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RAF Crone Rock
June 25, 1946
Dr. Harpwell asked me to write and apologize for the little incident in the dockyard the other day. I'm not sure if he realizes that I'm aware you're a normal ship and not someone I can write a letter to, but it's easier to humor him than argue with him. I wonder why, if he thinks I'm crazy, he wants me to lean into it this way. I mean, is that how you treat a delusion? Doesn't make sense to me, but then, I'm only a sailor, not a psychiatrist.
Anyway, since I'm doing it, I might as well do it with sincerity, right? That's always been the way I try to operate. So, I'm sorry again for ramming you the other day. I promise it wasn't on purpose! Captain Gryphon, Lieutenant Hattori, and I were still working out the kinks in my new rig's steering system, and as you can see, we still had a ways to go.
They tell me the damage isn't too bad and they should have you fixed up soon—thank goodness! I'm OK, nothing was really damaged but my pride and some experimental gear we were going to have to rebuild anyway. And Cap'n didn't drown, so all's well that ends well.
Of course, the base commander wasn't feeling quite so generous, which is why I'm writing to you from Crone Rock. Cap'n and I were barely dried off before Admiral Sugita sent an orderly to let us know that we were being asked to remove ourselves and our harebrained scheme from HMS Barbican at our earliest possible convenience, which, as you know, means "drop everything and hustle your ass" in the Imperial Navy. ^_^
Still, it may be for the best. This base used to belong to the 501st back during the Battle of Britannia, and Cap'n was here in those days—he knows the place inside and out. The Air Ministry never cleared it out or assigned it to anyone else after the unit left, so we had to clean up a lot of dust, but all the repair shop tools and stuff were still here, and we're right on the water, but without other fleet assets around to... um... crash into.
The last few tests have gone really well. I think we've just about licked the steering and stability problems. I saw a truck from Ordnance Command pull up to the shop loading dock this morning, which probably means we'll be ready for weapons testing soon!
I hear Lt. Hattori calling for me, so I'd better wrap this up. Again, I'm really sorry about the accident. Get well soon! And please be careful when you go back into the field.
Your affectionate sister,
Flying Yak Studios
Bacon Comics Group
in association with
The International Police Organization
Avalon Broadcasting System
Brave and the Bold
Our Witches at War
another serial experiment
© 2020 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
"Our Fighting Fleet, Part 2: Sea Trials"
Gryphon wasn't sure what felt odder: that he was back at Crone Rock, or that the rest of the 501st wasn't here.
The last time he was here (not counting the staged "supply run" he and a few of the witches had gone on as part of the setup for Operation Rocket Heist), in 1943, the old palace on its barren island just off Folkestone had been one of the nerve centers of the defense of Britannia, the very front line of the war against the Neuroi. At the time, the aliens had lurked just across the Channel, masters of virtually all of western Europe, and it was right here that one of the Allied Forces' premier fighter wings held the line to keep them from adding the isle of Britannia Major to their holdings.
With the Neuroi driven from all of Gallia, the island was no longer under threat of invasion, and when the 501st moved on, no one replaced them here. The mothballed base had been deserted ever since the end of the Battle of Britannia—which made it the perfect place for Gryphon and his unusual project to be banished to after the Mikuma incident had made them unwelcome at HMS Barbican.
Mogami entered the former witchcraft hangar, which she, Gryphon, and Shizuka Hattori had set up as their replacement for the one they'd been using as a machine shop at the naval base, to find both of her... colleagues? Superiors? They were both officers, after all, where as far as she knew, Mogami herself still held the lowly enlisted grade of able seaman, if indeed she were still in the Navy at all. Anyway, Gryphon and Hattori were there, conferring with another Imperial Fusō Navy officer. This one was a man in his early twenties, dressed in an engineer's fatigue uniform.
"Ah, Mogami," said Gryphon as she approached. "There you are. Let me introduce you to our new team member."
Before he could go on, she got close enough to the little group that she recognized the engineering officer's face—and halted in her tracks, staring at him in astonishment. Gryphon and Shizuka glanced at each other, puzzled, then turned to see that the newly arrived engineer was looking at Mogami with almost exactly the same expression.
"My gods," said the engineer. "So it's true."
"... Toshi?" said Mogami, her voice faint with disbelief.
The engineer's voice was no louder as he replied, "Mamoru."
Mogami blinked hard a couple of times to clear the tears gathering in her eyes, then threw her arms around the man, rocking him back on his heels. "Toshi! Man, am I glad to see you! Where did you come from?!"
Then, seeming to realize for the first time that the man she'd just hugged was wearing the uniform of an officer, she recoiled, squaring hastily up and saluting, her face crimson.
"I-I mean, Lieutenant Nishimura! I'm so sorry! Please forgive—eep!"
Her hasty apology was cut off as Nishimura, his face breaking into a wide smile, grabbed her up in a bear hug. "Never mind about that. You're alive!" he said, slapping her heartily on the back. "I knew it." Pushing her out to arms' length with his hands on her shoulders, he went on, "Didn't I tell you? Not even the Neuroi could kill Mamoru Satō." Then, releasing her, he tilted his head, his smile becoming slightly rueful, and added, "Although I guess it's doubly wrong to call you that now, isn't it?"
"You know about... ?" asked Mogami, looking awkward.
"Admiral Sugita briefed me before he sent me over here. To tell you the truth, I wasn't sure I believed it until I saw you."
"Well, he didn't bother briefing me," Gryphon put in dryly, "so I'm just going to assume from context that you two know each other already."
"Toshi was the chief of my division when I first joined the ship," Mogami explained. "He was detached to take the officer candidate course just before we left for Archangel." To Nishimura, she said, "I thought they were sending you to Etajima."
"That was the plan, but someone decided it made more sense for me to take the course at Vickers here in Britannia rather than ship me all the way home and back again," said Nishimura. "And these aren't really real," he added, indicating his shoulder boards. "It's a provisional commission."
"It's real enough that I probably shouldn't have been so familiar with you. Sorry about that. I was just so glad to see a face I recognized from... before," said Mogami, a trifle awkwardly. "It must have been quite a shock when Admiral Sugita told you about me. Or, well, two shocks."
Nishimura laughed. "Only one," he said, and then explained to her puzzled look, "Did you seriously think nobody knew you were a girl, Satō?"
Mogami blushed crimson. "How—when did you figure it out?"
"Oh, within a week or so. Find me another engine room crewman who never, ever takes off his shirt," Nishimura said with a grin.
"Then why didn't you report me?"
"You were one of my best men! So to speak. Why would I want to be the one to end your career? Everybody in the division felt the same. Better to let you think we were all a bunch of idiots than lose someone we all knew we could count on."
Mogami felt herself tearing up again and didn't fight it this time. "... you guys..." she sniffled.
"Come on, pull yourself together, Satō," said Nishimura with gruff compassion—mostly, both Gryphon and Shizuka suspected, to keep himself from following suit.
"Yessir. Sorry, sir," said Mogami, doing her best to comply.
"Sorry, I did it again," said Nishimura, swerving violently off the subject. "I apologize in advance, because I'm sure that's not the last time I'll slip up and call you Satō."
"You can keep calling me that if you want, sir," Mogami said. "I... I don't mind."
"All right, well, in return, you don't have to call me 'sir' unless the brass is listening," said Nishimura. "How about that?"
Mogami cracked a weak but willing smile. "Sounds good to me."
"The lieutenant's joining our team," Gryphon explained now that the prelminiaries were out of the way, "because once Shizuka and I finish up and head back to Saint-Ulrich, you're going to need an engineering officer to look after your rig. I asked the admiral to get me someone young and open-minded, with a good grounding in advanced steam tech, and preferably familiar with magic, and here he is."
"Familiar with magic? Oh, that's right. Your little sister's a witch, isn't she?" Mogami asked.
Nishimura nodded. "She graduates from flight school next month," he said proudly. "I hear she'll be flying off Zuikaku."
"Oh, you're Aki Nishimura's brother!" Shizuka exclaimed, then went slightly pink and added, "I was in the group ahead of hers in Basic Flight."
"Aha, you're that Hattori," said Nishimura. "The one they're calling the next Sakamoto."
Shizuka blinked, her blush deepening. "I don't know if I'd go that far..."
It was the quiet time in the middle of the day, when the noontime patrol was out and most everybody else was attending to routine tasks. In the 501st Joint Fighter Wing's operations office, Amélie Planchard was sitting at the desk that was normally Perrine Clostermann's, working one some of the documentation that was key to keeping the wing functioning in the absence of its usual executive officer.
At the sound of the office door opening, she looked up and was a bit surprised to see three people entering whom she'd never seen before. The one in the lead was Fusōnese, dressed in a red and white outfit like the uniform Amélie had seen on their army aviators in Modern Witch magazine's "Our Witches at War" feature, but with a longer skirt and oddly detached sleeves. Behind her were a couple of Western-looking blondes, one in black and white with a broad-brimmed conical hat, the other decked out in white and blue frills that wouldn't have looked out of place at a Britannian tea reception. With mild puzzlement, she realized the black-and-white one was carrying an old-fashioned broom and had a yellow cat dozing on her shoulder, while the other blonde was trailed by what appeared to be a pair of flying dolls.
"Er... may I help you?" Amélie asked.
"I hope so," said the Fusōnese girl. "Are you the officer of the watch?"
"Yes, that's right." Amélie rose, but was unsure whether she should salute; if any of these people were wearing rank insignia, she couldn't recognize them. She settled for coming to parade-rest and saying, "Adjutant-chef Amélie Planchard, GC 2/7 of the 802nd Free Gallian Flying Corps. I'm acting as Colonel Sakamoto's XO while Major Clostermann is away." Glancing from one visitor to another, she added a trifle warily, "And you are... ?"
"Reimu Hakurei," said the red-and-white witch. "Inspector-General of the Emperor's Witches."
"Squadron Leader Alice Murgatroyd, RAF, retired," said the shorter-haired blonde. (Amélie noticed, with some amusement despite the perplexing nature of this encounter, that the other blonde mouthed the words along with her, a mischievous little smirk on her face.)
"Don't pay any attention to me," said the black-and-white blonde casually, her manner of speech instantly giving her away as a Liberion. Winking one golden eye, she added, "I ain't even here, see?"
"Uh... huh," said Amélie dubiously.
For a moment, she wondered whether this were some kind of prank. The eldest of these three was the Britannian, and she looked no older than Amélie's own age of 17—too young to be retired, unless she'd been invalided out because of injury, and there was no sign of that in her face or bearing. The other two looked a good two years younger than that. She knew Fusō was a nation that valued youth, but did even their forces have general officers so young?
A bolder witch might have questioned the matter aloud, maybe asked to see some ID, but Amélie Planchard was not that witch. Turning her attention back to Reimu, she asked, "What can I help you with today, General?"
"I need to speak to Colonel Sakamoto," Reimu said. "Would you happen to know where I can find her?"
"Let me see..." Amélie glanced at the wall clock, then the patrol schedule. "She's not sortieing today, so at this time of day, I should imagine she's in the dojo," she said, and provided directions.
"Thank you, Chief Planchard, you've been very helpful," said Alice, and with a nod of agreement, the miko led the two blondes out of the office. In the doorway, last to leave, the one who hadn't named herself glanced back and gave Amélie another grinning wink she had no idea how to interpret.
"What a strange group," she mused aloud to the now-empty office, and then, as she resumed her seat, "I suppose I should have checked their credentials."
"Now that we have the 'ship' part of your seagoing rig more or less locked down," said Gryphon to Mogami, "it's time to start thinking about the 'war' part. In your first life, you were a heavy cruiser, which sets certain expectations as regards firepower. So I had a look through the currently available magic armaments to see what would best provide a comparable gunnery profile, and this is what I've come up with."
Turning, he whipped a dropcloth off the object behind him, revealing a heavy-looking, long-barreled cannon. It looked incomplete, as if it were meant to be mounted in something that wasn't there yet—just the breech mechanism and barrel, without an ammunition feed or control system yet installed.
Patting the cannon's massive breechblock, Gryphon went on, "This is a two-hundred-magic-mass Third Year Type Mark II rifled witch gun. It's the primary armament on the Imperial Fusō Army's Type 6 O-To super-heavy Tracked Land Striker, and just about the most powerful witch gun in the world. Some think it's too powerful, since it's proven to be the case that only the most experienced and magically capable Tank Witches can handle the O-To."
Making eye contact with Mogami, he grinned a slightly mischievous grin and said, "Your seagoing rig... will have eight of them."
Mogami considered the weapon for a few moments, then looked at the cloth-shrouded shapes of what she now realized were the other seven, trying (and mostly failing) to envision how eight of them would be mounted. However they did it, if they managed such a feat, she would have more firepower than an entire platoon of heavy tank witches.
"Awesome," she said.
"I hope so," Gryphon agreed. "Shizuka and Toshiro are working up a prototype mount as we speak. It's getting a little too late in the day to be fooling around with gunnery now, but it'll be ready for testing first thing tomorrow, and if it works, we can start building proper turrets." He glanced at his watch. "Right now, I'd say we've got just enough time for a few more maneuver tests, if you're up for it."
"Always," said Mogami, grinning.
"Well, then, suit up and—... hold on. Sounds like we've got company."
Mogami cocked an ear, but didn't hear anything at first. Only after a few seconds did she pick up the sound of an approaching aircraft.
How does he do that? she wondered.
A short while later, a twin-engined transport aircraft of a type she wasn't familiar with touched down on the station's runway, which jutted out on a pier into Folkestone Harbour, then taxied onto the apron and shut down. A few moments later, a side door opened and three figures emerged—all young women, none known to Gryphon or Mogami. Both stood with curious expressions and watched as the trio approached.
Drawn by the sound of the aircraft, Shizuka came out of the machine shop, wiping her hands on a rag. She was dressed in what had become her usual "shop clothes", an aircraftman's work coverall, and presently had the upper half tied around her waist by the sleeves, revealing her general-issue undershirt. At this time of year, the shop got pretty hot when the oxyacetylene torches were in play.
"What's going—" she began, and then, spotting the approaching visitors, she pulled up with a shock as she recognized one of them. To Gryphon and Mogami's faint bemusement, she hurriedly untied the sleeves of her coverall and struggled into it, rushing to make herself as presentable as possible.
"Are you Benjamin Hutchins?" asked the one in what read to his eye as a modified miko outfit, red-and-white but sporting a skirt instead of hakama. "Rittmeister von Katädien?"
"That's me," Gryphon replied. "It's probably pointless of me to say this, but just for the record, this is supposed to be a restricted area."
She ignored his remark and replied, "I've come a long way to see you, Captain. As Inspector-General of His Majesty the Emperor of Fusō's Witches, I need to speak to you about this."
So saying, she slapped a document against his chest, almost as if she were throwing down a gauntlet in challenge. He took it by reflex as much as anything else, then looked at it. It was a book, bound from loose sheets of paper with a spiral of wire, its covers made from the cut-off sides of a manila file folder. On the front cover, neatly lettered by hand, was the apparent title: PRINCIPLES OF UNIVERSAL ALTERNATIVE MAGIC.
Looking over his shoulder, Shizuka said with some surprise, "It's the Zauberschulbuch. But whose handwriting is that? It's not yours..."
Gryphon shook his head. "I don't recognize it either. It must be an outside copy." Looking up from the book at the frowning miko, he went on, "I'd say 'step into my office,' but you're pretty much already in it," he said wryly. Gesturing toward the impromptu conference table he'd thrown together out of some scrap lumber in one corner, he went on, "Why don't we all have a seat and talk like civilized people?"
Seated at the table with a cup of tea in front of her, Reimu seemed to have settled down a little. With a slightly apologetic air, she introduced herself properly, then named her two companions in turn, although it didn't escape anyone on the other side of the table that she was vague about exactly what they were there for. What standing, exactly, did Alice Murgatroyd, a retired RAF officer, and Marisa Kirisame, a young woman who claimed to be "just an ordinary magician", have in this affair?
For his part, Gryphon introduced the three other members of the Project Mogami team and gave a brief overview of what they were doing in this abandoned RAF witch base. The explanation seemed to perplex Reimu, puzzle Alice, and intrigue Marisa, but all three appeared to come to a silent consensus that it wasn't really what they were there for and shouldn't be dwelt upon right now.
Instead, Reimu—any trace of apology disappearing as she got down to business—explained that the Zauberschule phenomenon had reached the Fusōnese mainland a short while ago. Copies of the book were spreading, mostly among Navy witches, but a few of their rivals-slash-colleagues from the Army Air Service had run across bits and pieces as well. Meanwhile, similar reports had been reaching the various Allied war ministries by way of SHAEF for some time, as the mysterious document turned up in installation after installation in Europe.
"The Kenpeitai investigation showed fairly conclusively that the document originated with the 501st," she said, "but it wasn't until I spoke with Colonel Sakamoto this morning that I learned anything about its actual authorship. You may well imagine my surprise," she concluded, "when I discovered that not only is the person responsible for this strange new metamagical movement a man, but also, that man has apparently discovered what may be the last vampire in western Europe."
"I'm not sure how that last part is relevant, but OK," said Gryphon mildly.
"And furthermore," Reimu went on as if he hadn't spoken, "that rather than slay it, he has chosen to cavort with it."
To Reimu's left, Alice made a pained expression, as of someone whose friend has just committed a catastrophic faux pas at a dinner party, and to her right, Marisa palmed her face in a way that Gryphon would have found amusing under other circumstances. Right now, he didn't react to it at all. With his gaze set firmly on the shrine maiden's, he said in a calm voice that sent a faint thrill of dread up Shizuka's spine,
"I... don't make a habit of threatening complete strangers with violence, General Hakurei, but if you call my fiancée 'it' or make casual remarks about 'slaying' her again, I am going to knock you on your ass."
There were a few seconds' brittle silence.
"Forgive me," said Reimu, lowering her eyes momentarily. "I was testing you with that part. One's reactions when provoked tend to be the most genuine, after all."
"Do you also kick beehives in order to find out the bees' true feelings?" Gryphon wondered.
"On occasion," Reimu replied with a very faint wry smile.
Gryphon sighed the sigh of a man who is being patient. "Let's back up. What business is my love life of the Inspector-General of the Emperor's Witches?"
"None. That part is relevant to my other job. In addition to our hereditary position at the head of Fusōnese military witchcraft, the Miko of the Hakurei Shrine are historically responsible for the protection of the material world from supernatural threats."
"Oh, so you're just a natural-born buttinsky," said Gryphon, causing Shizuka to stifle a laugh.
Reimu looked confused. "What?"
Gryphon shook his head resignedly. "Never mind. And just for the record, I still don't like your tone."
"I assure you, sir," said the miko in a frostily formal way, "your impression of my tone is of no concern to me."
"Well, this is off to a great start, huh, Alice?" Marisa remarked.
"Yes, I see Reimu has brought all of her charm and tact to bear on this occasion, Marisa," replied the RAF witch coolly.
"It was ever thus," said Marisa philosophically.
Alice nodded gravely. "Indeed."
"I can hear you, you two," said Reimu through her teeth.
"I congratulate you on your excellent peripheral hearing, General," said Alice pleasantly.
"She's really very nice," put in Shizuka.
"Who, Reimu?" said Alice with deniable mischief.
"No, Countess Scarlet."
"Who's Countess Scarlet?" Marisa wondered.
"My fiancée," said Gryphon.
"The vampire," Shizuka added helpfully.
Reimu threw up her hands in exasperation. "All right, never mind about the vampire," she said. "At this point I'm sorry I even brought the vampire up. That's not my priority anyway. I only found out about her today, she's not why I came all this way." She slapped one palm flat on the cover of the Zauberschulbuch. "I'm here because His Majesty the Emperor asked me to look into this... this movement. To decide whether it was something he ought to be permitting within the imperial witchcraft community."
"I must confess I'm here for similar reasons," Alice said, "on behalf of His Britannic Majesty's War Office. For that matter, the King himself is somewhat concerned that his eldest daughter appears to be among its followers."
"And I'm just a natural-born buttinsky," Marisa added with a grinning wink.
"We haven't discussed it yet, but you seem like you've already made up your mind," said Gryphon.
"I have," Reimu confirmed. "I've studied this document thoroughly, and this morning I spoke at some length with a few of your... disciples... at Saint-Ulrich." She shook her head. "Don't get me wrong, I've always had reservations about the toll the machinery of so-called modern witchcraft exacts from its users. But the way you've come up with to get around that is... foul. Unnatural. And the work of a man, to boot," she added, her dark eyes glinting dangerously. "There have been men throughout history who claimed to be wizards. Rasputin. Paracelsus. Emperor Nero. Dangerous charlatans and pawns of darkness all." Folding her arms, she said finally, "I don't know what this source of power you've lured these witches into tapping really is, or what your endgame is, but you have to be stopped."
Mogami, who had only partially followed what they were talking about, took umbrage at her conclusion all the same. Half-rising, she said, "Now you wait just a goddamn—"
"Mogami," said Gryphon calmly. "Stand down. I've got this."
For a moment, Mogami looked like she might protest. Then, relenting, she returned to her seat. "Aye aye, Captain."
Addressing himself to Reimu, his tone still calm and reasonable, he went on, "Let's say, for the sake of argument, that you're right, even though you're not. It's too late." He tapped the book with his fingertips. "The Zauberschulbuch is in the wild. Even if you somehow stopped me from teaching—and you can't—the Method is already spreading." With a faint smile, he concluded, "The witches are seizing the means of production."
Reimu stood up, then leaned forward over him, bracing her hands on the table. "When I defeat you, they'll see that your so-called method is a false path and abandon it. Any who refuse... I'll deal with them too."
Gryphon got to his feet and regarded her for a few seconds. "You have no understanding of human nature at all, do you?" He sighed again and stepped around Shizuka's seat, walking out into the open area in the middle of the hangar. "OK, fine, let's do this," he said, beckoning to Reimu. "I haven't got all week."
When Perrine Clostermann entered the heavy cruiser's wardroom for lunch that day, the first thing she noticed was that Francesca Lucchini's leg was out of its wrappings at last. The Romagnan had shed her patient's smock and was back in uniform, the star of the prestigious Fusōnese military order she'd lately been awarded sparkling proudly on her chest. Though one of her legs was markedly paler than the other and still bore the marks of the frantic surgery Yoshika Miyafuji had performed to put it back together, it looked whole and sound.
Lucchini and Yoshika were sitting together at the smaller of the wardroom's two tables, each with a steaming mug before her, which Perrine assumed contained tea rather than the acrid black swill the Karlsländers seemed to have mistaken for coffee. The doctor didn't like coffee under any circumstances, and Lucchini's Roman palate, like Perrine's Calaisienne one, was too refined for that nonsense. Oskar, the ship's black-and-white cat, was curled up in the Romagnan's lap, half-asleep. As Perrine approached, she noticed that neither of her colleagues was actually drinking her tea; instead, both were gazing off toward the other side of the compartment.
"What are you two looking so fascinated about?" Perrine wondered, slipping into the seat beside Lucchini.
Before either witch could answer, Perrine followed their eyelines and saw the answer to her question. Captain Eugenie Prinzessin von Preußen was seated at the head of the larger wardroom table, and she appeared to be having an animated conversation with the only other individual in the room, who sat one space down from her on the left...
... the Neuroi defector officially designated "Witch-Type Unit X-11" by the Allied Office of War Information, but which (whom?) everyone in the 501st called by Yoshika's nickname for her, "Neuroi-chan".
All right, Neuroi-chan wasn't speaking—she had never yet done so—nor was she particularly animated; but she was sitting with every indication in her body language that she was paying attention, and the captain was talking cheerfully to her in Karlslandic.
At first, Perrine thought that was simply a bit of charming eccentricity. It would be like the young sea witch, who was a more cheerful and spontaneous sort than one might expect from the captain of a warship of the Reichsmarine, to do something like monologue to the silent, but evidently attentive, Neuroi, as one might do with... well, with a cat, as both she and Lucchini had been known to do with Oskar.
That impression lasted until Perrine paid slightly closer attention and realized that what the captain was saying sounded distinctly like one side of a conversation—one that seemed to suggest actual interaction.
«I know, I would never have expected it either,» she said. «I suppose I should have, though. Onkel Fritz has always been like that.» She paused, then drew back slightly, her blue eyes going wide with surprise. «You're joking. He said that?» Pause. «Yes, of course he meant it. Onkel Fritz always means what he says.» Pause, head tilt with thoughtful look. «You don't say. Well, that will certainly put the cat among the pigeons. I wish I could be there to see it.»
"... What do you suppose they're talking about?" wondered Yoshika, who didn't speak much Karlslandic.
"Something the captain's uncle evidently said," Perrine replied automatically, not taking her eyes off the scene.
Eugenie laughed, patting Neuroi-chan's forearm. «You've got that right.»
"This is spooky," Lucchini murmured.
"Yes," Perrine agreed.
What unfolded out on the old RAF witch station's runway that afternoon was the weirdest battle Shizuka Hattori had ever seen.
She was no stranger to witch-on-witch combat. Aerial duels between witches armed with paint shells was a standard training method, a way for combat fliers to keep their skills sharp, even if the precise methods involved didn't translate directly to the way the Neuroi generally had to be fought. These "training" exercises were also often used as unofficial ways of settling scores, since military regulations frowned on uniformed personnel trying to kill each other, regardless of how their personalities might clash. Such conduct was not supportive of the war effort.
Similarly, as a student of Mio Sakamoto's school of magical kenjutsu, Shizuka had regularly crossed (usually wooden) swords with a number of colleagues, including the Colonel herself, Dr. Miyafuji, Major Clostermann, and even the man she was watching in action right now. This, too, was a form of self-betterment as much as a simulation of battle.
Still, those exercises either involved witches with Striker Units and guns, engaged in full-on aerial combat, or on the ground with practice swords. They did not involve... whatever was going on here.
While she, Nishimura, Mogami, and the two blonde visitors all clustered by the hangar door and watched, Gryphon and Reimu walked out onto the apron, past the transport that had brought the three visitors to the station, and stood facing each other across a distance of several yards for a few moments. A mild sea breeze swept past, ruffling the miko's skirt and the large red bow in her hair, as the two stared each other silently down. It put Shizuka in mind of the moments before gunfights in those Liberion Western films Captain Yeager liked so much.
With a quick gesture, like a stage magician, Reimu produced a long, thin, wandlike wooden rod from one of her voluminous sleeves: a gohei, a shrine maiden's traditional purification tool. A pair of shide, zigzagging paper streamers, unfurled from its end, waving in the breeze. In response, Gryphon reached to his back and slowly, deliberately drew the longer of his two swords, its blade glinting in the sunshine.
"We don't have to do this," Gryphon said. "If you really read the book, you should know that what I teach isn't about darkness or death. The Force is the ki of the universe. In your line of work, you touch it every day, whether you know it by that name or not."
Reimu snorted. "Save your breath, wizard," she said. "I'm not a desperate, fading veteran like Sakamoto, or an impressionable child like Hattori. Your blandishments will find no purchase on my soul. Prepare yourself."
Despite the situation, Gryphon's mouth bent into a tiny, momentary smirk. "Be glad Mio wasn't here to hear you say that about her, or I'd be the least of your problems."
"They tell me you can't fly without your machine," Reimu said, apropos of nothing. "Is that true?"
"So far," Gryphon replied, sounding unconcerned.
"Well, then." Reimu smiled, then levitated. No Striker, no magic circle, not the slightest sound; she simply rose into the air, her toes dangling, and glided up and back until she hovered a good hundred feet away and twenty feet above him, arms outspread.
"I'll make this brief," she said, and suddenly the sky around her was filled with pulses of magic, spiraling outward in interlocking bands, in intricate patterns that put Gryphon—undoubtedly the only person on the planet in this time who had the frame of reference for it—in mind of an elaborate screensaver.
You don't see that every day, he thought, and then the first wave reached him and he was too busy to ruminate.
Shizuka Hattori's first reaction, as she saw him engulfed by spiraling waves of... whatever those were, was outrage. Attacking a grounded opponent from the air? How did that constitute anything like a fair fight? Glancing her to her right, she saw in an instant that Mogami felt the same; the young sailor's jaw and fists were clenched, her dark-green eyes flashing with fury.
The two made a moment's eye contact and nodded to each other, almost imperceptibly. She's not going to get away with this.
Shizuka was about to turn back into the hangar and run to fire up her shiny new Reppū Striker when Nishimura caught her shoulder and pointed. "Look!"
Out of the dust and smoke kicked up by the impact of Reimu's onslaught with the apron, a figure emerged, walking toward the miko with steady, deliberate tread. The breeze cleared the last tendrils of dust away, and there was Gryphon, his hair askew, OD green Liberion fatigues torn in a few places where a handful of the pulses had grazed him... but that was all.
"Is it my go now?" he inquired calmly, and then, before Reimu could reply, he suddenly burst into motion, going from a standing start to a flat-out sprint in an instant, a battle cry spilling out of him.
Reimu was visibly startled by this development. Clearly, she had expected her all-out first strike to eliminate him where he stood, and instead, he was not only largely unharmed, but apparently mounting a frontal assault. Even from where she stood, Shizuka could see the flicker of dismay cross her face—just a fleeting crack in her purposeful mask, there and gone in an instant, but long enough to spot.
She was surprised to hear a low chuckle from off to her left. Turning, she saw the two blonde witches were also watching intently, but where Alice's expression was thoughtful but neutral, Marisa was smiling—almost smirking.
"Don't know what to do when they don't go down right away, do ya?" she murmured in a low, amused-sounding voice. Sensing Shizuka's eyes on her, she glanced at her and winked one golden eye, seeming to take actual pleasure in her colleague's momentary discomfiture.
"Whose side are you on?" Shizuka couldn't stop herself from wondering.
"Nobody's. I'm just enjoying the show," Marisa replied with an easygoing grin.
Reimu's dismay was short-lived. All right, so her quarry had survived her opening salvo. That was rare, but not unheard-of. From the look of him, he'd caught a lucky break. And he might now be charging her, but it didn't change the self-evident fact that she could fly and he couldn't. She had the ultimate high ground. All he was doing was making it easier to hit him with the next wave.
She changed it up, making the matrix even more complex, ripples of spellbolts scoring the tarmac in intricate filigrees as they surged outward and filled the space before and about her with a web of, if not death, at least significant discomfort.
For his part, Gryphon hadn't failed to notice her momentary flash of alarm when her first strike hadn't annihilated him on the spot, either. Now, as he charged, he felt as much as saw the tangled skein of her second onslaught unreeling around him. It had a certain stark beauty to it... but it also had a pattern.
Fully in the zone now, he slipped among the pulses like a fish navigating a reef. A few plucked at his clothes, a couple of them coming close enough to sear the flesh beneath, but no direct hits. Her fire wasn't as chaotic as Flandre's had been on the night of the Neuroi. Flan's had been an incoherent shriek of rage and pain; Reimu's, for all its aggression, was a song, and the Force was singing its counterpoint. When, after much zigzagging and doubling back, he reached a point almost directly beneath her, he found exactly what he'd been expecting: a dead spot in the pattern. Not much of one, and it wouldn't last long... but perhaps long enough.
Reimu saw him preparing something, but couldn't figure out what it was. No man, however athletic, could jump twenty feet straight up, and he'd have to do that if he hoped to engage her with his blade. She had only to adjust the pattern, sweeping it over the blind spot he'd found, and he would have to either abandon his futile attack or be hit.
Reaching his mark, Gryphon gathered his strength, feeling time elongate, and then called on the magic he'd learned from Mio Sakamoto in that long-ago idyll by the lakeside on Ishiyama, when he had taught her how to be a witch again, and she had taught him what that truly meant. Truth be told, he was as offended by Reimu's dismissal of that work as an act of dark exploitation as he was by her speaking of his lady love as a monster to be slain. Both grievances fueled him further as he dropped a shield circle below him, bending gravity, and then slammed the ground with the invisible fist of the Force.
The reaction to the blow flung him upward toward her, faster and higher than Reimu could have expected. Moving on sheer instinct, she dodged aside, reached out with her free hand, and smacked his forehead with an open palm. It hit with a flash of white light and a concussive blast, flinging him back to the ground, and he tumbled a few yards away, coming to rest face-down in a crumpled heap.
Shrugging off her startled disbelief at what he'd just managed to do, the miko descended to ground level and advanced, her shaken confidence returning as she prepared to conclude the matter. This strange man had put up more of a fight than anyone (or anything) she'd confronted in some time, but the ending had never truly been in doubt.
Again Shizuka nearly moved to intervene, this time eschewing thoughts of her Striker in favor of just wading in and demonstrating that the sword and pistol she'd been awarded along with her commission as a naval officer weren't just for ceremonial purposes. Again a hand on her shoulder stopped her, but this time, when she turned to look, she was surprised to see that it belonged to Marisa Kirisame.
"Wait for it," said the blonde with a knowing little smile, nodding toward the duelists.
Gryphon pulled himself together and up into a sloppy approximation of seiza, feeling at his face to make certain it was still attached. As he did so, he discovered to his mild bemusement that, in addition to whacking him with what felt like a sledgehammer, the miko had also stuck a slip of paper to his forehead.
"Don't bother trying to get up," Reimu told him. "Whatever dark pact you draw your power from, that seal has cut you off. You're just a man now. This is over."
Gryphon tilted his head thoughtfully, then ignored her opening advice and clambered to his feet. As she had when he survived her first strike, Reimu hesitated, a flicker of shock crossing her face—shock which intensified when he plucked the ofuda from his forehead and tossed it aside.
"You... how?" she demanded.
"There is a fire inside me that can't be put out," he replied, his voice calm and measured. "A light that cannot be sealed. The Force is with me. You're the same, if you'd only see it."
"What I can see," said Reimu in the tone of one who is making a concession, "is that I underestimated you."
Gryphon surprised her again by smiling slightly.
"It's a start," he said, and then he charged her again.
Scowling, Reimu opened fire again, this time rising only to a few inches above the ground, and Gryphon made the unwelcome but not surprising discovery that her previous onslaught had represented what she considered the minimum effort required. This time the area around and before her was all but filled with kaleidoscopic death, both denser and faster-moving than before, far beyond anything Neuroi-Flan had thrown at him.
But at this point, it hardly mattered. He had his eye in now. Faster and denser it might be, but the underlying pattern was unchanged. The moves required to penetrate it were the same, they just had to be executed with greater speed and precision.
Most of his anger and annoyance had dissipated by this point, replaced with a mix of compassion and frustration. Compassion because this young woman's heart was unmistakably in the right place, however flawed her understanding of the situation; frustration because at this range, she glowed in the Force, and yet denied its existence. Where did she think her power came from? The gods? Were the old gods of Fusō as dead as those of Europe? Regardless, he could sense no divine hand at work here: only the Force, infinite and eternal, channeled through a powerful vessel who did not understand it.
Gryphon spun out of the pattern, close enough now that she couldn't shoot at him without leaving herself open to direct attack, and suddenly they were fencing. Here was still more evidence to him of the source of her power: her gohei could stand against his sword, just as his sword could stand against Neuroi plasma fire.
Reimu's close-in fighting style reminded him of Utena Tenjou's: an obvious absence of formal training, but good instincts and superb kinesthetic senses, coupled with a kind of physical courage that at times did a good impression of recklessness. Despite her obvious consternation at such a thing even being necessary, she held her own with a paper-streamered stick against a man with a sword for nearly a minute, then managed to break contact and disengage.
This bought her enough breathing space to try for some altitude, with an eye toward resuming her barrage, but Gryphon responded instantly, unleashing another of those prodigious shield-assisted jumps. Before Reimu could fully process what was happening, he was thirty feet in the air, a solid ten above her, and hesitating for the barest instant at apogee.
Expecting a sword strike, she drew back rather than up, intending to confound his trajectory and let him fall past her, then punish him for his effrontery as he hit the ground... but he didn't strike, nor even immediately fall. Her eyes went wide as she sensed... she wasn't sure what it was. There were energies rippling all around their little battlefield now that she couldn't identify. She'd felt a sort of explosion of power when he'd leaped, part of it ordinary magic, part... something else.
Whatever it was, it wasn't dark power; she'd fought too many rogue yōkai, black witches, and would-be sorcerers not to recognize that when she felt it. But nor was it white magic, like the flash she'd felt when he threw what looked for all the world like a Fusō military shield at his feet. It was neutral, not aligned at all. It felt like... she had no frame of reference. Springtime? Sunshine? That warm sense of satisfaction that came from a good stretch and a nap on the porch on a sunny afternoon.
It felt like being alive.
And while she was still thinking about that, being alive came down and swatted her out of the air like a giant flattened hand. She hit the ground hard, flat on her back, the wind driven out of her, gohei flying from her hand to clatter across the tarmac. A moment later, Gryphon dropped upon her like a stooping hawk, but he didn't hit her as hard as a man his size, falling from that height, ought to. The impact didn't break bones or tear flesh, hers or his own; rather, it was no harder than being pounced on in a pillow fight.
The sword at her throat, however, felt a little less playful.
"I believe that's my win," he observed.
Reimu coughed, then shook her head, met his eyes, and replied, "Look again."
He glanced down and saw her right hand, held open, with an unfired spell bolt fizzing and crackling in her palm... and gently searing the left flank of his shirt.
Unconcerned, he looked back at her face and said, "If you shoot, I lose my spleen... but you lose your head."
Looking into his eyes, Reimu realized two things almost simultaneously.
One was that he would absolutely do it. If she went through with her attack, he would use his last moment on Earth to strike off her head and end the line of the Hakurei forever, and there would be nothing she could do to prevent it.
The other was that he really, really didn't want to.
His face solemn, Gryphon went on, "My spleen will grow back. You make the call."
"Who are you?" Reimu wondered.
"Not your enemy, unless you make me one," he replied.
They stared at each other, unmoving, their final attacks ready but uncommitted, for long enough that Shizuka Hattori started feeling lightheaded and realized she was holding her breath.
Then Reimu closed her fist, dismissing the spellbolt, and let her hand fall at her side.
"Fine," she said. "You win."
Gryphon regarded her thoughtfully for a moment, then withdrew his blade, put it away, and pulled her to her feet.
"Thank you," he said, bowing Fusō-style, and she was momentarily taken aback to realize that he was completely serious.
Hesitantly returning the bow, she replied, "... You're welcome?" in the voice of someone who is uncertain about... well, virtually everything, just at the moment.
"Now what?" Gryphon wondered.
"I don't know about you," she said at length, "but I need a drink."
Yoshika Miyafuji was still preoccupied with what she'd witnessed in the wardroom as she and her new Striker Unit rose from the hangar to the Prinzessin Eugenie's miniature flight deck. When she arrived at deck level, Perrine, who was already saddled up and waiting for her, saw it at once.
"Best to put it out of your mind for the moment, Yoshika," she said with a slight smile. "Your first checkflight on a new Striker is no time to be thinking about other things."
"That's easy for you to say," Yoshika replied. "Aren't you even a little bit curious? Captain von Preußen can talk to Neuroi-chan! How is that even possible?"
Perrine gave her a knowing look. "That's not what you're really wondering. You're wondering why Neuroi-chan can talk to the captain and not to you. After all, you're her oldest friend."
Yoshika looked like she might be about to protest, then relented with a you-got-me smile.
"You see right through me, Perrine-chan," she said, sheepishly rubbing the back of her head.
"I ought to, by now," said Perrine. "There's no more perceptive friend than an old enemy."
"Were we ever really enemies, though? I mean, I never thought of you as one."
"Oh, make no mistake about it, Miyafuji, I detested you from the very first," Perrine replied lightly.
Yoshika gave her a hurt look. "I never knew that. Or maybe I just didn't want to believe it."
"Well, that was before you turned my world inside-out with the power of your love," the Gallian said with a wink, drawing a flaming blush to her Fusōnese colleague's face. "Frankly, I don't know how you put up with me long enough for it to take effect. Anyway, it was a long time ago, n'est-ce pas?
"Now," she went on, becoming brisk. "To business. We'll be back in theatre tomorrow, approaching the European coast. I've let you off flying CAP so you could look after Lucchini, but she doesn't need you any more, and I want everyone fit to fight in case we run into trouble—which means it's time for you to check out on your new aircraft. I promise we'll look into the captain's... interesting ability... in due course. Right now I need you focused on this. All right?"
Yoshika, her blush not quite faded, gave her old friend a wry smile, then nodded, her own face becoming businesslike.
"Roger that, Major," she said. "Let's go."
After a quick shower and a change of clothes for those who needed it, most of those present departed Crone Rock and headed into Folkestone, bound for The Compasses. Only Nishimura stayed behind, at his own insistence, to "secure the facility".
As they walked, a little behind the rest of the group, Shizuka and Mogami said nothing, but kept trading looks of mutual bemusement. Each knew what the other was thinking: What, exactly, the hell was going on here? Gryphon and the interloper from Fusō had just about killed each other, and now they were... all heading into town to have a drink together? Huh?
Reimu's companions didn't seem to think there was anything weird about it, though; they were up front with Gryphon, chatting cheerfully away about this and that, like it was just a normal social outing with a group of folks who were getting to know each other. Only Reimu herself, walking along in the middle with a pensive look on her face, didn't seem fully into the spirit of the thing.
Marisa, who was not walking but coasting along on her broom, like a person pacing a group of pedestrians on a bicycle, dropped back alongside the miko and said, with a grin and without preamble,
"What?" said Reimu distractedly.
"I said, 'You blockhead,'" Marisa repeated helpfully. Reaching out, she donked Reimu gently on the head with a knuckle. "'I've studied this document thoroughly,' my ass. If you had, you wouldn't have picked a pointless fight." She shook her head, still smiling fondly. "Sometimes I think you just enjoy pointless fights."
"You're the last person I want to hear that from," Reimu grumbled.
"All of my fights have a point," Marisa objected. "Even if it's only to pound something into your block of a head," she added, giving the head in question another friendly rap.
"Ahh, give me a break!" Reimu cried, stretching her arms above her head. "I get it, I get it. I messed up."
"Acknowleding that you have a problem is the first step toward recovery," said Marisa with sage approval.
Reimu rolled her eyes, but it was with her first real smile of the day.
"Thank you for your wisdom, Kirisame-sensei," she said with heavy sarcasm.
"You're very welcome, Hakurei-kun," said Marisa formally, and then, applying a little speed, she darted up alongside Alice, interrupting her conversation with Gryphon to inquire, "So does this place we're going to do food or only booze? I'm so hungry I could even eat English pub food."
"English pub food is some of the finest in the world," said Alice. "Philistine."
It was nearly midnight, ship's time, and despite a pleasant sense of fatigue from her checkflight, Yoshika couldn't sleep. Instead, she lay on her borrowed bunk in the surgeon's cabin, staring at the ceiling and thinking.
Although it had happened two very eventful years before, she still remembered her first encounter with Neuroi-chan as if it had happened yesterday. At first sight, the Neuroi had seemed like any other, albeit rather smaller than most she was used to seeing at that stage of the war: an angular, anonymous aircraft-shape, flying along nearby, but taking no obvious hostile action. Only when Yoshika had expressed curiosity about it had it suddenly assumed a shape similar to her own, the shape she still had now.
People assumed, since she had made the first contact, that Neuroi-chan's shape was an imitation of Yoshika's own, but Yoshika herself doubted that. To her, Neuroi-chan looked more like one of the Hartmann twins, apart from her pointed imitation familiar ears. Her "hair" was in the same style as theirs, not Yoshika's own, and even the shadowy, half-formed features of her face resembled them a bit. She didn't know why the creature had chosen one of her wingmates as a template when attempting to make contact with her, but there it was.
When she got right down to it, she knew frustratingly little about Neuroi-chan, even now that they were something approaching comrades, possibly even friends. Yoshika still didn't understand what the Neuroi had been trying to show her with those images of the war that had been projected for her at their last meeting, before the WARLOCK fiasco had cut the whole thing short. Nor had she been present for Operation Trajanus, when what everyone assumed was the same Neuroi had tried to make contact with a different Joint Fighter Wing, and was reported destroyed by other Neuroi for her efforts.
Was this the same one? Yoshika was certain she was the same as the original she'd encountered (which she'd also thought was destroyed, in that case by the WARLOCK), but she had no way of knowing whether, as the Kaiser and others believed, the Operation Trajanus Neuroi was also the same individual. They based the assumption mainly, if not solely, on the fact that no two Neuroi with identical shell configurations had ever been sighted before.
Sighing, she turned on her side, wishing she weren't sleeping alone. Another couple of days and she'd be back at home, in her own bed, with her own wife, but right now she'd have settled for a stuffed animal, or... or anything, really.
Almost as she had the thought, there was a knock at the door.
"Who is it?" she asked, but there was no answer. Puzzled, Yoshika rose, stepped into her slippers, padded to the door, and opened it.
"Neuroi-chan?" she blurted, baffled, for her visitor was indeed the Neuroi defector, hovering silently in the corridor. "Uh... come in?"
Neuroi-chan accepted the invitation, gliding into the cabin, and Yoshika, not knowing what else to do, closed the door behind her.
"Is there... something I can help you with?" Yoshika wondered, recognizing as she did so that it was kind of a lame question.
Neuroi-chan floated in silence for a moment longer, gazing(? she still had no visible eyes) down at her from the greater height imposed by her Striker-like legs. Then, to Yoshika's surprise, a glowing grid swept down the Neuroi's body, head to toe, and as it passed down her legs they reconfigured, assuming a more humanoid shape. She kept hovering at the same height for a few moments, then slowly settled until her feet (toeless, Yoshika noticed, like a person wearing socks) touched down.
Now at "eye" level with Yoshika, Neuroi-chan raised an arm, extruding her cylindrical fingers from the end of her long-sleeve-like forearm, and held it out. Still confused, Yoshika put up her own hand and took it, their fingers lacing together, like the time they had briefly joined forces to fly Lucchini home from Freiburg.
This time there was no further shape-shifting on the Neuroi's part, but as their palms met, a flurry of sensation flickered through Yoshika's mind. No words, nor even solid images, but impressions, concepts, ideas. Apology. Regret. Concern. Puzzlement. Reassurance. Even something that felt very like affection.
She's sorry she can't talk to me like she can to the captain, Yoshika realized, her eyes going wide. She doesn't know why it works either.
"It's OK, Neuroi-chan," she said softly. "I'm just glad there's someone you can really communicate with. Maybe we can figure out how she does it. For now..." She smiled, flicking a stray tear from her eye with her free hand. "This is enough."
Was that the faintest trace of a smile creasing the non-mouth of Neuroi-chan's semi-face? The impression bubbling through the link between them suggested that it was.
Toshiro Nishimura yawned and looked at the wall clock in the hangar: 0200 hours had just passed, and there was no sign of, well, anybody. For all he knew, the lot of them had gone off to rob a bank when they'd finished their business at The Compasses. He wondered what the procedure was for reporting an entire project team, plus three possibly unauthorized but evidently highly-placed visitors, missing, given that there was no shore patrol station or any such equivalent at this largely-abandoned outpost. Should he call Barbican? Presumably not the Folkestone police...
A moment later, his ears pricked up as a sound reached them from outside the hangar doors, which still stood partway open to the warm summer evening. At first it was too distant to make out, but as it drew nearer and louder, it resolved in his head into the familiar voice of the person some part of him still thought of as Able Seaman Mamoru Satō, raised in song.
We'll rant and we'll roar like true Fusō sailors
We'll rant and we'll roar across the salt seas;
Until we strike soundings in the channel of old England
From Ushant to Scilly 'tis thirty-five leagues
Despite his earlier concern, Nishimura couldn't help smiling. That old Britannian song had been a favorite among the Fusōnese sailors posted to these waters since the start of Fusō's involvement in the European war, and Satō was no exception, but she could only ever be induced to sing with the application of a large quantity of strong drink... and to judge from her voice, the same was true now.
She tried to start the next verse, joined by two other voices (one of which, Nishimura was fairly sure, belonged to Hattori), but before she got very far, another one joined in, this one with a cool Britannian accent, and sort of muscled Satō aside with the opening of a completely different song.
Through adversities we'll conquer
Blaze into the stars a trail of glory
We'll live on land and sea 'til victory is won—
"That's not how it goes!" cried another voice, this one with a Liberion accent, with a high, cackling laugh. "Alice, you goon!"
Presently they came into view, walking—or in most cases more like weaving—across the floodlit apron, past the tied-down transport the "visitors" had arrived in earlier, and into the hangar itself. Gryphon, in the lead, seemed more or less normal, apart from the fact that he was carrying the red-and-white-clad Fusōnese girl on his back. Alongside and a little behind came the blonde Britannian, who also appeared to be more or less sober, but who had to contend with holding up both Satō and Hattori—who, it was immediately obvious, were both outstandingly drunk. Trailing after was the Liberion blonde with the Fusōnese name (Kirisawa? Kurosawa? Something like that), who was walking in more or less the direction she wanted, but with the occasional wobble.
"Good evening, Lieutenant Nishimura," said Gryphon cordially, as if nothing at all ridiculous were going on around him. Smiling, he placed a paper sack printed with the pub's logo on the table before the young engineer. "Since we couldn't persuade you to come with us, Mogami insisted that we at least bring you dinner. You may want to warm it up a bit," he added apologetically, and then he turned and made for the curtained-off bunk area in the corner of the hangar.
Nishimura rose and followed him, thinking he might help, but before he had the chance, Gryphon had already poured his passenger into what was normally his own bunk. She slid more or less bonelessly into it, absolutely out cold, and with a much more serene expression than she'd had earlier.
"What happened?" Nishimura asked, although the answer was patently obvious.
Gryphon chuckled, fluffing out a blanket and tucking in the blotto miko. "We fought, we drank, she made her ancestors proud. Give me a hand, will you? I need to rustle some more bunks out of the storeroom for this crew, and I wouldn't trust any of these," (and here he gave a wry head-tilt toward the gaggle of still-conscious witches, who were now trying to restart their singalong but running aground on the rocks of each of them choosing a different song), "with anything more complicated than a hat right now."
Nishimura did as asked, and in just a few minutes, they had a bunk set up for everyone. There weren't really enough privacy curtains to go around, but the two men reckoned it would be good enough for emergency purposes.
"I never thought I'd have cause to regret not bothering to reopen the barracks wing," Gryphon said ruefully as they set up the last one. "Didn't figure it was worth the effort! I wasn't counting on the base population more than doubling in one day."
"Are they staying long?" Nishimura wondered.
"Search me," Gryphon replied, "but I think they might." Raising his voice slightly, he addressed the witches: "All right, you mugs, beds are ready. To your bunks and the devil take the hindmost."
"Aye aye, Captain," said Shizuka, nearly but not quite finishing the reply before bursting out giggling.
"Ain't gonna need mine," said Marisa cheerfully, and with that, she unhesitatingly stripped down to a set of surprisingly old-fashioned skivvies. (It didn't occur to Gryphon for a few moments that, to anyone who hadn't spent the last few months sleeping next to, bathing with, and occasionally laundering the clothes of Remilia Scarlet, the sight of a woman in a frilled camisole and knee-length bloomers was a little unusual in this day and age.)
"Dibs on the shrine maiden!" the blonde Liberion went on with a grin, and, dropping her clothes on the floor by the bunk and leaning her broom against the wall, she climbed in behind Reimu. "Woo hoo, I get to be the big spoon for once," she added with glee. Her cat, who had stood by with a look of infinite patience on his face the whole time, jumped up and curled into a ball at their feet, sublimely ignoring the whole business.
Alice Murgatroyd, calmly and with due gravity, palmed her face. "Absolutely shameless, as always," she remarked. Then, dropping her hand, she turned to Gryphon and inclined her head graciously. "Thank you for your hospitality, Captain," she said, her voice perfectly even, and then walked with unwavering tread to the bunk at the end of the row.
Her two dolls helped her off with her clothes with the well-practiced ease of experienced (if tiny) valets, folding them neatly and placing them on the table, then snuggled up with her as she got into bed in her slip, the picture of unruffled dignity... and then, almost immediately, began to snore like an idling diesel submarine.
Nishimura considered warming up the food they'd brought back for him, but he wasn't particularly hungry at two-thirty in the morning, so he opted instead to put it in the refrigerator and then rack out himself. The snoring didn't particularly bother him, accustomed as he was to sleeping in the engine spaces of warships, and he was asleep in moments.
"Welp," Mogami mused, sitting on the edge of her bunk and prying off her boots, "I'm gonna wish I was sunk in the morning, I bet, but this was fun."
"We might need to get a later start than is customary in the Emperor's Navy," Gryphon allowed with a slight smile.
Mogami heaved herself into the dining room as if dragging her anchor through a sandbar to find that she was the last to arrive. The rest of the station's company was all assembled around the table already, apart from Gryphon, who, by process of elimination, she assumed was the person rattling around in the kitchen.
"where coffee where?" she rasped to Nishimura, who was the only person sitting at the table who looked entirely awake, gesturing vaguely to the steaming mug in his hand.
"Take a seat, Captain Hutchins will bring you some," Nishimura replied. "You really tied one on last night, Satō. I haven't seen the like of it since we left Inchōn."
"Someone decided to turn it into a contest," Mogami groaned, lowering herself gingerly into the chair next to him, and shooting a baleful look at the miko, who was sitting at the end of the table with her head down on the polished oak.
"I assure you I am reflecting upon my actions," Reimu whispered into the tabletop.
"See that you do," grunted Mogami.
"At least the coffee's strong," Shizuka murmured.
"It is that," agreed Alice, whose dark-rimmed eyes and pallid face made her pretense of not being hungover somewhat less successful than her earlier pretense of not really having been all that drunk.
"At least you guys have the excuse that you didn't know what was comin'," Marisa lamented blearily. "I grew up with that unreconstructed lush, I oughta know better."
"Death before dishonor," Reimu mumbled, which wasn't really a response.
Gryphon came out from the kitchen with a platter of steaming foodstuffs, which he put down in the middle of the table. "Aha, good morning, Mogami. Hang on, I'll get you some coffee. In the meantime, waffles, hash browns, and bacon all around. Anybody wants eggs, tell me how many and how to do 'em and I'll get right on that."
A few put in egg orders; when there was no remark from the end of the table, he turned and said, "How about you, Reimu? Eggs?"
The shrine maiden slowly, almost mechanically lifted her head and fixed him with a slightly unfocused look that somehow commingled admiration and hostility.
"You're not hungover," she croaked in an accusatory sort of way. "How are you not hungover? You drank more than I did."
"And that's sayin' something," Marisa put in, making Shizuka snort with laughter and immediately regret it (along with various other life choices, including but not limited to joining the Navy in the first place).
"It's a kind of magic," Gryphon replied cryptically.
"I hate you," said Reimu. With that pronouncement delivered, she rested her head on the table and awaited breakfast, or death, whichever came first; she had no firm preference in the matter.
Apart from Gryphon, who had evidently recovered with unseemly haste from the previous gala evening, and Nishimura, who hadn't been drinking to begin with, no one at Crone Rock was really in any condition for heavy machine work that day. Instead, they spent a low-key afternoon opening up the residential section of the old castle, dusting out and making habitable several of the bedrooms once occupied by the 501st's witches for everyone.
Fortunately, when the wing closed up operations and moved out, not to be replaced, these rooms hadn't been stripped beyond the removal of their occupants' personal possessions, so there was still plenty of furniture in place. Rustling up clean bedding was a little more complicated (and involved doing a bunch of laundry), but by late afternoon they had the place more or less livable, after which they dismantled the impromptu bunkroom in the hangar.
Privately, Shizuka vaguely regretted the necessity. She had rather enjoyed the communal sleeping arrangement, which had reminded her pleasantly of the midshipman accommodations aboard IFN training ships, only roomier. Having one's own bedroom, as she did back at Saint-Ulrich, was nice, but sometimes she missed the camaraderie.
(On the other hand, she wouldn't miss Squadron Leader Murgatroyd's snoring. At some point in the wee hours, she had seemed to find the resonant frequency of her bunk's metal frame, creating an almost unimaginable racket until one of her magic dolls could prod her into moving a little.)
Once her hangover had faded, General Hakurei seemed a lot friendlier than she had when she first arrived. It was as if the narrow defeat she'd received at Gryphon's hands, when she'd clearly been expecting an easy victory, had converted her from an opponent of his works into a genuine supporter thereof.
Upon reflection, Shizuka recognized this as a sort of mindset that was antiquated, but still common in the oldest martial families in Fusō, including prior generations of her own. It was a throwback to the nation's not-so-long-ago feudal days, when members of the samurai class respected strength and prowess above all. The Hakurei miko had challenged him and he had proven stronger; therefore, her interpretation of the situation had been wrong and his right, and she had adjusted her attitude accordingly. It was the kind of thing Shizuka's own father would have done. A strange attitude in someone as young as Reimu, who couldn't have been much (if any) older than Shizuka herself, but she supposed some folks were just old-fashioned like that.
(It never occurred to her, in the course of these ruminations, that she had performed a similar reversal of opinion regarding Yoshika Miyafuji, going from stiff disapproval of her lackadaisical manner to profound respect for her power and integrity, during the Ardennes campaign.)
Regardless, following the duel and its alcohol-soaked aftermath, Reimu was very curious about both the Mogami project and the subject she'd initially been so exercised about. She and the two blondes, true to Gryphon's speculation, stuck around to observe the work, and to cadge what time they could discussing the Zauberschulmethod with its author. And so passed the rest of the week, busily, but pleasantly and productively.
Shizuka arrived in the dining room for breakfast on Friday morning to find Gryphon sitting at the table with a newspaper in hand, and cooking sounds coming from the kitchen. This struck her as slightly odd, since he'd been doing the cooking ever since they'd been exiled from Barbican.
"Alice said she'd take a turn at it today," he explained when she queried him about it. "Something about earning her keep, which I didn't think was a priority for operatives of His Majesty's Government, but whatever makes her happy," he added offhandedly.
Shizuka chuckled and took a seat. "What's in the news today?" she wondered, then took a closer look at the back of the paper and added with faint puzzlement, "... In Gallia?"
Gryphon turned the paper around and showed her the front page. It was the previous evening's edition of Le Monde, and below the masthead blared the full-width headline RAPPROCHEMENT AVEC LES DERNIÈRES VAMPIRES.
"I can guess what most of that means," Shizuka said, "but what's dernières?"
"The last," Gryphon told her. "'Reconciliation with the last vampires.' Maybe not the last in the world, but as far as anyone knows, Remilia and Flandre are the last in Gallia, at any rate." Turning the paper back around, he surveyed the front page with a smile and said, "Sakuya let me know yesterday, and here it is in black and white for all the world to see. A full apology and all rights reaffirmed. Most satisfactory."
"What's satisfactory?" asked Reimu as she entered the dining room.
Gryphon held up the paper with the headline toward her. "Mes fleurs de la nuit are officially persons again," he said with a grin, then added with mock sternness, "So there'll be no more loose talk of 'slaying', if you please."
Reimu rolled her eyes. "I've already apologized for that."
"Some points need reinforcing," said Gryphon mischievously.
The miko sighed. "I'm never going to live that remark down, am I?"
"Seems doubtful," Shizuka agreed. "Anyway, congratulations, Captain. I assume that means you can go ahead with the ceremony now."
"As soon as the Colmar mairie can get its ducks in a row," Gryphon confirmed. "We're looking at having the fancy part on August 12, if we can get the church Remi wants."
"A vampire getting married in a church?" Reimu inquired, arching an eyebrow.
"You have much to learn, General Hakurei," said Gryphon sagely.
"I'm just glad we don't have to overthrow the Gallian government now," said Shizuka blandly, drawing a startled glance from Reimu and a snicker from Gryphon.
"Yes indeed," he said, surveying the paper again. A moment later, he put it down on the table, patted the headline, and repeated, "Most satisfactory."
By Saturday morning, Mogami's test rig was ready, and as soon as they could decently be out there doing heavy gunnery without infuriating the good people of Folkestone, the lot of them were out at the end of the pier, watching through field glasses as she put the new gear through its paces.
The guns in her prototype rig's one working turret performed well, their fire directors not quite so much, but Gryphon, observing the number of misses on the floating targets, didn't seem concerned.
"Hattori, make a note," he said without lowering his binoculars. "The shell-drop compensation is too high, that's why she's overshooting so much."
"She's not doing too well, is she?" asked Marisa.
"It's to be expected," Gryphon said. "Those guns were never designed to be used in an indirect fire role, so we had to more or less guess at the initial settings for the directors. It'll take us a little messing around to get them dialed in. The turret hardware itself is working great, though, and she could definitely handle more than one if she had them." He nodded. "Most satisfactory."
Shirley Yeager was at the northeastern corner of the Prinzessin Eugenie's CAP area, just about to make her turn and head south. She was pleased to be back in familiar waters. From this altitude, in weather this clear, she could just make out the coasts of Britannia on one side of her and Gallia on the other. At present speed, they'd be clearing the Cotentin peninsula soon, in Le Havre by dinnertime, and on to Saint-Ulrich in the morning. It had been an interesting trip, but she was looking forward to getting home.
Not as much as she knew Lucchini was, of course. The sooner they were back in Alsace, the sooner she could get on with her urgent business. Shirley suspected she might be more anxious about that than Lucchini was herself, or at least more impatient. The little Romagnan had been positively serene about the whole thing for most of the voyage, evidently having taken the surprisingly mature position that the thing would work out at its own pace, and there was nothing to be gained by fretting.
Where'd she get that kind of insight all of a sudden? Shirley wondered to herself. It was the same kind of intense but calm deliberation she'd shown in her reasoning behind the fight she'd had with that Karlsländer kid at the Kaiser's wedding reception. She'd seemed years older than her usual self in the aftermath of that, and Shirley caught flashes of the same in the patience she was exercising about their return to Europe.
Our little hellcat is growing up, the Liberion witch remarked inwardly. The thought made her proud, but also a little wistful. She'd always been a sort of, if not surrogate mother figure, at least much-older-big-sister type to Lucchini, in spite of the fact that they were really only a few years apart in age, and it felt curiously piquant to think of that all changing.
She had no more time to consider it at present, though, as a staticky voice with a Karlslandic accent suddenly crackled in her earpiece:
"Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! This is the Karlsland-Liberion Line steamship Hyperion! We are under attack! I repeat, we are under attack! Our position is—"
Shirley's eyebrows went up beneath her flight goggles. Not far away, not far away at all—they must be in the Channel, bound for the Atlantic from Le Havre or Antwerp. A moment later, another Karlsland-accented voice, this one a woman's with a much clearer signal, responded:
"Hyperion, this is His Karlslandic Majesty's heavy cruiser Prinzessin Eugenie, we have received your mayday and are en route. What is attacking you?"
"Neuroi!" the Hyperion's radio operator replied. "Aerial and seaborne types—I've never seen seaborne Neuroi before! This area is supposed to be secure!"
"Roger, understand," the Prinzessin Eugenie's signaler replied, her voice cool and clipped as only a Karlsländer's could be. "We're on our way. Dispatching air assets to assist. Try to stay calm. Prinzessin Eugenie out." A click, and the signal changed from the guards freq to the one used for witch comms. Now that she wasn't speaking to a civilian, the signaler switched to the cruiser's tactical radio callsign rather than her name: "Schwarzkatze to CAP, did you monitor that exchange?"
"Affirmative, Schwarzkatze," Ursula Hartmann's voice replied in Shirley's ear. "Vectoring to intercept."
"Flash here, I'm on my way," Shirley put in, kicking her throttles open.
"Report visual contact," Schwarzkatze instructed.
With her greater turn of speed, and the fact that she was farther east than Ursula to start with, Shirley arrived on the scene ahead of her, and what she saw did not encourage her.
"Schwarzkatze, I have a visual," she called. "I make it three... make that four aerial Large Types and... well, Hyperion's radioman was right, there are surface units too. Some kinda hydrofoil-lookin' things. Hard to get the scale, I'd say on par with a bigger Medium Type. I can see four of them from my current position."
"What is Hyperion's condition?" Schwarzkatze inquired.
"She's on fire astern, but still making good speed. They... don't seem to be trying to sink her," said Shirley, sounding puzzled. "It almost looks like they want to cripple her. I've never seen Neuroi engage a ship like this before." A note of respect coming into her voice, she added, "I've also never seen a liner maneuver like this before. I gotta hand it to their helmsman, he's makin' that sonofabitch dance."
A click, and then Perrine Clostermann's voice came on the channel. "Flash, Duchess. Wait for Karaya-2 before engaging. The rest of us are preparing to launch now. Once Ursula reaches you, you're weapons free, but be careful. You can't take on an opfor that big head-on by yourselves."
"Yes ma'am, but don't keep us waiting too long," Shirley replied, unslinging her Browning Automatic Rifle. "They might decide to stop playing with their food any time."
"I hear you. We'll be there as fast as we can."
On the Prinzessin Eugenie's afterdeck, where the ship's limited aviation facilities were located, the rest of the Operation Hammer team were cranked up and ready by the time Perrine arrived at a run from the bridge. Against an enemy strength as significant as Shirley had described, she would have preferred to have the whole wing at her disposal, but until reinforcement could arrive from land bases in Gallia or Britannia, she would have to make do with what she had.
Still, what she had was a formidable little force, and it had more than one surprise in store for the invaders. If they kept their wits about them, they'd do all right.
"Are you sure you're ready for combat, Miyafuji?" she called to Yoshika over the roar and sputter of her own Striker and Heidemarie Schnaufer's.
"Not completely, but when has that ever stopped me?" Yoshika replied, then added with her trademark smile, "Remember my first sortie with the Shinden? Second verse, same as the first."
Perrine laughed. "Hah! All right, you and Heidemarie launch first. Rittmeister von Hammer and I will be right behind you as soon as you clear the cats. Good hunting!"
Yoshika nodded, the merriment vanishing from her face and replaced with her equally trademark determination. Watching her take her place on the starboard catapult, Perrine marveled inwardly, as she always did in moments like this, that there had ever been a time when she hadn't taken the Fusōnese witch seriously.
With twin blasts of steam, the first two witches were away, as was their Neuroi ally, who didn't require a catapult launch to keep up with them. She merely shifted her superstructure into the "pursuit" mode first reported by Sanya Juutilainen-Litvyak back in May and streaked off after them, as though gravity simply did not apply.
"I'll never get used to that," Perrine remarked to Hannelore von Hammer as the deck crewmen manhandled their Striker stages into position.
"Neither will I, and I was once a passenger!" von Hammer shouted back.
As she hurtled eastward to reinforce her wingmates, Yoshika Miyafuji took a moment to be amazed, as she had on the one prior occasion when she'd flown this new Striker Unit, by its amazing smoothness. The only thing that could compare to a jet Striker was the effortless way Neuroi-chan flew, which, in common with von Hammer, Yoshika had experienced once from the inside. Major Barkhorn's initial assessment of the Me 262 had been on the mark: It felt like angels were pushing.
On the outside, the Ki-201 Karyū she was flying looked a lot like the aforementioned Messerschmitt, although the Nakajima technician assigned to look after it on the trip to Europe had assured her that it was different mechanically in many important respects she didn't really understand. She was a flight surgeon, not a mechanic, after all. She gathered that it had an advanced Miyafuji engine aboard: another product of the Empire's finest engineers' work with the notes her late father had left behind, which were still yielding up advances years after their author's death.
In this instance, the new engine supposedly addressed the turboætherjets' energy draw problem in a more elegant way than the limiter the Karlsländers had come up with. In theory, this would allow witches of of Yoshika's power level—of whom there were, admittedly, not very many—to demand and receive the aircraft's full capabilities without risking their lives... well, any more than any fighting witch did in the course of just doing her job.
Thanks, Dad, thought Yoshika grimly, and she applied herself to the task of getting to Shirley and Ursula as fast as possible.
"Did you hear that, Cap'n?" Mogami called, pointing to her earpiece, as she pulled up to the pier.
"I heard it," Gryphon confirmed.
"That's not far from here," Mogami said. "We could be there faster than anything the Navy might send out of Barbican if we use that."
"We're not even sure that works."
"Besides, you've only got two guns," said Shizuka.
"Two more than that liner's got," Mogami pointed out.
"Point," Gryphon agreed. "All right. Hattori, Mogami, refuel and rearm. I'll go get that ready."
"What are they talking about?" Alice murmured, looking from Marisa to Reimu. "What's that?"
"No clue," Marisa replied, and then, grinning, "but I bet it'll be worth our while to stick close and find out..."
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
"Our Fighting Fleet, Part 2: Sea Trials"
written and directed by
Benjamin D. Hutchins
The EPU Usual Suspects
The EPU Discussion Forum
Based on characters from Strike Witches
created by Humikane Shimada
and Kantai Collection
designed by Kensuke Tanaka
and Tōhō Project
by Team Shanghai Alice
Bacon Comics chief
E P U (colour) 2020