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It was Gryphon's custom not to notice when the castle's PA system sounded the Rouse. He considered seven-thirty in the morning a deeply uncivilized time to be rising, particularly when there was no actual need for it. In witch operations generally, and the 501st Joint Fighter Wing in particular, the day's recorded bugle calls were more guidelines than rules anyway - the Neuroi did not operate on set schedules, and so, therefore, neither did the Allied Forces' witches, apart from the ones whose job was to patrol the hours of darkness. If a member of the wing didn't have morning patrol scheduled, she was under no obligation to rise with the call of the bugle, and many of them therefore did not.
Yoshika Miyafuji generally did, if only because she liked to be on hand to fix breakfast for those of her wingmates who were obliged to be getting ready for duty at that hour. At the sound of the call, she woke automatically, then took a few seconds to figure out where on Earth she was. She'd gone to sleep cuddling with Wolfgang Beagle on Gryphon's bed, and Wolfgang was still there, but at some point in the night she seemed to have burrowed unconsciously in next to the room's owner as well. In the process she'd somehow managed to get hopelessly tangled in not one but two blankets.
She tried to untangle herself without thrashing around too extravagantly, since everyone else involved in the Gordian bedspread was still asleep, but it was hopeless. She couldn't have been more completely immobilized if she'd been buried in sand. With a rising sense of dismay - How am I going to explain this? - she struggled ineffectually for a few moments... then became aware that someone was softly laughing nearby.
With a superhuman effort, she turned partway over and looked up to see Lynette Bishop standing by the side of the bed, a hand over her mouth, giggling in a decorous, English kind of way. In a way that was a relief - Lynne-chan might've been expected to be a bit annoyed to wake and find herself alone, then discover her significant other in bed with somebody else across the hall - but in another, it was more than a little bit mortifying.
"Morning, Lynne-chan," she said quietly, her cheeks going red.
"Good morning, Yoshika-chan," said Lynne cheerfully. "You appear to have gotten yourself into a bit of a predicament."
"Uh... yeah," Yoshika agreed. "Just... just a bit." She wriggled a little more, to no avail, then looked up at Lynne again and said, "Um... a little help?"
With a thoughtful frown, Lynne considered the situation carefully from several angles. "Hmm. Well - no... Perhaps if... no, that won't work either." She mulled it over for a few seconds, evidently thinking hard, and then smiled. "Aha! I see now. Hold on, soon have you out of there."
So saying, she seized one of the blankets decisively by the corner and pulled as hard as she could, causing the whole assemblage to unwind with considerable dispatch. In the process, Gryphon was merely tipped onto his back, and Wolfgang hardly disturbed at all - but Yoshika found herself rolled over several times and then dumped unceremoniously onto the floor.
"Owwww," she observed, putting a hand to her backside.
"Hm," said Lynne, regarding with some surprise the blanket she now held in her hand. "That was a bit more dramatic than I thought it would be."
"Hnh?" Gryphon wondered, sitting up and blinking a couple of times. "What was that noise?"
Flying Yak Studios
Bacon Comics Group
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Avalon Broadcasting System
Lensmen: The Brave and the Bold
Our Witches at War
another serial experiment
© 2015 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
"This is just completely challenging everything I thought I knew about these cars," Gryphon remarked from under the Belv.
"How so?" Shirley Yeager wondered.
"Well, look at this," Gryphon replied. "It has fully independent rear suspension! Who did that in the '30s? I was expecting a de Dion axle at the very most. Amazing."
"Huh. Yeah, I don't think I've ever seen that before. Where did you say this car was from? The badge looks like it's in Orussian."
"Transbelvia," Gryphon said. "It's a principality in the Carpathians, part of Dacia. They use the same alphabet as the Orussians."
"Hmmm," said Shirley, and then, instead of further geographical musings, she said, "I think we're gonna have to make a replacement for this bracket. We get done sanding the rust off it, there's not gonna be anything left."
"Yeah," Gryphon agreed. "Might as well do the other side while we're at it..."
He was interrupted by another of the day's periodic recorded bugle calls on the PA, but unlike the Rouse, this was one he was generally interested in.
So was Shirley, who pulled herself out from under the car first, declaring cheerfully, "Lunchtime!"
While they stood side by side at the sink by the exit and washed their hands, Shirley said, "Word's going around that today's the day."
"The day you try to give Minna and Wilma the Sakamoto treatment," Shirley elaborated; then, snickering, she added, "I need a new name for that, figure Minna gets the Sakamoto treatment every night now, know what I mean?"
Gryphon snorted. "Behave yourself, Captain Yeager," he remarked, shutting off the water.
"Sorry, I can't help it," Shirley replied. "You weren't around for the Nobody's Admitting Anything phase," she added, rolling her eyes. "Anyway, you know what I mean. Remedial magic school."
"We're going to get started today, anyway," Gryphon allowed. "I'm not expecting breakthroughs right off. Today's just... orientation."
"Well, good luck with it," said Shirley. She finished drying her hands and handed him the towel. "We're all hoping it works."
"You're welcome to join us," Gryphon said.
Shirley grinned. "Nah, I've got patrol after lunch," she said. "Maybe another time."
Gryphon didn't fail to notice the slightly false edge to her cheerful reply, but he let it pass. It wasn't really a surprise to him that the topic made someone like Shirley, who at 17 was still at the height of her power and enjoying it to the full, uncomfortable when the idea of her own involvement came into it. She might, he knew, change her mind if Minna and Wilma got results. He hadn't said it out loud to anyone yet, but Gryphon had had the thought that if it worked, the technique he was envisioning could benefit witches who hadn't hit the wall yet just as much as those who had - possibly preventing the dreaded event from ever happening in the first place.
While they walked to the dining room, chatting about other things, he chided himself inwardly for getting so far ahead; borrowing success was just as problematic as borrowing trouble. They'd have to take it a step at a time, proceed carefully, and see what developed. He had to admit, though, if only in the privacy of his own mind, that he would very much like it if what resulted from their efforts was a way of preventing the fear and trauma of power loss from touching the wing's younger witches at all as they matured.
The château had several rooms that could have served for a classroom - including one that actually was a classroom, since the younger witches were expected to keep on with their schoolwork while serving. The system was not, perhaps, as formal as the civilian authorities back home would doubtless have liked, but it was reasonably effective at ensuring that, when they eventually left the service, witches had at least a rudimentary education in place to serve as a foundation for re-entering everyday life.
In selecting a venue for his sessions with Wilma and Minna, though, Gryphon had chosen not to use the classroom, the briefing room, or the staff conference room, all of which he considered too formal and potentially intimidating. He also rejected the much less formal "conference room" area in the main hangar as insufficiently private. Instead, he had asked his prospective students to meet him in the dojo. Even though he wasn't going to be teaching them swordsmanship, he figured the room would have the best atmosphere.
He arrived an hour or so after lunch to find not two, but three people waiting for him. Slightly surprised, he seated himself seiza on the floor facing them, considering each of them silently in turn for a moment. Minna had adopted the same position - the classic Fusō way of sitting on a floor, presumably learned from the many witches of that nation she had worked with over her career. Wilma was sitting much more casually, knees drawn up under her chin with her arms wrapped around them.
Between and a little behind them, Hannelore von Hammer sat Indian-fashion, her hands resting loosely on her knees, a curious expression on her face.
"Ladies," said Gryphon. "I wasn't expecting to see you here, Rittmeister von Hammer."
"I can leave if it's a problem," said Hannelore.
"Not at all," Gryphon said, shaking his head. "Everyone's welcome." He sat for a moment, regarding his audience thoughtfully, then drew a breath and began,
"All right. To start with... I've already discussed this with Minna a little bit yesterday, but to start with I should make very plain what I'm not planning to do here. I'm not going to try to teach you to use a sword like Mio does. To do that, starting from scratch, would take years. Mio was already an experienced swordswoman when she came to me; if she hadn't been, what we did would never have worked. But," he said, holding up a hand before Wilma could voice the question he could see forming on her face. "That doesn't mean we can't try something else."
He let that sink in for a moment, then said, "So. Let's start at the beginning. All living things contain a vital energy. You know that; it's Witchcraft 101. In Fusō they call it ki, in Cathay chi; in Bharāta it's known as prana, and so forth. My training is basically Fusō-style, so let's just call it ki for convenience's sake," he added with a little smile.
"What's less obvious in the traditions you've been taught in," he continued, "is that ki has a counterpart. You're familiar with the principle of electromagnetic induction - that an electric field is always accompanied by a magnetic field, and vice versa? Well, vital energies work in a similar way. The parallel isn't exact, but it's a close enough metaphor for our purposes. The presence of ki within living beings causes a complementary vital energy field outside them - outside us. It's been likened to the life force of the universe itself, if you like to look at it that way, and by most of the scholars of my own time who study it, it's simply called the Force."
Wilma put her hand up. "Hang on. If there's some kind of all-powerful cosmic force permeating all reality, why haven't our own magical scholars ever noticed it? I mean, we're not all machinegun-toting air combat witches, you know. There are sages and seeresses out there too - more in history than nowadays, admittedly, because of the war, but still."
Gryphon nodded. "I know, I've read about a number of them. I'm not sure of the answer to your question, but I think it's probable that they have - or at least they've encountered it, even used it, without ever quite looking at it from the right angle to recognize it for what it really is. Take your magical specialty, for instance," he said, indicating Minna.
"Mine?" Minna said, looking curious.
"Yes. You can perceive the space around you without looking at it - where things are, how they're moving. I've seen you keep track of whole engagements, three-dimensional battlefields - and when you do that, I can feel it. It rings in the Force like a bell - the Force and your internal magic interacting, so that you can perceive the local variations in one with the other."
Warming to his thesis now, Gryphon became a bit more animated, his eyes brightening, as he continued, "Eila's future sense is the same kind of thing, only it operates in time as well as space. Sensing things slightly before they happen, particularly in the heat of battle when the mind is fully concentrated - that's a classic trait of Jedi Knights, the ancient order of mystic warriors whose traditions form the basis for my own kenjutsu ryū's Force techniques."
"I couldn't do either of those things when I was a witch," Wilma said, sounding a little worried. "I had the same specialty as my little sisters - and our mom, come to that. How does that fit into your theory? Or... does it?"
"I'm not sure," Gryphon said honestly. "But everything I've seen since I started really investigating the matter leads me to suspect that many witches - possibly all witches - can be taught to touch the Force. And if I'm right - if you can - well, I saw for myself, when Mio was training with me, how readily all her magical techniques were adaptable to being powered externally. It takes some work, I won't lie to you, but if you can make that connection, once it's made, the Force becomes your new magic."
"And you really think that has a chance of working for us like it did for Sakamoto," Wilma said.
"I wouldn't be here if I didn't," Gryphon replied.
"Even without the time to train us in the sword techniques first," Minna prompted.
"I think so," said Gryphon. Looking from one of the witches in the front row to the other as he spoke, he went on, "You see... the thing I originally overlooked, while I was concentrating on the fact that Mio and I already had a shared background in kenjutsu, is that there's more than one way to slice that apple. You're veteran combat witches. You'll already have been trained in the thing that the swordsmanship is a sort of entryway for in classical Katsujinkenryū."
"And that is?" Minna asked, but from the slight smile playing at her lips, Gryphon suspected she had already surmised the answer - a suspicion confirmed by her look of satisfaction when he replied,
"You already know how to concentrate. You can fly and fight, manage your energy, keep track of your weapon status, maintain your situation awareness, all at the same time. Focus is not something you need help cultivating."
Wilma nodded thoughtfully. "Ahh."
"So what I'm going to be doing in our sessions together," Gryphon went on, "is trying to give you a better idea of what to focus on." So saying, he opened his battered leather briefcase and drew out two thick manila-covered report binders. "These are excerpts from the writings of the founders of my ryū - only the parts that don't have to do with waving the sharp metal thing around," he explained with a little grin. "I'd like you to read them before we get fully stuck in. Among other things," he added, his grin taking on a wryly self-deprecating edge, "they explain the basic theory of the Force a lot more elegantly than I just did."
As he handed copies of the documents to Minna and Wilma, he addressed the observer in the back row, adding, "I'm sorry I don't have a copy for you, Hannelore; I only thought to make one carbon."
"That's all right, sir," said von Hammer in an affected schoolgirl tone, smiling. "I'll just copy Wilcke's homework."
They all laughed at that, a much-needed leavening of the expectant tension that had filled the air since the session started. Then, sobering, Gryphon said,
"Minna... Wilma... I can't promise you for certain that this will work. I think it's important that I make that clear. I have high hopes, though I know they're nowhere near as high as yours must be, but we have to be realistic. I'm not the world's most authoritative witchologist by any stretch, and I might've got hold of completely the wrong end of the stick here. But all we can do is everything we can."
Minna nodded. "I understand. And however it turns out... thank you in advance for trying."
"Yes," Wilma said, sounding as if she didn't trust herself to say much more beyond, "Thank you."
Gryphon smiled. "You're welcome," he said. "So! Read through those, and let's meet back here in a couple of days and see what we can find out."
Over the next couple of weeks, as a warm but somewhat rainy spring got fully underway in Alsace, the afternoon dojo sessions became a frequent topic of conversation around Château Saint-Ulrich. Although the proceedings weren't secret, and both Gryphon and Minna had made clear from the outset that any interested witch was welcome to attend, none of the other members of the 501st had done so as the second week wrapped up, so none of them really knew what went on. All they knew was that, every other day or so, he, Minna, Wilma, and von Hammer retired to the dojo for a variable portion of the afternoon - usually starting right after lunch and going for anything from two to five hours, depending on how busy the general's office was on any given day.
On those days, they were always a little quieter than usual at dinner, as if thinking about something that required serious thought. This was most noticeable in Wilma, who went on those evenings from being boisterous and cheerful to quiet and withdrawn - not sullen or unsociable, but definitely distracted.
Naturally, all this meant that the other witches wondered among themselves about just what was going on in there. Yoshika had a decent idea, since she was coming into contact with some of the same concepts, studying swordsmanship under Mio Sakamoto, but she found it very difficult to articulate. Mio herself wouldn't be drawn on the subject, saying only that she wanted to wait and see what happened before commenting. She joined in, or at least observed, about one session in three, but kept her own counsel about what she saw there.
As it happened, what was going on in the dojo was only one of several mysteries currently under consideration. There was also the matter of the witch-like Neuroi, which hadn't been spotted again since turning up in the 511th's battle photographs, and the question of just where ex-General von Reichenberg had ended up after his escape from Bitche. He hadn't been seen since then either, prompting Shirley to joke at dinner one evening that perhaps they had decamped to the south of Gallia together and were enjoying the beaches.
Some of the witches were more taken with one of these mysteries than the others, depending on their individual persuasion. Yoshika, unsurprisingly, was principally preoccupied with the matter of "Neuroi-chan" and her fate. Ursula's chief concern was what her old commander might be up to now that he was out in the wild again. But for most, and especially the senior members of the squadron, the question of Gryphon's dojo sessions kept coming back around - until at last, as often happens, circumstances aligned to move one of them in particular toward action.
Erica Hartmann droned northeastward, toward the easternmost point of Gallia, where the corner of Alsace jutted into Karlsland and the border turned westward away from the Rhine. This was country she knew well - had known well since long before she ever became a witch - and this particular patrol route always made her feel uncharacteristically melancholy. The weather today didn't help, either. The rain wasn't bucketing down the way it sometimes did, but cruising along in drizzle under this leaden grey overcast wasn't lifting her mood any.
She looked off to the east, past the silver-grey ribbon of the river, and sighed inwardly. I can practically see my house from here, she thought, for nothing like the first time; and then, Not that it'd still be there if I could.
Shaking herself slightly, Erica glanced back over her shoulder, expecting to see Gertrud Barkhorn giving her the fisheye - but saw instead, to her mild surprise, that Trude, for once, looked even more distracted than she was. She wasn't looking wistfully at occupied Karlsland, though; her pensive gaze was directed inward. Her flying pace had dropped off, too; she was lagging behind to the point where Erica would have had to shout, or use the radio, to get her attention now.
She considered doing one or the other, but then decided not to bother. Whatever Trude's mind had hold of right now - and there were several possibilities, though Erica had a fairly good idea of which one was uppermost - the best thing the younger witch could do was give her peace and let her work on it. When she was ready to talk it over, she would, and pestering her before that point would only annoy her.
Instead, Erica increased speed, making for the edge of the patrol area. The weather was closing in, but until she'd completed a visual check of the whole sweep of the Rhine up to the point of Alsace, she couldn't try to climb above it and into some sunshine for the flight back to Ribeauvillé.
She reached the Corner - the last point at which the local airspace was considered safe to traverse in small numbers - and paused. The weather was really socking in now, the cloud deck blending almost seamlessly into rain so fine it was nearly mist. Erica hovered, feeling the cold water gather into droplets on her face and drip from her chin, and squinted at the ground below. Nothing down there but the green emptiness of the Alsatian countryside on one side of the line, and the grey emptiness of the ruins of Karlsruhe on the other; the latter a sight that would have been depressing and bleak on a nice day, let alone one like this.
With a heavier, less inward sigh, Erica turned away from the sight and back toward the south. For a second she thought about hailing Trude on the radio, having completely lost sight of her in the lowering mist, but then her eye caught movement in the murk, and the distinctive silhouette of a witch began to resolve, coming toward her. She raised a hand in greeting, the suggestion that they try to get above this junk forming on her lips...
... and then it died there as she realized that the figure approaching was not Trude at all.
Erica felt a distinct sense of surreality as she and the witch-like Neuroi stood there in midair, looking at each other. At least, she assumed the Neuroi was looking at her. Like all Neuroi, it didn't have eyes; though shaped more or less like a human (part of its head was even shaped like a shaggy Bubischnitt haircut, not entirely unlike her own), it had no facial features at all.
"Uh... hi," said Erica, raising a hand in a slightly feeble wave.
The Neuroi regarded her blankly for a moment, and then, to her considerable surprise, imitated the gesture. It didn't really seem to have hands; its arms just ended. As it mimicked Erica's wave, though, stubby fingers extruded from the ends of its cylindrical forearms, looking uncannily like a person's fingertips protruding from the sleeves of a slightly-too-big commando sweater.
That is weirdly cute, Erica thought.
"Um... so," she said, but before she could think of something else to try - how does one open a conversation with a peculiarly-non-hostile alien war robot? - Trude's voice crackled in her earbud,
"Hartmann, where did you get off to? I can hear your engines, but I can't tell your direction. Everything just gets swallowed up in the verdammt fog."
"I'm... at the Corner," Erica replied. "I've got... kind of a... thing happening here."
"A thing? What kind of thing?"
Erica was thinking about her response to that when the Neuroi hovering opposite her seemed to look up, then drew back slightly in midair, its body language doing a pretty convincing imitation of dismayed surprise. Puzzled, Erica turned around.
"... A big thing," she said.
Not far away, Trude was about to demand a better answer than that when she heard the fog-muffled sound of Erica's propellers ramp up to a roar, followed by the distinctive brrrrt of a burst from an MG 42. Galvanized by the sound, she unslung both of her own 42s and primed them for action.
"Hartmann, what's going on?" she demanded. "Talk to me! I can't see anything in this mess!"
"Under attack!" Erica replied, sounding a bit out of breath. "Try to get above the weather!"
Trude wasn't sure whether the second part was a declaration of what Erica intended to do, or a suggestion for what she ought to do, but she decided it would probably work out the same either way and kicked her Fw 190 to full power, climbing straight up into the clouds. For an endless, damp, grey minute, it seemed like she would never make it through - and then she burst out into blue skies and sunshine, so bright after the gloom of the weather that she was momentarily dazzled.
Blinking her eyes clear, Trude saw movement to the north and turned, rapidly getting her bearings. Three contacts, a mile or so away and closing fast. The one in the lead was Erica, her Messerschmitt Striker's stacks flaming as she poured on all the speed she could muster. Hot on her heels were two Neuroi. The farther-away one was a large-class flier, with a spindly monoplane wing suspending a triple fuselage in a vaguely nautical-looking trimaran configuration...
... and the closer one, bearing rapidly down on Erica's tail, was the witch-like one Miyafuji had nicknamed "Neuroi-chan", last sighted two weeks ago by the 511th some considerable distance to the north.
Teeth gritted, Trude made for the scene, her own Striker's throttles wide open. At maximum power, their closing speed was prodigious, the range closing up fast. The big one was still too far away to engage - but the little one was mere yards behind Erica at this point, an easy mark for an aerial gunner of Trude Barkhorn's mettle.
Sorry, Minna, Trude thought grimly as she drew a bead on the smaller Neuroi. You said it yourself, we're not curious enough to risk anybody's life...
A half-second or so before she'd have opened fire, the bigger Neuroi let loose with a plasma beam that could've slagged a bus. Erica was already turning to engage, but her position wasn't optimal, and from where Trude was watching, it was an open question whether she'd be able to position her shield properly to withstand an assault of that magnitude in time.
Before Trude's astonished eyes, the smaller Neuroi placed itself between its bigger compatriot and Erica, moving plainly and deliberately into the way, and countered the beam with what looked for all the world like a witch's rune-circle shield, red instead of the more customary blue, conjured at the ends of its outstretched arms. The bigger Neuroi's beam split against the smaller's shield, its halves spearing away into the clouds and carving out vast, temporary furrows to either side of Erica's flight path.
"What," said Trude.
The big Neuroi didn't seem to know what to make of this development either. It hesitated, looking as puzzled as a giant aircraft-shaped machine with no visible expressive features could look - then resumed its advance, pouring out dozens of smaller beams instead of one big one. Of these beams, about half were directed at Erica, who was now flying an evasive pattern with the intuitive grace she had always shown in command of a Striker.
The other half were aimed at "Neuroi-chan", whose own evasive maneuvering was composed of straight lines and impossible-looking right-angle turns rather than Erica's sweeping curved trajectories.
"What," said Trude.
As if they'd had a chance to plan it beforehand, Erica and the Neuroi "witch" commenced a multi-vectored assault on the big trimaran Neuroi, raking it from both sides with machinegun fire and plasma beams respectively as they raced down its length, then doubled back at the tail and crossed paths to come back on opposite sides.
"What," said Trude.
"Are you just going to watch, or what?" Erica wondered as she pulled a tight turn around her partner.
Trude blinked. "Right! Sorry!" she said, tearing herself out of her reverie. Gritting her teeth again, she launched into motion, declaring, "Let's do this!"
The large-type Neuroi was surprisingly agile for its size, and able to project enough plasma beams to make Erica and Trude's lives quite interesting, but once they settled into a rhythm of alternating attacks and evasive passes, their firepower, augmented by the apparently friendly "Neuroi-chan" sending in precision blasts from her own weaponry, finally brought the beast down.
As the Neuroi's core shattered and then dissolved under a long burst from Trude's MG 42s, Erica broke off her follow-up pass and came around the swiftly dissipating remains to form up into echelon with her wife.
"You OK, Trude? What happened there?"
Trude looked back with a mix of confusion and concern. "I should be asking you that. Did you see what she... it... did?"
Erica nodded. "I was looking right at it. I think my shield would have held if she hadn't blocked that beam, but I'm glad I didn't have to try." Suddenly, the blonde Karlslander spun around, scanning the skies. "Hey, wait, where'd she go?"
Blinking, Trude did her own check of the area, and realized Erica was right - the strange Neuroi had disappeared. "We'd better head back. We need to report this, and I don't think it's a good idea to discuss what just happened over the radio."
"Yeah," Erica agreed. As they started for home, cruising along above the clouds so their clothes could dry out, she surprised Trude somewhat by humming a little tune, a happy smile on her face.
"You seem strangely pleased," Trude observed after a brief pause.
Erica glanced at her, then winked. "This is getting interesting now," she said.
Back at Château Saint-Ulrich, Gryphon was thinking roughly the same thing, albeit about a completely different subject.
The rebuilding of the Belv was far from his highest-priority job these days, nor Shirley's, but between the two of them and with occasional help from various others, they'd come fairly far on it in two weeks. The complete unavailability of factory replacement parts actually made the process faster, since it meant that rather than wait for needed bits to arrive from distant lands, they had to just go to the 501st's machine shop and make them, or else adapt more readily available equipment to the purpose.
To the casual observer, the car looked little better than it had when it arrived. It was cleaner, but its paintwork was still in the same rough condition, blue paint badly faded and streaked with surface rust. Underneath the shabby skin, though, the Belv's mechanicals had undergone an almost complete rebuild, from the (surprisingly sophisticated) suspension up to the simple but well-designed and robust little engine.
Now, bent down under the hood, Gryphon finished putting the final touches on that engine: double-checking the electrical connections, making sure all the lines and hoses were connected, verifying the fluid levels. Everything looked good to go.
Straightening, he said to the person standing on the opposite side of the car's stubby front end, "There. Properly proud of that."
Chris Barkhorn nodded with a smile. "It looks great. You'd hardly believe it was the same engine."
"Well, about 40 percent of it isn't," Gryphon allowed; then, his own smile turning a little sly, he said, "Want to see if it'll start?"
Chris blinked. "Shouldn't we wait until Shirley gets back from patrol?"
"I thought we might surprise her," said Gryphon.
"Well... OK, sure!" said Chris. "What do I do?"
Gryphon dug in his pocket and tossed the key across the engine bay to her. "Jump in and do what I tell you. I'll stay out here and adjust the carb, I'm sure it'll take some fiddling to get right."
With a broad grin, Chris went to the driver's door and slid behind the wheel, adjusting the seat so that she could reach the controls. She wasn't very tall - at 12, she hadn't quite hit her first growth spurt yet - but then the Belv wasn't a very big car, and with the seat all the way forward she could just about make the pedals work.
"OK, put it in neutral," Gryphon said. "That way you won't have to hold down the clutch."
There came some clicking and rattling from under the car as Chris made certain the gearshift lever was freed up, then a ratchet sound as she made certain of the handbrake. "Ready!"
"All righty," said Gryphon. Bending down again, he positioned himself, screwdriver at the ready, alongside the carburetor. "Let's see if she'll turn over."
"Here goes," Chris reported, then turned the key.
It did indeed turn over, but then, that wasn't really a surprise. Early in the process, Gryphon had discarded the tiny, worn-out battery that had originally been installed in the car. Later on, Shirley had fitted it with a giant tank battery, nearly as big as the engine itself - so large it had to be installed in the back of the car, taking up a fair bit of the boot, instead of under the hood with the engine. The thing was meant to crank the enormous diesel engines of armored fighting vehicles - causing the Belv's comparatively tiny 1200cc engine to turn imposed a drain it barely even noticed.
The engine whined uselessly for several seconds as the fuel pump pushed gas up through the empty lines from the tank at the back of the car; then it began to stutter. Gryphon leaned in and started making adjustments. The stuttering got faster, the little car shaking and juddering as the engine kept trying to fire. Frowning in concentration, Gryphon fine-tuned the carb, then shouted over the little motor's high-pitched struggle,
"OK - floor it!"
Still cranking the engine over, Chris put the accelerator to the floor as she was told; Gryphon reached in and tweaked the throttle linkage as it moved, and with a cough and a single backfire, the engine caught. Instinctively, Chris took her foot off the gas, so as not to race it before the oil had a chance to pressurize. Gryphon worked on the carb a little more, adjusting the idle... and the Belv was running, its little engine filling the hangar with a surprisingly raucous growl.
Grinning, Gryphon fitted the air cleaner in place, then stood up, folded down the prop rod, and closed the hood. At the wheel, Chris revved the engine a couple of times, making it bark and snarl in a loud and cheerful kind of way, then shut it down and sprang out of the car to give and receive a congratulatory hug.
"Huge success!" he declared, giving a chipper wave to the various ground crew personnel who had looked up from their work on the Strikers at the noise. Then, turning to look out of the open hangar doors, he added, "Now all we need is some decent weather and we can see if it'll move." Giving the Belv an affectionate pat on the fender, he added, "For now, I'd say we've earned some lunch, Cadet Barkhorn."
Chris straightened up and saluted, the merry twinkle in her eyes putting the lie to the serious military gesture. "Yes sir, Rittmeister von Katädien," she said.
After docking their Striker Units and making sure their ground crew had matters well in hand, Trude racked her MG 42s, stepped hastily into her boots, and leapt down from her launch stage. She took off towards the Wing's offices at something just short of a run, while Erica did her best to keep up.
"Geez, Barkhorn, slow down! It's not like she's going to turn back up outside of Minna's office window."
Trude shook her head, but did slacken her pace slightly. "It's not that, I want to try to catch them before..."
Her voice trailed off as they turned the corner into the hallway and found Minna's office door shut, the lights turned off. Across the way, von Hammer and Mio's offices were similarly closed up, and Trude gave a soft growl of frustration under her breath.
"Ahhh," Erica noted as she caught up, "I guess they must be in Zauberschule." Putting a hand on Trude's shoulder, she squeezed gently. "Look, why don't you go listen in, I'll type up the AAR, and we'll talk to them about what happened afterwards?"
Trude turned back, her face clouding. "I don't..."
"Trude," Erica stopped her, placing a hand against her cheek. "You don't think I couldn't tell it was bothering you? You've been preoccupied about it since they started, and today you spent half the patrol turning it over in your mind."
Trude blushed, embarassed, and looked away in a manner that would have shocked most of her wingmates, had they seen it. "I'm not afraid, Hartmann. I'm not. I haven't lost a step yet."
Erica stepped closer, turning her light touch into an embrace, then kissed her wife gently. "No. I know you're not afraid of anything, love. But you want to keep flying, almost as bad as Mio did, back in the day. So go see what Gryph can show you."
Releasing her, Erica stepped back with a slightly crooked smile. "What's the worst that could happen, ja?"
Trude tried to look unconvinced for a moment, then relented. "All right - but we do need to tell Minna what happened."
"First thing after class," Erica promised. "Now c'mon - let's swing through the mess and grab a sandwich or something on the way over. I'm starving!"
And with that, she darted away, arms out at her sides like wings, making propeller noises with her mouth as she ran off down the hall. Trude watched her go, a look of mild wonderment on her face; then she chuckled, shaking her head with an indulgent smile, and followed her in a rather more collected fashion.
She's such a child at heart, Trude thought, then reflected, It's funny how that used to annoy me. Now it's one of the things I love most about her.
With Gryphon conducting the day's... whatever it was they did in what Erica had nicknamed Zauberschule, Ursula Hartmann was taking the opportunity to perform a teardown of the He 162 Striker. The unit sat atop the main workbench in FUEL STORAGE, the cowlings removed and replacement parts neatly arranged for quick retrieval. Ursula had lost track of how long she'd been working at it, but the sound of a car's engine made her look up briefly from where she'd been elbow-deep in the portside ætherjet engine to see a Liberion Jeep pulling into the hangar.
She had begun to return to the matter at hand when she realized the Jeep's driver and two passengers had piled out and were headed towards her.
Standing, she reached for a nearby rag to clean off her hands, then pitched her voice so that the men would be able to hear her.
"I'm sorry, gentlemen, but this workshop contains some highly secret First JSAF test equipment. I'm afraid I must ask you to stop there."
Two of the men - who she now realized were Liberion Army MPs - did as she asked; the third, apparently a Liberion lieutenant, came a few steps forward and raised his arm slightly, allowing her to see that the briefcase he was carrying had been handcuffed to his wrist.
"Are you Captain Ursula Hartmann?"
"I am, yes. And you are...?"
"Lt. Wegener, ma'am. I was ordered to deliver these documents to you."
Ursula blinked, then walked over to meet him. "Documents... oh! Yes! Thank you. But I'm a little surprised they weren't simply delivered through normal channels."
The Liberion shook his head. "No, ma'am. These are considered above top secret - I'm honestly not even sure how you folks heard about them. That requires a physical handoff. I was dispatched from London with these as soon as they arrived - and let me tell you, Captain Clevinger wasn't terribly happy about having to babysit them across the Atlantic. It's a long flight from Los Alamos."
Ursula gave the Liberion courier a sympathetic smile. "I'm sorry - we didn't realize you'd be put through so much trouble. If you would like, please stop by the mess here before you go and have something to eat?"
Wegener nodded, and gave a tilt of his head to one of the MPs, who approached, producing a key to the handcuffs and releasing the courier's wrist. "Thanks, ma'am. I think we may just take you up on that."
Once Ursula had taken the briefcase, Wegener saluted. "I have no idea what you want those for, but I hope they're worth all the trouble."
Ursula stepped back, putting on a more serious expression as she returned the salute. "So do I, Lieutenant. So do I."
Even though Château Saint-Ulrich was a very Gallian castle, when the 501st had taken possession, Mio Sakamoto had supervised the construction of a dojo - which meant that said dojo had been built as a little island of Fusō in the midst of the old wood and stonework, because Mio was particular about that sort of thing.
The constraints of the castle's construction meant that the room still had a conventional Western-style door, however, and that was where Trude stood, her hands clenched at her sides, trying to work up the courage to knock.
Finally, some part of her pushed past the wall of her stubborn pride. She let out a long sigh and forced her hands to unclench, muttering, "You can do this, Barkhorn."
Rapping the door sharply, she stepped back, some part of her still hoping that perhaps they wouldn't hear it and allow her a line of retreat. Instead, after a few moments, Gryphon opened the door. "Oh, hello, Trude. Everything all right?"
The answers to that were complex, particularly after the earlier encounter on patrol, but Trude pressed on as best as she could. "Hello. I... I wanted to know if I could join you, today. Just for today. For now."
Gryphon nodded, stepping back and gesturing her in. "Of course. C'mon in and we'll give you some things to read."
The others gave little nods or waves of welcome, but seemed to mostly be absorbed in... whatever they had been absorbed in before Trude had come in, for which she was oddly grateful. It made things a little easier - and prevented them from noticing the embarassed blush that had risen on her cheeks from the moment Gryphon answered the door.
After Gryphon retrieved a folder from where he must have been sitting, they ended up settling into a corner not far from the door, with Gryphon gesturing for her to sit before settling down across from her in seiza.
"OK, so, before we get started I guess I should try to explain what we're trying to do here..."
They ended up staying almost an hour past when Minna and the others had left for dinner. Trude hadn't taken too long to read through the explanations, but periodically found herself stopping to go back and re-read pieces - and admitting to herself that she'd been trying to rush through rather than actually absorb the knowledge.
After that admission, things got a little easier. It was still slow going, but Gryphon seemed pleased when the evening mess call came over the PA and he suggested that had been enough for one day.
"You're catching up - and coming along really well for trying to cram three weeks' worth of stuff into an afternoon, I might add." He smiled, holding the door for her as they left the dojo to make their way to the mess. "Just give yourself some time for things to sink in. This isn't something you can make happen faster by pushing harder - in fact, it's often just the opposite."
Trude's mind was still mostly occupied with everything she'd tried to take on board, but she managed a noncommittal grunt while her feet turned her towards the mess on autopilot.
Gryphon walked with her in silence for a few moments, then offered his final thoughts on the subject. "Trude?"
She looked faintly startled, coming partway back from her reverie, and said quietly, "Yes?"
Standing with his hand on the dining room doorknob, he smiled and told her, "I'm glad you decided to come by today."
"... thank you," she mumbled, going red over an embarrassed quarter-smile.
In the evenings, Wilma Bishop had taken to hanging around FUEL STORAGE, trying to apply the lessons that Gryphon was working to teach her and Minna (and now, apparently, Barkhorn). Compared to the dojo or the castle's library, it was a somewhat unusual place to study, but she found the subtle mechanical smells of the workshop made it a place where she felt much more at home.
Spreading a blanket out on the workshop floor, she would sit, close her eyes, and try to slow down her breathing. Focusing on the simple act of inhaling, then exhaling, until she could let go of whatever else had been occupying her mind.
She'd read through everything she'd been given, and it was beginning to make sense to her - but she couldn't quite bridge the gap between theory and practice. At times, like tonight, it seemed so close. Even with her eyes closed, she felt like she could almost feel the others around her. Minna's thoughtful, analytic approach. Mio's dedication. Lucchini and Shirley's infectious good humor. Trude's frustration at not having instantly grasped all that she was being shown. Lynne's quiet strength, tempered with concern. Von Hammer, like a rock in a stream, somehow letting everything pass around her, yet never changing who she was.
The more her thoughts went to the friends and family around her here, the more it felt like each one was getting a little closer. It was almost as if she could reach out and gently touch against each presence - and suddenly she realized that she was. She could feel them, around the castle - feel every single person here, witch or not - feel every single thing!
The breath she'd been unknowingly holding exploded out of her in a gasp, her eyes snapping open.
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
In barracks room 5 East, a quiet evening was in progress. On the bed, Eila Juutilainen-Litvyak lay on her stomach. Propped up on her elbows, she scratched a blissfully snoring Wolfgang's head with one hand and flipped idly through her Tarot cards with the other.
By the window, Gryphon and Sanya (enjoying a rare night off) sat hunched over a chess table the former had bought on an expedition to Colmar, engrossed in their game. Eila watched them play for a while, smiling at the look of concentration on Sanya's face as she considered the pieces. Then she turned back to her cards, flipping over the next in the stack and regarding it. Number VIII, the figure of a smiling witch gently restraining - Eila suppressed a snicker - a griffin: Strength.
"Hm," said Gryphon suddenly, looking up from the chessboard as if he'd heard something. He looked thoughtfully into space for a moment, then nodded with evident satisfaction and returned his attention to the game.
"What?" Sanya asked quietly.
"This is getting interesting now," Gryphon replied with a cryptic smile, and moved one of his rooks.
E P U (colour) 2015