddo. Damn cold out there. Help me reset the chronometer. They don't let me set that one – like to keep me in the dark about how long it's been between runs."
Scott wriggled down off the seat. If he lay on his back, he could get his head under the console, where a tangled mass of coloured cables snaked up to the reverse of the dials.
"On your left. No, not that one. Feel for a threaded screw – that's the winder. Yeah, now you've got it."
With one hand on the winder, Scott peered back up at the display, to see when to stop. "Hey! This says 1940. I'm going to be winding all night to get it to 1951." He shifted around to get his arm in a more comfortable position.
"It's 1951? Eleven years. Huh."
Scott concentrated on turning the little screw. "I guess that's why you're always going on about the Nazis. There aren't any Nazis anymore. They hung 'em all, and Mussolini too. A boy at the orphanage saw it on a news reel."
"War's over then? 'Spose I missed all the best parts. You must've too – can't have been much going on in Omaha. You guys stay on the sidelines, or get into the fight in the end?"
Scott bristled. "I'm not from Omaha, I'm from Alaska. And my dad was in the war, and he took down twenty three Zeroes before the Japs got him. And Omaha isn't so lame, they built the Enola Gay here."
"Japs?" The voice was guarded. "You mean the Japanese? Your dad fought the Japanese?"
Scott climbed onto the seat and gave the console a sharp kick. "Yeah, my dad fought in the Pacific! He fought the Japs after they bombed Pearl Harbour, and they shot him down and he's under the water, and he was a hero." He slumped back against the chair, and clenched his jaw, determined to swallow any hiccuppy sobs. He wiped his nose on his sleeve and choked a little.
"It's okay, Scotty."
The baby name drew a snuffling snort of rage from Scott's throat and he launched a slew of kicks at the console. There was a hiss of static, and the display on the glass panel jumped and swirled.
"Okay, Slim. I'll call you Slim till you get some meat on your bones." The Wolverine's voice was steady and low. "Thing about war, Slim, is that you don't blame the people. Decisions get made on behalf of the people, for the good of the people, they say. Fact that they're bad decisions ain't a license to hate the whole country. That's too easy. You gotta think, and you gotta make up your own mind. Otherwise you end up thinking what they tell you to. You know, there's going to be a kid in Tokyo thinking exactly the same thing about your dad as you are about his. Gives you a little perspective to see it that way. You don't know anything about Japan till you've been there, I promise."
Scott hugged his knees to his chest. It was getting colder in the cockpit. "I'll have to go back to the infirmary soon. You want me to keep winding that clock?"
"Yeah, I'd appreciate it, Slim. Don't think I want to be left in the dark for that long again."
Scott wound the clock, watching the hands twirl around the dial.
"So, tell me about the Enola Gay. She a famous bird?" The voice was conversational, as though they were catching up on local gossip.
"Yeah, kind of. She was the one that carried the A-Bomb. The first one, anyway."
"What the hell is an A-Bomb?"
Scott stopped winding. "Um, it was how we won the war. The A-Bomb." He was suddenly thinking of the kid in Tokyo, and how he must have felt, but there was no going back – this was something had already happened. "One for Hiroshima, and one for Nagasaki. Then they surrendered."
"One bomb?" The Wolverine spoke very softly.
Scott spoke quickly, not wanting to linger over the details, "One bomb, a really big bomb, big enough to destroy the city." There was nothing else to say. "Sorry."
There was a long silence, with only the pulsing in the glass to indicate the Wolverine was still listening.
"They were beautiful cities." The Wolverine didn't say anything more. After half an hour, Scott went back to the infirmary.
Extract from letter sent, 1951:
"I'm sorry to hear that young Scott is suffering more frequently from these episodes that you describe. I believe that this condition is directly related to the head trauma he suffered during the fall from his mother's plane. There is an experimental procedure that may benefit him greatly – I shall be returning to your institution to collect him next week."
The warden's office was cold. She explained the operation to him, as he sat across from her, the broad wooden desk between them. "Dr Milbury will be drilling into your skull, but you won't feel any of it, because you'll be asleep. Then he's going to fix the part of your brain that gives you the headaches. The next thing you'll know is that you'll be awake in the hospital, eating ice-cream with a bandage on your head. And no more headaches, ever again."
It didn't sound like such a good idea to Scott. The warden was unsurprised that the exciting news triggered an immediate attack right there in the office, and she helped him to the infirmary, explaining in a loud whisper to the nurse about Dr Milbury’s letter. Scott sat and thought while their voices moved further away from the door, down the corridor and into the staff room. It was time to do something. He pried open the window, and hit the frozen ground running.
The Wolverine gleamed in the pale sunlight. Scott ran his fingers along the wing, then boosted himself up, carefully avoiding the photovoltaic cells. He slid the canopy back, pleased with the easy way it glided on the cleaned and oiled tracks. He checked the pilot interface display – the ink was evenly distributed across the glass, pulsing with a gentle beat. Yesterday they'd reconnected the wire antenna, and the Wolverine had been able to tune into local radio broadcasts.
"Don't know about this rock and roll, Slim. Reckon it might be divertin' the youth into crime and promiscuity."
"It's not so bad," said Scott. "At least it's better than that sappy Vera Lynn." He closed the canopy and sat down.
"I don't ever want to hear you say a word against Vera, got that? Hey kid, I could hear your heart racing when you came through the fence. What's up? They decided to send orphans down the coal mines again?"
Scott curled his legs up on the metal seat. "They want to drill in my brain. There's a doctor who thinks he can fix my headaches. It's an experiment."
There was a brief pause in the pulsing of the display. "Reckon that doesn't sound too good to me."
"It isn't." Scott chewed on the side of his finger. "The doctor thinks I don't remember what happened in the hospital. He thinks I've forgotten everything from the time of the crash until I came here, but I haven't. He gave me shots, while they thought I was asleep. They made me sick. I don't want him to drill in my head."
"Worthwhile philosophy. Wish I'd had the benefit of your wisdom when I was young and foolish. What are you going to do about it?" The Wolverine's voice was punctuated by the clicks and whirs of servos fine tuning the Rolls Royce engine.
Scott put his feet down flat on the cockpit floor. "I'm going to run away."
The whirring stopped. "Well, I can't you blame you for that, kid. I'll miss having you around."
Scott gave the console a gentle poke with his boot. "You're pretty slow on the uptake for a super-secret plane, you know."
The first obstacle to airworthiness was the gaping hole in the fuselage. Scott held the panel in position with one knee while he pulled a strip of tape from the roll. "Are you sure about this?" he asked with the tape between his teeth. "I don't think you can hold planes together with tape. I mean, I don’t see how that would work."
"Doesn't have to work for long, kid. Auto-healing will fix it into place in about twelve hours. How do you think I got rid of the bullet holes? Fixed up the paint work? Adamantium alloy, and electrical current. Lucky we had those few sunny days. Could have probably healed it over in time, but I like to keep track of my parts. Those left to me, anyway."
Scott spent the next few hours dragging rubbish and clutter, till there was a clear path to the wire fence separating the scrap yard from the wide expanse of a disused air-strip. When he checked on the hole in the fuselage, he could see a thin webbing of silver strands extending across the gap between the two pieces of metal.
"It'll look a bit scabby for a couple of days, but the seal will be good sometime tonight." The Wolverine had the cowling open on the engine, and oil was draining from a pipe into an empty drum.
Scott carried the dented bucket of oil he'd drained from disembodied engine blocks, and changed the hose, watching with fascination as the flow of oil reversed, and it moved up the pipe.
"Hydraulics are holding. That new tire feels good. Prop's in good shape. Think we'll be ready to go tomorrow night." The pipe withdrew, and the cowling slid closed with a hiss. "I feel a bit naked without ammo, but I know a few places where we can stop and pick some up."
Scott carefully closed the lid on the drum of dirty oil, then climbed up on the plane, sitting with his back against the cabin, and his legs along the wing, letting the heat from the metal skin soak into his aching muscles. "Where are we going to go, when we get up there?"
The Wolverine was quiet for a few minutes, but Scott could still hear the ticks and clunks of mechanisms echoing inside the body of the plane. "I had some friends up North a while ago. If they're still there, it'll make a good place to lay low over the winter. They're good people. I trust them not to hand you over to the Mounties."
Scott poked his head into the cockpit to check the time. "I'd better get back to the infirmary. I'll come see you tomorrow, if I can."
"Make it later in the afternoon, kid. I think getaways work better in the dark." The canopy slid closed, and Scott made his way back to the orphanage.
As he crept in through the infirmary window, a familiar voice brought him to a stop with one leg over the window sill.
"Yes, I see that he is not here, Warden. What I would like to see now is you, and your excellent staff, looking for him. Immediately." The voice was soft, falsely gentle with a silken tone of menace. Dr Milbury had arrived early.
Scott stayed very still, until he heard twin sets of footsteps fading away from the door – the warden's solid shoes, and Dr Milbury's fine boots. He moved quietly into the room, and into the closet, closing the door with the softest of clicks. They already knew he wasn't here – they wouldn't check it again, would they? The bedroom door opened with a swift gust of air that pushed against the closet door, and through the key hole, Scott could see a long, imposing shadow stretching into the room. Doctor Milbury was unnaturally tall, and he was forced to dip his head as he stepped across the threshold, his black coat flaring out behind him. The doctor walked around the room, checking behind the door and under the bed. Scott held his breath. The closet door was suddenly opened, and Scott struggled to regain his balance.
"Oh, Scott, why have you been hiding? Silly boy." Doctor Milbury patted him on the cheek with a gloved hand, then took his shoulder in a fierce grip, marching him out of the closet and towards the corridor. "Surely you weren't frightened about your little operation? Your kind warden said she had explained it to you so carefully."
Scott waited until they were as close to the window as their path was going to take them, then shrugged out of his sweater, wriggling free of the doctor's grip, and jumped through the window, pushing the wire screen to the frozen ground. He was suddenly grateful for the ill-maintained garden at the orphanage, as he scrambled over fallen branches, and through a gap in a thorny hedge. Behind him he could hear shouts of anger and frustration as Doctor Milbury and the warden fought their way along the path that was so familiar to Scott. He skidded through the hole in the fence, barely slowing down, and pelted towards the salvage yard.
"Wolverine! We need to go, now!" He had barely enough breath to shout, but he prayed the Wolverine was able to detect his voice. His prayers were answered by the throbbing roar of the Rolls Royce engine.
As he rounded the corner into the yard, he saw that the Hurricane was moving slowly along the path that Scott had cleared that morning, bearing down on the fence into the field. The rusted wire collapsed with a hundred metallic twangs, and the plane rolled across the downed fence, onto the sparse, tussocky ground. Scott leapt over the twisted and broken wire, and ran up beside the Wolverine as the great silver body slowly taxied around to face the disused runway that had brought the planes here in the first place. The plane slowed long enough for Scott to clamber up over the wing, and into the cockpit. Scott had barely shrugged into the harness on the metal seat when a surge of smooth acceleration pushed down hard against his chest. He cast a glance over his shoulder, and saw the stick-like figure of Doctor Milbury at the edge of the field, his mouth open in astonishment.
The runway was short and ill-maintained, but the Wolverine found a safe path with practiced efficiency. When the jostling and bouncing stopped, Scott realised they were airborne, the controls moving smoothly with no hands on them. Scott thought of a player piano, and laughed with delight.
The pilot interface was blinking at him. Scott spoke, and realised that the words were being whipped out of his mouth, drowned by the sound of the engine, and washed away by the air that moved through the cockpit. He scrabbled under the seat for the makeshift leather helmet he had cobbled together on the Wolverine's instructions, and clipped the lead onto the interface cable.
"Kid, you okay?" The voice was surprisingly calm, considering the maelstrom of activity going on.
Scott nodded his head, then remembered that the Wolverine couldn't see. "Yeah, yeah,” he gasped, “I'm fine. You did it! You're amazing!"
The Fightin' Wolverine gave a low chuckle. "Yeah, guess I'm not too shabby, for an old piece of scrap."
News clipping, Omaha Herald, 1951
Ghostly Plane or Flying Saucer?
Officials at Offutt Air Force Base are at a loss to explain the sudden appearance of a British fighter plane in the airspace above the base. Eye-witness, and plane fanatic Mr Bill Winston identified the mysterious airplane as a Hawker Hurricane, famous for their involvement in the Battle of Britain. "It was all shiny and new," said Mr Winston, "Just like it had rolled out of the factory yesterday." Almost as soon as the plane appeared, it had vanished off the scope, leading officials to declare the incident a "technical glitch", causing a radar shadow. A radio tower operator who wished to remain anonymous said "The strangest part was the signal we picked up – that old song from the Blitz, 'We'll Meet Again', by Vera Lynn." A message home from a long-lost pilot to his sweetheart? I guess we'll never know.