Avalon County Entertainment System
Channel Select: Avalon Broadcasting System (Channel 17)
Heidemarie W. Schnaufer had always enjoyed nights like this one.
Though the romantic image most laypeople had of Night Witches usually involved a full moon - and Heidemarie was fond of those as well - the night sky in the time of the new moon had its own unique majesty. Tonight, for instance, the sky over southern Alsace was perfectly clear, but with no moon, the stars were especially numerous and intense. Cruising along under a sky like that, bathed in the faint light of the universe itself, Heidemarie's sense of herself as an almost otherworldly creature was near its peak.
She'd always felt that way, to one extent or another. Her magical gifts had set her apart from other children - even other witches - from a very young age, and as a Night Witch she had borne that sense of isolation into adolescence and onto the verge of young adulthood. She knew all the nicknames the others had for her - most of them complimentary, even vaguely overawed, but all of them emphasizing still further her sense of otherness. The Phantom. The Spook of St. Trond. The Vampire.
In a way, she reflected as she arrived at the southwestern corner of her patrol area, finding herself with the 501st Joint Fighter Wing had brought her a new and unexpected problem. In them, she had something she'd never really had before in her life - contemporaries who were her friends, not just her colleagues. Which was very nice... but without them, she had never felt lonely (or, at least, lonelier than usual) on even the longest, most isolated night patrol, and now she found she rather did.
She sighed, shaking herself slightly, and turned east to make the southern leg of her patrol. She was just thinking of seeing whether any of the other Night Witches in the sky tonight felt like chatting when someone signaled her instead:
"Gryphon to Phantom, are you receiving?"
"Phantom here," she replied, her voice sounding unnaturally loud in her head after the stillness of the night. "You're up late."
"Testing some new equipment," the 501st's semi-official warlock said. His voice had the slight metallic flatness imparted by a throat mic, and Heidemarie wondered why he was using such an antiquated bit of gear. "Do you mind a little company?"
"Not at all," she said, and supplied him with a vector to her position.
A short while later, he arrived, the exhaust of his He 162 V2 jetpack glowing blue in the night. Heidemarie, watching him approach, noticed that his eyes also seemed to be glowing, two points of dull green light. Her own eyes, magically adapted to the starlight, made out the reason for it as he drew nearer: He appeared to be wearing a complicated-looking pair of goggles affixed to a padded cloth helmet of some kind, with some bulky object at the back of his head as though for balance. The headgear explained why he was using a throat mic, she realized; it seemed to have earphones built into it, which would preclude the use of a standard-issue commbud.
"What in the world are you wearing?" she wondered.
"It's a night vision device," Gryphon replied, falling into formation with her as she resumed course on her eastward patrol leg. "Orussian. Their tank witches use them, apparently. Lynne's little sister knows a few of them - she scrounged it up and sent it down to see if I could get any use out of it."
"Ah, right, she wanted to be a tank witch, didn't she?" Heidemarie observed. "It looks heavy."
"It is heavy," said Gryphon, though he sounded oddly cheerful about it. Indicating the blocky object at the back of the headgear, he added, "The battery pack, in particular." He turned his head, scanning the airspace in front of him. "Field of view's not amazing, either. I'm not sure it's really practical for aviation applications. Still, the 511th was nice enough to send it down, so I figured I would try it out."
"Mm," said Heidemarie, and they fell silent again.
They stayed that way, apart from the drone of her props and the faint, whistling hiss of his jetpack, for the whole of the eastward leg of her patrol. Over Mulhouse, they turned left and headed north along the Rhine, with the dark expanse of the Schwarzwald off to their right.
"We should be able to see the lights of Freiburg from here," Heidemarie mused aloud, as if to herself. "It's so sad."
"Mm," Gryphon agreed.
They made their way northward; presently, Heidemarie began to hum under her breath, like a person whistling past a graveyard. Her voice was so low that it took Gryphon a few moments to make out what the tune was. When he finally did, he smiled privately and waited for her to reach the end of the verse, then started singing along with the chorus.
Heidemarie blinked, stopping momentarily; she hadn't realized she was humming aloud, and she was briefly startled that Gryphon knew "Die Wacht am Rhein" - in Karlsländisch, no less. She glanced over and saw him smiling at her below those weird Orussian goggles. Then, chuckling almost in spite of herself, she picked up the next verse with him, and they sang their way quietly north along the Rhine.
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
Gryphon parted from Heidemarie when the Night Witch's patrol route passed by the castle again. Landing outside the partly-open hangar doors, he made his way to FUEL STORAGE, taking care to switch off his Orussian NVGs before turning on the light. That done, he gratefully pulled off the heavy helmet and placed it in its case, which lay open on his workbench, then set about taking off his jetpack.
After squaring away his gear, he shut off the light and left the workshop, making his way across the hangar by the dim glow of the Striker stage status lights. (Three red tonight; Eila, it seemed, had arranged to accompany Sanya, as she sometimes did. Which was why Gryphon had headed south on his test flight in the first place, as he'd figured Heidemarie would need the company more.) The corridors were dark and quiet; it was past 3 AM and everyone not out on patrol was asleep, apart from him.
I had forgotten how pleasant night patrol can be on a nice night, he remarked to himself as he climbed the stairs to the barracks wing. I should see about tagging along for a full patrol sometime soon. Yawning, he ruefully appended the thought, After adjusting my schedule a bit. I haven't been up this late in a while.
The barracks wing was as quiet as the rest of the castle, confirming his suspicion that everyone with any sense was snugly tucked up in bed. Gryphon found his own bed empty. Slightly puzzled, he consulted his Lens. The only other Lensman in this era at the moment was Wolfgang, whom he would have expected to find here, but a quick check disclosed that the Lenshound was in no distress. He appeared to have found his way across the hall to 3 West (Miyafuji/Bishop), where he required no assistance of any kind.
Amused, Gryphon undressed, switched off the light, and climbed into bed. He ought to have figured, he supposed, that a beagle as resourceful as Wolfgang would never have to spend an evening alone.
Since his return to the 501st, it had become Gryphon's favorite game: Who's stopped by in the night? Erica Hartmann hadn't followed through on her threat to post a signup sheet on his door - yet - but it hadn't escaped his notice that he woke up on about one morning in three to find that at least one of the witches had wandered in sometime during the night.
He hadn't expected to find himself with company on this particular morning, if for no other reason than because most everyone was on duty at this hour. As such, he couldn't work out at first who his company was. He could've looked, of course, but he felt that somehow it wouldn't have been sporting. Whoever it was had climbed into bed behind him and snuggled up to his back, which didn't narrow the field very much. He lay quietly and listened for a while, but that told him little other than that his visitor was breathing, which he could have worked out from other sources of information.
Having gotten nowhere with passive sensors, he was just about to give up and have a look when the person behind him shifted, murmured, and - without further warning - suddenly seized him with all four limbs, twining around him in a startlingly intimate fashion.
"Oh 'ello," Gryphon declared. He waited for some sort of comment, but none was forthcoming, and after a few seconds he realized that his embracer was not in fact awake. This gave him the beginnings of an idea who it might be, but also precluded him from finding out for certain without quite rudely waking her.
"Hmm," he said.
A short distance to the north of the castle, Shirley Yeager and Francesca Lucchini were heading home at the end of an uneventful patrol.
A short distance behind Shirley, Lucchini was loafing along, her mind wandering. She was very much looking forward to her lunch and a nap, in that order, and she happened at that moment to be thinking of Ursula Hartmann's car. She wasn't really a car girl, as such, but the big Mercedes had very comfortable seats (and they smelled nice), so it had quickly become one of her favorite spots in the hangar to sleep. Luckily, Ursula didn't mind if she did. She was quite generous with the car's time, in fact, and had let both Shirley and Gryphon borrow it to go for drives in the countryside - drives which Lucchini often tagged along on.
Yawning, she performed a quick aileron roll, just to keep herself occupied. They were passing over an abandoned farm that had never been reoccupied after the Neuroi had gone, the ramshackle barn of which was a landmark of sorts for the northern approach to the castle. In the months they'd been posted to Saint-Ulrich, Lucchini had often noticed it, standing in the middle of an overgrown field. Over the winter, the gaps in its roof had widened as the structure edged ever closer to collapse.
Now, as they passed over it, her eye caught the twinkle of something shiny within, revealed by one of those widening gaps in the roof. Struck by sudden curiosity, she peeled off and headed back to get a closer look.
"Hey!" said Shirley, surprised by her wingman's sudden maneuver. "What's up, Lucchini?"
"I think there's something in that old barn!" Lucchini replied. "Could be interesting. Let's check it out!"
Well, thought Gryphon philosophically, at least now I'll be able to see who it is.
The thought had been occasioned because he'd gone back to sleep, only to be jolted awake a few minutes later as his unknown visitor abruptly (and rather roughly) rolled (not to say hurled) him onto his back, then climbed on top of him in a manner that was sort of half hug, half wrestling pin. By the time he'd fully worked out what was going on, the maneuver was over, and the individual responsible had gone fully back to sleep, inasmuch as she'd been awake in the first place.
Raising his head, he was mildly surprised to see that his "guest" was, in fact, not a member of the 501st at all - but neither was she a complete stranger, and suddenly the peculiar assertiveness of her sleeping style made sense. The only 501st witch who got as grabby as that in her sleep was Trude Barkhorn (who would vehemently insist that she did no such thing, if called out about it while awake), and he had thought it was unlikely that she'd be catching a random nap in the middle of the day, regardless of whose room it was in.
This should be interesting, he mused, composing himself with hands behind head to wait.
Ursula was in the hangar, working on the He 162 prototype (the Striker Unit, not the jetpack - she was, she decided, really going to have to do something about that nomenclature soon), when Shirley and Lucchini got in from their patrol. She was expecting them to head for the messhall as soon as they finished storing their Striker Units. Instead, seeming quite excited about something, they headed across the hangar to the squadron's "liberated" Luftwaffe truck.
"C'mon, Shirley, hurry up!" Lucchini said, all but running in a circle around the Liberion.
"Ha ha, calm down, you nut," Shirley said cheerfully. She snagged the diminutive Romagnan in a playful headlock as she went past, adding, "It's not like it's going anywhere."
"Where are you two headed in such a rush?" Ursula wondered.
"We found something!" Lucchini declared, striking a dramatic pose. "Or rather, I found something. Something amazing!"
"Hey, you want to give us a hand getting it back here?" Shirley asked.
"I suppose," Ursula agreed, placing the tool she'd been using neatly in its place on her work table. As she crossed to join them, wiping her hands on a rag, she asked, "What is it?"
"You'll see!" Shirley replied with a grin, opening the door of the truck.
Gryphon wasn't entirely sure how long he'd been lying there, bemusedly considering the sleeping face of his visitor, when she finally stirred, blinked awake, and saw that he wasn't asleep.
"Oh hey," she said. "Hiya." Then, taking stock of their current position, she added wryly, "Did it again, didn't I."
"Mm-hmm," Gryphon agreed.
"I'm just a menace to society, I guess," she said, then sat up, yawned, stretched, cricked her back, and grinned down at him. "But I don't get many complaints!"
"I'm sure," Gryphon replied dryly. Now that he was no longer pinned, he got out of bed and put on his dressing gown over his pajamas, then went and opened the curtains. Lovely day in progress outside: check. Glancing down, he noticed that the window was slightly ajar, the brickwork outside mildly scuffed.
"Did you come in through this window?" he inquired of his visitor.
"'Course I did," she replied, unconcerned, as she got up and padded across the rug to join him there.
"Hmh," he said noncommittally. Turning from the view, he had a closer look at her instead.
Wilma Bishop looked just like she had when he'd last seen her, in the summer of 1944. Same long sandy hair and big blue-grey eyes, same plain white shirt and bow-front pants, same stripey tights in two different shades of red, one of which matched the narrow scarf she had knotted around her neck like a tie. Her battered brown leather flying jacket and shapeless NCO cap were hanging on his desk chair, next to which her low boots stood, one upright, the other fallen over on its side. Standing in the sunbeam by the window with him, she smiled her mischievous smile, and Gryphon was suddenly struck by how much her younger sister Lynette, whom he'd only much more recently met, resembled her - albeit Lynne was a rather less worldly version of the same model.
"It's not like I'm authorized to be in this place," Wilma went on, winking.
Gryphon nodded. "I heard you were out of the game."
"Yeah, I retired... oh, 'bout a year and a half ago, right after the 501st knocked the Neuroi out of Gallia," Wilma replied casually. Then - without really changing her offhandedly cheerful tone of voice at all, save to lace it with a sharply ironic little edge, she went on, "Well, I say retired, more like the Air Force threw me away like a worn-out boot. Magic drying up, thanks for your service, here's a pension, why don't you go get started on the next wave? Basically all you're good for now."
Gryphon didn't reply; his views on what became of witches when their powers failed them were well known to her, and indeed all the witches who knew him well enough to climb through his bedroom window at night (which, upon reflection, was a peculiarly long list). He just nodded and let her talk, which she proceeded to do:
"The thing is, I heard the same thing happened to Sakamoto at around the same time, and she didn't let 'em make her quit. Not as long as she could still fly. Then word was it looked like she'd lose even that pretty soon. And then, all of a sudden, she was back. Better than ever. Now it's a year later and she's still going strong."
Wilma paced away from him, stopping by his bookcase, and ran her hand idly down the spines of the books on one shelf. "There were a lot of stories, a lot of theories about how she did it. That it was some weird Fusō thing. That she cut a deal with some kinda dark power. Maybe even the enemy."
Turning back to face him, she continued, "I didn't buy that one, but I did remember you. And that... thing you do. And then I heard from my little sis that you were back, and it all sort of... fell into place." She walked back toward him, her eyes intent on his, and asked him straight up, "Was it you? Can you do it? Do you have some way of bringing us back?"
When he didn't reply, she gestured vaguely to the window and the world beyond and said, "Because I'm not ready to be a has-been. I've heard all the platitudes, the patronizing little speeches - everything happens for a reason, the fates have a plan, I should enjoy my well-earned rest. Like the universe did me a favor by taking away the thing I loved most just when I was getting really good at it. Screw that."
Stalking across the remaining gap between them, still fixed on Gryphon's eyes, Wilma declared, "I'm not just gonna lie back and think of Farawayland. I want back into this thing."
Gryphon regarded her for a moment, then said, "Well... hmm. On the one hand, you're right. I did help Mio get her groove back."
"I knew it," Wilma said, but Gryphon held up a hand to forestall her, then went on,
"The thing is, the method... may not work for everyone. I'm willing to give it a shot if you are," he added before she could protest. "I'm just telling you up front, it may not work, and it'll probably take some time for us to even figure out the approach we take."
Wilma smiled, regaining some of her usual good humor, and said, "Well, hey, you know me. I'm always up for improvising."
Gryphon chuckled. "I seem to recall," he said. Then, grinning, he went on, "Can I get a hug now that you're not molesting me in my sleep?"
"Ahh, you love it," she said dismissively, coming to his arms.
Gryphon grabbed a quick shower and got dressed, and then he and Wilma went looking for someone who could make her presence in the castle at least as authorized as his was. He supposed he could probably do that himself, now that he was officially on the books as deputy commander of 404 Squadron, but he preferred to keep his name out of the paperwork as much as possible; it was entirely possible that there were still persons at Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force who weren't in the loop as to his new, Karlsland Kaiser-decreed legal status, and wouldn't be best pleased to discover in such an oblique fashion that the rumors of a man working with the 501st were true.
Another thing Minna, Mio, and I will have to deal with sometime or another, he mused ruefully as he checked the latter witch's office and found that - not entirely to his surprise - she wasn't in. Since her promotion to full colonel and elevation to command of the 501st, Mio was to be found in her office more often than when she was the squadron's second-in-command, but she still wasn't there as much as Minna had been when she commanded the outfit.
As for the former wing commander, now general in charge of the newly constituted air fleet to which it belonged, a quick check with Gryphon's fellow Lensman disclosed that she was quite busy enough without him stopping by to give her a random personnel problem. He could talk to her about it later; dinnertime would be soon enough.
Lacking any better ideas, they went down to the hangar to see if Mio might be hanging around down there. She wasn't, but her Striker was gone, as were several of the others. Afternoon patrol, evidently.
Which was not to say that the hangar was empty; over in one corner, they could hear voices around the back of the squadron's Opel Blitz truck, where it sounded like a few people were in the process of unloading something large and unwieldy. Before they could go and investigate, the operation apparently concluded, and a moment later Shirley, Lucchini, and Ursula came around the truck, dusting themselves off and looking pleased with themselves.
"Oh hey, Gryph, you're up!" Shirley said cheerfully. "We got you a present." Noticing the figure standing next to him, she grinned more broadly and added, "Hiya, Wilma! Long time no see. What brings you to this old pile? Lynne's out on patrol if you're lookin' for her."
"Hey, Shirley," Wilma replied. "I was actually looking for this guy, but he wasn't hard to catch," she said with a wink.
"Yaaaaaay!" Lucchini declared, running across the hangar to seize the elder Bishop in an embrace.
"Hey, kiddo," said Wilma fondly. "Been a while. I was expecting you to be taller by now," she quipped.
"Nah, I'm not in any hurry," Lucchini replied, then turned around so she could nestle the back of her head into Wilma's shirt front. "Ahhhhh. Still my second favorite in the world."
"Second?!" Wilma cried in mock anger, tightening her arms around Lucchini's neck. "Who's better'n me?!"
"Well, Shirley's number one," Lucchini said.
"Obviously," Shirley put in with a wink.
"Lynne's are pretty nice, but Miyafuji hogs 'em for herself," Lucchini pouted.
"Some people just never learn that sharing is caring," Wilma said sagely.
"And Major Barkhorn gets all grumpy," Lucchini added.
"Repressed," Shirley agreed, nodding.
"That's not what I hear from Erica," said Ursula mildly.
"Anyway," Lucchini said. Tearing herself semi-reluctantly away from Wilma, she jumped onto Gryphon's back instead. "Come and see what I found!"
"Do I even dare wonder?" Gryphon said, remembering one of Mio's war stories about a previous "discovery" of Lucchini's.
"No, you'll like this, it's really good," Lucchini insisted while he carried her toward the truck with all the others in tow. "You know how you were saying the other day that you might have to go buy a car? Well, now you don't have to, because I found you one!" As he rounded the back of the truck, she gestured grandly to the object the three had just unloaded from it and announced, "Ta-da! What do you think?"
What stood there was a very small automobile, its square-sided hatchback body shaped with an almost willful lack of styling. Gryphon was startled to realize that he recognized it instantly, in spite of its almost complete lack of context.
"Oh... my God," said Gryphon blankly as Lucchini hopped down from his back. Unencumbered, he walked slowly around the tiny car, making a complete circuit and taking in some of the details. It might have been blue once, but its paintwork was so faded and rust-streaked now that it was almost impossible to say for certain. The tires had originally been whitewalls, but that was a long time and a lot of mold ago, so they might now be better described as greenwalls. It sat there, listing a few degrees to starboard on evidently compromised suspension, with most of the chrome teeth of its grille askew and one headlight hanging by its wires, giving it something of the air of a cartoon boxer who's just been punched out. Above the damaged grille, a corrosion-speckled chrome badge read: БЭЛВ.
Completing his lap of the car, Gryphon stopped where he'd started from and just stared at its profile. Next to him, Lucchini stood with a beaming smile, waiting to hear his verdict on her discovery.
"There's... there's no other word for it," Gryphon admitted at length, wonderment in his voice. "It's a Belv."
Minna-Dietlinde Wilcke was, if she had to admit it, feeling a bit harried.
Her promotion to the head of the 1st JSAF was a welcome solution to quite a few problems she'd been facing, but it left her with a number of new challenges - not the least being the exponential increase in paperwork and administrative duties.
Since she had yet to fill her open adjutant position, there was no one to run interference on much of the lower-level issues, leaving her to spend almost as much time separating the truly important matters from the minutiae as she did addressing them.
Looking over the pile of memos, forms, and flight plans she'd sorted her incoming mail into, she slumped back into her chair with a sigh. "Well, at least I know what the enemy looks like."
Given that the only other person in her office was Wolfgang, who had taken to dropping by most afternoons for a spot of belly rubs (for him) and stress relief (for her), Minna hadn't expected an answer to that - hadn't even realized she'd spoken out loud - so having someone answer was quite a surprise.
"Mm. You seem a bit outnumbered, Frau General."
Minna managed not to dislodge any of her paperwork when she sat up, but it was a near thing. "Hannelore! I thought you were still in Brittania."
Hannelore von Hammer smiled as she stepped through the office's door, taking the chair across the heavily laden desk.
"I was finally able to get Fritzschen established onto the Friedrich der Große and on his way back to Neukarlsland." The veteran witch rolled her eyes a bit, her smile belying her slightly harsh tone. "I was beginning to think he might decide to set up shop permanently in London or Juvincourt."
Hannelore leaned forward, her smile turning conspiratorial. "So. That leaves me at a bit of loose ends - and I understand you're in need of an adjutant."
Minna frowned thoughtfully. "It would certainly be a great help to me - but wouldn't that be a bit of a step down for you?"
Von Hammer laughed. "At this point, I suspect most people would consider it to be as close as I can get to a graceful retirement. Besides, whatever reservations you may have about the -262, it will let me move between Saint-Ulrich and Lichtenberg quite quickly when you need me to take care of matters personally."
"That's true..." Smiling, Minna stood, extending her hand. "I would be very pleased to accept your offer, Rittmeister von Hammer."
After a healthy handshake, von Hammer knelt down as Wolfgang presented himself for a proper scruffling with a pleased-sounding wurf! "Now that matter's been settled, do you happen to have any more of that soda?"
"I have to say, this looks pretty sweet," Wilma remarked, looking over Ursula's experimental jet Striker. She hunkered down to take a closer look at the engines. "I like how you've put the actual jets down here, close to the tips, like the props on a regular model." Looking up at the Striker's designer, she added, "I never flew a -262, but I always thought that with the thrust coming from somewhere up by your hips, the handling must be pretty weird."
Ursula nodded. "I don't know if I would go so far as to say it's 'weird'," she allowed, "but it does take some getting used to relative to conventional Striker designs. Placing the engines higher up actually makes the platform more stable, but it does affect flight dynamics. The Sturmvogel is much faster than, for instance, an Fw 190, but nowhere near as maneuverable." She placed a hand on one of the He 162's winglets. "I'm hoping the Sparrow's design will address that, but I do have concerns that the longer moment arms will make for some fairly demanding directional instability."
Wilma straightened up, brushing dust from her knees, and gave her a puzzled look. "Y'lost me there, I'm afraid."
"I think it'll be a bit of a handful," Ursula clarified.
At that, Wilma grinned and clapped the blonde Karlslander on the shoulder. "I bet it will," she said. "I wish I could test it for ya, but..."
As she trailed off, Ursula gave her a slightly sad, understanding smile, and reached to give her a little bit of a shoulder shake. A moment later, Gryphon and Shirley came out of FUEL STORAGE, pushing his big wheeled tool chest between them, and took it across to the Belv.
"All right!" Shirley declared, cracking her knuckles. "Let's get this thing apart and see just what we're up against."
They turned out to be up against quite a lot.
"Eeewwww, I just looked inside it," Lucchini remarked as they set to work. "Now I'm kind of sorry I found it."
Shirley peered through one of the grimy windows, then gave her wingmate a wink over the roof and said, "Well, the nice thing is that whatever they made the upholstery out of, even rats evidently won't eat it." Turning to Gryphon, she asked, "Think it'll start?"
"These things don't start when they're new," he replied, and they got to work taking the body panels off.
Ursula and Wilma stood off to one side and just watched, somewhere between bemused and amused, while the three tore down the Belv, encountering unknowns along the way.
"What i... was this?" Lucchini wondered, holding up a small, rust-encrusted item she'd just found in the back of the car.
Gryphon peered at it, then went back to work pulling the dash apart. "Carburetor."
"Are you sure?" Lucchini asked, frowning at it. "It's tiny."
"Have you seen the engine?" Shirley called from under the hood.
"Well, OK," Lucchini conceded.
"More to the point," said Shirley, leaning in through the passenger window, "why was it in the back seat?"
"Maybe it's a spare?" Lucchini hazarded.
"Like any religion, Belv ownership contains deeper and deeper mysteries," Gryphon deadpanned.
By the time the midday patrols returned in midafternoon, they had the Belv's bodyshell up on jack stands, and Shirley and Gryphon were underneath it, hammering on the rust-frozen suspension.
"Hey, it's got coil springs," Shirley observed.
"Mm," Gryphon agreed. "In fact, thinking about it... judging by the rust and dirt, I would guess that it was in that barn for at least eight years. Since well before the war, let alone the Neuroi occupation of Gallia. That means it can't be newer than about 1938. And if you bear that in mind... this is actually a surprisingly advanced car. I mean, if you showed it to me back home, I would guess it was from 20 years later than that."
"Maybe it's from the future!" Lucchini declared dramatically. "Like you!"
"And it ended up in a barn in Gallia?" Shirley said skeptically.
"To be fair, I almost did," said Gryphon, and then, "Ow!" as the spring he was wrestling with unexpectedly came away from its moorings all at once, causing him to more or less punch himself in the head.
"You OK?" asked Shirley as they clambered to their feet.
"Yeah, it's just my head, there's nothing important in there," he replied, rubbing at his brow. Then, brightening at the sound of props in the doorway, he looked up and said, "And here's Colonel Sakamoto."
Sure enough, Mio was taxiing into the hangar from outside, having just returned from patrol. She looked a little quizzical, although whether about the dilapidated, mostly-dismantled East European automobile or the unexpected presence of Lynne's elder sister was impossible to determine. Behind her, the younger Bishop's face lit up in a smile as she entered after her superior and saw Wilma standing with the little group by the test stand.
"I get the impression things have been going on in my absence," said Mio wryly as she backed her Striker into its launch stage and shut it down.
Lynne sprang out of her docked Striker and ran to take her sister's hands, crying delightedly, "Wilma! What are you doing here? I thought you were in London."
"I was, but I got sick of the pepper steak at the Old Witches' Home," Wilma replied wryly.
"It's good to see you again, Sgt. Bishop," Mio remarked as she climbed a bit more sedately out of her own Striker, stepped into her boat shoes, and then came down from the stage. "Are you back on active duty?"
Wilma leaned against the He 162's test stand with an insouciant grin. "Nah, you can't make one of these things work with just raw sex appeal, I've tried." She shook her head. "I'm totally not supposed to be here, you'd better arrest me."
"Wilma!" Lynne said, dismayed.
"Ha ha ha!" said Mio, whacking the elder Bishop on the upper arm. "You haven't changed."
Wilma's smile became a little awkward as she put a hand behind her head and said, "Well, that's actually why I'm here..."
At dinner that evening, Lynne's other wingmates were delighted to find her sister among them. Most of them hadn't seen her since the younger Bishop's wedding, more than a year before, and had wondered off and on how she was finding life in retirement.
No one was so blunt as to ask her that - not even Eila - but they all got their answer anyway, as Wilma formally requested permission from the First Joint Special Air Fleet's commander to reactivate her enlistment and join part of the fleet.
Minna considered the request, glancing from one to another of the people sitting around Wilma. Both Gryphon and Mio seemed to know what was going on, and both gave her little nods as she met their eyes, silently polling them; so she, in turn, nodded to Wilma and said,
"Very well. We'll list you as a consultant to 404 Squadron. If anyone asks what need a flight test unit has for a non-flying retired witch..." She glanced to her right, where Hannelore von Hammer sat with a studiously neutral expression, and smiled slightly before continuing, "... we'll think of something."
Von Hammer shook her head resignedly. "If I had known what a hopelessly slapdash operation I was joining by throwing my lot in with you and your crew, General Wilcke..." She let it hang for a moment, noticing that several of the younger witches had edged forward in their seats, then grinned and said, "I'd have done it sooner."
Once the laugh that got had made its way around the table, Minna went on, "We'll need to work out a room assignment for you if you're staying on."
"Oh, don't worry about me," said Wilma, leaning casually back in her chair. "I'll find a spot."
"Oh dear," Ursula said. "Erica, I think you had best get to work on that signup board."
"I think you're right, Usch," Erica agreed. "I've been putting it off, but I wasn't counting on a predatory Bishop showing up."
Shirley snorted. "Like she'd ever be held to a schedule."
"... It's a fair cop," Wilma admitted with a sheepish grin, while Lynne blushed almost to the point of passing out.
"Have you considered membership cards?" Mio inquired of Gryphon.
"That's not the sort of question a gentleman answers," he replied mock-stuffily.
At 2200 hours, Mio did her informal rounds. It wasn't a bed check, exactly, since nobody on the barracks wing had a curfew as such, but she liked to make sure all her troops were in for the night and nobody needed anything before turning in herself. All appeared to be quiet tonight - which was good, since she had a bit of business to take care of herself.
She put her head into 5 East, the door of which - as ever - stood slightly ajar. The only person in there appeared to be Gryphon, who was sitting at his desk, making some notes. He looked up and smiled at her entrance.
"Evening," he said.
"I'm surprised to find you alone," said Mio wryly as she came fully into the room.
"Wolfgang's down the hall," Gryphon replied, swiveling. "He seems to have decided that Hattori needs some company tonight."
Mio laughed and plopped down on the edge of his bed, facing him. "Ha, well, they do say dogs resemble their owners."
"Says the fighty, growly woman with the Doberman familiar," Gryphon said.
"Touché. What about Bishop?"
Gryphon opened his mouth to reply, but before he could, the very muffled voice of Eila Juutilainen-Litvyak filtered through the adjoining wall: "Aaaahhh! What the HELL"
"I believe she's visiting the neighbors," Gryphon deadpanned.
When she'd finished giggling at that, Mio wiped tears of mirth from her eyes and observed, "Well, she'd better hope she wakes up and moves on before dawn. I don't think Sanya would be amused."
"Probably not, although you never know for sure with Orussians," said Gryphon with a little smile.
Mio gave him a skeptical how-would-you-know-that sort of look, then shook her head and said, "Anyway. It's just as well that you are alone, actually, because I have something serious to ask you."
Gryphon got up from his chair and sat down on the edge of the bed beside her. "Shoot," he said.
Mio looked him in the eye and asked him straight, "Do you really think you can help Wilma?"
"I can try," Gryphon replied at once.
"Even though she has no background in swordsmanship?" Mio wondered. "I mean... I did, and you had to work with me for months... you'll be starting totally from scratch with her. It's..." She hesitated, then plunged on, "It's why I haven't asked you if you could do anything for Minna. Or tried to teach her what I know myself. She's never held a Fusō sword in her life. Even if it wasn't too late for her to take it up now, it'd be years before she even reached the level I was at when we started."
Gryphon let the "too late" part pass - he'd been over three hundred when he took up kenjutsu, but that was a hair that didn't need splitting right now - and nodded instead, taking her near hand sympathetically in his. He knew full well that her inability to help Minna deal with the failure of her magic frustrated Mio enormously. She was a woman of action, and finding herself in a situation where it seemed there was none to be taken would naturally be all but intolerable, doubly so because of the intensity with which she cared for the other person involved.
"I've been thinking about that for most of the day, in the back of my head, while I've been doing other stuff," he said. "I wondered myself about everything you've just said... but I think I have a plan. I don't know if it'll work, any more than I knew what you and I did would work when we started out... but I think it's worth a shot."
Mio considered that for a moment, then nodded. "OK. In that case... I need to ask you for a big favor. Will you take Minna as your student too? I... she claims it doesn't bother her, and this new Air Fleet setup has protected her career, at least partly, from the brass, but..." She shook her head. "I can't just watch her fade away. Maybe that's selfish. Maybe it's more about me than her. But I can't."
"I can't force her," Gryphon said seriously. "That's not how it works... but if she wants to try it, of course I will. I'll help any of you, any way I can."
Mio regarded him, her expression solemnly contemplative; then, a little to his surprise, tears sprang into her visible eye, and she dashed them away and hugged him.
"What's that for?" he asked gently.
"I... you reminded me of Professor Miyafuji so much just then," she admitted, sniffling. "And all of a sudden it hit me... how much I miss him. I don't get that from Yoshika. She said herself one time that she and her father were so different it's almost like they aren't related, and she's right. But you... sometimes I see him in you."
"Given everything I've heard of him, I take that as a fairly high honor," said Gryphon.
Mio sat back and nodded. "You should. He was..." She paused, searching for an explanation that made sense in words. "I really loved that man. I didn't have a crush on him, even at that age I think I knew that... that men weren't really going to be an issue for me," she explained, blushing. "But... in a world full of military stuffed shirts and overawed civilians, he was one of the only men I've ever known who saw us - witches, I mean - as people, rather than... inconveniently willful weapons, or untouchable mythic figures. He developed the Striker Units to make us more effective soldiers, yes, but he also wanted to help keep us alive. He cared about us. All of us. Even the ones he'd never met, was never going to meet. I think... I think you're the only other man I've ever met who I could say that about."
"Maybe I'm just saving my own skin," he said mischievously, playing devil's advocate just to do it.
"I'll never believe that," Mio told him. "Not after all I've seen you do."
"Well... I appreciate your confidence in me," Gryphon said after a moment's thought. "I appreciate it... more than I can say. I only hope I never let you down."
"You won't," she said positively, resuming the hug. "Because even if you fail someday... I know you'll have tried your hardest."
They were still in that position, holding on tight, when there came a knock at the door and a voice saying softly, "Hey, Gryph, are you - oh, oops! Sorry..."
Mio released him and looked back over her shoulder to see Shirley backing out of the doorway, a sheepishly apologetic smile on her face. "No, it's OK, Shirley," she said, rising and reflexively tugging smooth her hug-wrinkled uniform jacket. (She didn't notice the little smile that act brought to Gryphon's face.) "I should get to bed anyway." To Gryphon, she said in a more businesslike tone of voice than before, "You'll let me know when you're ready to put this plan of yours into action?"
Gryphon nodded. "I'll probably need another day or two to get ready, but as soon as I am, you'll know."
"Good. I'll sound out Minna about it tomorrow." Then, relaxing her bearing again, she leaned down and kissed his cheek. "Thank you."
"It's what I do," he replied, squeezing her shoulder.
At the door, she paused to let Shirley enter the room before she left it; then, with a wry, "Carry on, Captain Yeager," she headed down the hall to her own room.
Shirley watched her go into said room, then turned back to Gryphon with an arched eyebrow and asked, "What'd I miss?"
"Private stuff," Gryphon said. "What's up?"
"Nothin' much. Lost track of time, got most of my bike's engine strewn across my bed, and I don't feel like picking it all up," she said with a cheesily hopeful grin.
Gryphon rolled his eyes, but made a welcoming gesture. "Fine, but only if you promise to sleep like an actual person this time," he said. "I'm not havin' that snow angel business again. I get enough of that from Wolfgang when he's here."
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
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