Avalon County Entertainment System
Channel Select: Avalon Broadcasting System (Channel 17)
No one paid much attention to the arrival of a Ju 52 transport at the Karlsland Luftwaffe's airfield near Lédquent, in the green countryside of the Pas-de-Calais district of Gallia, that Tuesday morning. "Iron Annies" came and went from Luftwaffe bases, and other Allied establishments, all the time; they were the second-most-common transport aircraft in the Western Allies' stable after the Liberions' C-47s.
This one might've raised a few eyebrows, since it bore the markings not of the Luftwaffe, but rather the 501st Joint Fighter Wing, which was currently based quite some way to the east, in Ribeauvillé near the Alsace-Karlsland border. The Luftwaffe sergeant in charge of ground operations certainly took note of that fact as he climbed aboard the aircraft. Even if he hadn't noted the markings, it would've been hard to miss the fact that everyone on board was a witch.
"Guten Morgen, ladies," said Sgt. Max Schilling, saluting with the hand not holding his clipboard. "You're a fair way from home."
"Just on our way back from our old base in Britannia," said the ranking officer aboard, an eyepatched, slightly severe-looking young woman in the white jacket of a Fusō Naval Air Service lieutenant colonel, as she returned the salute. With a gesture toward the crates stacked neatly in the Ju 52's hold, she went on, "Picking up some things we left behind after the Gallia campaign."
"But there's no operational unit at Crone Rock any more," explained the younger, perkier-looking Fusō witch in the co-pilot's seat. "So no mechanics or fuel or anything."
"And this old crate hasn't got the range to make it there and back," added the pilot, an ash-blonde girl in the blue tunic of a Suomus Air Force officer, patting the instrument panel affectionately.
With a winning smile, the co-pilot said, "So do you think you could help us out?"
The sergeant looked at his clipboard again, though he knew full well what it said (or rather didn't say), then told her, "I don't have a flight plan for your stopover here..."
"I know, I sort of... forgot to file one," the younger Fusō witch said, a hand behind her head. With a wink and her other hand held edge-on in front of her mouth (a sheepish gesture whose provenance Schilling had never been entirely clear on, but he'd seen other people from Fusō do it before), she added, "Sorry!"
The witch with the eyepatch tutted, her arms folded. "Miyafuji, you're a disgrace," she said, though without any real heat. Then, with an apologetic shrug for the sergeant, she told him, "She's a flight surgeon," as if that explained everything.
Something about the younger witch's crestfallen look at her superior's criticism touched the sergeant's heart. She was such a cute little thing - reminded him of a cousin he hadn't seen in years, since the Evacuation, and he realized with a mild shock that Hilde must be all grown up by now.
"Well," he said with a placating smile for the elder witch, "we're all on the same side, ja? It'll take me a few minutes, but I'll get a fuel truck over here as soon as I can. You'll have to help the driver with the fueling, though, I can't spare anybody else right now."
"That won't be a problem," the Suomish pilot said, nodding. "Thanks a lot, Sarge."
"Yes, thank you so much!" the younger Fusō girl said with an earnest seated bow, made slightly awkward by the fact that the seat was facing the wrong way.
"Happy to help," said Schilling. Saluting the lieutenant colonel again, he added, "Just sit tight, ladies, and I'll have the fuel truck to you soon."
The three witches saw him off the aircraft with waves and further thanks, then watched him walk back to the operations shack. As soon as he was out of earshot, Mio Sakamoto turned to the rear of the airplane and said, "Trude - five minutes."
"I'm on it," came Gertrud Barkhorn's voice from somewhere behind the crates, and then the distinctive sound of magic energy being released.
Half an hour later, refueled and cleared to depart, the 501st's Junkers taxied away from the stack of crates it had been parked near, lined up on the runway, and roared away, heading east.
Twenty minutes after that, a Luftwaffe truck arrived. Its driver and his assistant checked the destination codes painted on several of the crates, and with much grunting and swearing loaded four of them onto the truck. Then, climbing aboard, they left the airfield and headed north on Highway D249, turning off again a few miles on. Jouncing along a poorly-surfaced dirt road, they came to what looked like a railway tunnel cut into the side of one of the area's chalk hills, stopped at a guard post, then continued into the hill itself. Here they unloaded the crates and left them for someone else to deal with.
Shortly, and with typical Karlslandic efficiency, someone did; which is how, roughly two hours after the 501st's Ju 52 left Lédquent, one of the crates that had been stacked near it arrived in the workshop of the Director of Research for Projekt Salamander. This was not unusual, and the enlisted personnel whose job was to deliver it paid it little mind. The Director was always receiving items marked, as this crate was marked, to be opened by herself only. It would never even have occurred to the freight handling squad to do otherwise. Besides, whatever was in there was sure to be incomprehensible by, and uninteresting to, normal people, anyway.
It also never occurred to any of them to wonder why this one had air holes in it.
The Director arrived in her private workshop shortly after the delivery. Though a petite and slender young woman, she took up a crowbar at once, and within a minute had the lid off the crate.
"Ah, good, you're finally here," said Captain Ursula Hartmann to the contents of the box.
Two of the four people inside the box gave her smiles and thumbs-up. The third was distracted, busy giving a deeply dubious look to the fourth, who was paying no attention at all.
"Nnnh... sind wir schon da?" mumbled Captain Erica Hartmann in her sleep.
Flying Yak Studios
Bacon Comics Group
in association with
The International Police Organization
Avalon Broadcasting System
Lensmen: The Brave and the Bold
Our Witches at War
another serial experiment
© 2015 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
"Diebstahl eines Raketenrucksack!"
The tower at the north end of Château Saint-Ulrich had been the first part of the structure repaired when Allied Command chose the ruined castle as the 501st JFW's new base. With its commanding view of the countryside atop which the castle sat, it was the obvious place to put the base's command center.
On the roof above that command center, Erica Hartmann stood silently gazing off across the rolling green hills to the east, a gently steaming mug of coffee in her hand.
"I wouldn't get up this early in the morning for just anyone, you know," she said.
At her side, her twin sister Ursula smiled slightly. "I know," she agreed.
Erica took a sip of her coffee, then said, "So that's what you were doing in Gryph's room."
Ursula gave her a sidelong glance. "What did you think I was doing?" she asked.
Erica shrugged. "I dunno, Usch, when I found you in there, I thought maybe you just got lonely." With a mildly sly grin, she added, "It does get chilly in those north rooms at night."
"Did it really look like that?" Ursula wondered.
"You'll be able to judge for yourself once I get the pictures developed," replied Erica with a wink.
Ursula blushed, giggling a little, then said almost abstractly, "He is nice and warm."
"He is," Erica agreed. Putting her coffee mug down on the parapet, she placed her hand on Ursula's shoulder and said solemnly, "Welcome, little sister. Now you understand."
"Stop it," Ursula giggled, brushing off her hand. Then, sobering, she said, "Please try to be serious for a second. I have to leave soon, and I need to know what you think."
Erica nodded. "Right. Sorry." She picked up her coffee again, took another sip, and added wryly, "How sure are you of this?"
"Erica, I built it myself," Ursula replied with a trace of asperity. "I'm reasonably sure I know what it can do."
"No, I know that," said Erica. "I mean about what it's for."
"Well, it's not in the project specifications," said Ursula wryly, "but logically speaking, what else could it be for?"
"Mm," conceded Erica with another nod. "What did Gryph think?"
"He agrees with me. Whatever the ultimate purpose of Projekt Salamander is, steps have to be taken before someone is killed."
Erica stood looking off to the east for a few more sips of coffee, then turned to Ursula and said, "OK, what do you need from me?"
"First, your opinion," Ursula replied. "You know your wingmates far better than I do. Should we involve Brigadier Wilcke?"
Erica opened her mouth to reply, but before she could do so, another voice nearly startled both sisters out of their skins, inquiring sweetly from behind them, "Involve me in what?"
It took a little bit of work to get Erica awake and everybody out of the crate, which had been more than a bit cramped for four people, even if three of them had been the proverbial "very friendly" and the fourth hadn't had much of a choice.
Once unpacked, Shizuka Hattori took herself off a short way and reassembled her composure, scarlet with reflexive embarrassment about having spent the last four hours packed in a box like Baltlandic furniture parts with Yeager, Hartmann, and the man called Gryphon. True, he'd been a gentleman about it even under the bizarre circumstances, and true, she could probably have opted out of the mission in the first place, but still - she simply wasn't able to be as nonchalant about these things as the laid-back Liberion and the equally casual Karlsländer yet.
"You OK, kid?" Shirley asked, leaning over Shizuka's shoulder with real concern on her face.
"Um - I'm fine, Captain Yeager, thank you," said Shizuka.
"Pretty rough ride, huh?" Shirley said companionably. Hands on hips, she leaned her upper body back until her lower back cracked with a satisfying sound. "Aaahhh. Yeah, I gotta say, for people with a reputation for being great engineers, the Karlslanders sure built a crappy road to this place," she went on, moving on to shoulder stretches.
"It probably wasn't a very high priority," said Shizuka dryly, doing her best not to take note of the stresses Shirley's stretching exercises were placing on her borrowed Luftwaffe mechanic's shirt. Instead, she busied herself with altering her hairstyle to match the uniform jacket she was wearing, which wasn't her own.
"Yeah, probably not," Shirley agreed. "These pants feel weird," she added, shifting her hips uncomfortably.
"Mine fit all right," said Gryphon, who was dressed in the same type of Luftwaffe enlisted uniform. "Not sure about these shoes, though."
"Back home, we call these clodhoppers," Shirley agreed, raising a foot to examine the clunky, heavy black shoe that went with the outfit. Then, grinning at Shizuka, she said, "Wow, kid, look at you. Sakamoto Mark II, huh, Gryph?"
Gryphon looked, then grinned himself. Dressed in a white Fusō Navy officer's jacket instead of her usual blue NCO's model, with her hair done up in the same style, Shizuka did strongly resemble the elder witch - a resemblance heightened further when she fitted one of Mio's spare eyepatches over her right eye.
"I can't see how this is ever going to work," Shizuka grumbled. "I'm seven years younger than Lt. Col. Sakamoto."
"Yeah, but you look mature for your age, and Mio still looks like a kid," Shirley told her with a wink, clouting her on the shoulder. "'Sides, all black-haired Fusō witches look alike to Karlslanders, ain't that right, Hartmann?"
"That's racist, Captain Yeager," said Ursula mildly.
Next to her, Erica finished buttoning one of her sister's green uniform jackets, tied her black ribbon tie, and then took Ursula's spare spectacles from her top pocket, unfolded them, and put them on.
"Whoa!" she declared, recoiling slightly. "Usch, how strong is your prescription, anyway?"
"Pretty strong," Ursula said.
"I feel like I can see through time," Erica murmured, waving a hand thoughtfully in front of her.
"All right," said Ursula as the others gathered. "Welcome to the Fortress of Mimoyecques. You all know what you have to do. Let's get moving - we don't have a lot of time."
"You all know I've been reassigned to KG 200, right?" Ursula asked the assembled members of the 501st.
At the head of the briefing table, Brigadier Minna-Dietlinde Wilcke nodded. She'd seen the notice in the Karlsland Luftwaffe's internal newspaper (imaginatively entitled Die Luftwaffe) some time ago. Kampfgeschwader 200, despite its name, was not a bomber wing; it was Karlsland's premier experimental flight test squadron, tasked with developing and refining the Reich's most advanced aerial weapons. It was the natural place for someone like Ursula, with her engineering talents, to be assigned, and Minna remembered thinking that the assignment suited the younger Hartmann very well when she'd read about it.
"You're still working on refining the jet Striker, aren't you?" asked Perrine Clostermann. "I remember reading that the Me 262 is in limited production now thanks to your team." Folding her arms, she added, "Not that I'd ever agree to fly one. I saw what the prototype nearly did to Trude. We all did." Across the table, Francesca Lucchini nodded vigorous agreement.
Ursula shook her head. "The 262's development has mostly been handed back to Messerschmitt's own engineers now. I've been tasked with the development of a new weapon - one of the Wunderwaffe the Reich Air Ministry like to brag about."
"Uh... should we be talking about this?" Shirley wondered. "Aren't the Wunderwaffe projects, like, above top secret?"
"Yes," said Ursula matter-of-factly. "The one I'm working on right now, in particular, is so highly classified I've had to work alone. I haven't even been allowed to tell my closest colleague, Captain Schiller, about it."
"Then why -" Trude began, but Ursula held up her hand.
"Please, Major Barkhorn," she said. "This is hard enough without interruptions. Once I've told you what it is, you'll understand - both why it's such a serious crime for me to tell you all about it... and why I have to."
She paused, gathering her thoughts, then took a deep breath and went on, "The project I'm working on now is on the books as another jet Striker development effort, this one under the name of the Heinkel works, though it really has nothing to do with them. On paper, it's the He 162, a lightweight, high-speed ætherjet Striker Unit, intended to be cheaper to produce and easier to operate than the Me 262. The project's code name is Salamander."
Ursula stood looking down at the table for a moment, then raised her head and made eye contact with Minna, saying, "It's really a new attempt to copy Gryphon's rocket pack, in order to create a force of non-magic-using air infantry."
There was a brief but profound silence.
Then: "That's crazy," said Shirley, and everyone started talking at once. "No, no, no," Shirley declared after a few seconds' babel, her voice rising above the clamor and stilling it. "I don't mean Ursula's crazy, I mean the idea's crazy. Never mind the engineering challenges, never mind that nobody's ever gotten a non-magical jet engine anywhere near that small to work - it's a jetpack, by the way, not a rocket -"
"Stick to the point, Shirley," Trude put in.
" - right, sorry - look, I flew his old pack, remember? And it damn near killed me! If not for my magic, it would have. So even if you built a flawless replica, one that worked perfectly - you strap it to a normal man, that man's gonna end up dead. Period. End of story. Even if the engine works non-magically, you can't control something like that without magic. Or whatever it is Gryph has."
Gryphon nodded. "Not with the technology you have available here," he agreed. "The X-15A-2 I had in '43 was damaged - most of the advanced flight controls were destroyed in the process of crossing over, and they were based on technologies your world isn't going to have for... quite a while. I was only able to fly it in that condition because I have a lot of rocketeering experience... and I have the Force." He shook his head. "Without that, or magic, there's no way."
"I know," Ursula said. "I've tried to explain the problem to my superiors several times now, but I've gotten nowhere." Her face grave, she went on, "In the meantime, the prototype has hurt seven people, four of them seriously. Two of its victims have been witches, brought on in hopes that someone could make it work, and even that hasn't convinced the general that the project is a fool's errand."
"So... what do you need from us?" Mio wondered.
"I need you to come and take it away before it kills someone," said Ursula flatly. "I won't have that on my conscience. The near-miss with the Me 262 Captain Clostermann spoke of was close enough for me."
"Won't whoever's in charge just make you build another one?" Yoshika wondered - and in response, to her surprise, Ursula smiled for the first time, if only very slightly.
"Not if we do it right," she said.
They split into two groups. Ursula, Gryphon, and Shizuka went down the hall to an elevator, which Ursula summoned with a key, and went down. Meanwhile, Ursula and Shirley went the other way, from the laboratories up to the complex's main control room.
After what felt like an unusually long time in the elevator, Gryphon inquired, "Are we heading for the center of the Earth?"
"No, the lift is just slow," Ursula replied. "The lowest level is 105 meters below grade."
"Ah," said Gryphon, and he lapsed into silence again.
"At least there isn't any music," Shizuka observed after a few more seconds.
"Mm," Gryphon agreed.
Meanwhile, up on the top level, Ursula and Shirley arrived at the control room to find it empty.
"That's weird, there's no one here," said Shirley.
"The fortress isn't operational yet," Ursula explained. "So there's no watch schedule for the control center."
Shirley grinned and took a screwdriver from her tool belt. "Well, that just makes our lives easier, right?" she said, and started removing the face plate from one of the control panels.
The elevator opened onto a long, featureless concrete corridor, its ceiling bedecked with pipes and industrial light fixtures. Ursula led the way across to an armored door, painted red, with ACHTUNG! KEIN ZUTRITT FÜR UNBEFUGTE emblazoned on it in giant black letters. This yielded to another key, and she pushed it open on its sliding track and beckoned them into the room beyond.
Said room was oblong, with the door at the center of one of the short sides, and like the corridor outside, it was mostly bare, its unfinished walls marked with the horizontal grooves of the planking that had served as forms for the wet concrete. Metal lockers had been installed along one long wall, and a few packing cases and crates lay here and there. Centered on the other long wall was a workbench, its surface and the wall behind it covered in neatly arranged tools.
In the middle of the room, closer to the far end than the door, stood a trestle table, not unlike the one in the corner of the 501st's hangar that served as an impromptu conference room, and on that table a large shape lay covered in a grey Karlsland Army blanket.
"Right," said Ursula. She crossed to the table with Gryphon and Shizuka following curiously behind, took hold of the blanket, and went on, "Here it is," before whipping the fabric away and revealing the item beneath it.
This item appeared to be an open-ended metal cylinder about two feet long, rounded at the ends and slightly tapered, on top of a rectangular box that was the same length, but slightly wider. All this was affixed, by way of a sturdy-looking curved slab of what looked like saddle leather, to a reinforced parachute harness. It was painted mostly red, with an orange stripe around the opening at the front - Shizuka supposed it was the front, anyway, since it was the end the big black arrow painted on the side of the cylinder was pointing toward.
At the sight of it, Gryphon laughed, drawing a curious look from both women. "It looks like a salamander," he said, and as neither appeared any the wiser, he explained, "An outdoor heater. For construction sites and whatnot. They usually burn kerosene. Where I come from, we call them salamanders."
"Ah," said Ursula with a slight smile. "Well, in this case, Salamander is only the codename of the project. The article itself," she went on, placing a proprietary hand on the curved casing of the device, "has its own codename: Hochdruckpumpe."
Gryphon snorted. "'High-pressure pump'," he translated. "Nice. And not even that inaccurate, really." He leaned closer, peering into the tail end of the jetpack, from which a heat-blackened concentric tailpipe protruded a few inches, then walked slowly around to have a look at the grilled intake.
"What does this one burn?" he asked Ursula, still inspecting the device as he spoke.
"Almost anything flammable," Ursula replied, "but it was designed to run on ethyl alcohol."
"Uncertain. It's supposed to be able to fly 300 kilometers between fuel stops."
Gryphon glanced up, impressed. "That's not bad. My old X-15 couldn't do much better than that, and it was... a few generations more advanced."
Ursula blushed, looking away, and mumbled, "We don't really know if it can. Our longest test flight so far has been 112 meters."
"Hmm. Well, we can find out later," he said, straightening up. "Let's get it crated up and get out of -"
"Halt!" a man's voice barked, and the three turned to see a man in the uniform of a Karlsland Army military policeman standing in the doorway, his hand on his slung MP40 submachine gun.
"Uh-oh," Gryphon muttered.
Just after lunch on Saturday, the 501st's clandestine preparations were thrown into disarray by the arrival of an unexpected visitor. While their colleagues hustled to hide various incriminating items (such as Gryphon), a small group of the witches assembled on one of the upper galleries to watch as the ground crew rushed out to take their guest in hand.
"Ew, it's one of those gwaaaa things," said Lucchini, wrinkling her nose in distaste at the sight of the visitor's Me 262 jet Striker. Like the test unit they had seen in Romagna a couple of years before, the one that had just arrived was painted a bright red color, but lacked the orange stripes. It also lacked the square cross that was the modern-day Karlsland's standard insignia for aircraft, sporting instead an older-fashioned version with arms that spread out toward the ends.
Like the Striker's markings, its pilot's clothes were distinctly archaic: she had on a heavy, old-fashioned leather flying jacket with a fur collar, and a soft leather helmet with goggles, its crown slotted to accommodate her grey wolf familiar's ears. As the ground crew set about securing her Striker to a spare launch stage, she methodically pulled off her cavalry gauntlets, stuck them in one of her bulky jacket's several large pockets, then removed her helmet and raked her fingers through short, dark-brown hair.
Once the ground crew had finished securing the Striker, its pilot climbed out, unbuckled her pistol belt, and divested herself of her jacket, draping it over one of the launch stage's handrails. Underneath it, she wore a similarly archaic uniform tunic - green like the modern Karlsland Luftwaffe officer's jacket, but trimmed in red piping and with a high, squared-off collar. The flap of her top left pocket sported the instantly recognizable shape of an Iron Cross First Class, and at her throat, on a black and silver ribbon, she wore another cruciform medal, this one in the shape of a Maltese cross in blue.
It was the last, along with the woman's face - thin, handsome but a bit severe-looking, with a narrow scar running vertically down her left cheek - that tipped off Erica Hartmann; going slightly pale, she said, "Oh crap, Trude, that's Hannelore von Hammer."
Blinking, Trude looked more closely. "You're right. What's she doing here?"
"I have no idea," said Erica.
"Who is it?" Yoshika wondered.
"You've never heard of Hannelore Hellhammer?" asked Erica incredulously. "She's a frickin' legend. The only witch from the First War who's still flying."
Yoshika looked astonished. "The First War?!"
Trude nodded and said, "See that blue medal she's wearing around her neck?" Yoshika took a closer look, squinting slightly, then nodded, and the elder witch went on, "That's the Croix pour le Mérite - despite its Gallic name, it's the medal of an old Prussian order of merit. Before Kaiser Friedrich IV created the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross in '39, the Pour le Mérite was the highest decoration a Karlsländer could earn."
"Von Hammer won hers for shooting down 25 Neuroi, which was basically unheard of," Erica put in. "Before the Miyafuji Engine, killing a flying Neuroi was way harder than it is now."
"Wow," said Yoshika. "If she really fought in the First War, then... she must be over 40!"
Erica nodded. "Yeah, I think she was born around the turn of the century, so she'd be forty-five or -six now."
"How is that even possible?" Lucchini wondered. "Is she like Major Sakamoto?"
Trude shook her head. "I don't know," she said. "Maybe. I don't really understand Mio's explanation of how she got her powers back, but... well, some say Baroness von Hammer has held onto hers by sheer force of will. We've never met, but she's got a pretty fearsome reputation."
"They say back in the First One she challenged her commanding officer to a duel over some point of military protocol and killed him," Erica said dramatically. "She comes from an old Prussian military family. Super-traditional. They used to do stuff like that all the time - that's where the scar on her face came from. And I hear she has no patience for, y'know, personal stuff."
Barkhorn nodded gravely. "She would undoubtedly disapprove of the way we do things around here."
"So... for your own safety... just be cool until she leaves, OK, Miyafuji?" Erica put in.
Yoshika looked a little miffed. "Why are you singling me out?!"
Before Erica could answer, Lucchini's hand shot into the air as if she were a schoolgirl in class. "Ooh! I know!"
Her miffed look deepening, Yoshika folded her arms. "You guys are mean," she said; then, her dudgeon clearing, she pointed and said, "Look, she's coming this way."
Indeed, by this time von Hammer had finished supervising the squaring-away of her Striker, buckled her pistol belt back on, and otherwise composed herself for visiting. Like many traveling air witches, she'd been carrying a spare set of footwear for out-of-Striker use in one of the capacious pockets of her overcoat, and from another she'd produced a battered officer's peaked cap, as archaic as the rest of her outfit, which she had just finished punching more or less into shape and settled on her head. Thus configured, she was now approaching the doors that led from the hangar into the main body of the castle.
"Oh man," said Erica. "I guess we ought to go say hi. It'd look weird if we hid."
Trude rolled her eyes. "Of course we're not going to hide," she said. "Come on, you three." Shooting a sharp glance at the Romagnan, she added, "You behave yourself too, Lucchini."
"I'm not gonna touch her!" Lucchini insisted. "She looks scary."
They went downstairs and met the new arrival in the main corridor as she entered the castle. Up close, Hannelore von Hammer was even more intimidating: not a terribly big woman, but she radiated a palpable energy, a powerful sense of purpose and situational awareness that reminded the younger witches a bit of Mio Sakamoto. She looked younger than she had to be - little, if any, older than Trude, who was all of twenty - but somehow, at the same time, the look in her sharp blue eyes was somehow much older than 45. They swept her surroundings, missing nothing, as if constantly updating an internal map of, well, everything. Even in a pair of soft carpet slippers (evidently her non-flying footwear of choice, which struck her observers as a trifle strange), she looked serious and put-together in that ineffably Karlslandic way.
Yoshika didn't recognize the badge on von Hammer's collar tabs, which presumably indicated her rank, but Trude and Erica were acting as though she outranked them. As she approached, they both came to attention (to Yoshika's slight surprise; she could count the times she'd seen Erica Hartmann at attention on one hand) and saluted crisply.
"Rittmeister von Hammer," said Trude. "Major Gertrud Barkhorn, JG 52, 501st JFW. Welcome to Château Saint-Ulrich."
Von Hammer paused, looking coolly intrigued, and returned the salute. "Thank you, Major," she said. Her voice didn't really go with the rest of her, Yoshika thought; it was kind of... mellow and sweet, a little like Minna's. The kind of voice that would make you feel better, on sort of an instinctive level, if you heard it on the radio in the middle of a fight.
"May I present my wingmates," Trude went on formally, indicating the others. "Dr. Miyafuji Yoshika-chūi of the Imperial Fusō Navy, our flight surgeon. Lt. Francesca Lucchini of the Romagnan Royal Air Force -" (a millisecond look of caution) "- one of our best fighters. And of course, my colleague Captain Erica Hartmann, holder of the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords, and Diamonds."
Von Hammer stood looking from Trude to Erica for a couple of seconds, her face utterly unreadable...
... and then threw back her head and laughed in what Yoshika and the others could only think of as a very Sakamoto-ish way, her mouth open so far as to show all her teeth, face transformed in an instant from a grim, purposeful mask to a much merrier, much prettier countenance.
"Listen to you!" she said, clouting a stunned Trude on the shoulder so as to all but knock her into Erica's arms. "'My colleague Captain Erica Hartmann,'" she intoned mock-solemnly. "If I were you, I'd feel a little bit snubbed by that, Mrs. Barkhorn," she added, giving Erica a grinning wink.
"Uh -" said Erica.
"That's -" said Trude, her face going bright red.
Von Hammer laughed again. "You two should see your faces!" she declared. "Oh, I wish I had my camera." She resumed her course for the interior of the base, hooking one arm over Trude's shoulders and the other over Erica's to drag them both along with her, and went on cheerfully, "Relax, Barkhorns, it's all good as far as I'm concerned. It's like I was telling Fritzchen a while back - you've got to take these things where they find you in wartime. A soldier can't be picky. You know?"
"Um..." Yoshika put hesitantly in as she and Lucchini trotted to keep up. "Who's Fritzchen?"
Von Hammer turned Erica and Trude loose and glanced back over her shoulder at the Fusō witch. "Fritz der Vierte. The Kaiser."
Yoshika blinked. "You call Kaiser Friedrich IV 'Fritzchen'?!"
"That's awesome!" Lucchini declared.
Grinning, von Hammer shrugged. "He was my mechanic back in the First One," she said. "That was back when he was still just Prince Fritz, of course. Good kid, little high-strung, but he could keep it together when it mattered. We've kept in touch."
They arrived at the door to the base commander's office, and von Hammer turned to bow in a very correct and Prussian sort of way to her four unwitting escorts. At that gesture, she became serious, but the undiminished sparkle in her eye kept her from becoming forbidding again, and Yoshika suddenly realized that it was all a game to the elder witch. She was playing on the fearsome reputation engendered by her medals, her age, and her lofty accomplishments, letting her younger colleagues intimidate themselves without her having to do anything, and she clearly got a kick out of it - but more of one out of dropping the pretense and enjoying the shock her true face caused.
Yoshika found herself unable to keep from smiling at the thought, and as von Hammer made eye contact with her, the elder noticed, divined the reason for it, and winked again, making Yoshika blush slightly.
"Well, ladies, thank you for your help," said von Hammer formally. "I won't keep you from your duties any longer. Dismissed!"
Trude was still completely at a loss, saluting more or less by rote while she fumbled silently for something to say, but Erica had completely recovered her aplomb by that point. With a grin, she sprang onto Trude's back, arms around her neck, legs locked around her waist, and grinned over her shoulder at von Hammer.
"Well, c'mon, you heard the lady, Mrs. Hartmann," she said. "Back to work with us."
"Uh... right," said Trude, too flustered to even object to being peremptorily piggybacked in such a cavalier fashion. A bit awkwardly, she bowed, then turned and headed toward the hangar. Just before they turned the corner, Erica looked back and waved gaily.
"They're such cute kids," von Hammer observed, watching them go. Then, turning back, she saw that Lucchini and Yoshika were still standing there gazing at her, the former blankly dumbfounded, the latter with that increasingly sly little smile. "Well, go on," the senior witch declared with a little grin of her own, and made a shooing gesture. "As you were."
"Aye aye, ma'am," said Yoshika, saluting, and then she about-faced smartly and, darting out a hand, dragged Lucchini away by the wrist. With a chuckle, Von Hammer rapped shave-and-a-haircut on General Wilcke's door, and let herself in.
"She's really cool," Lucchini observed, then frown-pouted. "I should've tried her out after all."
"There'll be other chances," said Yoshika philosophically.
Minna looked up at the rhythmic rap on her door, wondering who it could be. Shirley might knock like that, but then again Shirley didn't generally bother knocking at all. A moment later, the door opened and she had her answer.
"Baroness von Hammer," she said, sounding faintly surprised, and put down her quill as she rose to her feet. "I wasn't expecting you. Welcome to Château St-Ulrich."
"Good to see you again, Brigadier Wilcke," said von Hammer, giving her nominal superior a proper salute. "Sorry to barge in unannounced, but under the circumstances, I thought it best to stop by in person."
"Not at all," said Minna, coming out from behind her desk. With a gesture toward the little grouping of table and chairs off in one corner of the office, she said, "Won't you sit down? Would you care for something to drink?"
"Nothing hard, alas, I'm flying back to Juvincourt tonight," said von Hammer. She took one of the chairs and waited while Minna got a couple of glass bottles out of a refrigerator in the corner, then handed her one and sat down opposite.
"... What's this?" the elder witch wondered, turning the curiously-shaped bottle over in her hands. It had what looked like East Asian writing on it, and a picture that appeared to depict some sort of fruit, but it was not immediately obvious what it was or how to open it.
"It's called Ramune," Minna explained. "It's a soft drink from Fusō. Mio - Lieutenant Colonel Sakamoto has a source of it someplace in the supply chain. I've never asked for details."
"Ah, still 'Lieutenant Colonel Sakamoto', is it?" von Hammer asked, tilting her head. "Hnh. Fusō witches, ja? I've worked with a few myself. Good girls, generally, but you've got to beat them with a stick to get them to commit to anything."
Minna reddened, then covered her embarrassment by demonstrating how to open the bottle, smacking the plunger atop it with the palm of her hand so that the marble sealing the top would be driven down into the neck.
Von Hammer followed suit, took a drink, and then regarded the bottle thoughtfully, remarking, "That's not bad. Anyway, Minna, I didn't come here to harass you, that was only a side benefit. I actually came to let you know in person what I found out. Your informant was right on. There is, indeed, something strange going on in the Pas-de-Calais - and knowing who's in command of the operation, I'm not surprised."
Minna arched an eyebrow. "Oh?"
Taking another swig of her Ramune, von Hammer put the bottle down on the table (the marble clinking merrily within the neck). "Hartmann Minor's CO needs to be more careful about who she lends her talent to. The man at the top of Projekt Salamander is Generalleutnant Wilhelm von Reichenberg."
"I don't believe I know him," Minna said, looking intrigued.
"Lucky you," said von Hammer dryly. "I, on the other hand, know him far better than I want to. Back in War One, he was Major von Reichenberg. A cavalry officer-turned-aviator, like me. He was the last male commander of JG 1."
Minna nodded, comprehension coming onto her face. "When it was just becoming obvious that men in regular airplanes and Striker-equipped witches shouldn't be given the same missions."
"Exactly," said von Hammer. "Reichenberg... didn't adapt well to that development. In fact, he was one of the loudest voices behind the so-called 'Alternativist' movement. He coined their catchphrase. You may have heard it."
Minna's face bore a look of distaste as she said, "'Küchenhexen, nicht Kämpfenhexen.'"
"Mm-hmm," said von Hammer, taking another swig of her Ramune. "A youngster like you may find it hard to believe that kind of thinking was in the mainstream a mere 30 years ago, but I assure you it was. The Alternativists nearly convinced Fritzchen's father to make it national policy, before the second slaughter at Ypres made it obvious even to a stubborn old goat like Wilhelm that the war would be lost without us."
Her blue eyes focused miles away, she sat back and went on, "When the order came down reassigning Reichenberg to one of the new 'conventional' squadrons and naming me as his replacement, it... didn't sit well. He said I wasn't fit to command and challenged me to a duel. When I told him that wasn't proper grounds for dueling and refused him, he called me a coward."
Despite her obvious lack of amusement, Minna couldn't suppress a cold little smile as she said, "Which was."
"Quite," von Hammer agreed with a matching micro-smile. "We went up at dawn. All highly unauthorized, of course, we could both have been shot for it, but - the impetuosity of youth, eh? I shot him down. He still walks with a limp. He claimed it was a training accident, but... well, word got out."
With a nod, Minna said, "I had heard the story - that you fought a duel of honor against your commanding officer once - but in the version I heard, you killed him."
Von Hammer chuckled darkly. "Hardly. That would have been difficult to gloss over, even in those wilder days." She sighed. "I haven't seen or spoken with him since, but I hear word of him now and then, and what I hear is never encouraging. A real gentleman would have accepted that the matter was settled with his defeat, but... I fear he's never forgiven me, or witchkind in general, for eclipsing his precious 'knights of the air' back then. Which makes it all the more worrisome that he's responsible for whatever is going on over there."
Leaning forward, she put her elbows on her knees and looked Minna in the face, continuing, "Which brings us to the real meat of the matter, and I'm sorry to say that there isn't much of it. I know where the project's headquarters is - its official name is 'Fortress Mimoyecques', but the men of the 19th Construction Brigade, who built it, call it 'Reichenberg's Farm' - and I was able to get hold of a rough plan of the place." She partly unbuttoned her tunic, withdrew a folded sheaf of documents from within it, and put it on the table.
"As for what they're actually doing in there... well, I can only guess, but knowing General Reichenberg as I do, none of my guesses are good," she went on. "I can tell you this much: It's a much more elaborate facility than Hartmann's project alone calls for. Reichenberg clearly has bigger plans for his farm than just research into alternative air infantry technologies."
Minna chewed thoughtfully at the edge of her thumbnail for a moment, then finished her soda to buy herself a little more time before saying, "Thank you. I can't say this is good news... but it's information worth having."
Von Hammer nodded. "Happy to help," she said. She polished off the last of her own Ramune and put the bottle next to Minna's. "What the heck fruit is that, anyway? It's tasty, but I can't place it."
Minna looked at the label. "It's an Asian fruit called a 'lychee'," she said. "We get canned ones in from Fusō sometimes. Mio's fond of them."
"Mm. Well, I can see why," said von Hammer. She got to her feet. "Anyway. Shall we go and pretend I came for the Sechser tour of your base, Brigadier Wilcke? I understand you have a lovely bath facility here, which I'm eager to investigate further."
"By all means," said Minna, rising.
"Before we go," von Hammer said, her face going serious again. "Be very careful, Minna. Don't underestimate Reichenberg. He's an unreconstructed troglodyte and a buffoon - but he believes very strongly in his buffoonery, and that makes him dangerous."
Minna nodded. "I understand," she said. "We'll be wary."
It took Minna about an hour to give von Hammer the tour, during which time the elder witch pretended very convincingly not to notice any of the suddenly halted conversations, unseemly scrambles to conceal documents, and hastily closed doors that happened while she was being shown around.
Afterward, she and the brigadier retired to the hot spring, where several of the 501st's other members were lurking around the periphery and trying to pretend they weren't eavesdropping.
"Oh, here's something you might find interesting," said von Hammer suddenly. "You didn't hear this from me, you understand, but it so happens that - at long last - His Majesty the Kaiser has deigned to visit the front. He'll be arriving in Calais next week. As I'm coordinating his escort once he arrives, I expect I'll be keeping most of the Luftwaffe fairly busy for a few days." Leaning back with her hands behind her head, she smiled abstractly at the ceiling and went on, "I do hope no one gets up to anything... underhanded while all that's going on."
"That would be terrible," Minna agreed.
(On the other side of the spring, Yoshika noticed Lucchini's mischievous, covetous expression - and instinctively cupped hands - and said quietly, "Not now. General Minna would kill you." With a wink, she added sagely, "Patience, my young apprentice."
"You two are awful," Lynne grumbled.
"What, just because we're patrons of the arts?" Lucchini wanted to know.)
"Well, I could happily lounge around here all afternoon, but I'm sure you and your people have things to do, Brigadier," said von Hammer abruptly, rising.
Once again she played her role magnificently, somehow contriving not to notice the entourage she'd gathered as, dried off and dressed, she made her way back to the hangar and started climbing back into her full flying kit.
Having donned jacket, helmet, heavy leather gauntlets, and Striker, von Hammer drew herself up and saluted Minna smartly. "Thank you for your hospitality, Brigadier. Tell Sakamoto I'm sorry I missed her - I have a message for her from Adolfine Galland, but it'll keep."
Minna returned the salute with a wry little smile of her own and replied, "Have a safe flight back, Hannelore."
"Heh, the only dangerous thing between here and Juvincourt is that rookie training area south of Reims," said von Hammer. "Watch yourself, Minna. I'll be in touch."
She forestalled any further conversation by firing up her jet Striker, its rising scream drowning out all other sounds in the vicinity. Then, with a nod for the other 501st witches who had gathered to see her off, she opened her borrowed launch stage's retention clamps and shot away, vanishing into the blue afternoon sky in moments.
"Well," said Shirley once she could hear again, "I guess we got away with it."
"Only because she let us," Erica put in.
"Does this mean I'm not allowed to hope she comes back?" Lucchini wondered.
"Thank you, Corporal, everything's under control here," said Ursula calmly.
"Captain Hartmann," said the Feldgendarme, nodding. For a moment, he seemed like he might turn around and leave, but then he noticed Shizuka and stiffened. "This is a restricted area," he said. "Foreign personnel are strictly forbidden." Unslinging his MP40, he raised it and went on, "You'll all have to come with me."
Out of sheer habit as much as anything else, Gryphon was gauging the distances between himself, the guard, and that really-enticing-looking wrench hanging on the wall a few feet away, but before he had to do anything, Shizuka barged past Ursula as if she owned the place and got right up in the guard's grill, sublimely indifferent to the fact that he was pointing a gun at her.
"And just who in the Walled City of Kowloon are you to say that Projekt Salamander's new test pilot can't inspect the prototype?" she demanded. "Are you so clueless as to be unaware that flight testing is being handed over to me now that Karlsland's own test pilots have failed so miserably to get any results?"
The guard blinked, startled out of making-an-arrest mode by the sheer, ferocious presence of the Fusōnese witch. She was several inches the shorter of the two, but she seemed somehow to tower over him, fists on swimsuited hips, her one visible eye boring into his with an almost palpable intensity.
"What?" he said. "That's - I've been told nothing about -"
Leaning forward until her chin nearly touched his chest, Shizuka barked up into his face, "What is your major malfunction, dogface? I just told you. What's your name? I want to make sure I spell it right when I put you on report for this idiocy."
"What the heck is goin' on down there?" Shirley wondered, scratching her head, as the scene played silently out in fuzzy black-and-white on one of the security monitors.
"I don't know, but I think we'd better hurry up," Ursula replied, stepping up the pace of her work inside one of the control panels.
Stammering apologies, the MP beat a hasty retreat, almost stumbling over his own feet as he backed out of the equipment room before the wrath of the witch from Fusō. Shizuka stared him down all the way out of the room, leaving it to him to be the one to break eye contact as he turned and headed off down the hall...
... then sagged with relief, her knees going weak, and put out a hand to support herself on the table.
"Wow," said Gryphon, moving to help steady her. "That was pretty good."
"Colonel Sakamoto could hardly have done it better herself," Ursula agreed.
"Uh... thanks," said Shizuka hesitantly, her cheeks flushing red.
"That probably won't hold him for long, though," Gryphon said.
Ursula nodded. "It won't take him much time to check the notice board and determine that there's nothing on it about a new test pilot from Fusō. We had best make haste."
"Right," said Shizuka, pulling herself together. She turned and started helping Gryphon lift the prototype off the table while Ursula dragged over one of the packing crates.
"There," said Ursula, closing the access panel beneath the control board she'd been working on. She straightened up, wiping sweat from her forehead with the back of an arm, then said, "It's all ready to go. You'd better cut the television link to the equipment room."
"Right," Shirley said, but before her wire cutters reached the appropriate cable, a flurry of movement on the last of the live monitors caught her eye. Looking up, she saw a small horde of security officers swarm into the equipment room, their SMGs at the ready -
- and before she could call Ursula's attention to it, a bunch more had kicked down the door and piled into the control room.
"Well, crap," said Shirley.
Ursula reacted first; stepping to the end of the table, between the guards and her colleagues, she spread her arms in the international "none shall pass" gesture. Her body glowed as she released her magical power, and a brushy grey-black tail fell from the hem of her uniform jacket to swish gently back and forth behind her. Gryphon noticed with detached interest that, like Erica, she didn't manifest actual animal ears like the other witches of his acquaintance; instead, the trailing ends of her blonde hair turned black at the tips of the slightly longer locks she wore on either side of her head.
Before the guards, led by the one Shizuka had chased out a little while ago, could even issue a verbal challenge, Ursula had activated her magic shield, spreading the glowing rune circle into a wall that divided the room in two.
"You two get out of here," she said over her shoulder. Then, facing front, she tilted her head so that the overhead lights glinted from her glasses and added with just a hint of a cruel little smile, "I'll handle this."
Gryphon and Shizuka blinked at each other, then shrugged and started making it up as they went along. Without discussing the matter aloud, she helped him clamber into the jetpack's harness and fasten it up. He grabbed a goggled Fallschirmjäger helmet from a shelf in one of the lockers off to the side and strapped it onto his head, then went to the door at the far end of the room and banged the big red switch next to it.
It opened to reveal not another corridor, but, as he had been expecting, an inclined shaft stretching up and away - at a 50° angle, if he recalled correctly. Far away at the top, a tiny rectangle of blue appeared as the hatch up at ground level slid open.
Shizuka stepped up next to him and leaned forward, looking up at the distant hatch. "You're not serious," she said.
Gryphon plopped a second paratrooper helmet on her head, then yanked a long, heavy canvas-web packing strap from around one of the loose crates and asked, "Would you rather stay and help Ursula handle them?"
Shizuka looked like she might've been considering it, but at that point the MPs opened fire. That was an exercise in futility - Ursula's shield, like any fully operational fighting witch's, was proof against artillery, much less even massed submachine gun fire - but it demonstrated their intent clearly enough.
"Right," she said, and helped him improvise a sort of tandem-skydiving harness for her out of the packing strap. Thus affixed, and with one of his arms around her middle for added security, they lurched into the launch shaft, and Gryphon hit the inner switch to close the door behind them.
"I hope to Christ this works!" Gryphon muttered, and then, placing his other arm around Shizuka as well, he thumbed the activators.
"What are you men doing?" Ursula demanded, as severely as anyone present had ever seen her. Hands on hips, blue eyes flashing behind her glasses, she went on, "The intruders are in the equipment room, not here."
"Captain Hartmann?!" the Feldgendarmerie lieutenant in the lead blurted, looking confused. "But we have reports that you're -"
"Sir, look," said the corporal standing next to him. He nodded toward the one working monitor, on which - a bit blurry, but clearly recognizable - Ursula was currently holding off a crowd of their colleagues with her magic shield.
"What in the world?" the lieutenant mumbled. Then, pulling himself back to the here and now, he tightened his grip on his MP40 and said, "Until we can figure out what's going on, ma'am, it's best if we detain everyone. Please come with us. You too, Private," he added to Shirley.
The buxom redhead took off her mechanic's cap, shook out her hair, and gave him an insouciant smirk. "Yeah, I don't think so," she said, and banged a hand down on the big red plunger switch in the middle of the panel Ursula had just finished rewiring. Pandemonium erupted throughout the Fortress of Mimoyecques as every alarm in the facility - including blatantly contradictory ones, like the fire and flooding alarms in the lower galleries - went off at once.
At that same moment, as the tips of her hair turned dark brown and a matching dog's tail sprouted from the base of her spine, Erica Hartmann took off her sister's glasses. With a fierce grin, she tossed the glasses to Shirley with one hand and presented the open palm of the other to the guards, then spoke a single word:
Shizuka Hattori had never flown one of the jet-powered Striker Units; they were still considered dangerous, reserved only for the very most experienced pilots, which she definitely was not. She remembered something Gertrud Barkhorn had said once about the Me 262 prototype, though. The thing had damn near killed her - one of the reasons why it still wasn't in widespread service - but Major Barkhorn still spoke of it with a sort of wary, qualified fondness, and one of the things she'd said about it more than once was that flying it felt like being pushed by angels.
The Hochdruckpumpe was more like being kicked in the ass by angels, but Shizuka kind of thought she understood what the major meant now.
Even weighed down by two people (albeit one of them was rather small), the He 162 climbed like nothing Shizuka had ever experienced before. Not even the Shiden-kai Striker Unit, one of the champion climbers among the reciprocating Strikers, could reach for the sky like this thing did. They came out of that angled launch shaft like a shell from a railway gun, blasting into the sky on a tongue of blue flame and the most remarkable whistling roar, and before she even fully registered what was going on, they were above the scattered middling-high clouds.
For just a second, Shizuka's heart bounded within her, not only because this was the most exhilarating flying experience she had ever had, but also because - complications for the rest of the team notwithstanding - it looked like they might just get away with it...
... and then, with a sputtering cough and a bang, the jet flamed out.
"Hmm," said Gryphon, sounding no more excited than he would have at discovering that his car wouldn't start, and they coasted to an apogee, then started to fall.
Gryphon thumbed the igniter controls again, but this time, instead of the roar and shriek of the jet engine (which had all but deafened Shizuka momentarily as it reverberated in the enclosed space of the launch tunnel), this action produced only a hollow, unhelpful-sounding snap snap snap snap noise from somewhere inside the machine.
Her mind racing, Shizuka tried to estimate the distance to the patchwork of green fields and tan roads that lay spread out below them. They hadn't quite reached what would've been cruising altitude for a Striker yet, but... say 20,000 feet? A respectable altitude, high enough that she'd have been having trouble breathing if not for her magic, which (she suddenly realized) had manifested involuntarily during the launch. She wondered idly how he was managing.
At that moment, something that she'd heard the year before wandered through her mind unbidden. It was in her first month at the Naval Academy, when she was still in basic flight training. A famous test pilot for the Imperial Army, Major Ayaka Kuroe, had come to speak to her cadet company about the various foreign-built Strikers they were likely to encounter in the field, and how they'd have to adjust their tactics to work with the people who flew them most efficiently. At the end, when she'd asked if there were any questions, one of Shizuka's classmates had asked,
"Is it scary being a test pilot? It seems like a dangerous job."
Major Kuroe nodded. "It can be dangerous, that's true. We're working with experimental aircraft, after all. Sometimes things go wrong. To be a successful test pilot, though, you have to be able to focus past that and concentrate on the job. When things go wrong, you don't have time to be afraid. You're too busy trying to figure out what went wrong and how you can fix it."
Then, her face suddenly lighting up with a wry grin, the major added, "A test pilot doesn't think, 'I'm gonna be dead in ten seconds.' A test pilot thinks, 'Hell, I got ten whole seconds!'"
Well, thought Shizuka, I guess I'm a test pilot now.
When she spoke aloud, she had to shout to be heard over the roar of the wind passing by them, but sounded otherwise quite calm as she asked Gryphon,
"So... now what?"
"I'm thinking," he replied.
Shizuka considered this response for a moment, watching one of the small clouds go by as they fell past it.
"Well, think faster," she said with just a hint of urgency.
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Flying Yak Studios
and Bacon Comics Group
in association with
The International Police Organization
and Avalon Broadcasting System
Undocumented Features Future Imperfect
Lensmen: The Brave and the Bold
Our Witches at War
"Diebstahl eines Raketenrucksack!"
written and directed by
Benjamin D. Hutchins
The EPU Usual Suspects
Based on characters from Strike Witches
created by Humikane Shimada
Bacon Comics chief
E P U (colour) 2015