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The room was small; an uncharitable assessment would have called it cramped, but the people packed into it right now preferred to interpret it as cozy. There were five of them seated on bolted-down diner stools surrounding the little table in the middle of the room, where paper cups and a wine bottle stood amid the remains of a simple but satisfying dinner. Both of the room's longer walls were lined with triple decks of narrow built-in bunks, one of which - the bottom one on the right - had a sixth figure in it, propped up in a nest of pillows. In the corner, a seventh stood silently observing.
At the head (such as it was) of the table, Rittmeister Hannelore von Hammer sat regarding the contents of her paper cup in the dim reddish light for a few seconds, her face solemnly pensive. The other five witches in the room watched her in silence, their own expressions subdued, expectant. When, at length, the senior witch spoke, it was in a low voice, just loud enough to be heard clearly over the drone of distant engines that underlay the quiet of the room.
"I have been asked more than once," she said thoughfully, "why I have never retired. People have put it to me that, even if I never lost my magic, I've done enough - earned the right to step away and let another take my place. I've never bothered trying to explain myself to any of them. It seemed to me that anyone who would say that would never understand."
She raised her eyes to her silent audience then; with a wry, melancholy little smile, she raised the cup to them, took a drink from it, and then said, "Tonight, though... tonight I'll tell you. But you'll have to let me come at it in my own way."
Turning to the small, white-clad figure who sat next to the occupied bunk, von Hammer went on, "Has anyone ever explained to you, Miyafuji, your father's true gift to witchkind?"
Yoshika Miyafuji blinked, puzzled. "The Striker Unit?" she asked, but von Hammer shook her head.
"Not as such," she said. "We had Strikers in the First War. What we lacked was the Miyafuji engine. Before your father's invention, our magic engines were heavy, cumbersome, inefficient things. We carried them on our backs like pack animals. Because of them, our Strikers were slow, fragile, not very maneuverable; our weapons, little more powerful than ordinary guns; and our shields, practically useless. We had to devote so much of our strength to simply staying in the air that we were hard-pressed to protect ourselves from the wind and rain, much less what ordnance the Neuroi could throw at us. Fortunately, they hadn't developed their ray weapons yet at that time, but still... the weapons they had were deadly enough."
She paused, gazing pensively into her cup again, then raised her eyes to Yoshika's and continued, "That is your father's greatest gift to us. In the First War, there were many fewer of us than there have been in this one, and it lasted for little more than four years; but proportionally, far more of us perished in those battles. We all know witches who have fallen in this war, of course - what we do is still far from safe - but in the First War, it was expected. Today, a witch who is killed in action is unlucky enough to be remarked upon. Back then, it often felt as if those of us who weren't were the exceptions. You will have been told countless times that your father's invention made witches more powerful combatants, and that is true, but his real gift - and, I am convinced, his real goal - was to make us better able to survive."
Yoshika looked back at her, her eyes wide and solemn, and then nodded. "I understand," she said. "Thank you."
"... I don't," said Ursula Hartmann hesitantly. "Or rather I do, but I don't see how it connects to your having remained on active duty all this time."
"Don't you?" von Hammer replied, tilting her head inquisitively. "It's for them. I do it to honor all the girls we left behind in the mud of Flanders. Jamie McCudden. Georgette Guynemer." With a reassuring (if slightly wan) smile for the person bundled up in the bunk, she added, "Francesca Baracca, Romagna's finest - I see more than a little of her in you, Lucchini." Turning her eyes back to her fellow Karlslander, she continued, "Manfrieda von Richthofen... Oswaldine Boelcke... so many others." Sighing, she shook her head again, then said quietly, "Many my friends. All my comrades. After the war I felt I owed it to them to stay in service as long as I could, to guard the peace they didn't live to see."
When no one had any words to offer in response to that, she took another drink of her wine, then said, "I did consider retiring once. The war had been over for nearly 20 years, and I asked myself one day, What more have you to prove, Hannelore?" With a slightly bitter chuckle, she went on, "That was in 1937. I was actually on my way to my commanding officer's office with the paperwork when word reached us of the incident in the Fusō Sea. The Neuroi had returned." She finished off the last of her wine, put down the cup, and said matter-of-factly, "I burned the papers and returned to my post. No one ever knew."
For a long moment, no one spoke; the witches just sat regarding their elder colleague with expressions mingling respect, admiration, and - in a couple of cases - poorly-restrained tears.
Hannelore sighed, shaking herself. "Listen to me. Rambling on like the old woman I suppose I am." With a mock-reproachful smile, she added, "You should never have let me drink so much wine." Rising to her feet, she corked the bottle and turned to tuck it away in her kit bag. "Might as well get some sleep, ladies. It's still a long haul to Branden -"
She was interrupted by the opening of the hatch set into the shorter wall opposite her, as a man in Liberion Army Air Force fatigues leaned his head and shoulders through the hatchway into the compartment.
"I hate to intrude, ladies," said Captain Jack Ridley apologetically, "but we've got a problem."
They followed Ridley forward, through narrow passages and darkened, obscure compartments, until they emerged into a bigger, more open space. Similarly dim and red-lit, it was dominated by two things. One was a large, self-illuminating chart table in the middle of the room...
... and the other was the great, outward-curving array of windows that looked out onto a vast expanse of star-splashed ocean sky, into which the giant aircraft they all rode was relentlessly pushing.
Flying Yak Studios
Bacon Comics Group
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Lensmen: The Brave and the Bold
Our Witches at War
another serial experiment
© 2015 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
At the plotting table, Ridley laid out the problem as succinctly as he could.
"We figured on bein' in Brandenburg by ten hundred hours local time tomorrow," he said, indicating the grease-penciled track on the active chart, "but we've run into a stiff headwind. It's not usual out here, this time of year, but there it is." He gestured to the young man sitting at the station in the back corner of the compartment, who kept his eyes resolutely down, as if by pretending hard enough that he wasn't there, he wouldn't be noticed. "Lt. Hembery's run the numbers five times now and it always comes out the same. Unless it lets up, we're not gonna get in until sometime around 1500."
"But... that's too late," said Yoshika. "Isn't it?"
Von Hammer nodded, her face almost expressionless. "It is," she said, her voice very even. "The ceremony is scheduled for noon. It'll be long over by then."
Ridley pushed his crumpled flight cap back on his head and scratched his forehead miserably. "I'm awful sorry, Captain," he said. "We're doin' everything we can, but... right now it doesn't look like we're gonna make it."
"It's not your fault," said von Hammer. "No one can control the weather... not even us witches." She went forward to the glazed nose and stood for a few moments looking out, her fingertips against the cool glass, at the wisps of cloud and the gleam of starlight, then sighed fatalistically. "Ah, well. There's nothing to be done."
"With respect, Rittmeister von Hammer, I think it's far too early to say that," a soft voice declared from above.
The others turned and looked with surprise as Heidemarie Schnaufer climbed down from the upper-level flight deck, the green glow of her Hirschgeweih antennae surrounding her head like a strange crown. The normally mild-mannered Nachthexe's face was oddly intense, the low crimson glow of her magically amplified eyes just visible in the dimness of the compartment, as she made and held eye contact with the elder witch.
"What makes you say so?" von Hammer asked, arching an eyebrow.
Unnoticed by anyone but Yoshika, the dark figure who had joined the other witches in their trek forward from the bunkroom moved quietly up from the back of the group and stood considering the chart, her head slightly cocked as if in inquisitive thought.
"The simple fact that we haven't exhausted all our options yet," Heidemarie replied. "I'm trying to tune my magic radar to sense weather patterns; Captain Blazkowicz and I think we may be able to find a way out of this headwind if we search hard enough. The Sergeants Smith are even now out with their engines, looking for some more speed. We won't give up as long as you don't."
"That's right," Shirley Yeager chipped in. "Heck, I'll give 'em a hand if they want; I've never worked with a ship this big, but I know a thing or two about tuning an engine."
"As do I," Ursula agreed, pushing her spectacles up so that the lenses glinted in the light from the map table.
Von Hammer looked from face to face, then shook her head, that same bitter little smile on her lips.
"Ladies... Captain. I appreciate your support, as I have throughout this enterprise, but I'm old enough now to accept that some things are simply not meant to be. In the old days, we Karlsländer would've said it was the will of the gods."
"Maybe they would've said that in Prussia, Freifrau von Hammer," Heidemarie challenged her quietly, "but in Württemberg, we've never held with that sort of superstition."
"What would you have me do, Major Schnaufer?" Hannelore asked calmly. "Rage against fate? What purpose would that serve?"
"None," Heidemarie agreed. "But nor does simply giving -"
A flash of red cut her off; everyone turned to see the dark figure next to Yoshika playing a beam of scarlet light across the chart, drawing a luminous grid in the air above it. This lasted only a moment, just long enough to startle everyone in the compartment, before the witch-type Neuroi who had accompanied the rest from Saint-Ulrich switched off the scanning beam, then stood for a moment as if in thought. Curious angular traces glowed a faint blue-green just below her smooth black skin.
As the glowing traces faded, the anomalous defector (so far known only by the nickname Yoshika had given her, "Neuroi-chan") raised her head. Though she had no visible eyes, nor indeed much of any facial features at all, von Hammer had the unmistakable impression that the... creature? Mechanism? ... was looking her straight in the eye.
For a long moment, the senior witch and the Neuroi defector stood and regarded each other across the width of the chart table. Hannelore tilted her head one way, Neuroi-chan the other - and then, with a very faint chuckle, von Hammer cracked a tiny, devil-may-care smile.
"Uh..." said Yoshika.
"Oh wow," said Lucchini.
"You're not serious," said Shirley.
Yoshika, clipped into a safety line, stood on the service catwalk in the center of the forward witch bay, making certain that von Hammer and Neuroi-chan were properly situated in the launch unit. The former's face was still visible, as Yoshika's own had been when she needed to speak to her wingmates, but the rest of her was encased in the Striker-type Neuroi's body.
"Are you absolutely sure about this?" Yoshika asked above the drone of the XB-36's engines, much louder in this mostly-uninsulated part of the ship.
"Crisis of confidence, Miyafuji?" von Hammer chided her, teeth flashing in a grin rendered bloody by the red night-service lighting. "You've done this yourself."
"I'm just making sure!" Yoshika replied with a smile of her own. "Good luck, you two. We'll be coming behind you just as fast as we can."
Von Hammer nodded. "All right. Let's do this," she said, and as if in response, Neuroi-chan's "head" closed around hers, completely enclosing the human witch within her nanomechanical superstructure.
Yoshika touched her throat mic. "Witch Bay 1 to Cockpit," she said. "Ready for drop."
"Roger, stand by," came Ridley's voice in her ear, and then, "Witch Bay 1, you're clear to open the bay doors."
"Copy, opening bay doors," said Yoshika. Turning to the control panel set into the forward bulkhead, she squeezed the cutout handle on the big knife switch mounted there, releasing the safety interlock, and then pulled it smartly down.
Instantly, the vast doors that made up the floor of the compartment dropped away to either side, filling the room with a roar that was at once much louder and oddly attenuated, as the air pressure fell to a mere three or so pounds per square inch. Without her magic to protect her, Yoshika would've been unconscious in seconds, and worse off than that before much longer; as it was, she was only mildly uncomfortable as she thumbed her throat mic and declared,
"Bay doors open! Ready for drop!"
"Roger, Bay 1," Ridley replied. "Ready for drop in three. Two. One. Drop!"
As he said Drop! Yoshika flipped the cover off the switch next to the big number 1 painted on the control board, then pressed it hard with her thumb. To her left, the mechanical locks holding Neuroi-chan and von Hammer in their launch position released - and they were gone, dropped out of the bay like a bomb. Instinctively, Yoshika leaned over the railing at the side of the catwalk, looking down - and caught just the faintest flicker of blue-green light as the Neuroi's flight system energized and hurled them forward.
Up in the nose, the flight crew and the rest of the witches had a slightly better view as the unlikely team streaked off to the southwest, Neuroi-chan's antigravity pods drawing luminous trails across the night as they shot upward past the bomber's level. There was a crackling roar as they blasted past the speed of sound, and then they were gone.
Friedrich IV, by the Favor of the Ancestors Emperor of Karlsland, King of Prussia, Margrave of Brandenburg, etc., etc., sat in his private study, and a brown one.
He should, he knew, have been in bed hours ago. He had a very great deal to do on the morrow, and almost all of it to be conducted in the full glare of public scrutiny. His whole country - indeed, much of the world - would be giving him its undivided attention for several quite busy hours, and it wouldn't do for him to spend the day looking as if he had passed the night before drinking brandy, staring into space, and wishing he didn't have to do any of it.
So it was a bit inconvenient that that was what he had spent the evening doing, so far, and that he felt no particular inclination to go and do anything else for the rest of it.
The clock on the mantelpiece above the study fireplace chimed midnight. With a heavy sigh, the Kaiser poured himself another slug of brandy, tossed most of it back, put the glass down on his desk, and regarded the framed portrait standing next to the telephone. He'd killed most of a bottle of Asbach Uralt thus far tonight, and he didn't feel even slightly drunk. That was surely a bad sign.
Hannelore, he thought, considering the photograph. What would you say to me if you were here right now?
He thought he knew the answer, and so it came as a considerable shock when he realized a moment later that he'd actually heard it with his ears, not just in his mind:
"Fritzchen, you faithless cur."
Starting violently, Fritz managed not to knock over his brandy bottle or fall out of his chair only with a significant effort. Collecting himself, he lurched to his feet and turned to see a figure standing foursquare in his open study door, hands on her hips, giving him a stern, forbidding look.
"Twelve hours from your appointment with destiny, and what do I find you doing?" von Hammer demanded. "Drinking yourself into a stupor and looking wistfully at some other woman's photograph." She shook her head. "Pitiful."
The Kaiser just stared at her for a moment, his jaw working soundlessly. As she stalked into the room and shut the door behind her, he was just able to gasp out, "Hannelore?!" when she reached him, hauled back a hand, and delivered a full-power slap to his face; before he could react to that, she'd seized him in a powerful embrace and, for the first time in his life, kissed him fiercely.
It was just as amazing as he had always assumed it would be.
When, at length, she released him, he stumbled back and sat heavily down in his chair, rolling it back against his desk. Apparently unconcerned with the havoc she'd just wreaked, Hannelore walked around the desk and crossed the room to the divan along the wall, sat down on it, put her feet up, and regarded him with judicious eyes.
"Well?" she asked. "Have you anything to say for yourself?"
Fritz turned his chair around to face her and stared at her in utter dumbfoundment for a few moments, then pulled himself together, poured himself another drink, and asked, "Wh - how can you be here?"
Major General Minna-Dietlinde Wilcke was in her office, discussing the previous day's unexpected major engagement with Colonel Mio Sakamoto, when there came a knock at her door. A moment later, that door opened, and the general's adjutant put her head in.
"Good morning, Hannelore," said Minna, smiling. "We were just talking about the new equipment requisitions we'll need to make following yesterday's excitement..." She trailed off as she took a closer look at the unusually subdued look on von Hammer's face. Her own face taking on a look of concern, she asked, "What's wrong?"
"General... I have a... personal matter I need to discuss with you," said von Hammer slowly - almost reluctantly.
Mio blinked in surprise, then got to her feet and started to excuse herself; but von Hammer, stepping into the room, shook her head. "No - you're welcome to stay, Colonel. This may end up affecting you as well."
Mio and Minna shared a puzzled glance - whatever could this be concerning? - as the former returned to her seat at the little table in the corner of the office. Von Hammer closed the door behind her, then sat down opposite her; Minna, now looking intensely curious, took a third seat next to Mio.
"To begin with," said von Hammer, "it's probably simplest if you just read this." So saying, she took a red-and-blue-edged airmail envelope from inside her uniform tunic and slid it across the table to Minna. The general picked it up, removed the letter from within it, and then - holding it so Mio could see it as well - began to read.
I am sorry that this news must come to you in a letter, but another visit to Gallia would be, at best, difficult, and no other manner of communication would be appropriate.
This is certainly something you deserve to know, and you deserve for me to tell you. Honor demands nothing less.
As you are probably aware, I have been enduring pressure to marry for some time, but had been able to push much of it away with the business of the Evacuation and our nation's reconstruction. I am afraid, however, that in the face of recent events, I have been unable to placate those pressuring me any longer. Even before I returned to Brandenburg, news of our close call - or, more accurately, my close call - had reached the Reichstag.
I cannot say they are entirely unjustified in their concerns, and the incident with General von Reichenberg sharply escalated matters - particularly my lack of an heir; and so I find myself unable to refuse them any longer.
A formal announcement is forthcoming, but it has been arranged that I will marry Eleanor Alexandra Karolina von Kleist, Margravine Falkenhagen, at the stroke of noon on 16th June.
It is a match of political convenience, and I will not insult you by implying there is any love in the matter. She is of childbearing age, suitable station, and acceptable to the more conservative factions; and that is all. I've barely met the woman who is to become my wife. I doubt I could pick her out of a crowd by sight even now. It is unfortunate, but I suppose that is part of the burden of power.
In truth, I would remain unwed, because the only woman I wish to marry - whom I have always wished to marry - is not in a position to leave her duties.
When we served together in the Great War, I expected that one day you would come to a natural end of your military career - either with the end of the war itself, or through other processes. So long as that had not happened, I felt I could say nothing. It would never have been proper for me to propose marriage to you while you still served my father; and once I became your sovereign and commander-in-chief, it became even less so. I would have feared that your answer was compelled, not given, and could never do that to someone I cared so deeply for.
Not long ago in London, after that brush with fate over Gallia, I nearly asked. I do not know why I did not, aside from the fact that I am a coward - and feared that you would refuse me. Your work, after all, is still not yet ended.
By the time I reached Neukarlsland, and received word that you'd taken up your new station with Sonderluftflotte 1, I at last accepted that it was just as well I had never spoken. That you will always choose to serve, rather than stand idle, and that to expect otherwise would be both cruelty and folly. We are both slaves to duty - and it is one of the reasons I love you so much.
But, sadly, even a king cannot force time to stand still, or ignore the demands of his people. So I fear that I must go on alone, and hope that one day, you may forgive me.
Minna finished reading the letter, turned her head, and made a long moment of eye contact with Mio, who gazed back solemnly; then both turned and regarded von Hammer, who sat watching them, her expression stonily controlled.
"I knew you and His Majesty had known each other for a long time," said Minna quietly after a few seconds' thought, "but I had no idea..."
"It's of no consequence," von Hammer said, rather more brusquely than she really intended, but Minna took no offense. Rather, she nodded, silently agreeing to put it aside, and asked,
"What do you intend to do?"
Von Hammer surprised them both by chuckling dryly at that. "Our fleet counseling officer asked me that very question last night, and I've been mulling it over since he did. Fritzchen clearly meant for me to receive this news too late for me to do anything about it - a goal I probably helped him achieve by not noticing it in the bottom of my inbox for days," she added with an audible trace of bitterness. "There is probably nothing for me to do now..." She paused, drawing a slow breath through her nose, then rose to her feet and went on, "... but I should like to make an attempt, all the same."
Mio frowned thoughtfully. "I don't blame you," she said, and then, with a meaningful glance at Minna's pensive profile, "In your place, I'd do the same. I'm not sure what options you have, though." She tapped the letter with a fingertip. "That's the day after tomorrow - taking the time difference between here and Brandenburg into account, about 55 hours. No ship could possibly get you there in that span of time. Even by plane..."
She paused again, mentally calculating, and went on, "Maybe one of Fusō's Type 2 flying boats could do it, if there was one available, nearby enough that you could leave within the next 24 hours. You'd have to stop for fuel at least once, probably in the Canaries, but... I think it's just barely possible." Standing, she said briskly, "I'll get ahold of Atlantic Fleet Command and see if I can round one up."
Before she could leave the office, there was another knock at the door, followed by the entrance of the 501st JFW's flight surgeon. Yoshika Miyafuji was dressed in her medical smock, stethoscope around her neck, and looked troubled. Shirley Yeager was with her, and if Yoshika looked troubled, the buxom Liberion looked outright dismayed.
Not waiting for Yoshika to speak, and dispensing with opening remarks of any kind, Shirley told the three senior witches, "Lucchini's lost her connection to her familiar."
A startled silence greeted this bald declaration. Loss of one's familiar was a phenomenon as dreaded as magical failure - the net effect was essentially the same - and Lucchini was so young that none of them had considered that outcome as a possibility, even given the severe injuries she'd suffered in the Battle of Freiburg.
"You're sure it's that, and not her wounds interfering with her magic?" Mio asked, but Yoshika shook her head positively and took over:
"I can't detect any of the normal signs of magic loss, and..." She hesitated, looking pained, then went on, "... she felt it happen. Her description of the experience is... well... vivid. Her life's in no danger," she conceded, "but if we want to have any hope of saving her career, I need to get her to a fully equipped magical hospital - the sooner the better. Preferably someplace that has a major research department."
Hannelore was drawing breath to tell Mio to forget about finding a ride to Neukarlsland for her own selfish project and direct all her efforts toward Yoshika's request, but before she could do so, Minna had stepped into the breach and severed the Gordian knot with the calm, sure deliberation that had always marked her style of command:
"The Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes in Brandenburg include one of the finest medico-magical research establishments in the world." Turning to meet von Hammer's dark blue eyes with her reddish-brown ones, she added with just the faintest hint of a twinkle, "Hannelore, will you please see to it that Yoshika and her patient get there as soon as possible?"
Von Hammer held her eyes on the general's for a moment, then nodded, closing them before they could fill with tears. "Of course," she said, keeping her voice even through sheer force of will; then, turning to Mio, she said in a more businesslike tone, "I guess we're going to need your flying boat after all."
The smile that brought to Mio's face was short-lived. It took her three hours of doggedly working the phones and telexes to learn that there was no Type 2 flying boat available anywhere in the European Theater of Operations at present; the nearest one that could be pried away from its duties was in North Africa, and would take so long to reach a reasonable rendezvous range of Ribeauvillé that there would be little hope of achieving von Hammer's part of the mission.
When Mio broke this news at lunch, the dutiful Prussian was - naturally - about to declare that Lucchini's medical needs were the important thing, when Shirley - unaware as yet of the subtext, but consumed with worry for her friend - suddenly said,
"Wait a second - what about that giant bomber of LeMay's? Ridley told us what incredible range it has. It could get us there, no problem, and it's only over in Paris."
"I rather doubt General LeMay would be inclined to let us borrow his one-of-a-kind experimental super-bomber for a mission of mercy," said Minna regretfully, but Shirley - to her mild surprise - responded to that with the first smile she'd cracked since Lucchini had come to harm:
"So don't ask him."
Mio tilted her head thoughtfully; then, with a slow smile, she got up from the table and went to the telephone stand in the corner. While several of her colleagues crowded nosily around, she told the castle operator, "This is Sakamoto. Get me Eighth Air Force G-2." She waited for a few moments; then, her smile becoming ever-so-faintly predatory, she said, "Captain Blazkowicz? Sakamoto here. How would you like to help out the 501st and annoy LeMay at the same time?"
There was a brief pause, and then those closest to Mio could hear a faint, tinny chuckle come across the line. "Colonel, it would be my honor to put my ass on the line for a good cause. Why I enlisted, after all. What do you need? Keys to the car?"
Mio's smile became a smirk. "As a matter of fact..."
Working flat-out, it took them the rest of Friday and into Saturday morning to make it happen. In the wee hours before dawn, a handpicked team of the First JSAF's witches slipped into Paris-Orly Airport, offloaded their equipment from their transport, and stowed it aboard the mammoth XB-36 prototype. Yoshika and Shirley, temporarily deputized as a medical orderly, got Lucchini safely bundled into one of the bunks in the after witches' quarters. Ursula Hartmann, in her capacity as commanding officer of 404 Squadron, provided an air of legitimacy to the witches' presence aboard the test aircraft; Perrine Clostermann, the 501st JFW's executive officer, provided the wing-level authority, while von Hammer represented the commanding general's office. The final member of the team, Heidemarie Schnaufer, was on the hastily cut orders as the mission's night operations officer - a reasonable precaution suggested at the last moment by Minna, as she was bidding the "strike force" farewell.
For their part, the five-man crew of the bomber appeared fully on board with the plan as they made introductions in the after quarters. Shirley had already met the aircraft's commander, Captain Jack Ridley, the easygoing Oklahoman who was the Eighth Air Force's technical liaison to the Peacemaker development project. Blazkowicz, a known quantity to most of Saint-Ulrich's witches by this point, had come along himself as the ship's first officer. The flight engineers, a burly father-and-son team called Smith, seemed just happy to be there, and the navigator - an extremely green youth by the name of Hembery - appeared to be so frightened by the presence of actual witches aboard that he spoke with a distinct squeak and remained as far back as he could given the close quarters aboard.
"Gentlemen," said Perrine after a moment's hesitation, "before we start, there's one more complication you should be aware of. Some of the equipment we brought aboard for this mission is... rather specialized. And highly secret. As a gesture of good faith, we propose to show it to you - I'm sure you're risking exposure of classified materials of your own allowing us on board this aircraft, after all," she added with a wry little smile, drawing chuckles from Ridley and the Smiths. "However... I must warn you that the sight of this item will probably shock you, and I ask that you do your best to remain calm."
Ridley and Blazkowicz shared a thoughtful glance. "Can't wait for this now," said the former, smiling.
"Very well," Perrine said with a nod; then, turning to Yoshika, she said, "Show them."
Nodding, Yoshika went and drew back the curtain she had rigged to close off a corner of the compartment. The crewmen had assumed it was for some sort of medical privacy arrangement, but now they saw that the intent was rather different...
"Well, butter my butt an' call me a biscuit," said Ridley.
"This is... well, if she has a name, we don't really know what it is yet," Yoshika conceded, stepping forward with the Neuroi defector hovering alongside her. "I just call her Neuroi-chan."
"That... that is an actual Neuroi," said the elder Smith, sounding not so much alarmed as impressed.
"Not only that, it's the Operation Trajanus Neuroi," Blazkowicz mused. "I heard something on the grapevine about that unit having been spotted again in Alsatian airspace. Might've known you guys would be mixed up in it. I assume General Wilcke knows all about it?"
Von Hammer nodded. "She's given authorization for... er, 'Neuroi-chan' to stay with us while we evaluate the situation. Dr. Miyafuji is convinced that it - she - wishes to be our friend, and I have to say that her actions thus far have borne out that conclusion entirely."
"And since she seems most attached to Yoshika," Perrine added with a tolerant little smile for her wingmate, "we thought it best to bring her along."
"There's about a hundred different ways this could go horribly wrong," Blazkowicz pointed out.
"True," Perrine agreed without batting an eye. "But only one way to find out."
Ridley laughed. "Well, hell, in for a penny, ain't that what the Britannians say? Welcome aboard, Neuroi-chan."
Neuroi-chan didn't speak (of course), but she did incline her head in a gesture very like a gracious nod, raising one rudimentary hand in the little wave she'd learned from Erica Hartmann. Lt. Hembery seemed to take the gesture as threatening; mumbling some semicoherent courtesy, he all but fled the room, heading forward to his station.
"Heh, that kid's so new his shoes still squeak," Shirley remarked with a grin.
"Yeah, he's a 90-day wonder, all right," Ridley remarked. "Knows what he's doin', though. I never seen a better man with a map. He'll get us where we need to go." Then, with a wry smile, he added, "If he don't pass out from all the excitement." With a last look at Neuroi-chan, he chuckled again and, shaking his head in cheerful bemusement, turned to go forward.
"Well, c'mon, boys," he said to the rest of his crew. "Let's go get this show on the road. Make y'selves comfortable, ladies, an' leave the driving to us."
"So," said von Hammer as she finished her tale. "Over dinner, I explained to my colleagues and the crew of our aircraft what my real interest in this mission was - it seemed only fair. Having done that, I suppose I ought to explain it to you."
Rising to her feet, she stepped around to the side of his desk and stood looking at the Kaiser's still-astonished face for a few moments, then held out her hands. Hesitantly, Fritz took them, letting her pull him to his feet; though he was nearly a head taller than she was, she seemed the larger of the two somehow.
"Friedrich... if you had asked me to marry you in London, I would have told you yes," she said. "If you asked me now... I still would. There would be conditions, certainly, and from the last few paragraphs of your cowardly missive, I'm reasonably sure you know already what they are. But I would say yes."
The Kaiser stared silently at her for a moment, then said, "I am a fool, Hannelore. I do not pretend otherwise. Spell out your conditions, don't leave me to infer them."
Von Hammer chuckled dryly. "Very well. If you ask me, Your Majesty, I will be your wife; that is to say, I will join my fortunes to yours, and give you what comfort I can, and be a companion to you in your old age. But I will not give up being what I am. I will not abandon my post. I will not wield your name, sit on a throne beside you, retire to a life of pointless luxury. I am a soldier, and a soldier I must remain.
"I recognize," she went on relentlessly, "that this very fact makes me unsuitable from the point of view of placating the Reichstag. I am not politically sound. I am not young. I will not bear you heirs. If you take me as your wife, you will have to find some other way of securing the succession. I say this as plainly as I can so that there can be no confusion - marrying me is not a solution to your problems."
The Kaiser mustered a wry laugh. "You sound as though you're trying to talk me out of it," he said.
"Not at all," von Hammer said, placing a hand against his cheek. "I love you, Fritzchen, and had I known the full extent of your feelings for me sooner, I might have done things differently; but this is who I am now, and if you love me and not the person I might've been, then I see no reason why we shouldn't draw a line underneath it. I merely wish to see that you have no illusions. It would not be a popular decision on your part. The course of action you've already planned is far more expedient on many levels... and so it's time for you to decide what you really want, Your Majesty."
Then, looking him in the eye, she surprised him yet again that night by adding quietly and without a trace of irony, "And whatever you decide, I will support you... as I always have... with all my strength."
Thanks to Heidemarie's help augmenting their navigational equipment - and Hembery finally shaking off his nerves and adjusting their course to shave off some of their delay, once they had cleared the worst of the unfavorable weather - the XB-36 was finally near the home stretch. It was a bit later than originally planned, but, Perrine mused with some satisfaction, still in time for the witches to be useful if "Operation Hammer" required their intervention in some way.
"Well, ladies," Blazkowicz noted as the edge of the airfield came into sight, "I know we cut this a little finer than any of us would like, but I think we've just about got it done."
Standing at the edge of the observation area in the bomber's nose, Perrine nodded, a tired but pleased smile on her lips. "Yes indeed, Captain. Our sincerest thanks to all of you - particularly Lieutenant Hembery."
From the pilot's seat, Jack Ridley chuckled. "There's a reason we brought the kid along - even if I think he did near shit his britches when your... uh... friend pulled out her party trick."
Normally Perrine would have been non-plussed by the crudity of Ridley's joke, but after almost 36 hours of watching the man work, she had a healthy respect for his abilities and had grown accustomed to his rather rustic personality. Taking his remarks as the friendly banter he intended, she simply nodded. "I think all of of us were taken by surprise - we're still learning quite a bit about our new friend."
"I'll bet," Ridley observed, then placed a hand to his headphones in response to something coming in. "Uh, scuse me."
Hopping down from the pilot's chair, he swung down and moved to the back half of the cockpit area, where Sgt. Smith the Elder was standing in as their radio operator. Curious, Perrine followed behind.
"What've you got, Sarge?" asked Ridley.
The sergeant looked up to Ridley as he spoke, sliding his headphones off. "I tried calling in for clearance, and they are NOT happy."
Perrine frowned thoughtfully. "I suppose we didn't really file a proper flight plan for this. Is there a way we can try to smooth things over?"
Ridley shrugged. "I can try... lemme have that mic, Sarge."
As the two changed places, Smith plugged in a separate set of earphones into the pass-through on his panel, then silently handed them to Perrine so she could get both sides of the conversation.
"Brandenburg Tower, this is Baker Mike 570 heavy, requesting landing clearance and vector, over."
Smith was right: the air traffic controller at the capital's principal airport did not sound amused, even for a Karlslander, as he replied,
"Baker Mike 570 heavy, this is Brandenburg Approach Control. We are currently in a heightened security status and have no flight plan for your arrival, over!"
"Roger, tower, understood," Ridley replied, sounding smooth and calm - that stereotypical Liberion aviator cool, deliberately unpacked for the benefit of the foreign controller, Perrine realized with a tiny smile. "We are on a classified testing mission for 404 Squadron, 1st JSAF, out of Gallia. We require landing clearance to deliver personnel and equipment, over."
"Nein!" the Brandenburg controller snapped. "Not without proper authorization and flight plan! The current situation does not allow for-"
Scowling, Ridley broke in on the air controller, now sounding much more like himself: "Listen, Fritz, I tried to do this the nice way, but that obviously ain't gonna happen. You folks ain't cleared for our mission and we didn't call ahead. Sorry, them's the breaks. But right now I got me a bomber that's about a hundred klicks from bingo fuel, so either you clear me to land it on your airfield or I park the damned thing right in the middle of Broadway - your call!"
There was a long moment of silence before the controller's voice returned. His frosty tone came through even on the relatively narrow-band transmission, but his delivery was perfectly professional and contained all the pertinent information - such a perfectly Karlslandic moment that Perrine rather wished Gertrud Barkhorn could've been there to witness it.
"Very well. Baker Mike 570 heavy, enter left downwind runway zero two. Wind is one-eight degrees at five. Cleared to land. Be advised that we are launching escort craft and will have ground security personnel awaiting your arrival," he added in exactly the same clinical tone.
Ridley sighed. "Roger, tower. Five seven zero heavy out." Pulling off the radio headset and handing it back to Smith, he looked over to Perrine with a wry grin. "Guess that could have gone better."
Perrine shrugged, following him back forward. "I suppose it might have, but at least we have somewhere to land. With luck, Rittmeister von Hammer will be able to arrange for a proper clearance once we're on the ground, and we can take things from there."
The approach to the airfield went relatively smoothly from there, and though there had been some concerns about how well the runway at Kaiser Wilhelm would handle the XB-36's weight, the bomber settled onto its massive landing gear without a hitch. As they carried out their landing roll, a pair of Messerschmitt fighters - conventional aircraft, not Strikers - shot past, having followed them down, and then peeled off to the left, returning to wherever their nearby base was.
"Guess he wasn't kidding about the escorts," Ridley quipped.
The issue came once they had cleared the active runway and entered the airport's maze of taxiways, as the ground crew guided them to an isolated section of the apron... where a pair of Panzer IV tanks were waiting, accompanied by what appeared to be at least a company of infantry.
"Uh-oh," Ridley said. Looking back to Perrine, he added, "I sure hope you folks have a plan for this..."
Perrine, slightly to his surprise, only smiled. "Of course we have," she said, and then, apparently apropos of nothing: "Now, ladies, if you please."
At her signal, a trio of Striker-equipped figures - unnoticed by ground radar or the escorting fighter pilots as they shadowed the mammoth bomber in from the coast - swooped out of the sun and took up a defensive screen formation, hovering between the XB-36 and the army detachment sent to greet it. All three were armed, and though they held their weapons at port arms, not leveling them at the security force, the officer leading that force was under no illusions that they would be ready to use them if they started taking fire. A Liberion, a witch from Fusō, and a Luftwaffe captain - clearly a group from one of the Joint Fighter Wings. What in the world could they possibly be doing in Brandenburg?
"Gentlemen," said the blonde Karlslander at the point of the witches' delta formation. Then, with a faint smile, she went on, "Hauptmann Doktor Ursula Hartmann, 404 Squadron. Please inform your superiors that Büro 21 of the Reichsluftfahrtministerium requires their immediate cooperation."
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
and Geoff Depew
The EPU Usual Suspects
Based on characters from Strike Witches
created by Humikane Shimada
Bacon Comics chief
E P U (colour) 2015