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No one was entirely sure what the room off the main hangar was actually supposed to be used for. On the blueprints used by the Free Gallian Forces Bureau of Construction and Engineering for the renovation, it was labeled STOCKAGE DE CARBURANT, which rather invited the question of what Gallian military engineers thought Striker Units ran on.
However, the facts that it was near the hangar, fitted with running water, and had no windows made it useful for another purpose. In fairly short order after the 511th Joint Fighter Wing had taken possession of the castle, the wing's reconnaissance officer had seized the room as her own personal domain, and early on Sunday evening, the red light above the door indicated to anyone who came by that she was at work within. Her wingmates all knew the rule: When the red light was on, under no circumstances was the door to be opened.
Some of Antoinette de Saint-Exupéry's colleagues suspected that she occasionally went in there and turned on the red light when she wasn't actually doing anything, just to get a little peace and quiet. Tonight, at least, that was not the case, though she did find the silent rhythm of the work meditative: going through the well-worn motions, her hands deft and sure in the utter darkness, developing the film that she'd shot earlier in the day.
An hour later, she entered the wing commander's office carrying a folder full of freshly dried prints. Saint-Exupéry wasn't surprised to find that Colonel Heinrikke Knoke was still at her desk. Knoke's nickname, "the Last Prussian", might be meant ironically - she was far from being the last Prussian - but the work ethic it implied was real enough.
Knoke looked up from her work at the Gallian pilot's entrance. "Ah, Saint-Ex," she said, rising. "Good evening."
"Good evening, Colonel," said Saint-Exupéry with a nod. She stopped in front of Knoke's desk and saluted, then placed the folder in a clear spot and said, "Key frames from today's engagement."
"Excellent," Knoke said, returning the salute. "Take a seat," she went on, gesturing to the chair opposite her desk, as she resumed her own chair and opened the folder.
Some observers, familiar with the informal way other Joint Fighter Wings operated, had noted the formality of relations between Knoke and her deputy commander and assumed that it bespoke a coolness between them. Knoke was, after all, more than ten years Saint-Exupéry's junior; she was one of the Wunderkinder of the Karlsland Luftwaffe, little more than a month past her fifteenth birthday, while Saint-Ex was a battle-scarred veteran of twenty-five, well past combat fitness and, some said, staying in the air through little more than supreme Gallic stubbornness. One was small and blonde, the other willowy and brunette. It would have been natural to assume that the elder witch resented her much younger commanding officer's superior rank, and that the younger considered the elder a superannuated encumbrance.
In truth, each respected the other's accomplishments greatly; the formality that existed between them was an expression of this mutual respect, not antipathy cloaked by professional courtesy. In the 511th JFW, such matters really were just as they appeared.
"Hmm," said Knoke, leafing through the photos. "Ah, excellent, you got some good shots of the Neuroi's peculiar beam configuration. Technical will appreciate these... wha?"
"Mm?" Saint-Exupéry said, leaning forward. Knoke was frowning down at one of the last photos in the stack, a wide shot of the aerial battleground where the 511th's engagement that afternoon had taken place. In the middle, the large-class Neuroi they had fought had just disintegrated, its shining fragments still tightly grouped together. A few members of the squadron could be seen in the foreground, including Darjeeling Bishop, whose smoking Aerial Specialised cannon showed that she had just scored the coup de grâce. The background was a skyscape of rolling clouds, fluffy and white, against a pale grey field that would've been a vivid blue if Supply could ever come up with color film for Saint-Ex's K-17 camera.
And back there, in the upper left corner of the photo - perhaps half a mile from the action - was a small, dark figure, silhouetted against one of the clouds.
"Hullo, I didn't notice that," Saint-Exupéry said, her eyebrows going up. Leaning closer still, she looked more closely and said, "Is that - it looks like a witch." She sat back, folding her arms, and scowled. "Nice of her to help us out, whoever she is," she grumbled. "Who the devil can it have been?"
Knoke opened her desk's top drawer and got out a folding photographic loupe, which she unfolded and placed over the figure. She peered through it for several seconds, considering the figure carefully... and then the Gallian was surprised to see her commander's face take on a look of dawning horror.
Without another word to Saint-Exupéry, Knoke sat up in her chair, reached to her right, and picked up the telephone. "Get me General Wilcke," she said at once. "Urgent."
Flying Yak Studios
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Lensmen: The Brave and the Bold
Our Witches at War
another serial experiment
© 2015 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Since the time when she was simply the commander of the 501st, it had been Minna-Dietlinde Wilcke's general policy that non-urgent matters should be saved for the work-week where possible. Still, she did not explicitly take the weekends off (there wasn't really any such thing in wartime), and she'd always been as much a friend as a boss to the witches under her command - in some cases, even a surrogate mother figure. She had long encouraged her subordinates to consider her approachable at any time if the need arose.
All of which made it a bit unusual for her to arrive at her office first thing on Monday morning to find Gryphon standing in the hallway outside, mug of tea in one hand, briefcase in the other, chatting with her adjutant.
"It's not that I don't like Hazelnussomeletten, it's just a bit of an unusual thing to see someone eating every day," Gryphon was in the process of explaining, when he turned to see Minna approaching. "Good morning, General!"
Minna nodded, smiling. "Good morning, Captain. I quite like Hazelnussomeletten - but sometimes variety helps when you're trying to start the day." Turning to Hannelore von Hammer, she gave her an equally friendly nod. "Anything urgent?"
Von Hammer shook her head. "Nothing new, other than a firmer ETA for our visitors from the 511th," she said, handing the general a yellow communiqué.
Gryphon raised an eyebrow. "Visitors?"
Minna nodded. "Their photos from the weekend's engagement near Nürburg seem to have captured something... interesting. I'll be calling a briefing once Colonel Knoke and her party arrive with the photographs."
Gryphon took that on board with a soft "hm", then got back to business. "OK - well, do you have a few minutes? I wanted to ask you about a couple of things."
Opening the door to her office, Minna gestured for him to follow as she flipped on the lights. "They won't be here until after our morning patrols are back in." Settling into her chair, she waited for Gryphon to sit before going on. "So. You needed something?"
He nodded. "A couple of somethings, actually. The first part is fairly straightforward - I've got some ideas for new equipment I'd like to start playing around with, since Ursula and I are supposed to be running an R&D shop anyway, and I wanted to see if we can requisition some documents and materials to support that." He retrieved a small stack of requisition forms from his briefcase and handed them over; Minna shuffled through them, scanning the first few before one brought her to a sudden halt.
"The materials and some of these other things aren't a problem... but this may cause some trouble." She flipped it so Gryphon could see which one had raised her interest, then turned the form back over to read it over again. "Technically this is classified Liberion material. They may want to know what we want it for."
"If it turns out that what I'm asking for is similar to its counterpart where I come from - and I'm pretty sure it is - they're research notes that I think would be very helpful for what I have in mind," Gryphon explained. "I can do without them if I have to, but it'd be a lot simpler."
Minna considered that, then pulled out a form from one of her desk drawers, added a few notes to it, and clipped it to the requisition. "That should grease the wheels a bit. Since Ursula is technically still working on Wunderwaffe development, anything marked as related ought to be given top priority, regardless of what we ask for."
Gryphon nodded. "That works. Now... the next part is a little less official, and a little more personal." He straightened slightly in his chair, and Minna felt as if she was finally getting a look at what Mio sometimes called his 'Sensei mode.'
"I'm sure you know by now," he said, "that the real reason Wilma Bishop is here is because she hopes I can help her find a new source of magic, the way Mio did." Minna nodded, unspeaking, and Gryphon went on, "Well, Mio stopped by a few nights ago... and she asked me if I would work with you, as well as Wilma."
Minna felt herself straightening a bit as well, in response to his sudden intensity. "Yes. We talked a bit about it last night. I'm..." She sighed, "I'm of two minds. I don't like losing my powers - no witch does - but magic or not, I certainly don't intend to stop serving my country, or the war effort. I'll find a way, no matter what. That said, the opportunity to regain them..."
She trailed off, her gaze turning far beyond the walls of her office, then continued, "I've seen what you did for Mio - you saved her life. She's suddenly back in her prime. Maybe even better than she was. It's impossible not to wonder what that would be like. But it's not the same for me as it was for her. Mio defines herself by her combat ability. My approach to being a soldier is... different. Less connected to what I can physically do."
Gryphon nodded. "I understand that. When we talked about this, I told Mio that I think I may be able to help you, just as I think I can help Wilma... but it's going to be a little different for you both than it was with her, if you want to try it. Neither of you has the time to become a swordswoman, and I don't think what worked for Mio would be exactly the same for you, anyway. I have some ideas, but... first, I think it's important to ask what you want. I'm not here to push anyone into anything."
Minna thought about that for a long, soul-searching minute. Gryphon could almost feel her looking inward, examining herself with the same level of focus that she often applied to directing her comrades in battle. When she spoke again, that, too, seemed more like it was directed at herself than him:
"I want to do this. Not because I feel like I'm less of a person, of any less use to anyone - but because I want to reclaim what I've begun to lose for myself. Even if I never put on a Striker again after this war is over, I want to know that I could, if I chose to do it."
Her mind made up, Minna turned back to him, and there was a spark in her eyes that matched Gryphon's own. "I meant what I said about seeing this war through together. And if what you can teach us will help me - help all of us - make that happen, then I want to learn."
Gryphon nodded, then slouched a little into the chair, his mien changing to the more relaxed, friendly aspect that Minna was used to. "That'll work. I've got a few things to finish up, but I should be ready to begin tomorrow, I think."
Minna smiled. "Just let us know - for this, I think I can clear my calendar."
Just after lunch, the visitors arrived. The 511th's commanding officer and her deputy landed in one of the Karlsland Luftwaffe's Fieseler Fi 156 light liaison aircraft, which taxied into the hangar with its two Striker-equipped escorts flanking it - a very professional display, but without ostentation. In the hangar to greet them were Minna, Hannelore, and the 501st's equivalents to their guests.
As the Fieseler's pilot and passenger disembarked, Minna stepped forward and received their salutes, returning them smartly before saying,
"Colonel Knoke; Major Saint-Exupéry. Welcome to Château Saint-Ulrich. May I introduce my adjutant, Rittmeister Hannelore von Hammer; the 501st JFW's new commanding officer, Colonel Mio Sakamoto; and her second-in-command, Major Perrine-H. Clostermann."
If Knoke found anything amusing about being formally introduced to witches she had known well for some time, she kept it entirely off her face as she acknowledged the introductions cordially, then gestured to her own companions.
"Our escorts today," she said. "Captain Willa Campbell; Sgt. Dara Jane Bishop."
The two 511th witches were an interesting study in contrasts. Campbell was a tall, sturdily built young woman of African descent, dressed in the brown fatigues of a Liberion Army Air Force officer, and though her uniform was correct and her salute parade-ground perfect, there was a faint air of cheerful insouciance about her that reminded the 501st's members present of their colleague Shirley Yeager. Next to her, the younger witch in the blue Royal Farawayland Air Force NCO's tunic looked tiny, almost fragile.
Before either could speak, the door at the far side of the hangar swung open and Shirley came in, in the middle of an animated conversation with Wilma Bishop about something. When they caught sight of the visitors, they broke it off and hurried over to greet them.
"Hey! Darjeeling!" Wilma said, bounding over to grab her youngest sister in a hug. This close, the resemblance between them was striking, even though the younger Bishop's hair was fully blonde rather than sandy brown, and done up in a much more elaborate knotted braid.
"Wilma!" said Darjeeling, startled. "What are you doing here? I thought you were in London."
"Doesn't everybody?" Wilma replied rhetorically. "I'm with their new test outfit they've got going down here."
Darjeeling looked perplexed. "Doing what?" she wondered. "You've lost your -"
"Shh!" Wilma said with a grinning wink. Catching the blonde in a headlock, she went on, "Don't worry about it, baby sister. I got an angle."
While Darjeeling wordlessly pondered that, Shirley and Campbell stood regarding each other with unreadable expressions for a few moments.
"Well, if it isn't Captain Campbell," Shirley said at length.
"Well, if it isn't Captain Yeager," Campbell replied in the same even tone of voice. The two stared each other down for a moment...
... and then, grinning, executed a complex secret handshake that ended in a mutual mock headbutt before breaking down giggling.
"Nice as it is to see everyone getting along," Knoke said dryly, "I'm afraid this isn't a social call."
Minna nodded. "Quite right. Hannelore, will you get everyone together, please? I'll take the Colonel and Major Saint-Exupéry to the briefing room."
"You two cover the 501st's midday patrol," Knoke said to her escorts. "Wouldn't do for us to get bounced by a stray Neuroi while we're all looking at Saint-Ex's pictures."
"Right," said Campbell, nodding. With a grin for Shirley, she said, "I'll get back to you later," and the two 511th witches left the hangar.
It took about five minutes for von Hammer to get all the 501st's members to the briefing room, including the two Night Witches. Heidemarie Schnaufer looked fresh and pressed, as she always did regardless of the hour of day or night she was summoned, but, as usual at midday, Sanya Juutilainen-Litvyak was barely able to keep awake, particularly once the briefing room lights went off. She kept dozing off, slumping against Eila's shoulder, so that her wife would have to push her gently upright again and give her a little shake.
The others' demeanors ranged from bored (Francesca Lucchini) to intrigued (many of the others) to outright curious (Yoshika Miyafuji) as Minna introduced Knoke and Saint-Exupéry, then yielded the floor to them.
"Yesterday, the 511th engaged a large-type aerial Neuroi in grid sector 45-Alpha-12: airspace over western Karlsland, near the town of Nürburg," Knoke said. On the screen behind her, a black-and-white image of such a Neuroi appeared. "The engagement itself was unremarkable, apart from the Neuroi's plasma beam configuration -" (Here the view switched to a slide showing the Neuroi shooting at one of the 511th's witches, who was turning the multi-streamed attack away with her shield.) "- which I don't believe has been reported before."
Knoke switched back to the shot of the Neuroi by itself, then said, "That's a matter for Technical Intelligence to consider, though, and it's not why I've come to you today. For that, I'll turn you over to my squadron intelligence officer, Major Antoinette de Saint-Exupéry."
The Gallian witch took over, thanking her commander cordially, then said, "Preliminary analysis of the photographs I took in the action against this Neuroi revealed no anomalies in the construction of the Neuroi itself, nor in the conduct of the operation against it." She switched to the shot of the Neuroi disintegrating. "However, in this image, taken just after the enemy's core was destroyed by Sgt. Bishop, Colonel Knoke discovered an environmental anomaly that deserves further consideration."
Turning, she took a pointing stick from behind the lectern and aimed it at the dark smudge just visible in the upper left, silhouetted against the clouds. "This. At first, we took it for an unidentified witch observing the action... but upon closer inspection, we determined that it was something else. Something much harder to explain."
The screen changed to the next slide - an enlargement of the important area of the previous shot, blown up to the point where the film grain was clearly visible. It wasn't the crispest shot at this magnification, but the shape of the object could plainly be made out. For a moment, the 501st, too, thought it was the outline of a Striker-equipped, but evidently unarmed, witch. There was the slender shape of torso and arms, the pointed outlines and winglets of a Striker Unit - even the little triangular ears of a familiar could be seen standing out from the figure's head...
... except that, as they looked more closely, they realized it wasn't a silhouette. It couldn't be, because the sun had been behind the photographer, and the figure in the middle of the cropped frame was casting a faint but distinct shadow on the clouds behind it. It just happened to be black - completely and totally black. No uniform details, no Striker insignia, no white or grey of exposed skin... no face.
Yoshika Miyafuji shot involuntarily to her feet, her fist rising to press against her chest. "Oh my -!" she blurted as a murmur of surprise and astonishment made the rounds of the room.
Knoke folded her arms, nodding. "Exactly. This looks very much like the Neuroi you encountered late in the Battle of Britannia, Lt. Miyafuji." She switched to a further slide, this one juxtaposing the fuzzy blow-up of Saint-Exupéry's shot with a photograph taken during an operation two years before - which appeared to show the very same Neuroi, more clearly and from a much closer camera position. "The one that the 504th later tried, and failed, to make contact with in Operation Trajanus."
"Hang on, though," Erica Hartmann put in. "That Neuroi was destroyed during Operation Trajanus. Captain Takei and at least a half-dozen other survivors witnessed it."
"I know," Knoke said. "I've read the same reports you have, Captain Hartmann. Nevertheless... there it is." Addressing Yoshika, she went on, "In your 1944 contact report, you said that the witch-shaped Neuroi you encountered had a core. Correct?"
"Yes," said Yoshika, her voice hushed. Her eyes were still fixed on the screen, wide. At her side, Lynne reached up and quietly took her hand.
Knoke nodded again. "Well, I don't know about any of you, but as far as I'm aware, there has never been a case of any core-bearing Neuroi having the same configuration as another. Some have been very similar, I admit, but no two are ever alike. And no other Neuroi has ever been recorded as having taken on anything even remotely approximating the human form." She pointed to the split image. "So what's happening here?"
"Did the one you encountered take any action?" Mio inquired.
Saint-Exupéry shook her head. "It stayed well clear of the engagement area; we didn't even notice it until we reviewed the photographs. It seems that it was just... watching."
"Hmm," said Mio, but she made no further comment, only making a small negating gesture as Gertrud Barkhorn, sitting to her left, gave her an inquiring look.
"At any rate, for right now, that's all we know," Knoke said. "We've had a retroactive sighting of a Neuroi that's either one we know to have been destroyed, or the first example of a duplicate primary type so far encountered. Its purpose and intentions are... even less known than most Neuroi's," she added with just a trace of wryness.
"Thank you, Colonel Knoke," said Minna, rising. "It may take me a day or two to formulate an official fleet response to this development. In the meantime, all First Joint Special Air Fleet personnel should maintain increased vigilance, particularly in the event of another engagement. If this Neuroi appears again, I want to know about it as it's happening, not learn about it after the fact, if at all possible."
"Yes, General," Knoke said. "If we see it again, do we go after it?"
Yoshika drew breath to interject, but Minna shot her a warning look, then said to Knoke, "You may defend yourselves, of course, but if it takes no aggressive action, I'd prefer to monitor it for now. As you point out, the appearance, or reappearance, of this unit is without precedent. I'd rather know what it means than simply log another kill."
"Understood," said Knoke. "I'll let all my people know."
Hannelore von Hammer got back to her office after the briefing, still mulling over the curious new development in her mind. She hadn't missed the undercurrent of tension between some of the more senior witches in the 501st and Miyafuji after Saint-Exupéry's revelation, and though she didn't have a complete context for it, she knew enough recent history to make an educated guess as to what it was about. She was aware that Miyafuji had had the first encounter with the original Operation Trajanus Neuroi, and that it was her likeness the machine was broadly imitating.
She also knew that the young witch, against direct orders, had sought to make more meaningful contact with it - which was why, after the Project Warlock fiasco (which these events had indirectly precipitated), she'd been packed off home to Fusō with a high honor... and a dishonorable discharge from the Imperial Navy that had been kept secret from her, which struck von Hammer as a curiously backhanded way of recognizing her heroism in the battle against Air Chief Marshal Maloney's rogue creation.
Operation Trajanus had taken part while Miyafuji was in Fusō, and only in its aftermath had she returned to Europe and the 501st, winning her way back onto active duty with still more heroism over the Adriatic. And there - since the anomalous Neuroi was destroyed and any prospect of meaningful contact with its kind had gone by the board with it - the matter had rested for the better part of the last 18 months.
Now, though... that Neuroi was evidently back, or one just like it had somehow come to be. Either way, von Hammer wondered how Miyafuji would react, and she knew she wasn't alone in that. Wilcke and Sakamoto were clearly very concerned, and they knew the girl much better than she did.
She was sidetracked from this line of thought, as she approached her desk, by the sight of a distinctive yellow sheet of paper lying in the middle of the green leather blotter. It was a flashgram, freshly torn from one of the Teletypes in the wing intel office, the yellow paper indicating that it was an item of high urgency. Frowning - urgent news by Teletype was never good news - von Hammer sat down and picked it up to read it.
Her frown deepened as she scanned the printout. Then, rising from her chair, she strode - not to say stormed - across the hall into Minna's office.
The tableau that greeted her there would ordinarily have brought a little smile to her lips: the general was seated at her desk, while standing behind her, the 501st's commander worked at unwinding some of the newly amplified tension out of the muscles of her shoulders and upper back.
"- don't think Yoshika is going to go running off half-cocked like she did in '44," Minna was saying. "She's older now. Wiser."
"Mm," Mio replied, though she didn't sound entirely convinced. "She's certainly more mature now than she was then, but she still wears her heart on her sleeve. And that's fine - she wouldn't be Miyafuji if she didn't. I'm just concerned that she may do something - hm?"
"What's the matter, Hannelore?" asked Minna.
"I'm sorry to waste all your hard work, Sakamoto," said von Hammer, "but I'm afraid our day just got that little bit more complicated." She put the printout down on Minna's desk, turning it so she and Mio could read it. "This came in while we were hearing from Knoke and Saint-Ex."
ALLIED JOINT FORCES COMMUNICATIONS COMMAND SUPREME HEADQUARTERS ALLIED FORCES EUROPE HIGH PRIORITY FLASH MESSAGE DATE 6 MAY 1946 1314 GMT FROM JOINT FORCES MILITARY POLICE COMMAND NORTH TO ALL UNITS SECTORS WALLONIA PAS-DE-CALAIS PICARDY BAS-RHIN HAUT-RHIN BE ADVISED FMR MGEN WILHELM VON REICHENBERG LKK ESCAPED THIS AM FROM JOINT FORCES MILITARY STOCKADE BITCHE MAY ATTEMPT AIR OR SEA DEPARTURE FROM EUROPE POSSIBLE DESTINATIONS BRITANNIA - LIBERION - NEUKARLSLAND - AUSTRALIS ALL SEAPORTS AND AIRBASES TO MAINTAIN VIGILANCE UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE DOSSIER AND SPECIAL INFORMATION TO FOLLOW JFMPC NORTH ENDIT
Minna scowled. "Well, that's just grand. So much for the great Fortress of Bitche."
"I haven't had a chance to investigate further," said von Hammer, "but I will not be at all surprised to learn that there was also an escape from Cherche-Midi in the last day or two. I sense the hand of Skorzeny in this."
Mio looked over the printout, her hands still on Minna's shoulders, then snorted. "I like how they've narrowed down the list of places he might be headed. At least they didn't include Cathay. Or the Moon." She straightened up and sighed. "I guess I'd better post some security on the conventional aircraft, just in case." Then, a faint smirk stealing onto her face, she added, "I almost hope he does come here. If he does, it won't end like he's hoping."
"At least Fritzchen's well clear," said Hannelore. "Still, I had best signal the Friedrich der Große and let him know..."
Between the 511th's news and word of von Reichenberg's escape, there was no shortage of topics for conversation at dinner that night, but the atmosphere was faintly subdued, if only because so little really concrete information was available about either.
Yoshika, to the surprise of few of her wingmates, was distracted almost to the point of monosyllable throughout the meal, her usually bubbly demeanor overshadowed by a deeply pensive air. A couple of the other witches seemed inclined to confront the matter directly and try to draw her out, but Minna deftly steered the conversation away each time it happened, until at last the others got the message and stopped approaching it...
... at which point, with dinner drawing near its end, Yoshika suddenly broached it herself, saying as if to herself, "I wonder if it really is Neuroi-chan."
There was a brief silence.
"... 'Neuroi-chan', Miyafuji?" said Wilma skeptically. "Really?"
Yoshika looked down the table at her sister-in-law, her expression mildly exasperated. "I know you don't understand this, nobody ever understood it, but I really think the one I saw that time was different from the others." Becoming animated, she gestured to Mio and went on, "Sakamoto-san said that they'd tricked me somehow, that I was just taken in because it was shaped like one of us, but I'd like to think I'm a little smarter than that."
"I wasn't saying you're stupid, Miyafuji," Mio protested. "It's just that the Neuroi are treacherous -"
"Hold on, hold on," said Eila, waving a hand. "I'm gonna have to go with Yoshika on this one - since when are the Neuroi 'treacherous'? They're not smart enough to be treacherous. The closest I've ever seen one come to doing anything that would qualify as psychological warfare was that one that tried to sing at Sanya, and even that one couldn't come up with an actual battle plan more complicated than 'charge straight toward us and zap'."
"Yeah, you're sort of saying both things at once if you claim that this Neuroi was smart enough to trick Yoshika, and yet we shouldn't bother trying to communicate with it 'cause they're all the same," Erica pointed out.
"What I was saying is that they're the enemy of humanity, and if there is one that's smart enough to pull a stunt like that, the situation is worse, not better," Mio insisted.
"Aren't you even the least bit curious about why they're humanity's enemy, though?" Yoshika asked.
"No," Mio replied flatly, folding her arms.
"I am," Minna said, causing Mio to give her a surprised glance before she continued, "but not to the extent that I'm willing to risk anyone's life to find out."
"If I could just get close enough to tell if it's the same one I saw," Yoshika persisted. "Then I would know what to do. That one wanted to be friends. I'm sure of that. She tried to show me things. Important things. But I was too young and inexperienced - I didn't know what I was looking at, and before I had a chance to try and figure it out... the Warlock happened."
"Friends? 'She'? Listen to yourself, Miyafuji," Mio said, sounding not so much scornful as baffled.
Scowling fiercely, Yoshika bolted to her feet, hands banging down on the table. "As usual, I'm the only one who is listening to me!" she shouted, the unaccustomed fury in her voice bringing everyone else in the room to another complete stop.
"... All right, let's all calm down," Minna said gently, before the situation could escalate further. "Yoshika, I understand your concerns. I even share them, to an extent. That's why I didn't tell Colonel Knoke to shoot on sight if this Neuroi reappears in her sector - but we have to proceed carefully. Operation Trajanus was a complete disaster. We can't risk something like it happening again. Do you agree?"
"... Yes," said Yoshika after a moment's consideration.
"Good," Minna said. "Then I need you to trust me not to make a decision in this matter without considering every angle. And I need to trust you not to take matters into your own hands before I've had a chance to do so." She gave the younger witch a kindly smile. "Deal?"
Yoshika hesitated, then nodded. "OK. Deal."
"Good," Minna repeated, smiling more broadly this time. "Well!" she went on as those who had risen to their feet sat slowly (and a touch awkwardly) back down again. "Now that we're all friends again, let's have some of Lynne's blueberry pie."
"I'm surprised you're going along with Miyafuji's crazy let's-make-nice-with-the-Neuroi idea," Mio remarked as she got ready for bed.
Minna, seated at her dressing table, looked up from brushing her hair. "I wasn't aware that I was, yet," she said, then added with mild wryness, "And I think you may find that her idea is a little more nuanced than that."
"You know what I mean," Mio pressed. Crossing the bedroom, she stood by Minna's chair and went on, "We're not out here to be sentimental, we're here to fight a war. I love Miyafuji, but she has a tendency to forget that somet-"
Minna stood smiling at her lover's startled face, fingertips pressed gently to the Fusō witch's mouth, then replaced them with her own lips for a moment.
"You and she are the two most hard-headed women I know - just barely ahead of Trude," said the auburn-haired Karlslander indulgently when she'd finished the kiss. "And you both need to trust me. I do know what I'm doing, you know," she added with a wry smile.
Mio gazed blankly at her for a moment longer, then blushed, glancing shyly away in a manner that would have surprised and delighted many of her comrades, if they could have seen it.
"Yes, ma'am," she said, smiling a little sheepishly, and Minna put out the light.
A few doors down, Yoshika lay awake, gazing into the darkness of the room and listening to Lynne's soft breathing next to her. Ordinarily, that alone was enough to lull her to sleep, but tonight she couldn't get her mind to turn off. Finally she gave up, slipped carefully out of bed, and went out into the hall.
She had no real plan in mind, other than a need to move around and try to get her thoughts in order, but once out in the hall she saw that there was still a light on in Gryphon's room, the door to which was (as usual) ajar. From inside the room, a faint ticking sound drifted out into the corridor.
Yoshika went to the door and looked in to see Gryphon sitting at his desk, typing something on one of those miniature portable typewriters the Liberion Army used. Two small stacks of paper next to the typewriter indicated that he'd been at it for a while; while Yoshika watched, he finished the page he was working on, pulled it out of the machine, separated the two copies and the carbon paper, then took a couple of blank sheets from a stack on the other side, put the carbon paper between them, and started feeding it all in.
Sprawled on the bed, Wolfgang took a couple of sleeping sniffs of the air, then woke, raised his head, and made the soft hrf sound that was as close as he ever got to a bark after hours. Gryphon looked up at the sound, then swiveled to see Yoshika standing in the doorway, looking as if she'd been just about to beat a retreat.
"Oh," said Gryphon. "Good evening, Doctor. Have you been standing there long?"
"No, I just... um..." Yoshika trailed off, then tried a different tack: "What are you writing?"
"Just copying out some notes for Wilma and Minna," he said. "There are a few things I'd like them to have read before we get started in earnest, and I wasn't able to bring my books with me."
Yoshika entered the room, blinking in surprise. "You're copying them out from memory?"
Gryphon shrugged, as if it was no big deal. "The number of times I've read those books," he said, leaving the rest of it unsaid, then observed, "You're up late."
"I'm having a hard time getting to sleep," Yoshika admitted.
"Well," said Gryphon with a smiling gesture to the wagging beagle on the bed, "Wolfgang is here to help."
Chuckling, Yoshika crossed the room and sat down on the bed next to the Lenshound, who promptly moved so that his head was in her lap.
"I understand why Sakamoto-san still sees me as just a kid," she said suddenly, apropos of nothing. "I mean, I am only 16, and she's been at this a lot longer than I have. And I know she doesn't hold it against me, but I'm sure she hasn't forgotten that my first encounter with Neuroi-chan almost got her killed. But..." She sighed, petting Wolfgang. "It's frustrating. It's always been frustrating, how that whole situation played out. I was on the verge of something... something important, and it never happened. I really look up to Sakamoto-san, but it drives me crazy that she doesn't care about that."
"Well..." Gryphon considered his response for a moment, then said, "Mio's a soldier. That total focus on fighting the enemy... it's what's kept her alive this long. You can't expect to change that right away."
Yoshika sighed. "I know. And she's not alone. Barkhorn-san didn't say anything, but I could tell she thinks I'm crazy too."
Gryphon nodded. "And for the same reason. But here's the thing," he said, and when she looked questioningly up from Wolfgang to him, he went on, "They're not machines. You've already given them something to think about; now you have to give 'em time to think about it."
"What do you think?" she asked.
"I'm not a hundred percent certain I understand the problem," he said. "Whatever the background is behind this, it happened while I was gone. I mean, I've read the report on Operation Trajanus, but I gather there was a first act that didn't make it into the official histories."
"Oh," said Yoshika, and without really thinking about it, she explained: her first encounter with the witch-shaped Neuroi, her inescapable feeling that it was trying to communicate with her, the strange and surreal tour of the Gallia Hive it had taken her on before the Warlock incident had caused the entire situation to dissolve into hopeless confusion. She had assumed the "special" Neuroi had fallen with the Hive, and the next time it appeared, she was half a world away - as she had been when the other Neuroi had destroyed it, and part of the 504th Joint Fighter Wing, in the process of overrunning Venezia.
"So," she said, audibly sleepy now, "if the one Major Saint-Exupéry photographed somehow is Neuroi-chan... then it's like I'm being given a chance I thought I'd never get." Unable to resist any longer, she lay down, snuggling with Wolfgang, and murmured, "I just wish I could make the others understand how important that is..."
Gryphon rose from his chair with a smile and arranged a blanket over them, then got another from his footlocker for himself.
"Patience, grasshopper," he said quietly, turning off his desk lamp.
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