Avalon County Entertainment System
Channel Select: Avalon Broadcasting System (Channel 17)
It really is a beautiful day, thought Shizuka Hattori.
The sky was an almost totally clear blue, with just a few fluffy white clouds to give it a little character, and the weather was quite warm for northern Gallia in early April. Even up here at... she wasn't sure, 12,000 feet or so, she felt sure she'd be reasonably comfortable even without her magic to shield her from the cold. The pleasant sunshine and the green and inviting Gallian countryside made for a spectacular vista as it rolled out beneath her. A nearly perfect day for flying.
It was, therefore, a bit unfortunate that what she was currently doing - lashed like a parcel to the chest of a man she barely knew, who in turn was wearing on his back an experimental jetpack that didn't seem to be working - was falling.
"OK," said the man, an apparent Liberion of uncertain provenance whom Shizuka's wingmates in the 501st Joint Fighter Wing called Gryphon. "I have a plan. Well, an idea."
"I'm listening," Shizuka responded.
"I need you to get around to the right side of the pack," he told her. "I'll have to loosen this strap so you can maneuver," he added, moving his hand to the knot holding her improvised web harness together, "but I promise I won't let you fall."
Shizuka looked down at his hand, then did her best to glance back over her shoulder at his face. "Just for the record," she said, "that wasn't as reassuring as you probably hoped it would be."
"Sorry," Gryphon replied. "Ready?"
"Do it," she said, surprising herself with the certainty she heard. She wouldn't have said she felt that, but there it was in her voice.
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
another serial experiment
© 2015 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Shirley Yeager and Erica Hartmann stood at the end of a hallway littered with unconscious Karlsland Feldgendarmerie, waiting fretfully as the slowest elevator on the planet plodded up toward them. Hundreds of feet below, Erica's twin sister Ursula was up against another platoon or more of the same MPs, all alone, and the lift was the only way they knew to get down there and back her up.
"Come on, come on, come on," Shirley muttered, bouncing unconsciously on the balls of her feet as she listened to the mechanism grind away behind the doors. Then, with a chime, it halted, and the doors finally opened...
... to reveal Ursula, standing alone in the middle of the otherwise empty elevator car. Her uniform had seen better days - it was torn and dirtied, one of the front pockets ripped off, and the entire right sleeve missing at the shoulder. Her short blonde hair was disarranged, her face scuffed and reddened, and the left lens of her badly bent wire-rimmed spectacles was smashed, its surface a network of spiderweb cracks... but Ursula herself seemed basically unharmed. More than that, she seemed ever-so-slightly pleased with herself.
"Usch!" Erica cried, embracing her twin. "Are you OK?"
"I'm fine," Ursula replied, her voice as soft and pleasant as ever. She took off her ruined eyeglasses, considered them for a moment, then discarded them with an offhanded gesture. After squinting thoughtfully at her sister and Shirley for a moment, she made a quiet sound of recognition, reached, and took her spare pair from the top pocket of Shirley's Luftwaffe mechanic's shirt, then put them on and smiled.
"Much better," she said. "Let's go. It won't take long for reinforcements to arrive."
"Uh, where's Hattori?" Erica wondered, looking past Ursula into the empty elevator.
"Change of plans. She had to go with Gryphon," said Ursula.
"That's... interesting," Shirley mused as the three of them set off for the underground compound's main entrance. "I hope they're OK."
Clambering around on a man she did not know well, using the straps and fittings of his jetpack harness for handholds (and trying not to think too hard about the way she was maintaining a leg lock on his right thigh), while they plummeted toward prime Gallian farmland at terminal velocity, was not exactly Shizuka Hattori's definition of "OK." On the other hand, she would have been much too busy to argue the point with Shirley even if she had somehow been able to.
"All - unf - right," she grunted. "I can see the right side of the jetpack now."
"OK, at the base of the turbine housing near the front, you should see a yellow D-handle," Gryphon called back over his shoulder.
"I see it," Shizuka confirmed. "Why is it here? What possible use could it be in normal flight?"
"I think it's only intended to be used by the ground crew," Gryphon replied. "Anyway, pull it. It probably primes the igniter."
Shizuka shifted her weight a little more, making sure of her grip on the pack's waist strap, and leaned forward until her fingers slipped over the cool metal of the yellow handle. "What does it do if it ISN'T that?" she asked.
"Well, it could be the fuel dump," Gryphon admitted.
"You fill me with confidence," said Shizuka dryly.
"I live but to serve," Gryphon assured her. "Pull it!"
She pulled it.
"Nothing happened!" she cried after a second's inactivity.
"I can't try for a relight with you hanging out in the slipstream like that, I'll drop you for sure!" Gryphon shouted. "Come back down!"
Shizuka spared a glance over her shoulder and wished she hadn't. That ground was coming up toward them awfully fast at this stage. Gritting her teeth and trusting in her agility and his strength, she swung herself away from the side of the jetpack and tucked herself down underneath his arm. For an instant she felt an agonizing jolt of instinctive fear as her body went into freefall; but then Gryphon's forearm hooked around her waist like an iron hoop and caught her up, her arms and legs dangling.
Without time to secure her any more than that, he held her tight against his chest and said into her ear, "Hang on!" as his right thumb mashed down on the igniter switch built into his glove.
With a sharp electric snap and a mechanical whine that rose rapidly to a scream, the He 162 jetpack's turbine reignited. The sudden burst of power was shocking in its violence, so shocking that Gryphon - who was, after all, not really flying with a well-balanced load - momentarily lost control of it. Shizuka was abstractly pleased with herself for not screaming like a child on a roller coaster as they tumbled end-over-end, the ground and sky exchanging places at a rapid clip and a series of crazy angles. The engine sputtered, pulsing in and out, as the G-forces disrupted the fuel flow, its uneven thrust further deranging their flight path.
"Come on, baby. Come on," Gryphon muttered, his left thumb working the tiny throttle control. "You can do it, you got this. Thaaaaat's it. Come back to me."
Shizuka could feel him regaining control of their flight - it wasn't too different a sensation from getting a wayward Striker Unit back under control - but they were still falling, and she began to wonder seriously whether they would run out of sky before he could stabilize the jetpack enough to dare applying climb power.
They didn't, but if there had been even a modest hill in the vicinity they might well have, and they passed so near the surface of a small lake or reservoir of some description that Shizuka momentarily imagined she could smell the water before they steadied, Gryphon poured on the coal, and they started streaking back into the sky.
"Yeeeeaaahhh!" Gryphon cried, pumping his free fist, and Shizuka couldn't help but shout along with him. On some level, she wondered abstractly whether it could possibly be a good thing that she found a brush with death so exhilarating, but the rest of her was too busy exulting in the fact that they had gotten away with it.
Shirley and the Hartmanns stopped in Ursula's office briefly, so that she could put on a lab coat over her ruined uniform blouse and grab a few odds and ends, and then headed up to the loading area. It was deserted, the logistics personnel having dispersed to their emergency stations when the alarms started sounding. The only thing in evidence there, apart from the abandoned pallet dollies and whatnot, was a Blitz truck in the markings of KG 200, standing unattended by the loading dock.
"Let's see, did they... ?" Ursula wondered, hopping up and chinning herself on the truck's tailgate. At the sight of what lay within the covered bed, she smiled and let herself drop back to the concrete. "Perfect. Let's go."
"What's in there?" Shirley wondered as she opened the driver's door.
"All the technical documentation for Projekt Salamander," Ursula replied offhandedly, holding the passenger door for her sister.
"Wha?" Erica said as she scrambled into the cab. "How did you manage that?"
"I put a packing order in the system this morning, before you arrived," Ursula explained, climbing up after her.
Shirley started up the truck. "And that worked?"
"This is a Karlsland military facility," Ursula said. "No one would think to question a properly filed order with all the right signatures on it." Drawing herself up with exaggerated mock primness, she added, "Discipline comes first to a soldier of Karlsland. Second is discipline."
Erica grinned and leaned back against the seat cushion, her hands behind her head. "It's also third through ninth," she reported. "I've never been able to get Trude to tell me what tenth is, though - whoa! Uh, what was that for?" she asked from under the dash, where Shirley had just unceremoniously shoved her.
"Guard shack," Shirley replied, slowing the truck. "Just stay out of sight for a minute." Rolling down her window, she gave the guard by the gate what she hoped was a suitably nonchalant little nod.
"<Rapid-fire Karlslandic - did we mention that Shirley doesn't speak Karlslandic?>" said the guard.
"Er... ja!" Shirley replied, nodding.
"<Something else going by much too fast for Shirley to follow,>" the guard said, sounding annoyed.
"Oh, ja, ja," Shirley replied with a more vigorous nod, then earnestly added the only phrase she'd ever fully memorized from the Liberion Army's Karlslandic phrasebook, even though she couldn't remember now what it actually meant: "Mein Luftkissenfahrzeug ist von den Aalen voll."
"Ach was?!" demanded the guard, "<Something really-pissed-off-sounding.>"
Ursula leaned across Shirley (having to push various bits of her out of the way somewhat to do it, which the guard found most interesting), brandishing her ID card, and said urgently, "<High-speed, breathless, panicky, completely-un-Ursula-like-sounding thing!>"
At something in the middle of that, the guard's eyes bugged out a little bit; without another word, he hit the switch to open the gate, then turned and left the shack, making for the tunnel. Just as he reached it, another man came pelting out of said tunnel, shouting something Shirley didn't need to understand verbally to recognize as "Stop that truck!"
Sliding back to the passenger window, Ursula leaned out to look back as the two men started running back toward them, followed by several others (some of them bruised and bloodied).
"Captain Yeager, now would be an excellent time for you to do the thing," she said, sounding much more like herself.
"Sorry, fellas, you had your chance," Shirley said with a grin, threw the truck into gear, and put the right one of her clunky Luftwaffe ground crewman's shoes to the floor as she let the left one up. (The mark this left on the road was later of considerable interest to the incident investigators, who hadn't known a 75-horsepower Opel Blitz could burn that much rubber.)
"What did you say to that guy, anyway?" Shirley asked as, with body language that was almost comically casual, she drove the truck at a deeply absurd speed away from the Fortress of Mimoyecques.
"Ow, ow, ow, ow," Erica chanted as the potholes and ruts of the access road bounced her head repeatedly off the underside of the dash.
"I told him they were crazy, they were heading for the fuel storage, and if he hurried he might catch them," said Ursula, helping her sister back up into the seat.
Shirley laughed gaily, a broad smile on her face. "I like your style," she said, then touched the comm earpiece she wore. "See if this'll work now that we're not underground. Flash to Rakas, do you read me?"
"Well," said Gryphon, sounding as flushed as Shizuka felt. "Now that we've got a little breathing room, let's get you secured again." His hands quick and deft, he looped the webbing strap threaded through his harness around her twice, once at waist level, once up over her shoulder, then made all fast with a knot just below her sternum. She did feel a lot more stable that way, and it freed his arms for other work, but she had to admit - if only to herself - that she'd felt very safe with his arm around her... and she didn't mind at all when he put it back anyway, for insurance.
He promised he wouldn't let me fall, and he didn't, she reflected. He's a strange man. Possibly a mad man. But he keeps his promises. That's useful to know.
"I hope the others were able to escape," she said, shouting to be heard over the slipstream and the whine of the jet, as they topped out above the clouds again and he began adjusting the pack for cruising.
"They'll never catch Shirley," Gryphon replied. "She's the fastest woman in the world."
"With a Striker, probably," Shizuka allowed, "but if they managed to clear the facility, they're probably in a truck."
"I stand by my assertion," said Gryphon. "Comfortable?"
"... Reasonably," she said after a moment's consideration.
"Good. All right, I think that's as trimmed as I'm going to get it," he said, moving his thumbs away from the control knobs. "Time for phase three." Shifting his insurance hold on her, he raised a hand to the side of his head and tapped the commbud in his right ear. "Gryphon to Phantom, are you receiving, over?"
"... Phantom here," the quiet voice of Heidemarie Schnaufer replied after a moment. "I read you four by five."
"We're away, but there have been some complications. I'm airborne, repeat, airborne, and I have the new kid with me. Flash, Karaya-1, and Karaya-2 stayed on the ground, I don't know their current status."
A pause while Heidemarie took that news in; then she replied, "Roger, understand you're airborne. What is your position?"
"Uh... no idea," Gryphon replied. "It's not like I've got any instruments here. I'm... somewhere around Béthune, I think, heading... more or less southeast."
"I have you," Sanya Juutilainen-Litvyak's voice broke in, even quieter than Heidemarie's, but freighted with a certain intensity. "Maintain present course and speed. I'm nearer your position than Phantom is. I'll intercept you and escort you to the backup rendezvous."
"Thank you, Rakas, I'm much obliged."
Sanya arrived shortly thereafter. If she was in any way surprised to see Shizuka lashed to Gryphon's jetpack harness, she gave no visible sign of it; merely smiled slightly, offering a salute in greeting, as she settled into formation on their left.
Flying close enough that Gryphon and Shizuka could hear her without the radio, Sanya told them, "The others exfiltrated according to the original plan. We'll all regroup at rendezvous two."
"Sounds good to me. In the meantime, I'll hitch a ride with Tante Ju the rest of the way back, if nobody minds. We've already had one argument with this thing so far today," Gryphon said, cocking the thumb of his free hand back over his shoulder. "Ursula does quality work, but this is already farther than I usually go on a first date."
"That sounds -" Sanya began, but then she stopped speaking abruptly and looked up, her eyes unfocusing. The luminous Hirschgeweih antennae on either side of her head, the visible manifestation of her magic radar ability, changed from their normal green to red, visibly and audibly pulsating.
"Warning: anomalous signal detected," said Heidemarie over the radio. Her voice was altered, its usual soft diffidence replaced by a cool Teutonic precision.
No great distance away, Hannelore von Hammer was midway through a busy day. As the person in charge of Kaiser Friedrich IV of Karlsland's aerial security, her job was to follow the flight of His Majesty's personal transport from point to point along his itinerary. Today, having left Calais in the morning, he was scheduled to visit the Luftwaffe's regional headquarters at Juvincourt, near Reims, for lunch, and then proceed east in the afternoon, stopping off at several stations en route to Lichtenberg in northern Alsace. There he would spend the evening as the guest of Colonel Knoke and the 511th Joint Fighter Wing, before heading south to visit Brigadier General Wilcke's 501st in Ribeauvillé and thence to various points in the Gallian interior.
The swing through Alsace would be the Kaiser's closest approach to Neuroi-held territory - very close, in places, since the 511th and 501st were the most forward units in the sector, and the route between then roughly parallelled the Rhine. You could see the Schwarzwald from the control tower at Château Saint-Ulrich, the 501st's headquarters. It would be the closest Friedrich had been to his country, and the enemy, since Operation Bifröst.
This stage of the journey, through northwestern Gallia near the border with Belgica, was less fraught with uncertainty than the Alsace leg, but Hannelore was kept fairly busy anyway, coordinating the various air assets being deployed to provide coverage along the way. Since the Kaiser's planned route was too long for witches to provide escort end-to-end and still maintain combat readiness, it had to be covered in shifts, with groups coming up from the Luftwaffe's various bases in the area, then returning to base at the edge of their effective sortie range and handing over to relief from the next base along the way.
The exception to this rule was Hannelore, who was stretching out her range by not flying under her own power most of the way. Instead, she planned to pass most of the flight holding onto the radio mast atop the imperial Ju 52's fuselage, her own Me 262 jet Striker equipped but shut down. Meanwhile, she spent much of her time on the radio, managing the rotation of escorts.
She knew Fritzchen would've preferred it if she'd just ridden inside the airplane with him, and done the logistical work over the radio set in there, but she preferred to be out here, geared up, ready to take action if the necessity arose. Besides, it wasn't any great hardship. The weather was lovely, the transport was doing all the work, and her commanding position meant she had an excellent view in all directions - far better than she'd have from inside the cabin.
At the moment, all was not going entirely smoothly, but she wasn't terribly worried about it - just annoyed. There was some kind of mix-up with the timetable for the handover from the escorts who had followed the transport from Calais to those who would take them into Juvincourt. The Juvincourt-based witches hadn't arrived; had not, it seemed, even set off yet, and the ones from Calais had little choice but to break off and return if they intended to make it back at all. Regulations were very specific on those points. The cowboy days of thousand-mile, all-day patrols were long since over, swept away on a veritable tide of data compiled by those unfortunate enough to be assigned such missions in older times.
"I have no excuse, Rittmeister von Hammer," said the audibly dismayed commander of JG 11 in her earpiece. "The operation order I have here says clearly that we are to depart at 1340 hours. I don't know how that can have happened. We'll be with you as fast as we can."
Von Hammer replied with faint asperity, "What's done cannot be undone. Don't tax yourselves rushing to meet us; that would serve no purpose. You'll be of no help if you're already exhausted when you arrive."
"Roger, understood. We're launching now; I'll contact you when I have a better ETA. Hackl out."
Hannelore closed the connection and sighed. Antonina Hackl was a good and conscientious officer, not one to foul something like this up on her own; much more likely she was a fellow victim of bureaucratic bungling somewhere farther up the food chain. Berating her would serve no purpose.
A moment later her earpiece crackled, then asked in the Kaiser's voice, "Is there a problem, Hannelore?"
"I wish you wouldn't listen in on my communications," Hannelore replied. "It's a bad habit, and besides, eavesdropping is unbecoming in a head of state."
Fritzchen ignored her testiness, as he generally did, and told her, "Well, no great harm done, I should think. We're still far from the front."
"In this war, as you should well know by now, that's no guarantee of - ... blast."
"What - oh," said the Kaiser, as through the Ju 52's windscreen he saw the same thing that von Hammer had just noticed. A few miles ahead, out of a picturesque cloudbank, a vast black shape was emerging with a strange sort of ponderous, stately grace. Sleek and streamlined, vaguely cigar-shaped, and many times the size of the imperial transport, it cruised out of its fluffy white cover and slowly turned as if to regard them, rows of hexagonal panels glowing red on its smooth black surface.
"Fritzchen, you fool," Hannelore remarked, releasing her hold on the Ju 52's radio mast as her Striker's twin ætherjet engines whined to life. "Now see what you've gone and done!"
Several miles out and a thousand feet above, Shizuka noticed them first. Not the Neuroi, the Ju 52, or the lone witch trying to intervene between them; both Gryphon and Sanya had noticed them readily enough. Only Shizuka, in her unusual position slung from the front of Gryphon's jetpack harness, happened to be looking down at the right moment to notice the other interlopers.
"What the -?" she said. "What are those?" She peered more closely, then seemed to notice for the first time that she was still wearing Lt. Col. Sakamoto's spare eyepatch and took it off. "Witches?"
Gryphon looked, rolling slightly to port so he could see straight down around her head, and at first glance it did appear that a group of witches was inbound to the scene: ten small shapes, too small to be conventional aircraft, passing beneath them at high speed and drawing behind them sharp-edged white contrails, in a neat Victor formation.
"Wait," he said. "Those aren't Strikers." As the formation ascended, drawing nearer to their own altitude even as they passed by, the individual figures making it up became easier to see - and in a few moments it became obvious that they weren't witches at all. They were men, men dressed in the uniform of Karlsland Fallschirmjäger, and on the back of each was a stubby, short-finned metal object with a cone of orange flame shooting from one end.
"That's... that's not possible," Shizuka said, and then, sounding almost indignant about it, "How can that be possible?! This is supposed to be the only one of these!"
"It is," Gryphon said. "Look closer. Those guys don't have the same equipment. Their packs don't have intakes. They're not jetpacks at all - they're rockets." He shook his head with a grim smile. "I'll give them this much, they're brave, whoever they are. You wouldn't catch me flying into combat with that much high explosive strapped to my back."
Hannelore von Hammer had never experienced a Neuroi like this one before. It might well have been the slowest aerial Neuroi she'd ever seen, but it was also just about the toughest. Her 30mm cannon fire was just sort of... vanishing into it, knocking holes in its outer carapace but doing no other evident damage. The explosive rounds weren't cratering the crystalline structure the way they normally did. The monster just soaked them up and kept on ponderously coming.
"Weiß-5 to Hellhammer," a voice crackled in her earpiece. "Hold on, we're on our way. ETA three minutes."
Hannelore blinked in surprise. "Barkhorn?!" she replied. "What are you doing this far west?"
Before Trude could answer, another voice had broken into the conversation - an unfamiliar voice, a man's voice, declaring with an audible sneer,
"Don't trouble yourself, witch - the Raketenkorps will handle this."
"Who the hell is that?" Barkhorn demanded. "Clear the frequency!"
Completing another fruitless pass, Hannelore pulled a hard turn to keep herself between the mammoth Neuroi and the Kaiser's slowly fleeing transport. As she did, she saw two things she hadn't expected, neither one of which pleased her. One was the tidy formation of ten flying men, each of them armed with the distinctive blocky shape of a Fliegerhammer rocket launcher, on a rising intercept vector...
... and the other was another Neuroi, this one slightly smaller than her vast quarry and vaguely wing-shaped, descending through the broken cloud deck at 15,000 feet and heading straight for them.
"Phantom to Rakas," Heidemarie called on the 501st's tactical band. "I've just realized where I've seen this signal before. It's Knickebein!"
"Knickebein?" Shizuka wondered.
"Navigational radio beam," Heidemarie explained. "Karlsland used it early in the war to guide interceptors, during the defense of the Fatherland."
"It worked," Sanya said tersely, "but it didn't help."
"Who's using it now, though? And to guide what?"
Sanya thought about it for a moment, and then her green eyes widened as the invisible electromagnetic shape of the thing all suddenly made sense.
"Them," she said, pointing.
Ahead and below, seemingly oblivious to the second Neuroi maneuvering into a killing position behind them, the Raketenkorps troopers bored relentlessly ahead, their flight paths arrow-straight.
"Sanya, can you get us into their comms?" Gryphon asked.
"Wait one," Sanya replied. His earpiece fuzzed and mumbled as she swept the frequencies, looking for the one the rocket men were using - and then a slightly-rattled-sounding voice said in Karlslandic,
<Sir, the other Neuroi - what do we do?>
<Stay on target,> the voice that had addressed Hannelore replied, icily calm. Then its owner added fatalistically, <What else can we do?>
"What does that mean?" Shizuka wondered. "Why aren't they changing course?"
Gryphon blinked, a look of dawning horror coming onto his face; turning his head, he made eye contact with Sanya, whose expression mirrored his own.
"They can't," they said in unison. Her face grim, Sanya unslung her Fliegerhammer and throttled up, peeling away from them to intercept the second Neuroi.
"I don't understand," Shizuka said.
"They're not just using the radio beam for navigation," he explained. "It's controlling them. Those poor saps are just passengers."
"That's insane!" Shizuka objected. "Who would agree to that?"
"I don't really have time to work that part out right now," Gryphon admitted.
<Zero point,> the rocket troopers' leader announced, and by this point Gryphon and Shizuka were close enough to see - and, on some abstract level, admire - the machinelike precision with which they all simultaneously readied their weapons. It was clearly a procedure they had drilled many times, until it had an almost parade-ground quality about it.
Of course, they were all about to be vaporized from behind by the second Neuroi, but still - at least they were well-trained.
Without time to think of a more elegant solution, Sanya did the only thing she could: She tuned her magic radar to the frequency the Knickebein-like control transmission was using, increased her output as high as she dared, and plunged straight into the middle of their formation.
Suddenly lobotomized by the replacement of their command signal with meaningless noise, the rocket troopers' flight packs ran wild, steering randomly in response to the spurious inputs. With no capacity for throttle adjustments and no way for the men wearing them to control them in any way, they raced in all directions, carrying their shouting, flailing passengers off every which way at undiminished full thrust. That was dismaying for the men, but Sanya figured it would be less so than being vaporized by the wing-shaped Neuroi's plasma beam, which it raked across the space where they had been no more than a half-second after she scattered them.
Teeth gritted, she caught the beam on her shield as it reached her, splashing it aside, then leveled her weapon and launched a troika of rockets at it.
"Nicely done, Sanya," Gryphon said, instinctively vectoring to intercept one of the out-of-control rocket troopers.
Just before they reached him, the man's rocket pack sputtered, went out, and then, to Gryphon's mild surprise, fell away, automatically releasing a parachute from beneath it. In the quarter-second or so of eye contact he had before their suddenly increased closing speed carried him past, Gryphon was gratified to see the rocket trooper's look of utter astonishment as someone who could control his jetpack - and who had a teenage Fusōnese witch strapped to his chest, no less - relieved him of his weapon on the way by.
"I'll take that," he said, flipping the Fliegerhammer over in his hands and balancing it on his left shoulder. "See if I remember how to use one of these things, it's been a while." Pulling a wide turn to give Sanya room to work against her own dance partner, he drew a bead on the larger Neuroi, gave it a little bit of lead, and squeezed the trigger.
"Whoa!" Gryphon and Shizuka declared together as the weapon unexpectedly launched all nine of its rockets, spewing them out in a single apocalyptic plume of fire and smoke. Too close together, they interfered with each other's flight paths, scattering the group and spraying warheads harmlessly across a wide patch of sky; not a single one hit the Neuroi.
"What was that about?" Gryphon asked the spent launcher. "It's like a Fliegerhammer for stupid people." Discarding it, he opened the jetpack's throttle wide and pulled up into a zoom climb, clawing for altitude and a bit of working space. "OK, then," he said in an offhand kind of way. "On to - what plan are we up to now?"
"F, I think," Shizuka replied.
Gryphon nodded. "On to plan F," he said, rolling out at the top of the climb to avoid pulling negative G on the way down. "How are we going to kill a Neuroi without a gun?"
Shizuka watched the horizon tilt crazily as they rolled, then the mammoth first Neuroi slide into view. It was still on course for the Kaiser's Ju 52, and despite its ponderous bulk, it appeared to be catching up to the slow-flying transport. She wondered why it wasn't shooting; it was well within beam range. Was it trying to capture the Kaiser? Was that even a thing the Neuroi understood?
Her face settled into a look of determination as she realized what they had to do.
"Forget the gun," she said.
"Beg pardon?" Gryphon asked.
Raising her hands, Shizuka scowled in concentration, calling up her magic shield. Without a Striker Unit to amplify it, this would necessarily not be as strong as it could be, but she was a very young witch, and she was confident that it would still be sufficient, particularly if she tried very hard and concentrated it into a smaller-than-usual disc.
"I said forget the gun!" she barked. "Ramming speed!"
"Please don't take this in a weird way?" Gryphon said conversationally, "But I think I love you."
Then, placing both arms snugly around her middle, he opened the He 162's throttle as far as it would go, straight past the full-power detent and into the afterburner position. The pack jerked, its whine becoming a roar, as raw fuel poured into the exhaust flame and stretched the normally short blue cone into a diamond-studded shock tail half again as long as its pilot's body.
By this point in their careers, both Ben Hutchins and Shizuka Hattori had seen enough Neuroi shootdowns to know what ought to have happened next. If Shizuka's shield really was strong enough and if Gryphon had guessed right about the internal location of its core, they should have smashed through its crystal hull, plowed through and destroyed the core, and then burst out of the other side before the Neuroi had time to disintegrate, as they always did, into a cloud of shimmering silvery-white fragments with a bell-like sound. Even if they missed the core, they could still expect to get all the way through it, and the damage they dealt on the way might hamper its progress a bit while it regenerated.
What happened instead was that they punched through a thin veneer of black Neuroi crystal on top of what appeared to be sheet aluminum and into a small forest of girders and wires, interspersed with which were large, flexible bladders filled with extremely flammable hydrogen gas.
Which the He 162's incandescent exhaust instantly ignited.
At which point there was a gigantic, fiery, entirely un-Neuroi-like explosion.
Gryphon and Shizuka shot out of the far side of the fireball like an especially energetic piece of shrapnel, boosted to nearly-supersonic speeds by the blast but otherwise unharmed. The turbine had flamed out once more, not entirely surprisingly, and he nearly lost control of the rig again; but he had his eye in now, and Shizuka had the beginnings of an idea how to help him, or at least not hinder him, in his work. Between the two of them, they managed to keep it right-side up long enough for two other figures to swoop in and stabilize them.
"What the hell?!" Gryphon demanded, as if Trude Barkhorn were in a position to know. Cocking a thumb back over his shoulder at the rapidly dissipating smoke cloud, he said indignantly, "That was a zeppelin!"
"Well, the other one isn't," Trude replied, indicating the second Neuroi with the arm that wasn't looped around one of his.
"Are you guys OK?" Yoshika Miyafuji asked, holding onto Gryphon's other arm. "What happened?"
Eila Juutilainen-Litvyak pulled up to a hover nearby. "Never mind that now, can you fly?" she asked with urgency in her voice. "We need to back up Sanya."
"Pull the yellow handle on the right side of the jetpack," Shizuka told her before Gryphon could speak. Giving her junior wingmate a puzzled look, Eila did as instructed; Gryphon plied the igniter and the jetpack sprang readily back to life, enabling his rescuers to disengage as he trimmed it for a more-or-less stable hover.
"Hattori, make a note," he said. "That handle needs to be made accessible to the flight crew. Or automated."
"Roger that," Shizuka replied, nodding.
Mio Sakamoto swooped up to them, laughing. "You two are quite a team," she said. Shizuka glanced back (as best she could) at Gryphon, then turned to the elder Fusō witch, blushing. With another laugh, Mio handed her Type-99 autocannon to Shizuka and said, "Now let's go deal with this Neuroi!"
It took some dealing with. It wasn't the biggest Neuroi anyone there had ever seen, but it was sizeable, and it had a lot of firepower; it was one of the newer types that could aggregate multiple plasma beams from multiple directions, which made it tricky to approach and even harder to mass fire against.
The 501st Joint Fighter Wing converged from points around, where they had been shadowing the route from Mimoyecques to the secondary rendezvous point near Arras. Joined by Gryphon and Shizuka, and by Hannelore von Hammer (who appeared not in any way surprised by the jetpack-and-witch-equipped man, or perhaps she was just too busy to remark upon him), they put on an excellent demonstration of what three years' experience under one of the finest commanders, and one of the ablest trainers, in the Allied Forces could make a dozen witches capable of. They harassed the Neuroi from every available angle, chipping away at it. Patient, methodical, they waited for an opportunity to launch a final strike, positioning themselves to pounce instantly on that opportunity when it came.
And then, suddenly, the Neuroi seemed to lose interest in them. As if responding to some other stimulus, it swung out of its latest attack pass early, turning southward instead. Puzzled, the witches and Gryphon all turned to track its course -
- and saw that it had noticed, and was now making for, a Ju 52 whose course was not away from the combat zone, but rather parallel to it.
"Fritzchen, you fool!" von Hammer cried. "What are you doing?!"
But of course she knew what he was doing. Rather than run away like anyone with a grain of sense in a slow, unarmed transport would, the bloody man was watching the show. He had bet on the Neuroi being too absorbed in its fight with the witches to notice him loitering what he thought would be a safe distance away... and he had lost. The scarlet pulses of incipient plasma fire were racing up the sides of the Neuroi now, preparing to unleash a stream of energy that would reduce the Kaiser's plane - and the Kaiser - to a memory, and there was nothing von Hammer, all the way at the other side of the battle area, could do about it -
Abandoning her weapon to free her hands, one of the 501st's witches streaked into position, pushing her piston-engined Striker so hard that flames were shooting from its exhaust stacks. Pulling out of her dive just above the Kaiser's Junkers, she whirled, balancing on her props, and raised her shield a split-second before the Neuroi's beam struck it full-on.
"Brigadier Wilcke!" cried Yoshika, her eyes huge; but her cry was drowned out by a scream - an actual scream, such as few present had ever heard cross Mio Sakamoto's lips:
For five full seconds, the 501st's commanding officer held the Neuroi onslaught at bay with sheer force of will - but even a witch in her prime couldn't have held a beam of that magnitude off forever, and having turned twenty-one a month before, Minna-Dietlinde Wilcke was no longer a witch in her prime. Her shield dimmed, flickering, then brightened back to full strength as - biting her lip until it bled - she dug down inside herself for everything she had left. Then it cracked, and then shattered, flying apart into a million slivers of glowing æther that hurtled outward like the shards of a dropped plate and evanesced into the high, thin air...
... but it had done its job. Its offensive power temporarily spent, the Neuroi ceased its attack at that precise moment. Stalemate.
Her Striker's engines stalling, Minna pitched backward and began to fall from the sky like a stone. With an incoherent shout, Mio rammed her swords into their scabbards and firewalled her throttles, diving after her with such ferocity that her Shiden-kai's ætheric props went cherry red, as if made from friction-heated steel.
Behind her, while the rest of the 501st tried to regroup, Hannelore von Hammer's face had gone as still and cold as marble. Without a word, she discarded her autocannons, tossing them away as if disgusted by them, then balled her fists and slammed them together in front of her chest.
As she did so, her whole body glowed, the way Trude's did when she was exerting the prodigious strength that was her magical specialty, and her rune circle appeared beneath the trailing tips of her Striker Unit, the way most witches' did when they were on their takeoff runs - except that both effects, instead of the customary blue-white, were a brilliant blood red. The tail of her old-fashioned aviator's scarf whipped as if in a heavy wind, its tip cracking, and the jet howl of her Striker became a banshee's wail as she suddenly burst into motion, trailing stray flickers of energy behind her.
As she flew, she reached over her shoulder and drew her backup weapon, its spring-loaded handle extending to its full two-foot length as she did so. Some people thought it was a curious affectation that a woman named Hammer - which means the same thing in Karlslandic that it does in English - should carry around a six-pound collapsible-shaft sledge hammer in battle. The von Hammer lineage, after all, was named metaphorically, after the 15th-century manual of spellcraft, Der Hexenhammer. Some (who didn't know her very well) even speculated that it might be some strange, stilted idea of a joke, or at least a curious bit of symbolism.
Those people had presumably never had an opportunity to see her use it. As her headlong charge reached the Neuroi's unguarded flank, she brought the hammer around in a titanic haymaker swing, its head leaving a comet trail of scarlet light in its wake, and bellowed at the top of her voice:
Before the astonished eyes of the 501st, the red aura suffusing von Hammer's body and weapon spread throughout the Neuroi's structure in a rapidly expanding network of cracks. With a sound like a hundred thousand crystal chandeliers hitting the floor all at once, the alien machine disintegrated. For the barest instant, the sharper-eyed members of the squadron could see the core, hovering in midair, suddenly orphaned by the utter destruction of its body; then it, too, fractured and flew apart.
"... You don't see that every day," Gryphon mused.
"No," Shizuka agreed.
They regrouped in the field where Mio's group had left the 501st's Ju 52 and the truck Shirley and the Hartmanns had "liberated" from Mimoyecques. A deeply chagrined Kaiser Friedrich IV, disembarking from his own Junkers next to the 501st's, completely abandoned protocol. Waving aside all attempts by his startled subjects Barkhorn, Hartmann, and Hartmann to acknowledge his presence properly, he hurried to Mio's side as she landed nearby with Minna, unconscious and bloodied, cradled in her arms.
"Oh no, Minna," said Shirley, eyes wide.
"Is she -" Lucchini began, but then couldn't bring herself to say the rest and turned away, burying her face in Shirley's bosom with a sob.
"No, she's alive, and her Striker's still attached," said Mio, her face grim. She handed Minna gently off to Trude, who laid her carefully out on the ground, then pulled the release handle that would undo that state of affairs, shutting down the Striker's Miyafuji engine and allowing the general's wolf ears and tail to recede.
"So she hasn't completely burned herself out," said Erica, nodding. "But..."
Mio climbed out of her own Striker and knelt next to the 501st's commander, absently smoothing her disordered chestnut hair. "Time will tell," she said quietly. Then, looking up, she said, "Miyafuji..."
Yoshika nodded. "I'll do what I can here, but the best thing would be to get her back to base as quickly as we can."
"Put her in my transport," the Kaiser said. "She'll be most comfortable there, and you can do whatever you need to do."
"Right." Mio gave Minna one last, lingering look, then straightened up and took charge of the situation. "Miyafuji, Bishop, you two and I will go with Minna. Shirley, I need you to bring that truck back to base. Trude, Erica, take your Strikers and go with Shirley and Ursula - if anyone comes after that truck, I want you to be ready to launch. The rest of you, follow us."
"Roger," the wing acknowledged, everyone's face businesslike.
Mio looked from face to face for a moment, saying nothing; then she asked, "Where's Heidemarie?"
Sanya got a faraway look; a moment later it was replaced by one of faint puzzlement as she said, "She's escorting another aircraft to Juvincourt. She says... it would take too long to explain right now."
"Fine," said Mio, nodding. "Rittmeister von Hammer, will you be coming with us?"
"Of course I will," said Hannelore, who looked weary and drawn, but unbowed. With a very un-subject-like glare for the Kaiser, she added, "Like it or not, I'm still responsible for this imbecile."
Evening was falling as the 501st's Ju 52 trundled across the Alsace border - the home stretch, as it were, of the day's long scramble around northern Gallia. Another hour or so, and they'd be home at last. From the passenger cabin, Francesca Lucchini could make out the red and green night formation lights of the Kaiser's transport and a few of their current escorts, the 511th JFW from neighboring Lichtenberg. She couldn't tell which one was which (apart from Eleanor Hutchins, who was marked out by her Night Witch antennae), but she was comforted knowing they were out there.
Across the aisle, Perrine Clostermann had stretched out on the bench seat and gone to sleep, her head pillowed on her rolled-up jacket. Up front, Sanya was out cold in the co-pilot's seat, her head lolling, while Eila guided the transport home. Yawning, Lucchini got up and headed for the back of the plane, where the blanket locker was, thinking she might as well get in a little shut-eye herself...
She never made it there, and it wouldn't have mattered if she had, for the locker was empty. On the deck at the very back of the cabin, all its contents had been put to use bundling up two exhausted individuals: Shizuka Hattori on the right, and Gryphon on the left, the pair of them dead to the world.
Smiling, Lucchini found a corner of the blanket to Gryphon's right and burrowed in, thinking, Welcome to the club, new kid.
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
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) 2015