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With a sizeable chunk of the 501st Joint Fighter Wing on "detached operations" as part of what they'd dubbed Operation Hammer, Mio Sakamoto had been hard pressed to make sure that they were still meeting their responsibilities in the air around Ribeauvillé.
One major concern was coverage overnight, since the last minute decision to send Heidemarie Schnaufer along had left them with a serious gap. After some discussion, the decision had been made to keep Sanya on her current northern patrols, while a rotating pair of witches would perform a dusk patrol along the southern sectors, with the overnight hours covered by radar and observers on the ground. With luck, they'd only have to do this for a couple of days; Wilma Bishop had cryptically promised she'd "try an angle" to help provide better coverage on a temporary basis, but said she would need a day or two to make it happen.
Tonight, the first volunteer had been Gertrud Barkhorn. Since the Striker she'd utterly trashed returning from Freiburg was von Hammer's, that meant her regular Focke-Wulf Fw 190 was ready for her, and her newly developed connection to the Force meant that she'd recovered her strength much faster than she normally would have after such a dramatic battle.
In fact, over the last two days she seemed to be running with an almost inexhaustible energy. She still got tired, of course, but she didn't think she'd felt such a strong sense of magical power within her even when she'd first begun her training as a witch. It was a thrilling sensation, but one she was also just a bit hesitant to accept. She told herself she just didn't want to get too comfortable for fear it might somehow end.
Trude did her best to put that out of her mind as she walked to the launch stage where her Striker was waiting. Powering up was no different than before, and as she felt her familiar's ears and tail manifest, she took a slow, deep breath, then brought the piston engines to life. Drawing her MG 42s from the armory rack, she looked over to the door to FUEL STORAGE, where her patrol partner was making his own preparations for their flight.
Gryphon didn't have to worry about his magical reserves, but he had spent most of the day - well, the afternoon - making sure the He 162 was ready for use. After the wringer he'd put it through in Freiburg, he had felt it prudent to replace the actual turbine, the heart of the jetpack's engine, entirely, swapping it out with the spare unit; he could then overhaul it at his leisure while remaining operational for air deployments. All things considered, he was pleased with how the jetpack's controls and fuel systems had held up to that abuse; four flying hours wasn't a lot, even for an experimental jetpack like the He 162, but in terms of mechanical demand, they had been quite a long four hours.
Coming out of FUEL STORAGE, he stopped to pick up a Type 99 and a few spare ammo drums, then smiled to the Karlslander as she finished her pre-flight checks.
"Evening, Trude. Ready to go?"
Trude made one final attempt to tamp down her vague unease - it had no place in flight, even if she didn't really expect much actual combat - then managed a weak smile. "Yes, ready here."
Apart from radio checks and routine sector-clear calls back to Saint-Ulrich, Trude said nothing for more than a complete lap of their patrol route. Gryphon left her to her thoughts until after they reached the southeast corner of their second lap and made the right turn over Mulhouse. Then, as they cruised westward and the setting sun flushed the Gallian countryside in crimson and orange, he looked over at her closed-down, pensive face and said,
"So. By this point you must be pretty near the bottom of the rush/reservations curve."
Trude blinked in surprise, turning to give him a wide-eyed, faintly rattled look. "How did you -?" she began.
Gryphon chuckled with a fond shake of his head. "Karlslanders. Always thinking you have such perfect poker faces." Then, adjusting his formation so he could reach out and pat her near shoulder, he went on, "I'll drop it if you don't want to talk about it, but you should know I'm prepared to if you do."
"I don't..." She thought about it for a moment, then shook her head, sighing. "I don't know how to talk about it," she finally concluded. "I've never been good at talking about what I'm feeling. You know that. And this..." She spread her hands helplessly.
"I do know that," said Gryphon gently. "And you know that I don't mind if you're not a poet."
She regarded him for a moment, then returned her gaze to the horizon, chuckling softy at her own reticence. "No, of course you don't," she acknowledged, with a wry little smile. "All right, well... the other day, when I was on my way to Freiburg. You probably already figured this out, but I finally reached the Force because my magic failed. Baroness von Hammer's 262... took it all. And when I had no more to give, it started taking my life instead. And..."
Trude paused, and for a few long seconds they cruised along in silence but for the burr of her props and the hiss of his jetpack.
"I was so afraid," she said at last, speaking as if to the setting sun rather than to him. "I knew I was dying, that the verdammt machine was killing me, but I wasn't afraid of that. I've never been afraid to die. I know that sounds boastful, like some cardboard heroine out of one of those stupid Liberion movies about the war, but it's the truth. Being killed in action has never frightened me. What frightens me is failing - failing my country, failing my comrades... failing my sister. And if I had died there and then, I would have done all three."
She clenched a fist against her chest, her eyes glinting in the fading sunlight. "And it made me angry. So damned angry. The rage that filled me in that moment... I haven't felt anything like it since the day Königsberg fell. The day... the day Chris was nearly killed. And it was at that moment... that everything opened up for me. One moment, I was screaming out what I was sure was my last breath, and the next... I was more alive than I had ever been before."
Gryphon nodded. "I suspected as much. I felt it when you finally made contact - I think everyone did, though the others may not have enough experience to have recognized it yet, except probably Mio."
"Ever since then, I've been... well, at first I was just in shock, but now... I'm wondering about it. Because... the others who have touched this power - Mio, Minna, Wilma... from what I understand, they all felt it as a joyous thing. Wilma called her awakening a moment of transcendent peace. And I..." She trailed off, then said in a cooler, brisker tone, "I'm sorry. This isn't the time or place. We both have work to do."
Gryphon gave her a long, thoughtful look, but offered no demur, and they completed the patrol without further discussion.
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
"Back at the Ranch"
Darkness had fully fallen, and Sanya had already departed on her night patrol to the north, when Trude and Gryphon returned to Château Saint-Ulrich. The hangar was empty, and dark apart from minimal night-shift lighting, as they stowed away their equipment. Only after they had showered up and were relaxing in the bath did Gryphon raise the topic again, having let it lie throughout the rest of the flight.
"You know... back where I come from, there are a lot of different Force traditions, and one of the most influential ones does have pretty significant reservations about the more... negative emotions."
"What do they think about it?" Trude wondered, sounding curious almost in spite of herself.
"Oh, well, the Jedi Knights' classical philosophy claims that all sorts of terrible things will result if you touch the Force without complete dispassion in your heart," said Gryphon, sounding faintly scornful. "Their interpretation is that the Force itself has a dark side - that's actually what they call it, the Dark Side of the Force - and that anyone who calls upon it risks falling forever into corruption and evil. Tyranny and cruelty, murder of innocents, all that jazz."
"I take it you don't buy into that," Trude said dryly, taking note of his tone.
"No," Gryphon confirmed. "I surely don't. I think - and I'm not alone in this - that the Jedi have the cart before the horse there. Mistaking cause and effect. In practice, Katsujinkenryū doesn't draw any such distinction - but, apocalyptic misreadings of the Force itself aside, there are potential consequences for misusing it in anger. Those are still very much part of K-ryū, since one of its founders was a Jedi. A renegade, by the standards of his order at the time, though nowadays he would probably find his divergent views better-received... but I digress."
He was about to go on, but just then Eila Juutilainen-Litvyak came through from the showers, towel in hand. "Oh, hey, you guys," she said, stepping into the tub a discreet distance down one side. Settling back, she folded up her towel and put it on her head, Fusō-style (as indeed Gryphon had done), then sighed and said, "Nothing beats a nice hot soak before bed, yeah? It's a shame Sanya never has time. All quiet to the south?"
"Seems that way," Trude said, and they made small talk for another few minutes, until she and Gryphon dried off, dressed, and headed for the barracks wing.
"You said there were consequences for using the Force in anger," Trude prompted him as they arrived on the residence floor.
"No, I said there were potential consequences for misusing it," he replied, leading the way into 5 East. Switching on the bedside lamp, he saw that the room was empty; consulting his Lens, he said, "Hm. Keeping Lynne company tonight, are they? Interesting... anyway." As he went on, Gryphon changed into his nightclothes, then stretched out on his bed. "The thing is that misusing the Force is just like misusing magic. And you've been trained not to do that since you were just a kid. Your particular magic gift must have made it especially critical. I mean... all witches are stronger than other girls, and many magical powers can be dangerous, but if you compare your magical specialty to, say, Yoshika's... when you can bend steel in your bare hands, every schoolyard brawl is potential manslaughter."
Trude took off her jacket, folded it neatly, and placed it on his desk, then stood her boots next to the chair and lay down beside him. "Mm," she agreed. "I can remember a time or two in Grundschule when it nearly was."
"Well... it's the same with the Force," Gryphon said. "Katsujinkenryū views the Force as a tool. It's a source of energy, not a moral intelligence. Like all tools, it can be mishandled; as the old saying goes, any tool is a weapon if you hold it right. But calling on it with fire in your heart... no. That isn't, in itself, a failure or a crime." He glanced at her, smiling, and took her hand. "It's what you do with it that counts - and what you did with it was save your sister's life. That's never going to be the wrong call."
Trude looked back at him, smiled, and sighed, her shoulders relaxing. "Thank you," she said softly.
"Hey, it's just the truth," he replied.
They lay side by side in contemplative silence for a while. When Trude moved, Gryphon assumed she was getting up to go across the hall; instead, she just rolled far enough to turn off the lamp, then back, nestling in by his side.
"You should mention this at the next Zauberschule," she suggested. "In case the next one of us who breaks through does it in a similar way..."
Placing his arm comfortably around her shoulders, Gryphon said, "Hmm. That's a good idea. I never thought of it, probably because it happened to me so long ago." Then, chuckling, he went on, "Y'know, one of the first big arguments the Founders had was about this very thing. Talar Kem was a Jedi Knight, with all that that entails, but Asagiri Tetsuo had very definite opinions about the usefulness of a righteous rage..."
Erica Hartmann had been patiently waiting for this opportunity.
She'd known from the moment she began capturing her latest photo series that the capstone would have to be the elusive moment where Trude finally gave in to temptation and decided to spend the night in 5 East. It had taken longer than she'd expected, but the moment was finally at hand.
Barely breathing, she slowly turned the doorknob, making sure to pull it towards just enough to keep the latch from scraping against the strike plate. Gryphon probably would have slept through that anyway, but she wasn't taking any chances with her wife.
Silently swinging the door open, Erica stepped just inside, then raised her Ansco Speedex. She tweaked the focus and aperture until the camera was perfectly set up to capture Trude's pose: cuddled up against Gryphon's back, one arm wrapped around his pajama-clad chest, the other his midsection, her chin on his shoulder. One of her feet was just peeking out of the covers, hanging off the far edge of the bed.
When she had lived alone, Trude had slept flat on her back with her arms at her sides, unmoving - like a corpse, Erica had once joked, or a vampire in a coffin. When they'd started sleeping together, though, she'd discovered to her delight that, with someone else in the bed with her, Trude was a professional-grade snuggler. She didn't have wandering hands, like Erica had heard Wilma Bishop did - even in her sleep she had too much reserve for that - but she would always, always go for the cuddle, and this right here was exactly what Erica had been hoping to see this morning. Beware of Karlslandic border excursions.
Her finger tightened on the shutter button, but a split-second after the moment was immortalized on film, it was literally shattered by a woman's upper body crashing through the window.
"Was in der Scheiße -!" Erica cried, jumping back.
The rest of the new arrival quickly followed as the wall around the window crumbled inwards. A bleary, mostly-instinctive tuck and roll by Gryphon flipped Trude clean off the bed and out of the line of fire; he didn't quite get clear himself, but managed to avoid the biggest pieces, as said bed suddenly filled with chunks of stone, masonry, and the better half of a still-running Striker Unit.
The hot exhausts of the Striker's piston engines touched off Gryphon's bedsheets, and Erica began to cough as the room started to fill with smoke.
There was a rush of cool air as the door to the hallway opened, and then Eila poked her head in. "What the heck was that - whoa! What happened in here?"
Erica turned, pointing back the way she came. "Not now! - help me get this fire out!"
"I'm on it," Eila replied, turning to grab the fire extinguisher off the wall partway up the corridor.
Erica was vaguely aware of the witch who had started all of this yanking the emergency release on her Striker and kicking herself free of the burning wreckage. Through the smoke and flame, she caught a glimpse of blonde hair and a light blue uniform as their owner grabbed hold of the slightly stunned Gryphon and pulled him away from the fire, while Trude sprang to her feet, clearly trying to figure out what was going on.
"Hartmann, what are you doing here?"
Calling up her magic, Erica began to pull the winds around her, preparing her Sturm technique. "Right now I'm trying to keep the whole room from going up!"
When she thrust her hands forward, the blast of air she summoned wasn't nearly as strong as if she'd had her Striker, but it was enough to snuff most of the flames. She realized a moment too late that she ended up pushing the burning Striker (and the bed it was lying on) back through the hole where the window had once been, and down the side of the hill it went with a crunch.
Eila made it back with the extinguisher a moment later and blasted the last few tongues of flame that Erica hadn't managed to take care of, then let the extinguisher drop to the floor. "OK, now that's taken care of, can anyone please tell me what's going on?"
Shaking his head, Gryphon got a bit dizzily to his feet and added wryly, "Yeah, I'd kind of like to know that myself."
Their mysterious arrival finally stood up and looked around at that point, giving Erica her first really good look. She was slightly taller than Erica herself, about even with Eila's height, and wore a torn, scorched, and slightly bloodied Suomus Air Force uniform sweater. Her blonde hair was a few shades darker than Eila's, and cut much shorter, with a pair of triangular white ears - weasel, maybe? - protruding through it. Though bruised and cut, she didn't seem seriously injured - and in fact, as Erica assessed her condition, some of the newcomer's minor injuries disappeared right before her eyes.
Looking around with a faintly embarassed look, the battered Suomi witch brushed some crumbled mortar and shards of glass off of herself before speaking.
"I heard, uh, that you needed some help?"
They stood like that, while Trude and Gryphon blinked themselves back to full consciousness amid this bizarre tableau, until Eila broke the moment of stunned silence with a cry that somehow managed to mix surprise, happiness, and frustrated exasperation in one word.
As things went, Minna was a bit surprised to find her reaction to "Uninvited witch showing up and crashing into the castle" was fairly low-key. Perhaps because, after the last week, it was a refreshingly simple thing.
"So," she noted to the small crowd that had filled up her office, "let me see if I have all of this straight." Pointing to Eila, she continued, "You happened to mention to Master Sergeant Katajainen here that we were a little shorthanded."
Eila nodded, but otherwise kept quiet, her face even more pale than usual.
"After which," Minna went on, walking over to stand in front of Nipa, "you decided to arrange for permission to fly down from the 502nd so you could lend us a hand."
Nipa nodded, clearly not sure where this was going.
Minna stepped back slightly, putting her hands on her hips. "And your idea of help was to start by crashing into the Castle, which ended in your Striker Unit being destroyed."
Erica looked sheepish, putting her hand behind her head. "That last part was sort of my fault."
Minna smiled just a bit. "Given that you were trying to keep the castle from burning down, I think we can forgive you, just this once." Walking back behind her desk, she sat and regarded all three of them (plus Mio Sakamoto, who was leaning against the far wall of her office with a little smirk) before taking a deep breath.
"Well, it's not the best way to say hello, but I do appreciate that you came to help us, Sergeant. Since you won't be much good to us without a working Striker, I'll add a requisition for a replacement to the already substantial parts and spares order we're working on in the aftermath of Freiburg." After a pause to eye the Suomi witch judiciously again, she added dryly, "Possibly two." Her eyes twinkled slightly, then grew sly. "In the meantime, until it arrives, I'm putting you at the disposal of 404 squadron's deputy commander. I suspect your first assignment will be to help board up the side of his bedroom until the Corps of Engineers can make proper repairs."
Nipa managed to take that on board without complaint, and after a moment Minna made a show of reaching into her desk to produce the paperwork that the morning's excitement would require. "Thank you, ladies, that will be all. Eila, you'd better take Sgt. Katajainen to Supply so that she can draw some new clothes. Dismissed."
Mio waited for all three to file out, then walked over to perch herself on the corner of the general's desk. "I'd heard a few stories about 'Jinx' Katajainen. I didn't expect to end up in one, though."
Minna chuckled. "I suppose I ought to give Eila a reprimand for disclosing classified information, but I can't imagine she thought anything like this would happen - and besides, given that I'm quietly letting a few people know myself, I'd be a terrible hypocrite."
Mio sighed dramatically. "We're not even married yet, and you're already ringing up your old girlfriends. What's a girl supposed to do?" Rewarded for her efforts with a quiet laugh, she straightened up, becoming more serious. "Really, though, what did you have in mind for our new guest?"
"Oh, I'm happy to let her sweep the hangar for a few days, but if we're in a real emergency I'll let her take my reserve 109 out. After a new Striker arrives, we'll consider the matter settled." Looking up, Minna checked the clock mounted on her wall, then stood. "In the mean time, I believe we have an appointment, Colonel Sakamoto."
Mio nodded, standing. "So we do. I'll make sure the others are getting ready and then meet you down in the hangar."
"So I'm guessing nobody warned you about that wicked crosswind on the east side, huh," asked Eila nonchalantly as she showed Nipa the way to Supply.
"Why no," Nipa replied, glaring daggers at the back of her friend's head. "As a matter of fact no one mentioned that, Illu."
"Well, now you know why the castle's approach pattern swings way out to the south like that," Eila replied, blithely unconcerned.
For the second time in less than a week, the 1st Joint Special Air Fleet was preparing to enter enemy airspace.
Minna balanced herself on the props of her Bf 109 Striker as a specially selected group of Witches from her command at Château Saint-Ulrich waited for a similar group from the 511th out of Lichtenberg.
Cradling her MG 42, she scanned the skies to the east, where Lynne Bishop and Eila waited, their weapons slung but ready for quick action; then pivoted towards the north, where Mio was keeping watch, the violet radiance of her witch eye shining through the clear side of her goggles.
The Fusō witch concentrated, leaning forward slightly, then smiled. "Got them - right on time."
It took a few more minutes for the rest of them to see a set of three dark shapes appear on the horizon, which eventually resolved into the silhouettes of Striker-clad witches, and finally grew close enough for them to recognize the individual women. The witch in the lead, unlike the two flanking her, was not carrying a firearm, but Antoinette de Saint-Exupéry had come to consider the Fairchild K-17 hanging from her neck a quite powerful weapon in its own right - and today, it was the most important piece of equipment in their mission.
Saint-Ex smiled as she came to a halt a few yards away from the witches of the 501st, saluting Minna. "Good morning, madame générale!"
Minna slung her MG 42 so that she could return both the salute and the smile, then offered the same smile to the other two witches. "Good morning, Major. Captain Campbell. Sergeant Schwartz. Let's form up, please."
The seven witches arranged themselves into an elongated box formation with their reconnaissance witch in the center, then began a careful climb up to 30,000 feet even as they turned towards the Rhine.
Back at Saint-Ulrich, Gryphon watched the patrol group go - he had to admit that the view from his room was much improved by the giant hole in the wall, although the disadvantages of the arrangement rather outweighed it - then turned to his newly appointed assistant and said, "Welp, I guess we better start boarding this up."
"I... I guess so," said Nipa, not meeting his eyes.
She kept not meeting them as they worked, glancing awkwardly away whenever circumstances threatened to cause eye contact. It complicated the job slightly, but then it wasn't a terribly intricate job in the first place, so Gryphon worked through it rather than calling her on it for most of the time it took to shore up the wall and block off the hole temporarily.
Toward the end, though, he figured he ought to say something to put the poor girl at ease. She must be mortified about crashing through the window like that, and he was just about to make a wry remark about how he'd met people under far less auspicious circumstances than that when she reached some kind of critical decision point of her own and blurted out,
"Did Hartmann know about you and Barkhorn before this morning?"
Ah, thought Gryphon, as it occurred to him belatedly what the situation she'd crashed into probably looked like to someone who wasn't familiar with it.
She was so earnestly awkward about it that he couldn't resist teasing her a little. Returning to work, he said nonchalantly, "Oh, sure."
"... And she doesn't have a problem with that?" asked Nipa, confused.
"Nah," Gryphon replied. "Why should she? She's had plenty of turns herself. In fact," he went on, "if you hadn't come along, she probably would've joined us in another few seconds." Turning, he gave her a stern pointing at and said, "You, young lady, cost me the rare and coveted Karlsland double cuddle, or, as it is also known, the Iron Cross second class." As she stared at him in blank astonishment, he added, "The Iron Cross first class is of course both of the Hartmann twins, but since Ursula's out of the country right now that wasn't going to happen anyway, so we'll let that slide."
Surely she'll figure it out now, he thought, but then, as she continued giving him the silent, wide-eyed stare, Or not. With a gentle smile, he said, "Relax, Sgt. Katajainen. You do realize I've been trolling you this whole time, yes?"
Looking less stunned and more puzzled, Nipa replied, "You've been what?"
"Trolling you. Um... provoking you. Fishing for a reaction." His smile became a grin. "Messing with you."
"Oh," she said. Then, frowning, she went on, "Wait, so Hartmann didn't know about..."
"Of course she did," Gryphon said, picking up another board. "It's just that what she knows about isn't what you're thinking. Everything I just told you is true; I just phrased it that way to make it sound as suspicious as possible, is all."
"... I don't understand this place at all," Nipa admitted, holding her end of the board up so that he could secure his in place.
"Don't worry," Gryphon said, unconcerned. "I'm sure Erica would be happy to explain. Or Lynne. Probably best not to ask Eila. If you think I'm trolling you..."
Despite herself, Nipa laughed. "That much, I already knew," she said, and picked up the next board.
The worst thing about the flight over Freiburg to conduct high-altitude recon, Mio thought, was how normal it had been. No contacts with the Neuroi, no signs of movement in the ruins, hardly any indication at all that they'd fought some of the hardest action of her career there just a few days ago, aside from a few more holes in the buildings, and a few more craters along the ground from plasma blasts and near-miss shots with explosive rounds or rockets. Even most of the glittery "snow" that had been all that remained of the Neuroi had dissipated by this point, either scattered by the wind or just dissolved into nothingness.
By the time Saint-Ex had finished her photography, Mio had gotten so keyed up in her expectation of an ambush that she nearly wanted to scream, but she pushed it down and tried to use that nervous energy to help push herself along just a little faster as they returned to Ribeauvillé.
As if she'd sensed what the Fusō witch was thinking, Saint-Ex drifted into closer formation with her and said without using the radio, "That was a disappointment, eh? I was hoping for a straggler or two. But really, I should think even your appetite for battle might have been sated for a while, Colonel," she added with an impish little smile.
Mio gave a slightly guilty smile in return. "I am what I am, and that's all that I am," she replied with a self-deprecating shrug.
The Gallian laughed. "I know the feeling," she said. "Still, apart from boring a couple of veterans, it's good news, no? With this information, Allied Command might even consider Freiburg secure enough to reoccupy - our first real foothold in Karlsland." With a dark chuckle, she added, "Though knowing the ways of generals, I'm sure they will find some way to treat it as a problem..."
Before entering the landing pattern at the 501st's base, Saint-Exupéry passed her camera and equipment off to Willa Campbell to return to Lichtenberg, explaining she had "a few matters to take care of" at Château Saint-Ulrich before she would return to develop her film. Knowing that was short for stopping in at Zauberschule, the younger Witches gave their elders hopeful, encouraging smiles, then peeled off to the north.
Class was already in session when Mio and Saint-Ex arrived, but hadn't really started yet. The Gallian noticed with an inward smile that the crowd was getting slowly bigger every time she made it down for a session. Several of the 501st's witches who were nowhere near the age at which they had to concern themselves with the state of their magic were in evidence now. They mostly sat at the back and didn't get involved much, but they were all there, holding handmade copies of the document that had come informally to be known as the Zauberschulbuch (even though it wasn't in Karlslandic), paying silent attention.
"Ah, good, you're here," said Gryphon as they entered. "We were just about to get started. Major Barkhorn and I had an interesting discussion recently about the complex relationship between power, self-control, and the Force."
As his students glanced curiously at each other - Where'd this come from? - he went on with a mildly self-deprecating smile, "I originally thought that, since self-control was a topic that will have been covered at length during your original magical training, I didn't need to spend a lot of time rehashing it, but -" (and here he fired a wink at the major in question, drawing a faint blush that pleased several of the younger members of the audience) "- Trude's recent experiences gave her an insight into the matter that I didn't have. Tangentially, there's another lesson there: even if you're teaching, you never stop learning."
Grinning, he clapped his hands briskly together and went cheerfully on,"So! With all that in mind, let's talk balance."
After all the other excitement, the sight of a Witch flying in wasn't enough to spike most of the ground crew's interest - this one had even called ahead to get clearance to land!
That meant that when Heinrike Prinzessin zu Sayn-Wittgenstein arrived, hardly anyone took note of her arrival. This was an unusual state of affairs for her; generally whenever the Princess of Darkness made the scene, any scene, it was a bit of an occasion. This time, not so much. In fact, the only person waiting for her in the hangar, aside from a few members of the castle's ground crew, was Minna-Dietlinde Wilcke, who watched her arrive with a private little smile.
Racking her customized MG 151/20, Heinrike settled into her boots, then walked over to the general before snapping off a precise salute. "General! Wittgenstein has arrived!"
Returning the salute, Minna kept up a straight face for about two seconds before both women cracked up into a fit of giggling. "Ah - it's very good to see you, Princess. And I see you've brought your ridiculous gun."
"My pleasure - how could I not answer such a gracious request for help?" Walking over to where her Ju-88 Striker was now stored, Heinrike patted the stock of her specially-cut-down weapon fondly. "As for the gun, it's quite useful - and a lady never makes a trip without packing appropriately."
Smiling, Minna took a step towards the doors into the rest of the Castle, then began walking as Heinrike followed her. "Obviously you'll want to get a full day of rest before joining Sanya and our dusk patrols, but we'll be glad to have you while Heidemarie is back in Neukarlsland."
"About that," Princess asked, "I notice that Rittmeister von Hammer isn't here, either. Would their absences happen to be connected?"
Minna offered an 'I'm not really answering that' smile. "Perhaps."
"I see. Well, I wouldn't want to let a friend down, and the 506th can get by without me for a bit. Besides, I understand that you've got some kind of additional training going on here?"
"Well," Minna said as they left the hangar, "let me try to explain..."
Sanya Juutilainen-Litvyak wasn't troubled by the decision to conduct dusk patrols to the south, while she continued her regular nightly sojourns. It was a good compromise to meet their responsibilities despite the shortened roster, and if it meant that she might need to fly a bit farther or stay aloft a bit longer to make sure that the nighttime skies were secure, well, nichevo. That was just part of being a Night Witch in this war.
Since this evening's patrol (Gryphon, again, and Erica Hartmann) had left about a half hour ahead of her, she was surprised to find what she first took for two people waiting for her next to the Striker launch stages.
As she came closer, she realized that wasn't entirely accurate - properly, it was one person, and one bear. Keeping her face studiously neutral, she walked to where Witolda stood, the Polonian keeping a careful "just-so" distance from where Sanya's Yak-9 was docked. The shaggy shape of Wojtek stood behind her, his face looking oddly expectant.
For a moment they simply stood there, the Orussian wondering exactly what was going on, the Polonian looking oddly hesitant, until Wojtek made a low grumbling sound and nudged the back of Witolda's shoulder with his snout. When that didn't elicit any response, he grumbled louder, lowered his head, and rammed it squarely into the middle of her back.
"Ah!" Urbanowicz cried, skipping forward a pace. Thus prompted, she gave her partner a scathing look back over her shoulder and declared, "Yes, yes, I am doing!"
Turning back to Sanya, she took a deep breath, then straightened up to something close to a parade ground stance. "I am coming to do an apologize. You saved us big problem, over Freiburg, and I had... not been good company before that. You had every right to let me eat mistake, but gave help, instead. And I - we - have much thankful."
Sanya turned that over, her face still set in a guarded mask, then nodded before turning to go, walking to her launch stage and powering up her Striker's Miyafuji engine without further comment.
Stepping back to clear the way for her to depart, Witolda waited to see if the Orussian would actually say anything, but Sanya remained silent, simply taking her Fliegerhammer from its rack and taxiing for the runway. She didn't look behind her once before she lifted off into the early evening skies.
The Polonian witch and her familar watched her depart, not turning to look at each other until the Night Witch had receded to a dark speck that blended into the darkening sky. Wojtek's response was to drop to all fours, draw a deep breath through his nose, and then let it out in a loud snuffling WHUFF.
"I tried. Is not good enough, yes. But I tried." Biting her lip and looking away, Witolda refused to make eye contact with her familiar. "Is needing a new plan - I will do this. I promise. I will be doing better for next one."
After the last few days, a Witch calling in for landing clearance unexpectedly was starting to feel like part of the castle's regular routine.
By the time this one had begun her descent to land, two women had arrived to greet her, one quite curious about what was going on, the other with a barely contained expectant smirk.
"Huh," Mio Sakamoto observed as the Striker-clad figure came close enough to make out more details, "That's a VG-50. I didn't know they were actually in production yet. Must've accelerated the program after Perrine gave the Model 60 prototype the thumbs up."
The Witch who was taxiing to the launch stages was, in fact, equipped with an Arsenal VG-50, with sheer black thigh-high stockings just barely peeking out from the top of her Striker-encased legs. Her blue Armée de l'Air uniform jacket was perfectly pressed, and the compact shape of a MAC 1934-2 11mm machine gun was slung just-so over her shoulder. A pair of white-tipped grey rabbit ears sprang from her shoulder-length honey-blonde hair like antennae, and her blue eyes were bright with excitement.
Behind Mio, Wilma Bishop pushed her cap back slightly and let her smirk turn to a full-blown grin as their visitor let the ground crew on duty escort her to a launch stage and dock, then stepped out of her Striker before hopping into a pair of black slippers that she produced from her pocket and walking over to salute the 501st's commander with a parade ground sharpness.
"Bonjour, Colonel! Adjutant-chef Amélie Planchard, GC 2/7. I was told that Major Clostermann needed some assistance."
Mio blinked her one visible eye in surprise, then returned the salute. "Welcome to Château Saint-Ulrich, Chief Planchard. We're happy to have you here, but I'm afraid that the Major is actually on a detached assignment with several other pilots right now. I don't expect them back for a few days."
"Ah." Amélie's eyes flicked up past Mio's shoulder to where Wilma was sheepishly looking anywhere but at the shorter Gallian, her expression going a bit cloudy. "Perhaps I was misled." Then, brightening, she re-focused on the Fusō witch. "Still, if you are shorthanded, perhaps I can still be of some help? I have been serving as my squadron's administrative officer since we returned to Gallia. Perhaps I could make sure that things are running smoothly for when Perr - er... the Major returns."
Mio looked thoughtful for a moment, then smiled. "I'd be happy for some competent help with our admin work - and so would General Wilcke."
The Gallian's face blossomed into an excited smile. "Wonderful! If you would be kind enough to show me to an office, I'll get started straight away!"
Mio turned, gesturing to Wilma. "I'm sure that Sergeant Bishop would be happy to show you around."
"Absolutely. C'mon, Amélie - I'll give you the tour."
She led her old friend back towards the administrative wing of the Castle, pointing out a few important spots along the way.
"You said that Perrine had asked for me to come help," Amélie noted, her voice more suspicious than accusatory.
"Well," Wilma admitted, "She did say we would need some help."
"Besides," Wilma noted, looking back over her shoulder with a grin, "think how pleased she'll be to see that you've taken care of things while she was gone."
Amélie's blush turned her cheeks a rosy pink as she looked away for a moment. "Oh, I do hope so..."
While the new Gallian arrival got settled, Mio headed out with Eila and Lynne for a blessedly uneventful midday patrol.
"Welcome back, Colonel," said her crew chief as she settled her Striker in its launch stage upon her return. "General Wilcke wanted to see you as soon as you got in."
"Thanks, Hijikata," said Mio, climbing out of her Striker. "Maybe I can catch her before Zauberschule."
She did, but only just; Minna was coming out of her office, on her way to the dojo, when the 501st's commander arrived in the admin wing.
"Ah, Mio," she said. "A telex arrived from Yoshika while you were out. It's good news, but it appears there may have been a complication as well." She handed the paper over for Mio to read for herself.
Read it she did, her puzzled frown becoming a scowl as she reached the end. "How in the hell did they manage to get stranded in Brandenburg?"
"Yoshika was very circumspect about it in a telex she knew would pass through SHAEF, but I suspect they may have had a little help from our friends to the north," said Minna dryly. "I'm investigating, but so far Paris is being oddly reticent about the matter. More importantly, the part about Lucchini is quite promising."
"Mm," Mio agreed, handing back the telex. "Hopefully that'll work out." She sighed. "It looks like I'm going to have to get by without Perrine for even longer, though."
"Fortunately, Chief Planchard seems to be a quick study," said Minna. "She's already -"
"Oh, Colonel Sakamoto, there you are," said that very witch, emerging from von Hammer's office with another yellow telex form in her hand. "This communiqué just came in from Imperial Fusō Navy Expeditionary Fleet Headquarters in Britannia for you."
"For me? That's odd." Mio accepted the form, read it over, then handed it to Minna with a speculative look. "What do you make of that?"
"Ehh?" said Shizuka Hattori, taken aback. "Admiral Sugita wants to see me?"
Mio nodded. "That's what it says. Sgt. Hattori to report to Expeditionary Fleet HQ, HMNB Folkestone, at her earliest possible convenience. Which you and I have both been in the Navy long enough to know means right goddamn now," she added with a wry grin. "No worries on that account, it's too late in the day for you to be setting off today. I'll take point on that myself if it gets anyone's shorts in a knot. I don't care how much of a hurry Sugita's in, I'm not sending one of my witches flying across the Channel in the dark. It's too far to expect you to fly under your own power anyway, so you'll have to take one of the pool aircraft.
"What's really odd about it," she went on before Shizuka could express her gratitude for that humanitarian gesture, "is that they want to see you as well."
Gryphon looked less startled than Shizuka, but not much less surprised. "Do tell," he said.
"The Admiral didn't specify you by name," Minna said, "but he does ask very politely if we could please send 404 Squadron's chief weapons designer to consult with his office about an 'unconventional technical problem'."
"Hmm. I guess I'm developing a reputation," Gryphon mused. "Ah well, we knew that was a possibility; that's why the Kaiser gave me a title. What kind of man is this admiral? Do you know him?"
Mio nodded. "Admiral Sugita's a good man. Used to be captain of the battleship Yamato, and the carrier Akagi before that. He's helped us out of a few jams over the years."
"If he says he wants your help with a technical problem, I think we can take him at his word," Minna agreed.
"Hmm," Gryphon repeated. Then, with a smile, he went on, "Well, in that case, I never could pass up a cryptic call to action. I might as well go along with Shizuka and see what he wants."
"I'll arrange transport for you," Mio said. "Since you're going to Folkestone, you should probably take the Zuiun - save you the trouble of landing at some RAF base and hitching a ride over. They have a seaplane pier right there at the dockyard."
"Good deal." He grinned. "Field trip!"
The next morning, Shizuka and Gryphon met in the hangar, bags packed and ready to go, to find that the Fusō contingent of the ground crew had already rolled out the 501st's Zuiun and prepped it for launch. Being a seaplane, it looked a bit ungainly on land, perched high up atop its floats, with the retractable wheels underneath adding still more height; but it was the logical choice for the mission, since they were reporting to a naval base.
"I knew this thing would come in handy sooner or later," Mio remarked as she helped them get their bags aboard. "We might be stranded up here in the mountains for this phase of the campaign, but Miyafuji, Hattori, and I are still sailors," she added, clapping the latter cheerfully on the shoulder. "We can't give up every connection with our old outfit. Right, Hattori?"
Shizuka gave a wry smile. "That's why I've maintained my carrier rating, even out here," she agreed.
Gryphon shut the aircraft's cargo compartment, then climbed down from the float and crouched down in front of Wolfgang. Shizuka was expecting him to say something like, "Now, you be good for Mio," but instead, what he said as he scruffled the dog's head was,
"Now, you look after Mio while I'm gone, all right? You know she can't always be trusted to take care of herself, and with Yoshika away, her support structure's already weakened."
"Hrf," Wolfgang agreed; he offered his paw to be shaken, then turned, trotted over, and took up his station next to the colonel, who gave a hearty laugh.
"Between him and Minna, I'm sure I'll be fine even without you and Miyafuji to ride herd on me," she said. "Better get going, you don't want to keep Admiral Sugita waiting. Give him my regards if you get a chance."
"Aye aye, ma'am," said Shizuka, and then, squaring up for a salute, she added in her best quarterdeck bark, "Hattori Shizuka-gunsō, 501st Joint Fighter Wing, departing!"
Mio returned the salute; if she found the younger witch's sudden standing on ceremony entertaining, she allowed no external sign of it. Gryphon gave her a less precise salute of his own as Shizuka climbed up to the cockpit, then clambered into the observer's position at the back and rolled his canopy shut.
Witch and dog stood impassively and watched them go, then turned as one and headed back to the hangar.
"Ah well, back to the salt mine," Mio remarked. "You know, it'd be nice to get my executive officer back one of these days."
"Hrf," Wolfgang agreed.
A routine day passed in Ribeauvillé in spite of the castle's reduced staff. That night, thanks to the Princess's contributions and the decision to maintain the dusk patrols, Sanya even found herself with the luxury of an evening off to rest and recharge herself.
She didn't have any solid plans. She'd considered perhaps playing the piano for her friends and comrades after dinner, but right now - the last one left in the dining room - she lingered over dessert and enjoyed the aimless moment.
That ended abruptly when a tall bottle filled with a cloudy greenish liquid was slammed down on the table in front of her with a percussive thud, followed by the clink-clink of a pair of glasses. When her eyes focused past the bottle, she saw Witolda Urbanowicz pulling out the seat across from her. The Polonian witch sat down, then slid one of the glasses to her and said, in perfect, unaccented Orussian,
"Выпей со мной, Орусиянка, за вечную вражду между нашими странами."
Sanya looked from the glass, to the bottle, and finally into Witolda's eyes. A long moment passed, and then she reached out to unscrew the bottle, replying quietly, "За ненависть, Полечка."
In the living room, Eila had noticed that Sanya wasn't coming out after dinner, but she was distracted for a while chatting with Nipa. Once she realized it was nearly two hours later, she decided it was time to find out what was going on - especially when she realized that Bear Girl was also nowhere to be found.
When Elia returned to the mess, what she found drew her up short with confusion, and made her rub at her eyes to make sure it was actually real. There was a massive cloud of blue haze around one end of the table, beneath which Sanya, Witolda, and Wojtek were sitting. Both women wore slightly sly expressions, and given the pair of empty bottles lying on the table, were likely more than a little drunk. Meanwhile, the bear puffed away on what, to judge from the state of the ashtray in front of him, was far from his first cigarette. A crumpled, mostly empty pack of Byelomors - just about the nastiest, most acrid Orussian cigarettes Eila knew of - lay nearby, and accounted for the haze.
"Ah! Is your Suomi girl, Orussian." Bear Girl swung halfway out of her chair as she turned to salute Eila with her glass. "За красивых женщин!"
Sanya turned with a deliberate slowness that Eila recognized as another sign she'd done plenty of the work on those empty bottles, then raised her glass, blew her wife a kiss, and knocked back its remaining contents in one long swallow, banging the glass decisively down on the table when she'd finished.
"Uh..." Elia's mind whirled, uncertain how to respond, then finally just decided to put her foot into it: "So you're talking to each other now?"
That got a quiet giggle out of Sanya, and a much louder guffaw from the Polonian. "Is important day! Anniversary of the battle of Zieleńce, 1792. Was greatest battle of Polonian-Orussian war. Polonian army shattered Orussian dogs, but could not finish job, so Orussians came back and tore chunks out of country. Again."
Sanya rolled her eyes, but poured Witolda out another drink from a third bottle before refilling her own glass. "We were taught the Polonians were so exhausted after the battle that they drank themselves to sleep in Zaslav, and the army was able to march back in and take over the next morning before any of them woke up."
Witolda chuckled, then clinked her glass against Sanya's. "Well... is maybe something like that."
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
"Back at the Ranch"
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