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The first thing Yoshika Miyafuji learned when she entered the battle raging in the skies above the Karlsandic passenger liner Hyperion was that the man from Nakajima hadn't been exaggerating when he said her new jet Striker was the most powerful unit yet fielded by the Empire of Fusō. The Ki-201 Karyū outstripped the performance of every propeller-driven Striker she'd ever experienced, even the J7W Shinden—the mighty Magnificent Lightning, a Striker so capable only a bare handful of witches had the magical talent or the aerial skill to operate it.
The second was that she was going to need all that performance in this fight. It wasn't the absolute hairiest battle she'd ever been part of—that honor went to the Battle of Freiburg, fought just before she and the rest of the Operation Hammer team left for Neuksarlsland—but the force she was part of this time was markedly smaller, and the enemy, though less numerous, were individually bigger and more powerful than most of the Neuroi the First Joint Special Air Fleet had fought over Freiburg.
Flying the Karyū, Yoshika went some way toward making up that force deficit by herself, since she was now equipped with four cannons instead of her usual one. The Ki-201's amped-up Miyafuji engine could support the wielding of a pair of Ho-155/5 twin cannons, each an amalgamation of a Ho-155 30-magic-mass gun and its 20mm cousin, the Ho-5. Yoshika wasn't familiar with these weapons, since they had only recently come into the Navy's inventory by way of the Army, but she already had a healthy respect for their firepower. Their explosive shells could pulverize a Neuroi's armor.
What they didn't have, unfortunately, was the accuracy she was accustomed to from her old rifle-rigged Type 99. She could demolish the outer shells of Neuroi all day, but if she didn't get a hit on the core, all that sound and fury would signify nothing.
Fortunately, she had a wingman, and what Neuroi-chan lacked in raw firepower, she made up for in precision. Between them, they had already killed one of the flying Large Types besetting the liner, and if things kept going like they were were going, they were going to get a crack at another one very soon.
"Nice work, you two," Perrine Clostermann radioed, noting their kill as she surveyed the aerial battlefield. "Karaya-2, watch out! Fire below!"
Ursula Hartmann registered the call and directed her shield downward in the nick of time, intercepting a beam sent up by one of the anomalous surface units. Like the rest of the witches, she was trained and experienced in air-to-air combat. She had some experience fighting Neuroi ground units, but that was a long time ago, back in Suomus in the earliest days of the war. Neither her instincts nor her equipment had much of an answer for these new enemies.
"This sucks!" Shirley Yeager growled, overshooting one of the hydrofoil-like sea units. "These things are too slow to fight!"
"Shirley's right, we need witches set up for ground attack," Heidemarie Schnaufer put in.
"Reinforcements are on the way, but it'll take land-based units a while to reach us," Perrine replied, dodging a beam spread from one of the flying units. "We'll just have to improvise."
"I have a visual. We're five miles out and closing fast. Final check."
"Steam pressure nominal. Boiler temp OK. HE loaded on number one turret, fire control OK. Final drive standing by." Grinning broadly, the speaker leaned into the rushing slipstream, adjusted her goggles, and returned her fingers to her throat mic. "Heavy cruiser Mogami, ready to sortie."
Gryphon heard the grin in her voice and felt a similar expression pulling at his own face. Glancing to his right, he saw the trio of unusual witches (well, two witches and whatever you would call the Hakurei shrine maiden) flying in a neat echelon formation off his starboard wing. He caught Marisa Kirisame's eye and gave her a thumbs-up, which she returned.
To his left there was only one figure, that of Shizuka Hattori in her brand new A7M Reppū Striker, her white officer's jacket shining in the sunlight. He thumbed the push-to-talk on his control column and said,
"Hattori, make a note: I'm 99.8 percent sure we're about to be the first people ever to air drop a heavy cruiser, but we'll need to make sure before we apply for the world record."
Shizuka nodded, the gesture just visible at range. "Roger that," she replied.
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 3: "To Glory We Steer"
Still grinning, Gryphon nudged his aircraft out of formation and took her down, until the floats were nearly skimming the surface. The Channel was mildly choppy today, nothing serious, and he was glad of that; it made his job easier. It had been a long damn time since he'd carried out a torpedo attack from an aircraft, and this wasn't quite the same thing, but it was close enough for government work.
Fortunately, the aircraft he had to do it with this time handled like a dream, even with the unusual and awkwardly shaped payload she had slung from the handbuilt rack between her pontoons. Of all the things he had gotten to do since coming to this alternate 1946, actually having the chance to fly an Aichi A6M Seiran in combat was one he would never even have guessed at. Even marrying a French (well, Gallian) vampire was higher on the might-be list than this.
"Here we go," he said, glancing in the mirror that gave him a view of the rear seat. "Stand by."
Lieutenant Toshiro Nishimura nodded. "Ready, Captain."
Lining up on the nearest of the seaborne Neuroi, Gryphon leveled the Seiran's wings. "Here we go. Good hunting, Mogami. In three. Two. One. Drop!"
"Dropping!" Nishimura replied crisply, yanking the handle. The aircraft jerked, bobbing upward, as the ton and a bit of steel and shipgirl was released from the modified torpedo shackle and dropped to the sea.
From her position, flying chase on the Seiran's port wing, Shizuka saw Mogami fall free, her body curled in on itself to meet the impact. The Seiran peeled up and away to the right, its engine note rising as Gryphon put on full power to clear the area. An instant later Mogami hit the water at nearly 200 knots, throwing up a colossal roostertail of spray. She uncurled from her drop crouch at once, feet spread, and braced herself as she crashed through the chop, decelerating fast.
This was the trickiest part of the operation, and the one that had given them the toughest time in practice. Only on one test drop out of three had Mogami kept her feet and not wound up tumbling wildly out of control, even with the massive stability improvements they'd made to her rig since the first, overly top-heavy attempt. It didn't help that this whole capability wasn't part of the official project spec, but rather something they'd thrown together more for curiosity's sake than anything else, when Gryphon had discovered that the IFN fleet at HMS Barbican had a spare Seiran sitting around.
This time, with the stakes as high as they were, the young sailor's mind was wonderfully concentrated, and she mastered the controlled crash of the drop perfectly, bleeding off the last of the excess speed in a long, sweeping arc that brought her into position to attack the nearest of the sea Neuroi.
Remember to hold low, she told herself as the gunnery director on her number-one turret (currently the only one she had) resolved a firing solution on the alien craft. They had just been testing these guns and found that they worked well, but tended to shoot long when employed ballistically.
"Fire!" she cried, though the verbal command was not strictly necessary, and the skeletal turret strapped to her right forearm bucked and spat fire from both barrels.
Sure enough, the first salvo was long, although not by much; it skimmed close over the Neuroi's upper hull and seemed to get its attention. It was turning its sleek prow toward her as she corrected and fired again. Short this time, overcompensated, but just a little. She had the range now.
The third salvo struck the turning Neuroi's side about a third of the way back, twin high-explosive shells blasting out a great slab of its crystalline armor. Nothing underneath but that white latticework stuff their insides seemed to be made of, but the hit seemed to rattle the alien watercraft's cage, all the same. It swung the rest of the way onto an intercept course and increased speed, charging toward her and opening fire.
Mogami was far nimbler than the Neuroi, though, even as speedy as it was. In fact, with most of her rig incomplete—only one gun turret, no armor to speak of—she was down on combat power, but also far lighter than normal, and her 152,000 shaft horsepower equivalent could move her across the water with a speed she might never achieve again.
She evaded its fire easily and shaped her course to keep it at bay, blasting it again and again until, at last, one of her salvos revealed what she was really after: a glint of red within the white jumble of its interior. The core.
The armor was already closing over it, but she had its location fixed in her mind now, just forward of the middle of the three struts attaching the Neuroi's starboard hydrofoil to its main hull.
"Number one turret, load AP!" she declared, and the machinery whirred and clunked, switching the two Third Year Type guns' ammunition feeds and ramming white-tipped shells into their Welin breeches. Ready. Steady...
Instead of exploding on the surface, the Type 91 armor-piercing shells tore straight through, punching neat circular holes. One of them went clean through the whole Neuroi and out the other side, not doing much damage of note; but the other, fired from number-one gun, struck the core dead-on and detonated, shattering it. The Neuroi disintegrated with a musical bong, exploding into a cloud of silvery fragments that settled like confetti on the surface of the sea and then dissolved.
"Whoa!" Shirley called. "Did anyone else see that? Something just killed one of the surface Neuroi, and it sure as hell wasn't any of us. I..." Swooping down for a closer look, she squinted through her flying goggles at the small figure now arcing across the surface of the sea and making for another of the waterborne Neuroi. "... What the hell is that?"
"Shirley? What do you see? Talk to me," Perrine said.
"It's... I dunno," Shirley replied. "It's a girl, she's... she's like a tank witch, but she's on the water. It's like she's skating."
"Confirmed, I see her too," Hannelore von Hammer put in. "Not a Sea Witch, she's standing on the surface. I've never seen anything like her equipment, she looks like she's wearing a ship's superstructure on her back."
"What do you think?" a familiar but unexpected voice cut in on the frequency. "Can Hattori and I cook, or can't we?"
"Gryphon? Is that you?" said Ursula.
"None other," Gryphon replied. "And I brought some help! They're a little weird, but you'll get used to them..."
Although her physical injuries from the Battle of Freiburg had healed, Francesca Lucchini was still off flight status, owing to the mildly inconvenient fact that she'd lost her connection to her familiar. Without that connection, she could muster only the faintest spark of magic—far short of what she would need to make a Striker Unit work.
So it was that, as the Karlsland Reichsmarine's heavy cruiser Prinzessin Eugenie rushed to the Hyperion's rescue, she was sitting in a corner of the bridge, as out of the way as possible, and watching with fascination as Captain Eugenie von Preußen's crew readied the ship for action.
The cruiser was making flank speed and then some: the large mechanical repeater prominently mounted at the front of the bridge, above the windows, was reading 33.8 knots, nearly two into the red zone past the vessel's rated maximum speed of 32. Despite this, all on the bridge was quiet, calm, and orderly... although Lucchini didn't need to be psychic to sense the underlying air of tension. There was no mistaking it: they were heading into danger. But then, that was a warship's job, same as a witch's.
Captain Eugenie Prinzessin von Preußen was standing at the back of the bridge, on a little square dais surrounded by a painted railing, Lucchini supposed to help her keep her balance if things started shaking. She wondered why nobody here had a seat. Surely that would be a more secure way of doing things than standing at their stations.
Up at the front window, the ship's executive officer, an unusually youthful man whose name Lucchini had never caught, was looking intently through a large pair of binoculars. Presently, without turning around, he announced,
"I have them, Captain. The witches are fully engaged. I make the opposition two aerial Large Types and... at least six of the new surface units."
The captain frowned in thought for a moment, then nodded (apparently to herself, since no member of her bridge crew was looking at her).
"Very well. Prepare the ship for special action."
The command, given in a calm and collected tone of voice, got everyone in the bridge crew looking at her. To Lucchini's mild confusion, they all turned and gave her looks of surprise, if not outright shock, before collecting themselves and moving to comply. Alarms began hooting, a type Lucchini had never heard before, and the exec picked up what looked like a telephone handset at his station and spoke into it, his voice ringing out from Tannoy speakers around the ship:
"Hands to special action stations. Hands to special action stations. This is no drill."
On the brow of the bridge window, a row of green lights below the speed repeater started flicking on one by one. When they had all illuminated, which took less than a minute, the exec turned back to the captain and reported, "The ship is rigged for special action, Captain."
"Very good," said von Preußen. Removing her peaked officer's cap from her head, she went on, "Engage Phase 1."
The exec hesitated for the merest instant, then replied crisply, "Engage Phase 1, aye," and, taking hold of a large, throttle-like lever at his station, he moved it up from the bottom of its track one notch.
Instantly the bridge lighting went red, and the unfamiliar alarms hooted again, longer and more insistently this time. All over the bridge, crewmen and -women stepped back as their stations went dark, instruments going blank, controls moving as if by themselves.
Oskar, the ship's cat, jumped down from Lucchini's lap and darted across the compartment, up onto the captain's dais, then leapt onto her shoulder. Bowing her head, she closed her eyes and leaned forward slightly, her free hand gripping the railing at her side. Under the thrum of the ship's relentless drive forward and the buzz and clatter of the bridge reconfiguring itself, Lucchini's ears picked up the familiar sound of magic being released as both the captain and her cat began to glow—but the sound was lower-pitched than usual, and the glow was not the blue-white of normal magic...
... It was red. The deep, angry red of Neuroi plasma beams.
Lucchini felt a chill race up her spine as duplicates of Oskar's ears and tail materialized on the captain. They were not, as was typical of a witch's familiar's manifested features, direct copies. Rather than being organic and covered in short black fur to match the cat's, they were smooth, geometrically perfect black crystal.
Captain von Preußen raised her head, her eyes snapping open—and they, too, were black glass, their irises and pupils shining with blood-red light.
Outside the windows, a rush of light swept along the foredeck, there and past in an instant, briefly cloaking Prinzessin Eugenie's hull in a blanket of bright crimson hexagons before fading to very slightly shimmering near-invisibility.
"Phase 1 engaged," reported the engineering officer over on the left, the only member of the bridge crew who still had working instruments. "All readings are nominal, all systems online. Klein field energized, phase space neutralized." He looked up, his eyes seeking out not the captain, but the exec. "It's working."
"How does it feel, Captain?" the exec asked.
Eugenie smiled. "Just like in testing," she said, and along with a note of satisfaction, her voice had a slight metallic timbre. Looking to her right, she saw Lucchini staring at her with a mix of fascination, confusion, and faint horror on her face, caught her eye, and gave her a grinning wink.
Despite the unsettling transformation in her appearance, the gesture conveyed so much of the cheerful, wholesome air the captain had shown throughout the voyage that Lucchini found herself put at least partly back at ease. A moment later, the captain tossed Lucchini her hat, remarking,
"Keep hold of that for me, will you?"
"Uh... sure?" the Romagnan replied. Fascination was rapidly gaining the upper hand in her spectrum of reactions as the captain faced front again and said,
"Brace yourselves, meine Damen und Herren—we're going in."
After her initial success, Mogami was annoyed, but not overly surprised, to find the job getting tougher. Her configuration and capabilities had taken the Neuroi by surprise, since they had never seen anything like her before, but they adapted quickly. The surviving surface units seemed to understand that she had the firepower to deal with them, but not to do it in a quick or overwhelming fashion. They started taking pains to turn damaged areas away from her as soon as possible, not giving her many chances to spot and target their cores, even if she managed to expose them momentarily.
Worse, they appeared to be communicating with each other, and with the aerial units, which started taking an interest in her whenever one of them could take a moment away from the parallel battle that was going on in the air. Mogami's guns did have some anti-air capability, if firing HE with the right fusing, but the aerial radar set she would need to set those fuses correctly wasn't installed in the test rig, and she was never going to get anywhere guessing. All she could do was avoid their fire as best she could and concentrate on the things she could shoot at.
Maybe coming out here with only one turret and no armor wasn't the best plan, she remarked ruefully to herself as she dodged a flurry of fire from the nearest surface unit. On the other hand, what choice did she have?
"Mogami, watch yourself," Gryphon's voice crackled in her earpiece. "They're trying to flank you."
"Crap!" she said, not really in reply, as she caught movement out of the corner of her eye and realized that one of the other surface units had gotten around her faster than she was expecting.
It was bearing down on her now like it intended to ram. Instinctively, she dodged, changing course to cross the T of the Neuroi line, and firing another salvo of HE as she did to discourage the nearer one from pursuing—
Plasma beams lanced down from above, and Mogami realized just an instant too late that they'd set her up.
Yoshika saw the seaborne witch take the hit. Evidently she either didn't have an automatic shield, or it had crashed instantly, because she disappeared in a cloud of spray as the beam exploded something in that strange combat rig she was wearing.
Jaw clenched, Yoshika winged over and opened up with her quad cannons, raking the aerial unit from stem to stern. Unspeaking, unhesitating, Neuroi-chan followed her in, shielding her from another flier's attempted flanking fire.
A moment later, the first shells from Prinzessin Eugenie's guns arrived.
Yoshika had seen this type of shell in action before, in a fleet action the combined Romagnan and Venezian navies had attempted. They were cluster munitions, intended to shred Neuroi armor. The idea had been that they would give conventional surface vessels a fighting chance against the aliens, but they hadn't done the job—not because they were ineffective, but for the same reason that plagued so many heavy weapons in fighting the Neuroi, lack of a quick follow-up. Those shells could do a lot of damage, as they did now, but big naval rifles simply couldn't fire fast enough to finish the—
A second salvo came in hot on the heels of the first, AP shells plunging through the thin film of reconstituted armor which was all the Neuroi had managed to regenerate and detonating within. One of the blasts must have caught the core, for a moment later the whole thing disintegrated with the characteristic sound.
"What the—?" Yoshika wondered, turning to look.
The cruiser was moving fast, black smoke pouring from her single funnel, as she swept around in an arc to approach the battle zone at an oblique angle, and the wide-eyed witch realized what she must have done. Maneuvering far more swiftly than such a big ship should be able to, Prinzessin Eugenie had sheered off to port between the two salvos, launching the first from her forward turrets and the second from the pair abaft her superstructure.
"Did you see that?!" Shirley cried, pulling to a halt alongside her.
Alice Murgatroyd saw the cruiser's move as she landed on the Hyperion's forward well deck, but she had little time to ponder it, beyond marveling inwardly at the amazing coordination its crew must have had in order to pull off such a maneuver. She had other business to attend to at the moment.
This area was deserted, the crew who would normally be here having rushed aft to help deal with the fire. No one was around to see as Hōrai forced the lock on the companionway leading down to the forward cargo hold, or Alice and the two dolls slipping through and heading below.
The Hyperion was a liner, not a freighter, so the cargo was not the usual breakbulk, but mainly things being taken to Liberion by the passengers, or special items on consignment for well-heeled importers awaiting them in New York, that could not be entrusted to a mere cargo vessel. The first thing she came to, for instance, was a Mercedes-Benz automobile strapped down on a shipping pallet, no doubt the property of one of the first-class passengers. There were crates of various odd sizes and shapes, most of them probably containing art objects or other items of value.
Alice prowled among them, glancing at their painted markings and then moving on, until she'd reached the back of the compartment—as deep within the ship as it was possible to be in this hold. Here, at last, she found what she was looking for.
She also found Marisa Kirisame, who had somehow reached it before her and was now sitting on top of it, giving her an insouciant grin.
"Lookin' for this?" she inquired, knocking on the top of the crate.
"I shouldn't sit there too long if I were you," Alice said coolly. "It could be detrimental to your health."
"I got a protection spell up," Marisa replied, unconcerned. "This ain't my first rodeo with this stuff."
Alice arched an eyebrow. "Indeed? And here I thought you were just tagging along with your girlfriend on her holiday."
Marisa's grin widened. "Eh, you know what it's like. They give you a cover story, and it's your job to make up the difference if it ain't plausible." She jumped down from the top of the crate and leaned back against it, arms folded. Her face becoming serious, she went on, "You reckon it's what they're after?"
"I can't think of any other reason why the Neuroi would attack a passenger liner."
"How would they even know about it, though?" Marisa wondered. "That it's here, or even what it is? It ain't like they have an intelligence network." She tapped her forehead with a fingertip. "Or the smarts to use one."
Alice shook her head. "I don't know. This entire situation is strange. Add it to the reports we've seen of other anomalous Neuroi activity in recent weeks... something's changed. Something's changed, and it's my job to find out what."
Marisa nodded. "Mine too. What outfit they got you with these days? MI5? SIS?"
Alice looked her steadily in the eyes for a moment, then sighed. "MOE."
"Ah, of course," said Marisa. "Baker Street Irregulars. The Ministry of Unladylike Witchcraft. It'd have to be, wouldn't it?"
"And I suppose you're with Colonel Donovan's motley band."
Marisa winked, one fingertip touching the side of her nose, the other pointing at Alice. "Got it in one. You always were the smart one."
"What, between you and me? I should bloody well hope so," said Alice, a faint smile belying her huffy tone of voice.
"Awright, well, we've both confirmed the payload is secure," Marisa went on, thumping the crate again. "We better get topside and pitch in before they notice we're missing. It'd be tough to explain why we're both down here taking an interest in some random cargo."
"True, good idea." As the two witches made their way forward through the corridors of crates and boxes, Alice sighed again, with more annoyance this time. "I told them to send it by submarine, but no, someone had to get clever."
"Probably impatient, too," Marisa agreed. "'Why take ten days to get it across when Karlsland's fastest liner can have it in New York in four?' I can hear some yonk at the Admiralty sayin' it now. I do like the codename, though," she added, holding the companionway door for Alice and the dolls to precede her out. "Got kind of a ring to it. It'll look good in the history books."
Alice made no reply before the door slammed shut, leaving the cargo hold in silence again apart from the steel-muffled sounds of the combat outside.
At the very back, behind the crated art objects and the Mercedes-Benz car, the collection of crates labeled TUBE ALLOYS had no comment of their own to offer.
Mogami recovered her wits, ears still ringing, to find herself stopped, kneeling on the surface of the sea. Shaking her reverberating head groggily, she stumbled to her feet and took stock of her situation. The battle was still going on around her, the air witches and the Karlsland cruiser hard at work, but the Neuroi were far from defeated.
Teeth gritted, she pulled herself together and shaped a course for the nearest of the surface units, which was closing in on the Hyperion again... but nothing happened. Craning her neck, Mogami tried to assess the condition of her rig, but it was no good—she couldn't see it. The critical shortcoming of wearing it on her back. Now that she thought about it, though, she realized that she couldn't feel the vibration of the turbine. She couldn't move because her drive engine had stopped.
Alarmed, she glanced down at her feet and saw that the Miyafuji engine was evidently still working, because she didn't appear to be sinking... but she was dead in the water. Worse, when she raised her arm to assess the condition of her turret, she founded it smashed, the frame bent and the ammunition feeds for the guns wrecked. Only by some miracle had the plasma blast, which she must have instinctively blocked with her arm, not set off the ammunition magazine and blown her to bits.
At the realization that she could neither move nor shoot, Mogami fell back to her knees, overcome with a sense of uselessness. Even if still afloat, a warship that could do neither of those two things in the midst of a sea battle was no longer a warship; she was scrap metal in waiting.
As if to underscore the point, one of the sea Neuroi noticed her and broke off from its run on the Hyperion, instead making for Mogami with the clear intent of finishing the job its aerial fellow had started.
Without lowering his binoculars, Prinzessin Eugenie's exec reported, "Captain, that new-type sea witch, or whatever she is, is in trouble."
Captain von Preußen nodded. "I see her," she said, though there was no way she could from where she was standing—with the eyes in her head, anyway.
The ship executed a hard turn to to port, turrets tracking as the hull swung round, and opened up on the Neuroi, but the range was off and the first shells went long. With a thrill of horror, Eugenie knew that even her ship's rapid-firing guns couldn't get off another salvo before the Neuroi was upon their unusual ally.
Growling an imprecation in Karlslandic, her transformed eyes narrowing, she made ready to at least avenge the poor girl, if she couldn't save her.
Mogami saw it coming and struggled to her feet again. She still couldn't move, but at the very least, she was going to meet her second end upright and with her eyes open.
Sorry, Cap'n, she thought. I gave it my best.
With that thought, she hurled all her will against the uncooperative iron of her rig, trying to force it to move by sheer determination. That didn't work either—wrecked machinery, she supposed, was indifferent to that sort of thing—but as she faced her oncoming foe, a soft glow suffused her body. Her perception of time slowed; she could see the Neuroi's bow wave curl and hang in the air, motes of spray sparkling around it, and the scene seemed curiously drained of color, leaving only the red of the Neuroi's charging weapons.
And then the fairies came.
Well, she assumed they must be fairies. She'd never seen fairies before, nor had any real reason to believe they existed, but what else could these tiny people be? They looked almost like dolls—not lifelike, like Alice Murgatroyd's pair of helpers, but with proportions more like the cute miniatures they had back in Fusō, with exaggerated heads and tiny bodies. There were perhaps a dozen of them, all flitting around her on little dragonfly-like wings, dressed in minuscule crewmen's coveralls and hardhats.
The one in the white hardhat, evidently the leader, hovered before her face and saluted, grinning around the stub of a Lilliputian cigar.
"Sorry we're late," she said in a tiny, piping voice with a distinct Kansai accent, and then, with a wry smirk, "Took ya damn time about fully synchronizin', di'n'cha?"
Before the astonished ship witch could reply, the lead fairy turned and spun a hand in the air above her head, barking, "DAMCON team, get busy! I want that gods-damned engine runnin' yesterday! Gunnery crew, to your stations! Clear away that automatic bullshit and load HE! On the double! Move your tiny magic asses like they got a purpose!"
Mogami's astonishment melted away, replaced by an ineffable feeling of rightness, as the fairy sailors, or whatever they were, turned to and started putting things right. Operating the machinery by herself had worked, but this... this felt so much more like the way it was supposed to be.
A heavy cruiser couldn't do its job effectively with no crew, after all.
The white-hatted fairy—Mogami was already starting to think of her as the bosun—positioned herself on the ship witch's shoulder, feet planted wide, arms folded. Mogami felt her rig quiver against her back, then settle into its familiar vibration, and strength flowed back into her limbs.
"Problem solved, sir!" one of the other fairies reported to the bosun.
The bosun took a last satisfied drag at her cigar, then flicked the butt into the water. "Well done, gang. Stand by ta resume action!"
To Shizuka Hattori, diving on the scene with her Reppū's double-barreled Type 6 autocannon blazing, none of that visibly happened. From her perspective, Mogami dragged herself shakily to her feet, smoke pouring from a hole in the side of her rig, the ammo feed to her turret visibly wrecked—and then, with a wash of magic, the smoke started coming out of her funnel again instead, and the turret cast off the wreckage of the auto feed and opened fire anyway, blasting the oncoming Neuroi square in the face with a pair of high explosive shells.
She shook off her surprise long enough to complete her attack run, then keyed her comm as she executed the long turnaround for another pass. "Hattori to Gryphon, did you see that?"
"I sure did," Gryphon called back. "How extraordinary."
"Did you know her rig could do that?"
"It can't!" Gryphon replied, a note of glee in his voice. "She did that! Most satisfactory."
Hannelore von Hammer was not a naturally sanguine sort of person, not given to premature celebration, but she had reason to feel at least a mild, guarded satisfaction at how this engagement was proceeding. She and her aerial colleagues had put paid to three of the flying Large Types now, with the arrestingly distinctive aid of the three unfamiliar witches Gryphon and Hattori appeared to have brought with them from Folkestone.
She had never seen witches fight like these three, and they were all different from each other, to boot. The blonde in white and blue had a whole squadron of miniature helpers with her, evidently deployed from cards like old-fashioned spirit summonings. Two of them had magical capacities that rivaled their mistress's despite their tiny stature, while others seemed to be possessed of suicidal zeal and, apparently, high explosives.
The red-and-white Fusō shrine maiden's way of fighting, on the other hand, reminded von Hammer of a combination of Eila Juutilainen-Litvyak—that effortless-looking knack for evasion, never needing to shield herself because she just happened never to be where the enemy was shooting—and... well, she had no basis for comparison for the second part. She'd never seen such barrages of pure magic before, spiraling out in continuous waves and wrecking everything in their path, devastating and yet subtle and intricate at the same time.
By contrast, the black-and-white one on the broom completely lacked both subtlety and intricacy, sacrificing both in favor of sheer, raw firepower. She could throw streams of star-shaped spellbolts as if she had a firehose connected directly to a ley line in each hand, and if that weren't enough, she possessed a beam weapon akin to those wielded by the Neuroi themselves, save that its beam was a bright, sunny yellow instead of the aliens' angry red.
Between these three augmenting what had already been a formidable, if ad-hoc, witch force, the unusual new sea witch, and Prinzessin Eugenie having proven herself the first full-scale weapon system that ever managed to kill a Neuroi, they had the Hyperion's attackers on the ropes...
... right up to the moment when their reinforcements arrived.
Perrine saw them appear and mentally kicked herself. She had briefly considered the possibility that more Neuroi might arrive to join the fray, but only briefly, because to get here from the occupied territories, any such would have to cross the Rhine and make it all the way across Gallia, presently the most heavily defended country on Earth. The odds of any surviving long enough to reach the Pas de Calais and join this fight had seemed to her too small to be concerned about.
There had been the small, worrying thought that the original force had to get here without being detected on shore as well, but she'd been too busy to give that the thought it deserved... and now she had the answer to the question she hadn't consciously asked. They hadn't flown across Gallia. They hadn't flown anywhere.
They came the same way their reinforcements now appeared, rising out of the sea.
"Since when could they do that?!" Perrine heard Shirley demand in her earpiece, sounding as indignant as if she'd just caught someone cheating at cards.
"How should I know?" the Gallian snapped, then went on in a more professional tone, "All units, regroup and assess!"
"What the—Captain! Neuroi reinforcements have just arrived by sea!" barked Eugenie's exec. "I make it another five aerial Large Types and four... no, six additional surface contacts."
Eugenie nodded. "Understood. Prepare to go to Phase 2."
That finally got the exec to lower his binoculars and turn to face her. "Captain, we're not authorized for Phase 2."
"I know that," Eugenie replied, nodding, then went on calmly—perhaps, under the circumstances, a little too calmly:
"But I am the captain of this ship, and in my judgment, those capabilities are now necessary to bring this engagement to a successful conclusion."
Fixing him with her eerily transformed eyes, she said, "Therefore, we are going to Phase 2, Commander Bauer."
To his credit, Bauer didn't protest further. "Aye aye, Captain," he said, then picked up his Tannoy handset again. "All hands, all hands. The ship is engaging Phase 2. Hands to emergency stations."
With that, and a couple of blasts on that odd, wailing alarm, he moved the lever to its second notch, declaring as he did so, "Engaging Phase 2!"
The red-hexagons aura, which had flickered dimly this whole time, brightened again, sweeping the ship from stem to stern. Where it passed, the grey-painted steel of the outer hull and the teak of the decking were... covered? Replaced? Lucchini, standing with her face all but plastered to one of the bridge wing windows, wasn't sure... with gleaming black Neuroi crystal. Up forward, Nos. 1 and 2 turrets changed shape, their twin gun tubes partially retracting and then splitting apart into what looked like three-pronged antennae, while the sides of the turrets narrowed to sharp angles and sprouted rakishly angled rows of glowing red crystal. Their shape and position reminded Lucchini of the exhaust stacks of piston-engined Strikers.
She heard machinery behind her and turned to see the captain's platfom rising on a hydraulic lift, bearing its occupant up toward a square hatch that had opened in the bridge ceiling. Darting out a side door, Lucchini found a ladder and scrambled to the roof, to find Captain von Preußen standing with her back to the radar tower, her pigtails blowing in the ship's slipstream. She noticed Lucchini's arrival and turned a smile that was equal parts fellowship and anticipatory glee to her Romagnan colleague.
"Now we'll see what she can really do!" she declared, and Lucchini noticed that the metallic overtone in her voice had grown more pronounced. Angular fingers of Neuroi crystal started at her eye sockets and extended down her cheeks, like the tracks of tears as rendered by one of those Gallian artists who drew everything with straight lines and right angles.
Lucchini had already realized that, ever since they'd gone to Phase 1, Eugenie had been controlling the ship all by herself. The crew were still at work, making the machinery go, but all the direction and control, both of the ship's course and speed and all the gunnery, was coming from her and her alone, operating the entire 17,000-ton cruiser as if it were an extension of her body...
... or a Striker Unit.
"What is this?" Lucchini cried over the whipping wind.
"I'll tell you when our business is finished!" Eugenie replied. "Don't worry! I know what it looks like, but I assure you..."
She grinned a not entirely nice grin; Lucchini turned to follow her eyeline and saw that they were bearing down on one of the sea Neuroi at a speed entirely unfeasibly for a ship of their size. The transformed forward turrets tracked, locked on, and opened fire, their ballistic shells replaced by plasma beams, which tore the Neuroi nearly in half.
The secondaries and antiaircraft guns had changed too, and now they laced the air above and forward with a barrage of scarlet rays that discouraged one of the aerial units—discouraged it straight into the teeth of the Fusō shrine maiden's geometric barrage of spellbolts, which shredded its hull and left it wide open for the broom-riding witch's own beam weapon to blow away its core.
"... I am in complete control," Captain von Preußen concluded, her grin widening further as the forward battery opened up again and finished off the sea unit.
"Ho, lee, shit," Shirley remarked. "We've been riding that this whole time?"
"Oh, for—aren't they ever going to learn?!" Ursula Hartmann burst out, sounding so unlike her usually reserved self that Shirley had the momentary impression that she'd somehow been replaced by her extroverted twin sister Erica.
"All units, watch yourselves," Perrine's voice crackled in their earpieces. "We all know how this kind of thing tends to unfold."
"Roger that," Shirley replied. "Should we add it to the target list? I don't really wanna walk home, but maybe the Hyperion will give us a lift..."
"Negative," Perrine replied. "It's still fighting the Neuroi for the moment. One problem at a time. Just keep an eye on it."
"Betcher ass I'll keep an eye on it," Shirley muttered.
By the time witch reinforcements arrived from the coastal stations in Normandy and southwestern England, the combination of Prinzessin Eugenie's altered firepower, Mogami's renewed combat effectiveness, and the augmented witch forces had already broken the back of the Neuroi counterattack, destroyed most of the enemy reinforcements, and driven the remainder away. All the land-based witches had to do was relieve their battle-weary colleagues and maintain a perimeter, keeping a sharp lookout in case another wave was incoming.
While the hovering witches looked on in surprise, the altered cruiser slowed, then reverted to her original configuration. In a few moments, no one coming upon the scene afresh would ever have known that she had been anything other than an ordinary warship.
"Hyperion, this is Prinzessin Eugenie, what is your condition?" the witches heard the cruiser's comms operator inquire.
"Ah... the fire and flooding are under control, Prinzessin Eugenie," the Hyperion's radioman replied, sounding somewhat less rattled but still nervous. "No serious injuries aboard. We intend to put back to Le Havre for repairs."
"Very well, we'll escort you in. Make the best speed you can and we'll keep up. Prinzessin Eugenie out."
Perrine sighed. "Well, this has been one for the books," she remarked, and then, in a more businesslike tone, "All witches, return to base."
"And let's find out what the hell is going on," Shirley added.
"The ship is secured from special action, Captain," reported Commander Bauer, and Lucchini, returning to the bridge by the side door she'd used to leave, finally learned his first name as Eugenie, still descending on her lift platform, replied,
"Thank you, Erich. Let's keep the hands at action stations until we're safely in Le Havre. They sneaked up on us twice, they might do it again."
"If they do, we'll have to manage with the conventional equipment," the engineering officer put in. "That unscheduled test of Phase 2 has almost completely exhausted what little Sonderkraftstoff we had on board."
"Understood," the captain replied. "Erich, please transmit a preliminary report to the Fleet and request resupply in Le Havre."
Bauer nodded. "Aye aye, Captain."
"I'll be in the standby room if anything develops," Eugenie went on, and then, with a winking glance at Lucchini, she stepped down from the platform and led the way aft.
As she followed the captain a short way down the corridor and into a side room she'd never noticed before, she noticed that Eugenie, like her ship, had returned to normal. All trace of the Neuroi-like features she'd manifested along with her familiar's were gone; she looked like an ordinary girl again, carrying an ordinary cat.
The "standby room" turned out to be a small bedroom, Spartan even by Karlslandic standards, where the captain could rest while not on watch, but be closer to the bridge than if she retired below to her regular quarters. Once they were inside with the door closed behind them, Eugenie sat down on the narrow bunk, gestured Lucchini into a single straight-backed chair, and said without any buildup,
"There's a fragment of a Neuroi core in my head."
Blinking, Lucchini said nothing. The captain tapped her forehead, a bit to the right of center, just below the hairline, and went on, "Right about here, lodged in my frontal lobe. I was observing a test, two years ago, before Operation Mars, and there was an explosion. Now, when I access my magic... well, you saw what happens."
She swung her feet up onto the bunk and lay down, hands folded on her middle. "It can't be removed, so we've spent the last two years trying to figure out how to put it to good use." Turning her head, she smiled at Lucchini and said, "I think we did pretty well, don't you?"
"It makes me uncomfortable," Lucchini said honestly. "I was there at the end of the Battle of Britannia, and I was part of Operation Mars. Every time they try to build something to turn the Neuroi's weapons against them, it backfires. Big time."
"That's fair," said Eugenie, "but there's one critical difference. WARLOCK and the Yamato refit both tried to use human technology to control the Neuroi." Tipping her head back, she smiled at the ceiling and went on, "In this instance, I am the control system... and I think I've just proven that I am very much in command of myself."
Lucchini pondered that, then nodded. "I guess you did. So that's why you can understand Neuroi-chan?"
"I suppose it must be," Eugenie replied. "I was just as surprised as you were the first time she 'spoke' to me. It took me a few minutes to realize that no one else could hear her." She chuckled. "She sounds a lot like Dr. Miyafuji."
Lucchini laughed. "That figures."
"She wants to be humanity's friend," the captain went on. "And she's concerned about the way her own... I'm not sure 'people' is the right word, but it'll have to do... her own people are changing." Raising herself on an elbow, she turned to look Lucchini in the eye and went on, "She thinks something is influencing them, but she's no idea why or how. She doesn't really understand why she changed, either, but what's happening to the other Neuroi is different. She once thought she might have a chance of getting through to them, but... no longer. It worries her."
"It worries me, too," Lucchini agreed, then shrugged and said, "But that's way above my pay grade. Are you hungry?"
"Ravenous," the captain admitted. "Why?"
Back aboard ship, the witches finished squaring away their equipment, then gathered on the afterdeck to watch as a gang of sailors manned the crane and hoisted aboard first the unusual sea witch, then the Fusōnese seaplane that had launched her into battle.
As soon as the Seiran was secure, Gryphon and Nishimura rolled back their canopies, then climbed down to congratulate and inspect Mogami. She was looking pretty bedraggled—soaking wet, her uniform tattered and scorched, her rigging bent and holed, with visibly ad-hoc patches on boiler and turret—but also bright-eyed and exultant.
"Heavy cruiser Mogami, back from sortie, Captain," she reported, giving a left-handed salute so as not to clock herself in the head with the turret. "All personnel present and correct."
Gryphon returned the salute with a grin. "Damn fine work, Mogami," he said, and then, "All stop, stand down. Finished with engines."
"Finished with engines, aye," Mogami replied. The Miyafuji engine in her rig audibly spun down while the boiler vented its remaining steam through the funnel in a great cloud... and a moment later the equipment peeled away and fell with a crash to the deck, reduced to so much inert iron by the withdrawal of magic.
"Oops," said Mogami, crouching to examine a sheared-off strap. "Sorry," she added with an apologetic smile to one of the onlooking Prinzessin Eugenie deckhands.
"You're awfully rough on your equipment, Satō," Nishimura quipped, bending to take a closer look at the patched boiler. "Who did this repair work?"
"I'm... not sure I can even explain it," Mogami admitted, hand sheepishly behind head, and then the crowd arrived and there was no further time to talk shop.
Introductions, renewals of acquaintance, and mutual amazement were the order of the day, between the unfamiliar witches, the Project Mogami crew, and the team from Operation Hammer. That had all been more or less sorted out when the Tannoy crackled and the captain's voice addressed them all:
"Witches and company, please report to the wardroom."
The wardroom was a little crowded with all the witches, Gryphon, and Nishimura packed into it, and they were all starting to wonder what was up when the door leading in from the galley opened and Lucchini entered, carrying a large, steaming pot before her, and trailed by a weary-looking but cheerful Captain von Preußen bearing a basket of fresh bread.
"Good work, everybody!" Lucchini declared, placing the pot in the middle of the larger table. "Chicken carbonara for everyone."
"All this time, I never knew you could cook, Lucchini-chan," Yoshika observed midway through her first helping. "This is really good."
"It's my mama's own recipe," Lucchini replied proudly.
"Sure she can cook, she's from Rome," Shirley remarked, scruffling the young Romagnan's hair with her the hand not holding a fork. "She's just usually too lazy."
"I'm usually too tired," Lucchini corrected her haughtily, drawing a laugh from around the table, "but since all I did this time was sit on my butt and watch it happen, I figured I ought to do something for everybody who really took part..."
When the gangway came down, despite the lateness of the hour, a Reichsmarine band was on hand to welcome Prinzessin Eugenie ashore. As the witches descended to the quayside, they struck up not the Karlsreich's national anthem, but instead the traditional march of the royal family, with its jaunty flute introduction.
At first, Shirley assumed this was for Hannelore, who was, after all, the Kaiser's wife. Only after a moment's consideration did it occur to her that Captain von Preußen herself was the Kaiser's blood relative, his brother's daughter, and that she'd just been named his heir into the bargain.
Of course, if the fanfare truly were in her honor, she was missing it. She'd crashed out so spectacularly after dinner that she was still asleep. The witches and her own officers had decided between them not to wake her for the routine formalities of making port. After all, she'd burned a lot of magic that afternoon.
A short distance down the quay, the great black-and-white bulk of the Hyperion had also been made fast, her wounds from the fight with the Neuroi evident in the glare of the dockside floodlights. Passengers were now streaming off the ship, milling about on the quay and looking around in confusion as harried employees of the Karlsland-Liberion Line, hastily bused down from Antwerp, tried to direct them to shoreside accommodations.
"Well, that's gonna be a mess," Shirley remarked to her nearest wingmates, nodding toward the liner. "I wouldn't want to have to be the one who finds all those folks other rides to New York while they're patching up the big ship."
"Mm," Perrine agreed. "I wonder if they'll even be allowed. After what happened today, the Allied War Council is going to have to reassess whether the Channel can truly be considered secure."
"At the very least, passenger vessels traveling these waters will need escorts," Hans von Ohain agreed. "We may have to reinstate the Atlantic convoy system."
"How did you fare during the battle, Professor?" Perrine inquired. "I trust the experience was not too traumatic."
"It made the passage slightly more exciting than I bargained for," von Ohain admitted, "but I knew Captain Hartmann and her colleagues would have everything well in hand." Glancing at the crowd of displaced Hyperion passengers, he added ruefully, "To be honest, I'm more concerned about where we're all to spend the night with that lot about."
"Not to worry, Herr Professor," said Hannelore. "The Reichsmarine has extensive facilities here that are not open to civilians..." She smiled slightly. "... And I know a few people. We'll get some rest tonight. In the morning I'll procure some trucks, Eugenie's people will unload our things, and we'll proceed to Ribeauvillé."
"So that's what you've been up to while we've been away," Ursula remarked to Gryphon, observing from a discreet distance as Mogami, Nishimura, and Shizuka crated up the battered remains of the cruiser's test rig. "How very fascinating. I do hope some of the details are classified at a level where you can tell me about them."
"That's up to the Fusō admiralty, I'm afraid, but I'll tell you whatever I can," Gryphon said. Then, smiling, he went on, "Meanwhile, I understand your mission was successful."
"One of them completely, another provisionally," said Ursula, and she explained the situation with Lucchini and her need to seek out her lost familiar.
"Tracking, huh?" said Gryphon. "I know someone who's pretty good at that."
"When will you be returning to Saint-Ulrich?" she wondered.
"Not sure! It depends on how soon we can get Mogami's rig properly operational. Although now that we have the basic tech established and Nishimura on the team, I think I can start splitting my time between Folkestone and home. Just have to play it by ear, I guess."
"That's good to hear. I need to introduce you to Professor von Ohain when we have a moment. I think you'll find him most interesting—although possibly not quite as interesting as Group Captain Whittle will," she added with a mischievous smile.
Within a half-hour or so, most of the hubbub at the quayside had died down, as the Hyperion's indignant passengers were shuttled off to hotels and inns in town and the dignitaries from Prinzessin Eugenie were installed as guests of the Reichsmarine's base adjoining the seaport. Only a few guards remained, posted at the gangways of both ships, to see through the night shift.
Marisa Kirisame emerged from the Reichsmarine officers' club, whose proprietors had graciously opened their premises to the visiting witches, to find Gryphon standing by the fence. He appeared, somewhat to her puzzlement, to be gazing thoughtfully at the nearby motor pool parking lot.
"Hey!" she called, trotting toward him. "You're missing a good time. Reimu's about to tell Alice the story about the time me and her had to clean out a jiangshi nest while we were still hammered from New Year's..." Drawing nearer, she noticed the pensive expression on his face and trailed off. "What's that look for?"
"I'm trying to decide," he replied conversationally, "whether anyone will notice if I steal one of these Kübelwagens."
"Uh, I expect the MPs would pick up on it eventually, yeah," Marisa said. "Why, what's up?"
"I want to get over to Paris," said Gryphon, "but all I've got is a seaplane, and there are too dang many bridges on the Seine."
Marisa considered pointing out that the Seiran was also still stashed in the cruiser's hangar and everybody who could've helped him launch it was in bed, but after all she'd seen him do the last few days, she would't have put it past him to go push it onto the catapult and launch it himself.
Instead, she shrugged and said, "Oh, is that all? Wait here a minute."
So saying, she turned and headed back into the O-club. When she emerged a short while later, she had her hat on, and was carrying her broom over one shoulder and Mr. Murgatroyd on the other. With a flourish, she hopped onto the broom, hovered beside him, and then reached back and patted the shaft between her skirts and the bristly end.
"Hop on," she said. "I can getcha there in an hour."
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 3: "To Glory We Steer"
written and directed by
Benjamin D. Hutchins
The EPU Usual Suspects
Based on characters from Strike Witches
created by Humikane Shimada
designed by Kensuke Tanaka
and Tōhō Project
by Team Shanghai Alice
Bacon Comics chief
E P U (colour) 2020