Late morning, and Gryphon was back in FUEL STORAGE, overhauling the He 162's number-one turbine, as he'd been planning to do since the very long and taxing sortie over Freiburg. Over in the corner, Wolfgang was curled up in a nest of blankets on top of a crate, dozing contentedly while Shanghai, evidently fascinated, brushed him.
The day was sunny and warm, and both the hangar doors and that of FUEL STORAGE were open, as they usually were in such weather, to let in the fresh air and sunshine. Presently, Gryphon heard the sound of an approaching aircraft. Glancing up from his work, he smiled, thinking he knew who it would be, but as the sound drew nearer, the smile faded. Upon closer hearing, the inbound aircraft wasn't the C.445 transport that Reimu and her party had borrowed from the Gallian Air Force for the general's stay in Europe. Whatever was coming in was single-engined, and from the sound of it, powered by a big radial—which probably meant it was Liberion.
He went to the doorway, his curiosity piqued, and a few moments saw that his surmise was correct. The aircraft that had just landed and was now taxiing up to the apron outside the hangar doors was an AT-6 Texan trainer sporting the insignia of the Liberion Eighth Army Air Force. Although the AT-6, being a trainer, was a two-seater, it had only one person aboard, who opened the canopy and climbed out as the 501st's ground crewmen automatically chocked the Texan's wheels and set about tying it down.
Standing on the wing, the pilot took off his flying helmet and gloves and dropped them into the cockpit, then turned around, and Gryphon was mildly startled to recognize him.
He considered ducking back into FUEL STORAGE and closing the door, but immediately rejected the idea as both cowardly and ridiculous. Now that he'd done overt (if classified) work for the IFN, he knew his name was making the rounds at fairly high levels of the Allied Forces. The time for trying to conceal his involvement in the war was over now. Instead, he folded his arms and leaned against the doorframe, awaiting whatever was going to happen next.
What happened next was that Major General Curtis E. LeMay of the Liberion Eighth Army Air Force climbed down from his AT-6's wing and crossed the hangar, sparing only a passing look for the man standing in the doorway of FUEL STORAGE. If LeMay recognized him, he gave no sign; just glanced at him, without slackening his pace, and then went through the door leading to the First Joint Special Air Fleet's operations offices.
Gryphon stood looking thoughtfully at the door the general had gone through for a moment, then shrugged and went back to work.
"General LeMay is here to see you."
Minna-Dietlinde Wilcke gave her telephone a puzzled glance, then replied, "And he bothered to present himself to my chief of staff first?"
«I know, I wouldn't have expected it either,» Hannelore von Hammer replied in Karlslandic, and then, in English, "He's just arrived back in Gallia and wishes to speak with you urgently."
"Well, if he's being that polite about it, by all means, send him in," said Minna, and a moment later, LeMay entered her office.
Every other time Minna had ever seen Curtis LeMay in person, he'd been annoyed about something, blustering, posturing, throwing his weight around. Even at Paris-Orly, when he had shown her and a few of her officers the XB-36 prototype, he'd been aggressive about it, as if he felt he had to prove that he was the one in charge of the situation.
Minna didn't know him well, but she'd formed the suspicion that he was a fundamentally insecure person, possibly uncomfortable with the rapidity of his rise through the Liberion AAF's ranks in wartime, and with the fact that as a male aviation officer, he wasn't making the direct contribution to the war against the Neuroi that he would presumably be making in a more conventional conflict. This manifested itself as an exaggeratedly bellicose attitude, toward his allies as much as the enemy.
She wasn't entirely unsympathetic to this feeling, and she had to admit that he handled it better than the likes of Wilhelm Reichenberg—she had never known LeMay to deny the essential nature of witches to this war, for instance—but that didn't mean she had to like the man.
Today, though, he was carrying himself differently. They were of equivalent rank, he a Liberion major general, she a Generalleutnant of the Karlsland Luftwaffe. Under the ordinary rules of military courtesy, since LeMay had held that rank longer than Minna, she should have saluted him first. Under the complicated multinational structure of the Grand Alliance, though, officers couldn't be expected to know their relative seniority as a matter of course; so Allied etiquette stipulated that, when an officer visited the headquarters of a peer from another nation's service, the visitor should be the one to offer the first salute, regardless.
LeMay had never done so on any of his previous visits to the castle, but he did now, and quite respectably too. Minna returned it with Karlslandic precision, then invited him to take a seat and returned to her own.
"What brings you to Château Saint-Ulrich today, General LeMay?" she inquired, although she was reasonably sure she knew. A moment later, she had her confirmation, as LeMay replied,
"You're a busy woman, General Wilcke, so I'll cut straight to the chase. I know it was your people who hijacked the XB-36, and I know why they did it. If you're curious, I'll admit I didn't get a word out of Blazkowicz or Ridley about it, nor either Sgt. Smith. But Lt. Hembery was very interested in not suddenly becoming Private Hembery, and he told me the whole thing."
Minna said nothing, only raising an eyebrow, as if to ask silently, What, then, do you intend to do about it?
LeMay seemed to be expecting that reaction, and, oddly, to find it slightly pleasing. He even smiled a little as he sat back, making himself more comfortable in the chair, and went on,
"I'm also aware that most of them are out of reach of any repercussions. I obviously can't touch von Hammer, or von Preußen, or whatever she's going to call herself now that she's married to the Kaiser. Or Hartmann or Schnaufer, for that matter—I'm sure Fritz would have their backs too. The Emperor of Fusō will do likewise for Miyafuji and the Romagnan, Lucchini, who he seems to have taken a liking to for some reason. De Gaulle would go ballistic at the mere suggestion of a Liberion general trying to discipline Clostermann. And of course I can't prove that you and Sakamoto set the whole thing up, though I know you did."
LeMay got out a cigar, a reflexive action, but seeing Minna's sharp glance in its direction, he put it away again. Without it, he seemed slightly at a loss for what to do with his hands, but settled for giving her a two-fingered point as if he were still holding it as he continued,
"The only one of them I could possibly bring up on charges would be Yeager, and singling her out would seem petty. So I guess they're going to get away with it. Anyway, it was a decent long-range test flight, and the bomber is back in Cowtown for overhaul, just a little ahead of schedule. All in all, no great harm done."
Before Minna could reply, LeMay leaned forward, elbows on knees, and looked her straight in the eye. "Except for one thing. This is a war, and you and your women are critical strategic assets. I understand that. In fact, not to blow my own horn, but I think you'll find that I understand it better than more than a few of my colleagues at Eighth AF, or SHAEF, or even back at the Heptagon. I've learned from my prior dealings with the 501st that you witches operate best when you're given latitude to do things your own way. But that doesn't mean that you can just do whatever the hell you want, whenever the hell you want to!"
Warming to his topic now, he rose, pacing the rug in front of her desk, and continued, "Your officers' little stunt completely derailed a carefully planned flight testing program for an aircraft that could prove to be of great value not just to the war effort, but to you, directly. Now the next phase of testing will either have to be carried out in Texas, or the aircraft will have to be brought back to Gallia, at great expense, and with even more disruption to the timetable than we're already faced with. There might well come a time, not too long from now, when your girls could really use an assist from the Peacemaker, and it won't be ready. That's on your witches, and since you're their CO, that means it's on you. I came here today to make sure you understand that."
Minna hesitated. What could she say to that? In the end, she had to admit that he was right. She had authorized the irregular usage—why mince words, the outright theft—of an experimental aircraft that didn't belong to any unit remotely associated with her chain of command, an offense uncomfortably similar to, but in some ways worse than, one for which she had personally chewed out LeMay not that long ago. Laid bare like that, the facts clearly showed her hypocrisy. For most of her career, she'd fought against the idea that there was one law for men in uniform and another for witches, only to turn around and conduct herself in exactly the same way.
Finally, she said with a sigh, "Of course you're correct, General. It was precipitate and highly irregular. I can only say in my defense that we were under extreme time pressure, and at the time, there seemed to be no better option."
"I'm not asking for your defense," said LeMay, more gruffly than he really intended to. "I'm just trying to get everything on the table. You could have told me what was going on. Explained the situation, made me aware of the timetable. But you didn't. You went behind my back. I'd say I'd like to know why, but I'm pretty sure I already do."
"I..." Minna began, but trailed off. Was she really about to tell a fellow general officer, baldly, to his face, that she hadn't trusted him to understand the urgency of the matter?
She didn't have to; he did it for her. Returning to his seat, he leaned forward again and said, "Look, I know what they think of me on the line. I've heard all the nicknames they think I don't know they call me. Curt the Butcher. All-the-Way LeMay. Old Iron Ass. You assumed that if you called me up and told me von Hammer and Lucchini both needed to get to Brandenburg RFN and the XB-36 was their ticket, I'd have told you to pound sand."
Minna considered a number of replies to that remark, but the one that came out of her mouth was, "Wouldn't you?"
"Depends on how you did it," LeMay replied frankly. "If you had phrased it as a demand, then yeah, I probably would have. But if you had asked me, as one Allied officer to another, to work with you and make it happen?" Suddenly looking very weary, he got up again, pulling a hand down his face with a tired sigh. "I guess we'll never know. Anyway, the testing program we had lined up for later this month is off. The prototype will be stateside for at least another four weeks. We don't know yet whether we'll bring it back over for witch testing, or do it at Convair. I'll let you know what Hap decides. That's all."
Straightening, he offered the first salute again. Minna rose to her feet and returned it. LeMay held his eyes on hers for a long moment, then lowered his hand smartly to his side, about-faced, and left the office.
Minna sat down, her face falling into a deep frown as she considered what had just passed between them. Then, sighing, she got a sheet of letterhead out of her desk, uncapped her inkwell, dipped her quill, and began to write.
Gryphon was still at work in FUEL STORAGE, with Shanghai now hovering nearby and passing him tools, when he heard the scrape of shoes on the floor. Looking up, he saw LeMay standing in the doorway, looking at him with a hard-to-read expression.
"So you're the rocket man," said the general at length, his tone almost conversational. "Von Katädien. And that must be your rocket—although from the looks of it, I'd guess it's really a jet."
Gryphon smiled slightly. "That's right," he said.
"You don't sound like a Kra—a Karlslander."
"I'm not. I'm from Dawnland, more or less. It's a long story. My name's Benjamin Hutchins—the witches call me Gryphon. This is Shanghai," he went on, indicating his helper, "and Wolfgang," nodding to the hound (who was sitting up in his blanket nest and eyeing the general suspiciously).
LeMay nodded, first to the doll, then to the dog, without a trace of irony or even evident bemusement. "Hello." Then, turning his attention back to Gryphon, he looked more closely at him and said, "You look familiar. Have we met before?"
"Sort of," Gryphon replied. "On one of your previous visits, I was sweeping up out in the hangar and you yelled at me to get out of your way."
LeMay gave him a puzzled look, then uttered a tired laugh. "It figures. I was here looking for unauthorized personnel, and when I looked right at one, I didn't spot him." He shrugged. "Suppose it doesn't matter now. I hear you're doing good work."
"I do what I can," Gryphon replied.
LeMay's only response to that was an ambivalent grunt. He looked around the workshop for a few moments, as if at a loss, then said, "Well, it's none of my business. I'd better get back to Colleville before they send somebody to get their Texan back." He glanced around FUEL STORAGE again, then said with faint irony, "Carry on," turned, and headed off toward his parked AT-6.
"That was... odd," Gryphon remarked to Shanghai, who shrugged.