Chapter 3 - "Flying Officer Clostermann's Weekend Pass"
The skies over Britannia were unusually quiet. For a country known for spending so much of the year covered with fog and rain, this was one of those rare, blue sky days. The wind was gentle, and mild - little more than the occasional breeze, and the clouds - what clouds there were - were light and fluffy, seeming to float on the horizon, like ships at anchor in the great port of the sky. Even the North Sea, usually so violent and treacherous, was unusually calm and well tempered that morning. The steady drone of the Strikers' engines seemed more like a lullaby, and not the call of war. Miyafuji thought for a moment she might be lulled off to sleep.
"ALL RIGHT LADIES! LISTEN UP! Today's maneuver is called the Split S!"
Major Sakamoto's voice exploded through the radio. She shouted, partly to be heard over the roar of the engines, and partly because shouting was simply Major Sakamoto's way of expressing her enthusiasm. And when it came to morning flying exercises (or afternoon exercises - or evening exercises - or random, middle of the night, 2 AM because you never know when the Neuroi might try to catch you sleeping exercises) the Major was always VERY enthusiastic.
"The Split S is a GREAT way to change directions quickly, and to attack an enemy below you. You also gain a considerable amount of SPEED. Because you GAIN that speed by trading altitude in a DIVE, you have to make sure you have enough ALTITUDE to begin with. Otherwise, you won't be able to pull up, and will fly straight into the ground, and Commander Wilcke and I will be boxing up your personal effects to ship them back home to your next of kin . . ."
Yoshika and Lynnette shivered. Erica yawned.
"To perform the Split S - once you're sure you have enough altitude - the first thing you have to do is roll. Pull up slightly, then perform a half roll, so that you're flying upside down. Then pull up more sharply, as if you're going into a climb - but because you're flying upside down, you'll actually be pulling down into a dive. Remember to look first - lead with your eyes. You want to see where you're going before you get there.
'You'll gain speed very quickly in the dive. Be careful you don't go TOO fast - if you go supersonic - Shirley -" the Major added with a warning glance to the red headed Liberian, "You'll suffer compression. Your control surfaces won't work, and you won't be able to pull out."
Shirley grinned mischievously.
"As you come to the bottom of the loop, pull up gradually, until you settle back into level flight again. You'll be right side up again, at a lower altitude, and going the opposite way. You'll also be going considerably FASTER than when you started. Any questions?"
Erica put up her hand.
"Can we go back to sleep now?"
"Hartmann, are you mocking me!?"
"No ma'am. I was being serious."
Sakamoto shook her head.
"Any REAL questions?"
Yoshika and Lynnette exchanged a look, then both shook their heads. "NO MA'AM!"
"Good! I'll demonstrate."
Major Sakamoto leaned forward and headed out several hundred yards. When she'd gone far enough, she rolled over, onto her back, and then, arching her spine, leaned back into a dive. Her striker engines roared with the sudden acceleration as she dove straight down.
"Oh!" Yoshika said, amazed. "She's so graceful!" In her white coat, Sakamoto looked like a swan, swimming in a sea of blue sky.
Nearing the bottom, she arched her back again, and looking up, settled back into level flight. Finishing her half loop, she pulled up again, and rolling over into a quick Immelmann turn, hopped out of her climb to stand hovering beside Yoshika and Lynnette.
"Any questions?" she asked again, putting her feet underneath her and treading the sky.
"Good. The other ladies of the 501st have established a traffic pattern below you. Now take up your positions. Miyafuji, you'll go first. On my wing!"
"Ma'am!" Yoshika shouted again, falling into place beside her. They flew out for some distance, the wind at their heels hurrying them along. When they got to their usual marker - a clump of trees on the ground below with an unusual shape - they turned against the wind, to fly across it, making a giant rectangle in the sky. Perrine and Lynnette trailed them, about a thousand yards behind. Far below, Erica, Shirley, and Francesca were flying the same pattern, but in the opposite direction. Commander Wilcke and Eila hovered off to the side, observing the exercise.
"Hartmann will be your target", the Major said, as they turned again, this time to face the wind. Yoshika could see the distant black blip of Erica's jacket as she turned, and began to grow steadily larger as the distance closed between them. Erica had the wind at her back now, and they were flying in opposite directions, all of which made the gap between them disappear with alarming speed.
As she watched, Yoshika could see the silver gleam on each of Erica's shoulders resolve into a pair of epaulettes. As her vision became sharper, she could make out the details of her rank and insignia, the line of her collar, the cowling around the intakes and exhausts for each of her Strikers, even the strands of her loose blonde hair billowing in the wind. She seemed to get faster and faster as the distance between them grew shorter, until suddenly, Erica went whizzing by underneath.
"There she is! Miyafuji - DIVE!"
Without thinking, Yoshika rolled over, onto her back, and putting her hands over her head, reached behind her, until the clouds rolled away, and she slid into a dive.
Immediately her engines roared, and the once gentle breeze became a torrent, stinging her cheeks and making tears stream from the corners of her eyes. Putting her hands in front of her face, she parted the wind, in the same way an earthly diver breaks the surface of the water with her hands before impact. She could see again, and as she looked at the sun shining down from above the clouds, and the green grass below, her fear was replaced with exhilaration.
"Whee!" she shouted, feeling the wind catch her ears and tail. Arching her back again to look up, she caught sight of Hartmann, out in front of her. The speed she'd gained in the dive allowed her to catch up easily, and with a giggle she settled into the six o'clock position, directly behind her. Hartmann looked back over her shoulder, and gave a small nod of approval.
"Miyafuji!" the Major barked, making her own dive to join them, "This isn't some kind of amusement park ride! This is WAR!"
"Yes ma'am . . . Yoshika said, hanging her head glumly.
Sakamoto settled in beside her. Looking over, Yoshika could see that her eye was beaming.
"It IS a lot of fun, though, isn't it?" the Major asked, her eye patch forever giving a good natured wink.
"Yes Ma'am!" Yoshika beamed, as Sakamoto climbed again to rejoin Lynette and Perrine.
It was not lost on Hartmann, the 501st's resident Ultra Ace, with the highest number of aerial victories that Yoshika, a young Sergeant, had just settled into her kill zone. She would have none of it.
Spreading her arms to either side, Erica made a slow, spiraling roll. It was the beginning of her dreaded Sturm technique. Yoshika watched as Erica rolled up and over, catching the wind with her fingers, causing a small whirlwind to form. When she was directly overheard, Erica looked down at her, and stuck out her tongue. Yoshika watched her, wide eyed, as the Ultra Ace snapped off to the other side, and shedding speed, dropped back to settle in directly behind her. A gust billowed past, making Yoshika laugh as she fought to regain her course.
"All right you two, that's enough", Commander Wilcke's voice broke in over the radio.
Major Sakamoto finished her climb, then settled in behind Lynette and Perrine.
"Now it's your turn, Bishop. Clostermann will give the word. On her mark."
"Ma'am!" Perrine acknowledged her assignment, and adjusted her spectacles to scan the horizon. "Lucchini will be the target."
"Um - yes! I mean ma'am! I mean yes ma'am!" Lynette said shakily.
Francesca acknowledged her role by waving, and sticking out her tongue. Perrine scowled.
"Wait for my command", she said, as Lucchini turned to face them, her white jacket making her easy to spot.
Lynette watched nervously as the details of Francesca's face and uniform came into sharper view.
"Bishop, you can do this", the Commander said gently through the radio, "Just remember - up, over, and dive. That's all you have to do."
"Up - over - and dive - got it. Thank you ma'am!"
"You'll be fine."
"Up - over - and dive . . ." Lynette repeated to herself. "Up - over - and dive . . ."
Perrine looked at her doubtfully, then back to Lucchini, who by now was fast approaching. She watched as the blue bow around her neck came into focus, along with the two white ribbons that shaped her hair into a pair of long, twin tails that spread out to either side.
"Up - over - and dive . . ."
"There she is -"
"Up - over - and dive . . ."
By now, Perrine could clearly see the lone canine fang hooked over Francesca's lip in her usual toothy grin.
"Up - over - and dive . . ."
"Bishop! Go - Go - GO!" the Major Sakamoto shouted her encouragement.
Francesca rolled onto her back and waved to Lynette as she shot past underneath.
"Up - over - and dive . . . Up - over - and dive . . . I can do this!" Lynette shouted. "Up!" she barked, raising her chin, "Over!" she said, closing her eyes and beginning her roll.
"Bishop, you're -"
"And DIVE!" she shouted, pulling up into what she *thought* was a dive.
Lynette couldn't figure out what was wrong. Her engines, which should have been roaring, throttled back to a thin whisper, which barely kept her aloft. Instead of a rush of speed, she felt herself slowing down, until she seemed to float weightless in the air. Opening her eyes, she saw nothing but blue sky and white tufts of cloud dreamily suspended before her. The ground, which should have been right in front of her, was nowhere to be seen. In her ear, a familiar yet distant voice crackled,
The Major's voice was a far off echo, like the sound of the waves in a sea shell.
"Bishop - you're going to stall -"
Looking over her shoulder, Lynette suddenly found the ground behind and beneath her. She could feel herself go weightless for a moment, as she began to drop out of the sky.
"BISHOP! YOU'RE GOING TO STALL!"
The Major's voice exploded in her ears, like an engine punched to full throttle. In her haste, instead of making a half roll, Lynette had turned a full 360 degrees. When she pulled up, instead of going into a steep dive, she'd launched into a vertical climb, and now, at the peak, her Strikers had carried her as high as they were able, and she began to plummet back to earth.
"WAUGHHH!" Lynette screamed, flailing her arms as she saw the ground begin to rush towards her.
"I SAID PULL UP!"
"Lynn", the Commander's voice broke in calmly, "Just lean back."
"But I -"
"Don't panic. Just lean back and keep pulling up."
Somehow, between the Major's shouting and the Commander's calm reassurances, the two of them managed to strike the right chord. Lynette arched her back, and like a pole-vaulter passing over the bar, she made an undignified 'flop!' Putting her legs above her, she slid headfirst into a dive.
"WHAAA - " she screamed as her starved engines roared to life.
" - AAAHHHH!"
As Lynette slid down the backside of the loop, her breasts caught the wind, and became a giant pair of air brakes, bouncing and heaving wildly under her sweater.
"Oww!" Shirley winced, turning away from the painful scene.
"I HATE it when that happens", Barkhorn agreed.
Even the normally stoic major wrinkled her brow in sympathy.
"That was the very reason I started binding myself again . . ."
"Ow", Perrine chimed in, putting her arm over her chest.
"What are *you* complaining for", Francesca said mischievously. "It's not like that's a problem you're ever going to have."
Mercifully, as Lynnette pulled back up into level flight, the bouncing and heaving ceased.
"Congratulations, Bishop. That was a near perfect loop over. Unfortunately, today's maneuver was SUPPOSED to be a split S."
"Yes ma'm, I - I'm sorry, I - I'm . . . sorry . . ." Lynette said, hanging her head in defeat.
"That's enough for one day", the Commander's voice crackled again. "Major Sakamoto, will you please direct our birds back to the nest?"
"Affirmative. Ladies, use approach pattern Delta. And while we're up here, let's use this opportunity to practice a short field landing - you never know when the Neuroi might cause you to have to put down in unfamiliar territory."
"Yes MA'AM!" the entire 501st shouted in unison.
"Mio, you slave driver", Minna chucked, handing the binoculars to Eila. "Then again, that's what makes you so good at what you do. And it spares me from having to do it myself", she chuckled again. "Come on, Eila, we could use the practice too", she said, and turned to join the rest of the group.
Erica made the first approach. She descended with a very steep slope, before flaring sharply at the last moment, pulling up out of the near dive to land gently in the middle of the runway. Barkhorn went next, with Perrine, Shirley, and Fran following after. Lynette trailed to the back, drifting listlessly with both arms hanging below her.
"Ohh", she groaned in a small whimper.
"Don't be so hard on yourself", Yoshika said, doing her best to cheer her up. "The Major said it was a nearly perfect loop over."
"Indeed it was", the Commander added, settling into formation behind them, "But I'd suggest you might want to button your coat first before trying it again", she teased.
Lynette managed a smile.
"In combat, things never go perfectly. Very often, it's your ability to adapt to your own mistake that makes the difference between victory and defeat. You had a valuable lesson today, and it was one even the Major and I couldn't have planned. Don't miss a chance to learn from it."
"Yes ma'am!" Lynette said, feeling a little more confident. She made her dive, and pulled up without incident, dropping out of the flare so smoothly that she ended up walking down the runway. With two quick movements she stepped out of her Strikers, and picking them up, started to make her way back to the hangar.
"See?" Yoshika demanded. "That was a great landing!"
"Yeah", Lynette sighed. "I can do the basic stuff. But I always choke up when it really counts."
"I never take a safe landing for granted", Minna chided gently.
"Enough already", Francesca pouted. "Let's talk about something REALLY important - like what we're going to have for LUNCH!"
"Lunch!?" Lynette shouted. "But you just had breakfast!"
"Oh!" Yoshika said, holding her stomach. "Those scones were delicious!"
"Oh - ho - ho! That they were", the Major agreed. "They were a perfect, light meal before a morning of exercises!"
"Sergeant Bishop", the Commander said with an air of great formality, "So far your week on kitchen duty has been a tremendous success. Any thoughts on what tomorrow's menu might be?"
"Hmm," Lynette said, considering, "For tomorrow, since we don't have any morning exercises, I was thinking of going with something a little heavier, and making pancakes."
"All right!" Shirley cut in.
"Ho - ho - ho!" the Major heartily agreed. "Sounds good!"
"Oh!" Fran pouted again. "Can't we just make Yoshika be on kitchen duty every week?"
"That wouldn't be fair."
"Actually I wouldn't mind. I really enjoy working in the kitchen. But it is nice to have a break every once in a while."
"Speaking of breaks", the Commander said, "That reminds me - since Perrine won the lottery for the pass this weekend, Mio will need to designate someone else to help her with tomorrow afternoon's exercises."
"Hmm, I suppose I will."
"Aww", Fran said, continuing her whining, "How come *I* never get a weekend pass? I think Perrine rigged the whole thing!"
"I did not! Come here you little -"
"Let's see", the Commander said, pretending the scuffle between Perrine and Francesca in the background wasn't happening. "Eila will be going back on the night patrol - how about Hartmann?"
"Hartmann!?" Barkhorn shouted in disbelief. "Erica can't even discipline herself - there's no way she can discipline the rest of us!"
"I'm right here, you know."
"Hmm", Sakamoto thought. "Sometimes learning how to instruct others can teach you the most about how to discipline yourself."
"Um, I said I'm right here - "
"That's true", the Commander agreed. "And she has been getting sloppy -"
"And her count has been slipping", Mio added.
"And her room is a mess!" Francesca shouted as Perrine pulled her hair.
"What have you been doing in my room!?"
"Hartmann it is!" Mio decided.
"Ugh! Fine! I give up! I'll do it."
"Excellent", the Commander concluded, "Ladies", she said, causing Perrine and Francesca to look up from their scuffle, "That will be all for now. Dismissed!"
That next morning came, as mornings always do. There must have been something unusual happening in the world at that time - it was almost unheard of for Britannia to have two bright, blue mornings in a row. But have them it did. Yoshika took advantage of the opportunity to catch up on the laundry for the base, hanging the sheets out on a line, where their square shapes looked like a line of abstract clouds against a sky that shone impossibly blue. Lynette was busy in the kitchen.
Commander Minna used the bright morning to catch up on the unit's paperwork. Facts and figures always look less menacing in the morning, and happily she found that with her desk near the open window, it was bright enough to work on her reports without needing her reading glasses.
Shirley was busy in the garage, rebuilding one of her Striker's Merlin engines to test an improvement that would let the supercharger use higher octane fuel. Francesca was busy trying to pretend she knew what a supercharger was, after Shirley had explained it for the third time.
Sanya was completing a night mission debriefing at what was the end of her day, and Eila was trying to make herself go to sleep in an effort to adjust to being on the night patrol again. (It wasn't working.)
Barkhorn was fighting with Erica in an effort to make her get up, and Erica was fighting with Barkhorn in an effort to stay asleep - and neither of them were winning. And the Major - Major Sakamoto had gotten up before everyone else. By the time anyone stirred, she had already run five miles, done 1000 sit ups, 200 pushups, taken a light jog to cool down, practiced her sword strikes 1000 times, and been through the entire series of Seiran Iai kata - twice. As a courtesy to the other members on the base, she waited until 0730 hours to begin practicing her shooting. She felt a bit guilty for taking it so easy that morning, but it was a weekend, after all.
But there was one person who remained blissfully unaware of all of this. On that particular morning, Flying Officer Perrine Clostermann stayed in bed. It had been so long since she had gotten to sleep in that she'd almost forgotten what it felt like. To go to bed at night, knowing that she did not have anything she had to do, or anywhere she had to be that next morning - it was heaven. All night long, her bed seemed to be made of fluffy white clouds, and she slept, wrapped in their warmth, until the morning came. And when the morning came, she slept some more.
At the first hint of light, she sank dreamily to the bottom of her pillow, and piled up the covers to build a wall against the impending dawn. The great Gallian monarch, Louis XIV, may have been known as the Sun King, but this daughter of Gallia wanted nothing to do with the glowing yellow orb. As the dawn grew brighter, she rolled to face away from the window, cursing for having forgotten to draw the shade. On normal mornings, she got up too early for it to be of any consequence.
The sun rose higher still. For a time she was able to sleep comfortably by crawling halfway up on top of the pillows, and burying her face in the corner of the bed curtains. That worked tolerably well, but eventually, the sun redoubled, and put all its efforts into one final attack. Focusing its rays, it shot through a gap between the wall and the draperies, and with an arc reminiscent of a Neuroi's beam, made a final march upon her matin sanctuary.
Perrine responded with equal decisiveness. With one deft move, she parried the sun's blow, pulling the cord from off of the bed post. The canopy's curtains fell closed, burying the entire mattress in blissful antimony shadows. She half turned, half fell back into bed, and was asleep again before her head ever touched the pillow.
Eventually, there came such a lateness of the hour that it would have been indecent for a young noblewoman to remain in bed any longer, even if she were sleeping in. Her good manners and sense of refinement would not allow her to lay in bed ALL day. That, and she found that, try as she might, she couldn't possibly sleep any more.
Getting up was accomplished in stages. Gradually she could feel herself beginning to resolve out of a dreamy tangle. She became aware of the separation between the blankets draping over her and the sheets underneath, and of her head lying on the pillow, until eventually she was fully aware of herself as she lay in bed.
"Mmfh, mes lunettes", she murmured in her native Gallian tongue, reaching one hand out of the curtains to retrieve her spectacles from the night stand.
It felt so good to wake up gradually, not to the jarring call of a bugle or the insistent wail of an air raid siren. For a moment, she just lay there, staring at the underside of the canopy above. Then, mustering all of her resolve, she sat up.
As she rose, her yellow tresses fell down to either side in a beautiful tangle that made it easy to see how story tellers might imagine tales of flax being spun into gold. Her pale skin gleamed, too delicate for the sun. The covers fell away, revealing her blue gown adorned with a string of bows along its hem. A darker blue ruffle formed her collar, and for modesty, a hint of lace spread beneath her neck.
Madam Guillotine had long ago reaped the flower of Gallian chivalry. And what the guillotine had spared had been plowed under at Waterloo, or left to freeze on an Orussian plain. And what was left from Waterloo had been fed to the guns at Verdun. There were still bits and pieces all over the countryside. Those that were big enough to be found had been gathered up into the Ossuary, for a memorial, so that all might remember this. But there were still a few flowers left.
Being thus awake, there was only one thing left to do, and so, gathering all her courage, she ventured to poke her head outside of the bed curtains.
By now the sun was streaming through the window, casting deep shadows in the moldings of the paneled walls.
"Ahh!" she winced, as her eyes adjusted to the light.
Her coat was hanging on a stand not far from the bed, where it gleamed a brilliant blue, like the sky. Her rank as a Flying Officer was clearly marked on either sleeve with two golden stripes. Along with it hung a clean white blouse, newly starched and pressed, and a fresh jabot for her neck.
She made her way over to the light switch. Turning it on made little difference in the actual brightness of the room. In the wake of the sun, the best the wall sconces could do was emit a faint gleam, but their yellow light made the room seem cheerier somehow. The effect was all the more pronounced when she drew the curtains. Next, she locked the door, and tried the handle, twice, to make certain the lock was working. Having taken these precautions, she went to the dresser, to the top drawer, to retrieve her prize.
It had been very expensive - even more so in light of the rationing, and it had taken two trips into town to get it - one to place the order, and one to pick it up. But it had been worth it.
"Made with plastic - the product of the future!" the cardboard box proudly proclaimed. Carefully she removed the lid. Inside she found the heating iron, just as the catalog had described, along with a little book. She squeezed the handle, noting the way the jaws opened, then examined the cord at the other end, studying everything with the same careful precision she might bestow when examining a new rifle.
"Please allow five minutes for adequate pre-heating", the book read.
"Hmm . . ."
She plugged the cord into the wall, and then finished reading the pamphlet. It didn't take long, and the directions seemed clear, but as she held the iron in one hand, and a lock of her precious flaxen hair in the other, she could not help but feel a sense of dread. But she had come too far to turn back now.
With a deep breath, she gathered her courage, and fed her hair into the mouth of the beast. She twirled it around one - two - three times, then slowly lowered the thumb latch, as carefully as if she were letting the hammer down on a live round in the chamber.
"One thousand one - one thousand two - Eeek!" she exclaimed, as the machine emitted a small hiss. She was certain she could smell something burning.
When the recommended number of seconds had passed, she pressed the latch again, and drawing the iron out, laid it on the table. She took up the hand mirror, but found she didn't have the nerve to make herself look. She spent several moments, turning her chin this way and that. Finally, with another deep breath, she managed to turn her head enough to steal a sideways glance at her reflection. What she saw made her gasp.
There, in place of the long, flaxen lock, she was delighted to see a neat spring of perfect curls.
"It works!" she exclaimed, stroking them with her fingers, admiring the way they would stretch and then return to their shape.
Then, taking up the iron again, she resumed her work.
"You know, some of those initiatives the High Command keeps sending you are pretty dumb", Erica said, "but this one is actually kinda' cool."
"I agree", the Commander said, being deliberately vague about which part of Erica's judgment she was agreeing with. "Having inter-cultural food days is a great way to help sustain morale. And it's very thoughtful of Lynette to share one of the days out of her week to try making something from Liberion. Shirley, are you excited about having a meal that reminds you of home?"
"Am I EVER! It's been forever since I've had me some good old fashioned flap jacks!"
"Fu-ra-ppu ja-ku?" Yoshika asked, trying to make sense of the foreign word.
"It's Liberian slang", the Commander explained. "Be careful", she teased. "We don't want Shirley to rub off on you."
"But in all seriousness, I suggest we enjoy this. It will be Mio's turn in the kitchen next week, and I expect all she'll give us is plain white rice for three meals a day. And if we're lucky, she'll let us do pushups to earn some soy sauce."
"Oh - ho - ho! That's a good idea! Ten for each drop!"
"It's ready!" Lynette said, bursting through the kitchen door carrying a tray and wearing an apron The sounds and smells of sizzling bacon could be heard from the doorway behind her.
"ALL RIGHT!" Shirley said, turning to Francesca, "Now you're in for a real - OH . . ."
All the young women of the 501st stared at the tray in horror.
"What is THAT?" Erica asked, as soon as Lynette was safely back in the kitchen and out of earshot.
There on the plate in front of Shirley, swimming in a puddle of bacon grease, was a strange, quivering mass, the center of which bore several scorch marks, like a runway after a particularly bad crashed landing.
Shirley swallowed hard as she loosened her collar.
"Well, it's too bad there's not enough for all of us -" Barkhorn said, only to see Lynette appear again, carrying a second tray.
"And for everyone else -"
"Mein Gott . . !"
"Oh, and don't forget the syrup!"
Shirley took up her fork, and prodded the mysterious object before her. It gurgled, as a stream of hot, molten batter issued from its side. Slowly, the center began to collapse.
Yoshika watched in horror.
"Major, do we have to -"
"Yes, Miyafuji," Sakamoto said, tightening the band around her ponytail.
"I'm just saying -"
"YES, Miyafuji," she said more sternly, taking her butter knife and wrapping the handle with her napkin.
"But - we could -"
"YES, MIYAFUJI!", she shouted, taking up her fork. "If I've told you once, I've told you a thousand times - WE are women of FUSO, and women of FUSO do NOT retreat!"
Perrine giggled as she looked in the mirror.
She turned her head to the right, and then the left, but no matter how she held the mirror, from every angle her hair presented a mass of perfectly shaped blonde curls. She spent a considerable amount of time admiring her work from different angles, occasionally adding a pin here or there to help them hold their shape.
"This is the best day ever - and I haven't even left my room yet!"
Just then, her stomach emitted a very unladylike growl.
"Speaking of which, I suppose I should go down and see about getting some breakfast", she thought. "I hope there's something left."
Her stomach growled in agreement. Holding her jabot in her teeth, she quickly threw on her blouse. Since there were no exercises that day, she selected one with longer sleeves that ended in a pair of lace cuffs.
"There!" she said, after she'd pulled on her tights, and made a quick pass with the scarf around her neck.
She resisted the urge to slide down the banister (though she did think about it), choosing instead to descend the stairs with the demure elegance befitting a queen.
"After all, SOMEONE has to teach those other girls how to act. Especially that Miyafuji - she's the worst. I don't understand how she -"
As she rounded the corner, she was greeted with a scene of abject horror.
"Major Sakamoto!" she said, running to stoop by Mio's side. "What's wrong!? Speak to me!?"
The Major spoke English so fluently that she normally had no hint of an accent. But in that moment of extreme duress, her voice was tinged with a heavy tint of her native Fusongo.
"Panu . . . keiku . . ."
The Major gasped, taking Perrine's hand and looking at her with all the urgency of a dying murder victim desperately trying to identify her killer.
" . . .panu . . . keiku . . ." came the sound of another, higher pitched voice. This one belonged to Miyafuji.
She'd said it so emphatically that, for the moment, Perrine forgot her dislike of the little raccoon dog, and instead stood there looking back and forth between the two of them, frantically trying to understand what was going on.
Just then, the kitchen door swung open. Amid the sounds of sizzling, Lynette emerged, wearing a pink apron and carrying a skillet and a spatula.
"Oh, Perrine! You're just in time! We're almost done, but I still have a little batter left - would you like some pancakes?"
The Major squeezed Perrine's hand sharply, making her look down. Sakamoto looked up at her as if the fate of the world depended on her decision. Without lifting her head away from the wall, she shook it weakly from side to side.
Perrine looked at her questioningly, then turned back to Lynnette.
"I think I'll pass . . ."
"Aw - well what about some Gallian toast, with maybe a café au lait?"
Just then the air raid sounded.
"The Neuroi . . ." the Commander's voice came weakly from the opposite corner. "Perrine - you and Bishop . . . you have to . . . There's no one else . . . It's up to you . . ."
Perrine's amber eyes shone coldly behind her glasses.
Against the serene, frost blue sky, the Strikers' engines roared.
"Alright Lynette!" Perrine barked in a tone that she hoped was reminiscent of Major Sakamoto. "You heard the Commander! Everything is up to us!"
"Yes ma'am!" Lynette answered, without hesitation.
"Good", Perrine said, reassured by her confidence. "There's only two of us, so if we fly out too far and something gets past us, there'll be nothing we can do, so we'll use your range to intercept them instead. We'll set up a series of defensive perimeters. Kill or wound as many as you can. I'll finish anything that gets through.
'If we're in danger of being overwhelmed, we'll fall back to the next perimeter, and use the same technique from there. Is everything clear?"
"Commander, are you able to get a reading?"
"It looks like a flight of X-3s" Minna answered, hoping the radio did not pick up the gurgling of her stomach. "There are some smaller craft mixed in - possibly buzz bombs. Remember - we don't know how the Neuroi think. Don't assume that they'll be using the same tactics as before."
"Affirmative", Perrine said, studying the ground below her to get her bearings, and to look for any landmarks that would help give her a sense of the distance between them and the approaching Neuroi.
"This will have to do. Take up your position here. I'll fly out ahead and meet anything that gets too close. I'm counting on you to engage as many targets as you can at a distance – and to not shoot ME in the process!"
Perrine looked at Bishop doubtfully, remembering yesterday's incident with the Split S, but at this point, there was nothing more she could do.
"Clostermann -" the Commander said gravely, sensing the Neuroi's approach.
"I see them", Perrine answered coldly. "Here they come!"
Lynette watched as three pinpoints of magenta light glowed in the distance, welling up brighter as they tracked soundlessly towards her, until with a sudden crackle each of them crashed against her shield. The impact pushed her back, but her shield did its work, absorbing their energy and radiating it harmlessly out to either side, into the empty air.
With some effort, she managed to keep her Boys anti-tank rifle in line with the leading target. As the sizzling from the third hit subsided, she licked her lips, and lining up the two offset rings, dropped her shield momentarily, and fired.
The round hit the Neuroi ship just behind the nose, and slightly off to the right.
As expected, the remaining ships returned fire. Timing the strobes of raising her shield with working the rifle's manual bolt had taken a lot of practice to perfect, but with two more blasts, she dropped the remaining ships. Perrine trained the muzzle of her Bren to follow the third one, which had smoked, but did not fall. Her finger felt cold against the metal trigger. It began to tense, but on seeing it break up into a scatter of hexagonal plates surrounding a glimmer of the shattered core, she relaxed it again, knowing the craft was finished.
"So far, so good . . ." she thought, adjusting her spectacles. "Our limited numbers won't matter so long as we can keep engaging them at long range."
Lynette could feel a bead of sweat running down the side of her face, but she would not chance moving her hands to wipe it away. Already the air in front of her had grown heated from the dissipated Neuroi blasts.
"Here comes the second wave!"
Two more blasts echoed from the mouth of the Boys anti-tank, filling the sky with each thunderous report, but then - silence. The five round magazine was empty.
"Oh no you don't!" Perrine shouted, leveling the mouth of her Bren, and funneling a devastating barrage right into the midst of the oncoming ship. What the Bren lacked in precision it made up for in volume of fire. The Neuroi fell from this peppering, trailing bits of its shattered core out each of the holes.
"Whew!" she said, feeling of her tousled hair, and finding most of her curls still intact. "And I didn't even have to use my magic!"
'Is that the best you've got!" she shouted, turning toward the open sky and shaking her fist defiantly.
As if to answer her, the Neuroi's beams opened up on three sides, bracketing them with a steady barrage.
"I said fall back! We'll take up the same tactic from the next perimeter!"
"Yes ma'am!" Lynette agreed, and leaning back into a kind of aerial back stroke, leveled her rifle between her propellers, and picked off the lead ship, even as she retreated.
"Not bad!" Perrine said, lowering her glasses to look over their lenses. "At this rate, we just might have a chance!"
"Officer Clostermann, report?" Commander Minna's voice crackled in the radio.
"Ma'am, the first two waves of the enemy are destroyed! We're making a strategic retreat to a second perimeter at 2 kilometers from the base!"
"Very well. Proceed!"
"I take it back . . ." Barkhorn said between gasps. "I take it all back . . ."
"What?" the Commander asked, wincing in pain.
"I take back any time that I ever doubted Bishop. Anyone who could eat that food, day after day, and still be able to walk - much less fly - much less FIGHT - has to be the toughest woman alive . . ."
"Let's hope you're right", the Commander said, still grimacing, "because at the moment, she and Perrine are all that stands between us and the Neuroi."
The best that Hartmann could manage to add was a low moan.
"Ohh . . ." she said, lying on her back with both hands clapped over her stomach, "So sick . . ."
Eila looked carefully around and below the bend in the stairway. Seeing nothing, she crept down to the last step, where she paused again, looking to either side. The coast was clear. There was no one to be found.
"The problem with being on the night patrol is that you get hungry at the weirdest times", she thought to herself. "On top of that, you don't even know what to CALL it. I mean, you can't really call it a midnight snack when you're eating it at noon - for everyone else, that's lunch! And then -"
Entering the kitchen, she stopped short. There, on the table, unguarded, sat a heaping plate of light, fluffy pancakes.
"What's this? Between Hartmann and Lucchini, there are never leftovers this late in the day!"
Eila looked to the right, then to the left, but her shifty eyes had not deceived her. There was no one in the kitchen.
"Heh - heh . . . Suddenly I foresee a big breakfast in my future! Or is it supper? Who cares? I better get some for Sanya, too . . ."
Perrine centered the sights of her rifle so that the three prongs skewered the Neuroi, then squeezed the trigger. The burst stopped short, with the slide locked back, empty, but it had slowed the Neuroi considerably. A well placed round from Bishop finished the job.
"Fall back! We're in danger of being overwhelmed!"
"Shirley", Barkhorn said, her breath coming in thick gasps. "In case we don't make it . . . I just want you to know . . . that you were always the fastest -"
"No - I mean it. Even with the Violet Lightning . . . or the Thunder Striker . . . I'm strong. I've always been strong. But you . . . were always . . . the fastest . . ."
"Trudy . . ."
"And Hartmann . . ."
"You're the best disgrace of a pilot I've ever had the honor of serving with . . ."
"Um . . . thanks . . . I think."
Francesca's voice wheezed, coming in plaintive gasps.
"I have something to tell you too . . . I just . . . I . . . just . . . I just want you to know . . . that - out of all of us . . . you . . . always . . . had the biggest boobs . . ."
". . . . ."
"There's too many! Fall back!"
"But ma'am, this is the last perimeter! If we leave now, they'll -"
"Just go, Bishop! Set up on the roof and snipe them from there! I'll stay here and hold them off as long as I can -"
"But you'll be -"
"I don't care! I swore after the fall of Gallia that I'd never retreat again! I've already lost one home to the Neuroi - I won't lose another one, even if that means -"
Just then a purple bolt tore through the sky. It was heading for the defiant Gallian with such murderous precision that even Lynette, who was accustomed to looking through her gun sight at horrors, cringed, involuntarily turning away. She did not want to look back, afraid of what she'd see, but when she forced herself to shift her eyes, she saw Perrine, still floating in the sky, in a kind of daze.
The purple streak had just missed her head, passing ever so slightly to the right. The bolt had come so near, it burned away both her coat and shirt, exposing her pale shoulder underneath. A large divot in her golden hair showed what the path of the beam had been, where it had bitten out a wide crescent.
The Commander shouted into the radio, "Damage? Status? Clostermann - report!"
But Perrine remained where she was. Slowly, without a word, she put her hand up to the side of her head, feeling the mass of tangled frizz where her beautiful golden locks used to be. Then she turned to the Neuroi with murder in her eyes.
"Grrrrr -" she growled, reaching her slender arm up towards the sky, her fingers spread and searching. As she balled them closed into a fist, Lynette could feel the atmosphere change. The clouds visibly darkened, and a low roll of thunder went along the ground. A flash of lightning reflected in Perrine's spectacles.
All at once, the sky was set alight, and the clouds caught fire, as though the very heavens exploded with rage towards her enemies.
For the Neuroi, there was no hope, no chance of escape. Every single ship was sought out, and found by the jagged fingers as they searched the sky.
Perrine fell forward, catching herself. Never before had she summoned so many bolts at once. For a moment she thought the feat had killed her, but as she heard the low rolling rumble pass beneath her feet, along the valley floor below, she knew that she was still alive. Looking out across horizon, she could see the remains of the Neuroi fleet, burning as they fell, sinking out of the sky.
As she watched them fall, Lynette flew up, alongside her. Without a word, a moment of silent understanding passed between the two of them. Then she shouldered her rifle. In the harsh glare of the muzzle flash, Perrine's face glowed, ruthless and red, as one by one, Lynette put a round through each of the falling Neuroi, just to be sure.
Drawing her sword, Perrine held it up in front of her face, and made a sharp "flick!" It was less a salute than a gesture of dismissal.
Then she turned, and flew away.
"Tell me again why we have to get up so early", Erica yawned, fighting to stay awake against the steady droning sound of the cargo plane's engines.
Commander Minna cleared her throat.
"Ahem – In recognition of Lynette and Perrine's special bravery, the Royal Britanian Airforce has decided to award the entire 501st a very special honor . . ."
Reaching into her bag, she produced a small round cap, bright scarlet color. Lynette gasped.
"The Red Beret!"
"It's a hat", Barkhorn said, a bit bluntly. She'd been up all night, nursing a sick stomach, and for once she agreed with Erica about having to get up so early.
"Um, Commander, we're all honored", Yoshika said hesitantly, "but why aren't we wearing our Strikers?"
"Yeah", Shirley put in, "and what's with these backpacks?"
Just then the pilot's voice broke in over the intercom.
"Commander, we've reached an altitude of twelve thousand feet. Base has given the all clear."
"Receiving the Red Beret is a great privilege", the Commander went on, inching her way towards a large red lever positioned by the door. "It means that we all will be honorary members of the Royal Britanian Airforce. But there is one mission every member – even honorary ones – must complete first . . ."
"Um, Commander", Yoshika asked, trembling at the icy resolve that had come over Minna. "What's that?"
Minna reached out and gave the red lever a sharp pull.
"Their first jump!"
All at once, the rear hatch fell away, turning the back half of the cargo area into a swirling vortex. All but two of the 501st were sucked out, into the wind.
As Minna stood looking out over the edge smiling, Mio gave her an incredulous look.
"Do you think we should have at least told them first?"
"Nah, it's better this way. Some of them might have chickened out and missed out on the honor. And besides, they would have been too nervous to enjoy the flight if they had known."
Mio raised an eyebrow at this logic, but said nothing about it.
"Well, I suppose we should go too", the Commander said, and with a small, dignified hop, jumped off of the ramp, and out into the wind. The Major Sakamoto stared for a second, then jumped after her.
"-AAAUUUGGGHHH!" Yoshika continued her scream.
"WHEEE!" Francesca shouted. "Can we do this again!?"
"Heh – heh – heh", Shirley chuckled. She'd discovered that by leaning into the wind, she could make herself fall even faster.
"I give up", Perrine said, as her beautiful blonde hair blew and tangled all around her. "I just give up!" she shouted, adjusting her spectacles so that they kept the wind out of her eyes.
"Ladies, we're approaching an altitude of thirty-five hundred feet. All chutes deploy", the Commander said, still a few seconds above and behind them. She watched for each canopy to open, counting them one by one.
"Whew!" Yoshika said, looking up at the brilliant white canopy overhead as she floated in space. "That actually wasn't so bad!"
Lynette nodded in agreement.
"So hey, everyone, when we get back, what would you all like for breakfast?"
The entire 501st answered at once, without any hesitation,