Had anyone happened to be abroad in the village of Walbourg on that perfectly clear summer night, they might have heard the drone of propellers, the unfamiliar whistle of jet engines, perhaps even a near-subliminal hum few civilians had any frame of reference for recognizing. If, upon hearing, they had looked up, they might just have made out seven black shapes speeding eastwards, completely dark but for the tiny colored pinpoints of formation lamps and the faint glow of engines and radar antennae.
As they approached the Rhine, the radar-equipped Night Witch at the left flank of the group touched her earpiece and signaled the rest,
"Force Ombra, this is Umcolcus. I read no contacts ahead; you're clear to proceed. Enemy airspace penetration in 30 seconds. This is as far as I go. Good night and good luck. Out."
At the head of the formation, Shirley Yeager turned her head and nodded to her countrywoman before radioing back, "Roger that, Umcolcus, thanks for the escort. We'll see you on the other side."
Offering the force a salute as she did, Eleanor Hutchins drew up into a hover, going no closer to the river, and watched as the rest carried on out of her assigned sector.
Turning to look at the person flying on her right wing, Shirley went on, "It's your show from here, Countess. Force Ombra, assume entry formation and commence radio silence. Out."
Countess Remilia Scarlet nodded and put on a little more speed, easing into the lead, while the rest of the group rearranged itself into a tighter Victor formation around her. The one exception, Heidemarie Schnaufer, pulled up into a steep, full-throttle climb to a high-cover position, 15,000 feet above the rest.
Seconds later, they crossed the river and entered the danger zone. The contrast, even after the sparsely lighted Gallian countryside, was stark. There were relatively few lights in rural Alsace, perhaps, but there were absolutely none on the Karlsland side. No fields, no roads, no scattered farmsteads. With the three-day-old sliver of moon having set just before they launched, only the faint starlight illuminated the brooding Black Forest as it rose from the Rhine's east bank and stretched off to the horizon, mountainous, ominous, completely devoid of human life.
As she and her comrades hurtled into the dark, Francesca Lucchini marveled at what she was feeling. She had little experience of night flying, but she was having no trouble at all keeping formation. The view from inside the 501st Joint Fighter Wing's Neuroi member was clear as day, and her field of vision was as unhindered as if she'd been bareheaded.
Turning her head slightly, she could clearly see Shirley, ahead of her to the right, her face set in an unusually grim expression. Shirley wasn't used to night flying either, and Lucchini assumed it was taking all of her concentration to maintain station, aided only by the glow of the red chemlight Countess Scarlet wore on her left forearm. A similar light, this one green, on her right similarly guided Yoshika Miyafuji, whom Lucchini knew had a little more night experience, since she occasionally went out with Sanya Juutilainen-Litvyak on the Night Witch's patrols.
Over on the far side of the formation, Gryphon wasn't having any trouble either. He was wearing that bulky night-vision headgear he'd scrounged up somewhere, which Lucchini had heard was normally used by Orussian tank witches. Though the night was pitch-dark and he was a good thirty feet away, Lucchini could see him clearly.
As she focused on each of her wingmates, Lucchini also saw glowing text, floating as if in midair, which spooled out from some invisible source whenever she focused on any particular one of them. She couldn't read it—the symbols were unlike any alphabet she'd ever seen—but she assumed it was some kind of identifying information.
Is this what it's like to be a Neuroi? she wondered. Is this how they all see us?
She wished she could ask Neuroi-chan, to find out more about how her strangest, most unexpected comrade experienced the world. She couldn't, of course; no one could communicate with Neuroi-chan except Yoshika, in a limited way, and—by an odd coincidence—the crown princess of Karlsland, who was not available to translate just at the moment.
So instead, she said quietly, "Neuroi-chan... I'm not sure if you can understand me, but if you can... thank you. Thinking about it, this is the second time you've let someone do this to help me. The first time, you helped Yoshika save my life, and now this. I don't know why. Maybe I never will. But... I wanted to tell you I appreciate it more than I can say."
There was no reply, not that she'd really been expecting one; but a moment later, she felt a faint wave of... something. A wordless, maybe even conceptless sensation, as impossible to put into words as her gratitude, and yet somehow instantly understandable.
Smiling within her "helmet", Lucchini adjusted her spot in formation slightly and kept her eyes fixed on the black horizon. They were getting into the mountains now, and it was going to take some fancy flying to stay at treetop level and minimize their chances of being spotted by the Neuroi as they plunged deep into the Schwarzwald.
Wait for me, Ombra, she thought. I'm on my way.