Avalon County Entertainment System
Channel Select: Avalon Broadcasting System (Channel 17)
Ōshima - Greater Rigel Sector Co-Prosperity Sphere
United Federation of Planets
"You know," said the Chief thoughtfully, "I have to give Big Fire credit for chutzpah, if nothing else. I mean, it takes a certain something to believe you can succeed where malevolent cosmic beings failed."
Professor Kenjirō Isshiki nodded sagely. "A certain something - and a certain lack of something else."
"Mm," Gryphon agreed. "There is that. Still, you have to give them points for trying hard."
"True," said Professor Isshiki. "And they keep life interesting for an old man."
With that, the two fell silent, sitting back in their deck chairs on the roof of the tall seaside building and sipping umbrella drinks while they watched the best show on Ōshima. A few miles to the northeast, out across the bay, Big Fire's latest giant-robot-based attempt to seize the Incarnate Engine, and thereby hold the planet's entire energy supply for ransom, was fully underway. For two such experienced observers as Isshiki and the Chief, it was apparent that the organization had pulled out all the stops for this attempt. The robot they were using this time was gigantic even by the generally outlandish standards of Big Fire's terror mecha, no mere building-smasher or Category Two K-unit but a full-on daikaiju-class destruction machine, the kind of thing that could bring whole cities to their knees.
Further, that robot's operator was one of their best, or worst, depending on one's point of view: Ivan "the Terrible" Ivanko, an esper agent only one rank removed from the Magnificent Ten, and nearly on par with them in combat ability. The personal aide to Shockwave Alberto himself, Ivan the Terrible was infamous throughout the galactic counterterrorism community for his viciousness, his skill at operating terror mecha, and his truly amazing nose.
"You realize, when they beat him, that'll just convince Alberto to come here himself," Gryphon observed conversationally as one of the nine tiny, brightly colored figures doing battle with Ivan's robot destroyed one of its weapon emplacements with a high-speed aerial crossing attack.
Isshiki put down his empty plastic coconut and crossed his arms decisively. "And about time, too," he said with a firm nod. "We want to have this business wrapped up before Akane and the girls have to leave for college."
"You think they're really ready to take on a member of the Magnificent Ten?" Gryphon wondered, sounding not skeptical, but curious.
"I do," Isshiki said with another decisive nod. "The original five have been at this for six years now, and Momo and her friends for four. I've kept developing the Vivid System this whole time, and, well, look at them," he added, gesturing to the ongoing battle, as one of Ivan's robot's arms parted midway between shoulder and elbow in a spray of green light. "They don't even need me on the radio coaching them any more. I'd stake their talent against any opposition in the galaxy. And my own, of course, as the system's brilliant creator," he added immodestly.
"Hm," said Gryphon. "Looks like they're coming to the main event," he continued a moment later, as the colored points of light that were all he could see of the tiny combatants assumed a familiar aerial formation.
Isshiki leaned forward, a broad, anticipatory grin spreading onto his goateed face. "So they are. Make your prediction, if you please, Chief."
"Hmm... I think blue," said Gryphon after a moment's thought, placing a cr20 bill on the small table between the two deck chairs.
"Bah! Amateur! It'll be green for certain," said Isshiki, banging his own wager down on top of the first.
A moment later, before Gryphon had an opportunity to reply, the light coming from the battlefield brightened markedly and became mostly green.
"Ha-haaa!" Isshiki crowed, snatching the money from the table. "You see? When it comes to those girls, Isshiki Kenjirō is never wrong!"
Gryphon nodded, satisfied to have lost the bet, and finished his own tropical zombie as the remains of Ivan's robot crumbled into the bay. "I hope Ivan can swim," he remarked.
Flying Yak Studios
Bacon Comics Group
in association with
The International Police Organization
Avalon Broadcasting System
Lensmen: The Brave and the Bold
© 2015 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Ishiyama - Outer Rim Territories
It was a dark and stormy night. Suddenly, a shot rang out!
At least that's what it sounded like to Gryphon, who looked up in surprise from the book he was reading at the sound. Frowning, he cocked his head and listened hard, but now he could hear nothing but the wind, the rain battering against the windows of the cabin, and the occasional rumble or boom of thunder. For a moment, he considered the possibility that the other sound he had heard had been thunder, but it had been the wrong kind of report for that. Sendai thunder wasn't the crackly, snappy kind; it rolled and reverberated, like bass drums in the sky.
He turned his head to regard Wolfgang, Beagle of the Lens, who had awakened from a sound sleep on the couch next to him and was now looking around with a similar expression of puzzlement.
"Did you hear that?" Gryphon asked rhetorically.
"Hrf," Wolfgang replied.
Before Gryphon could pose another rhetorical question, a new anomalous sound reached his ears, surfacing from under the noise of the storm into his conscious awareness. This was so out-of-context that it took him a moment to recognize it, by which time he had instinctively risen to his feet, as though that would somehow increase his aural acuity.
"Aircraft," he mused. "Prop-driven... sounds like a twin." His eyebrows rose. "Piston-engined. Who in the world would be flying around up here in this weather in a piston-engined airplane?" he wondered aloud. Then, shaking his head, he muttered to the unseen pilot, "Good luck, pal, wherever you're headed."
Gryphon had sat most of the way down when the sounds of the engines and props changed. The engines stuttered, cutting in and out, and the drone of the props desynchronized, taking on an unpleasant harmonic flutter as their RPMs drifted apart. Whoever was flying the plane tried to throttle up, producing a short burst of power, but then one of the engines sputtered and died altogether, followed shortly by the other.
"Uh-oh," said Gryphon, reversing course and returning to his feet. He was halfway to the door when the sounds of snapping branches reached him, followed by a nasty metallic crunch that sounded like it hadn't been very far away at all. No explosion, though; after the crunch, all was still but for the wind and the pounding rain.
"Stay here, buddy," he said as Wolfgang jumped down from the couch. "It's not fit for man nor beast out there tonight, so beast might as well stay dry while man goes out in it anyway," he added with faint, slightly forced wryness as he hauled on his oilskin drover coat and hat. "Watch the house. I'll be back soon."
With a slightly disgruntled sound, Wolfgang returned to the sofa. After taking a moment to brace himself, Gryphon hauled open the cabin door and plunged out into the storm.
It was even worse outside than he'd thought; the rain lashed at him, nearly tearing his hat from his head before he crammed it down tighter with his free hand. His glasses were obscured instantly, like a windshield without the wipers on. Cursing, he took them off and thrust them into a pocket, then pressed on. The night was as dark as the inside of a crankcase except when lightning illuminated the cloud deck, not far above. He could see no evidence of fire, and so had to navigate solely by what direction he thought he had heard the sound of the crash coming from.
As he left the clearing where the cabin stood and entered the woods, water shed by the swaying pines struck him from different angles to the driving rain, creeping up his sleeves and down his collar. He'd be utterly drenched in minutes, out in this. At least he wouldn't get lost; his omni-tool's homebase mode would guide him back to the cabin, even if he lost his bearings. That was a comfort. Without it, he could easily find himself blundering around out here until morning, and in this kind of weather at this time of year, that wouldn't usefully arrive for another eight or nine hours.
"Hello?" he shouted. "Can anyone hear me?" The wind snatched the words away as they passed his lips, carrying them off into the night, and he could barely hear them himself; he had no great hope that anyone else would receive them.
Wondering if he'd even be able to find the wreck, let alone any potential survivors, in these conditions, he set his omni-tool to scan for lifesigns. Anyone who had been killed in the crash, after all, wasn't going to mind waiting out here until morning. After a moment's scanning, it reported only one animal lifeform (besides himself and Wolfgang) within range.
A flash of lightning revealed something white, a dozen yards or so ahead of him, in roughly the direction the tool was indicating its reading. Nothing in these woods was white, not in late summer. Wondering whether it was wreckage or the survivor his omni-tool was telling him about, Gryphon plodded toward it.
His shoes squelched on the sodden forest floor, inaudible over the storm but palpable as a weird, disagreeable, moist vibration. Another flash, and he'd about halved the distance to the unknown object, but he still couldn't see it when full darkness returned. Even his omni-tool's handlamp mode could penetrate this night only a few feet. He slowed down, aiming the feeble beam carefully at the ground in front of him. Whatever it was, it wouldn't do any good to step on it.
The pool of orangeish lamplight fell across the item a few moments later, and Gryphon, bending to examine it more closely, saw that it was a person, all right. He could tell precious little more than that, only that whoever it was wore a white coat or jacket of some kind, smeared with mud from the tumble its wearer had plainly taken across the wet ground, but still white enough to stand out in the arclight flashes of lightning. Apart from that, he could tell only that the figure was human or humanoid, and - strangely - did not appear to be wearing any pants.
Probably blown right off by the crash, he mused, then steeled himself for the unpleasantness of wet knees and knelt next to the sprawled form, switching his omni-tool to medical diagnostic mode. This considered the matter for a few moments, then reported that the patient was a human female approximately twenty Standard years of age, suffering from contusions, exhaustion, a mild concussion, and incipient hypothermia, and that if not removed immediately to a warm and dry environment, she was very likely to go into shock within the next ten minutes.
No time to waste, then, he thought, and after double-checking that there were no other lifesigns around and that the patient had no serious internal injuries that could be worsened by moving her, he gathered her up in his arms and set off for the cabin.
She was not a very large woman, but surprisingly heavy for her size; a solid, compact bundle of muscle and sinew, plainly well-conditioned by a lot of hard work. Gryphon supposed abstractly that that explained how she had survived a crash that had thrown her clear of her aircraft, and her trousers, in such relatively good condition.
As he was having that thought, he trod on something unexpectedly hard and stumbled, nearly dropping his unannounced caller. Regaining his footing, he crouched and played his lamp beam over it. A katana, of all things, still in its shinily lacquered wooden saya, its colors impossible to tell in the orange light of his omni-lamp. Shifting his hold slightly on the woman, he snagged the carrying strap attached to the saya with the first two fingers of his right hand and then straightened up, bringing the weapon along with him.
Getting the cabin door open was an interesting challenge with such a burden, but he managed to do so and get inside without dropping anything or banging his unexpected visitor's head on the doorjamb. Once inside, he shouldered the door shut behind him, then stood for a moment with his back against it, catching his breath.
"Well!" he said conversationally to the woman in his arms. "Tell you what, I can't wait to find out what -"
And then he looked down and discovered, to his considerable surprise, that he knew her.
"What the hell, what the hell, what the hell," Gryphon chanted, using it like a mantra as he evaded what appeared to be some sort of plasma beam fire with all the dismay-infused aerial agility at his disposal. Luckily, that was considerable, even if he had lost his helmet on the way through - whatever the hell that was - and so had to rely only on shifts of his body weight and the X-15A-2's limited thrust vectoring capabilities to steer. A less experienced rocketeer might've been ashed instantly; so far he had survived 47 seconds, though he hadn't been able to take any one of those to check his watch.
"Oh come on!" he cried, addressing the spaceliner-sized black-and-red aircraft that was, for no readily evident reason, trying to disintegrate him. "What did I do to you? If it's just that this is your piece of sky, fine, you win, I'm leaving! I could do that faster if you stopped shooting at me!"
There was no response, but then, he hadn't really expected one. This thing - no windows, no obvious hatches or portals, no visible engines - had robot deathship written all over it. He didn't recognize the design language or the energy signature, but some things were just universal.
"All right, all right, fine!" he said after another scarlet plasma beam nearly vaporized him. Wheeling, he hauled his .45 from its holster and let fly a couple of rounds, which, as he expected, had absolutely no effect whatsoever. "I'm shooting back, does that make you happy?!"
A moment later, the beams stopped coming. They didn't stop emerging, but the gigantic aircraft seemed not to be aiming at him any more; instead, it was spraying them into the air above it and off to the sides. Gryphon halted, hovering in puzzlement, to consider this curious development. Now that he was no longer being bracketed by sizzling streams of raving red death, it occurred to him that he could hear... piston engines?
A swarm of small aircraft swept past him then, coming from the direction he'd just been trying to flee in, bearing down on the black-and-red whatever-it-was in what his practiced aeronaut's eye immediately recognized as an attack formation. The muzzle flashes of weapons twinkled as they opened fire, some with chattering machineguns, others with the slower, deeper thump thump thump of old-fashioned aviation cannon, and the sweet scent of gunsmoke mingled with the acrid tang of ozone that the red beams had left behind, creating the unmistakable bouquet of aerial battle.
"What," Gryphon repeated for the nth time that day, as he got a closer look and realized that the tiny aircraft weren't aircraft at all...
... they were women.
Except... they appeared to have propellers instead of feet.
"What," Gryphon said. He resisted the urge to rub his eyes like a character in a Merrie Melodies cartoon and looked more closely still. Yes, he hadn't imagined it, unless of course he was full-dress, no-fillers hallucinating, which at this point he could not in good conscience rule out. The attackers appeared to be women from the waist up and airplanes from the waist down, with stubby wings like the hip flares on jodhpurs and propellers where their feet belonged.
They're like... fighter plane mermaids, he mused.
"Hey!" a voice cried from behind him. Turning, he saw one of the flying women approaching, a scowl on her face. She looked to be in her late teens or early twenties, with longish, untidily chopped orange hair, her buxom upper body crammed into what looked for all the world like a World War II-vintage U.S. Army Air Force brown serge uniform blouse. She was even carrying a Browning Automatic Rifle, which rather completed the picture - and, incongruously, she appeared to have white rabbit ears, which rather didn't.
Now that he got a really good look, Gryphon realized that she wasn't a human-airplane hybrid after all. Rather, she appeared to be wearing two tiny airplanes, one on each leg, like very tall boots. Their engines hummed, props growling, as she balanced on them a few yards away and glared at him - the look of a woman who is confounded by what she sees and does not like being confounded.
"What," said Gryphon once more.
"Who the hell are you?!" the woman demanded, then examined him more closely and added, "... And what is that?"
"What's it look like?" Gryphon replied, feeling oddly defensive about it. "It's a jetpack."
She blinked at him. "Shyeahright?" she said. "That's impossible."
Gryphon gave her a slow down-and-up look of his own and replied dryly, "Says the woman wearing propeller-driven pants."
"... OK, you got a point there," she conceded, then looked past him and remarked, "Looks like you got lucky, flyboy. The Neuroi's lost interest in you."
Gryphon pivoted and saw that the black-and-red thing was moving off to the - check sun angle - northwest, heading toward whatever landmass that was he could just make out on the horizon in that direction. Several of the other flying women were still harassing it, while a few others broke off and headed back toward his position.
"So what outfit are you with?" the redheaded woman asked. "Liberion AAF? Your accent's right, and that's one of our pistols, but I don't recognize your unit patch." (Gryphon was puzzled by that until he remembered that his bomber jacket had a Wedge Defense Force Experimental Flight Test Command patch on the shoulder.) "That's gotta be some kind of super-experimental gear, am I right? Another one of those make-the-witches-obsolete things? I bet it's so secret you're supposed to shoot me now that I've seen it."
Gryphon turned back to her and saw that, though her words had sounded like a joke, she'd backed up a little way and trained her BAR on him.
"Uh... whoa there," he said, holstering his .45 and raising his hands. "Let's not perforate the very confused man."
The others arrived then, forming up in a cautious little group around him and the woman with the BAR.
Their evident leader looked Japanese to Gryphon, with long, straight black hair pulled back in a utilitarian ponytail, her dark grey left eye fixed with evident disapproval on his face; the right was hidden behind a white eyepatch with a jaunty diagonal blue stripe. She was wearing what looked like the tunic from a naval dress uniform, white with gold shoulder boards, and had a katana and some kind of improbable aircraft cannon slung across her back. Like the redhead, she had an incongruous pair of animal ears poking out of her hair, although in her case they were triangular, black, and upright, reminding Gryphon somewhat of a humanized Salusian's primaries.
"Shirley," this interesting figure said. "What's going on?"
"Check it out," said the redhead - Shirley, evidently - with a little gesture of her rifle's muzzle. "I caught a flying man."
"Is that a jetpack?" said one of the others, a brunette in Wehrmacht grey, who had not one but two giant machineguns hanging from crossed shoulder straps like a normal person might've slung a pair of messenger bags. Her extra ears were grey and pendulous, like certain breeds of dogs'. Her jacket had long, pointed tails front and back, and in noticing that, it suddenly occurred to Gryphon that none of them had any pants on. He supposed their... airplane leggings... would've made that tricky, but he might have at least expected them to be wearing shorts or something. But no - a passing breeze shifting a few coattails around made it plain that that was not the case.
Huh, he thought, and reminded himself sternly to be extra-professional with the heavily armed, suspicious flying women, even if they were out here flying around in their underwear.
"Impossible," said the woman next to the one in grey, a petite blonde in what appeared to be a black Luftwaffe mechanic's jacket. (Curiously, she didn't seem to have any extra ears, though she did, he noticed, have a tail. And so, now that he'd noticed that, did the others. What the? Seriously, what the?)
"Not even the von Braun sisters could get something like that to work," the blonde went on. "Usch told me once that they tried for a year and a half, early in the war, but all they could ever get them to do was explode."
"Yeah, I said that already, but what other explanation is there?" Shirley said.
"We don't have time for this," the woman with the eyepatch growled. "That Neuroi will make landfall soon, and the others can't stop it without us. It's too big and we're understrength as it is."
"Well, what'm I supposed to do with this guy, then?" Shirley wondered, then cracked a wry grin and added, "Throw him back?"
"All right, look," Gryphon put in before any of them could reply. "I don't have the faintest idea what the hell is going on, but whatever that black thing is, it just spent a couple of minutes trying to vaporize me for no reason, which is the kind of thing I tend to take personally. Now, I've got..." He glanced at a readout on one of his X-15A-2's wrist control units. "... ten and a half minutes of fuel left at a hundred percent power, and nothing better to do." Looking the white-coated woman in the eye, he went on, "So why don't you lend me a bigger gun and I'll give you a hand?"
"Haw! I like this guy already," Shirley declared to anybody who might happen to be listening.
The woman in white looked back at him for a long moment, her face set in a fiercely contemplative frown. For a moment, her gaze flicked to the grips of his own swords, jutting up from their special housing in the top of his flight pack, but mostly, her one visible eye just bored into his, as if seeking some deeper truth.
Then, to his mild surprise, her scowl vanished; she laughed - a big, booming, head-back sound of genuine merriment that seemed too large to have come out of such a small woman - and said, "It's your funeral, stranger. Barkhorn! Give him a gun."
The brunette in the Wehrmacht jacket blinked at her. "Are you serious?"
The blonde giggled. "Really, Trude? Did you really just ask Major Sakamoto if she's serious?"
"If he's up to something," said Sakamoto with a pragmatic little smile, "we can always kill him later."
"... OK, have it your way," said Barkhorn, unslinging one of her weapons. "Can you handle this?" she asked in a vaguely challenging way, hovering nearer to offer it to Gryphon.
He took it, losing a foot or two of altitude before his jetpack adjusted to compensate for his suddenly increased mass, and secured the strap over one of his arms, settling the weapon against his left shoulder. "Huh," he said. "MG42. Haven't seen one of these in a while." Calling the routine to his mind took a moment, but in a second or two it came back to him, and he was able to check that the machinegun was ready for action competently enough. "OK. Good to go."
"All right, then," said Sakamoto. She dug in a pocket of her jacket for a second and handed him an item he presently recognized as a comm earbud, then declared in a ringing voice to all of them, "Let's move out!"
As they shaped a pursuit course after the black aircraft, the blonde dropped back into formation with Gryphon and asked in a cheerily friendly way, "So where did you come from, anyway?"
"Well, first of all..." he replied.
That had been the first in a series of days that had distinguished themselves as even more surreal than the usual kind of thing - but fun, in a weird kind of way.
And here, in his arms, having evidently just crashed in the woods a hundred yards or so from the cabin where he was in retreat from the world, appeared to be one of the women he'd spent those days with: none other than Major Mio Sakamoto of the Imperial Fusō Naval Air Service. Her eyepatch was missing, but that indicated nothing; with her eyes closed, there'd be no visible sign of the curious condition that led her to wear one anyway.
Regardless, her presence here was so improbable on so many levels that he didn't want to catalog them all right now; so instead, he laid her down on the sofa (Wolfgang obligingly clearing the way), gave her a shot of Vorpanol from his first-aid kit for the concussion, and then set about getting her out of her soaking-wet garments.
That didn't take a lot of work, since (as ever in his experience) she was only wearing two of them: her soiled and damaged navy dress jacket, and a one-piece swimsuit of the type worn for generations immemorial by high school girls on a hundred Japanese-influenced worlds (including, he supposed, probably this one). An odd ensemble, but who was he to judge? He bundled her up in all the spare blankets and hung her clothes on the mantelpiece to dry, got a fire going, and scanned to make sure he'd averted her going into shock. Only when he had an affirmative answer to that question did he clamber out of his own coat and shoes and go upstairs to put on dry things himself.
Mio Sakamoto woke up, sat up, and briefly wondered where the hell she was.
It appeared to be a loft squeezed under the pitched roof of a log cabin: a small room with walls angling sharply upward to a ridgepole point overhead, and no proper ceiling. The space was just barely bigger than the queen-size bed she found herself in, with narrow aisles on either side, and any normal-size person would have to stoop to negotiate them; the only way to approach the bed standing fully upright would be to come straight at the footboard in the center.
For just a moment, Mio entertained the slightly comical notion that this was what awaited the dead, in which case the afterlife was a surprisingly rustic experience. She wouldn't have expected, for instance, to find quite so many soft, snuggly wool blankets in colorful Native Liberion patterns in the World Beyond.
While she was mulling that over, a previously unnoticed figure next to her shifted, pressing against her hip with a snuffling sigh. Blinking, she drew back the covers slightly and looked down to find a brown-and-white beagle cuddled up against her, his face the picture of canine contentment. In spite of her towering bemusement, the sight brought a little smile to her face, and she couldn't help petting the dog for a moment before essaying the great physical challenge of climbing out of bed.
Mio had no idea how long she'd slept - long enough that full daylight was diffusing through the white curtains on the little windows at either end of the room - but she still felt more or less exhausted; enough so that it took a few seconds for her to realize that she was wearing not a single stitch of clothing. Looking around the tiny room, she saw no evidence of the clothes she'd last been wearing, but there was a blue-and-white-striped men's dress shirt hanging on one of the footposts of the bed. With an inward shrug, she picked it up and pulled it on.
It fit her like a trenchcoat, the tails hanging to her knees, and she had to roll the sleeves up twice before they cleared her wrists; even buttoned all the way to the top, the collar fell so low on her that it would have passed for daring décolletage on an evening dress, and she felt as if one or the other of her shoulders might slip out of it at any time. Still, it beat wandering around naked. Mio didn't really care about such things herself, under most conditions, but she was, after all, presumably a guest here... wherever here was.
Roused by her clambering out of bed, the dog worked his own way free of the covers and hopped down alongside her, tail wagging.
"I don't suppose you'd like to tell me what's going on," Mio said dryly to him, then turned and made her way down the narrow stairs to the floor below.
This turned out to be a compact, comfortable-looking one-room cabin, half living room, half kitchen/dining room. The stairs came down into the living room area, where, to her mild surprise, she found her uniform hanging on pegs above a fieldstone fireplace, gently steaming dry in front of a banked fire, and Reppumaru standing in its saya against the wall nearby. Not far away stood a brown leather sofa, still covered with rumpled bedclothes where someone else had presumably spent the night on it. By the door was a coatrack with a bulky brown raincoat and a sheathed daishō hanging on it.
At the other end, in the kitchen part, a man stood with his back to the room, working at a range; some amazing smells were drifting over from there, and Mio suddenly realized that she was intensely hungry. She considered picking up her sword, just in case, but decided against it. If this man, whoever he was, meant her any harm, he'd had ample opportunity. As she padded across the room toward the kitchen, she studied his back, the set of his shoulders and the color of his hair, and began to wonder if she'd actually hit her target after all...
... and then he turned around, saw her approaching, and smiled a slightly bewildered but apparently genuine smile.
"Ah, good morning," he said. "Sleep well?"
Mio stopped halfway across the room and gazed at him in astonishment. "... It's... it's you," she said, her voice nearly a whisper. "How can - does this mean... did I actually make it? Do you... do you know who I am?"
"I think I do," Gryphon replied, then added with a wry smile, "You're pretty distinctive, though it is an awfully big surprise to see you here." He considered her for a moment, rubbing his chin thoughtfully, then brightened and went on, "Hmm, I know. See what you make of this." Clearing his throat, he composed himself, then began, "Well, first of all, Sam Waterston sends the spy guy in the Piper Cub over to Russia, to the restaurant with the bad service, and he meets the girl who dates a pig..."
Mio stared for a second, then said slowly, "... And he lives in her closet for 10 years while they develop the United States rocket program."
Nodding as if in agreement, Gryphon went on, "And like a fine wine, the relationship between the spy girl and the fat, stinky, balding Russian pig guy only gets better..."
"... And that's disgusting," said Mio, her voice working on autopilot as disused memories lit back up.
"Enter Leonard Nimoy/Bill Bixby type," Gryphon said. "He hands them a megaton of TNT, leads them into the woods..."
"... And suddenly they're having a teary departure, like we're supposed to care - oh!" Mio's recitation was cut off abruptly as, with a smile, the man she was now convinced she knew came around the table and gathered her up in a warm, friendly hug.
"That'll do," he said quietly. "I have no idea how or why you did it, but welcome to my world, Major Sakamoto." Then, turning her loose, he gestured to the nearest kitchen chair and went briskly on, "Have a seat. How do you like your eggs?"
The question was rhetorical, of course; Gryphon well remembered from his time in 1943 that the Major liked her eggs, and all other foodstuffs, any way she could get them. He wasn't really surprised at the huge quantity of food she put away on this occasion - scrambled eggs with plenty of cheese, bacon, baked beans, French toast, a quart of milk - nor was he inclined to object. After whatever she'd been through the night before, he figured she was entitled to whatever she felt like stuffing in, and he kept it coming for as long as she wanted it.
Only when she'd finally slowed down, and was working on her last helping of beans, did he shut down the oven, dish himself up some bacon and toast, and take a seat opposite her at the table - and only then, regarding her thoughtfully, did he realize something.
"Huh," he said. Bumped out of her culinary reverie by the sound, Mio looked up from her plate. "I've never seen your right eye when it wasn't... glowing," he explained to her questioning look, making a sort of "radiating" gesture in front of his own.
With a startled look, she put down her knife and raised her hand automatically to her face, feeling for the eyepatch that wasn't there. Then, her expression closing down, she lowered her hand to the table and bowed her head, eyes closed.
"So," she said, and Gryphon was surprised to see a tear slip down her cheek. "It's happened, then." She gave a deep sigh, shaking herself, then added fatalistically, "Well, I knew it would."
"What's happened?" he asked, but Mio shook her head.
"I need... some time," she said. "To adjust. To... take it all on board."
Gryphon nodded. "Take as much as you need," he said, then suggested gently, "Now that you've eaten, why don't you try to get some more sleep? You still look done in."
"Mm," she said, nodding, still a little abstracted. "I think I will."
She got up and started to pick up her plate, but he assured her he'd take care of the washing up and shooed her off back to bed, saying, "Take Wolfgang with you if you want - he loves a nap."
When she and the beagle came downstairs again, it was late afternoon, and Gryphon was sitting on the (now-cleared) couch lacing up his shoes. He looked up at the sound of her on the stairs and said,
"You look like you feel a bit better. No more dark circles, at least."
Mio nodded. "A bit," she agreed. "I still feel tired, but... I can't sleep any more, for the moment."
"Well, if you're feeling up to a little fresh air and exercise, I was just about to go see about finding what's left of your Striker and dragging it out of the woods. We don't want some random hikers stumbling across extradimensional sorcerous technology by mistake," he added with a wry smile. Nodding toward the mantelpiece, he said, "I did the best I could to clean and mend your uniform, it should be dry by now. And I think there are some shoes that'll fit you in the cupboard. If you don't feel up to it, though, don't push yourself. I'll manage."
"No," she said, taking her clothes down from the pegs, then picking up her sword. "I'll give you a hand." She went into the bathroom to get dressed; when she came out, he'd rummaged in the cupboard by the door and come out with a pair of what looked like army boots that proved to be close enough to the right size for government work.
"Why do you have ladies' boots in your woods cabin?" Mio wondered as they left the clearing with Wolfgang trotting happily alongside.
"It's not mine," Gryphon said. "It belongs to a friend of mine, who happens to be a lady that's about your size. She's letting me stay here while I... work through some things. Life stuff. You know how it goes."
Mio looked faintly shocked. "You're in retreat?" She looked down, her right fist closing, and shook her head, disgusted with herself. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have come."
"Now don't start with that," he said mildly. "If you need help with something, and it seems like you do, then I'm glad you were able to find me. It must be pretty important for you to come all this way."
"... Thank you," she said quietly.
They didn't discuss the matter further until after they'd found her wrecked Striker Unit and hauled it back to the shed next to the cabin. To Mio's slight surprise, it had weathered the crash fairly well, at least externally. It was still mostly in two pieces, and though dented, it didn't seem to have suffered any really significant structural damage.
They found her eyepatch at the crash site, not far from the spot where she had first struck the ground; it was intact, if soggy, having evidently been knocked clean off her head by the impact. She didn't seem interested in reclaiming it. Gryphon, obscurely unwilling to just leave it there but not knowing what else to do with it, stuck it in a coat pocket and carried on.
On the way back with the starboard engine unit, Mio seemed to notice something else on the ground; pausing with a faint cry of surprise, she put down her end of the engine, picked it up, brushed it off, and placed it in the pocket of her jacket. Then, without comment, she resumed her burden and helped him carry it the rest of the way to the shed. Though she knew he had to be curious, Gryphon didn't ask what she had found; he seemed to be in a complete no-pressure mode, determined not to ask her anything until she felt ready to start volunteering.
"One upside of these things being magical," Gryphon mused as they lifted the engine up onto the workbench at the back of the shed. "Even when they crash, they don't burn." He ran his fingertips across the face of the sun-and-moon Fusō Empire crest painted on the side of the unit, then studied the bladeless propeller hub, rotating it thoughtfully with his hand. "And the ætheric props means no straightening out bent blades, which is good. I don't have the right tools for that out here."
"Mm," said Mio, but nothing further. Gryphon looked up from his consideration of the machine and put a hand on her shoulder.
"Dinner must be just about ready," he said.
Whatever was weighing on Major Sakamoto's mind, it clearly hadn't affected her appetite; she downed her half of the big crock of belgad stew with gusto, putting Gryphon in mind of a petite Japanese Paul Bunyan. That was one of the several things he'd always rather liked about Mio: her straightforwardness, as regarded pretty much every matter he'd ever seen her tackle, from dining (or "refueling", as he was sure she preferred to regard it) to military discipline.
They talked about the old days - older for him, as it turned out, than for her; his visit to what had turned out to be the summer of 1943 had happened many years ago from his point of view, while to her, it was but the spring of 1945, not quite a year and a half later. Her coalition unit, the 501st Joint Fighter Wing, was still (or, he gathered, back) together, still fighting the good fight against the increasingly incomprehensible enemy. By one miracle or another, they'd managed not to sustain any casualties; in fact, the roster had grown by two in the time since he'd visited.
"You ever hear from Eleanor these days?" Gryphon wondered, sipping his tea.
"Every now and then," Mio replied. "She's with the 507th, posted up in darkest Suomus, so communications are spotty, but every now and then she and Sanya cross paths on the Night Witch radio network. And Ursula Hartmann's in that unit, so Erica hears about her occasionally that way. She seems to be doing well."
"Good, good," said Gryphon.
"As for the 501st, we've been back on the front line ever since they assigned us to take over from the 504th in Romagna, but we're staying strong," Mio told him as they lingered over tea. "The squadron's pulled together into a real family." With a slight smile, she added, "We've even had a few weddings. All completely unofficial, of course, but good for morale."
Gryphon raised an eyebrow, smiling. "Let me guess," he said. "Juutilainen-Litvyak; Barkhorn-Hartmann..."
"And the rookies," she said, her smile turning sentimental in a way that would've surprised a more casual acquaintance. "Although it's hardly fair to call them that any more, they've long since earned their spurs. The ones who joined after your time, Bishop and Miyafuji." She chuckled. "You'd like them both, particularly Miyafuji. She's the kind of girl who helps people whether they like it or not. Two-fisted compassion, more guts than sense, stubborn as a mule."
"That does sound promising," Gryphon agreed, grinning. "You'll have to pass my best on to all of them when you get back, even though the new kids won't have any idea what you're talking about."
"Oh, they've heard all the stories," Mio assured him. "They're in the same unit as Shirley, Lucchini, and Hartmann, so how could they not? I'm not sure they believe the ones about you, though. The flying man from the future, who wasn't a witch, but could fight like one. After what you and Sanya did to Allied G-2 Britannia, the rest of the Allied Forces think you're some kind of wartime myth, like the Headless Horseman of Hannover."
"Well, that was more or less the idea," said Gryphon philosophically.
"Mm." Mio looked into her teacup, swirling the dregs, and then said to it, "I'm stalling."
"I know," Gryphon replied, his tone unaggressive.
She sighed, put down the cup, and raised her eyes to his, looking solemnly at him for a few moments; then, without preamble, she said, "I've lost my magic."
Gryphon blinked. "Eh?"
"It hasn't come as a surprise," she went on. "Most witches' powers peak in adolescence, then fall off - some more slowly than others, it partly depends on bloodline - in adulthood. A few of us remain powerful into old age, but for most, by the mid-thirties or so, it's more or less over.
"For active aerial combat witches like me, it happens even faster. We exhaust ourselves on a much more regular basis than most, and every time we do, it takes a little longer to recover... until one day it doesn't come back. Most of us start restricting our combat hours by the time we're 18 - Minna's done that, though being wing commander, she'd have had to cut back anyway - and retire altogether at around 20, so that we can preserve some measure of our abilities into adulthood..." She trailed off, her right hand closing into a fist where it lay on the table next to her teacup.
"But you didn't do that," Gryphon filled in, nodding. "If I know you, you saw the first signs and pushed yourself harder."
Mio chuckled bitterly. "You do know me," she admitted. "My shield failed last fall. My offensive power was down too, and my endurance." She touched the grip of the katana she wore across her back. "I made Reppumaru, mastered a whole new form of magic, to compensate, but the joke's on me... it burned me up even faster. I guess some techniques are forbidden for a reason, neh?" she added with a dark, mirthless little smile.
"When I realized that," she went on, studying the tabletop, "I knew that soon I wouldn't have the strength to fly any more. After that, the only thing left would be my special sight. It was the first magic trait I manifested, and it would be the last to go." She looked up at him again, meeting his eyes with her no-longer-mismatched ones. "That happened... last night, apparently."
Gryphon reached across the table and placed his left hand on her right, not gripping it, just resting atop it: a simple gesture of reassurance. He didn't otherwise interrupt - said nothing at all - as he waited for her to finish saying her piece. She gave him a grateful little glance, then looked away again, drawing and releasing a long sigh before she continued,
"And now I'm not a witch any more. I'm just a normal woman... who never learned how to be one. If it happened to Miyafuji, she'd still be a doctor. Shirley would still be an ace mechanic. But me? Being a combat witch is all I know. With it gone... I'm no longer of any use to a world that still needs what I was." Mio shook her head and looked up at him again, her eyes suddenly alive with something much more like the fierce energy he remembered of old. "I don't even know how to live like that," she said. "I don't want to live like that.
"But... when I finally accepted that there was nothing more I could do, I remembered something you said once," she said, withdrawing her hand from under his and rising to her feet. As she walked slowly around the table so that it would no longer be between them, she continued, "About how what you do isn't magic as we know it, but it's like a kind of magic. And I thought... if there's any chance at all..." She reached into her jacket pocket, then showed him the item she'd found in the woods: the WDF Flight Test challenge coin he'd given her back in 1943. He wondered why it had a length of black cloth ribbon tied around it, but kept quiet.
"So I came to you," she said, closing her fist around the coin and holding it up almost defiantly before her. "With what by then I had admitted was the last of my strength, I threw myself at the dark, trusting that if my cause was truly just, this coin would guide me to you. And... it has."
Gryphon rose to his feet, so that their eyes were on a level again, and regarded her thoughtfully. He might not be a mage, but he knew enough of magic and of dimensional travel to know what a colossal working that had been - possibly better than she did. To traverse a universal veil, four and a half centuries of time, and half the radius of the galaxy, and arrive within a few hundred yards of her target - and do it all at the very moment the last flame of her power was guttering and dying inside her... the thought moved him nearly to tears.
"Mio..." he said, but before he could say anything further, she drew herself up to something like attention, then bowed so deeply her forehead would have hit the table if she hadn't come around it first.
"Please," she said. "Please. Onegaishimasu. I... I beg of you. I'll do anything you want, anything you ask of me, without question or hesitation. Just..." She hesitated, then went on without straightening up, "Just make me useful again."
Gryphon stood gazing at her for almost a full minute, a minute during which she held that deep bow without a quiver or an upward glance, and the only sound in the cabin was the ticking of the mantel clock. Taking a look at that clock, he noted the lateness of the hour.
"Anything I ask?" he said speculatively.
"Anything," Mio replied unequivocally. Ending the bow at last, she looked him in the eye and said unflinchingly, "I'll... I'm your student. I'm yours to command."
"Hmm," said Gryphon, rubbing pensively at his chin. Then he seemed to come to some internal decision.
"All right," he said.
Mio blinked, then bowed deeply again, tears in her eyes. "Thank you," she whispered, unable to trust her voice not to break.
"There's no need," Gryphon replied. He crossed the distance between them and straightened her up with a gentle hand on her shoulder, then enfolded her in another hug. "Aren't we comrades in arms, you and I? Have we not heard the chimes at midnight? Or at least Yeager snoring," he added, making her snicker in spite of herself. "I won't lie to you, Mio, I don't know for certain that I'll be able to help you. But... well, I know what it's like to lose everything that made your life make sense. If there's any way for me to help you take back the sky, I'll find it."
They stood silently in the kitchen for a few minutes, holding on; then Gryphon stepped back slightly, kissed her on the forehead, and said, "For right now, you should get some more sleep. You look terrible. You really have to learn to take better care of yourself, Mio," he deadpanned. "A girl's face is her fortune, you know."
Mio blinked at him, the tears falling away from her eyes, and stared at his face in bemusement for a moment;
And then she threw her head back, eyes closed, and laughed, big and round, Ha! ha! ha! like she had in the old days, and in that instant he knew that - one way or another - she would be all right.
"All right, sensei, but let's get started first thing in the morning," she said.
"Sounds like a plan," he replied.
She was halfway to the stairs when she paused, looked back over her shoulder, and said, "Are you coming?"
"I beg your pardon?" Gryphon inquired.
"I can't very well expect my trainer to be effective if he sleeps on the couch," Mio said pragmatically. "That bed's plenty big enough for the both of us. Unless you're shy all of a sudden," she added with a heartening echo of her old challenging grin.
Gryphon gave her an exasperated look for a second, then laughed. "Sailors," he said with mock resignation, and then, "C'mon, hound dog," and they all went upstairs, turning out lights as they went.
They arranged themselves back-to-back under the peak of the roof with the Lenshound curled up contendedly between them, wondering how lucky one dog could get; once situated, Gryphon reached to the only bedside stand, which happened to be on his side, and shut off the lamp.
"Sleep well, Major," he said. "I'll most likely kill you in the morning."
There was a momentary silence.
"That last part isn't true," Gryphon added, "it's just... what you say at moments like this. You'll understand later. Good night."
Mio chuckled. "Good night."
And so they set to work, settling almost instantly into a rhythm of work and rest. Mio would rise early in the morning, as was her long-established habit, and either run in the woods or train on solo techniques until Gryphon got up a couple of hours after her. Following breakfast, they would spend the mornings training together. In the afternoons, she would either perform more drills based on suggestions he'd made during their morning session, or work on the extensive readings by the Katsujinkenryū founders he had assigned her. Then another combined training session, usually followed by a sunset soak in the open-air onsen out in back of the cabin.
All these things were done rain or shine, only being suspended or moved indoors for the most violent of inclement weather. At this time of year, storms like the one Mio had arrived in hammered the woods every couple of weeks, but they were more common at night, by which time Gryphon and his new student would generally have called it a day and gone inside anyway. They passed the evenings, after dinner, in more leisurely pursuits: reading, playing games, discussing the day's events, planning the next day.
And thence to bed, where they usually lay side by side and talked of various things for a while before turning toward the walls and bidding each other good night. Every night Gryphon's signoff was the same: "Sleep well, Major. I'll most likely kill you in the morning."
On the weekends they changed up their game a little, occasionally skipping work sessions for semi-recreational pursuits such as excursions into the surrounding countryside, hiking down to the lake to have a swim, or heading over to the forest station to check in with Ranger Watanabe. Unlike the cabin, the ranger's station had facilities for watching recorded movies, so on one Saturday afternoon about three weeks into the project, Mio finally got to learn what Gryphon's nightly remark actually meant.
For six solid weeks, they worked, and Mio's comfort level with the new style of swordsmanship she was being taught steadily increased. Normally, training a new acolyte from scratch would have taken Gryphon years, but, of course, he wasn't training her from scratch. She was already a highly experienced swordswoman, trained since childhood in the military style of the Fusō Empire. Mio Sakamoto was a samurai of a very old school, far older than Katsujinkenryū, long before she ever met the man on whom she had lately pinned what remained of her hopes.
Instead, what Gryphon was doing was converting her into a different kind of samurai; and for those purposes, Mio had effectively started as a sort of advanced journeyman, with the vast bulk of the rote training a "blank slate" student would require already in place. Katsujinkenryū was not a martial art that insisted on students already versed in other techniques "unlearning" what they knew; indeed, one of the central tenets of the style involved regarding that old chestnut as little better than prideful folly, wasting hard-won achievements for the mere sake of asserting some nebulous moral superiority.
The chief technical difference between Asagiri Katsujinkenryū and the Fusō Teikokukaigun Ittōryū in which Mio was already so well-versed was that Katsujinkenryū was a nitōryū - literally a "two-sword school", one that featured the use of both parts of the classical daishō, the long katana and short wakizashi. As a practitioner of a strictly utilitarian military style, Mio had never had much occasion to handle the shorter swords. The Navy Style dismissed wakizashi as quaint affectations of an earlier age, not practical battlefield weapons.
She'd had occasion to see how questionable that doctrine was back in 1943, when she'd seen Gryphon in action with the 501st. Not so much in aerial battle, admittedly, as in training on the ground; she hadn't been studying under him or trying to learn his style at the time, but she had practiced alongside, and sparred with, him fairly extensively, as a natural extension of her already-existing strict training regimen. How else was another Fusō-style swordsman supposed to keep his skills honed, after all?
Back and forth, back and forth, and their bare feet tamped smooth the earth of the open clearing by the cabin as they worked. On hot days and cool, still and windy - days that saw sweat pouring down their faces and days when what they had to keep dashing out of their eyes was rain - they worked, laying the foundations for what Gryphon hoped would be the answer to Mio's desperately heartfelt request. She occasionally wondered what he was working toward, building these intricate but ultimately mundane tactical skills and muscle memories in her, but she had sworn never to question his teaching and she never did so aloud.
Gryphon sat immersed up to his neck in the hot spring, a folded towel on top of his head, and sighed as the last of the day's aches drifted away. An arm's length to his right, Mio Sakamoto did exactly the same thing at exactly the same moment. Behind them, curled up on the grass surrounding the onsen, Wolfgang joined in. Hearing the beagle's signature contented-triple-snort-and-sigh, the two humans glanced at each other, snickered, and then broke up laughing for a few moments before settling back again to soak.
"You're coming along very well," he said. "I think next week we'll be able to start on Phase II."
Mio turned her head to give him a thoughtful look. Having read the works of the ryū's founders, she had a pretty good idea of what Phase II would be: an investigation into whether, perhaps as a lingering echo of her original magical power, she could be sensitized to the universal energy field - the thing Gryphon had called "like a kind of magic" - that powered his own supernatural abilities. This energy Katsujinkenryū, after the ancient tradition of the Jedi Knights (one of whom had co-founded the ryū), knew simply as "the Force".
If she could, and if she could be taught to tap into it and control it, it was Gryphon's hope that the Force could be used as a replacement for her now-lost capacity to generate magic energy within herself. He likened the concept to connecting a battery-powered device whose battery had failed to an external power source. If it worked, then there was a chance - only a chance - that Mio might do the impossible and fly again one day. Even if that didn't happen, she would at least be able to learn the superhuman fighting techniques at the uppermost levels of Katsujinkenryū, which only the Force made humanly possible, and achieve some new and different measure of usefulness to the war effort.
If not... she didn't want to think about "if not," so she didn't. Instead she smiled, settling herself a little lower so that her chin dipped into the warm water, and said, "I'm ready when you are, sensei."
The sun had just dipped below the peak of the mountain across the valley to the west, bathing the spring and its occupants in a fine red-orange light, when another figure came around the back of the cabin and hailed them.
"Hn?" said Gryphon, who had started to doze off a little. Looking up, he saw his landlady standing on the opposite shore, regarding him and his student with an expression combining surprise and puzzlement with what looked like faint, indulgent amusement.
"Oh, hello," said Mio, sounding mildly surprised.
"Good afternoon," said the young-looking woman in pink and red who had come upon them. To Mio's eye, she looked like she might be a miko - she was wearing the kind of elaborate-kimono-and-hakama ensemble the temple priestesses wore in her native Fusō, and she had that fresh-scrubbed-and-wholesome look they tended to strive for, as well.
"Good afternoon," Gryphon replied, smiling. "What a pleasant surprise. Mio, this is my landlady, I told you about her a while back." Raising a hand out of the water to make a sort of presentational gesture, he went on, "General Sakura Shingūji of the Army of the Empire of Morita; may I present Major Mio Sakamoto of the Imperial Fusō Navy."
Completely unfazed by her nakedness - one was, after all, supposed to be naked in the bath, and only a pointlessly unreasonable person would object to that! - Mio put her folded towel aside, rose to her feet, and bowed very correctly, saying, "Yoroshiku onegaishimasu, Shingūji-taishō."
Sakura's response was equally perfect, taking no account of the Major's dishabille whatsoever; she returned the bow and said that she was very pleased to meet her too, but please, let's not stand on ceremony...
A short while later, dried off and more-or-less-dressed in the stripey shirt of his she'd appropriated as nightclothes on her first day here, Mio sat at the kitchen table chatting with Sakura while Gryphon (rather more dressed than that) fixed dinner. Not very much to Gryphon's surprise, once they got to talking, Sakura and Mio got on like a house afire. They had a very great deal in common, including the unexpected link of both being magic warriors depended upon by their governments to defend their homelands against mysterious, inscrutable alien invaders. Before long they had fallen to the favorite activity of all soldiers when gathered: the telling of war stories.
Gryphon, as it happened, had figured in some of those on both sides of the conversation, and by the time they finished eating and adjourned to the "living room" area, the two women were laughing and talking like old friends - and dredging up the most embarrassing available anecdotes about their mutual friend and colleague, who had figured in a number of both of their war stories and now sat between them on the couch with a long-suffering face on.
"You made him wear what?" Mio asked, vaguely incredulous. "Ha! ha! ha! I wish I could have seen that!"
"He actually cut quite a dashing figure," Sakura said, a trifle defensively. "Both in the Hanagumi uniform and on stage as a member of the Imperial Theater Company." She smiled nostalgically. "If we had Sumire here, I could probably convince them to re-enact their signature duet from Chess."
Mio, sitting cross-legged with Wolfgang in her lap (all but boneless with bliss at the comprehensive ear rub he was getting), laughed again. "I know he has a good singing voice. And that he can hold his own in a duet, come to think of it."
"I knew this would come up," said Gryphon.
"Don't leave me in suspense, Major," said Sakura cheerfully.
"At our old base in Britannia, we had a Fusō-style bath, but it was indoors," Mio explained. "And since we were all women before Flyboy here turned up," she added with a little grin, "there was only the one. We took a vote after he came along and decided it wouldn't be fair to ban him from using it, but some of the other girls were... shy."
"Well, I figured Barkhorn just didn't like me," Gryphon put in wryly.
"She's set in her ways, you know that," Mio said casually. "Anyway, it was an elaborate setup with a fountain in the middle, and the rule was, if he wanted to be in there he had to sit with his back to the fountain, facing away from the showers, and anyone who wanted to hide could stay on the other side of the fountain."
"Seems fair," said Sakura with an impish smile.
"It worked for most of us," Mio agreed. "But our squadron commander, Minna... well, she's never really gotten used to the idea of a Fusō-style bath in the first place, so she only went in there when there was nobody else there. I couldn't even get her to go in with me most of the time - and the one day I did, who wanders in about twenty minutes after we arrive?"
Sakura giggled. "Oh dear."
"Luckily, Minna and I were already around on the other side of the fountain, so she didn't notice him and freak out right away, but we'd have to go past him to leave. I thought I might have to try to trick Minna into staying until he left. Which might've worked if he hadn't started singing."
"I thought I was alone!" Gryphon protested.
"Picture the scene," Mio said. "I'm sitting at the edge of the bath with my back to the showers, facing Minna, who has her back to the fountain; and over on the other side of the fountain, a man's voice starts singing. Poor Minna went white as a sheet, and I started seriously thinking that I might have to knock her out and carry her to get her to leave the room anytime that night... and then she noticed what he was singing. It was the thing from Puccini's La Bohème - you know the part, 'O soave fanciulla, o dolce viso'..."
Sakura nodded. "We did La Bohème one year in the ITC."
"That's where I learned it," Gryphon put in.
"The thing is... before the war, Minna trained to be an opera singer," said Mio, her smile now less amused and more sentimental. "So when she realized what he was singing, she couldn't help herself... she had to join in."
"You must have been surprised to discover that you had a Mimì," said Sakura, nudging Gryphon with an elbow.
"A bit," Gryphon conceded. "I didn't recognize her voice, either - I'd never heard Colonel Wilcke sing before. But she knew the part, and, well, it seemed like the sporting thing to keep going."
"They sang it all the way to the end of Act I, and then he got up and left - without even trying to find out who his partner had been," Mio concluded. "I don't think I ever thanked you for that, by the way. I know you didn't entirely mean to, but you turned what could've been an awkward moment into a really beautiful one. Minna was embarrassed, but..." She reddened a little at the memory. "Sometimes she likes being a little embarrassed."
"Uh... my pleasure?" said Gryphon wryly. "Glad it all worked out."
"Well, I should get going," said Sakura, rising. "It was very nice meeting you, Mio, and I hope you find what you're in search of." With an only-slightly-wry smile, she added, "I can tell you this much: You're in very good hands."
"I know," said Mio, smiling.
"Aw, shucks," said Gryphon.
"I'd get up to see you off, but..." Mio added apologetically, indicating the happily snoring Lensbeagle in her lap.
Sakura laughed cheerfully. "Not at all," she said. As she turned to go, she noticed Mio's sword hanging from one of the pegs on the mantelpiece - a katana in a red-lacquered scabbard, its white leather grip wrapped in red cord, all its fittings a matte, anodized black.
"That's a beautiful sword," she said. "May I?"
Mio nodded. "Please," she said, "be my guest."
Sakura took the sword down from its peg and held it sideways before her, right hand on the grip, left hand on the saya. "What's its name?" she asked.
"Reppumaru," Mio told her, and then, with a sheepish grin and a hand behind her head, "Took me all night to come up with that, so be gentle."
Sakura giggled. "It's a perfectly fine name," she said. Then, with a curious expression, she drew the sword perhaps three inches, just enough to get a look at the temper of the blade.
As she bared the blade, Sakura felt a strange sensation, as of something... grabbing at her, psychically. Involuntarily, her rose-pink battle aura manifested around her, bright enough to cast shadows. Mio leaned back slightly, her eyes going wide, as the exposed part of Reppumaru's blade glowed with the same light, not the blue-white glow it had always shown when she'd infused it with her own magic power.
Her face pale and dotted with a faint stippling of sweat, Sakura snapped the sword fully back into its sheath, cutting off the glow like a closing door. After a moment, her own aura faded as well, and the two women stared at each other, one in puzzlement, the other something akin to horror.
"Did you make this sword?" Sakura asked, her voice hushed.
"Yes," Mio replied.
"Then I assume you know it's cursed," Sakura said in an almost conversational tone of voice.
"I... I do now," Mio said after a moment's hesitation. Lowering her eyes, she went on, "I didn't intend for it to be, but... I was desperate when I made it. Not thinking clearly. My intent got a little bit... warped. But by then I was out of time. I had to have something that worked, and Reppumaru did... well enough. Or so I thought." She performed a seated bow, closing her eyes. "I'm sorry. I didn't know it could affect you. I would have warned you not to touch it if I thought it would."
Sakura turned to Gryphon. "You knew?"
"I suspected," he replied. "I was going to deal with it after we'd reached the next stage."
"I fear that would have been even more dangerous," Sakura told him, speaking much more formally than she had to him at any previous time that day. "Something must be done about this at once. This blade should be reforged."
For a moment, Mio thought of protesting. Flawed and dangerous or not, Reppumaru represented an enormous investment of time, effort, and (in more senses than one) energy on her part. Yes, it was as much foe as friend; yes, it had made her able to fight without her failed shield spell only at the cost of burning her out even more profoundly than carrying on without it would have done, leaving her completely powerless instead of simply weakened to the point of being combat-ineffective.
But until it had happened to her, she hadn't realized that she would even care about the difference between the two endings, and she still treasured those fleeting moments of triumph it had given her at the beginning of the Romagna campaign. That sense, however illusory, that she wasn't finished after all, that she could still fight, still contribute. That everything might just turn out all right. And, for all its faults, Reppumaru had given her those.
In the end, she held her peace. Partly, this was because she felt that objecting would violate at least the spirit, if not the letter, of her vow not to question any aspect of her retraining; but mostly, it was because she knew Sakura was right. Reppumaru's flaw was too dangerous to leave unchecked. It had burned her out, and she knew its hunger extended to the power of any witch foolish enough to touch it. It had once made an attack on Miyafuji, similar to the one it had just made on Sakura, simply because the younger witch had wanted to get a better look at her beloved instructor's proudest creation. She could not, in good conscience, leave something like that lying around, even if she herself were still willing to risk its bite in return for its power.
So instead of arguing, she bowed her head again and said, "I understand, Shingūji-taishō. What must I do?"
It was a measure of the seriousness with which she viewed the moment that Sakura didn't chide her for overformality this time. Instead, she hung Reppumaru back on its peg and said, "Tomorrow, I'll take you both to my family's ancestral forge. It's in these mountains, not far from here. The Shingūji have forged weapons there for centuries, since the earliest days of settlement here. My own blade, the Spirit Sword Arataka, was made there." Then, cracking a wry smile, she went on, "With the tools of my ancestors and what craft the three of us possess, we should be able to accomplish something."
"I..." Mio hesitated, then murmured an apology to Wolfgang and shifted him as gently as possible into Gryphon's lap before rising, brushing down her nightshirt, and bowing as formally as she could. "Thank you, Shingūji-taishō. I'm in your debt."
"You're very welcome, Sakamoto-shōsa," said Sakura, equally formally; then she shrugged off the persona once again, grinned, and added, "But I thought I told you to call me Sakura."
The Shingūji ancestral forge was exactly the kind of thing Mio had been envisioning since Sakura mentioned it. It was in a cave, a bit higher up the mountain to the north of the cabin, an hour or so's brisk hike away. There, the timelessly familiar facilities seemed to have been hewn from the living rock of the cavern's interior, and the tools, equally familiar, looked and felt like they had been there forever - as if waiting for someone to come and build a forge at which to use them.
For the whole of the next week, she, Gryphon, and Sakura worked toward a solution to the problem of Reppumaru's curse. The one they ultimately came up with was not perfect, but, they all agreed, it was the most practical, and the best that didn't involve scrapping the blade altogether and starting over from scratch. This, even under the circumstances, Mio couldn't quite bring herself to consider - and, to their credit, neither Sakura nor Gryphon ever tried to convince her to do so. They understood the bond a samurai could form with a weapon, even a flawed and dangerous one.
On Friday, they returned to the cabin at last, bearing with them the fruits of their determined labors. They were filthy, bruised, weary, and mightily sick of iron rations, but pleased with themselves and with the camaraderie the ordeal had built among them. None of them seemed to think it was at all curious, nor even worthy of comment, that after showering off the muck and grime of a week's hard labor at the forge, they should all settle into the onsen together and accept the sunset as their right and proper reward.
After a good long soak, when night had fully fallen, the three dried off, dressed, and went inside to get started on a suitably epic dinner. Wolfgang, deeply happy to be back in a place with a couch again, sacked out instantly, and his low, blissful snoring made a pleasant backdrop to the conversation as Gryphon rustled up some dinner and Sakura and Mio sat at the table trading more war stories.
Before long, they'd broken out the sake, and by the time Gryphon had finished prepping dinner and put it on the table, he had to move a full squad of dead soldiers to place it. Sakura was largely unaffected: she was a Detian, with all the inherent ability to hold one's liquor that implied. Mio, on the other hand, was red-faced and distinctly more casual of manner than usual. She'd even started calling her new friend "Saku-chan", which would ordinarily have mortified her even after repeated admonitions not to be so formal.
As they ate and continued drinking, Mio's manner got ever softer and warmer. Gryphon found this interesting; he'd never seen her drunk, even a little bit, during his time with the 501st in 1943. She considered herself too much of a role model for the younger witches in the squadron to indulge where they could see her, and they could always see her, so that was that. Now he was learning that, left to her own devices, she was a bit of a lightweight, and furthermore that she was one of his favorite types of drunk. Not that he routinely sought out the company of the intoxicated, but when he found himself near them, he had seen that they fell into different types. There was the morose drunk. There was the mean drunk, and the mean drunk's dangerous cousin the violent drunk. There was the loud, obnoxious drunk. There was the jolly drunk. And then there was his personal favorite, the I LOVE YOU GUYS drunk.
Mio Sakamoto, it appeared, was one of those. For half an hour or so after dinner, she regaled an increasingly amused Gryphon and Sakura with declarations of her love for each and every one of her wingmates, officers and gentlewomen all, without whom this stinking war would frankly not even be worth fighting. They were the greatest group of fighting witches the world had ever seen, and the finest human beings, to boot. She would go to the wall for each and every one of them and never look back, even that thieving little Romagnan, Lucchini - even that kinghell goldbricker Hartmann!
"Oh, hey, that reminds me," she said, turning to Gryphon. "Erica wanted me to give you somethin' if I saw you again before she did."
"Wha -" Gryphon said, but before he could take the question further, she'd taken advantage of the shape that syllable caused his mouth to make and planted a great big drunken 45-second Gallian kiss on him.
"Don't tell Trude," Mio advised him with a cheerful wink once she'd finished; and then, before he could reply, she fell asleep, slumping heavily against his shoulder and commencing to snore.
"... Probably sound advice," Gryphon conceded, bemused.
"Well," said Sakura, sounding impressed. "I think that's probably my cue to head home."
"Don't leave me alone with a drunk naval aviator! God knows what she'll do to me when she comes to," Gryphon protested, but his grin showed that he was joking. He got up, gently easing Mio's head down onto a pillow as he did so, and gave his old friend a hug. "Thanks for all your help."
"It was my pleasure," Sakura assured him. "I like your friend a good deal. I hope you're able to give her what she needs." She reddened. "Er, as it were."
"I don't think I'm equipped for that," he replied, winking, just to deepen her blush further; then he let her off the hook and said, "But yeah. I hope so too. We'll find out in the next day..." He glanced back over his shoulder as Mio rolled onto her back and uttered a sound midway between a snore and a cough. "... or two."
Gryphon saw Sakura to the door, tendered a (cheerfully declined) offer of a place to stay the night so she didn't have to hike down to her home at the mountains' base in the dark, and shut the door behind her. He went around the ground floor shutting off the lights, then stood for a few moments by the couch. Mio had turned onto her side again, curling up in a fetal position, and was breathing much more quietly. In the moonlight coming through the window, she looked quite composed and peaceful, not at all drunk as a lord.
He smiled, gathered her up, and let Wolfgang precede him up the stairs to the loft, singing under his breath as he went, "What shall we do with a drunken sailor? What shall we do with a drunken sailor? What shall we do with a drunken sailor, early in the morning?"
Mio slept in the next morning, but when she did rise, she wasn't hung over; didn't, in fact, seem to remember having been drunk in the first place. She just remarked that she must've been good and worn out after their week in the mountains, and she was sorry she'd missed seeing Sakura off after all her help.
That afternoon, not long after lunch, the breakthrough came. Mio was in the yard, training with a single bokutō. While Gryphon watched and considered her technique, she ran through several kata, then switched seamlessly to improvisation, handling the wooden blade with an easy, calm authority as she did battle with various imaginary foes - until a point came in the pattern where there was only one logical outcome. Setting herself, she planted her back heel, coiled herself, and with a sharp cry, launched herself into a fully committed forward strike:
"Hyakken no arashi!"
On prior attempts she had managed five, ten, even a dozen strikes before the momentum failed her and she came to a halt. This time, though, her arms and sword moved so swiftly they seemed to multiply, the blade cutting through the air with a hummingbird burr - creating the hundred-swords illusion that gave the technique its name. At the end, she whirled out of the follow-through, and in the same smooth, graceful motion swept the bokutō clean of imaginary blood and "sheathed" it at her side.
For a second, once it was finished, she stood and just breathed, gazing in thoughtful silence at the place where she had just performed the maneuver. Then, blinking, she turned an expression of delight to Gryphon.
"Nicely done," he said, and then he went on to say the words she'd been hoping to hear for weeks - words that kindled a glow of real hope in a heart she had once though would never feel that warmth again:
Face to face in the middle of the clearing, kneeling in seiza upon the bare earth, the two had been settling ever deeper into meditation for nearly half an hour before Gryphon spoke.
"With the successful execution of the hyakken no arashi," he said, "you've cracked open a door and taken your first look into a larger world. Now it is time to throw that door wide and embrace your destiny. Are you prepared?"
"Yes, sensei," Mio replied, not opening her eyes.
"Very well," Gryphon said. "Then know this, Sakamoto Mio. There is a fire inside you that cannot be quenched. It is the fire of life itself, greater than distance or time. It burns in all beings. It lives and breathes, warms and illuminates. Sometimes it consumes; but always it renews."
The timbre and cadence of his voice were at once soothing and compelling. Mio felt the focus of her self narrowing to a point, looking inward at the shining point of flame of which he spoke, deep in the center of herself.
"Concentrate," said Gryphon. "Feel that fire within you. Let its light guide you. Let its heat warm you; and once it has done, look outward. Behold the living fire of the universe itself: each tongue of flame a being like yourself, awake and alive, loved and loving, fighting to protect and survive. From time to time, any individual flame may go out, but the fire never dies - will never die. All life is flame. All life is one."
Mio drew a sudden deep breath, feeling the sense of heat within her blaze up like the Shingūji forge, as her consciousness unfolded outward and for a moment she saw... everything. It felt like the day, long ago in childhood, when she had first tapped her magic, first realized she was a witch... only dozens of times more intense, because now she was an adult and understood fully how precious it was.
For his part, Gryphon felt the breakaway within his student, as plainly as if it had been a visible, physical change. He smiled, remembering that transcendent moment when it had first happened for him, and spoke the final words, both initiation and benediction:
"This is the Force."
Mio's eyes snapped open, meeting his directly and unflinchingly across the arm's length that separated them. The left, clear and grey, glowed with a metaphorical intensity.
So too did the right, but it also glowed with a rather less metaphorical energy, its iris suffused with a scintillating violet light: the signature, Gryphon knew from older times, of Mio Sakamoto's particular magical gift, known among the magicologists of her home reality as Witchsight.
Unspeaking - what could words do to convey this sensation? - she expressed her joy instead by lunging forward, her arms going around his neck, and hugging the stuffing out of him.
When she'd finished, she stayed where she was - up on her knees, holding him tight, her forehead against his - for a long moment, then murmured, "Thank you."
"You're welcome," he replied.
They stayed that way for several more seconds. Then the moment ended and they returned to their previous places, sitting seiza an arm's length apart.
"Now what?" Mio inquired, her mouth quirking in a wry half-smile.
"Now," said Gryphon, "you're going to need this back," and he took her eyepatch from inside his gi and handed it to her. With it back in place, she finally, fully looked like herself again, and he had to smile a little bit at the realization; then he got to his feet and went briskly on,
"And now comes the actual hard part."
The second phase of Mio's retraining was, in some ways, the flip side of the first. In Phase I, she and Gryphon had been building on her existing kenjutsu skills to prepare her for initiation into the upper tier of Katsujinkenryū. Now they used her training in those upper-tier methods, all of which involved calling on the power of the Force in one way or another, to attempt a sort of "retooling" of her old magical abilities - adapting the spells she had once relied upon into Force techniques.
The most fundamental powers were the easiest, because for the most part they were very similar to the magical basics every combat witch learned early in her training. Fighting witches were trained to use their magic for physical enhancement first and foremost, increasing their strength, agility, and durability beyond the limits nature would normally have imposed on their bodies. This was how a short, lightly built woman like Mio, even one in physical condition as superb as hers, could handle heavy aircraft cannon bare-handed, and how her body could withstand the punishment of high-speed, high-altitude flight without any protective equipment (occasionally, without even clothing worthy of the description).
(Some witches took this ability to unusual extremes; Gertrud Barkhorn, Gryphon remembered, was fantastically strong even by the standards of her profession, able to carry loads in flight that were simply preposterous and perform feats of physical power that could leave onlookers dumbstruck. He well remembered seeing her punch a deuce-and-a-half truck to death, bellowing "Rot bedeutet ANHALTEN!" at the stunned Liberion Army sergeant at the wheel, when it had nearly clipped Erica Hartmann on a busy London street. Her signature trick was to fight with an MG42, a machinegun normally intended to be served by a two-man crew, in each hand, as if they were a pair of Mini-Uzis.)
Jedi and Katsujinkenryū samurai were taught the same basic augmentations, powered by the Force, and Mio Sakamoto proved a very quick study. Within a day or two of her awakening, she was back functioning at a high level, advancing rapidly into territory normally reserved for the IPO's highest-ranking esper agents. By the end of day two, Gryphon had revoked all the internal limits he'd placed on himself during her initial retraining, and their sparring matches became ever more epic. By the end of week two, had anyone been around to watch them, they could've been seen doing things like running through the forest canopy, from treetop to treetop, covering miles of wooded mountainside as they played an endlessly varying, constantly seesawing game of tag.
Mio had many things to adapt and adjust to during this period, and Gryphon did his best to tailor the "lesson plan" so that she would never have to tackle more than one at a time until all but one of the skills she was calling on had been thoroughly mastered. For instance, once the physical enhancement part was instinctive, he could start throwing in situational awareness challenges on top of physical ones, but before then, "one or the other" was the rule.
"Think of what we're doing as like physiotherapy," he said one day, as they sparred with naked blades. "You're like a head injury patient learning to walk again. All the knowledge is still there in your brain - we just have to rewire around the parts that don't work any more and get to some that do."
The metaphor was inexact, but helpful. It kept Mio from taking failure - of which, particularly in the early going, there was quite a lot - as evidence of personal inadequacy. Rather, she was recovering from an injury. There was hard work involved, but she had never been a stranger to hard work; hard work was one of Mio Sakamoto's oldest friends. And if there were days when nothing worked right, there was no shame in that. It was merely proof that she wasn't finished yet. Casting the struggle in that light kept her focused and positive. On some level, she recognized that she was being manipulated a bit, but on another, as an experienced trainer herself, she knew that you had to manipulate the trainees a little to get the best out of them, so she held no grudge - quite the opposite.
She was also branching out into new areas all on her own, experimenting with things that Gryphon, not sharing her specific abilities, couldn't directly help with. Early on, she discovered a new use for her revived Witchsight. Before, she had used it primarily as a farseeing ability, and to sense the hidden cores of Neuroi within their semicrystalline structures. Now she discovered that, with a little concentration, she could also use it to accelerate her visual perception, momentarily creating the conscious illusion that time had slowed, while at the same time temporarily boosting her own physical reaction speed. She couldn't keep it up for long - a second or two of real time at most - but properly timed, that second or two could make a big difference in a tactical situation.
The biggest moment for her, though, was the day when the time came to see about reviving her shield.
All combat witches learned a basic shield spell very early in their training. For the great majority of them, including Mio, this manifested itself as a sort of directable barrier, visually identified by a manifestation of its caster's personal magic circle. The patterns in these circles followed standard conventions based on the school in which their casters were trained, so that, for example, it was possible for someone versed in the topic to identify a shield cast by a Fusō-trained witch as opposed to a Britannian or Karlslander.
The shield was a simple spell, but also a demanding one - the amount of energy required to deflect a serious attack, such as cannon fire or a Neuroi plasma beam, was significant. For young witches, that was no real problem, but it meant that shield failure was one of the first and most reliable signs that a witch's age was catching up with her. So it had been for Mio; shortly after her twentieth birthday, shrapnel had pierced her shield during a battle, and within six months she could no longer even reliably stop a pistol bullet. It was this, initially, which had led her to forge Reppumaru, investing it with the ability to serve as a kind of shield by resisting enemy fire with its enchanted, energized blade - but at a terrible, ultimately unpayable price.
Of course, she still had Reppumaru, and the companion she, Gryphon, and Sakura had created for it at the Shingūji ancestral forge, either of which could still be used for that purpose. In the end, they were unable to "repair" her sword's flawed enchantment; but they were able to reduce its ravenous hunger, if not quell it altogether, by cutting the sword down into the wakizashi she would have needed anyway. They had also managed to attune it more closely to her, so that it would no longer attack other witches if they should chance to touch it - a change that took a great weight off its owner's mind.
They further mitigated it by pairing the "new" Reppumaru with a companion designed to improve the balance of power: her new main blade, Haganekaze, a katana forged and invested in the Shingūji pattern. One of Haganekaze's jobs was to provide a sort of metaphysical "counterweight" to Reppumaru. When wielding them both together, she could keep Reppumaru balanced in the Force and stop it from feeding on her own life energies. With these changes, the smaller sword was not completely safe to use - it would never truly be that; but it was a well-known and eminently manageable threat now, and one Mio was more reasonedly confident that she could stay on top of with a little care.
All of which was very well, but as they trained harder and harder and autumn's chill drew closer and closer against the flanks of the mountains, Gryphon knew that Mio dearly wished she could find the key that would unlock her shield again. Even if she didn't really need it, even if she now had a viable alternative as opposed to the self-destructive one she'd originally created, getting it back would represent a sort of symbolic personal triumph that he knew she ached for. As with her Witchsight, though, this was not something he could help with directly, for even the advanced Force techniques of Katsujinkenryū had no close analog to the shield spell.
Some Jedi Masters could manifest such formidable psychokinetic powers from their connection with the Force that they could block or even redirect hostile fire directed against them through will alone; but even they largely relied on their weapons, contained plasma swords called lightsabers, to do most of the heavy defensive lifting. Katsujinkenryū, too, had lightsaber techniques, and the idea intrigued Mio, but she'd decided early on that it would be too difficult to explain such a thing to the powers that be back home - and there was the question of whether she could keep one working with the technology base she'd have available there.
("Besides," she quipped wryly at the time, "I'm a Fusō-no-otome. Steel is in our blood.")
Five weeks into Phase II, they were sparring in the larger clearing, farther away from the cabin, where they'd relocated once matters started becoming superhuman and they began to fear they might endanger the structure. Using both blades each and all their physical prowess, they would have looked to most outside observers as if they were really, seriously trying to kill one another, exploiting every advantage they could find and holding nothing back.
Steel rang against steel as Mio met a strike from Ryū-no-ha, Gryphon's wakizashi, with Reppumaru. Her positioning was a little off (she was still slightly thrown off by his left-handedness, which rendered backward all her expectations about which of his blades would be coming from where), and the sword sprang from her hand with a stinging jolt, coming to rest point-down in the earth a few yards away.
Cursing, Mio shook her jarred hand, then switched to a two-handed grip on Haganekaze, meeting his next strike more readily. Pressing his advantage ruthlessly, he bore down with his superior mass, battering through her guard and sending her other sword flying from her hands as well, then swept in for the kill.
She knew, of course, that he wasn't really going to kill her; even in the heat of a full-throttle sparring session like this one, either of them in his position would pull the blow just before it landed and leave the other defeated but unharmed. All the same, she reacted instinctively, gathering herself to push him back with the Force and try to buy herself room to regroup. As she raised her hand, she realized a moment too late that he was closer than she thought - using only one eye, her depth perception was impaired - and that it was entirely possible she was about to lose a piece of her right arm.
Gryphon's longer blade, Ryū-no-tsume, struck the air two inches from Mio's hand and stopped, its edge sizzling softly. Radiating outward, centered on her palm, was a glowing circular sigil about a foot in diameter, its central detail an intricately interlocked eight-pointed star.
Mio gazed in wonder at the back of her magic circle for a moment; then, her face reconfiguring into a fierce little smile, she set her will against the curious-but-familiar new "shape" in her still-growing perception of the Force and pushed. With a sound like a hammer striking steel, the circle expanded to a full ten-foot diameter and moved away from her hand by a couple of feet, flinging Gryphon back as if he'd been hit by a car.
While he picked himself up off the ground, she withdrew the shield, then pushed it back out again experimentally a couple of times, satisfying herself that she had its new form locked into her mind and could reclaim it when she liked. Her visible eye filling with tears, she stood for a moment looking at her hand, calling a small version of the circle into being and then dismissing it over and over for a few seconds. A short way away, Gryphon stood watching her, an oddly wistful little smile on his lips.
Then, recalling herself to the present with an effort, Mio stopped playing with her shield, reassembled her composure, and went to retrieve her swords so they could start again.
Mio didn't comment aloud on the development until they had finished for the day. Only when they had showered up and retired to the onsen (both of them indifferent to the increasing autumnal bite in the air) did she remark,
"I'm not sure I can explain to you what today's breakthrough means to me. Losing my shield..." She shook her head. "It was proof that, train as I might, I couldn't beat the system after all. That despite all my hard work and determination, I couldn't escape what they call the Witch's Fate. It was the beginning of the end, and I let it define me, for a while. Getting it back is like..." Hesitating, she considered, then said, "Like becoming myself again."
Gryphon nodded, smiling. "I'm glad."
"All I've done is show you the mountain," he said, shaking his head. "You've done all the work of climbing it."
"But without you, I never would have found it," Mio insisted.
"Well... maybe," Gryphon allowed, settling back against the side of the bath. "Of course... this is kind of bad news for me."
Mio looked somewhere between startled and offended. "What? Why?"
He raised his head and gave her a wry smile. "You're almost done. It won't be long before you won't have any more use for me... and then you'll go back to 1945 and leave me all alone."
"Oh," she said, looking slightly downcast. "That's true." Then, mustering a wry grin of her own, she said, "Not quite alone." She indicated the Lensbeagle, dozing as was his wont by the side of the bath while the humans soaked. "You'll get to keep Wolfgang... but only because I can't think of a way I could take him back with me," she added.
Gryphon chuckled. "Well, I suppose I shouldn't get too maudlin, anyway. After all, you're not finished yet. There's still your final exam." He grinned. "And before you can even take that, we have to fix your Striker Unit."
This was a significant challenge, but not an insurmountable one. On the one hand, a Striker Unit was a fantastically advanced piece of techno-sorcerous equipment, the likes of which did not exist anywhere in Gryphon's native reality. Mio's, moreover, was one of the most advanced production models currently in service in the time and place she came from.
On the other, it was still a machine that was manufactured on Earth (or at least an Earth) in 1945, and some of its parts reflected that. The materials of its construction, for instance, were for the most part not exotic, and though the magic engine that provided the "fuel" was an esoteric piece of gear, the radial reciprocating engine it powered was exactly what it said on the tin (albeit astonishingly compact for the era).
Also, though they didn't have any of the maintenance or repair documentation handy, neither Gryphon nor Mio really needed it. Mio wasn't a mechanic, but she'd worked with Striker Units for a long time - had been one of the participants in their development, working closely alongside the late and (by flying witches, anyway) lamented Dr. Miyafuji as his chief test pilot. For his part, Gryphon was a mechanic of sorts, with an abiding interest in aviation hardware - the stranger the better. As such, during the months he was stranded in 1943, he had spent a fair bit of his time up to his elbows in one Striker or another, helping out the repair crews or one of the witches themselves (a few of whom maintained their own equipment).
"I love these things," Gryphon remarked as he adjusted the ætheric carburetor on Mio's Striker's starboard engine. "Dr. Miyafuji was either a certified genius or an authentic wacko, and I mean that in the most admiring possible way. I mean... it's a machine. It has..." He gestured with a wrench. "Pistons and spark plugs and oil and stuff. But it burns... well, chi, basically. That's firmly in 'so crazy it works' territory."
"He was a great man," said Mio from somewhere inside the portside unit's magic converter. "I miss him. It's kind of ironic, but I knew him better than I knew my own father... and better than his own daughter knew him." She extracted her head from the access panel and gave Gryphon a faintly rueful look. "Miyafuji never mentions it, but I know she must be at least a little jealous of that, and it makes me feel bad. Not like I did anything wrong, but... well, she got shortchanged, and in a way, I was part of it."
Gryphon gave her a puzzled look, then nodded as he realized what she was getting at. "Oh, that's right, one of your 'new kids' is called Miyafuji, isn't she? I didn't put it together."
"Mm," said Mio, returning to work. "The Professor's daughter, Yoshika. She was just a child when he left home to devote himself to the Striker project. I didn't set out to do it, didn't even know I had for a long time, but in a way, I sort of... replaced her in his life. She never saw him again. I was the one who was there when he died. Four years later she joined the 501st, and I thought that by looking after her I could pay a little of that back." She chuckled, a wry little smile spreading onto her face as she worked. "In practice, half the time it's the other way around, but don't tell her I said so."
"She sounds like quite a girl," Gryphon observed.
"She's the best. The most powerful witch I've ever seen, and one of the kindest people." Chuckling again, she added, "Some of them would never admit it, but the whole squadron's in love with her. You can't... you can't not be, once you get a good look at what she's like." With a thoughtful frown, Mio paused in her work for a moment, then looked up again and said, "Come to think of it, she'd be a natural fit for Katsujinkenryū. 'The sword that kills is the sword that saves.' That's Miyafuji to the bone - the gentle soldier. She hates war, but she'll fight like a demon for the right reason."
"Well," Gryphon mused, "when you get back, maybe you should pass along a few of the things I've shown you."
"Maybe I should," Mio agreed, her voice thoughtful.
After a week and a half of tinkering and fettling, a bit of improvisation, and one return to the Shingūji forge to make a couple of replacement parts from scratch, they decided they had Mio's Striker Unit nailed back together as well as they were going to. That left only the final step: seeing if it worked... and if Mio could make it work.
The night before the flight test, Gryphon presented her with an item he'd been fiddling with in the evenings for the last few days. At first glance, they looked like a pair of old-fashioned flight goggles, like her colleague Shirley Yeager sometimes wore, with the right lens blanked off and painted to resemble her eyepatch (white with a diagonal blue stripe).
"It's a little something I thought might make your life a little easier in the air," he explained as she looked quizzically from the goggles to him. "Try them on."
Puzzled but game, Mio took off her eyepatch and slipped the goggles on instead, adjusting the elastic strap so that they would fit comfortably. Then, turning to regard him, she said, "They're fine, but..." She tried to push the right lens up so she could use that eye, and, as she had expected, found it difficult. "This is actually going to make it harder to use my Witchsight in combat."
Gryphon smiled. "That's the beauty of it, actually. You don't even need to touch them. Try it - just leave them in place and think about using your witch eye."
She gave him a curious look, but did as he asked, lowering her hands -
The goggles suddenly switched, the left lens becoming opaque and the right clearing. It took less time than it did to blink, and suddenly she was looking through the rainbow edge of his living aura and out the window behind him, across the valley to count the scales on a pinecone partway up the mountain on the far side. Startled, she instinctively tried to focus on his face, and - flick! - the lenses swapped again, so that she was looking at him with her normal eye and only her normal eye.
"How does that...?" she wondered, testing it again.
"It's controlled by your thoughts," he said, as if that were the most ordinary thing in the world. "The headband has a neural mesh in it that can read your brainwaves through your skull, so the goggles know when you want to use your left eye and when you want to use your right. Save you the trouble of prying your eyepatch up all the time in combat. I got the idea from a kid I know back in New Avalon whose left eye can see a couple of seconds into the future. You can imagine how disorienting that is if she tries to look out both eyes at once," he added with a rueful smile.
"... Yes I can," Mio agreed after a moment's reflection. "Huh. What if I want to use them both at once? Oh," she said, as the goggles demonstrated that they could do that too. "Well, all right, then. Thanks. This will come in handy."
"You're welcome," he said. "Think of it as an early graduation present."
Or a consolation prize, she didn't say out loud.
Mio felt uncharacteristically nervous the next morning, as she dressed in her uniform, put on her new flight goggles, made certain her swords were secure on her back, and then went outside to face her final trial. After everything she'd faced, everything she'd attained, in these last few strange and wondrous months, it would be such a horrible anticlimax if she proved unable to activate a Striker again. And yet how big an ingrate would she feel for being disappointed by that, in the face of everything else she'd gained and regained? Still, she couldn't deny that she would be, if it came down to it.
Gryphon didn't seem worried, but then, he hadn't right along. Before every one of the hurdles and milestones she'd faced on this odyssey, he'd been right there, exuding confidence that she would succeed. Now she found him standing out in the clearing, dressed very much like the way he'd been when she had first seen him, back in 1943: heavy duck trousers, paratrooper boots, a sheepskin bomber jacket, and the sleek brushed-silver double pod of a jetpack. This one looked slightly more advanced than the one he'd had in '43, which made sense if it was decades later for him, as he'd told her.
Her Striker Unit stood next to him, affixed to an improvised launch stage he'd constructed while she was dressing and preparing herself. Mio had to admit it wasn't the most sophisticated apparatus she'd ever seen. It consisted primarily of a couple of old wooden sawhorses, a plank, a short stepladder, and a few bungees - but it was doing the job of keeping the unit upright and providing a way to get to the top of it, and under the circumstances, that was all she could really ask.
"Are you ready?" Gryphon asked, smiling.
"No," Mio replied honestly, "but it's time."
He grinned, kissed her on the cheek - "For luck" - and steadied the ladder for her as she mounted to the top of the platform. Standing there, feeling the old wood rough under the soles of her bare feet, she looked down into the open throats of her Striker for a moment, steeling herself for whatever might happen next...
... and then stepped off, pointing her toes as she was taught long ago and sliding down into the unit's embrace. There was that familiar faint vibration as the magic engine spun up, and for an eternal gliding moment it seemed like nothing else would happen.
Then a strange new sensation, like a door opening within her, and the Striker glowed, its control surfaces twitching. She looked down at her hands and saw that they were glowing too, the familiar manifestation of a visible aura as the Striker's magic engine synchronized with her own energies - the tingling sensation in her scalp and at the base of her spine that told her the ears and tail of her spirit familiar were materializing on her own body.
Mio looked to her left and saw Gryphon, grinning broadly, produce a folding signal mirror from an inside pocket of his jacket. And there she was, looking astonishedly back at herself, blank goggle lens on the wrong side, with the pointed black ears of a Karlsland fighting dog (of all things, but then witches don't pick their familiars) jutting up from her hair.
"It's working," she said, her voice almost a whisper; and then, louder, "It's working!"
"It sure is," Gryphon replied, tucking the mirror away again. Approaching, he bent to make a couple of adjustments inside the engine access panels partway down both Strikers, then clapped them shut and stood back, making a crossed-fists gesture in front of his chest. "Contact!"
"Contact!" Mio confirmed, willing the Striker's engines to start turning. Like the magic engine initialization, or her shield when it had first come back, it felt strange at first - the machine's responses sluggish, as if it were resisting her. She felt a bit like a rookie, trying to get the Striker to respond for the first time. The engines turned, but didn't fire at first, the mechanisms whining ineffectually. Then the left one caught, one cylinder firing, then another and another; the right followed a few seconds after that, and before long both were turning on their own.
Training and experience took over automatically from nervous excitement now; as she'd been taught to do in flight school, Mio ran both engines up to full power in careful stages, warming them up and running them in, as you did immediately after a total overhaul. The right engine sputtered and banged, spitting black smoke from its exhaust stacks, and she nearly shut it down again before remembering that it always did that when it hadn't been run for a day or two.
She could no longer hear Gryphon, or indeed hear anything over the roar of her engines, but the next gesture he gave her - a whirl of an extended forefinger above his head - spoke clearly enough. Unable to keep a fierce grin from spreading onto her face, Mio engaged her Striker's propellers; the glowing energy blades sprang out from the spinning hubs, feathered but turning, blurring immediately into discs of light.
His own expression mirroring hers, Gryphon went to a nearby tree stump and picked up a hard-shelled, open-faced helmet with an aviation-style oxygen mask clipped to it, and strapped it on. Thus equipped, he crossed to the launch stage, carefully staying clear of the props (though, being æthereal, they wouldn't actually hurt him if he touched them), and unfastened the bungees that held her to the sawhorses.
Then, in a gesture so perfectly chosen she'd have wept if she hadn't been so busy grinning, he took a couple of steps forward and to one side, turned to face the valley to the south, dropped to one knee, and swung his right hand forward, all the fingers extended - just like the deck crewmen on Fusō witchcraft carriers did to signal launch clearance. Mio's magic circle manifested on the ground beneath her, interdicting some of the local gravity and making it easier for her to lift off. She leaned forward, shifting her props to takeoff pitch - another brief stutter, a cloud of black smoke, a wave of uncertainty so brief she barely registered it -
- and Mio Sakamoto was flying again.
It almost came as a surprise, the Shiden-Kai leaping into the air so eagerly that she nearly lost control of it and groundlooped like a newbie; but she got hold of it before that could happen, throwing on a few seconds of emergency power so as to pile up as much airspeed as possible during the climb out. The valley fell away below her as she shot over the ridge at the end of the clearing where the cabin stood, providing a breathtaking vista of fall foliage rolling away toward the higher mountains.
Head back, arms out, she pulled the steepest climb she could manage, the Striker's engines running smoothly now. Climbing was something the Shiden-Kai Striker model was particularly good at, and she was at 20,000 feet before it occurred to her to look and see where Gryphon might happen to be.
Not entirely to her surprise, he was right next to her, in echelon formation to her right, just where - a little smile - Miyafuji would be, the exhausts of his jetpack showing cones of blue light. He grinned at her, then fastened his helmet's oxygen mask over his lower face, so that all she could see of his face was his smiling eyes behind the clear lenses of his goggles.
Then, drawing the longer of his swords, he flipped it over and tapped her on the shoulder with its blunt edge, then half-rolled and dove inverted toward the forest. They hadn't had the equipment to rig up a radio link, but she didn't need one for that particular message, which was clear as day:
Tag. You're it.
Grinning, she drew Haganekaze and winged over to pursue him.
They raced among the mountains for more than an hour, soaring to near her Striker's service ceiling and then diving back to the deck, executing ever more complicated maneuvers with finer and finer tolerances. His jetpack was faster, and capable of short bursts of astonishing speeds with its afterburners; but her Striker was more maneuverable, and as she regained more and more of her edge she became able to demand ever greater feats of precision from it.
The result was part race, part dogfight, part swordfight, and part dance, covering mile after mile of clear blue sky. At one point they streaked up a snow-filled cwm some miles to the north of the cabin, where the fall snowline had already reached the upper crag, their slipstreams and Gryphon's jet exhaust blasting up a huge cloud of white in their wake. He pulled ahead during the part of it that was an outright drag race, but not so much as to be able to shake her, and when they reached the peak at the head of the valley, Mio's greater agility told. She treated it like the pylon at the end of an air-racing course, pulling such a heavy turn around it that she left streamers of condensation from her Shiden-Kai's winglet tips even in the dry mountain air, her vision momentarily pinking out in spite of her Force-enhanced magical resilience.
Gryphon let her have that one, choosing instead to cut across the outer valley and intercept her at the bottom of the slope. She sensed him coming and tried out her new Witchsight trick for the first time in the air; his closing speed seemed to fall away as her perception of time elongated. By the time he arrived at where she would've been, she was five degrees above and giving him a sharp rap on top of the helmet with the back of Reppumaru, in the process of turning a complete vertical 360 over his head and settling in on his tail.
He responded by chopping thrust and plummeting away, then turning himself over in freefall and cutting the power back on again so that he rocketed away in the opposite direction. Not a bad trick, that; Mio had seen him do it once over the English Channel, and it had completely flummoxed the Neuroi he'd done it to, setting it up perfectly for Sanya, making a rare daylight sortie, to blast it to pieces with her Fliegerhammer. This aerial exercise was bringing back a lot of memories like that - not just of him, but of all her wingmates. Things she'd put away in a box in the back of her head, too painful to look at when they were memories of a flying career that was over, and that were unpacking themselves joyously now that she was back in the air...
... It was time to go home.
By some silent consensus, they wrapped up their dogfight shortly thereafter, returning to the clearing flushed, sweaty, and thoroughly exhilarated. Mio backed her Striker carefully up to the improvised launch stage and balanced there while Gryphon reaffixed the bungees; then she shut down, powered off, and climbed out, sitting down on the top platform to catch her breath. Once disengaged from the Striker, her legs tingled, muscles twitching, that familiar sensation that told her she'd put in a good, hard day's work.
Gryphon pulled off his helmet and set it on the stage beside her, then held up a hand for a high five that turned into an armwrestler's clasp and shoulder-to-shoulder half-hug.
"Sakamoto Mio, you are back in business," he told her, grinning broadly.
It started snowing while they were in the onsen, not that this discouraged them in any measurable way. Suspecting it might, they'd stashed all the hardware away in the shed again before calling it a day, so there was no urgent reason for them to cut short what they both knew, though neither was saying it aloud, would be their last hot soak together for a while.
They didn't talk about it during their last meal together, either; instead, the occasion was full of cheer, with celebratory toasts (of tea) to all Mio's beloved colleagues and confusion to the Neuroi, if they could in fact experience such a thing. They sat up into the small hours, talking of wars and hopes of peace, struggles and hopes of happiness, losses and hopes of love. When they turned in for the night, it wasn't to lie back-to-back, as had been their general custom, but face-to-face, though still with Wolfgang curled up happily between them.
"Sleep well, Major," said Gryphon softly, kissing her atop the head, and on this last night he left the rest of it unsaid.
Breakfast the next day was a slightly subdued affair, but not somber; rather, the mood was of slightly tense expectancy. It had snowed an inch or two during the night, but the morning was bright and clear, and warm enough that the snow had already started to melt by the time they finished breakfast.
Feeling a bit ceremonious, Mio dressed in her uniform again, tying her hair up in its accustomed ponytail, then settled her swords on her shoulder and her new goggles on her head. Preparations complete, she descended the stairs and found Gryphon in his working clothes, as he'd been dressed while they worked on her Striker. He smiled at the sight of her in full flying trim again, gave her a hug, and asked her jokingly if she'd remembered to pack all her things.
"I think I've got everything," she replied, half-smiling. "Now the only thing left is to see if I can get home. Luckily," she added, "it seems part of me was thinking that far ahead even when the rest of me wasn't."
Gryphon raised an eyebrow. "How so?"
"To get back home the way I came," Mio explained, "I need something to guide me. Something I believe in as strongly as I believed in your coin to bring me here." She took her WDF Flight Test coin from her jacket pocket and carefully untied the black ribbon from around it, then pocketed the coin again and held the ribbon up. "And I think I have it right here."
"What is it?"
"It's Minna's tie. From her uniform. The day I left to come here..."
Late evening, and the deserted hangar was dark but for the glow of the Striker launch stands' status lights: 10 green, their Striker Units in place and standing by, and one red, its retention brackets open and empty.
Mio made a mental note of the red light as she silently entered the hangar. It meant Sanya Litvyak was out there somewhere, on her usual lonely night patrol, and so might be a factor in what happened next. The Orussian Night Witch would probably not try to stop her, but that was hard to say for certain. She would, after all, certainly know that Major Sakamoto's flight was not authorized.
Standing at the back of her Shiden-Kai Striker Unit's launch stage, Mio considered the dull gleam of the metal disc she held in her right hand, running her thumb gently over the lettering embossed on the reverse. She couldn't read it in this dim light, but she knew exactly what it said. It was the motto of the Wedge Defense Force's Experimental Flight Test Command - three words in a dead language that she'd been mulling over long into the nights lately. Citius, altius, fortius.
"It's Latin," Gryphon had explained, when Erica Hartmann had asked him what the slogan on his jacket patch said. "It means 'swifter, higher, stronger'."
With a sigh, Mio closed her fist around the coin, then climbed to the top of the launch stand. There, she kicked off her shoes, then paused, taking the moment fully on board. How many times have I done this? she wondered, looking down at the Striker's empty leg ports. Hundreds, at least. And this... this will probably be the last.
She felt like it ought to be more of an occasion, but it was what it was. Steeling herself, she walked to the end of the platform and jumped, her legs sliding into the Striker's ports with practiced ease. As ever, there was the tingling rush as the magic engine energized, brightening her aura. Her familiar's ears and tail manifested; her magic circle sprang into glowing existence on the floor beneath her. Smaller in diameter than it had once been, perhaps, but still bright, and still complete. Her Shiden-Kai's engines came reluctantly to life, sputtering and missing, then settled into a steady thrum. It took more concentration than it used to, but... yes. She could still do this.
"Sakamoto, heading out," she mumbled ironically as she tripped her launch stage's release and started taxiing toward the hangar doors, left standing open a few feet for Sanya's eventual return from patrol. She left her weapons behind, apart from Reppumaru; where she was going, she wouldn't need a gun.
Halfway to the doors, Mio leaned forward, starting to pick up speed. She wanted to get out of sight of the base as fast as she could, in case anyone happened to be up and looking out a window. It wouldn't do for someone to raise the alarm before -
A figure, barely visible in the dark, stepped into the gap between the doors, right in her path. Mio flinched, nearly losing control of her Striker, and barely managed to stop herself before she ran the person down; she hovered awkwardly just outside the door for a moment, then settled herself to the ground, feathering her force props and leaving the engines at idle. This close, she could just make out the features of the person she'd nearly hit, who now stood before her with her face set in a furious glare, and her heart sank.
Of all the members of the squadron who might have intercepted her, Minna-Dietlinde Wilcke was the one she felt least able to cope with right now - and it had nothing at all to do with Minna being the only one who outranked her.
"Going somewhere, Major?" Minna asked, completely failing in her attempt to sound nonchalant.
"Minna," Mio replied helplessly. "I..."
"What are you planning to do?" Minna inquired, her voice strangely cold. "Just disappear in the night? Vanish into legend? Keep flying until you can't any more and plunge into the sea?"
"No, I -" Mio began, but Minna wasn't listening. The coldness in her voice suddenly flashed into fury as she slapped Mio across the face and barrelled on,
"Is that the way you Fusō witches resign from the game? Is it? How can you be so selfish? You might not be able to fight any more, but there are a hundred ways you can still be helpful to the war effort - to your country - to me! Damn you, Sakamoto, I need you!"
The flash of anger burned itself out as quickly as it came, replaced not by a return to coldness, but by a sort of emotional collapse that would have been shocking to the junior members of the squadron, if any had been around to see it. As a chilly spring rain began to fall, Minna crumpled against Mio's chest (with her Striker on, even grounded, the latter was a good head taller than the former) and beat a fist ineffectually against her shoulder, sobbing,
"You weren't even going to say goodbye."
Mio supposed the thing to do now would be to set her commander aside and make a run for it, but even under her own present circumstances, her innate gallantry wouldn't let her do that. Instead, she waffled for a second, unsure what to do -
And then experienced a moment of such perfect, crystalline clarity that she would remember it for the rest of her life. Oh, she thought. Of course.
Thankful for the rain - it kept it from being obvious that she was crying too - she gently repositioned herself, took Minna in her arms... and kissed her. Minna's brown eyes flew wide with shock, then closed as she leaned into the kiss.
When it ended, Mio said softly, "Minna... I have to do this."
Minna gazed into Mio's face - one cheek reddened, her bangs plastered down by the rain - for a long, searching moment. When she spoke again, it was in a brittle, barely audible voice:
"You're not coming back, are you?"
"Of course I'm coming back," Mio replied, and in that moment, the two women achieved a perfect understanding. Neither really believed it. Both knew that neither really believed it - but both wanted it to be true... and maybe, at a moment like this, that was enough.
With an echo of her jaunty smile of old, Mio pulled at one end of Minna's black ribbon tie, unraveling the knot, then slipping the whole length of ribbon free from the commander's collar to hang entwined in the fingers of her left hand.
"I'm not done with you yet," she added; then she threw back her head and uttered her signature laugh, that maddening, magical laugh, and Minna knew that she wouldn't be able to stop her.
As if in a dream, she stood motionless and let Mio slip past her, then fire up her Striker again and soar away into the pitch-black, rainy night. She stood there in the dark, feeling the cool rain washing the hot tears from her face, until she could no longer hear the sound of the engines; as if Mio Sakamoto had flown off the edge of the world.
"I didn't really know why I took it, at the time," Mio mused. "I tied it around the coin, thinking it would be harder for me to lose it that way." Regarding the ribbon thoughtfully, she went on as if speaking to it rather than him, "I knew it would be important, but I didn't know why. And now... now I understand." She wound the ribbon several turns around her left wrist and carefully tied it, one-handed, in a practiced sailor's knot. Then, closing the hand into a fist, she held it against her chest and looked up to meet Gryphon's eye. "It's going to take me back to her."
He smiled. "You know," he said as she stepped into her borrowed army boots (but didn't lace them up - she'd be taking them off again soon enough), "when you said there had been a few weddings in the squadron, I was a little surprised when one of them wasn't Sakamoto-Wilcke." They went outside, heading for the shed, and started setting up the makeshift launch stage again, at which point he went on, "Until I thought about it for a second and realized, what am I saying? Minna's still her commanding officer. Barring really extraordinary circumstances, that'll have to wait until after the war."
Mio chuckled a little ruefully. "You know me so well."
"I hope so," said Gryphon. "This nutty scheme probably wouldn't have worked if I didn't."
"There's that," she admitted with a smile, then tilted her head inquisitively and added, "Did you have a plan if it didn't?"
"Sure. Plan B was, I teach you to fly an X-20DS, hook you up with one of Tesla's lightning rifles, and you go back to 1945 as the craziest damn ex-witch who ever lived."
"Ha ha ha! Now I'm almost sorry it worked," Mio said, then added with a wink (that didn't really work because of her goggles, but he got the idea), "Almost."
"Well, I could still get you the lightning rifle," he said.
"Tempting, but I'd better not," said Mio, shaking her head. "Shirley would probably try to figure out how it works and end up frying herself. Or Lucchini."
"Yeah, true. Hey, you know what?"
"I'm going to miss you," said Gryphon simply. "It's gonna be too damn quiet around here with you gone."
"You'd be welcome if you came back with me," she said.
"I can't right now... but that's good to know." With a little grin, he went on, "I doubt this is the last time you'll see me."
"It had better not be," said Mio positively. Then, her expression softening, she said in a quieter voice, "Listen, Benjamin... thanks again. I can't ever re-"
Gryphon placed his palm gently against her cheek, surprising her into silence as his grin became a warmer smile. "You don't have to," he said. "Just seeing you get back your fire, knowing I had something to do with it... that's payment enough."
Mio reddened slightly, smiling; then, with a sudden, decisive vigor that took him by surprise, she seized him by collar and nape and laid a diligent and competent kiss on him, delivered like the meticulous technician she was.
"... Of course that's a perfectly acceptable completion bonus," he conceded, sounding a little dazed, when at length she turned him loose.
"That one's not from Erica," Mio said, then added with a faint smirk, "So you can tell Trude about it all you want."
Gryphon shook his head mock-sadly at her. "Minna's gonna have you fixed," he said. Then, clapping his hands briskly together, he continued, "Speaking of whom! What do you say, Major? Let's get you back to the wife and kids - ow! You hit like a girl." He rubbed his shoulder, giving her a wounded look, and added, "I mean it, that really hurt."
"I hit like a witch," Mio corrected him, and they laughed as he helped her on with her Striker Unit, then stood clear. Grinning an exultant grin as her aura brightened and her ears and tail sprang out (he doubted one would happen without the other for a while yet), she fired up the unit, rising to a low hover as the glowing takeoff sigil appeared on the ground beneath her.
For a moment she remained there, running the props to full RPM in hover pitch, filling the clearing with the full-throated voice of a perfectly tuned Striker, and regarding him with a hard-to-read little smile. Then, in a heartbeat, she straightened to perfect aerial attention, her face hardening into its most professional set, and she snapped off a crisp salute, which he returned as cleanly as he knew how.
"Sakamoto Mio-shōsa - hasshin!" she barked, her voice carrying clearly above the roar of her Striker, and then she crashed the props into takeoff pitch and sprang into the sky after such a short run that it almost seemed like a vertical launch. Almost as soon as she was airborne, she pulled a heavy Immelmann turn, a climbing half-loop with a roll-out at the top, and - with a second, much jauntier salute and a grin as she flew past him - streaked northward toward the snowy peaks.
A minute or two later, she reappeared heading south again, now passing much higher overhead and gathering speed as she raced out over the valley. The roar of her props became a snarl as the tips became supersonic; even in broad daylight from this far away, Gryphon could see her aura, shedding rays and rivulets of silver light in her wake as a conical transonic shockwave formed just ahead of her.
With a silvery pseudomotive flash that reminded him of a starship leaping to hyperspace, and a concussive noise that was no mere sonic boom, she vanished, leaving behind a spreading bullseye of vapor rings in the reverberating air. Orphaned energy sparkled amid the rings, its crackle rippling down in the thunder's wake, like the sound of distant fireworks.
He stood looking up at the slowly diffusing shock rings until they were nearly gone, then sighed, called to Wolfgang, and walked back toward the cabin.
"Guess I can finish that book now," he mused, a little glumly.
"Hrf," Wolfgang replied.
"And tomorrow," Gryphon went on as he entered the building, "I suppose I might as well start working on those lightsaber techniques..."
Saturday, April 14, 1945
Disputed airspace, 25 nm northeast of Bari, Romagna
Lieutenant Colonel Minna-Dietlinde Wilcke was not a happy woman.
She was rarely happy in battle; though a thoroughly competent and largely fearless aviator with a long and illustrious combat record, she wasn't one of those people who enjoyed fighting, like Hartmann or Lucchini. It was just a job to her, an important one to be sure, but not any kind of spiritual calling. That had little to do with her dudgeon today, though.
Today, she was angry because the Neuroi that was on course for Bari had interrupted her plans to dispatch the 501st Joint Fighter Wing on a critical search-and-rescue mission. At the very moment when she'd finished briefing the squadron about the unauthorized and very upsetting departure of her executive officer and was about to send them all out in seach of her, the alert siren sounded, and now they were all out here wasting time with this while Mio...
She shook her head, angry with herself now for thinking about that while she and the others had a job to do. There was absolutely nothing to be gained by entertaining imaginary scenarios of what might have happened to Mio after she'd flown away into the rainy, blustery night, what might be happening to her now.
After the previous day's action, the only operational member of the squadron, when Minna had recovered her wits and realized what a fool she'd been to just let Mio leave like that, had been its Night Witch. Poor, patient Sanya, out there alone in that drenching rain all night, had searched the pitiless dark in vain until her strength nearly failed her, returning heartbroken to confess defeat and fall into bed in virtually the same motion. Utterly exhausted, she hadn't woken or even stirred while Eila peeled her sodden uniform off her and bundled her properly into a dry duvet.
Minna had to wait twelve hours before any other member of the squadron would be in a fit state to go after the major, hoping against hope all the while that Mio would come sheepishly back and take her rightful bollocking like the upright soldier she was... and now this.
The whole squadron felt it - they all loved Mio, had all been worrying about her for some time now as it became obvious that she was - bad enough! - losing her edge and - worse! - doggedly refusing to accept the inevitable. Being unable to pursue her immediately ate at all of them. They had chafed all day at their enforced inactivity, and their frustration at this new development was hampering their ability to focus every bit as much as it was hampering their commander's.
Their tactics were ragged, their cohesion almost nonexistent. Anyone familiar with the legend of the 501st would have been nonplussed to see their sorry showing on this day, and in some part of her mind, Minna began to feel a very real fear that before it was over, one or more of them would be seriously hurt.
As she thought it, so it suddenly seemed certain, as the Neuroi - a slow-moving but vast specimen capable of agglomerating multiple beams into a single strike - tagged Miyafuji so heavily that it crashed her shield and sent her spinning toward the sea, her cannon hanging by its shoulder strap. Crying out her name, Lynette Bishop dove after her, the engines of her Mk 22 Spitfire howling at full emergency power.
"I'm all right!" Miyafuji's voice crackled on the squadron's tactical band. "Stay on the target, you're Perrine's only cover now!"
She's learned to think tactically, thought Minna with an abstract flicker of pride - which was almost immediately swamped by another wave of horror as the Neuroi, as if it knew Bishop was out of place, turned its attention to Perrine Clostermann. With a stifled cry, Lynne pulled out of her dive and raced back up, but Minna could see that it would take the young Englishwoman several seconds to get back into position.
"Shirley!" Minna cried, thinking to direct the fastest flier in the squadron to support Perrine - the Gallian was showing distinct signs of fatigue, and Minna wasn't sanguine about her shield's chances against one of those massed beams if Miyafuji's, by far the strongest in the group, hadn't stood up to it. Yeager was clear at the other end of the whale-like Neuroi, though - too far for even her legendary speed to get her to Perrine's side in time - and Minna felt her stomach clench as she ran out of time to find another solution...
With a sound that Erica Hartmann would later describe, in a letter to her twin sister Ursula, as "like thunder, if thunder happened in a U-bahn tunnel," the clear blue sky above the Neuroi seemed to split open, visibly fracturing like a hammered mirror. Behind it, for the briefest instant, those who were looking at the time caught a glimpse of some swirling purple unreality too hideously alien for the mind to comprehend. Before they could even really try to do so, though, it had gone, the fabric of reality re-knitting itself in a heartbeat, and some small object shrouded in brilliant silver light smashed into the upper hull of the Neuroi.
Emitting a weird howling noise that felt almost like a cry of dismay, the massive alien craft buckled in the center, its prow and stern pitching sharply upward, and those nearest to the point of impact could have sworn they heard a voice cry:
"Ichido no sen!"
The silver light expanded outward into an arc and scythed through the Neuroi, cutting it clean in two from the point of impact. The two halves fell away from each other, already disintegrating into fragments of white light, and a puff of blood-red radiance at the center announced the destruction of the core for all to see.
"... What the hell did I just see?" Shirley Yeager inquired on the tac band.
"Was that a meteor?" Eila Juutilainen wondered.
"Not even you are that lucky," objected Gertrud Barkhorn.
"I know, right?" Hartmann agreed.
"It's not luck, it's skill," Eila grumbled.
"Wait," Miyafuji's voice interjected as she (a bit shakily) joined the regrouping formation. "In the middle. Is that...?"
Minna, swooping in to join the others, looked where she was pointing, and a moment later she saw what Yoshika was talking about. There was a figure at the center of the disintegrating Neuroi, just becoming visible as the cloud of luminous particles it had burst into began to diffuse and fall away.
"It's -" Lynne gasped, her fist to her mouth.
"Well, I'll be dipped," said Shirley.
"Holy cow!" Francesca Lucchini squeaked.
"Major Sakamoto!" cried Perrine, her voice ramping up to something not too unlike a scream of delight.
And so it was. Standing foursquare on her props in the midst of the slowly dissipating debris, with two swords on her back and her fists on her hips, was Mio Sakamoto.
"Ha! ha! ha!" the major declared, all her teeth showing in an enormous grin. "That's right, ladies - Daddy's home!"
Minna throttled up and dove toward her, getting out ahead of the rest of the squadron as they all converged. She was not entirely sure whether she would kiss her wayward exec first or punch her, but either way, she had no doubt that it was going to be a serious breach of military etiquette...
... and right now, she didn't care a damn.
"This is going to completely mess up the chain of command..." Barkhorn mumbled, her eyes like saucers. Beside her, Hartmann just giggled.
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
written and directed by
Benjamin D. Hutchins
with the gracious assistance of
The Usual Suspects
Based on characters from Strike Witches
created by Humikane Shimada
Music by Queen
Bacon Comics chief
International Police Organization
299 Allard Avenue, New Avalon, Zeta Cygni
Boys & girls,
I just finished looking through the script for the Brave & the Bold summer special. In the interest of historical completeness, I should note for the record that you have conflated a number of different occurrences there, most of which did in fact not happen during my Ishiyama retreat. (There is also rather more kissing depicted here than I remember.) However, it all hangs together and all of the individual happenings are reasonably accurate - and the feel of it is right, which is of course the important thing.
I agree with Shimada when he says that we should revisit the 501st in future B&tB episodes. For that matter, they're mighty colorful characters and could easily carry a spinoff all by themselves. We might also want to talk to TV Tomodachi about the possibility of a crossover with Fly Girls. I know my son Corwin would get a big kick out of that.
Nice work as always. When I watch an episode of B&tB and think, It didn't happen that way, but jeez, I wish it had, that's when I know you've nailed it.
E P U (colour) 2015