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Ursula Hartmann had never been terribly concerned about the setting in which she worked. As a very young witch indeed - she was all of eleven when the war began - she'd begun her career as a member of one of the farthest-flung Allied units, the Suomus Independent Volunteer Squadron. Though that outfit eventually achieved a measure of respectability as the 507th Joint Fighter Wing, it was better-known in those early days as the Suomus Misfit Squadron, the ragtaggest of ragtag bands. While her twin sister Erica was earning her spurs as a member of the prestigious Jagdgeschwader 52, Ursula worked as an engineer and weapons designer in a series of primitive workshops attached to the improvised and rudimentary facilities that were all an underfunded, underappreciated band of misfits could manage in frozen Suomus.
Compared to that, FUEL STORAGE was practically an Earthly paradise, and it had the bonus that, unlike the other well-equipped, well-funded places in which she'd worked since leaving Suomus (Juvincourt, Mimoyecques), she didn't have a lot of pushy officer types looking over her shoulder all the time. As in Suomus, she could just get on with the job and expect her space to be respected.
Of course, as she had that thought, she opened the workshop to find someone asleep on the floor, which took her slightly aback. More surprising still was that it wasn't either of the people she might have considered likely to do such a thing: the individual curled up in the green wool blanket in front of her workbench was neither Erica nor Francesca Lucchini, but Wilma Bishop, of all people.
Ursula sighed. "Oh dear, another one," she murmured, then bent to shake the Britannian gently by the shoulder. "Sgt. Bishop? Wilma?"
Wilma opened her eyes, looked around, then sat up and stretched. "Wha... I'm awake," she said, climbing to her feet. "Is it morning?" At Ursula's mute, puzzled nod, Wilma cricked her back, then said, "I must've finally dozed off after..." She trailed off, her expression slowly changing from blurry waking to dawning wonder as her memory backtracked to after what. "I remember," she said, softly, as if to herself.
"Are you all right?" Ursula started to ask, but before she got the question all the way out, Wilma had seized her in a jubilant embrace, then - to her wide-eyed, red-faced shock - kissed her soundly.
"I remember!" Wilma cried, shaking the blonde by the shoulders. "Where's Gryph?"
Ursula, considerably flustered, glanced automatically at the workshop's wall clock: a quarter past 0800 hours. "Still in bed at this hour, I should think," she said.
"Ha, well, that won't do," Wilma said, and then, laying hold of Ursula's wrist, she turned and all but dragged her out of FUEL STORAGE. "C'mon, let's go get him!"
"But I - that is," Ursula protested, but to no avail.
By the time they got to 5 East, Wilma's adrenaline rush had burned off, leaving behind a young woman who had gotten perhaps an hour's fitful sleep on a stone floor before Ursula discovered her. She had most likely intended to enter the room, march up to the side of Gryphon's bed, make a dramatic declaration, and then roust him out and embark with him on a day of energetic diligence.
What she did instead, to Ursula's combined amusement and mild concern, was enter the room, march up to the side of Gryphon's bed, and then fall into it and go immediately back to sleep.
"Wow," Eila Juutilainen-Litvyak quipped from the hall, where she and Sanya - just on their way back to their own room - had watched with interest as Wilma and Ursula swept past. "That was very Sanya-like."
"Mm," Sanya agreed, nodding.
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
"Angles of Communication"
Not long after Wilma's dramatic return to bed, Gryphon woke. Having determined that his impromptu roommate was probably going to need some more time to recover, he gingerly extricated himself, showered, dressed, and proceeded to breakfast. With that taken care of, he had a little time on his hands, so it was off to FUEL STORAGE.
"Good morning, Captain Hartmann!"
"Good morning," Ursula replied as she turned to face him. "I have something for you."
Walking from her workbench to the safe that had been installed from her old workshop, Ursula spun the combination on the heavy-duty lock, then pulled the latching bar open to reveal the tightly packed contents. Carefully extracting the briefcase which had been delivered during yesterday's Zauberschule session, she made sure the safe door was secured and locked once more before setting the case on Gryphon's bench.
"A Liberion courier brought this in while you were working with your students yesterday," she explained.
Humming thoughtfully, Gryphon popped the latches, then extracted the first of what appeared to be several folders edged in red-and-black-striped tape. Flipping through the first few pages, his expression changed to a satisfied smile. "Awwww, yeah. Exactly what I was hoping for."
Handing the first folder to Ursula, he began to examine the rest of the briefcase's contents. "See what you make of this, Captain Hartmann."
Ursula blinked as she examined the folder's title. "Top Secret: MAJIC? That's not how that's spelled in English, is it?"
Gryphon laughed, continuing to flip through the contents of the case. "Heh. That was actually deliberate... it's a bit of a long story."
Ursula gave a "hm" of her own, then opened the folder and began to read. "Oh, my. Is this what I think it is?"
"Uh-huh." Gryphon's smile was positively wolflike now. "We're going to have some fun with this."
Wilma was missing from Zauberschule that afternoon, but Gryphon didn't seem concerned about it; he proceeded with the session as he normally would've. If anything, he appeared a bit pleased about something, but none of the others could draw him out as to what it might be -
- Until, an hour and a half into the session, the door suddenly slammed open and there stood Wilma Bishop, a look of triumph on her face.
"Ladies," she declared. "I have seen the light."
The four witches attending that day's session - two participating, two observing - turned as one to regard her, then all looked to see Gryphon's reaction.
Smiling, he adjusted his spectacles and said, "Show me."
They drew a bit of a crowd in the hangar. Word got around like a radio broadcast, and by the time they arrived, every witch of the 501st Joint Fighter Wing who was not out on patrol (and more than a few of their ground crewmen) had gathered there, eager to see what happened next. Even the Night Witches turned out, the inhumane earliness of the hour (by their standards) offset by the momentous nature of the occasion.
"OK!" Wilma declared as she entered the hangar and saw them all waiting there. "Who's got a Striker I can borrow? Lynne?"
Wilma's younger sister Lynette blinked in surprise, going a bit red, and hesitated. She was not immediately able to come up with a diplomatic way of telling her beloved, much-looked-up-to elder sister that she was crazy if she thought Lynne was going to let her use her 2,400-horsepower, 500-mile-an-hour Supermarine Spiteful for the first flight she'd made with a Striker in more than a year and a half.
Fortunately, before she had to try, Chris Barkhorn stepped forward and said, "Maybe you should start out with mine, Sgt. Bishop." Indicating her training Striker in its launch stage off to one side, she added diplomatically, "I think Lynne would probably like to fly with you."
Wilma gave the young Karlslander a winking little grin - I see what you did there, kid! - then said, "Sure, that works. Gotta walk before you can run, right?" She went to the launch stage and considered the green-painted Striker held in it.
"This is an Arado Ar 96," Ursula told her. "It's the Luftwaffe's standard advanced fighter trainer. Service ceiling 7,000 meters, maximum speed 330 kph."
"What's that in Church of England?" Wilma inquired with a grin as she climbed to the top of the stage.
Ursula did the calculations in her head, then said, "22,966 feet and 205 miles per hour."
"Awright, I probably won't be able to kill myself with that," said Wilma wryly. Kicking off her boots, she stood for a moment at the top of the stage, looking down into the open leg ports of the Striker, then up at the expectant crowd of witches. "Never had an audience this big for a startup before," she quipped, not really covering her nervousness. "Well... here goes."
Many of those watching were unconsciously holding their breath as Wilma stepped off the front of the stage and slid down into the Striker's embrace. Lynne, in particular, gripped Yoshika's hand tightly, her blue eyes fixed on the scene, as she recalled the words of the terrible letter she'd received from her sister just after the 501st had broken up for the first time, after they'd driven the Neuroi from Gallia:
Tried to fly up to London this morning. Nothing doing - not even a flicker. I guess it's really over. I'm all done.
For a horrible moment she expected a similar outcome this time... but then she heard that familiar sound of magic being released, saw the silvery glow shine from the ports of the Striker as Wilma's legs slid into them, and the tail and distinctive folded-down ears of her Scottish Fold familiar sprang out as though she had never lost them. When she reached bottom, she remained still for a moment, head bowed, as the Arado's Miyafuji engine whined to life, and then its piston engines fired up and its ætheric props began to turn.
Then Wilma raised her face, grinning fiercely, and demanded, "Well, little sister, are you gonna come fly with me or what?"
The hangar erupted in whistling, cheering, jubilant applause. Off to one side, Gryphon and Mio Sakamoto casually high-fived, smiling curiously matched little satisfied smiles. Trude Barkhorn turned her face to the ceiling, eyes closed, with silent tears streaming down her cheeks - as if she had just received the best and most relieving news of her life - while Erica Hartmann hugged her from behind with a broad grin.
On the other side of Mio from Gryphon, Minna-Dietlinde Wilcke wore a look of astonishment, her red-brown eyes wide. She turned to Mio, who gave her a curious look, and murmured under the roars of the Striker and the crowd, "I think I see it now."
Mio laughed heartily and pulled her into an embrace, then addressed all her witches in a parade-ground bellow that cut through all the other noises:
"501st Joint Fighter Wing - mount up! We're gonna do this right!"
Within a few moments of taking flight, Wilma knew that her little sister had made the right call not letting her use a high-powered combat Striker. Even the Arado's modest power was almost enough to get away from her as she hurtled down the runway, although the hardest part wasn't controlling the Striker, it was controlling herself. What she really needed to do right now was keep her exultation under control and concentrate, and at a moment like this, that was a challenge to a person so naturally disinclined to stoicism.
Still, she managed it, if only because she was so acutely aware of what an anticlimax it would be if she crashed at this point. She got fully into the air with only a slight bobble, finding her balance more or less by instinct. Her first few tentative maneuvers were pretty rocky, but got progressively smoother as she got her sky legs back under her again, and by the time she reached the broken cloud layer at 15,000 feet, her poise and confidence were returning fast.
It really is like riding a bike, she thought, unable to keep a grin off her face, and then turned to look behind her.
Just as Sakamoto had ordered, the whole damn wing was coming up after her, launching in ones and twos and forming up as if for an aerial inspection review. Not just the 501st, either, but Wilcke and von Hammer, Hartmann Minor - even Gryphon, in his jetpack and oxygen-masked flight helmet. Since one never knew when emergencies might arise, most of them were armed, like it was a regular combat sortie, but the grim and purposeful faces that would accompany such a launch were absent.
Instead, they all looked delighted as they caught up and settled into formation around Wilma. Lynne, forming up on her right wing, was beaming from ear to ear - reminding Wilma uncannily of herself when Lynne had taken her first flight, years ago. On her left, Erica Hartmann had Chris Barkhorn perched on her shoulders, both of them grinning like kids on fairground rides. Wilma had to laugh at the look of mingled pride and faint dismay on Trude's face as she settled in on Erica's left, instinctively ready to lunge to her sister's rescue even though she knew it wouldn't be necessary.
They made a loop around the 501st's inner operations area, picking up the midday patrol as they went. At the northern edge of the area, a patrol team from the 511th joined them. One of them broke formation to intercept Wilma, catching her in a full-turnaround aerial hug.
"Wilma!" Darjeeling cried, her blue eyes wide. "I wouldn't have believed it if I weren't seeing it for myself."
Wilma grinned, her arm around her youngest sister's neck, as Lynne - still beaming - joined them. "I told you I had an angle," she said with a wink.
"But how?" Darjeeling asked. "Your powers - they were completely gone!"
"I know! And now they're back," said Wilma. "It's... well, look, this isn't really the time or the place to explain, but I'll tell you this much - it's just as amazing from my side as it is from yours." Seeing that her sister wasn't going to be satisfied with so simple an explanation, she added, "Tell you what - come down to Saint-Ulrich sometime soon and I'll try to show you. That's really the only way I'll be able to get it across." Then, slinging her free arm around Lynne, she hugged both of her sisters tight and declared, "Right now, let's just fly!"
Not far away, Antoinette de Saint-Exupéry immortalized the family moment with her reconnaissance camera. Then, without drawing attention to herself, she turned and headed back toward Lichtenberg, a slightly pensive smile on her face.
When the 501st returned to their hangar, it was to the tumultuous applause of their ground crews, who had gathered to welcome them back as if from a major victory - and, upon reflection, Minna supposed it was, albeit not necessarily a strictly military one.
She was still riding her own rush of realization as she returned her Striker Unit to its launch stage and climbed down, though she hadn't entirely processed what it meant yet. That would take a bit more consideration, and she hadn't wanted to trample Wilma's moment - but she felt undeniably as if she had turned some sort of corner, the implications of which were fluttering in the back of her head.
The group that would soon come to be known as "Zauberschule Class One" reconvened in the dojo shortly thereafter - this time with several of the other witches tagging along, their curiosity having finally gotten the better of them. They were all still exhilarated from the flight, but Gryphon's expression as he took his place at the head of the room reminded them of the importance of the occasion. He looked serious, but not grave, as he seated himself seiza facing the witches and regarded them.
Wilma, Minna, and Trude sat in the first row, only a pace or two in front of him, looking blissed, expectant, and a bit nervous, respectively. Behind them sat Mio and von Hammer, the former's pride and the latter's satisfaction evident on their faces. The onlookers - Lynne and Yoshika, Chris and Erica, a deeply intrigued-looking Shizuka Hattori - gathered together all the way at the back, trying to be as out-of-the-way as possible.
After a few seconds' contemplation, Gryphon spoke, his voice quiet and measured. "When you first manifested your magical gifts as children," he said, "and you began your training in the use of those gifts, you were warned that it wouldn't last. That with care and prudence, your powers might last you into early adulthood - but that eventually, inevitably, regardless of what you did, they would wane and be lost. Your trainers, your elders, maybe your mothers... someone will have told you that the fire of your magic would die someday. They said it was natural. They called it the Witch's Fate. Inescapable."
Every eye was upon him as he spoke, and the last remark elicited more than a few silent nods. Gryphon let the thought hang for a moment, and then he cut it off with three sharp, uncompromising words:
"They were wrong."
A vaguely startled silence greeted this remark. He didn't seem to have been expecting a reply, anyway; after another brief pause to let his listeners reflect, he told them, "There is a fire inside you that will not die, not to your last breath, nor even beyond: the universal, immortal fire of life itself, greater than distance or time. As living beings, we are each of us a flame of that fire. We are points of light and heat, warming and illuminating the cold darkness between the stars. All life is flame; all life is one."
As he spoke the last eight words, Mio Sakamoto spoke them with him, almost inaudibly under her breath, her hand stealing onto Minna's shoulder; and as she gave a gentle squeeze, she and Gryphon said together,
"This is the Force."
A few hours after Gryphon performed the formal initiation for Class One, the 501st was still buzzing with the good cheer and excitement that had spread throughout the castle after the "patrol in force", as Minna had documented it for their official records.
As dinner wrapped up, the witches assembled in the living room to enjoy the festive atmosphere for just a little while longer before Sanya and Heidemarie had to head out on their assigned patrols. That atmosphere was helpfully reinforced by Lynne and Yoshika, who arrived from the kitchens with an impressively large chocolate cake.
"We were planning this for tomorrow," Lynne explained to Wilma, "But I didn't think you'd mind having your birthday cake a day early."
Wilma grinned, elbowing Gryphon. "Well, I already got a pretty good present."
A few hours after the 501st had put paid to the cake, Gryphon was back in 5 East, typing up a few more notes for the next day's class, when his self-appointed roommate returned, humming cheerfully as she tossed her hat onto the rack.
After finishing up the paragraph he'd been working on, Gryphon looked over, smiling. "'Paper Moon'? You must be in a good mood."
Laughing, Wilma shrugged out of her jacket before opening the door to her wardrobe and beginning to prepare for bed. "You have no idea! I feel like I just climbed out of my own grave."
Gryphon grinned, chuckling as he turned back to his typewriter. "I've done that, actually. It is quite a rush."
Leaning backwards, Wilma stared for just a moment, trying to gauge if that remark was serious. Then, shrugging, she finished changing before shutting the door and sitting down on her (seldom-used) bunk. "Seriously, though - thank you. I know that this is why I came here, but... you've given me my life back."
Gryphon turned back, his smile just a bit sad, but his eyes serious. "You're very welcome, Wilma. Back when Mio came to me, I told her that, well, I know what it's like to lose everything that made your life make sense. After helping her take that back, there was no way I could refuse to help someone else."
Wilma gave that the consideration it deserved, then crossed the room, wrapping Gryphon in a wordless embrace.
The chimes at midnight, and Gertrud Barkhorn lay awake, staring at the darkness that stood between her and the ceiling.
Why don't I feel it? she asked herself for the thousandth time that day.
Erica stirred beside her, turned over, and snuggled against her side, slipping an arm over her body. Then, sensing that she was not, in any real way, relaxed, she woke, mumbling, "Trude? What's wrong?"
"Nothing," Trude replied, working her own arm around Erica's shoulders. "I'm just thinking."
"You're worrying," Erica corrected her gently.
"No, I - ... well... a bit," Trude admitted.
"It'll come in its own time."
Trude sighed. "I wish I could be as confident of that as you sound. I mean... I understand the readings. I get what Gryphon is saying when he talks about it. I can even sort of perceive it - enough that I would be satisfied it's real, even if I hadn't seen Mio and Wilma make use of it with my own eyes." Holding her wife a little closer, she went on in a slightly plaintive murmur, "So why don't I feel it? What's wrong with me?"
"Nothing's wrong with you," said Erica positively. "You just have to let it happen. Heck, for all we know it's just because you don't need it yet. Either way, remember, you told me what Gryph said... pushing harder doesn't help."
"I know. But that's always been the way I handle things."
"Well..." said Erica after a moment's consideration, "maybe that's your challenge." Then, kissing her softly on the cheek, she added, "For now, get some sleep. You've got patrol in the morning." In a gentle parody of a tone of voice Trude had addressed her in countless times, she went on, "The first duty of a soldier of Karlsland is to be properly rested for action."
In spite of herself, Trude chuckled. "Jawohl, Generaloberst Hartmann," she said wryly, and finally felt herself relax.
"I feel like that's cheating somehow," said Mio conversationally.
Gryphon looked up from his work and gave her a grin. "I'm not doing anything Masamune wouldn't have done if he'd had access to Baltlandic saw steel and a pneumatic power hammer made in Karlsland."
"Right," said Mio with an ironic smile. She sauntered into the 501st's machine shop and hopped up onto the bench, saying nothing more as she watched him work.
For all that he was cheating somewhat by traditional standards, using modern materials and tooling, she knew enough about the subject to know that he was putting together a quite respectable Fusō katana - having evidently gotten his eye in with the unpolished wakizashi blade she noticed lying on the work table next to his station. The longer blade was already taking recognizable shape, and Mio's practiced eye estimated that it would be ready for tempering soon.
She was right; it took him about an hour more to prepare the blade for its moment of truth - the moment when he plunged it, glowing yellow-orange through its clay coating, into the trough of water next to the forge. As the water hissed and bubbled, Mio counted silently in her head, one second, two seconds, three seconds, and just when she would've done it, Gryphon withdrew the blade from the water and held it up before him.
It didn't look like much in this state - rough and blackened, only its general outline discernible. A layman would've taken it for scrap metal, or perhaps a failed attempt at a crowbar. Mio, though, could see that the meticulous preparations and the clay had done their work. In its three seconds in the water, the blade had taken on a marked and perfect curvature. Even in its current state, she could tell that it would be a graceful, deadly weapon.
She and Gryphon made eye contact over the blade, then grinned at each other. "Huge success!"
Pleased with his work, Gryphon rolled the two blades up in bundles of cloth and set them aside, then started cleaning up the shop. Mio got down from the table and pitched in with that. Once they had returned the shop to the condition in which he found it that morning, they left together and headed up to the barracks wing, Gryphon with his unfinished swords tucked under his arm.
"I can polish them upstairs," he explained, though she hadn't asked. "No need to take up the crew's machine shop for that. What's up? Or did you just come by to watch me do miracles with steel?"
Mio rolled her eyes slightly with a faint, indulgent smile. "No, that was just a side bonus," she remarked dryly. "I came to warn you - word's getting around about your magic school. It reached the 511th first, unsurprisingly, but I'm hearing rumors now that they've heard of it in Juvincourt, which means it'll be all over the Luftwaffe by the end of the week. You'll probably have a new recruit or three at tomorrow's session."
"Well, we knew that was a possibility," Gryphon said philosophically. "And really, as long as nobody goes AWOL for it, I don't have a problem. Some schools of Force-users treat it as something that should be exclusive - got to keep the riffraff out - but I've never bought into that. If someone wants to learn, I'm willing to at least consider teaching. There are considerations, of course, but just keeping the size of the club small for its own sake isn't one of them."
"The potential for misuse should be, though," said Mio.
"It is, but then that's the case for magic too," Gryphon pointed out. "That possibilty exists with any tool. I'll certainly have to be more careful with aspirants I don't already know as well as I know you, and Minna, and the rest. I'm just saying I won't shut the door on them just because I don't already know them."
Mio mulled that over while he stashed his unfinished blades in his room. Standing by the window, she was about to pronounce her agreement with the basic principle when she noticed something outside that grabbed precedence over the remark in her mind.
"Oh, lovely," she said.
"Hm?" asked Gryphon, who came around his desk to join her by the window.
"C-47," Mio said, pointing to the olive drab transport aircraft in the process of landing on the castle's runway. "Eighth Air Force markings. I wonder who that might be?" she asked sardonically.
Perrine Clostermann had a certain sense of déjà vu as she intercepted Curtis LeMay and his aide in the hangar again.
"General LeMay, what a pleasant surprise," she said. "And here I was, thinking it had been made clear to you that Château Saint-Ulrich is not a venue for uninvited snipe hunts."
"Save it, Clostermann," LeMay snapped. "I'm here on Ike's business today." Thrusting his chin out pugnaciously, he fixed her with a bulldog glower and said, "He wants to know how your pet egghead even knew the MAJIC files existed, let alone how to have Wilcke request them through SHAEF."
Perrine raised one blonde eyebrow. "Oh? Well, in that case, you're welcome to ask her."
"You're damn right I am," LeMay growled, resuming his course for FUEL STORAGE.
"And she's equally welcome not to tell you," Perrine added imperturbably, causing LeMay's much-harassed aide to give her a tiny, almost imperceptible smile as he followed the general.
LeMay entered FUEL STORAGE to find Ursula Hartmann working on that experimental jet Striker he'd seen out in the hangar the last time he was here. Since that visit, he had requested and received clearance to review the unit's specifications, and he knew enough about the current state of the art in witch equipment to be of the opinion - however grudging - that it was a legitimately valuable project.
Initiated under the nominal auspices of Karlsland's Heinkel Aircraft Works and given the designation "He 162", the new jet had recently been redesignated with its actual designer's name, now that the project was no longer a secret initiative buried in von Reichenberg's black budget somewhere. Now called the Hartmann Ha 162, it had the potential to be as fast as and more maneuverable than the Messerschmitt Me 262 - the Allies' only operational jet unit right now - and potentially also cheaper to manufacture. It wasn't what he was here to find out about, but LeMay had to acknowledge that developing it was important and worthwhile work.
Slightly to the general's surprise, Ursula wasn't alone in the workshop. One of the 501st's witches - Lucchini, the Romagnan - was stretched out on a blanket she'd spread on the top of a row of crates along one wall, reading a book. Atop another crate, that battered diving suit he'd seen last time was slumped in the corner, like an oversized, discarded puppet, its helmet visor still sporting the MAQUETTE placard. It ignored LeMay's entrance, and so did Lucchini, who appeared to be completely engrossed in whatever she was reading.
Ursula did look up at his entrance, but she didn't seem much more interested in his arrival than Lucchini or the suit had. She didn't even put down the tools she was holding, just paused in her work and gave him an inquisitive head-tilt.
"Hartmann," said LeMay. "A few weeks ago you requested certain documents from a highly classified Liberion government archive under the Allied Technical Collaboration Agreement."
Ursula nodded. "Yes, they've been very helpful." With a perfectly genuine little smile, she added, "Please convey my thanks to General Eisenhower's headquarters for the promptness with which they answered our request."
"It's not that simple," LeMay said. He seemed to think of something then; turning to his aide, he gestured to Lucchini and said, "Blazkowicz, get that Romagnan out of here. She's not cleared for what we're talking about."
Ursula frowned. "With all due respect, General, of the two of you, Lt. Lucchini is the one authorized to be in this room, let alone party to any conversation that takes place within it." Before LeMay could respond to that, she added calmly, "Also, can I just point out that what you've done here - again! - is walk into a room labeled FUEL STORAGE with a lit cigar in your mouth?"
"Seriously, can't you read?" Lucchini wondered. Marking her place, she climbed down from the crates where she'd been reclining, then pointed to the large sign hanging on the wall above the windows. This was marked, in the five official languages of the Grand Alliance, NO SMOKING - DÉFENSE DE FUMER - 禁煙 - НЕ КУРИТЬ - RAUCHEN VERBOTEN! Blazkowicz, unable to suppress a snort of laughter at this, endured a glower from his boss while the young Romagnan - with an almost palpable air of offended dignity - folded up her blanket and prepared to take her leave.
"Lucchini, you don't have to leave," Ursula said, but Lucchini shook her head and replied airily,
"No, no, I wouldn't want to make any trouble. Besides," she added with a wicked little smile, "old men are boring. I don't care what Wilma says." And then, while Blazkowicz snickered again and LeMay shot him another irritated glare, she swept haughtily out of the room like a starlet quitting the stage, her nose in the air.
Ursula sighed. "Very well, then," she said resignedly. "How is it not that simple, General? I requested documents pertaining to fields of research my engineering squadron is engaged in under the Wunderwaffe program. My request was correctly endorsed by the First Joint Special Air Fleet's commander and went through all the proper channels, and it was clearly found to be in order, since the documents were, in due course, provided. I fail to see the problem."
"The problem is, those documents are classified above top secret by the Majestic XII Committee," LeMay replied, gesturing with his cigar. "Ike wants to know - and I do too - how the hell a little girl from Karlsland could have placed such perfectly pinpointed requests for documents she shouldn't even know about in the first place."
"I was asked to request those specific documents by my squadron's chief weapons designer," Ursula replied equably. "I understand they've been of very great value to him in certain of his projects."
"Chief weap - and just who in the hell is that?" LeMay demanded, but Ursula shook her head with every appearance of regret.
"I'm afraid you have no need to know that, General," she said.
LeMay's already florid face had begun to resemble brick by this point. Looming over the central table (and her), he started to say, "Now you listen here -"
"General LeMay!" said a voice sharply from the doorway. The general paused, then turned to see the First JSAF's commanding officer in the doorway, giving him a fierce look of her own.
"A word with you outside, if you please, General," said Minna coldly, and then, without waiting for his reply, she turned and strode off, across the hangar and out the doors, into the sunshine out on the apron.
With a glare and an upraised index finger that said, "Don't wander off, I'm not done with you yet," LeMay left Ursula at her workbench and followed.
A moment later, while Ursula was still weighing whether to follow and take in the show, she was startled to see Ivan Ivanovich move, reaching up to open his helmet visor and remove the MAQUETTE sign.
"I thought he'd never leave," said Eila.
Ursula blinked in surprise. "Eila! What in the world?"
"Um..." Eila hesitated, her cheeks going a bit pink, then said, "It doesn't matter now. It wouldn't work the way I planned." Clambering to her feet, she started taking off the suit, then paused and added, "But don't tell Hattori."
Blazkowicz left FUEL STORAGE right behind LeMay, and so missed the Suomish witch's appearance. Outside, he saw the general nearly collide with a member of the 501st's maintenance crew, who was sweeping up around the small blue automobile parked near the hangar doors.
"Out of my way," LeMay snarled at the man, who - not being technically in it - more or less ignored him. Blazkowicz found himself admiring the guy's aplomb as, rather than follow LeMay outside, he stopped in the middle of the hangar. There, he stood along with a couple of the 501st's officers, discreetly out of earshot, and watched as Minna gave his boss what, from her body language, must have been a truly world-class dressing-down.
Mio stood with her arms folded, but a smile on her face, and observed, "I do love to watch her work."
Perrine chuckled at that; so, to both her mild surprise and Mio's, did Blazkowicz.
"Under the circumstances, Captain, I'm surprised you agree," said Perrine.
The tall, ruggedly built, thirtiyish Liberion captain gave her a wry little smile of his own. "Hell, ma'am, I just work for the guy," he said, his voice touched with a hint of an accent from somewhere in the southern states (based on what little Perrine knew of his vast country's regional dialects from the various Liberion movies she'd seen). "I don't have to like him."
Mio gave a hearty laugh and clouted him on the shoulder. "That's the spirit," she said. Noting the command pilot's wings and Expert Marksman badge on his uniform blouse - not items she'd have expected to find on the typical rear-echelon flunky - she asked, "How'd you end up with this job anyway?"
"Messed up my knee in a parachute jump last December," Blazkowicz replied. "Four more weeks in the office and I'm back to active duty. Can't come too soon for me."
"What do you normally do?" Perrine asked.
"Oh... this and that," the captain replied vaguely, a mischievous twinkle coming into his eye.
"Ahh," said Mio with a knowing nod. She might've gone on, but just about then, they all noticed the sound of an approaching Striker Unit, and she frowned instead, her brow furrowing. "That sounds like a P-51," she said, and glanced at the launch stage for Shirley Yeager's Striker - to find it there, its status light green, since Shirley wasn't scheduled for afternoon patrol.
"Goodness, we are popular this afternoon," said Perrine. "I wonder who's come to visit us now."
A moment later, the approaching witch arrived, and she had her answer - sort of. It took her, and indeed all the observers, a few seconds to figure out just what they were looking at, since the new arrival appeared, at first glance, to be some sort of hulking, hairy creature balanced atop a Striker of an unfamiliar configuration. Only when she alighted on the apron near the two arguing generals - instantly stalling their argument - did it become apparent that she wasn't some kind of chimerical monster. She was, in fact, a perfectly normal-looking young woman, albeit one dressed in a battered Liberion Volunteer Group flying jacket and old-fashioned goggled leather helmet instead of a proper uniform.
What had given her the strange and monstrous silhouette was partly the fact that she was carrying both a Liberion M2 heavy machine gun and a Karlsland Fliegerhammer rocket launcher... but mostly it was that she had a bear on her back. The shaggy brown beast, probably twice the size of the girl who'd been carrying it, lumbered down from her back when she landed, at which point it became obvious that the bear, not the witch, was the one carrying the Fliegerhammer.
With a broad grin, the witch shut down her Striker's engines, then pulled off her flying helmet, shaking out a fall of thick black curls, and declared cheerfully, "Hello! Who is being in command, please?"
Minna stared at her in complete bemusement for a moment, her pique with LeMay momentarily forgotten, then stepped forward and said, "Ah... that would be me. Generalleutnant Minna-Dietlinde Wilcke, First JSAF."
"Ah!" the black-haired witch said, brightening. "General Wilcke, of course. From Poznań, yes? We are almost being countrywomen of sorts. I am Flying Officer Witolda Urbanowicz of RAF Polonski Volunteer Detachment." She grinned and slung an arm over the broad shoulders of the bear, who snuffled and nuzzled her with obvious affection. "This is Wojtek, my good friend and number one rocket shooting comrade! We are here to join famous 404 Squadron."
Minna's puzzled look did not diminish. "... You're test pilots?" she said after a slightly-too-long pause.
"Well, I am test pilot," Witolda said, then added as if it were the most normal thing in the world, "Wojtek is doing weapons."
"Oh. Of... course," said Minna. "Excuse me for a moment, won't you?" Then, turning to LeMay, she said, "I trust you can find your own way back to Colleville-sur-Mer, General. I'm afraid I don't have any more time for you just at present."
LeMay didn't respond for a moment, still regarding the apparition of the Polonian witch and her bear with blank-faced bemusement; then, recovering his wits, he glowered at her for a moment before raising his voice and shouting to the hangar, "Blazkowicz! We're leaving!"
Blazkowicz, too far away for the general to see his expression, rolled his eyes a little, drawing a giggle from Perrine and a snicker from Mio. "Yes sir, General sir," he muttered. Turning to the witches, he saluted and said, "Ladies."
"Take care, Captain," Mio said, returning the salute. "Maybe we'll see you again sometime."
"Preferably after your assignment to General LeMay's office is finished," Perrine added dryly, which got a chuckle out of the Liberion.
"I heard that, Major," he agreed, and then he hustled out to the apron before LeMay could bellow for him again.
With the general gone, Minna and the others directed Witolda to one of the spare Striker stages, where she racked her unusual craft, climbed out, and set about securing it. In the process, she and Wojtek drew a bit of a crowd.
"Is that a bear?" Lucchini wondered as she and Shirley entered the hangar.
"Wow!" Shirley said, jogging over to the stage, but her attention wasn't directed quite the same way as Lucchini's: "That's the new Q-model Warhawk, isn't it? I didn't know they were actually making them yet!"
Witolda turned from squaring away her Striker and grinned. "Is only one!" she said.
"Nice," said Shirley. "I saw a thing in the Aeronautical Review about it a while ago. It looked like a pretty sweet ship."
Witola shrugged eloquently. "I am preferring my old Spitfire," she said, "but it was blown up, and man from Curtiss was very nice to Wojtek, so..."
"All right, this is a question I honestly never pictured myself asking anyone," said Shizuka Hattori, "but why do you have a bear?"
"Wojtek is not just bear," Witolda said. "Wojtek is... how do you say it? Wojtek is magic animal bear."
"... He's your familiar?" said Lucchini incredulously.
"Yes!" Witolda confirmed, nodding. "That is exactly."
"OK, that's not bad," Eila acknowledged. "I once knew another witch whose familiar was literally an animal, but he was a pug, which is kind of less impressive."
"You said when you arrived that you want to join 404 Squadron?" Minna inquired.
Witolda nodded vigorously. "In manner of speaking," she said. "Wojtek and me... we are wanderers. Free agents, yes? Lately we are test experimental Striker for Liberion, but is all unofficial - for manufacturer, you understand? Is sometimes hard to get supplies. Would be nice to have proper home base. Yes?"
"Well," said Ursula dryly, "we are a fairly irregular outfit..."
Minna smiled. "I prefer to say we have fairly broad operational latitude," she said. "Why don't you stay with us for a few days, and we can discuss our options."
"Is working for me!" said Witolda with another energetic nod.
Lynne Bishop was, as usual, humming cheerfully to herself as she backed out of the kitchen and into the dining room with a heavily laden tray, ready to get started serving dinner to her hungry wingmates.
"All right, everyone," she said, turning around once she'd cleared the swinging door. "It's Gryphon's beef stew tonight, so I..." She trailed off in surprise as she found herself confronted by what appeared to be a brown bear, looming up on his hind legs and sniffing at the air in a thoughtful manner. For a moment - long enough for Lynne to notice that he was wearing an RAF sergeant's uniform, complete with necktie - she and the bear just stood there regarding each other.
"Yoshika? Friend of yours?" asked Lynne.
"Why do you always..." Yoshika began, elbowing her way out of the kitchen with a tray of rolls and butter, then stopped as she saw what her wife was asking her about. "... Oh. Um. Hello!"
"Wojtek, sit down," said Witolda with cheerful reproach, tugging on the bear's tie. With a grumbling sound, the bear relented, plopping back down on all fours and then seating himself. Scratching him fondly on the head, she chided him with a grin, "You have to be greediest bear in whole world."
"Bear girl is such a jerk," Eila declared, throwing herself down in a sort of snow-angel position on the bed.
Gryphon looked up from polishing his saw-steel katana. "Mm?"
"Haven't you noticed?" Eila asked, raising her head to look at him without moving the rest of her body. Wolfgang, jostled awake by her sudden arrival on the mattress with him, shifted his position so that his head rested on her stomach, then went happily back to sleep as she automatically began scratching behind his ear.
"Noticed...?" Gryphon wondered.
Eila let her head flop back down with an exasperated sound. "She ignores Sanya. Every night at dinner, she's chattering away with everybody else, but it's like the chair next to me is empty as far as she's concerned. And don't try to tell me it's just that Sanya's quiet, she's made an effort, and bear girl just snubs her. She's not like that with Heidemarie."
Gryphon nodded. He had, in fact, noticed that, but he hadn't wanted to be the one to say it, in case Eila was talking about something else. "Of course," he said, "she is a Polonian nationalist."
"Yeah? Well, it's not like Sanya is the Tsaritsa or something," Eila said. "I mean, I get that Polonia and Orussia have a lot of history and none of it's good, but so what? Orussia hasn't always been my country's best buddy either, but Sanya doesn't have anything to do with that."
"Did you feel that way when you first met her?" asked Gryphon, his tone mild.
Eila sat up, causing Wolfgang to give her a reproachful hrf and resettle his head in her lap. "Of course I..." she began, then trailed off as she realized that would be a lie. "Well... at least I gave her a chance to change my mind. Urbanowicz isn't even doing that."
Gryphon considered the finish of his blade for a moment, sighting down the edge, then sheathed the sword in the wooden saya he'd knocked together in the wing's wood shop and set about putting away his polishing stones. "Well... I don't know what to tell you, Eila. At least she's not being outright hostile."
"True, but it's still hurting Sanya's feelings," said Eila, her tone suggesting that such a thing bordered on the level of an unforgivable crime. Then, sighing, she lay back down again and went on, "Oh well. At least she's probably not staying long." Raising her head again, she tried to change the subject, asking, "Are you having magic school today?"
Gryphon nodded. "Supposed to have a couple of new recruits coming in," he said. "Which should be interesting..."
In the dojo, Gryphon arrived to find two of the members of "Class One" present; Wilma was, as usual since her breakthrough, out flying, but both Minna and Trude were still attending regularly.
Today, they were joined by three new faces, only one of which Gryphon had actually seen before - but he instantly recognized one of the others anyway, and was momentarily so startled by her appearance that he almost forgot to finish coming into the room.
"Ah, here you are," said Minna, rising. "Let me introduce you to your new students. You know Major Saint-Exupéry, of course."
Recovering his aplomb after only a moment's paralysis, Gryphon nodded, greeting the Gallian veteran with a small bow, which she returned. "Of course," he said. "Delighted you could join us, Major."
"I've heard very interesting things about what you've been doing here from my wingmate, Wilma's youngest sister," said Saint-Exupéry with a little smile. "I look forward to seeing it for myself."
"Well, I hope we won't disappoint you," said Gryphon.
Indicating the second newcomer, a dark-haired young woman in the green tunic of a Karlsland Luftwaffe Hauptmann, Minna went on, "This is Ursula's former colleague from KG 200, Captain Melitta Schiller."
"Captain," said Gryphon, offering her the same bow. "I've heard so much about you."
"Oh my, and yet you're still willing to teach me?" said Schiller with an impish smile. "Captain Hartmann must have kept the more sordid details to herself."
"And this," said Minna, "is..."
She trailed off as Gryphon made a deeper bow to the third new arrival. "Oh, believe me, General Wilcke," he said, "Her Royal Highness the Princess Elizabeth of Britannia needs no introduction."
Going a bit pink, the woman in the Royal Air Force uniform said pleasantly, "Please, Rittmeister von Katädien - when I'm in uniform, I'm just Squadron Leader Windsor."
Gryphon smiled. "Fair enough. That makes us even - whatever titles His Majesty the Kaiser saw fit to bestow on me, around here I'm just Gryphon." Then, clapping his hands briskly together, he said, "So! Why doesn't everybody have a seat, and we'll get started..."
Sanya Juutilainen-Litvyak generally wasn't one to get caught up in a rush of emotion, but the past few weeks had been a whirlwind that even her normal Orussian stoicism hadn't been entirely able to resist. She was young enough that the Witch's Fate hadn't really been more than a shadow at the back of her mind, but it hadn't escaped Sanya that the idea that it could be reversed - perhaps even avoided altogether - was one that literally could change the world.
Combine that with the beginnings of a small but servicable Fusō-style temple that had appeared a short ways up the hillside from the castle at Château Saint-Ulrich, and it was no surprise that everyone seemed to be operating at a bit higher pitch. It was nice, but at the same time not very restful, and the night patrols had become a bit of sorely needed "quiet time" for Sanya; she suspected Heidemarie felt the same.
Tonight, in particular, seemed tranquil. The late spring night was still a bit cool, but the sky was quite clear, giving her a chance to enjoy the beautiful starscape while she flew her patrol, occasionally exchanging radio calls as she went.
She'd just finished a brief conversation with Eleanor, who was on her own patrol out of Lichtenberg, when the Orussian witch realized that she could hear something over the sound of her Yak-9's engines.
At first she thought that it was some figment of her imagination, but as she concentrated, the sound of piano music was unmistakable.
As she listened to the melody, Sanya recognized the piece. She hadn't heard it performed since just before she left her father's home to begin her training as a witch; but it still left her with a slight ache in her heart for the songs of her homeland, even as she began scanning the skies with her magical antenna, her hand tensing slightly on the shoulder strap of her Fliegerhammer.
"Rakas to Phantom - are you receiving?"
"Phantom here - go ahead."
"Something is...odd. I hear music."
"Do you need help?"
"I don't know, yet... but keep your guard up."
"Roger. Phantom out."
Vectoring towards where the music seemed to be coming from, Sanya's antenna wasn't showing any threat, but she began to make out the shape of another witch, hovering perhaps a quarter mile past the normal border of the 501st's northern patrol sector.
Focusing her antennae, Sanya slowed her approach, attempting to contact the unknown visitor.
"This is U-A-L, 501st JFW to unknown witch. Can you identify?"
The only response was the music beginning again - just slightly louder. It was clear that whoever she was, the music was coming from her, but that wasn't much of an answer.
"I repeat, this is U-A-L, 501st JFW. Please identify yourself - You are over hostile airspace."
The mystery witch was close enough that Sanya could begin to make out the points of ears coming out of her short hair, hands that seemed to be tucked inside of long sleeves... and as she came closer, the distinctive patterns of dimly glowing red hexagons on the winglets at either side of her Striker-shaped legs.
"It's you?" Sanya pulled her Striker into a hovering halt, and, yes, the music was coming from the strange Neuroi that Yoshika, Erica, and others had encountered. Keeping her Fliegerhammer slung, but ready to hand if needed, she waited for the Neuroi to finish repeating the theme of the piece, then slowly approached.
In response, the Neuroi stopped playing (broadcasting?) the music, raised one arm in a slow, almost shy sort of wave, then lowered it again.
"Hello..." Sanya returned the gesture, then realized that to her surprise, the Neuroi's "ears" had begun glowing the same shade of blue as her own magical antennae. A moment later, a set of Hirschgeweih antennae came to glowing life on either side of her head, matching Sanya's own.
"No hostile intent," Sanya murmured, as she realized her own antennae remained blue even this close. "Are you trying to talk to me?"
There was a slight crackle of ætheric static, as if the Neuroi was attempting to find the right frequency, and then a new piece of music started, being broadcast directly to her.
They "stood" across from each other in midair through most of the first movement, the Orussian entirely dumbstruck and the Neuroi as seemingly impassive as any other. Then, the music stopped abruptly as "Neuroi-chan" spun towards the northwest, her Hirschgeweih (and, a part of Sanya's mind observed, the other areas that had been faintly glowing in shades of blue a moment earlier) turning an angry red, just moments before Sanya felt the approach of a threat herself.
"Umcolcus to Rakas! Come in, Rakas!"
Sanya had begun to vector towards the hostile signal, but at the sound of tension in Eleanor's voice, she pushed herself to put on just a bit more speed.
"Rakas here, reading you five by five."
"I have hostile contact 48 degrees north, 7 degrees east! Large type - repeat - Large type!"
As if "Neuroi-chan" had been listening to the call for aid, the pseudo-witch shifted, a second set of fins extruding on either side of her "legs", and a set of hexagonal red structures extending from her back. There was a sound like a metal brush being run over steel, and suddenly "she" was streaking towards Offenburg.
"I'm on my way - with support," said Sanya.
As dawn broke over Alsace, Sanya was feeling the ache of a long night's patrol with a fight at the end of it, compounded by coming down off the spike of adrenaline that had sustained her through the battle.
Much as in the engagement that Erica and Trude had reported, "Neuroi-chan" had been as much of a target as Sanya or Eleanor when the larger invader began to attack, and just as before, the smaller Neuroi had joined in with their attacks as the Night Witches worked to bring their attacker down, then disappeared soon after the Large Type's core had been destroyed.
Finally making her way back to Château Saint-Ulrich, Sanya brought herself in for a landing, docked her Yak-9 in its launch stage, and finally the long-practiced route back to her quarters - not quite walking in her sleep, but weary enough to make a good imitation of it.
As she began to undress, she realized that the pouch at her hip was opened, and began to check to make sure she hadn't lost anything before stopping in surprise as her fingertips brushed something unfamiliar.
She pulled out a small black hexagon, thin as a playing card. Turning it slightly, she saw the light dance across the glossy crystal surface, almost as if it couldn't quite find a foothold.
As Sanya examined it, the covers of her bed rustled, and a moment later, Eila sat up, blinking the sleep from her eyes.
"morning... are you all right?" she mumbled, noting how weary and rumpled Sanya looked.
Sanya leaned in to kiss her wife gently, then nodded. "I'm fine. There was a Neuroi incursion near Offenburg, but Eleanor and I... got some unexpected help in dealing with it."
Noticing the odd shape that Sanya was holding, Eila blinked again, then reached out to tap it lightly. "What's that?"
Sanya grew thoughtful, turning the "card" over in her fingers again before answering. "I think... it's a QSL card." Putting it back into her pouch, she snapped the clasp shut, then unslung the strap and placed the pouch on to the top of the small dresser they shared. She loosened her uniform's necktie in two quick, practiced moves before setting it aside, her mouth quirking into a little smile as she continued undressing.
"... Message received."
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
"Angles of Communication"
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