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Wilma Bishop had spent the last several weeks getting her "air legs" back, flying at every opportunity she could grab. She still stopped in at Zauberschule about one day in three, but the others didn't begrudge her attendance - they knew how important that time was for Wilma.
Today, however, she hadn't tried to tag along with the morning patrol, or used an excuse to "borrow" someone else's Striker to go for a training flight with Chris Barkhorn (who was soon to graduate to what Wilma jokingly referred to as a "big girl Striker" herself). Instead, she was in FUEL STORAGE along with Ursula Hartmann.
"You know," the Karlslander said slowly, "when you originally offered, I thought you were joking."
Wilma shook her head. "No, I was dead serious. You have a Striker here that needs tested, I want to give it a shot. You're just about ready, aren't you?"
Ursula nodded, still obviously considering what the older Witch had said. "I am, yes. I've done bench tests on the ætherjets and control surfaces. The next step would be flight trials."
She walked to the spare launch stage where the red and orange prototype sat, waiting. "It's an experimental craft - and that means things are almost guaranteed to go wrong. On top of that, it's not going to fly like any Striker you've ever used, and there's a good chance that the learning curve is going to be very, very steep."
Turning back to face Wilma, she took off her glasses to make better eye contact. "Last but not least, there is the propulsion. I am fairly certain that I've solved the problems that made the Me 262 V1 so dangerous...but the only way to know that for sure is to fly it. And if I am wrong, this Striker could kill you."
Wilma didn't want to laugh - Hartmann was clearly very serious and very concerned - but she did give the younger woman a small smile. "Seems to me that's a risk most test pilots take on anyway."
Ursula replaced her glasses, and offered a matching smile. "There is that. More practically, have you been getting flight time with more powerful Strikers?"
"Yup," Wilma answered. "I'm current again on the Mark 22 Spitfire, and I've gotten check-rides in the Fw 190 and Bf 109... even talked Bear Girl into letting me borrow her -40Q yesterday."
"And how did that go?"
Wilma smirked. "Well, I'm still here and she's not trying to feed me to Wojtek."
That got a laugh out of the normally-more-reserved Hartmann twin, who seemed to relax a bit. "All right, Sergeant Bishop. Consider yourself assigned to the 404th." Blinking as if something had just occurred to her, Ursula reached into her lab coat and pulled out a small notepad and pencil. "I suppose this means that we'll need to have Rittmeister von Hammer fill out some paperwork."
Wilma shrugged. "Technically I'm already a consultant, right? So let's consult!"
A few hours of reading and a break for lunch later, the two witches stood atop the launch stages, Ursula's loaded with her Fw 190, while Wilma stood atop the Ha 162's platform.
"I'll be your chase pilot for this one," Ursula explained. "If anything should go wrong, it means I'll be there to help. Ideally, later on we'll be able to ask some of the others to take care of that, and I can be on the ground to monitor the test telemetry."
Wilma nodded, giving the jet Striker one last look before stepping to the edge of the stage. "Well, we're not going to get anywhere just standing around, right?"
The Karlslander nodded, then stepped off her launch stage, energizing the Striker's Miyafuji engine and preparing for launch. Once her ætheric propellers had spun up, she looked over and nodded.
Wilma took a deep breath, released it slowly, then let herself fall into the Ha 162's embrace. Opening herself to the Force almost as automatically as she'd once released her internal magical energies, she felt the jet's Miyafuji engine engage, but instead of the usual throaty rumble of a piston engine she heard the ætherjet turbines beneath her spinning up with a whine that rapidly came up in pitch.
Even in the launch stage it felt a bit... slippery, she supposed. The jet exhaust pushed against the ground in a totally different way than she was used to, but she'd known this would be a very different experience.
After satisfying herself that it wasn't going to get away from her before she'd even left the hangar, Wilma gave Ursula a nod of her own, then activated her radio.
"Saint-Ulrich Tower, this is Whiskey Kilo two eight, requesting launch clearance for evaluation flight."
Wilma was mildly surprised when the voice that replied from the tower was that of Hannelore von Hammer herself: "Roger, Whiskey Kilo two eight, you're clear to launch. Hals und Beinbruch!"
Wilma released the launch stage's interlocks, and the Striker leapt from the stage even faster than she'd expected, bursting out of the hangar and into the sky in a heartbeat.
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
After the rush of takeoff, Wilma did her best to settle down and concentrate, leveling off at 15,000 feet and waiting for Ursula to join her after a slightly more sedate launch.
Pulling alongside so she could speak without needing the radio, Ursula gave a broad smile - Wilma suspected it was as much for seeing her creation finally in the air as it was for her.
"Well, I can see that takeoff and climb are not issues for you. How does it feel?"
Wilma grinned back. "Incredible! When I opened her up, it was like someone shot me out of a cannon!" Pulling a slow turn around the Karlslander, Wilma gave the Striker a bit more thought. "You were right about it being a bit of a handful, though. Powering up was a lot different, and it's almost a little too quick to respond when I put some rudder on. Twitchy."
Ursula nodded, and Wilma could almost see the "notes" she was writing in her head. "That's good to know. Do you feel comfortable attempting maneuvers?"
"I think so," Wilma said, after giving a moment's consideration. "What would you like me to try first?"
"Let's start with something simple - this flight is mostly to start defining the Striker's envelope. Give some banking turns a try?"
Wilma opened up a bit of space - not trying to go up to full throttle just yet - and began a series of wide turns.
"Good," Hartmann called, "now perform some coordination tests, please."
"Um... what are those when they're at home?"
"Try a 45-degree banked roll to the left, then back to level flight, and then repeat to the right."
Wilma began to execute the roll, then felt the "slipping" sensation again - the whole rudder was trying to push over rather than let her level out. Gritting her teeth, she pulled it back, but lost control briefly when she tried to reverse the maneuver to the right, going into a brief spin before she pulled things back together.
"Wilma! Are you all right?"
"Unf... think so. I tried to keep the rudder in line, but it blew over on me."
"I saw. I think I'm going to have to make a few changes to the configuration to help compensate for that. Do you think you can continue?"
"Long as I'm careful, sure. I'll need to watch my pitch angle."
Two very productive and occasionally hair-raising hours later, the two women brought their Strikers back to the castle, Ursula with a number of notes and potential modifications to review, Wilma feeling exultant, but badly in need of a shower.
To their surprise, when the two women taxied back towards the launch stages closest to FUEL STORAGE, there was a truck in RAF livery sitting next to the open doors, with a couple of enlisted technicians unloading crates from the rear of the bed. Farther forward, a tarpaulin obscured a larger object lashed to the bulkhead at the back of the cab.
Wilma looked to Ursula in surprise. "That's an Austin K4 lorry. Were you expecting any deliveries?"
The Karlslander shook her head, heading to her launch stage. "We'd better find out what's going on."
As they docked and powered down, the Austin's cab opened, and a woman in her late twenties leapt down, crossing the hangar floor at a reasonably quick pace. Like the truck, she was dressed in an RAF uniform - wearing the rank slides of a Group Captain, in fact - with dark brown hair that appeared almost black, pulled back and pinned up into a bun. Based on her lack of trousers (below her blue serge uniform blouse, which was worn open over cardigan and dress shirt, she wore only black tights), Ursula and Wilma assumed that she was, or had been, a witch.
"Carefully, gentlemen, if you please," she said, addressing the technicians who were unloading the truck. "I expect most of that equipment will be broken," she added with a wry smile, "but I should prefer to do it in testing."
Stepping back into her boots, Wilma wasn't sure if she was actually supposed to salute the new arrival or not, since she'd technically become a "consultant" rather than having her enlistment reactivated; but their visitor took matters into her own hands by approaching to within about three feet of the launch stage and locking on to Ursula.
"You Hartmann? Commander of the 404th Test Squadron?"
Ursula nodded, stepping down off her launch stage and pulling her lab coat on from where she'd left it hanging over one of the side rails.
"Yes, I am Ursula Hartmann, Group Captain..."
"Same Hartmann that was with KG 200?"
"And worked on the 262 project for Messerschmitt?"
Ursula looked a bit awkward. "That's technically classified information."
The Brittanian woman snorted. "Doesn't matter, luv, I'm cleared for it - since you've been playing with my toys this entire time without asking."
Ursula's face took on a look somewhere between utter confusion and rather wounded dignity. "I do beg your pardon?"
"Group Captain Frances Whittle, RAF. Among other things, I'm the woman who has been working on centrifugal turboætherjet propulsion since 1937."
Surprisingly, that claim actually made Ursula relax slightly. "Ah. I believe I take your meaning now. However, the designs that we've been using were entirely Karlslandic in origin. Dr. Hans von Ohain at the RLM - the Imperial Aviation Ministry - in Brandenburg created the basic engine designs, which I helped refine and adapt. I assure you, we never knew that anyone in Brittania was working along the same lines."
Whittle's somewhat severe look softened a bit. "Really? Fascinating. I'll have to meet this doctor of yours - though I may give him a bit of a wallop regardless." Finally smiling at the two witches, she gave a closer look at the Ha 162 in its launch stage. "So, is this the new jet unit I heard was being tested here?"
Ursula nodded, walking over to the stage. "Yes - it's my own design, including some refinements to the BMW engines that were originally meant for the Me 262 A1, before they ran into manufacturing delays."
Whittle moved in, running a hand over one of the unit's fuselages. "Magnificent."
"But it looks to me like you're in for a bit of a wild ride with that rudder arrangement," Whittle went on, eyeing the unit's control surfaces.
"So Sgt. Bishop just learned," Ursula admitted. "I think I have a few ideas on how to refine the control surfaces to improve that."
"Bishop?" Whittle looked over, as if just realizing that another woman had, in fact, been standing there this whole time. "You're no Karlslander with that name. Or that jacket."
Wilma shook her head, offering a hand. "Wilma Bishop. I used to fly for the Royal Farawayland Air Force, came out of retirement to test for Captain Hartmann."
Whittle looked intrigued as she shook hands. "Well, nice to meet you, Wilma. Call me Francie." Turning back to Ursula, she flipped a thumb over to point at the truck. "Anyway - I decided to bring you something, since I thought you'd already raided the rest of my team's closet."
Turning, she walked back to the side of the cargo bed, then loosened the ties on the corner of the tarp before yanking it backwards to reveal... a Striker Unit in its launch stage, painted in the light blue and dark green camouflage of an RAF fighter - and sporting the distinctive pod of a jet engine set into the middle of each of the unit's winglets.
Much as Whittle had with the Ha 162, Ursula stepped forward and gently ran her fingers down an engine's fairing. "This is beautiful work. Is it ready to fly?"
Whittle smiled like a proud mother. "Thank you, Captain Hartmann. It's ready to be tested, at least. Originally I'd planned to deliver it to Boscombe Down, but when word came back that 404 Squadron was doing work with jet Strikers on the front lines, I decided it was worth bringing it here."
Pulling the tarp back further, she gestured to several crates that had been tied down to the Austin's bed. "Spare parts - including two complete replacement engines from Rolls-Royce, just in case. Armament is two sets of paired Hispano 20mm cannons - one for each hand, with 2,000 rounds between them."
Turning back, she gave both Witches a moment to take that on board, then finished her presentation with a bit of a flourish. "We call it the Meteor."
Wilma whistled appreciatively. "That is a real piece of work. Planning to stick around to see how it does?"
Whittle shook her head. "Much as I'd love to, I'm still doing a fair bit of development work back at Lutterworth. Technically I shouldn't even be here... but I couldn't resist. I can give you a week, maybe two, to help get the testing program started, but after that I need to get back to the shed."
Phyllis Schwartz stood by the side of the road, glowering at her truck. Of all the times to get a puncture - when she was running late on the return trip of an errand she hadn't wanted to run in the first place. The woods of Moselle weren't as dangerous as, for instance, the banks of the Rhine, but all the same, Phee could think of many places she'd prefer to be than stranded halfway between Bitche and Lichtenberg with night coming on.
She decided she had better try and change the wheel while she still had a bit of daylight to work with. Sunset this time of year was around 8:30 in the evening, but in these woods it was already getting dark. Grumbling, she went to the cab of the truck and folded the seat forward, got out the tire iron, and loosened the lug nuts, inwardly cursing whatever engineer at Opel had decided each wheel should have eight of the damned things. Karlslanders. Always overdesigning things.
Once she had them loose, she wrestled the spare tire out of its bracket underneath the truck bed, rolled it over so that it would be ready to hand, then went back to the cab for the jack... and discovered that it wasn't there.
Letting out a growl, she considered hurling the tire iron into the woods, but controlled herself. She'd just have to go and find it if she did that, anyway. Putting it away instead, she sighed and resigned herself to walking back up the road to Goetzenbruck. From there she'd be able to telephone Lichtenberg and request assistance - albeit at the cost of hours of kidding about having forgotten her radio...
Suddenly, Phee stiffened, her magic twinging as she became aware of a presence behind her. Involuntarily, she manifested the distinctive features of her familiar: her thick, greyish hair thickened further, becoming a jagged sheaf of thorny spines that, in her agitation, bristled up and outward in all directions, as a short, thick tail covered in the same dropped from the hem of her Royal Farawayland Air Force uniform blouse. She turned slowly around, unfastening the flap of her sidearm holster as she did so - and when she saw what had triggered her magic, she yanked the pistol from its holster and thrust it straight out, her thumb automatically drawing back the hammer.
A half-dozen yards or so away, a few paces beyond the front of the truck, a figure shaped like a witch with a Striker Unit stood - well, hovered - regarding her. In the fading daylight, its surface was an oddly iridescent black, glinting with strange highlights as the sun's last rays filtered through the trees off to the side of the road and played on the unmistakable glossy hide of a Neuroi.
"Don't you move," Phee said, her voice low. She wasn't sure her Webley would actually do anything against a Neuroi, even one as small as this one, but she preferred to believe it would. Keeping the other figure covered, she advanced slowly until she stood next to the damaged wheel, then halted, aiming the revolver at the blank space where the faux witch's face would be.
The Neuroi witch took no hostile action. Instead, it tilted its head in a manner that would have conveyed puzzlement in a human, and then - to Phee's considerable surprise - it raised its "hands", fingertips peeping out of its oversize-sleeve-like arms, as if asking her not to shoot.
"Well," said Phee after a long few seconds. "This is unexpected."
The Neuroi had no reply.
"We can't stand here like this all night," Phee offered.
Again the Neuroi had nothing to offer; merely tilted its head the other way, like it was still puzzled about what she was getting at.
Very slowly, not entirely certain why she was doing it, Phee uncocked the Webley, gently lowering the hammer and releasing the trigger. Then, still moving without any hurry, she put the weapon away - though she didn't fasten the holster flap. The Neuroi remained still for a moment, then lowered its hands. They stood looking at each other some more, and Phee had the laughably fanciful notion that it would've shrugged if it had known the gesture.
"I don't suppose you can change a tire," Phee said wryly, gesturing to the flat and the spare.
The Neuroi hovered a little closer; Phee backed up, hand on holster, but didn't draw her revolver again as the... creature? Machine? She'd never been entirely certain what they were... gave every indication of sizing up the situation...
... and then, to a level of surprise that made her earlier experience seem mundane, it went around to the front of the Blitz, got its arms underneath the bumper, and lifted the front end until the wheels were clear of the ground.
Her eyes wide with astonishment, Phee eased closer, considering the situation. She could hear whatever the Neuroi used for propulsion thrumming quietly with the effort of holding up the truck, the red hexagons on its Striker-like winglets glowing brighter. While she looked at it, it turned its head to regard her with its blank face, then made a little motion that looked for all the world like it was saying, Well, get on with it, I'm not going to hold this forever.
With a laugh at that and the overall surreality of the situation, Phee changed the tire. Once she had the flat removed, the new one in place, and the nuts screwed on, the Neuroi let the vehicle down. Phee tightened the nuts fully, double-checked them, and then straightened up and turned to see the Neuroi still standing by the front of the truck, giving her that same inscrutable look.
"Uh... thanks," she said, not certain what else to say.
The Neuroi witch raised one of her hands in a slightly shy-seeming little wave, and then - with another faint thrum of whatever drove them - shot away into the nearly-dark sky, zooming away to the east.
She was still standing there by the truck ten minutes later, looking up into the now-starry sky, when Eleanor Hutchins swooped down and alighted nearby.
"Having a little trouble, Phee?" Eleanor inquired, and then, as she moved closer and saw the look on her wingmate's face, "Are you all right? What happened?"
Phee blinked, tore her eyes away from the sky, and turned to Eleanor. "I have no idea," she said.
"Now hear this: All witches report to the shooting range. Repeat, all witches, please report to the shooting range immediately. Thank you."
Curious, the 501st's witches did as requested, to find Gryphon and Chris Barkhorn waiting for them, both sporting lab coats over their clothes and looking quite pleased with themselves. Chris was wearing an angular metal backpack that put some of the veterans in mind of the bulky pre-Miyafuji magic engines that had powered Striker Units until the late '30s. Both had on what looked like welding goggles, pushed up on their foreheads.
"Ladies. Thanks for coming," said Gryphon with a smile. "We've got something to show you. I think you're going to like it." He went to the folding table set up in front of the viewing area, and, with a dramatic flourish, whipped a dropcloth away to reveal the item beneath.
"Behold," he said, and picked up... well, no one was really sure what it was.
It was roughly rifle-shaped, about the size of an MG 42 in its aerial configuration; in fact, many of those present could tell from the shape that the chassis it was based on, and the wooden furniture, were from an MG 42. Where the machinegun would have had its ammunition drums, interchangeable barrel assembly, and so forth, though, the inner workings of this one seemed to be made from radio parts and plumbing supplies, culminating in what looked like the Yagi antenna from a FuG 202 short-range aerial radar set.
"This, my friends, is a Tesladyne Heavy Industries Model 1939 Mark 1A2 infantry-portable particle beam accelerator, adapted for magical enhancement with a Type 17 Miyafuji device and fitted with an MG 42 field expedient operator interface," Gryphon explained, hefting the weapon. "It's tuned to require a level of magical input comparable to the demands of typical air infantry weapons, such as the 42 and the Type 99 autocannon.
"With that input," he went on, "it's capable of up to five seconds at a sustained output of approximately 40 kilowatts, with minimal beam deflection to an effective range in excess of 300 meters, before its primary energy source is exhausted and must be replaced." He snapped open a panel on the side of the weapon and tapped the stubby yellow cylinder inside with a fingertip, then closed it again. "By default, the trigger mechanism is configured to meter that output in 250-millisecond bursts, for an effective ammunition capacity of twenty rounds before reload.
"I can tell," he said with a smile and a slightly theatrical raised finger, "that you're not sure what all of that means in the real world. Therefore." He turned, went to Chris (who had settled her goggles over her eyes while he spoke), and handed her the weapon, then turned back to the gallery as she readied it and went on, "My lovely assistant Christiane will now demonstrate."
With her usual cheerful smile, Chris connected the weapon to the backpack she wore with a fat braided-metal-covered cable, then called forth her magic. As her familiar's tail and ears appeared, the backpack emitted the characteristic low whine of a pre-Miyafuji magic engine powering up, and dark slots along the upper structure of the weapon began to glow.
"The backpack and cable are only for demonstration purposes," Gryphon explained. "Operationally it would be driven via short-range broadcast takeoff from your Striker's Miyafuji engine, as normal." He turned back to Chris. "Ready?"
Chris raised the weapon, settling its stock against her shoulder, and nodded. "Ready!"
Gryphon consulted a reading on one of the gauges on the side of her magic engine pack, then flipped his own goggles down, stepped back, and declared, "Begin!"
Her smile becoming a slightly fierce little grin, Chris thumbed up the little pop-up sight on top of the weapon (borrowed from a Fusō Type 99), took aim at the first of the targets standing at the far end of the range, and squeezed the trigger.
Instead of a gun's report, the sound the weapon made was more like a peal of thunder, part crack, part boom. Rather than a bullet, what emerged from the "antenna" at the end of the weapon was a bolt of bright blue-white light, there and gone so fast it left only a streaky afterimage - and the target was gone. Within moments, so was the next one, and the next. With quick, machinelike precision that reminded many onlookers of her elder sister's methods, Chris dispatched the full complement of twenty shots, taking out additional targets as they popped up or swung out from cover at various points around the range.
Once the weapon's power supply ran dry, she opened the panel on the side of the weapon Gryphon had shown earlier, took a second yellow cylinder from a pouch at her belt, and pushed it smartly into the workings. It displaced the one that was already there, popping it out through a spring-hinged port on the other side of the receiver, to fall smoking to the ground.
That job done, she closed the loading port, set the safety, and raised the weapon out of firing position, declaring, "Demonstration complete!"
Turning back to his slightly dumbfounded observers, Gryphon said, "The full name is a bit cumbersome, so you can see why we like to call it the lightning rifle."
There was a momentary silence.
"Oh, I like that," said Shirley.
Erica Hartmann stood for almost a full minute, silently regarding the view out of the Orly terminal building windows, before turning to the person next to her and saying, "Check me on this. Is that airplane much closer than I think it is, or is it in fact gigantic?"
Francesca Lucchini took a long, hard look out the window, then nodded. "It's gigantic."
"That's what I thought," Erica said.
Gertrud Barkhorn shook her head, arms folded. "Only the Liberions."
"It's actually worse'n that," said an amused-sounding man's voice from behind the little group of witches. They turned to see a black-haired man in the uniform of a Liberion Army Air Force captain, complete with a sheepskin bomber jacket that put many of them in mind of Gryphon's, grinning at them.
"That aircraft's from Texas," he said, nodding toward the window. "Everything's bigger there."
Shirley made a scoffing sound. "If you believe Texans," she said.
"Well, ma'am, I'm from Oklahoma, so I don't make that a habit m'self," said the man with a wry smile, "but it's hard to argue when you see the 36 with y'own eyes." He stuck out a hand. "Jack Ridley, 8th AAF Test Command."
"Charlotte Yeager, 501st JFW," Shirley replied, giving his offered hand a pump. "Call me Shirley." She introduced her colleagues, then asked, "We were just on our way to get something to eat - it's a long flight from Ribeauvillé. Why don't you join us?"
"Can you tell us anything more about that monster?" Erica wondered.
"I can do better'n that on both accounts," Ridley said. "I'm the engineering liaison officer on the project. C'mon out and I'll give you the tour. We can rustle up some grub Air Force style while we're at it."
Upstairs, in a large office with an even more commanding view of apron, Minna stood looking down at the vast, gleaming shape parked down there, then turned to the man whose office it was and said, "Impressive, but I'm not sure why I'm seeing it."
Major General Curtis LeMay finished lighting a cigar, then said, "You're seeing it because Ike wants you to see it. He can't be here today - he's stuck in London - so he paw... passed the job on to me."
Minna made no comment in response to that; nor did von Hammer, nor the top two officers of the 501st, all of whom were present for the meeting. LeMay didn't seem to be expecting one. Stepping to the window, he gestured to the parked aircraft and said,
"You're looking at the prototype Convair XB-36. Six 3,000-horsepower radial engines, fully pressurized, crew of seven. It's 162 feet long with a wingspan of 230 feet - the largest aircraft in the world, and it has the longest range. That aircraft just flew in from the USL, and if it had to, it could turn around and fly right back again without refueling."
"Hm," said Mio noncomittally. "But what's it for?"
"Well, when we started work on it in '41, it wasn't clear whether anyplace in Europe was going to be able to hold out against the Neuroi," LeMay said. "If nobody could, if Europe fell, we had to have an aircraft that could strike targets over there from the Liberion mainland and make it home again. As you can imagine, that was a significant engineering challenge - nothing existed at that time that could come anywhere near that. It's taken five years and I don't even want to know how many millions of dollars, but there it is."
"That is impressive," said Perrine Clostermann; then, turning away from the window to meet the general's eyes, she went uncompromisingly on, "And completely useless. Not only hasn't Europe fallen - quite the opposite, in fact - a conventional bombardment aeroplane is utterly pointless against the Neuroi. You say it could attack a target in Europe from the US and then fly home again. I think we all know what would actually happen is that it would get from the US to the general vicinity of its target, and then the Neuroi would eat it."
"Ordinarily, I'd agree with you," LeMay said, "but you don't know the whole story. The B-36 isn't designed to carry just bombs. Its weapons bays can also be configured to carry Striker Units, and there's room in the crew accommodations on board for their operators. It's a flying witchcraft carrier." Unable to keep a slightly smug little smile off his face at having outmaneuvered the Gallian's objection, he put a hand against the window and said, "We call it the Peacemaker."
"So," said Francie Whittle over the Meteor's starboard winglet. "When are you going to show me your secret toybox?"
"I beg your pardon?" Ursula wondered, looking up from the Striker's open engine pod.
"Your workshop," said Whittle, tilting her head toward FUEL STORAGE. "That's where your Liberion boffin does his weapons development, yes? I saw him and the Barkhorn girl come out of there with their death ray the other day, and I know you keep your tools in there. Stands to reason that's where all the interesting things happen." Seeing that Ursula was unconvinced, she went on, "Look, I'm cleared up to Most Secret and I don't work for anybody but the Royal Aircraft Establishment. My interest is purely technical... and I know you must have some good stuff in there from the way your face is going pink," she added mischievously.
Ursula regarded her for a moment, then sighed. "All right. Come and see."
Aboard the prototype, Shirley, Lucchini, Erica, and Trude were duly impressed. The sheer immensity of the thing was even more pronounced on the inside - everything seemed like it was too far away from everything else to be in a single airplane, and apart from the curvature of the walls, the compartments gave little impression of where they were. They felt more like rooms in some sort of long, narrow building. The forward cabin, in particular, with its glass-domed terrarium, was more like some sort of scientific observatory than the business end of an airplane, with the flight deck up above like a sort of loft.
"No armaments?" Trude wondered as Ridley showed them around.
The Liberion engineer shook his head. "No point," he said. "The original design called for a bunch of remote-operated turrets, but you'n I both know that against the Neuroi, normal machineguns're about as useful as tits on a boar." Seeming to realize he'd said that out loud, he reddened slightly and added, "Er, as it were. Sorry, ma'am."
"I've heard worse," Trude said dryly, making Erica giggle.
"So we decided to save weight an' leave 'em at home," Ridley went on, grateful for the free pass. They clambered through an access hatch and into the after compartment, where the most obvious feature was an assortment of narrow but serviceable bunks, and he added, "Also, no guns means no gunners, so that's six guys we don't have to carry. Useful if we've got all the bays set up for Strikers - our full complement's a dozen, and we can't expect their pilots to just stay saddled up the whole time. Not when this beast can be out for up to 40 hours at a time."
"How considerate," said Shirley. Then, looking around, she went on, "Looks like it'd still be pretty cramped."
"Well, in a situation like that, the boys up front would have to sleep in their seats," Ridley explained. "A more likely scenario would be half bombs, half Strikers - half a dozen witches sleeping in shifts... it wouldn't be a weekend at the Waldorf, but it'd do for war operations."
Trude, ever practical, nodded. "Then the witches serve as escorts and use the plane as a mobile base of operations. Makes sense."
"Somebody said something about food," said Lucchini, and Ridley laughed.
"Right this way," he said, leading the group toward the hatch leading out of the back of the bunkroom.
Ursula was expecting one of a fairly limited set of reactions to showing Whittle the He 162 jetpack... but Whittle produced none of them.
Instead, bending down to have a look at the jetpack's tailpipe, she declared, "Oh, you Teutonic buggers, you've done it to me again."
"... Pardon?" said Ursula, bemused.
Whittle pointed at the pack with the stem of her unlit pipe and said, "First this von Ohain chappie comes up with a concept very much not unlike the turbojet, all unbeknownst to me. And now this. Is this reheat?"
Ursula looked. "It's... well, Nachbrenner, it doesn't have an English name. I suppose you would translate it 'afterburner'."
"Injects fuel into the exhaust to increase thrust. Yes?" Whittle asked.
"Yes," Ursula replied.
"Von Ohain again?"
Ursula shook her head. "No, Nachbrenner is my own invention."
Whittle threw up her hands. "I give up. I just give - wait." She looked at the jetpack again, then eyed Ursula skeptically. "What the devil is this even for? Only someone who can use magic would be able to fly it without being almost immediately killed to death, and at that point why not just use a bloody Striker?"
"Well," said a man's voice equably from behind her, "A, they don't come in my size, and B, nobody wants to see that."
"On a point of order..." Sanya Juutilainen-Litvyak murmured from the doorway behind him, causing Eila to blink and give her a do-what-now? sort of look.
Whittle missed the byplay (and Ursula's giggle at it), being too busy jumping in such a violent start she nearly knocked the jetpack off its stand. "What the - ?!" she blurted, whirling.
"Sorry," said Gryphon. "I don't know how I do that. It's not like I'm in any way unobtrusive." Putting out a hand, he introduced himself, then said, "It's a real honor. I'm a big fan of your work."
"Thank you," said Whittle automatically, and then, "D'you mean to tell me you fly this thing?"
Gryphon nodded. "I sure do."
"You're a man."
"I'm aware of that."
"Men can't fly. I mean, that's such an axiom it's a figure of speech. 'When men fly.'"
"Oink," said Gryphon impassively.
"I beg your pardon," Whittle replied.
"What's up in here?" Eila wondered.
Gryphon turned to her with a smile. "Group Captain Whittle doesn't believe I can fly," he said.
"Oh really!" said Eila, grinning. "Sounds like it's time to roll out the Tiger Moth, then."
"All right, I can see how that might work," Minna agreed, considering the operational outline LeMay had just given her of what SHAEF envisioned for the B-36. "It doesn't really need that colossal range if it's to operate from bases in Europe, but... well, better too much than too little, I suppose."
"That's always been my general operating philosophy," said LeMay. Behind him, Mio and Minna exchanged a silent little I'll bet it has glance, but said nothing.
"At any rate, General," LeMay went on, "that's what Ike wanted you to see. The XB-36 is in-theater for testing for the next few weeks, and for some of that testing, we're going to need some witches. Your wing has a dedicated flight test squadron, so you're the obvious choice. SHAEF will be in touch as the timetable takes shape."
"What do you think?" Mio wondered as the four of them walked down the hall toward the exit.
"I see the possibilities," Minna said. "It's worth looking into, and I think we can expect a fair assessment. Say what you like about General LeMay, he's not against witches as an operational reality."
"He just seems to dislike most of us personally," Perrine deadpanned, making Mio grin and nudge her shoulder.
"Maybe someone should tell him that our dedicated flight test squadron consists of two engineers, a mad Englishwoman, and a madder Polonian," said von Hammer with a tiny smile.
"What he doesn't know won't hurt him," said Minna. "We may need to second a few people to the squadron for the testing, but we can deal with that when the time comes."
"Ah," said a voice from a doorway off to the right, and then the rangy figure of LeMay's aide, Captain Blazkowicz, emerged to greet them. "Good, I caught you before you could leave. I've got some information that you're not going to like, but you need to know it."
"Uh-oh," said Mio as the four witches halted. "What is it?"
"Our mutual friends Reichenberg and Skorzeny have been spotted," Blazkowicz told them. "As you suspected, Rittmeister von Hammer, they're together... but you'll never guess where."
"Where?" Minna asked. "The Hibernian Highlands? Aztlan? Formosa?"
Blazkowicz smiled, though it was not the kind of smile that said its wearer found anything funny. "Monte Carlo," he said.
Perrine frowned. "Monte Carlo? That means they've barely even left Gallia. What on Earth are they doing there?"
"That's the best part," said Blazkowicz. "What does anybody do in Monte Carlo?"
"Gamble," said Mio.
"Drink," Perrine suggested.
"Avoid paying taxes," said von Hammer wryly.
"All of the above," said Blazkowicz. "Well, Skorzeny isn't gambling, but Reichenberg's been running the table at baccarat every night in the Casino lately, and Britannian Intelligence tells us he wins more than he loses."
"That's... strange," von Hammer mused. "Out of character. Reichenberg isn't the gambling type."
"He doesn't seem to be doing it for pleasure," Blazkowicz informed her. "He wants money, and lots of it, and that's how he's decided to get it. So far, though, we don't have any idea what for."
"If you know where he is, why doesn't someone go and arrest him?" wondered Mio, but Blazkowicz shook his head.
"Monaco's neutral territory," he said. "SHAEF's military police don't have any jurisdiction there. We send in armed personnel to grab him and Skorzeny, that's an act of war."
"So?" Mio inquired bluntly. "How many divisions has the Prince of Monaco got?"
Blazkowicz laughed. "I like the way you think, Colonel, but unfortunately cooler heads have prevailed," he said. "For right now, the word is we watch and wait while MI6 tries to figure out what the hell they're up to. I just thought you ladies would like to know."
"Thank you, Captain," said Minna. "If the time comes for more direct action, and you think we in the 501st can be of any help, just let us know. I'm sure any number of us would be eager to help," she added with a slightly predatory smile.
"I will bear that in mind, ma'am," said Blazkowicz, saluting. "You have a safe flight back up north, now."
Back up north, someone else had just completed a safe flight. Climbing down from the 501st's Tiger Moth support aircraft, Francie Whittle pulled off her borrowed flying helmet, handed it to a mischievously grinning Eila in the pilot's seat, and then turned to Gryphon, who was in the process of unstrapping from the gently pinging He 162.
"I stand corrected, Captain Hutchins," she said with great dignity.
Through the years that the 501st JFW had fought together, several traditions had formed. Major holidays were recognized (combat operations permitting), Lucchini Sleeps Wherever She Wants, and most importantly, where possible, they would work with their fellow witches in neighboring units to arrange for coverage to allow the entire wing, including their Night Witches, to celebrate birthdays together.
Tonight, that meant that Sanya and Heidemarie were both looking forward to an evening spent with their friends as they gathered to celebrate Lynne Bishop's 17th birthday.
With Wilma sitting beside her at the long dining table and an open chair for her wife left open on her right, Lynne awaited the evening's repast. Earlier on, she had been given firm instructions that she was not to cook dinner or bake her own birthday cake. Instead, she'd decided to spend a bit of her day to sew a new tea dress for herself from some lovely saffron-colored fabric she'd found on her last visit to town.
"You know," Wilma joked, "You're supposed to get us to get you birthday presents."
Lynne blushed at that, but recovered quickly when she'd been assured the dress was quite lovely by her friends.
Dinner that evening, provided by Yoshika, Gryphon, and Christiane Barkhorn, was a rather Brittanian affair, in honor of the occasion. Beef Wellington, slices of homity pie, and mushy peas for the main course, followed by the presentation of a gigantic raspberry custard trifle for dessert, accompanied by several bottles of the local Riesling.
Happily stuffed full, the assembled Witches retired to the living room, where music and cards had been laid on by Erica Hartmann.
"It's kind of funny," Eila observed to the birthday girl as they sat down to a round of bridge with Trude and Francie Whittle, "You and Wilma have your birthdays so close together - and isn't your younger sister's syntymäpäivä in May, too?"
Wilma snickered, overhearing the question. "Yep, Darjeeling's is about halfway between us, on May 28th." Giving her younger sister a sly look, she continued, "Our mom always seemed to get the most out of September."
Making a show of examining her hand of cards, Lynne mumbled what was probably the start of "I couldn't possibly comment", but was saved by Yoshika interrupting the start of bidding to lean in and deliver an impressively long kiss, to the cheers and applause of the room.
As the evening wound down, many of the Witches left for their bedrooms in ones and twos, until Mio, Minna, Hattori, Gryphon, and von Hammer were the last ones left, enjoying the last bottle of wine that had been opened in some cases, and the last scoops of trifle for others.
"I love the nights like this," Minna said, happily sipping at her wine on one of the living room's chaises longues next to her fiancée, "It's important to have something normal, now and then."
"Mm," Mio agreed after finishing a bite of jam-soaked pound cake. "You can't forget the war, but it's good to put it aside for a little bit and just be happy."
Putting her hand over Minna's, Mio looked over to where Hattori was just finishing filling a dish with berries and custard. "Speaking of which, Shizuka?"
Hattori straightened slightly, but either the informal address or the wine and dessert she'd already consumed kept her from coming to complete attention. "Yes, Colonel?"
"How's the temple project coming along?"
"Very well, actually." Hattori sat down in one of the chairs across from her commander, balancing the dish on her knee. "The frame and roof are done - we're just finishing the interior now. I would think it should be ready within a week."
Mio nodded, obviously having expected as much. "Well, then..." Looking over to Minna, she squeezed her hand lightly. "Seems that we have a venue. It's probably time for a date."
Minna squeezed back, her face thoughtful. "So it is. With LeMay needing our 'help' in a few weeks... the middle of July? He and his ridiculous bomber ought to be out of our hair by then."
Gryphon helpfully went to the calendar hanging on one wall, then flipped to the next month. "The 12th's a Friday, if you think things will be wrapped up by then."
Minna considered, then nodded. "I should think so. Mio?"
Sakamoto grinned, then leaned over to give Minna a quick kiss. "July 12th it is! Hannelore, would you post that in the morning bulletin?"
Von Hammer toasted the happy couple, then drained her glass. "Happily. I'll go make the notice up now, I think, then head for bed."
"Excellent, thank you."
Von Hammer stood, then set her glass down before deciding to pick up what was left of the bottle of wine with a slight smirk. "This should help, as well. Good evening, ladies... and gentleman." Saluting them all with the bottle, von Hammer left the room, humming the Brautlied as she disappeared down the hallway.
Drafting the wedding date announcement for the 501st (and sending less obviously worded notices to be telexed to several interested parties without arousing the interest of busybodies in the radio shacks) took Hannelore von Hammer very little time, so she decided to tackle a few other matters in her office before turning in - particularly with the aid of the remaining wine.
Filing a few matters for Minna's attention, signing off on several forms, and offering a few choice words for several rather foolish inquiries from the rear echelon, she was about to consider things finished when she noticed a red-and-blue-edged envelope that had managed to hide itself at the bottom of her inbox.
Her eyes widened as she read the address. The envelope was addressed personally to her, and the return was hand-written, but instead of a postage stamp, it simply bore the Imperial seal. "Was ist das, Fritzchen...?"
Slitting the envelope, she began to read the letter as she stood next to her desk.
No one else was in the castle's administrative wing at this hour, so there was no one to hear the sound, a few moments later, of a wine bottle shattering as it hit the floor. Nor would anyone hear the sound of Hannelore von Hammer weeping, or the words that escaped her office door between the tears.
"Du verdammter Narr! Ich hätte 'ja' gesagt!"
Eila Juutilainen-Litvyak entered the hangar promptly on time for the start of afternoon patrol, but inwardly, she was already preparing herself for a wait. Her scheduled patrol partner today was Francesca Lucchini, and the Romagnan was many things, but "on time for patrol" was not generally one of them.
She was a bit puzzled to arrive and discover that Lucchini's Fiat Centaur Striker was gone, its retaining arms open and empty. Scratching her head, she looked around, then called to one of the Romagnan ground crewmen, "Oi! Where's Lucchini's Striker? Is there some kind of problem?"
The man looked puzzled, then gave her an elaborate, almost Gallic shrug and replied in a thick Romagnan accent, "Tenente Lucchini, she already leave."
"Eh?" Eila glanced at her wristwatch (an Orussian Poljot Sturmanskie, her wedding present and most prized possession), then crossed to the duty roster clipboard, which was hanging on the wall next to the big board showing the current status of all units on the base. Sure enough, she was right on time - and the status board confirmed the mechanic's claim. For whatever reason, Lucchini had left the castle some twenty minutes before their patrol was scheduled to begin, and she had done it alone.
Eila glanced up the board and saw that Colonel Sakamoto was out as well, having elected to lead the day's overlapping midday patrol herself. Grumbling, she went upstairs to report the matter to Perrine instead.
"I'm sorry, I don't think I can have heard you right," the 501st's deputy commander said, rising from behind her desk. "Lucchini left early?"
"That's what I said," Eila replied.
"That's..." Perrine took off her spectacles and polished them on her cravat, buying herself a little time to think; then she put them back on and said, "Well, I don't want to seem like I'm calling you a liar, Eila, but that's preposterous."
"I know!" Eila agreed, waving her arms.
Somewhere in the vicinity of Neuf-Brisach, Lucchini cruised happily along, congratulating herself on what was, after all, a stroke of brilliance. The higher-ups were always grumbling at her for being late for patrol, and she'd been dreading having to tool around for four hours listening to Eila complain about the bear girl. By leaving early, she'd offset some of the former and completely dodged the latter! Genius.
Sure, there was some trifling regulation about not going more than 10 km from the castle alone, but, well, really? The Neuroi hadn't put in more than token appearances south of Route 59 for months, and high-level recce showed that the ruins of Freiburg were completely deserted. Even if one of their stragglers turned up out here, it would be no match for La Gattina Nera!
In the meantime, it was a beautiful day, and she amused herself by darting here and there among the clouds, chasing her shadow as it fell across the fluffy white. As she did so, she entertained the fanciful notion of what she would do if she ran across Yoshika's Neuroi friend, sightings of which had been piling up over the last few weeks in both the 501st's sector and the 511th's to the north. This was a bit to the south of her documented stamping ground to date, but still, who knew? She might turn up. That would be interesting! More interesting than listening to Eila's indignation over not everyone in the world thinking Sanya was as amazing as she did, anyway.
Lucchini had nothing against Sanya, in fact she rather liked her. The fact that her schedule meant she was virtually always either asleep, or wishing she were, when Lucchini saw her had given the Romagnan the slightly wrong impression that the Orussian was as deeply devoted to that dark art as she was, which gave her an air of solidarity that was not altogether deserved; but however it came about, Lucchini was abstractly fond of her without really knowing her that well.
So that wasn't really the problem. If anything, she agreed that Urbanowicz was being a colossal jerk, never acknowledging Sanya's presence at dinner or if they happened to meet in the corridor. She just found Eila's constant grumbling about it tiresome. Just punch her already. That's what Shirley would've done!
This somewhat elliptical train of thought was disrupted by a sudden glint of sunlight off a smooth surface, glimpsed momentarily in a gap between clouds. Lucchini arrested her latest swoop at her shadow, automatically unslinging her .30-caliber Browning machine gun from her back and chambering a round. Apart from the growl of her own props, she didn't hear any engines. Concentrating for a moment, she searched the area with the short-range, rudimentary version of witch radar that was all most non-Night Witches could ever manage... and felt the indistinct, non-directional presence of Neuroi somewhere in the vicinity.
Grinning fiercely, she started forward again, heading up and over the illusorily massive heap of cloud ahead of her. Had she just caught a glimpse of Yoshika's Neuroi-chan? Maybe she'd be the one to finally make contact...
She crested the top of the cloud, and there on the far side of it waited not a tiny Neuroi in the shape of a witch, but in fact a rather large one in what looked to her mind like the shape of a kite. Rather large. Really quite big indeed.
Not big enough to put her off, though.
Forgetting every protocol in her eagerness to join battle, she opened up her Centaur to full power and dove on the unsuspecting-seeming target with a whoop of pure, aggressive joy. All mine!
Some distance to the northwest, Mio Sakamoto and her patrol group were also enjoying the beautiful day, albeit not quite to the same sportive extent as Lucchini had been.
In the lead, Mio looked back over her shoulder and considered her wingmen's formation. The first was right where she should be, and the elder Fusō witch felt an undeniable surge of pride at the sight of her there. It seemed like only yesterday that Yoshika Miyafuji was a fresh-faced, awkward rookie, all talent and no real skill. Today she was still just as fresh-faced as ever - in fact she looked virtually the same, albeit a little taller, two months shy of her 17th birthday as she had when Mio first met her at 14. Her bearing in the air, though, was completely different, and in spite of her youth and her irrepressable grin, she looked like a real officer in her neat white jacket and perfectly maintained Shinden Striker Unit, with her Type 99 autocannon slung on her back and her lieutenant's shoulder boards glinting in the sunlight.
A witchlength behind her and a little farther to the left, the third member of their slightly overstrength patrol group was not quite as perfectly positioned, but Chris Barkhorn looked every bit as put together as her elders. Her striking resemblance to Yoshika was reduced somewhat by her different familiar, and her different uniform, and her Messerschmitt Striker, but the natural flying talent was very similar, as was the way she couldn't keep the delight from her face. Sensing her commanding officer's eye upon her, she made an effort to impose more of a "game face" on herself, adopting an affected scowl that was probably an unconscious imitation of her elder sister Gertrud - but Mio's answering grin put paid to that soon enough.
Yoshika caught the byplay and, as if she had sensed Mio's earlier thought about how officer-like she was now, broke formation to pull a gigantic, open-armed barrel roll around the whole group, coming up on Chris's left to nudge the young Karlslander with an elbow.
"Isn't it a beautiful day, Chris-chan?" she asked. "The kind of day that makes you glad to be a witch."
"Mm-hmm," Chris agreed, nodding, but then the conversation was interrupted by the voice of Perrine Clostermann on the radio:
"Patrol Two from Duchess, come in."
Mio raised a hand to activate her commbud. "Jingū here, go ahead, Duchess."
"Patrol Two, be advised, Haywire has sortied alone," said Perrine. "Chariot reported for patrol at the usual time and was informed that she'd already left. If she's on the right route she'll be somewhere around Colmar by now. Keep an eye out."
Mio cracked a faint smirk and replied, "As it were?" Getting back only a stony silence that, she was fairly sure, was Perrine not pressing her push-to-talk because she was laughing, Mio went on, "Right, right. We'll find her. Jingū out."
She lowered her hand and sighed, looking back over her shoulder. "Well, great. I swear that kid's more trouble than she's worth."
"You don't mean that," Yoshika chided her.
"No," Mio agreed. "But she's very, very frustrating some days." Then, throttling up, she said, "All right, let's go take a look. She can't have gotten all that far."
"Ya-haaaa!" Lucchini cried as, with a long, rolling burst, she finally nailed the Neuroi's core and blew it apart. Pulling out of her dive, she savored that magical p-TANNNG noise as the target's general structure followed, then hovered for a moment catching her breath while its sparkling fragments drifted like snow toward the ruined cityscape not very far below.
... Wait. Ruined cityscape?
Lowering her smoking machine gun, Lucchini turned slowly in the air, looking around. She'd gotten so wrapped up in her pursuit of the Neuroi - which, though large, had been quite unexpectedly agile - that she'd completely lost track of where she was. She'd caught the odd glimpse of a built-up area out of the corner of her eye as she fought and assumed that they were over Colmar... but this place was a complete wreck, not the mostly-rebuilt-and-entirely-bustling little city of Colmar.
And it was utterly deserted.
"Oh, crap," she mumbled. "This is Freiburg."
Taking another turnaround, she tried to reorient herself. Yes, OK, there was the Rhine, and she was definitely on the wrong side of it. This was not a good place to be at the best of times, but particularly alone, low on magic, lower on ammo, and without even the slightest particle of authorization.
Man, am I gonna get it for this if anyone finds out, she thought, and started back toward the west. She decided not to climb back to cruising altitude until she'd crossed back over the river, in case any border spotters happened to be watching the higher skies; she might, after all, still get away with this woeful breach of protocol if she was canny about it.
As she worked her way low above the ruined streets and Neuroi-chewed buildings of Freiburg, she suddenly realized that there was something moving at the edge of her vision to the left.
And the right.
Pausing, she drew upright again and made a third sweep of the horizon...
... and saw, to her growing horror, that Freiburg was not as deserted as Intel Division's reports might have led her to expect it to be. And now she had the answer to a rhetorical question they had posed on their last high-altitude photo assessment: Why have the Neuroi left the shells of so many buildings standing?
Answer: Because they made such good hiding places.
"Uh... Haywire to Saint-Ulrich, come in," she said, fighting to keep her voice level as the Neuroi - dozens of them - assembled in formation all around her and something not too unlike panic welled up within her.
An ear-ringing burst of static was her only answer - not just dead air, but noise. Looking up, she realized that the metallic glinting all around her wasn't the settling remains of her quarry, which had long since dispersed. She reached out and plucked a piece of it from the air: a little rectangle of silvery metal foil, about one centimeter by three.
I saw this before, she thought. In the Ardennes. But they haven't used it since...
Then she had no more time for woolgathering - she was too busy fighting for her life.
Mio's first inkling that something strange was going on was when the radio started playing up. She'd been calling periodically for Lucchini as her patrol group moved southeastward, past Colmar and toward the Rhine, but as they approached the river, the lack of response changed from dead air to a dull whistle, then a fitful crackling that reminded her of the bleed noise from distant lightning. That wasn't likely to be the case, not on a day as nice as this; no sign of anything like that kind of weather anywhere.
Halting just short of the river, Mio switched her goggles to block the view of her normal eye and concentrated on her witchsight, peering off into enemy territory. Freiburg had been quiet for months, but the noise on the radio had gotten louder the closer they got...
... and now she saw why. The airspace over Freiburg was experiencing a storm, all right - but not of weather. The whole city was covered in a cloud of fluttering, twinkling little rectangles. It was, she realized, the stuff the Neuroi in the Ardennes had used during the previous fall's surprise counterattack: the slips of foil which the Liberions had later codenamed "chaff" and the Britannians called (for reasons that eluded Mio) "window". No one was sure quite how even now, but it interfered with both ordinary radio transmissions and Night Witches' magic radar.
Producing it was evidently resource-intensive for the Neuroi, as there had been few recorded cases of its use since the failure of their all-in offensive in the Ardennes. For such a huge quantity of it to have been deployed over Freiburg, something really significant must be afoot. Mio looked harder, her mystic sight (unaffected by the chaff) penetrating deeper into the city, and after a few moments, she spotted them. Neuroi, a half-dozen Large Types and more medium and small drone units than she could count offhand, all of them swarming around a small target.
For just a second, Mio thought their quarry, tiny and witch-shaped, must be Lucchini, and then, just as suddenly, she realized it wasn't. It was maneuvering as furiously as any witch would've been, trying desperately to stay ahead of all the beams and bolts of destructive energy the crowd of Neuroi were unleashing, but its moves were too geometric, too impossibly angular, to be any Striker's flight path - particularly one operated by a flier as inspired but technically unconstrained as Lucchini, whose moves were always bigger, rounder, more flamboyant than they really had to be. Whoever that was, she moved more like a small Neuroi than a witch...
... because it was a small Neuroi.
While Chris and Yoshika hovered there, waiting for her to tell them what she saw, Mio considered what to do. She would never have believed she would someday find herself considering flying to a Neuroi's rescue - even that of the one Yoshika so staunchly insisted was not an enemy of witchkind. But the creature was so clearly all the others' target, so desperately outclassed... and Mio had never doubted the essential truth of the old saying, My enemy's enemy is my friend.
Besides which, Lucchini was still missing, and though Mio couldn't see her anywhere, she knew in her bones that her Romagnan colleague was unlikely to be anywhere else but in the middle of the biggest batch of trouble in the area.
Her decision made, she switched her goggles back, pivoted on her props, and said, "Miyafuji, it looks like your friend is having a little trouble with her old team."
Yoshika looked puzzled; then her eyes went wide. "Neuroi-chan! She's in trouble?"
"Looks that way. She's up against at least a half-dozen Large Types and who knows how many drones."
"We have to help her!" Yoshika declared, moving forward a few feet, her fists clenched before her chest. "Sakamoto-san, I know you've never believed in her, but please -"
"Relax, Miyafuji. I'm with you this time." She chuckled. "Maybe I just can't stand an unfair fight. Barkhorn, return to base. Miyafuji and I are entering enemy airspace, it's no place for a rookie."
The only response Chris gave was to remove her MG 42 from her back, set her jaw, and reply, "Respectfully, Colonel, am I a combat witch of the 501st or not?"
Mio stared hard at her for a moment, but was unable to prevent herself from smiling, just a little. "Because what I really needed in my life was two Barkhorns," she said to no one in particular, and then, "Base, this is Jingū. If you can hear me, we're investigating a major disturbance in Freiburg airspace. We're liable to be pretty heavily outnumbered, but we'll do our best to keep from getting boxed in. Send backup if you can."
Transmission complete, she listened for a second, got nothing but static, and shook her head. "Nothing. All right, let's go, you two. Barkhorn, stay close. Be ready to run for it - there's too many of them for us to take on by ourselves if they all decide to come after us."
A trace of fear - This is really it! - crossed the younger Barkhorn's face, but she shoved it down and covered it with a look that would have made her elder sister proud as she primed her machine gun and said, "Ready!"
They hit the aerial battlefield with guns blazing, the buzzsaw snarl of Chris's MG 42 counterpointing the deeper, more measured thump-thump-thump of the two Fusō witches' Type 99 cannon. The Neuroi, all their attention concentrated on their tiny, elusive target, seemed taken by surprise; they scattered as a number of their drones were torn apart by the witches' fire, opening a path for them to swoop in and form up with the witch-shaped Neuroi. She, too, seemed surprised to see them, if her body language could be relied upon; she drew back as if expecting them to attack, then tilted her head inquisitively as she realized they were backing her up.
"Neuroi-chan!" Yoshika cried, pulling up alongside her. "Is it really you? What's going on? And where have you been?"
"Not really the time, Miyafuji," Mio said tensely, hovering back-to-back with her. "See if you can convince it to come with us and let's get out of here while they're regrouping."
"Come on," Yoshika said, too caught up in the crisis to take exception to Mio's choice of pronouns. "We have to get away from here, there are too many for us to fight by ourselves."
To Yoshika's surprise, Neuroi-chan shook her head.
"What? Why not? Why can't you leave?"
In response, the Neuroi witch pointed downward. Yoshika looked, tipping forward on her props a bit, then gasped. On the roof of the building over which they were all hovering, a familiar form lay sprawled, motionless, like a discarded doll.
"Lucchini!" Yoshika cried.
"Damn," Mio spat. "So much for escaping. Miyafuji, get down there and see what you can do for her. Barkhorn, stick close to me - I think this is about to get hairy as hell."
"R-roger!" Chris replied, tightening her grip on her machine gun. Shoulder to shoulder with Mio, she watched the swirling horde of smaller Neuroi as they finished gathering around their more massive fellows - then pivoted as one and commenced a massed attack run on the witches.
"Here they come!" Mio cried, and then she drew the shorter of the two swords on her back with her left hand, one-handing her Type 99 with her right, and launched herself into a head-on counterattack with her young Karlslander colleague right behind her.
Yoshika swooped down and bailed out of her Shinden without even really stopping, literally hitting the roof running; one look at Lucchini's condition as she approached had told her she couldn't afford even the minor magical expenditure necessary to keep the Striker running. The Romagnan witch was sprawled face-down on the cracked asphalt of the roof, her once-white Sovrana Aeronautica officer's jacket soiled with soot, tar, and blood in about equal proportions. Half of her Centaur Striker was completely gone, the other half smashed and plainly inoperable - in its condition, the leg inside it was almost certainly broken. Her familiar's ears and tail had gone, either because she'd exhausted her magic or just from the shock of her wounds.
Yoshika pounded to a halt next to Lucchini, dropped to her knees, and summoned her healing power, pushing it outward into a luminous blue hemisphere that surrounded them both. The first touch of her magic against her colleague's body filled her with simultaneous relief and dread, relief because Lucchini was alive, dread because that one touch confirmed most of Yoshika's second-worst fears about her condition. This was going to be a tough job, possibly the toughest she'd ever accomplished under fire. There was no way she was going to be able to restore Lucchini to fighting fitness, not out here. The best she could hope for would be to stabilize the Romagnan's condition so that she would survive the trip back to Saint-Ulrich. Then, with the non-magical medical staff's help, she could set about effecting more comprehensive repairs.
She concentrated hard, burying her concern for Sakamoto-san and Chris-chan. Her comrades were hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned; they could hope to win this fight together no more than Lucchini could've, alone or with Neuroi-chan to help her. If Yoshika didn't work quickly and well - and find some way of clearing the area fast while carrying an unconscious patient afterward - it was entirely possible that all five of them would be killed.
Breath. Focus. Control, she thought, employing one of the concentration techniques Sakamoto-san had taught her as part of her training in Hikōmajokenryū. Her breathing and the fast, thready beat of Lucchini's heart became the only sounds in her world, shutting out the roar and shriek of the battle raging above her. Repair only the most critical damage. Don't try to make anything perfect. Not here. Not now. Perfect is for later. Alive is for now.
How long it took she could never have said - time, like the outside world, became meaningless to her when she sank this deeply into the healing fugue - but eventually, she came to the realization that she had done enough, or at least that she had done all she could do in this place and time. If Yoshika could get her back to the castle and its sickbay soon, Lucchini would live. If not, she would die. The distinction was stark and simple, absolute and completely absent any trace of compromise.
Pulling herself back to the surface, Yoshika opened her eyes... and saw a Neuroi beam the width of a city street carve across the roof, obliterating her Shinden as it tracked toward her. Crying out with dismay, both for the loss of her Striker and the imminent danger, she struggled to shift her mental and magical gears, summoning up her shield. Her response was a little sluggish - she'd poured so much effort into stabilizing Lucchini that even her famed reserves were low, and changing from one spell to another after holding her mental "grip" on the first for so long was always a challenge -
A shield circle did appear in the air above her, but it wasn't her own. It was not witch-blue but Neuroi-red, and instead of runes in the turning circle around its outer edge, it had what looked like the tracery of angled light paths that sometimes appeared on Neuroi hulls, when viewed in certain light. It did the same job, though, deflecting the plasma beam to carve across the roof to one side, then spend itself against the face of the building across the street.
"Miyafuji!" Mio cried, seeing how near that Large Type's attack had come. Only the intervention of the witch-Neuroi, hovering foursquare above the kneeling witch and her fallen comrade with shield raised, had prevented Mio from losing two of her dearest friends in an instant.
In that instant, all doubt about the intentions of that one aberrant Neuroi disappeared from Mio Sakamoto's mind, never to return. Her decision was not conscious, but, like many of her most critical ones, it was unequivocal, and it was final.
Teeth gritted, she turned in the air and, without really thinking about it, threw her Type 99 to Barkhorn. Chris one-handed her MG 42 and caught it without missing a beat, then vectored around her and opened up with both weapons on a second Large Type that was trying to flank them. Even under these circumstances, the seamlessness with which they had accomplished that unrehearsed move brought a tiny, fierce element of a smile to the mask of fury on Mio's face as she reached to her back with her newly-freed right hand and drew Haganekaze.
"Miyafuji, get out of here!" she roared, diving on the big Neuroi that had just tried to vaporize Yoshika and Lucchini. "We'll cover you! Go!"
"My Striker -" Yoshika began, but Mio had already flashed past, her Shiden-Kai's stacks flaming, and raked the Large Type's underbelly with a double strike from Haganekaze and Reppumaru.
Rising slowly, a bit unsteadily, to her feet, Yoshika turned to Neuroi-chan, who descended slowly to the rooftop before her. For a moment, witch and Neuroi stood regarding each other silently, as if oblivious to the battle raging around and above them.
"If I don't get my friend back to our base soon," Yoshika explained softly, "she'll die. I don't know if you have... a concept of death. Or even if you can understand what I'm saying right now. But please... if you do understand... if you want to be our friend... then can you help me?"
Neuroi-chan's blank face gazed impassively at her for a moment. Turning her head slightly, the Neuroi witch looked past Yoshika to Lucchini's fallen form, then back to Yoshika's tear-streaked, wide-eyed face. Then she raised her hand, extending her curious cylindrical fingers in an unmistakable gesture.
Yoshika hesitantly raised her own, reaching to meet the Neuroi's. They had, she remembered, had this moment once before, on her inscrutable visit to the Neuroi Hive over the English Channel. Just before their fingers would have touched, the Warlock had attacked, destroying both the hive and, Yoshika had thought at the time, Neuroi-chan. Yoshika had never seen her again; when she reappeared, and then fell over Venezia, the Fusō witch had been back in her homeland - in exile, though she hadn't known that at the time.
Now their fingers touched, then slid together, until she felt her palm press against the cool smoothness at the base of the Neuroi's rough-sketch hand...
... and Yoshika's eyes went even wider as the single most amazing thing that had ever happened to her, happened to her.
Most of the witches who weren't out on patrol had gathered in the hangar by this point, concerned by the lack of any signal from any of their fellows in the field. The control tower had received a fragmentary transmission from Mio, something about Freiburg, but it had been so broken up that nothing more could be gleaned from it, and since then... nothing, neither from her and her patrol group nor from Lucchini.
Gryphon emerged from FUEL STORAGE with the He 162 on his back, fastening the chin strap of his helmet as he came. Minna strode beside him, her determined look not quite covering her concern as she told him, "You and Shirley can get there the fastest. Check it out, and if you have to, fly back until you clear the jamming and report. We have to know what's going on out there."
"Right," Gryphon agreed. Going to the weapons racks, he selected a Type 99 (having long preferred its slightly more deliberate rate of fire), then took a bandolier of four Karlslandic M24 hand grenades for good measure.
"We're on it," Shirley agreed, slipping into the embrace of her personalized P-51D.
"With my Spiteful, I'm very nearly as fast as Shirley," Lynne spoke up. "I can follow them up for long-range support."
"Good idea," Perrine agreed. Minna said nothing, only nodded. Perrine was the 501st's ranking officer on the scene, so the disposition of forces was technically her prerogative right now - not the general's, even if she had stepped in through a combination of concern and force of habit.
Before anyone could make any further suggestions, a figure dove on the castle from the south, swooped across the apron, and halted, hovering, in the center of the open hangar doors. Turning to look, the witches drew back, pointed, or readied weapons, as their instincts varied.
The figure was the witch-like Neuroi... and cradled in her arms, battered and bloodied, was the limp form of Francesca Lucchini.
"Lucchini!" cried Shirley; then, her face contorting in a most uncharacteristic snarl, she grabbed her Browning Automatic Rifle from the rack and darted forward, bringing the weapon to bear. "Damn you, what have you done?!" she demanded, tears in her eyes. "Some of us believed in you!"
"Shirley-san, wait!" the Neuroi replied, and to everyone's confusion, her voice - slightly flattened and metallic, as if speaking over a PA system - was Yoshika's!
"It's not what you think!" Yoshika's voice continued, and then the onlookers got still a further shock, as the Neuroi's head suddenly... deconstructed, breaking up into thousands of interconnected small pieces that drew back and away to reveal Yoshika's face, framed as though in some kind of strange helmet.
"Yoshika!" Lynne gasped. "What's happened? Are you -"
"No, no, Lynne-chan, I'm fine! This is just... it's like a suit." Lynne opened her mouth to ask a follow-up question, but Yoshika shook her head and plowed on, "Anyway, there's no time! Lucchini-chan has to get to sickbay right now, and Sakamoto-san and Chris-chan need help! They're in Freiburg - dozens of Neuroi - it was a trap!"
"Hölle und Verdammnis!" von Hammer spat.
"Hannelore, get on the comm and declare a broken arrow to the other units in the area," Minna said, her face a mask of Karlslandic self-control as the elder witch left the hangar at a run. "The rest of you, scramble!"
Unnoticed behind Minna, Trude's face had drained of color as she realized what Yoshika was saying. Mio and Christiane, deep in enemy territory, and surrounded by hostile Neuroi. Before anyone else could react to the scramble call, Barkhorn had turned on her heel and was sprinting to the launch stages - but not towards the one where her Fw 190 was waiting.
Instead, she leapt the crash bars of the stage that held von Hammer's Me 262, the ears and tail of her familiar appearing as the jet's engines came to life.
Without bothering to ask permission, or even to call for takeoff clearance, she slammed her hand down to release the launch stage's interlocks, grabbed the paired 30mm cannons von Hammer had set in the adjacent armory rack, and blasted out of the hangar.
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 the control tower, as she prepared to sound the alert to all Allied air stations in the sector, von Hammer saw her Striker Unit leave without her. Snatching up the binoculars from the console, she focused on the fast-departing unit, and when she saw who had taken it, she felt herself go pale. With a curse, she snatched up the radio mic and thumbed down the transmitter key.
Down in the hangar, everyone looked up from their hurried launch preparations as von Hammer's voice on the squadron's tactical band was relayed through the PA: "Weiß-5, beware! That unit is not limited! Repeat, not limited!"
There was a pause while she waited for a reply; when none came, her voice rang out again: "Weiß-5, acknowledge!"
Still no response, and Erica Hartmann's eyes were fixed on the speaker, a look of horror dawning on her face.
"Weiß-5, come in!" von Hammer cried, and then, in as plaintive a tone as anyone present had ever heard from her:
E P U (colour) 2015