Chapter 1: "All Quiet On the Pants-less Front"
"Vertical Take-Off and Landing tests, day two. Thunder Striker unit - VTOL test number one. This is Wing Commander Minna Dietlinde Wilcke speaking. Observation posts, report in!"
"Point Alpha, Sergeants Miyafuji and Bishop reporting in!", Yoshika barked through the radio, making Commander Minna smile at her enthusiasm.
"Point Bravo, Lieutenant Yeager and Officer Lucchini reporting in", a calmer Shirley crackled over the comm station. As they hovered in the air, Francesca snatched the binoculars away, and focused them on the runway
"Heh-heh-heh, let ME see!"
Commander Minna pretended not to hear.
"Point Charlie, this is Officer Perrine Clostermann and Erica Hartmann reporting in. Good day Commander."
As the transmission cut out, Erica yawned in the background. The Commander frowned, but said nothing about it.
From her place in the tower, she looked out, down the length of the runway, to its farthest reaches ending in the North Sea, where the rough channel waves broke against it. Across the sea lay Gallia, on the continent, and farther inland, Karlsland - her home. The Neuroi were there.
In the dim, pre-dawn light, Barkhorn could be seen standing in the middle of the runway. She took off the fur lined bomber jacket Shirley had lent her to guard against the early morning chill, and handed it to one of the technicians, who took it and hurried away for the safety of a nearby bunker.
The dawn was just beginning to break, high overhead, illuminating the edges of the clouds with its painted light, but on the ground below, everything was still dim, and cold. A sharp wind went whipping down the length of the runway, swatting at the twin tails of her hair, but Barkhorn seemed not to notice.
"Weather conditions?" Commander Minna asked. Yoshika gave the reply.
"Wind - forty-three degrees. Speed - ten knots. Visibility - five miles. Ceiling - ten thousand feet."
"Just a moment, m'am! Officer Litvyak is on her final approach!"
As Yoshika spoke, they all caught sight of Sanya as she floated lazily by, on her way in from the night patrol.
"Look alive, Litvyak! You wouldn't want the Neuroi to catch you napping!"
Sanya nodded drowsily, with as much enthusiasm as she could manage (which wasn't very much at all).
The mysterious pale girl in the blue jacket, with fair hair and even fairer skin, turned to face the runway. As she looked down the length of it, her eyes seemed far away somehow, in a manner that had nothing to do with distance.
"I see . . . nothing."
The Commander took a deep breath, then let it out slowly.
"Clear the area of all non-essential personnel!"
A siren sounded, it's klaxon call weak and thin as it went up overhead, getting lost in the space between the sky and the clouds. The last remaining mechanics quickly made for cover, leaving Barkhorn standing by herself in the middle of the runway.
"Ladies, eyes on the sky! Flight Lieutenant Barkhorn, this is the Cauldron speaking - are you ready to try out your new broomstick?"
"Born ready, m'am!"
"That's what I like to hear. On your mark - up is go at your command. And Trudy", the Commander added, her voice softening, "You be a good boomerang and come back to me, do you hear?"
"At your signal, then."
For a moment all was silent. From their places in the tower, on the ground, and in the air, all eyes were on the stern looking girl who stood alone in the middle of the runway. She wore the new Thunder Striker unit, the successor to the ill fated Violet Lightning, one pod on each leg, polished and smooth, their intakes open and hungry to devour the air and funnel it through, where mixed with magic, it would come pouring out the other side in a fiery exhaust. She didn't wear any kind of pants or hose - nothing that might get in the way of the operation of her Strikers. Modesty was sacrificed to the necessities of war. Her thighs were thrawn and sculpted as they disappeared into the units on each of her legs. In the deep shadows it was difficult to tell where the machine ended and the girl began.
Barkhorn looked to the tower, and made a small salute, then ignited her jets. A low rumble went along the ground as their orange glow filled the space beneath her. Closing her eyes, she felt herself lift slightly. With clenched fists, she settled onto a cloud of fire.
"She's had a successful run-up", Eila noted.
Yoshika held her breath. The Commander said nothing.
Barkhorn's voice exploded through the radio. The jets flared, leaving the ground to shudder beneath her as she came away from it. She put her hands over her head and dove - STRAIGHT UP. Like an angel ascending back to her native heaven she rose, the two long tails of her dark hair splayed out beside her in imitation of the con trails forming beneath. The ground leapt away and she split the sky.
The Commander watched, expressionless.
". . . so jealous . . .", Shirley mumbled.
As the rumble faded into a far off thunder, Francesca focused the binoculars on Barkhorn as she leveled off and settled into a basic traffic pattern, flying first against the wind, then turning to cross it. Commander Minna needed no such help - her power of Spatial Awareness let her know where the subject was at any given moment with far more exactness than possible with a visual confirmation. As an added precaution, Eila followed along, shadowing just ahead of her, using her magic to predict from one moment to the next where she would be.
Barkhorn turned again, onto the downwind leg of her flight. Having the wind behind her gave an extra boost, and she couldn't resist a small flare from her engines that sent her rocketing by as she flew parallel to the runway.
"The Thunder Striker is AMAZING!", Yoshika shouted over the roar of the engines. She waved with childish enthusiasm, forgetting for a moment the seriousness of the exercise.
"She's fast", the Commander calmly agreed.
Barkhorn turned to cross the wind again.
"She's about to turn final", Shirley said, momentarily wresting the binoculars away from Francesca.
"Aww . . .", Fran pouted.
Barkhorn turned again, facing into the wind as she put herself in line with the runway. But instead of settling into a gently descending slope, she leaned forward, headfirst into a dive.
But Barkhorn didn't respond. Instead she leaned in farther, sweeping her arms back as the dive grew steeper so she would present less resistance to the wind.
"Pull up!" Commander Minna shouted. "You could red out from nosing over like that!"
The jets roared in reply.
"Do we even know the never exceed speed on something like this?" Shirley asked, trying to sound calm, but even she was getting a bit nervous.
"They said they wanted a test", Barkhorn answered through clenched teeth, squinting from the wind. As she drew closer, her shadow came racing in from the west to fly on her wing beneath her, rippling as it passed over the ground.
"She's coming in too hot!" Shirley warned.
"TRUDY I SAID PULL UP!"
Just as it seemed that Barkhorn and her shadow were destined to meet in a fatal collision in the midst of the runway, she arched her back, and using all of her tremendous strength, stood up out of the dive. There followed an ear splitting explosion as both units of the Thunder Striker flared, sending out matching shockwaves down either side of the runway, and sweeping the surrounding fields free of dust.
When the sky cleared, Barkhorn remained floating in mid-air. Relaxing her magic output, she descended slowly in a straight line, the same as she'd risen. When she was almost touching the runway, she cut her engines altogether. There was a glimmering of magic beneath the Strikers' as their power disappeared, then she settled onto the ground with a small "thump."
Commander Minna tossed her headset over her shoulder and leapt down the tower stairs, taking them three at a time.
"THAT WAS AMAZING!" Yoshika shouted.
"I'll bet it's a new record!" Shirley beamed.
Even the usually disinterested Hartmann seemed to perk up:
"If we can fly faster, then that means it takes less time to get there - which means we can leave later - which means more sleep!"
"Is that ALL you care about?", Barkhorn scolded.
The only one who seemed unimpressed was Perrine. She'd been standing in the hangar door when Barkhorn made her approach, and had to dive for safety when the shockwave hit. She had managed to catch hold of the doorway, but the ensuing blast tore the top button of her jacket open, and left her scarf hanging, uneven and untied, with the left side halfway down to her waist. Her clothes, her hair and her mouth were all full of dust.
"I think it's a *beastly* contraption", she said as the Commander hurried past, with Eila following at a safe and very calculated distance behind. When Eila got to Perrine, she drew herself up, and with all of the dignified, frosty elegance that possessed the young pilot from Suomus - stuck out her tongue.
Perrine's eye twitched.
"Nyan!" Francesca agreed, pulling down her eyelid for extra emphasis.
"Why you -"
They were interrupted by a loud "SMACK!"
"Just what do you think you were doing!"
Barkhorn was left standing, her head turned to the side, a red palm print still stinging on the side of her face.
"Minna, I just -"
"Just nothing! I've lost enough friends to the Neuroi! I'm not going to lose you to some stupid stunt in a test flight! It wouldn't be fair to Erica or Mio - they're your friends! And it wouldn't be fair to Yoshika or Lynnette, who both look up to you. It wouldn't be fair to ANY of us to have to pack up your things, or to see your empty room every time we passed by in the hall. And it wouldn't be fair to me to have to write a letter to Chris back home, and it wouldn't be fair to her when she read it!"
The mention of her younger sister softened Barkhorn considerably.
"Minna I . . . I'm sorry . . ."
Francesca groaned, seeing everything had gotten so serious.
"Hey -", she said, making them all look over at her. "I just realized something . . ."
"What's that?" the Commander asked.
Fran cupped her hands to her mouth.
"Captain Barkhorn's got THUNDER THIGHS!"
Barkhorn's eyes widened.
"Why you little - "
She lurched forward, but the Thunder Striker units prevented her, and she would have fallen if Minna and Erica had not caught hold of her arms.
"Get back here!" she shouted, shaking her fist as Minna and Erica were still struggling to hold her up. After flailing for a moment, she slipped one leg, and then the other out of the Strikers, and took off running after Francesca barefoot.
Fran ran for her life.
"Shirley, help!", she shouted between giggles. "I need your speed!"
"Hmm", the Commander considered. "I think that's a better punishment than anything I could devise."
"Lucchini, when I catch you - I'm going to KILL YOU!"
The Major Sakamoto had a deep, booming laugh. It was very distinctive and not very ladylike and - to her mind - altogether unsuitable for a woman. All the members of the 501st knew the sound of her "Oh - ho - ho!", which could be heard as clearly as the boom of a canon report, even over the sound of a Striker's engines.
She had wide, voluminous eyes - or a wide eye, rather, the one that could be seen - as wide as the sky. Her other one - her magic eye - she kept hidden under an eye patch, which she would lift up when she needed to see far away, or search out the core of an attacking Neuroi. Her eye seemed to well up, and brim over with something - eagerness - sincerity - loyalty . . . and possibly the slightest hint of good natured mischief. It was the eye of a pilot, used to seeing the sky, darting everywhere, taking in everything, always searching for the tiniest speck that might grow into an approaching enemy. Indeed, she was most at home in the sky.
But that evening, Major Sakamoto was on the ground, in a military staff car, heading back from an awards ceremony held for pilots from Fuso, who were in port with their carrier, the Akagi. Getting a real life Strike Witch to present the awards had been a major coup for the top brass. Normally Commander Minna's standing order against any Witch fraternizing with the male members of the armed services would have prevented such an engagement. There were still those who considered the 501st's chief value to be as a propaganda unit - an international cheerleading squad who put on displays of aerial ballet, and were better suited to pom-pom's than machine guns - never mind their devastatingly effective kill rate.
Privately, the Major detested Strategic Command's pigishness. But an order was an order. And in the end, it didn't really matter - be it the 1st or the 501st, JG 52 or JG 3 - they were all pilots, and the guns of the Neuroi did not discriminate, leveling all alike with a murderous equality. To the enlisted men, the Major was much more than just some "skirt" to look at. For most of them, this would be their only chance to see a real life Witch. Happily, they found her to be the genuine article - a pilot, like themselves, used to being shot at, and who'd done quite a bit of shooting herself. Her deep laugh boomed over and over again, "Oh - ho ho!", as she listened to their stories, and told them stories of her own about victories, and close escapes, the universally bad coffee at every base, and the occasionally unreasonable commanding officer.
The ceremony itself had been fairly brief - there were the usual formalities and protocols, followed by a presentation of awards. There were Tanken, the daggers presented to pilots from Fuso after their first aerial victory, and on that evening, two men were also receiving the Order of the Golden Kite, which was Fuso's medal for those who had shot down five enemies, and become an Ace. It was a rare honor under any circumstances, but against the Neuroi, five was an almost unthinkable number - without magic or the Witches' Striker Units, few pilots lived long enough to shoot down even one.
Sakamoto herself had made Ace many times over, but she showed the utmost deference as she conveyed their honors, each man bowing low to receive his dagger, or to have the ribbon placed around his neck. She was especially kind to the pilots who were new, or who were very young. This evening was their time, and none of them knew if it would be their last.
There were stripes for special conduct - for those who had been wounded in action. She gave out far too many of these. But the most solemn awards were those for the dead. There were so many of them. Instead of an empty chair, each man who was being awarded posthumously had a little table with his picture on it, so that his comrades could remember him, along with a vase with a sprig of sakura - cherry blossoms, the symbol of this fleeting life.
Major Sakamoto took up a dagger that was to be given to one Kenji Akizawa. He'd had his first victory against a Neuroi just off the Britannian coast. His wing man, and several other squad members had all confirmed it. He'd been shot down later that same day. Sakamoto held the dagger in front of her forehead, with the blade facing towards her, and the handle to her left. She bowed very low, and then placed it on his table, along with his stripes.
As she moved to the next table, she heard one of his companions say,
"Smile, Akizawa - the Major's a very pretty woman!"
Mercifully, Commander Minna had given a public order forbidding her from attending the Officer's Ball, and as an officer, she of course could not go to any functions for the enlisted men, so she had a very convenient excuse to bow out of the many invitations she received. She was very gracious about it, and in true fighter pilot fashion, each of them left under the impression that if she could have gone, she'd have gone with HIM. If you sat a hundred airmen down in a room, and told them that their next mission was so dangerous only one of them would return, each of them, to a man, would turn to his companions and say,
"You poor ninety-nine bastards!"
Such a mission would have given them better odds. The Major's kill rate was one hundred percent. Still, they asked her, even though they knew what her answer would be - must be. It was war, and they were just happy to have something to shoot at.
Now, afterwards, she sat in an officer's staff car as it made its way along the winding road that led from the port back to The Cauldron, the Witches' base. Her Striker Unit, an A6M Mitsubishi "Zero", was in the trunk, along with her Type 99 air cannon - just in case. She'd just as soon have flown home by herself, but the orders from Strategic Command insisted that she was to be driven - they weren't about to risk having anything happen to her and spoil their public relations coup.
The staff car was a ponderous, lumbering affair, with a raised hood and wide fenders that flared out over the white walled tires with their domed hubcaps. It being wartime, all available technological improvements went into things like guns and tanks and planes. Civilian items, like automobiles, lagged far behind. None the less, it's interior was luxurious, being very well apportioned, with ivory carpets and upholstery that competed with the gleaming white paint and chrome of the exterior. Command had specifically requested a white car - they thought it would look more dramatic for the press to have the Major with her white coat and gold buttons get out of an all white car - and it certainly did look good for the photos.
Sakamoto refused the traditional chauffer's custom, and sat up front, in the passenger seat, with her sword resting beside her. Usually she wore it strapped over her shoulder, but for today's ceremony she'd worn it slung from her waist, in parade fashion. Pilots from Fuso were awarded the right to wear the sword, or Kai Gunto, in recognition of meritorious conduct during aerial combat. But Sakamoto's sword wasn't a prop or a badge of rank - she used it to down Neuroi at close range, like Fuso's samurai warriors of old.
In true Witches' fashion she didn't wear any pants or hose - nothing that could get in the way of her Strikers - and the sight of her bare legs emerging from underneath her jacket made quite an impression on her young driver, who struggled to keep both his eyes and the car on the road. The backdrop of the ivory upholstery made them look very luxurious, while the fact that she wore no socks and very low cut shoes gave her legs a lengthening effect, making them seem all the more long and inviting. Fighting with the big wheel of the sedan took a lot of effort, and at last he gave in, and stole a glance at the Major's gleaming white thigh.
Instantly her eye met his.
She had a wild look, and if her ears and tail had been out, as they were when she used her magic, they would have been straight up, and wagging. Seeing he was discovered, her driver, a teenage boy with brushy hair and a somewhat wrinkled uniform, gulped as if he was about to plead for his life, and turned both his eyes and the wheel so hard that he swerved the car halfway into the other lane.
The Major had to fight back a fit of laughter, and turned away to hide her grin, ignoring for the moment that he might try to steal another look at her unprotected leg (which he did). Instead, she occupied herself by looking at the trees pass by outside the window. The road between the Cauldron and the port was mostly forest, though here and there it ran through a clearing, or across a small plain.
If the boy had tried anything, Sakamoto could have drawn her sword and castrated him (she knew several techniques for just such an occasion that would be suitable for use in close spaces like the interior of a car.) But looking at him, she found she could not be angry. Under the circumstances, she found his naivety refreshing. She was used to being a Major - to having rank and carrying a rifle and a sword, and to drilling and interceptions and patrols. That was the world she knew, and though she longed for nothing more than peace - she was very good at. But just this once, she did not altogether mind being thought of as a woman.
"I - uh - I've never met a girl with an eye patch before -"
"OH - HO - HO !"
This last effort was too much. At the boy's attempt to make conversation, she burst out laughing, her deep, booming voice filling the inside of the car. Stifling back a chuckle, she couldn't resist having a bit of fun with him.
"The eye patch is to conceal my magical ability . . ." she said, covering her mouth with her fist and making a small cough, as though she were revealing a very deep secret.
"So your magic is in your eye?"
"Yes. It's a powerful laser - you might even call it a *death* ray . . ."
His eyes grew wide.
"The inside of my eye patch is lined with a special material, like what they use to make Strikers, so that it resists the magic. But when I raise it up . . ." she said, putting one finger to the side of her face.
The boy instantly made sure both of HIS eyes were focused squarely on the road.
"Ahem - you get the idea. It's a good thing I keep it tied on very securely. If it fell off, you and everything inside this car would be burned to a crisp."
The boy recoiled in terror from this strange magical creature sitting beside him. Who knew Witches had such terrible powers? And if she had known it wasn't her eye patch he'd imagined her removing - the possibilities were too horrible to contemplate!
The Major turned to look at him, her good natured smile making him shudder as her eye met his.
At that moment, a Neuroi's beam sliced through the road . . .
To Be Continued . . .