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Eila Juutilainen woke from a dream of her not-that-long-ago childhood to the unfamiliar sound of Liberion pop music. Her first impulse was to burrow deeper into the heap of scratchy-but-warm army blankets she lay under, keep her eyes closed, and shut out the world; but she could smell something cooking, and though she couldn't tell what it was, she suddenly realized that she was so hungry it didn't really matter. Reluctantly, she pushed the blankets aside, sat up, and looked around her.
The barracks room of the Orussian 586th Air Regiment's headquarters looked marginally better lit only by oil lamps and candles than it had by the fading last light of afternoon, if only because the shadows hid the worst of the dilapidation. In this light, she could almost convince herself that it was a normal military barracks somewhere in a part of the world that made some semblance of sense, and not the library of an abandoned primary school in the ruins of the Orussian capital.
Sighing, she pushed the blankets the rest of the way off and swung her legs over the edge of the bunk. At the creak of the bedsprings, the grey-haired witch in the long white coat—the only other person in the room—looked up from where she sat in a chair by the stove.
"Ah, good," she said. Taking a large pocket watch from somewhere within her coat, she checked the time, adjusted a small knob on its side, then put it away and got to her feet. "I was going to wake you soon." She went to the gramophone standing on what had been the library's circulation desk, took the needle off the record, and shut off the machine, then beckoned to Eila and said, "Dinner should be ready. Come."
Eila got up, wincing at the cold of the room after the warmth of her pile of blankets, and briefly considered making a dive for their shelter again before following the elder witch out of the room.
"Did you sleep well?" the white-coated witch asked.
"... Yes," Eila replied after a moment's consideration. She was faintly surprised at how well, in fact, given that it had evidently been only a handful of hours.
"Good," said the elder. "The resilience of youth, how I envy you," she added, though she didn't sound entirely serious. Halting outside one of the former classrooms, she gestured for Eila to precede her.
Like the barracks, this room had the hardest edges of its dilapidation muted by the soft lighting. Instead of rows of desks, it was dominated by a large rectangular table, one that looked like it had been made from scrap lumber by someone with only a vague knowledge of carpentry. Candlesticks scattered around the top of the table provided the only illumination, and around it were gathered a dozen mismatched straight-back chairs, only about half of which (all around the nearer end of the table) were occupied.
At the head of the table, Yegorova (it suddenly occurred to Eila that she knew neither the witch's first name nor her rank) rose at the guest's entrance. "Ah, our Suomi visitor," she said. "Just in time." With a very slight, mildly ironic smile, she added, "I gather that is something of a talent of yours."
Eila felt a faint blush building on her cheeks at that—which deepened as the regiment's commander gestured to the nearest of the empty chairs and said, "Have a seat," and Eila saw that she was being seated next to the tiny green-eyed witch she'd had the closest encounter with during the afternoon's battle.
Flying Yak Studios
Bacon Comics Group
in association with
The International Police Organization
Avalon Broadcasting System
Lensmen: The Brave and the Bold
Our Witches at War
holiday special mini-series:
The Fall of Petrograd
© 2017 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Long before Eila could have thought of anything to say, a door off to one side opened and another witch entered: the white-haired one in the navy jacket. Up close, Eila could see that she wore a flat Orussian Navy cap as well. She was carrying a large cookpot, its sides glinting golden in the candlelight. Seeing Eila sitting with her wingmates, she smiled, but said nothing until she had set the pot down on the table and dished up a plate of some lumpy concoction from it.
Adding a wedge of black bread from a mailbag-like sack she wore slung at her side, she put the plate down in front of Eila, then explained, "Navy stew. It's not very good, but it will fill you up. I learned to make it in Port Arthur."
Then, placing a large glass bottle of some clear liquid on the table next to the pot, she added with a faint smile and a wink, "And everything goes with vodka."
Eila had no reply to make to that—she could neither agree with nor dispute the assertion from her own experience—but the navy witch didn't seem to be expecting an answer. Still smiling, she went around the table serving up identical plates for all her colleagues, including Yegorova.
The apparent cook's self-deprecating remark notwithstanding, Eila didn't think the stew was particularly bad. Possibly she was just too hungry to care; the last time she'd had anything to eat was her hurried plowman's lunch before leaving Helsinki, late that morning. She had put away about half of her portion before her hunger abated enough that she had any attention to spare for the outside world.
At that point, she suddenly realized that, while the other witches at the table were carrying on their own little conversations around her, the one sitting right next to her was regarding her with a kind of silent fascination, as one might consider an unfamiliar but not threatening animal.
Feeling the blush climb back onto her face again, Eila turned to her and said awkwardly, "Uh... I didn't really have a chance to introduce myself before. I'm Eila."
The little Orussian hesitated, then glanced shyly away, blushing in turn. "... Sanya," she said, her voice musical but barely audible.
Either not noticing this byplay or choosing not to remark on it, Yegorova raised her voice slightly to address Eila: "Warrant Officer Juutilainen. Let me introduce you to the finest survivors Orussia has to offer." Indicating the woman seated at her right hand, she went on, "Our operations officer, Captain Evgeniya Bjelik."
Eila hadn't seen her before; she hadn't been involved in the battle, as far as Eila could remember. Thin—almost gaunt—and severe, she had dark hair pulled tightly back from a thin-lipped face dominated by a single dark, intense eye. The eye's mate was hidden behind a black cloth patch, if it still existed; to judge from the angle of the livid scar whose ends could be seen above and below that patch, Eila found herself rather queasily doubting that it did.
Bjelik inclined her head slightly, her expression even harder to read than Yegorova's. Where the commander's customary look was a sort of bland, fatalistic poker face, Bjelik's face seemed to be set in a permanent frown, whether of disapproval or simply concentration Eila couldn't tell. She was cordial enough, though, as she said,
"Your assistance this afternoon was quite timely. Thank you."
"Uh... you're welcome?" Eila replied.
"One of our two comrades from the remains of the Tsaritsa's navy, Lieutenant Reva Oktyabrskaya," Yegorova went on, nodding to the witch in the long white coat.
"Welcome," said Oktyabrskaya, smiling. "Call me Gangut, if you like. Most of my comrades do."
Eila tilted her head in puzzlement. "'Gangut'?"
"The name of the ship I served in," the elder witch replied, "before the Neuroi sent her to the bottom of the Neva." She shrugged. "The other survivors scattered to other ships, other ports. Of the battleship Gangut, I am all that remains." With a sad, sentimental smile, she leaned and put a hand on the white-haired witch's navy cap, mussing it about slightly, and went on, "Comrade Tiny One and I between us embody the whole of the Imperial Naval Air Service."
Straightening her cap with a fondly exasperated glance at her senior, the younger navy witch smiled across at Eila and said, "Aviation Petty Officer Hibiki Verniskaya. I was posted to the cruiser Aurora when the siege began."
"And of course you have already met Sergeant Litvyak," said Yegorova.
"I'm told you had a unique way of introducing yourself," Bjelik added dryly.
"Eheh... sorry about that," Eila said awkwardly to Sanya, a hand behind her head. "I didn't know if my radio could talk to yours, and you weren't looking the right way, so..."
What the hell am I doing? she wondered to herself. Apologizing to an Orussian? For saving her life, no less!
Sanya shook her head. "No... it's all right," she said. "I was surprised at first, but then I saw why you did it." She reddened slightly once more and said softly, "Thank you."
"Uh... you're... welcome."
Gangut put down her fork on her empty plate, got to her feet, and went to look out the window. "This snow looks like it means business," she observed, watching the wind-whipped flakes blow by outside the glass. Glancing back over her shoulder, she continued with a little grin, "You may be with us for a day or two, Juutilainen."
"My unit will be wondering where I am," Eila realized aloud.
"The 24th out of Immola, yes?" Bjelik asked. At Eila's answering nod, she said, "Communications are spotty these days, but I will try to get a message to them in the morning if we can get some decent reception across the Gulf."
"Thank you," said Eila. "And for the food and everything, too. I wouldn't have expected—" She stopped herself there, eyes wide, horrified that she'd started to say that last part out loud.
"Hospitality from Orussians?" Yegorova finished for her, the commander's own poker face unchanged. The awkward silence stretched just to the point of unbearability, and then, to Eila's horror, Yegorova cracked a tiny wry smile—an expression, coming from her, more savage than any scowl or glare.
But all she said was, "Well, comrades, I'd say we've all earned our beds tonight. Fall out, we'll deal with the dishes in the morning."
Eila tried to stammer out an apology as she followed the Orussians back down the hall to the barracks, but Gangut waved it aside with a casual air. "Forget it," she said, and then added in a friendly but cryptic kind of way, "We've all had to reconsider some things."
She supposed that was supposed to be reassuring, but as she crawled back into her borrowed bunk and welcomed the concealing dark of the lamps being put out, Eila still felt about six inches tall.
Gangut was right: the weather descended on Petrograd like an iron cage over the night of December 18-19. Heavy snow, high winds, and bitter cold hammered the Orussian capital for 48 straight hours, forcing all operations to a halt. Not even the Neuroi, with their supposed mechanical indifference to the elements, could operate in such conditions, and an enforced peace settled over the embattled region with the snow.
With the central heating long since inoperative and fuel for the few working stoves at a premium, the witches of the 586th were hardly living in the lap of luxury; but cold though they were, they welcomed the respite from battle the vicious weather brought. The nineteenth, Yegorova blandly informed Eila at lunch that day, was the first day the battered regiment had gone without at least one sortie since early November.
Bundled in a borrowed greatcoat and trying to get the hang of eating with knitted wool gloves on, Eila listened to this casually offered intelligence with amazement. In her unit, they considered six operational days a week to be a fairly grueling pace for any given witch and her equipment, and at Immola—though it wasn't exactly the Ritz—they still had at least a semblance of a proper supply chain, with spare parts, plenty of food, and facilities that mostly worked. To think that these five women had been operating flat-out in this crumbling ruin of a schoolhouse for more than six weeks straight... it was a wonder to her that they could even still function, much less hold their own.
When the young Suomi put this to her, Yegorova only shrugged (as, on some level, Eila had come to expect her to do by now). "We do what we must," she said.
Beside her, Captain Bjelik seemed even more preoccupied than usual. She kept glancing out the nearest window at the school's former courtyard, all but erased by the driving snow, as if expecting—or possibly just hoping—to see something. Eila didn't know what, but whatever it was, it never appeared. No matter how many times Bjelik looked, there was never anything out there but the storm.
Noticing her second-in-command's preoccupation, Yegorova inquired calmly, "What troubles you, Evgeniya Petrovna?"
"Is it not obvious, Colonel?" Bjelik replied. "The firewood is almost gone. The fuel for the generator is completely exhausted and the batteries for the radio will not work in this cold. If we lose the telephone line we will be as cut off from the Center as if we were on the Moon. The Tsaritsa could transmit orders on Radio Petrograd and we would not hear them."
As if reminded by her own mention of the radio, the operations officer turned an apologetic look to Eila and added, "I have not been able to make contact with your headquarters either, Suomi. Even before the batteries froze, I could not raise them. I did send a message on their frequency that you are alive and with us, but I don't know whether they received it."
"I... well... thanks," said Eila, wondering if these people would ever cease making her feel awkward. "It sounds like you have, uh... other things to worry about."
"Worrying is the operations officer's job," said Yegorova, then added not unkindly, "and Evgeniya Petrovna is very good at it." She finished her lunch, then sat back and sighed, her breath puffing a visible cloud in the frigid air. "Still, you have a point. We will need to be careful with what few resources we have left." Her tiny smile flicked on and off again. "It would not do to freeze to death in our own capital city during a lull in the fighting."
The regimental survival strategy was simple: they spent the rest of the day and a fair portion of the next one in their bunks. In this way they could restore and conserve their energy, and besides, with the firewood nearly gone, huddling under the blankets was the only practical way to keep warm.
They passed the early afternoon talking quietly amongst themselves. Eila, as the odd woman out, largely kept silent, absorbing and reflecting on the bits and pieces she was learning about the Orussians in the process. Gangut, being by far the most extroverted of the lot, did most of the talking; Yegorova and Hibiki dropped in occasional remarks, Bjelik said very little, and Sanya virtually nothing at all.
The elder navy witch was a bit of a puzzle to Eila. She found she rather liked Gangut, but didn't quite know what to make of her. "Reva Oktyabrskaya" was plainly an alias, and her colleagues had to know that—if it was obvious to Eila, who was far from a sophisticate in these matters, it couldn't possibly have escaped the notice of veterans as worldly as Yegorova and Bjelik.
Eila assumed, from the reference to October in her adopted surname, that it had something to do with the revolution in Orussia that had happened in that month of the previous year. (Come to think of it, "Reva" suggested the same.) Hadn't she read something about the revolt against the old Tsar's policies beginning in the Navy? She couldn't be sure—she had never been a diligent student of such matters—but she thought so. It seemed to her that the habit the two navy witches had of calling each other Comrade with an audible capital C came from that same culture. She wished she had paid better attention now; at the time, all she had cared about was that whatever was happening inside the Tsar's military had derailed their invasion of Suomus and given the Defense Forces the chance they needed.
She heard the title again now, as Gangut broke the silence that had fallen over the bunkroom by asking quietly, "Are you cold, Comrade Tiny One?" Eila peered out from her woollen cocoon to see Hibiki returning from a reluctant trip to the latrine. Even bundled in coat and fur hat, the white-haired young witch did look cold, indeed miserably so.
Seeing this, her senior had asked the question; now she raised a corner of her own pile of blankets and went on, "Here, come in with me."
"Thank you, Comrade," Hibiki mumbled, and took her up on the offer. Eila, drawing her blankets tighter around her, felt a mild pang of envy. Ilmatar, it's cold in here.
No one spoke for a long while after that, and eventually Eila fell asleep. She didn't know how much later she awoke, jolted out of a dream of her elder sister Aurora, to a sudden shock of movement and cold. It took her several muddled seconds to figure out that someone had lifted her covers and crawled under them with her, by which time the operation was essentially complete and her visitor had settled fully in.
"Wha—" she blurted; then, instinctively trying to keep her voice down, she asked, "Hey! What are you doing? This isn't your bunk." When she got no reply but the sound of slow, steady breathing, she went on in an incredulous whisper, "Are you already asleep?!"
"Eh, let her be, Suomi," Gangut's voice called softly to her out of the darkness. "Poor Sanya, you can see she has no insulation of her own, can't you?"
Eila's eyes went wide in the dark. Sanya?! She supposed that was better than discovering that the vaguely frightening commander or Captain Bjelik had randomly climbed into bed with her, but— What do I do?!
"But I—what—..." She struggled to find a mental gear for a moment or two longer, then gave up with a sigh and muttered, "All right, fine, but just for today, you hear?"
Sanya's only response was to snuggle in a little more and mumble, "Mnn," which Eila did not really consider an answer. She lay there, paralyzed with bemusement, for what felt like a long while before she finally drifted back to sleep.
No one said a thing about it at breakfast the next morning; Eila didn't dare raise the subject, and no one else in the room—including Sanya herself—seemed to consider it worthy of even passing comment.
By that point, as she accepted a ration of reconstituted powdered eggs with a few slivers of that Liberion canned ham stuff and a cup of something almost but not quite entirely unlike coffee, Eila had other things to be preoccupied about. It wasn't very good food, no, but just the fact that they were giving it to her, this unexpected and (she had to admit) not spectacularly gracious stranger, when it was all they had left made it special. Yegorova's sardonic interpretation of her slip of the tongue the night before had been painfully, embarrassingly spot-on, after all. She would never have expected such hospitality from Orussians.
Not just the fact that they were willingly, without comment, sharing what were obviously very straitened resources with her, either. Yegorova and Bjelik weren't exactly filled with warmth and bonhomie, but they had opened their headquarters to this interloper from what was very recently an enemy country without hesitation, and now they were unquestioningly keeping her safe from this terrible storm. It made her shame at having blurted out the unworthy thought the night before burn that much more.
Now, to her mild inward horror, she found herself stumblingly trying to convey all that, in a muddled combination apology for the night before and attempt at expressing her gratitude, until self-consciousness at what a hash she was making of it finally crushed her back into an awkward silence. As she sat there, face incandescent, the five Orussian witches all regarded her with looks ranging from blank impassivity to puzzlement to mild dismay...
... And then, to everyone's visible surprise, Colonel Yegorova burst out laughing. Bjelik stared at her in utter disbelief, and the others' reactions weren't far off, as the colonel rode out a fit of the kind of big, hearty, body-shaking laughter that involves tears and involuntary banging on the table. At length, she got hold of herself, sighing and wiping the tears from her face before they could freeze there in the chill of the dining room.
"Oh... oh my," Yegorova said as the last of the giggles passed. "When I was a little girl, my father once told me that the only people in the world worse at explaining themselves than we Orussians are the Suomi. Now I see he was right." Shaking her head, she went on, "Don't worry yourself about it, Juutilainen. We are all allies now, and besides, even if our countries weren't, we're all witches."
Gangut nodded firm agreement. "We stand for each other, no matter what."
It didn't look like that was going to be the case for much longer, before the Neuroi came, Eila thought, but for once she had the sense not to say it out loud.
Instead, she spent a few seconds trying to put together a gracious response; but before she had to try it out, the sound of an engine and the blare of a horn came from the courtyard. She turned to the window in surprise to see a green-painted Orussian Army halftracked truck lurching to a halt outside.
"Ha!" cried Yegorova, striking the table.
By the time they had all struggled into still another layer of cold-weather gear and made their way outside, the driver of the halftrack had dismounted, and a group of men from the neighboring infantry base had begun unloading its contents under her supervision. Yegorova had to augment her strength with magic to force the door open against the snowdrift piled against it, then waded out toward the truck, arms wide.
"So! Our prodigal daughter returns at last!" she declared, much more animated than Eila had yet seen (apart from her recent fit of laughter).
The truck's driver turned and pulled down her double-looped muffler, revealing the cheerful face of another young woman, almost certainly a fellow witch.
"Have I ever let you down, Anna Alexandrovna?" she asked rhetorically. Gesturing to the truck, she went on, "Comrades, I bring you the choicest bounty of General Khozin's larder! A ton of firewood, twelve hundred liters of diesel, and assorted ammunitions." She struck a pose, mittened fists on hips, and grinned. "Now who is your favorite?"
Helping the soldiers unload the truck was a decent way of keeping warm, even though the storm was still raging, and with the base's stocks of firewood and fuel restored, the rest of the day passed in a much less huddled and dismal frame of mind than the day before had done. As the witches gathered around the barracks stove, now stoked to a cherry-red glow, Yegorova introduced the new arrival to the regiment's guest from Suomus.
"Eila Ilmatar Juutilainen, this is Senior Lieutenant Yekaterina Zelenko," she said, gesturing accordingly.
"Uh, hi," said Eila.
"Well, I'll be," Zelenko said. "A real, live Suomi witch. And named after the sky goddess, to boot! Are you any good?" she asked with a grin.
"I do all right," Eila replied, uncertain whether the newcomer's familiar attitude was putting her at ease or on edge.
"She did a good job against the Neuroi in the Salient while you were out stealing poor Mischa's things," said Gangut with a conspiratorial smile.
"I am merely an agent of the State, reallocating the State's property for more efficient use," Zelenko replied airily, and the two women broke up snickering. "Well, you're welcome among us, at any rate," she went on when she'd recovered. "I'm sure it's been horribly gloomy around here without me. Has Colonel Yegorova smiled once?"
"Eila made her laugh," Sanya said quietly.
Zelenko blinked in amazement at this intelligence, then laughed herself, punching Eila on the shoulder. "Well done, Comrade Stranger! You'll go far in life, I can already tell."
The storm carried on unabated into the night, but as Zelenko had predicted, the atmosphere within the 586th's makeshift headquarters was much more upbeat that afternoon and evening—although how much of that had to do with her presence, and how much because there was actual heat and light, was an open question. Whichever the cause, the witches spent that evening not huddled in their bunks in the dark, but rather gathered in little groups in the bunkroom, reading, chatting, playing cards, and otherwise passing the time as the whimsy took them.
For her part, Sanya went to the piano Eila hadn't previously noticed standing in what had been a darkened corner of the room, uncovered its keys, and began to play. The first couple of songs she played were familiar to Eila—well-known classical pieces, though she couldn't have named them—but the third, a contemplative-sounding piece that went well with the snowy night outside the windows, was new to her.
When she finished the song, Sanya seemed to feel Eila's gaze on her; turning, she saw the Suomi witch standing there looking at her and blushed.
"You're really good," Eila said.
"Thank you," Sanya replied softly. "My father taught me. He wrote that song for me, one snowy day when I was a little girl," she explained.
You're a little girl now, Eila thought, but what she said out loud was, "Wow. Is that what he does? Writes music for a living?"
"Mm," said Sanya, nodding. "He's even composed a few pieces for the Tsaritsa's court," she added, glancing modestly away, as if uncomfortable to be caught boasting. "He and Mother are both musicians. She plays the violin."
"That's amazing. You should be playing in a symphony hall somewhere, not..." Eila gestured to their surroundings. "This."
Sanya shrugged. "I'm a witch," she said. "Someday I'd like that, but... right now I'm needed here."
"Mm," Eila agreed, and then awkwardness settled on her again as she realized she had exhausted that line of conversation completely.
Sanya regarded her in silence for a few moments, evidently unaware that the silence was uncomfortable for her; then, as if reaching an internal decision, she got up, closed the piano, and went to the gramophone.
"We only have two records," she said apologetically, selecting one of them and putting it on, "but I like this kind of music too. Would you..." She hesitated, the blush touching her cheeks again, then asked very softly, "... like to dance?"
More than life itself, Eila thought involuntarily (giving herself an incredulous mental look as she did so), but what she said out loud was, "I don't know how."
Sanya smiled slightly. "I'll show you," she said, then started the gramophone.
The song was a big-band number, infectiously jazzy despite having about it a distinct flavor of Orussian folk music. Eila had never heard it, but she found she quite liked it—though on this first hearing, she was distracted somewhat by her efforts to follow Sanya's instructions and do at least a serviceable job of dancing with her. (And by the simple fact of dancing with her.) It wasn't her finest hour, she would have to acknowledge that, but still, by the end she felt she had at least turned in a creditable effort.
"Ты ужасная танцовщица," Sanya mumbled, her face very red, and she went to take off the record.
How about that—I'm a terrific dancer! thought Eila. She was very pleased with herself for the rest of the evening, though she wondered why Zelenko kept giving her that knowingly amused little look.
The bunkroom was markedly warmer that night than last, but an hour or so after they all turned in, Eila was startled awake by a second bed invasion. She considered protesting, but given the little smirk Zelenko had kept giving her after she'd danced with Sanya, she decided making a fuss would just make the situation worse; so, with a quiet grumble of "just for tonight, you," she relented.
The next morning broke clear and cold, which was good news for out-of-the-storm purposes, but bad news in terms of Neuroi activity. The 586th had barely eaten breakfast when the radio, its power restored by the arrival of fuel for the generator, crackled to life and barked a sector alert from wherever the capital defense forces' central command base was.
As she went about the business of preparing her weapons, Yegorova heard a commotion; she looked up and saw the Suomi trying, with limited success, to convey to one of the ground crewmen that she wished to have some ammunition for her machine gun.
"You do not have to launch with us, Juutilainen," she called, raising her voice over the noise of her wingmates' preparations.
"In fact, you probably shouldn't," Zelenko chimed in. "Bjelik got through to your people this morning, your commander wants you to stay put and wait for relief."
"She doesn't know what you're up against here," Eila argued. "None of us do—I didn't until I saw it for myself. I can help."
Bjelik limped briskly over from the planning table, where she had been laying out a map of the alert area, and put her two kopecks in: "This isn't your fight, Suomi."
"I'm making it my fight," Eila shot back, at the same time asking herself, You're what now? "Besides," her outside voice went on, "if Petrograd falls, I won't be any less dead because I didn't help try to save it."
Yegorova laughed again, not as helplessly as before, but still loudly and with full mirth.
"Fine, gear up. One bit of luck, at least—your Liberyonskii gun is one of the few foreign types we still have plenty of cartridges for." She cracked that wry little hard-to-read smile again and added, "You may yet prove to be a help rather than a burden—but if you are killed, I'm telling your commander you ran mad."
That's fair enough, thought Eila as she climbed into her Striker and powered it up. I probably have.
They flew two sorties that day, and when they all sat wearily down to supper that evening, Eila could see even through the veil of her own fatigue that Yegorova was troubled.
"They're getting more aggressive," the colonel murmured, as if to herself. "Coming from unexpected new directions. Something is happening. Something is changing." She returned her gaze from the middle distance and met Eila's eyes, speaking the next remark directly to her: "The Neuroi are back on the march."
"Agreed," Bjelik said from the doorway. She came to the table and sat in her accustomed place at the commander's right, placing a sheet of handwritten notes next to Yegorova's dinner plate. "Reports from the other perimeter elements. Probing attacks all across the line. The bastards are tightening the cordon."
After dinner, Eila lay on her bunk thinking about the operations officer's words. She felt the same foreboding, though she had less strategic knowledge on which to base it. Her magical talents had always lent themselves to foretastes of the future; these were usually of a much more immediate nature, as when she had seen Sanya's path intersect that Neuroi's line of fire seconds before it would have happened, and explained why she had never yet been hit by enemy fire. Occasionally, though, she could sense the stirrings of probability along timelines that reached farther. Tonight she felt something dark, somewhere just outside the range of her senses, like the loom of an iceberg at night that is smelled more than seen.
Feeling restless, she got up and slipped out of the bunkroom, making for the alert shack in the hangar. There, pinned to the wall above the situation table, was a large and ragged map of the greater capital area. Virtually all of it was colored in with red crayon, in several successive waves, until almost the whole city was hemmed in, like an island surrounded by a rising tide.
Almost the whole city.
Uneven footsteps behind her heralded the arrival of Evgeniya Bjelik, who limped into the shack and stood silently beside Eila, regarding the map with her for a few seconds.
"Noticed the north corridor, have you?" she asked in a quiet voice; then, before Eila could reply, she said in a less conversational tone, "Don't get too excited. The map only shows their ground forces. If you tried to fly home to Suomus that way, their air patrols would get you."
Her piece evidently said, she turned and walked away, pausing briefly in the shack doorway to turn and add, "You're trapped here just like the rest of us."
Eila watched her leave, speechless, then turned back to the map. Does she think I was planning to run out on them? she wondered, and then, Was I planning to run out on them?
The premonition of another presence touched her mind then, and a moment later Sanya quietly appeared at her side.
"Don't take it personally," she said softly, taking Eila's hand in hers. "Captain Bjelik is very tired."
"... Yeah," Eila agreed. "Sure."
The weather socked in again that night, and stayed that way for the entirety of the 22nd, once more pinning witches and Neuroi alike in their dens. Eila spent much of that afternoon distracting herself by getting a history lesson from Gangut and Hibiki on the October Revolution, in which, as she had suspected, they both saw front-line action.
"The revolution began aboard my ship, the Aurora," Hibiki said with audible pride.
"When General Tymoshenko's forces failed to breach the Mannerheim Line and the war turned against Orussia," Gangut explained, "Alexandra Fedorovna, the old Tsarina, was furious. She wanted the Tsar to mobilize the nation's witches against the Suomi army."
"That's against... well. Every international agreement I can think of," said Eila, scandalized.
"I know," Gangut agreed. "It goes against every civilized custom, all the way back to Babylon." She took a metal smoking pipe from inside her coat, carefully packed it with tobacco from a pouch, stoked it to life, and then went on, "Even Genghis Khan didn't use his witches against his mortal enemies. Even to a man as ruthlessly pragmatic as he was, they were a gift from the gods to defend mortal men against monsters, not pawns for them to use in wars against each other. But then, the Khan was rational. The Tsarina... not so much." She shrugged. "Give him his due, Kolya was a weak old fool, but he wasn't a madman. He couldn't resist his wife's demand that he send his armies to take Suomus back, but he wouldn't even consider such a crime against history as sending witches to war against men."
"But then he died," Hibiki said glumly, "and she seized control. She ordered that all the Army's and Navy's witches be detached from the normal structure and placed under her personal command."
"We all knew what that meant," Gangut said darkly. "The Navy's witches were the easier target; we served aboard ships, so we were easier to find than the Army's. Alexandra Fedorovna sent her Cossacks and the turncoat witches of the Okhrana to the naval base at Oranienburg, to round us up and impress us into her direct service."
"But word of their coming leaked," said Hibiki. "They came to Aurora first, and we were ready for them. When the witches on the other ships saw what was happening, they rushed to our aid, and together we routed them."
"Grand Duchess Olga saw her opportunity and moved against her mother with our support," Gangut put in. "The rest of the Navy's witches, and the Army's, rushed to join us, and the Revolution had truly begun."
"That's amazing," said Eila. "I knew the Navy had something to do with it, but I never heard any of the details. Just that the Tsar had died, his wife wanted to continue the war even after word of the Neuroi came, and their daughter overthrew her to stop it."
"Well, that part is true too," Gangut agreed. "Alexandra Fedorovna was quite mad by the end. That cursèd so-called wizard had something to do with it, I'll wager." She shook her head. "It's of no consequence now. The point is, she countenanced the unthinkable. I'm proud to have done my part to stop it." She smiled. "Proud enough that I discarded the name I was born with, under her husband's reign, and took a new one to honor the day I helped remake my country."
"I didn't go that far," Hibiki said with a gently sardonic smile for her zealous senior.
"You had already a name to be proud of," Gangut told her. "Arkady Verniskiy is a great sailor and a fine man. The hero of Nikolayevsk."
"Nikolayevsk?" asked Eila.
"A seaport in the far east of Orussia," Hibiki explained. "Close to Fusō. People from both countries have lived there for decades. My father is an officer in the Orussian Eastern Fleet; my mother is a witch-physician at the Fusō hospital there."
"Didn't Orussia and Fusō fight a war not that long ago?" Eila wondered.
Hibiki nodded. "About 40 years ago," she said. "Things are better now—although when my father was a young man, before he met my mother, there was a group of men who wanted the Orussians there to drive out the Fusōnese. Papa and his shipmates stopped them before they could hurt anyone." She smiled. "They say he met Mama at the ceremony the Fusō side of town held to thank him. When I became a witch in turn, I joined the Navy to honor him."
"Wow," said Eila, feeling a bit misty-eyed. "That's a really sweet story."
"All right, girls," Yegorova declared. "The weather report for the morning is clear, and you all know what that means. I have a feeling we're going to be busy tomorrow. Lights out in five minutes—we're all going to need our rest."
"Wha—again? ... All right, fine, just for tonight."
The colonel was right: they were very busy the next day. Eila had never in her life sortied three times in one day, but on December 23, she found herself doing just that. The first time was easy; the second was not; the third was torture, but somehow, she got through them all. Somehow, they all got through them all, and as she sat down to dinner, Eila marveled inwardly that they were all still alive. The events of the day were all such a blur in her head now that she could point to no specific moments which any of them shouldn't have gotten away with surviving, but she was certain there had been several.
The conversation around the table was sparse and strained, partly because of the fatigue, but mostly because everyone was oppressed by the same ill-defined sense of foreboding. The least strategically-minded among them could tell now that the Neuroi were stepping up their offensive dramatically. All could feel the noose tightening.
The clamor of battle in the distance didn't help, either. Often, on nights not muffled by heavy snowfall in progress, they could hear the sounds of sporadic ground combat from somewhere far off. Tonight, those sounds seemed louder, heavier, more constant. Somewhere in this great, ruined city, the 586th's witches felt certain a great number of men and women were fighting for their lives.
Yegorova left the table shortly before she would have finished eating, summoned to the still-working telephone. Her conversation was short, and virtually silent on her end. When she returned, her face was grave.
"The Tsaritsa has taken the decision to evacuate the city," she said, her voice flat, totally matter-of-fact. "The battle you hear is the Imperial Hussars fighting to open and hold the rail line to Moskva."
"Are we launching to support them?" Gangut asked, but the colonel shook her head.
"No. We are to hold position and remain in reserve for now." She paused, as if she might explain further, but then she simply sighed, fished out a cigarette, lit it, and said, "For now, finish your supper and get some rest. They may need us at first light."
The bunkroom was dark and silent but for the sound of breathing, but Eila, lying awake in her bunk, would have bet that she wasn't the only one having trouble getting to sleep, even as exhausted as they all were.
Presently she felt a stirring, a tug at her covers, and a small figure slipped into bed beside her.
"Are you sleeping?" asked Sanya, her voice almost inaudible.
"No," Eila replied.
"Do you mind?" Sanya wondered, gently taking hold of Eila's arms and placing them around herself.
"Just for tonight," Eila said, and held her as they both wept silently, overcome by emotions neither yet knew enough to name.
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
holiday special mini-series
The Fall of Petrograd
written and directed by
Benjamin D. Hutchins
The EPU Usual Suspects
Based on characters from Strike Witches
created by Humikane Shimada
Bacon Comics chief
E P U (colour) 2017