Avalon County Entertainment System
Channel Select: Avalon Broadcasting System (Channel 17)
In the wake of Yoshika Miyafuji's sudden appearance and Gertrud Barkhorn's equally sudden departure, Wilma Bishop saw that certain of her wingmates had—understandably, but inopportunely—hesitated in their work, still trying to bring on board the horror implied by the radio transmission they'd just overheard.
Wilma had never considered herself much of a leader. In her entire active career as a witch, she had never risen beyond the grade of sergeant, never wanted nor sought after a position of command, preferring to be responsible for nothing more than her own hide in battle. A few times, though, when the situation had called for her to be something more than a self-contained unit, she had risen to the occasion and taken charge. She never thought about it, at the time or afterward, and when her wingmates (for instance, in the old Isle of Wight Detachment) had tried to point it out to her, she'd always laughed it off, but it had still happened.
Now it happened again, as, without conscious consideration, she turned to the blue-clad, worried figure of Frances Whittle and said, "Francie, is the Meteor ready to fly?"
Whittle gave her a puzzled look, then nodded. "I completed a full set of bench tests this morning. She should be ready to go."
"Great." Turning to Erica Hartmann, who was the most plainly shock-paralyzed of the lot, she clapped the blonde Karlslander on the shoulder and told her briskly, "Hartmann, take the 162. Your 109 will hold you back."
It never even crossed Erica's mind to argue that she wasn't checked out on the Ha 162, or that she had in fact never operated a jet Striker of any kind before. She just nodded, a determined look coming onto her face as her fugue of horror broke, and ran to the Karlsland jet's launch stage. There, her twin sister Ursula—the Striker's designer—helped her power it up and gave her a few quiet tips on how best to handle it, then went to saddle up her own Fw 190.
"Aren't you worried?" asked Shizuka Hattori, keeping her voice down, as she prepped her Shiden-Kai alongside her.
Ursula shook her head. "No," she said. "Erica's the best instinctive pilot I've ever seen, and her mind is focused now in a way it rarely is. She'll be fine."
"You realize, of course, that as a civilian flight test contractor, you're not cleared for combat operations," Whittle pointed out, though Wilma noticed it didn't stop the engineering officer from helping her prepare the Meteor's heavy weapons for action.
"Welp," said Wilma, racking a belt of 20mm high-explosive ammunition into one of her Hispano cannon. "Hell with that."
Whittle chuckled and broke the seal on another box of ammo for the Striker's second cannon. "Quite."
With the spell broken, the others were all getting ready as well, and as the hangar filled with the sputter and roar of piston-engined Strikers firing up, Wilma slipped into the cool embrace of the Meteor. Even under the circumstances, the sensation brought a little smile to her face. She liked the Ha 162, liked it a lot, and by this point she knew it well; but boarding the Meteor, somehow, felt like coming home. She wondered if it was because some part of her knew it was Britannian and responded accordingly. That was a bit silly—there was no technical or scientific basis for such a belief that she knew of—but Wilma Bishop had never been of the opinion that machines were just machines.
Pulling herself out of the reverie—this was no time to be getting philosophical—she turned toward the castle's commanding general and said, "Minna, I'll take the fast-movers on ahead and assess the situation. You guys catch up as you can. I think we're going to need all the guns we can get for this thing."
Major General Minna-Dietlinde Wilcke didn't bat an eye at being given what sounded very much like instructions by the person who, technically, held the lowliest position in the First Joint Special Air Fleet. On the contrary, she received them with a firm nod, recognizing them for the good sense they were; it was exactly the game plan she'd been formulating in her head for the last few seconds.
"Will do," she said, and then addressed the full group in a voice that carried clearly above even the mechanical cacophony in the hangar:
"501st Joint Fighter Wing: Move out!"
As the rest of the 501st began to launch, Lynne Bishop brought her Spiteful around to where Yoshika was carefully transferring Francesca Lucchini onto a stretcher that had been brought to her by two of the castle's staff.
It was hard to judge body language with Yoshika essentially encased within the strange Neuroi's body, but she was fairly sure Yoshika shrugged as she finished settling the Romagnan onto the canvas. "She's stable—but not out of the woods yet."
Lynne nodded, slinging her self-designed anti-Neuroi rifle to her shoulder. "Do you want me to stay behind?"
Yoshika considered that, then shook her head. "No—I can draft some help here, and they're going to need you."
The Britannian looked conflicted for a moment; then her face set, her posture growing firm. "Right. Good luck, Yoshika."
Yoshika raised her (their?) hand, placing it on Lynne's arm for a moment, and then her wife was gone, throttling up her Spiteful to join the others as they raced towards the border.
Yoshika slumped slightly within Neuroi-chan's embrace, sighing, then blinked, as if realizing that she was still "wearing" her strange friend. "Um... Neuroi-chan? May I get out?"
There was a strange sensation, and a moment later Yoshika was standing on the floor of the hangar next to the stretcher, while Neuroi-chan, back in her "normal" configuration, hovered next to her.
Hugging the Neuroi impulsively, Yoshika felt tears at the edges of her eyes, and didn't bother to stifle them. "Thank you. Thank you so much." Then, turning to the stunned stretcher bearers, she straightened. "Well? Get her to sickbay, NOW! I'll be right behind you!"
True to her word, Yoshika paced the stretcher team as they headed for the lift, oblivious to the looks she was receiving as Neuroi-chan floated along beside her.
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
As Gertrud Barkhorn streaked through the Alsatian skies, she barely heard the radio calls warning her about the Striker she'd taken. All of her focus was locked in on the battle between Christiane and the Neuroi as she willed herself to get there in time to help:
Faster. Faster! FASTER!
The Me 262 responded to her silent demands just as it was designed to do, the engines blasting her towards the battle, but within moments of hitting top speed, she could feel an ache within her. Dull at first, it rapidly grew until it was shockingly painful, a sensation that wrenched at her even as she felt the Striker's engines begin to stall.
Before, when she'd overtaxed herself in the flawed jet Striker prototype, it hadn't been like this. She'd simply passed out flying one moment, awakened in one of the 501st's sickbay beds the next, surrounded by everyone who had seen her plunge into the water off Isola delle Streghe. The second time, she'd blacked out as much from the maneuvers she'd performed in her last-ditch attempt to stop the Neuroi that had attacked the rest of the wing as from the Striker's power demands, or so she'd told herself.
But both of those times had been when she was younger. Before her magic reserves had begun to dwindle in her—and she'd never demanded quite so much of the 262, even then. Now, she'd pushed it beyond what her own magic was capable of sustaining, and the ravenous beast was draining the very life out of her as a result.
Rage welled up in her—anger at the flawed design, anger that she hadn't checked before jumping into von Hammer's Striker, anger that her sister was in danger and she was SO CLOSE, anger that all of that effort she'd put into ficken Zauberschule had been for nothing... and in that moment, something changed.
Amplifying that anger, Trude could feel that energy around her—energy she so desperately needed—just out of her reach. It was like the universe was taunting her: Surrounded by all the power she could ever need, burning with the flame that Gryphon had spoken of, she could touch none of it. Trude gathered up her seething core of fury, using it as fuel even as blackness crept into the edges of her vision. Focusing on that burning light, she reached out with every part of her being, seized hold of the power, and yanked.
Strength flooded back into her as the Force restored what the flawed Striker had taken. As her vision cleared, the fury that had sustained her in those last moments exploded from her in a scream that blended with the howl of the Striker's Jumo 004 ætherjet engines as they surged back into life.
Bringing her Striker back on course for Freiburg, Trude Barkhorn shattered the sound barrier with a Valkyrie's war cry on her lips.
As the "Fast-mover" group of Gryphon, Wilma, Erica, and Shirley burned for Freiburg, there was little chatter, just an overwhelming feeling of concern and dread for both their friends already in battle, and Trude, who might well be riding a lethal machine.
Suddenly, Gryphon's head snapped up, as if in reaction to something, and a moment later the rest of them heard a crackling explosion, as if lightning had struck in the distance.
Wilma blinked, scanning the skies, but they remained clear. "What was that?"
Erica Hartmann's face had changed from being surprisingly grim and focused to a shocked, drawn expression. "...gods, no, Trude..."
Unexpectedly, Shirley suddenly flew to her, seizing her in a hug with a fierce grin on her face. "No! Hartmann, that wasn't what you're thinking! I know that sound—I've made that sound! Somebody just crossed the sound barrier... and there's only one way Trude would have the juice to do that!"
Blinking away the tears that had started to form, Erica looked over to Gryphon, daring to hope as he met her eyes, smiled, and nodded.
"Well, damn," Wilma grinned, then urged a bit more speed from the Meteor. "C'mon, girls! Let's get into this thing while there's still a few Neuroi left for us!"
Mio Sakamoto had to admit that she wasn't sure if she was going to make it out of this.
Between her blades and Chris Barkhorn's marksmanship, they'd taken down two more of the Large Type Neuroi, plus more drones than she could keep track of, but that still left four more of the larger units—one of which seemed to be releasing drones almost as fast as they could destroy them.
I guess the one we destroyed in the Ardennes wasn't their only flying carrier, she thought, and then, irrelevantly, I wonder if LeMay saw the report about that?
Pulling through a spiraling evasion to confound another volley of plasma beams, Mio brought her Shiden-Kai around, spotting Chris as she made a similar move a few hundred meters away. The young Karlslander's MG 42 was gone—when Mio had last seen it, the barrel was glowing cherry-red, so she guessed it had overheated and jammed—but she still held the Type 99 aerial cannon Mio had given her earlier in the fight.
"How's your ammo, Chris?"
"What ammo?" Chris replied, discarding the Type 99's empty drum.
Mio grunted. Not surprising, but not good news, either. "All right. Defensive formation on me—I think we're going to have to try and break for..."
Mio trailed off, as she felt something she couldn't quite describe. It wasn't her magical radar, nor anything physical. It was similar to what she'd felt the night that Wilma had her breakthrough, but not quite the same.
She got her answer moments later, when blasts of 30mm high-explosive cannon fire began slamming into the Neuroi that she now thought of as the "Carrier type". A moment later, a figure in a bright red Striker streaked down the carrier's "stream" of drones, her supersonic shockwave shattering the small, coreless Neuroi in her wake, then blasted past the carrier with a deafening boom that cracked several of its larger hull segments.
Behind her, Mio heard Chris gasp, then raise her voice in a shout (partly for joy, partly because she'd been half-deafened) as their reinforcement pulled into a sharp climb. "TRUDE!"
The Neuroi seemed to be surprised by this fresh threat, their plasma blasts clearly having difficulty tracking their new target.
Trude—now subsonic, but still moving faster than virtually any propeller-driven witch could go—came around for another pass, her initial wave of white-hot fury having settled into something more like her usual approach to battle. Raking fire along a massed formation of drones, she had slipped back below supersonic speed, but was still keeping ahead of the Neuroi attacks as she peppered them with bursts from her borrowed Type 108 Maschinenkanone.
Mio took a deep breath, then looked over to Chris. "Looks like the cavalry's here—and I'm betting the others aren't far behind. C'mon! Let's give her a hand!"
As the three witches took up the fight again, Mio was right about more help coming. Within a few minutes of Trude's arrival, Wilma and Gryphon joined the fight, followed by Erica and Shirley.
Wilma had never really seen the 501st in action before, and though she was too busy this time to give the show the full attention it deserved, she did have an excellent seat from which to make a few observations.
Hartmann and Yeager had arrived a mere 40 seconds or so after Wilma and Gryphon hit the scene. On paper, the Liberion witch's piston-engined Striker should've been a good hundred miles an hour slower than the Ha 162, but they arrived virtually in formation, then split up. One took the left side of the aerial battlefield and the other the right, disrupting an attempt by the Neuroi drones to flank the central elements of the growing witch force.
As one of those central elements, Wilma was well-positioned to notice what a superb aviator Erica Hartmann was. She'd heard the stories, of course—what Allied witch hadn't?—but seeing her in action only confirmed them. Wilma knew better than anybody how tetchy the unmodified Ha 162 prototype could be, and Erica—who had never flown a jet before, let alone that particular one—was able to just jump in it and charge into the biggest, busiest, craziest fight Wilma had ever seen. All of Hartmann's usual gaiety was absent today; her eyes were like ice, her face a hardened mask, as she applied herself without reservation to the business of destroying Neuroi.
On another day, Wilma might've felt a little jealous of how readily the elder Hartmann had mastered a Striker she knew to be difficult. The 162 had, after all, bitten her pretty embarrassingly on her own first test flight with it, and she hadn't been hurling it into anything like the mad evolutions Hartmann was demanding. Today, though, she had bigger fish to fry—and anyway, she was enjoying the Meteor too much to care.
After Mio finished another raking attack on one of the Large Types with her blades, Gryphon pulled up alongside her. "The others are probably a minute or two behind us," he reported. "How're you holding up?"
Mio looked over with her visible eye, almost as if to say How do you think? She was still looking pretty fierce, and Barkhorn the Younger was hanging in with all the grit that might be expected of one of that clan, but they had both been at this longer now than any operational guideline would ever have deemed acceptable. The younger witch, in particular, was starting to wilt—slumping a little in her Striker, panting for breath.
"OK," Gryphon admitted, "dumb question."
"Yoshika got her back to the castle with a little help from her new friend. She was getting her to sickbay when the rest of us left."
Mio nodded. "Good enough."
Shirley arrived at that point; pulling into a hover alongside Chris, she asked, "How you holdin' up, kiddo? Helluva first day!"
"I can still fight!" Chris replied, straightening her back defiantly. "I'm just out of ammo."
"Well, here," said Gryphon. Removing the ammunition drum from his own Type 99 cannon, he slung the empty weapon on his back, then handed her the drum and drew the longer of his swords.
"If these two give you some covering fire," Mio said, "do you think you can put a few of those grenades to use against that big one that's sending out the drones?"
Gryphon yanked an M24 off his bandolier, grinning. "Colonel, it'll be my genuine pleasure."
The rest of the squadron arrived just in time for Shizuka Hattori to register at least three of the damnedest things she'd ever seen, all at virtually the same time.
One was the sheer scale of the enemy force: it was the biggest concentration of Neuroi she'd seen in one place since the climax of the Ardennes campaign, and far more of those present for this engagement were large enough to have cores.
The second was the spectacle of Gertrud Barkhorn, her MG 108s' ammunition exhausted, using the heavy twin-cannon rigs as improvised gauntlets and just straight-up bludgeoning one of the Large Types to pieces, her jet-boosted blows wreaking such havoc with its superstructure that its regeneration capability simply couldn't keep up.
And the third was Gryphon, the flying madman, and the way he dealt with the "carrier" Neuroi.
While the young Fusō witch looked on, still trying to get her head around the chaos she'd just flown into, the rocket man punched his throttle wide open, making straight for the biggest of the Neuroi with a sword in one hand and a Karlsland potato-masher grenade in the other. Not far behind, Yeager and Chris Barkhorn followed in a wide victor formation, keeping clear of the carrier's main arcs of fire and suppressing its small escorts with precise bursts.
As Gryphon darted low over its glossy black hull, plasma beams laced the air around him, but with an effortless-looking aplomb that reminded Shizuka of Eila Juutilainen-Litvyak's, he evaded them all—somehow contriving to roll and spiral crazily, confounding the Neuroi's efforts to blast him. For a second, Shizuka couldn't figure out what he was trying to do, and then she realized he was making for one of the ports through which the carrier was ejecting its drones. While she watched, a group of five streamed from the opening, scattering in different directions as whatever central intelligence was in command sent them after different members of the attacking force. Then there was a brief pause, and then five more—and suddenly she realized Gryphon's plan.
He reached the port just as the last batch emerged, executed what Shizuka's mind would have registered as an aileron roll if he'd had any ailerons, and sliced the fifth and final drone lengthways in two with his sword before it could vector itself toward whichever attacker was its target. Completing the roll, he tugged the priming cord on the grenade and flipped it neatly into the port; then his jetpack exhaust flared blue as he engaged reheat, streaking away from the incipient blast zone.
With a shattering bang, the side of the carrier around that ejector port blew out, opening a jagged hole in the vessel's armor amid a cloud of smashed drone fragments. Behind the tangled, indecipherable remnants of whatever machinery dispensed the lesser Neuroi, Shizuka's eye caught a glint of crimson—
—which bloomed outward an instant later, the crystalline crash of its destruction drowned out by the thunderous voice of Lynette Bishop's .75-inch rifle, and the Neuroi carrier disintegrated.
With that definitive statement, the 501st seized the initiative, and for the rest of the battle, the momentum was all on the witches' side—although, momentum or not, there was still a great deal of work to do.
As if they sensed that the arc of the battle was swinging away from them, the remaining Large Type Neuroi intensified their fire, coordinating the surviving drones (of which there were still many) to draw an incandescent web of scarlet death in the skies above Freiburg. The cooperative tactic took a couple of the witches by surprise. Witolda Urbanowicz, who had been in Africa during the Ardennes campaign and so hadn't seen this new breed of drone Neuroi in action before, was caught flat-footed, bracketed from two sides, and realized it a fraction of a second too late to do anything but brace herself for a painful lesson in situational awareness.
Instead, one of the 501st's veterans interposed herself, darting up on Witolda's flank and turning the burst she'd missed aside with her own shield. The Polonian witch deflected the other attack herself, then destroyed the drone group with a rolling burst from her .50-caliber machine gun (and a couple of Wojtek's rockets) before turning to offer slightly breathless thanks to her savior...
... and then pulled up short as she saw that it was Sanya Juutilainen-Litvyak.
The silver-haired Orussian gave Witolda—forced for the first time to display some outward sign of having noticed her—a complete lack of expression and murmured in a barely audible voice, "Вы нэкультурно, но мы товарищи," then turned and sped off to support another of her wingmates.
Witolda blinked after her for a moment, utterly dumbfounded. Then, turning her head, she gave her bear familiar a scowl and said, "Shut up. Do not look at me like that," before collecting herself and returning to the fight.
Now that she wasn't performing an emergency field stabilization on her wounded comrade, Yoshika Miyafuji could employ all the laser-like concentration she'd learned from both her medical education and her training as a swordswoman to carry out the much more complicated task of treating Lucchini's many injuries properly. As she did, she catalogued them somewhere in the back of her mind, considering as she did so how the Romagnan witch must have acquired them.
Oh, some were plain enough. Plasma burns only came from one source, and her shattered leg was an obvious consequence of the destruction of her Striker Unit. Most of the blunt-force injuries, though, could have come from any number of sources. Yoshika suspected that the majority had been incurred when Lucchini crashed. A witch with her wits about her could use her shield as protection even against the ground, but it was an incomplete defense at best.
As she worked, partly by magic and partly by hand, the castle's conventional medical staff provided all the support they could. Yoshika knew some magical healers disdained both conventional medicine and conventional medics, but she had seen enough action at this point to know that for the pigheaded stupidity it was. Elitism of that kind had no place in a room full of pain and blood. A real physician would use all the tools in the bag, and never mind whether it got her hands dirty. That's why the ancients gave us soap.
Only once, during the entire time she worked on Lucchini, did Yoshika look up from her work for more than the time it took to accept or relinquish a tool, give an instruction, or acknowledge a suggestion from one of the others. On that occasion, while she was waiting for a fresh unit of blood to be hung, she stood back slightly, took a deep breath, and looked at the clock over the door—not to see how long she'd been at it, but to see how long her wingmates had been gone.
What she saw troubled her—no sortie in her experience had ever lasted more than an hour unless something had gone terribly wrong—but she could do nothing about it. Instead, she took a second deep breath, centering herself as Sakamoto-sensei had taught her, and turned back toward her work—only to pause for a moment and take in an unusual sight.
Neuroi-chan was standing—well, hovering—off to one side, out of everyone's way, as she had been the entire time. Some of Yoshika's colleagues had been a bit wary of her at first, but like her, they had all quickly gotten so engrossed in the complicated problem before them that they'd put the silent Neuroi's presence out of their minds entirely. That wasn't what Yoshika found so arresting, though.
What was so arresting was that the Neuroi wasn't alone now. She was standing there with Wolfgang cuddled up in her arms, evidently having picked him up from the floor at some point, the stubby cylinder-fingers of her right "hand" splayed atop his head. The hound looked worried, but not about his situation; his eyes were fixed on the operating table and the still figure stretched out thereon.
Yoshika gave him what she hoped was a reassuring smile, forgetting that he couldn't see most of it through her surgical mask, and then returned to work.
In war, there are days like this sometimes: Days when, after weeks and months of routine, all hell breaks loose at once. Sometimes the people involved, or at least their leaders, know it's coming. Major offensives are planned long in advance, and often even those on the receiving end have a fairly good idea that they're going to happen. At other times, though, they arise suddenly, unexpectedly, out of a random combination of happenstance and coincidence. Without warning, one or another group of combatants find themselves in a desperate struggle for life and limb, when all they had expected the day to bring them was more of the same.
June 13, 1946, was one such day for the 501st Joint Fighter Wing. In the history of the outfit, and of Allied witch aviation in general, it would go down as the Battle of Freiburg. Flying to their commanding officer's rescue, hemmed in by the enemy's numbers—unable to simply shoot their way out of the trap and flee—they instead turned and fought.
For many units, such an emergency is a moment of truth. Some are crushed by it. Others rise to the challenge and write themselves into legend. The witches of the 501st were already legends. On that day, they approached the level of myth.
The battle seemed to go on and on, beyond any reasonable expectation, until the ammunition and energy began to run low even for the last wave of reinforcements. By that point, any semblance of formation or tactical positioning had gone by the wayside, swept away by the necessity of reacting to the ever-shifting battle, and the 501st's witches were scattered all over the airspace above the ruins of Freiburg.
Minna, who had maintained her position near the center throughout it all, could sense the pivotal moment arrive—the point at which both sides' forces were spread thin and wearing down, and one decisive push by either one could tip the balance and take the day.
In addition to a general awareness of her surroundings, Minna's battle sense sometimes offered the ability to identify what Karlslandic military doctrine called the Schwerpunkt—literally the "hard point", usually rendered "center of gravity" in English—of a situation. So it was now, as she hovered in place and, with her eyes closed, felt what was happening around her rather than looking at it.
Mio, who had stayed near her throughout the chaotic third phase of the battle, saw her close her eyes... and, seconds later, saw them snap open again, burning with a bright, hard focus that sent a thrill up the Fusō witch's spine.
"Let's finish this," said Minna, readying her weapon, and without waiting for Mio's acknowledgement, she gunned her Bf 109's engines and charged straight at the single remaining Large Type.
Concerned—it was unlike Minna to take such recklessly direct action—but unable to keep a fierce grin off her face, Mio opened her Shiden-Kai's throttles and darted after her.
All around the aerial battlefield, the others noticed the sudden movement, and the enemy's abrupt concentration of fire. The Large Type, evidently sensing the general's attack, marshaled much of the remaining multitude of drones to its defense, in some cases abruptly leaving other witches entirely bereft of dance partners. Their plasma beams filled the air all around the charging duo, but both were so completely in the zone now that they avoided them all in a virtuoso display of predictive piloting that set the Force singing to all who could hear it.
Wide-eyed, Wilma scanned the area for Gryphon. When she found him, she saw that his attention was fixed on Minna and Mio, a little smile tugging at the corners of his face. Turning back, she watched as the two bore down on the Large Type, evading or destroying all the drones it threw into their path.
As if aware that its pawn gambit had failed, the remaining Large Type did something none of the witches had ever seen before. It reconfigured itself, which was not entirely unique in the 501st's experience, but it did so in part by absorbing the lesser Neuroi that were nearest to it, adding their mass and their weaponry to its own. In its new configuration, it vaguely resembled a naval warship—a sort of streamlined, minimalist, Machine Deco interpretation of a light cruiser, say—surrounded by a ring of bristling beam emplacements that encircled it amidships.
Without verbal consultation, Minna and Mio formed single file, the former in the lead and the latter about five lengths behind, as they streaked head-on toward the reformatted Neuroi. It ceased firing, all of its weapons glowing in unison as it readied itself for a single massive blast, and the whole sky seemed to hold its breath.
A half-second before it came, Minna discarded her MG 42—which had been empty when her faked attack run began—and spread her hands before her, pulling sharply up and throwing her props forward as she did so to halt suddenly in mid-air. In the air before her open hands, her rune-shield circle sprang to life, bigger in diameter and brighter than any of her subordinates had ever seen it, save possibly for the terrible day over northern Gallia when she had burned it out to save her Kaiser's life.
The beam it stopped was bigger, too, than that one had been, made up as it was of all the amalgamated Neuroi's many weapons blended into a single all-out attack. The other witches cried out in dismay at the magnitude of it, wincing, some turning instinctively away, certain that the general's shield—miraculously reborn or not—would surely shatter before such an onslaught and leave both her and Mio laid bare to annihilation.
Instead, what shattered was the beam, splintering back into its component rays and radiating out in all directions. Her teeth bared in a furious, but strangely exultant snarl, Minna darted upward a few yards, dragging the raving stream of scarlet plasma with her as if it were somehow stuck to her shield.
Below, still on their original flight path, Mio Sakamoto streaked through the gap between two of the right-angle castoff beams, her twin swords leaving tracers of white light in their wake.
"Issho ni nisen!" the Fusō witch roared in a voice like thunder, and then, surrounded by a nimbus of that pure white light, she plunged into the Neuroi's prow like a torpedo, shattering the point and vanishing within its massive structure. As if it hadn't noticed, it kept its impossibly powerful beam on Minna for another full second...
... and then disintegrated with a musical chime that could be heard as far away as Mulhouse, taking all the remaining drones with it.
The witches of the 501st hovered where they were, dumbfounded, as so much Neuroi "snow" fell on Freiburg that the ruined city glittered like a sunlit glacier below them. Astonished and unspeaking, they gathered together and just watched as their commander and her commander formed up and returned to them.
"Everyone all right?" asked Mio. She was winded and disheveled, her hair blown out of its customary ponytail and flying free around her, and her uniform jacket had been reduced to a ragged waistcoat, its sleeves completely destroyed; but her visible eye was bright, almost gleeful, as were both of Minna's.
"I... I think so," said Perrine, after forcing herself to look away long enough to take a headcount.
"Good," said Minna, smiling a bit wearily. "Let's go home before any more of them show up."
Victorious and exhausted, the 501st (and what Minna would describe as an 'extended sortie' from 404 Squadron, when she eventually composed an after-action report) was in ragged shape as they approached the Castle.
Heidemarie and Sanya, having both been awakened by the scramble call without getting a full night's sleep to restore themselves, were barely able to keep flying, their incomplete reserves near total depletion. In Sanya's case, Eila was providing assistance in the form of a semi-piggyback, pushing herself just a bit to bring them both in for a landing, while Shizuka Hattori and Ursula Hartmann buoyed the other Night Witch between them in a two-woman rescue carry.
Feeling barely able to hold her own head up even with the Force to aid her, Mio swept her eye over the group, then tapped her earpiece to open her radio.
"Jingū to St. Ulrich, come in."
Von Hammer's voice came back within seconds, a thin edge of concern underneath her otherwise professional demeanor. "St. Ulrich here, Jingū. Go ahead."
"Prep the base for emergency landings—we have at least four witches who will need assistance coming in, and the rest of us are on last reserves."
"Roger. I'll have crews standing by for assistance. Ah—can you give us a count of how many to expect?"
Mio smiled just a bit, letting some of the relief she'd felt since they'd cleared Karlsland airspace creep into her voice. "All present and accounted for, St. Ulrich."
There was a momentary pause, and Mio suspected it covered von Hammer letting out a long sigh, or perhaps a few tears, before she came back on the line.
"That is truly excellent news, Jingū. I will inform Lichtenberg that they can stand down from alert, and arrange temporary coverage for our sector. It sounds as though none of you will be fit to fly tomorrow," the elder witch added wryly.
Mio chuckled. "That seems likely," she agreed. With that business concluded, she was about to sign off and simply focus the rest of her mental bandwidth on the business of landing when she heard a sudden alarmed shout from her two o'clock position—Erica Hartmann's voice.
Turning to bring that end of the formation out of her blind spot, she saw exactly what the problem was: The Me 262 Striker that Trude Barkhorn had 'borrowed' had, apparently, decided it was no longer capable of responding to the demands she'd placed upon it, and was now giving up the effort, with one engine spitting out nasty black smoke.
"Weiß-5, you're smoking pretty good there," she called, and then, as the 262's other overtaxed Jumo engine began to run away and belched a long tongue of flame, "Scratch that, Trude, you're on fire. Throttle down! You'll lose the whole thing at this rate!"
For her part, Trude looked somewhere between highly bemused and annoyed at this. "I'm trying—but I can't reduce power!"
Mio considered that for a moment, then pointed to the Castle as it began coming into view. "GO! Get it as far as you can and bail out if you have to."
As Barkhorn half turned, half dove for home, Mio slapped her comm again.
"St. Ulrich, we have a damaged unit coming in ahead of us. Fire crews to stations—repeat, fire crews to stations! Weiß-5 is coming in hot!"
"Roger, Jingū, we'll be ready! But tell Barkhorn—if she broke it, it's not coming out of my salary!"
When the bulk of the 501st arrived, they were greeted by the sight of Trude standing to one side of the hangar, bare-legged and a bit bruised but otherwise unharmed, while several crewmen blasted the discarded (and in some cases, rather crumpled) pieces of the 262 with extinguishers. Remembering the last time something like that had happened, Ursula Hartmann thought wryly, Barkhorn 2, Messerschmitt 0.
Other crewmen ran to meet the various witches as they arrived, some helping to guide the more exhausted ones back to their launch stages so they could safely disembark, others collecting weapons and returning them to the armory racks for later servicing and replenishment.
Erica Hartmann taxied in, docked, the Ha 162 in its test stand, and then leapt down and crossed the hangar floor to where Trude was still looking at the wreck she'd left behind.
"That was a very Krupinski-esque landing," she observed, remembering the first time she'd met the notorious witch known to all as Countess Punski. "Waltrud would be impressed."
Trude gave a short bark of laughter, then a startled, wordless cry as her wife turned her around with a hand on her shoulder, slapped her, and then followed through with a fervent, almost desperate kiss that lasted several seconds before Erica finally broke off and insisted, sounding near tears:
"Don't you ever do that to me again!"
Trude, still a bit shellshocked between her crash and that sequence of events, simply nodded to her, then allowed Erica to take her hand and half lead, half drag her towards the door to the castle interior.
Von Hammer, who had come down from the Castle's control tower just in time to watch their byplay, raised a hand. "Excuse me, Captain Hartmann, but where exactly are you going?"
Without stopping, Hartmann looked over and replied without a trace of irony, "I need to debrief my wife, Rittmeister von Hammer. Extensively."
Hannelore took that on board, then saluted gravely, a curiously pained look in her eyes. "Carry on."
There was no formal plan for the evening after all that, but by some combination of mutual decision and unspoken understanding, the witches of Saint-Ulrich gathered in the mess over the next hour or two, some having grabbed a brief nap, others after bathing or finding other ways of burning off some of their jangling, exhausted nerves.
Despite the incredible victory that the battle over Freiburg represented, there was no celebratory air to the gathering. They were far too tired to think about the larger implications of their victory, and anyway, they still hadn't heard any news from Miyafuji about Lucchini.
That last, at least, was taken care of not long after Minna and Mio had arrived, both in fresh clothes, the latter not having bothered with putting her hair back in its customary ponytail after a long hot bath.
As Miyafuji entered with "Neuroi-chan" trailing quietly behind her like some sort of bizarre balloon, the minimal amounts of conversation that had been taking place stopped. Her hands were clean and she had put on a new white physician's smock, but her hair was mussed and sweat-matted, and there was still a smear of blood on one side of her face, clear signs that she'd otherwise come straight from the operating theater. An expectant silence fell over the room, save for the sound of Shirley Yeager standing up, her eyes filled with silent questions.
"Lucchini's going to be OK," Yoshika answered, getting the good news out straight away, and a soft but heartfelt cheer went up in the room.
After it had died down, Yoshika looked over to where Mio was sitting. "She'll need to be on light duty for a week or two—I started the process of mending her broken leg, but it's going to need time to knit properly, even with magical assistance, and I don't want her re-injuring herself. Her internal injuries were pretty severe—that's where most of my efforts went."
Mio nodded. "Understood. Good work, Miyafuji. Well done."
Yoshika blushed a bit, then bowed to another round of applause before straightening up and waving to her Neuroi shadow. "Thank you—but Neuroi-chan deserves credit, too. If she hadn't been there... I don't want to think about what might have happened."
Minna nodded, standing and walking over to get a better look at the witch-type Neuroi. "Indeed. You both saved several lives today—not just Lucchini, but Christiane's and Mio's, too. In light of that and the other reports, I think it's fair to say that your friend is worth trusting, Yoshika."
On any other day, that probably would have caused quite an uproar by itself, but on this evening, it passed with murmurs and nods around the room. After all, everything Minna had said was quite true.
Yoshika impulsively gave her overall commander a hug, then half hopped back, blushing. "Sorry, I just—thank you. Thank you so much!"
Minna smiled, patting her on the shoulder. "It's all right, Yoshika. Especially given everything that's happened today. Do you think she'd stay in a room tonight by herself?"
Yoshika blinked, then looked back to Neuroi-chan. "I hadn't thought about that. But... would you? Could you stay the night here?"
The witch-type Neuroi didn't—couldn't?—speak, but she cocked her head to the side for a moment, then offered a slow nod.
Minna returned the nod, then looked thoughtfully around. "All right. We'll need to figure out something more permanent, but for now..." She trailed off, thinking.
"You can take her to my quarters, Miyafuji, if there's no room in yours," von Hammer suggested. "The barracks is the most private area on the base; that ought to keep anyone from accidentally bumping into her in the night and causing a panic before we can properly brief the rest of the staff."
Yoshika nodded, a slightly surprised smile coming onto her face. "Thank you, Rittmeister von Hammer."
Von Hammer made a casual gesture. "Not at all. The only thing I really require from a roommate is quiet, and it appears that our new friend isn't the chatty type," she added dryly.
"All right then—please come with me, Neuroi-chan," said Yoshika, leading the squadron's "guest" toward the barracks wing. "We'll get you a place to sleep." Something seemed to occur to her then, and she added uncertainly, "Um, if you do sleep..."
As the two disappeared into the hallway, Minna sat back down next to Mio, who shook her head in bemusement and remarked, "Another mouth to feed."
After receiving the good news about Lucchini, it wasn't long before everyone finished eating and decided that—having blasted their way through a sizable chunk of Occupied Karlsland and back on short notice—it was time for some well-deserved rest. As such, they packed themselves off to bed in ones and twos, with the exception of Shirley, who had decided to spend the evening (with Wolfgang) at Lucchini's bedside in sickbay.
In Gryphon's case, he'd taken a brief nap while his dinner digested, but woke an hour or so later and had decided to enjoy some quiet reading in 5 East while he considered the various events of the day.
That plan changed when there was a brief knock at his door—two light, quick raps, followed by two slightly slower and firmer ones.
Padding over, he opened the door, and was surprised to see Hannelore von Hammer there. She'd discarded her uniform jacket, but still had on the high-collared white blouse that usually was hidden beneath it, its draping shirttails helping to preserve her modesty (what little of that a witch had).
Gryphon certainly didn't expect her—particularly looking so casual—but he still smiled as he recovered from his surprise. "Good evening, Hannelore."
"Guten Abend, Herr Gryphon. Has anyone booked you for the evening?"
Gryphon chuckled. "It's not usually anything so formal—but you're very welcome to come in." Eyeing the empty hat rack by the door, he added with a wry smile, "I guess Wilma's gone a-visitin' this evening. Not a huge surprise."
Von Hammer mustered a dry little laugh for that, but made no other response. He showed her in, then settled down into his desk chair, gesturing for her to have a seat on the bed. "I have to admit this is a little unexpected."
With a slightly weak smile, von Hammer leaned back against the wall, closing her eyes. "Everyone else stops by... and from what I understand, you're a good person to speak to about troubles."
"I had wondered if something was going on," Gryphon admitted. "I don't know you quite as well as some of the others, but it seemed like something beyond today's excitement has been on your mind of late."
Hannelore sighed, not opening her eyes. "I have received some... difficult news from Neukarlsland. It's nothing I can do anything about, or change. But it is still painful."
Gryphon said nothing, letting von Hammer decide for herself whether she wished to elaborate. After a moment of silence, she did, though not in the direction he had expected.
"I've never asked—are you a married man, Herr Gryphon?"
"Yes. At least..." Gryphon paused, closing his own eyes for a moment before speaking. "I have been. I suppose you would consider me a widower now. My wife is in a line of work... not too unlike ours. Several years ago by my own personal timeline, she went missing on a mission. She's still officially listed as missing in action, but most people assume she's dead. I believe that she's alive... somewhere... but I've never found a trace of her."
Hannelore sat up, embarrassment drawing the color from her face. "Ach. Forgive me—I had no idea."
Gryphon waved it away. "You couldn't have known—and Kei and I never bothered with wedding rings, for various reasons. No harm done." He paused, then went on with a small but genuine smile, "As it happens, I've recently gotten engaged to a very special lady I know Kei would approve of. So there's that. Life goes on." With mildly bleak humor and a melancholy chuckle, he added, "In absolute terms, Kei won't be born for another 25 years. Maybe we'll meet again that way, if I stick around long enough."
Von Hammer hesitated, doing math in her head, then evidently decided it wasn't worth digging into and went on, "Well... please accept my belated condolences for your loss, and congratulations on your engagement."
"At any rate, all that does mean you may be able to appreciate my problem." She leaned back and sighed again before continuing. "There's someone back home that I care a great deal for. We never... I never told him just how deep those feelings went. Perhaps I didn't entirely realize it myself."
Gryphon nodded, making an affirmative noise so she would be aware he was listening, and von Hammer continued.
"I received a letter from him the other evening—technically I received it a couple of days before I opened it, but it got stuck at the bottom of my mail tray. It turns out that he cares deeply for me, too. But circumstances are forcing him to take another path. He was kind enough to write and explain that—and to inform me that he'll be getting married in..." She looked up at the wall past Gryphon's head, as if checking a calendar. "Three days' time."
"So," Gryphon asked. "What do you intend to do?"
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Flying Yak Studios
and Bacon Comics Group
in association with
The International Police Organization
and Avalon Broadcasting System
Undocumented Features Future Imperfect
Lensmen: The Brave and the Bold
Our Witches at War
written and directed by
Benjamin D. Hutchins
The EPU Usual Suspects
Based on characters from Strike Witches
created by Humikane Shimada
Bacon Comics chief
E P U (colour) 2015