...Nor the Battle to the Strong!
In queste mani tremanti c’è il coraggio di un fiore reciso… affiderò tutto a questo sentimento e il mio desiderio risveglierà la luce.*
~ Ancient Romagnan Love Sonnet — Author Unknown ~
*In these trembling hands the courage of a cut flower…entrust all this feeling and my desire awaken the light.---- September 28, 1943
---- IFS Akane — Eastern Baltic Sea
---- 07:21 Hours
When everything started happening it happened all at once. The flight crew scrambled to clear the decks for launch, even as the fighters themselves began to taxi. Even over the blare of the red-alert klaxons, a series of distant muffled explosions could be heard. The first barrage from Dunkirk’s heavy gun batteries screamed through the salt air, only to be stopped dead by Akane’s own on-board Witch contingent of shield generators.
Not all Witches were flyers, after all, and prior to the development of the Striker Units, Witches had been deployed to act as shield generators and lead defense with ground-based army units and naval battle groups. That practice had, thankfully, never been discontinued.
Every Witch had the ability to generate a shield in addition to whatever inherent abilities she naturally possessed, so even non-fliers could still contribute massively to whatever unit they were assigned. And there were, of course, the so-called ‘Tank Witches’, mostly assigned to the Afrikan front. Ground-bound Witches were assigned tasks that suited their inborn talents, as Sarah and Emily Holloway had been during this mission.
As much as Admiral Nishimura wished to have a squadron of Witches stationed on-board his aircraft carrier, the cold, hard fact was that there simply were not enough seasoned aviator Witches to spread around. Virtually all Witches who flew Strikers were stationed at various air bases around the world. This deployment made sense, considering the Neuroi’s seeming aversion to large bodies of water. Logistically speaking, in excess of 90% of the battles fought took place on or over land.
The girls of the 501st were going to have their hands full as it was, being the main force deployed against the ridiculously overpowered MAGI units — they had neither the personnel nor the firepower to defend the Akane from conventional attacks on top of everything else they had to deal with.
This was going to be the battle of their lives. D.W. Briggs had no illusions otherwise and he had known this from the get go. This traitorous alliance, this ‘Optimal Order’, had been outed prematurely and — like a cornered animal — now had no choice but to put everything they had into this engagement. And the stark truth was Akane was here under false pretense while Dunkirk and the rest of Maloney’s little fleet was here under official sanction.
After doing some in-depth reading of all the materials Ursula Hartmann had provided, specifically the troop re-deployment records, the brigadier was positive that those crewing the opposing ships were not simply random military personnel duped into a battle they knew nothing about. The troops they now faced were almost certainly all members of the Optimal Order, loyal to Maloney and committed to victory at all costs.
If Akane and the 501st were defeated here, Maloney and his cohorts could put any spin on the story they wished to. A loss here would most likely mean that the balance of power in the Allied Command would permanently shift. Instead of being a madman’s delusion, this ‘new world order’ would become a harsh reality.
It was, quite literally, the fate of the world that was at stake. And almost no one in authority was even aware of it.
The red alert had also been patched through to Minna’s command frequency. The 501st was in the air almost immediately but not quickly enough to stop what happened next.
In the wake of the first heavy gun bombardment, the MAGI had taken flight and headed directly for the aircraft carrier. It quickly became apparent that they were targeting the flight decks. Shields bearing the runes of the various Witches generating them covered the entire port-side stern of the ship. Only nine fighter planes managed to lift off before two of the MAGI managed to punch through the defense shields, obliterating the top two flight decks and rendering the third completely unusable. As quickly as that, whatever tactical advantage Akane had possessed was lost.
At face value, it seemed laughable. When it came to raw firepower, Akane had a distinct advantage as well as a full compliment of 44 fighter/bombers. The battle-class destroyer Dunkirk had been converted to a carrier, with a single flight deck carrying a compliment of 10 fighters and two reconnaissance planes. She was also crammed to the gills with heavy ordnance.
Dunkirk had originally been configured with five QF MK III four-inch naval guns — each of which fired a 31-pound, 101.6mm shell — and eight BOFORS 40 anti-aircraft guns. But, as it would quickly become apparent, she had been through a refit during her last dry-dock. Dunkirk now sported six QF MK V 4.5-inchers…the same guns Akane was outfitted with.
The upgrade was significant, as the MK V had the ability to fire a 55-pound, 113mm armor-piercing shell. What Admiral Nishimura and the Akane crew couldn’t know was that, in addition to larger guns and more of them, Dunkirk had been upgraded to the MK 37 Fire Control system — much more efficient and accurate that the MK 35 system Akane currently used.
With the destruction of Akane’s flight decks, they only had nine birds in the air…and that was all they were going to have. Equipment-wise, the two forces were now, for all practical purposes, evenly matched. Beyond all that, Maloney had four mostly-untried MAGI mecha, while Nishimura and Briggs had ten battle-tested Witches to field. How this was going to play out was, at this point, anyone’s guess.
Yoshika was aware that, for the first time since she had been violated, she was now thinking clearly. That clarity brought introspection. For someone who generally followed her emotions and wore her heart on her sleeve, the Fuso girl could be quite analytical when it came to reasoning out a problem. Because of her upbringing, she had always been able determine the underlying “why” of things. Cautiously but curiously, she examined the memories of the assault once more. As she did, she could hear Lynette’s voice in her mind…calm and certain, her love’s words, reassuring and as warm and bright as the summer sun.
“It wasn’t your fault, Yoshika. There was nothing you could do.”
Yoshika had long since known that there are many ways to affect the human psyche, but the quickest and most effective way is chemically. She had read about such things before…brainwashing, behavior modification and mind control — medical experiments for benign purposes and military experiments for purposes much darker.
The creature’s attack was much too precise to be blind luck. It had used just the right chemical and psychic triggers to draw her subconscious mind into a receptive, submissive state and overwhelm her conscious mind with unceasing pleasurable physical stimulation.
“It wasn’t your fault, Yoshika. There was nothing you could do.”
Her thoughts had become slow and dull…in mere seconds she had forgotten everything. Her home, her family, her childhood, her friends. She had forgotten Lynette. In mere seconds, it had taken away everything that she was and left her with nothing but the lights and the colors and the music and the voice. They filled her and pushed out everything else. Without Lynette’s, intervention she would have been lost forever.
She had to stop there. She had to stop remembering. Her body trembled with both revulsion and desire, like an addict going through withdrawal.
“It wasn’t your fault, Yoshika. There was nothing you could do.”
The experience was still horrific. It still made her feel dirty and used. But she knew now that it hadn’t been a moral weakness on her part. It had been a physical weakness, merely proving that, no matter what else she was — no matter how powerful she was — she was still only human.
The hurt and pain were still in her memory, but the crushing guilt was gone. It wasn’t her fault. There was nothing she could have done.
Yoshika was indeed the child of her parents. Her mother, a powerful and respected healer — knowledgeable, spiritual, calm and intellectual. Her father, on the other hand, could only be described as a mad genius — brilliant, intuitive, insightful, warm and witty, and always cheerful.
Although Yoshika had been quite young when her father had left for Britannia to head up the Striker Project, while he still lived at home she had spent almost every waking minute that she could by his side. She had observed even his setbacks and disappointments — admiring the way he could acknowledge and move onward, always optimistic.
The young Fuso maiden exemplified the best traits of both her parents. However, in both looks and temperament, she most closely resembled her father and it was that part of her that held dominance once more.
It had happened. It was over. The worst part of the attacks’ aftermath was the feeling that she had somehow betrayed Lynette. But Lynne understood what had happened. Lynne knew and was still supporting her, still by her side. A calm warmth spread throughout her soul, knowing that her love still loved her — even though she herself had been overcome with the belief that she had been tainted beyond redemption.
Her introspective contemplation was suddenly shattered. She bolted upright upon hearing the red-alert sirens blaring. Then the first salvo hit. Not enough to rock the ship, but enough to make the mirror over the washbasin and the metal struts in the bunk hum with sympathetic vibration.
“Kami-sama! I’m not ready for this.”
She quickly pushed that thought aside.
Lynette was out there fighting…fighting for her. And all the others, as well. Her squadron. The crew of the Akane. The tiny ace suddenly realized with absolute certainty that she could not just sit there cowering in her cabin. If she didn’t want to become helpless and dependent — a worthless person — then she had damned well better start acting like herself again.
Regardless of how deeply she had been hurt, how badly she had been damaged, she couldn’t — she wouldn’t — leave them to face this alone. It simply wasn’t in her nature. She had to help, however she could.
What could she do? Here? Now?
It was time to find out.
Throwing the cabin door open, Yoshika took a brief instant to get her bearings and then sprinted towards the stairwell that led topside. She needed to see what was going on. As it happened, she emerged on the top-most deck, in a section towards the bow of the ship.
Planes from both sides filled the air. Only a stylized double “O” — stenciled in red paint on the nose and tail of some of the aircraft — served to differentiate the enemy’s planes from the Akane’s own fighters. The cacophony from bullets, anti-aircraft guns and air-to-air missiles cut into Yoshika’s brain like a knife. Above all of that, a noise that was very recognizable after months of fighting against the Neuroi — the unearthly screech of particle beams slicing through the air.
A tremendous explosion astern rocked the giant carrier heavily and Yoshika had to grab a railing as she scrambled to keep her footing. Looking to her rear, she saw two of the MAGI hovering above the destroyed flight decks, thick columns of smoke filling the air.
The remaining two MAGI were engaging both the squadron from Akane and her squadron — her friends. Desperately, she searched the sky and soon spotted the love of her life fighting alongside everyone else. The brave Britannian was giving it her all, and Yoshika couldn’t be prouder. It was time for her to step up and do the same.
The bustle of activity caused the young Fuso pilot a moment’s hesitation as she tried to determine what she should do to be of the most help. Out of the corner of her eye she noticed someone she recognized. It was the girl who had brought her here on the troop carrier, Emily Holloway. Yoshika was unsure of what the girl’s power was until she witnessed it in action.
As Emily’s hands gestured upward, Yoshika’s eyes followed the direction of the movement. A MAGI had targeted two of Akane’s fighters, but before the particle beam could reach either airplane it simply disappeared. At that same instant, a similar beam erupted about a quarter-mile distant, shooting harmlessly into empty air.
“A portal of some kind. Spatial displacement?”
The young Britannian continued to throw portals up, preventing any of the energy-based attacks from hitting their marks. Yoshika could tell, after observing for a few moments, that the girl only had a certain amount of control over the exit vector of the generated portals. She was sending any discharge she could catch well away from the battle. It appeared as if precise targeting was beyond her, leaving out any possibility that she could make those beams work in their favor by targeting, say, the other MAGI Close range manipulation seemed to be out of the question.
Unfortunately, although the mecha were mindless, they were obviously not brainless. They quickly zeroed in on where the displacement effect was coming from. Both converged on Emily, targeting her with a blast from two different directions at once. Yoshika yelped as she dashed forward, throwing up the strongest shield she could manage to cover for the overwhelmed space-bender. She grunted from the force of impact but her shield held.
Emily looked around to find out the identity of her savior.
“Don’t stop, Holloway Jōtōhei! I’ve got you covered.”
Emily Holloway had a half-dozen questions spring to mind, topmost of which was, how could this girl be fighting when she had left her looking as if she were ready to crawl into a hole 45 minutes earlier? Shaking off her amazement, Emily once more focused on the battle raging around them. She was still being targeted by the two MAGI, while trying to keep an eye on the rest of the forces out there.
The particle beam weapons employed by the MAGI packed significantly more punch than the Neuroi version did. Yoshika pumped more energy into her shield in an effort to allow Emily the time and concentration she needed to effectively handle the situation. On the upside, two of the MAGI were no longer harassing the conventional forces. On the downside, they seemed determined to wipe out Emily and, by extension, Yoshika.
With their attention focused on their own battle, neither Witch nor mecha noticed as one of the 501st suddenly broke formation to come screaming downward at incredible velocity, targeting one of the two aggressors.
Francesca pushed a layered series of concentric shields in front of her, ranging from about 7 feet in diameter closest to her, down to about 2 inches wide at the tip of the energy-based construct. With battering ram effectiveness, the tiny twin-tailed Witch punched through the armor reinforcing the MAGI and shattered the Core within, moving at such a great speed that she was barely able to check her downward motion before hitting the water.
Pulling up at the last instant she skirted the waves and flew upward once more, passing them by. Spotting Yoshika on the deck as she climbed to rejoin her squad-mates, she grinned widely and waved frantically at her friend.
Although actively participating in the battle, Minna stayed above the fray for the most part. Her primary job was to coordinate and deploy. Following Francesca’s sudden maneuver, the Karlslandian commander watched with an equal measure of pride and annoyance as the girl returned to her place in the formation. She waited until Francesca had rejoined the rest of the squadron before admonishing her for going off on her own without permission or warning.
“Ensign Lucchini, do not pull a stunt like that again. At least let someone know what you’re planning before running off half-cocked like that. Understand?”
“Yes, ma’am. Sorry ’bout that,” Francesca answered in her usual lighthearted tone. “It’s just that I saw an opening I couldn’t resist. And, oh hey, Yoshika’s back on the job too. She’s on-deck, fighting alongside that girl who was with us earlier. You know, Hollywhatsit.”
Lynette’s eyes widened in alarm. Looking towards the besieged Akane, she tried to spot her girl. Hearing that Yoshika was participating in the battle was enough to shake her soul and throw her off her game. Her love was supposed to stay safely out of harm’s way.
She tried to convince herself there was no way the young Fuso girl could be well enough to join the battle in any fashion. But, in her heart, she knew it was true. No matter what had happened to her earlier, the love of her life would — in the end — be true to herself. Lynette Bishop was a person of faith…faith both in Yoshika and faith in a higher power. It was to that higher power she breathed a silent prayer.
“Please God. Keep her safe. It’s all I ask. I love her so much. I need her so much. Please watch over her.”
Charlotte knew Lynette was shaken by the news. She had expected it the instant she heard Francesca’s comment. The Liberion ace was of the opinion that Lynne didn’t need a dose of Commander Wilcke’s “tough love”. She needed a friend to give her gentle encouragement and keep her spirits up.
“Lynne! Stay with it, kid! Miyafuji will be fine. But she won’t be, if anything happens to you. Copy?”
“I copy,” the young Britannian answered gratefully. “Hey, Shirley? Thank you. Not just for this, but for everything.”
“That’s what friends are for,” Charlotte responded lightheartedly. “Well, that and to bum money from. C’mon, let’s finish these sons a’ bitches so you can get back to your ‘waifu’.”
The ‘waifu’ comment both warmed Lynne’s soul and made her laugh outright. Smiling in gratitude, she responded with a quip of her own. “Right behind you ‘Oh captain, my captain’.”
The Liberion ace grinned as it occurred to her that Lynette was developing a sense of humor.
Vincent Mallory felt completely ineffectual as he watched the battle playing out over the waves. The air above the two ships was crowded with dogfighting aircraft, Witches and mecha zipping about like a swarm of angry bees.
He had a huge honking gun and close to 300 rounds of ammo. Fat lot of good that did if there was nothing to shoot with it. Although the action was taking place within the range of the Bofors-L60, it was on the extreme edge of said range. It’d be like shooting spit-wads. He desperately wanted to be out there. He wanted to be with Lucchini and Captain Yeager and Sergeant Bishop. They were his squad-mates. They were his friends. It was so damn frustrating being stuck there just watching and unable to lend a hand.
Being so focused on the aerial engagement, Vince didn’t even notice that he was standing almost knee-deep in the surf until he felt something bump into his leg. Startled, he looked down to see a piece of flotsam that looked…manufactured. Looking in the direction from which the object had hit him, he saw another and yet another. His gaze followed the trail of debris.
Raising his head he was greeted with a sight that caused him to grin happily…two fighter planes, obviously from the sunken Euryalus, caught in the incoming tide.
Although one of them was half-submerged — the cockpit open and the nose and port wing underwater — the second one bobbed gently in the surf, like a boat. Vince chortled happily. It was a de Havilland Mosquito, one of the few operational front-line aircraft of the modern era to be constructed almost entirely of wood. In fact, Royal Air Force pilots had nicknamed the plane “The Wooden Wonder.”
Without a second thought, the young Liberion pilot dove into the ocean, swimming eagerly towards the waiting aircraft. Soon, he was grasping the wing and hauling himself up out of the frigid water. He took a moment to catch his breath, looking at the battle once more as he did so. He was just in time to see Francesca’s devastating plunge destroying one of the attacking MAGI.
“Damn, sis! Nice one,” he thought with admiration. “Lessee if ah can help y’all out a bit.”
Throwing the canopy back, the callow southerner slid into the pilot’s seat and switched on the electrical system. The gauges sprang to life. Fuel topped off, guns primed and ready. Obviously, this plane had been prepped for take-off before the ship had been hulled.
“Sweet! It’s a Mark II!” A grin spread across his face as the instrument panel gave him the full inventory. “Four 7.7mm Browning’s in th’ nose an’ four Hispano Mk II cannons. And b’cause a th’ wooden fuselage, it’s one’a th’ fastest production models out there.”
“Ah’m sure Cap’n Yeager’ll approve,” he chuckled to himself.
The engines roared to life. Switching on the radio, he tuned to the frequency the Propaganda Squad had used while on tour — figuring correctly that it was the same frequency used by the 501st under normal battle conditions.
“Commander Wilcke? This is Vince Mallory.”
“Make it quick, Private Mallory. We’re kind of busy here,” Minna responded politely but tersely.
“Yes, ma’am. Thing is, ah’ve commandeered a fighter. Requestin’ permission ta join ya.”
Rather than give an immediate response, Minna switched to the tactical side-channel.
“Your Mister Mallory has somehow gotten his hands on an airplane. I want your assessment. Will he be an asset or a hindrance?”
Charlotte gave the question a moment of serious consideration.
“He’s a good kid, Minna. Follows orders, takes proper initiative…I would say that he’ll be an asset,” she answered confidently. “Plus, he’s pretty simpatico with Lucchini. They can team up while Lynette works with me. I say, let him join.”
The extended silence worried Vince slightly, causing him to assume he was going to be refused. After what seemed to him like an eternity, a crackle of static filled the cockpit.
“Permission granted, Mallory. You are to partner up with Ensign Lucchini. Take your lead from either Captain Yeager or Major Sakamoto,” Minna ordered. “Be careful out there. And thanks for the help.”
“Thank you ma’am,” Vince answered enthusiastically. “Ah’m on ma’ way.”
Revving the engines, he began his taxi. The small aircraft skimmed the short, choppy waves like a stone skimming a brook. As he flew towards the battle, a small figure looped up and out and began to fly towards him. The silhouette was easily recognizable.
“Hey sis. Wha’cha know?”
The sound of the Romagnan’ giggle filled the cockpit. “Hey Vince. Where’d you jack the ride?”
“Umm…would ya believe ah jus’ found it?”
“Yeah I would, actually,” the twin-tailed pixie answered. “Listen, go into a holding pattern for a minute will you? I see something that needs attention before you jump into the middle of things.”
Although confused, Vince did as she requested. Francesca came up along side him and pulled a knife from it’s sheath on her belt. The large fixed-blade fighting knife had been a gift from Shirley, an authentic Alamo-style Bowie knife — a collectors item, now that Texas was, for all intents and purposes, a giant hole in the ground.
“Sis, what’r ya doin’?” Vince questioned.
Francesca came even with the nose of the aircraft. Using the flat edge of the blade, she began scraping at the Optimal Order insignia that had been painted on it.
“Trying to save you from being taken out by our own guys, dummy.”
“Oh! Yeah, right,” the young southerner laughed sheepishly. “That’d prolly be a good idea.”
“Say, did you know this thing is made out of wood?”
“Yeah, ain’t it cool?”
General Maloney watched the battle proceed from Dunkirk’s command deck. So far, he was satisfied with the way things were progressing. The successful destruction of Akane’s flight decks at the start of the battle had leveled the playing field. Four of the nine enemy aircraft had already been destroyed and, although none of the Witches had been taken out yet, it was only a matter of time before they would fall as well.
He was eager to claim a decisive victory and regain the status he had lost with his masters. Although ostensibly in command of this mission, Maloney still answered to the leaders of the Optimal Order, two of whom were currently on-board the Dunkirk in the role of ‘observers.’
Josef Mengelé stood at the window of the Command Office, watching the battle unfold, noting with satisfaction how flawlessly the children of his brilliance were performing. The MAGI were a wonder to behold. Swift. Efficient. Deadly. Completely unimpeded by weaknesses such as compassion or doubt.
Success would mean that his vision would be vindicated. He could foresee an army of MAGI, crushing any opposition, maintaining order and control, with the alien menace harnessed to achieve their goal… his goal.
The other occupant of the cabin wasn’t nearly as interested in the battle as he was in his own agenda.
“You’ve instructed those machines of yours how to handle my daughter, right Mengelé?”
“Of course, William. She will be taken alive, although I cannot guarantee she will be uninjured,” He paused for a moment in thought. “Although, if I may say, if she is injured it will make her conditioning and re-education that much more effective.”
Lord William Bishop, the Duke of Glys, smiled in anticipation of being reunited with his estranged daughter. Although he had been politically invested in the Optimal Order from the very beginning, providing the connections and resources they had needed, the opportunity to retake possession of Lynette had always been in his mind, as well. He had patiently awaited the day when circumstances would allow him to resume the special relationship he had enjoyed with her when she was a child.
So submissive. So obedient. He could still remember how sweet she tasted. He knew she had not been sullied by any other man. She may have cut all ties with him, but he had always known exactly where she was and exactly what she was doing. A man with his power and position had eyes and ears everywhere.
He knew that she had become emotionally close with another member of her squadron…that filthy little Fuso slut. He wished he had thought to have her taken alive, as well. Killing the girl in front of his daughter would further break her spirit and ensure that she was his once more. His puppet. His toy. Just thinking about it was enough to make him hard.
If Doctor Mengelé was aware of Lord Bishop’s motives, he made no indication of it and, in truth, wouldn’t have cared. Sex, love, desire…these were motivations that he had no concept of. He cared only for the supremacy of his intellect and the acknowledgment of it.
To him, people were just things. Means to an end. Tools for him to use. In those ways, he was a kindred soul to the Duke of Glys.
Eila Juutilainen’s precognition was a double-edged sword. Her primary ability allowed her to see hours, even days, into the future and sort out upcoming variables of whatever subject she chose to focus on, while her secondary ability allowed her to see and avoid actual upcoming events a few seconds ahead on her personal time line. In battle she always fought with her secondary ability invoked, which allowed her to anticipate where an enemy was going to be — explaining her high degree of accurate hits — and avoid enemy fire, explaining why she rarely used her shields.
The downside, of course, was that she was always slightly out of sync with the rest of the squadron during a battle, since she was seeing events anywhere from a half-second to five seconds ahead of everyone else. It made coordinating with everyone a bit dicey, although she now had almost 2 years of practice compensating for that glitch.
In a nonchalant fashion, she let loose a salvo into empty air, the space occupied by the enemy an instant later, slamming into her bullets with no chance to escape. Impossible to dodge a shot that has already been made, after all.
One of the MAGI *had fired*was firing now*was going to fire* at her position in 4.2 seconds. As she broke her trajectory to dodge, she suddenly saw that Sanya *was taking*would take*had taken* the blast square on, her atoms scattered to the winds. The precognitive Witch was not dealing with multiple variables this time. There were only two, very clear, outcomes. Either she took the hit herself or Sanya would die.
There was no thought, only reaction. No thought was needed. She would give her life to save Sanya’s anytime. Diving back to occupy the space she had just vacated she placed herself between Sanya and the MAGI, throwing her shield up to cover them both…an action she was unaccustomed to.
Never had she regretted her lack of reliance on her shield more than she did at this moment.
The attack was successfully deflected away from Sanya, however a substantial amount of dark purple energy bled through Eila’s shield and she screamed in agony as her clothing began to smolder, the alien energy tearing at her flesh. The pain and shock caused her to lose concentration, her engines cut out and she plunged into the frigid waters below. Sanya noticed too late that her partner had just saved her from certain death.
The hardest part of Minna Wilcke’s job was when she had to act cold and hard. It went against her natural instincts, which were to be nurturing and caring. But being hard and cold was the only way to keep discipline, to make sure that every single one of her precious people made it through the tough battles alive. She knew exactly the kind of relationship Eila and Sanya shared, and knew the emotions that must be ripping through the soft-spoken Orussian as she watched her lover fall from the sky. Unless Sanya kept her focus on the battle around her, she would be the next casualty.
So Minna did what had to be done…she put on her stern commander’s persona.
“Lieutenant Litvyak! You still have a job to do. Stay on point. The med-evac teams will get her.”
Sanya did her best to put her worry aside and keep on with the fight. But it wasn’t until she saw Akane’s rescue boat pick Eila up that she was able to focus her full attention on the battle again.
Yoshika had been trying to follow the 501st’s portion of the aerial engagement, while continuing to defend Emily Holloway. The tiny brunette watched Eila deliberately dive in and take the hit meant for Sanya. Observing the crew of the evac boat as they hauled Eila out of the water, the young healer knew from their actions that her squad-mate was still alive. By the time they had made their way back to the ship, Yoshika had already made her decision.
“Holloway-chan, I need to get to the sickbay. I’ll find someone to run shield interference for you. Will you be alright in the meantime?”
“No problem Sergeant Miyafuji,” Emily assured her. “I’ll be okay. Go help your friend. Thank you for saving me.”
Yoshika nodded in acknowledgment and dashed off to find an Akane Witch to provide cover for the spatial distorter. After that task had been accomplished, she raced below decks towards the medical unit. It did not even occur to her that she had completely forgotten about her own injury…there was simply too much to do. She was needed, and that was the only thought that now occupied her mind as she slid down the railing of the stairwell leading to deck 2 and rounded the corner towards the medical bay.
A gaggle of nurses and interns were startled by the sound of the doors to the sickbay slamming open.
“Lieutenant Juutilainen! Where is she?”
The head nurse was about to scold the stranger for bursting in like that, until she saw the stern, serious expression on the girl’s face and thought the better of it. Instead, she pointed to the double doors in the back of the cabin that led to the operating theater. Yoshika wasted no time rushing in to find her injured squad-mate, who was already on the table.
Major Lance Kessler, Akane’s lead surgeon, realized immediately that the girl in the Fuso seifuku wasn’t a member of the crew. He was therefore puzzled by the fact he recognized her from somewhere. Then it came to him. The passengers the admiral had picked up on the way here. She was a member of the 501st Joint Fighter Wing — the famous Strike Witches. And since she was here in sickbay, he quickly figured out her identity.
“You’re Yoshika Miyafuji, aren’t you?”
He received a curt nod in response.
“Your reputation precedes you Sergeant. I have her internals under control but I’d very much appreciate you giving me a hand with her burns. They’re rather severe. Your power could accelerate her healing and reduce the risk of vascular infection.”
“Yes, sir,” Yoshika responded seriously. “That’s why I’m here, sir.”
“Very good. Go wash up then. Nurse, please get Miss Miyafuji a set of scrubs.”
The young Fuso healer hurried into the ready room to use the sterilization station, finishing up just as an intern brought her the requested clothing. Quickly donning the medical-green scrubs, she wasted no time in reaching Eila’s side. The Suomus pilot was still conscious and managed a weak smile when she recognized who had taken her hand.
“Hey Yoshika. How are you? Are you feeling better?”
“Eila-san!” Yoshika replied with an incredulous tone. “I’m fine. You’re the one I’m worried about. Are you in a lot of pain right now?”
“Nothing I can’t handle. Whatever they shot me up with relived the worst of it. Sure, it hurts like Hell, but it’s nowhere near as bad as it looks,” Eila reassured her. “Plus, I’m really not worried now that you’re here. You’ll fix me up good as new, right?”
“I’ll do my best,” Yoshika assured her.
“Well, there you go then. Besides, I think I’d know if I were going to die, right?” She began chuckling lightly, but it deteriorated into a gurgling cough.
“Ne, Eila-san, just lie quietly and let me work.”
Yoshika invoked her power, but before she could begin she suddenly balked as her subconscious screamed at her to not open her mind, to not leave herself vulnerable. Her eyes widened in disbelief.
"No! I can’t hesitate. I have to help her. That…that won’t happen again. Not here.”
Eila could read the struggle on the younger girls face. “Yoshika, don’t push yourself, please! I understand. It’s okay. I know you had a really rough time. Don’t hurt yourself anymore for my sake.”
Small fists clenched in determination. “I can’t let fear rule me. I won’t let it.”
She countered Eila’s concerned look with a confident smile.
“I’m fine. Don’t worry. I’ll get you fixed up right away.”
A nurse approached with a raised stool, which would allow Yoshika to sit during the lengthy procedure and still reach her patient without having to strain. Now fully settled in, she prepared to get to work.
“Eila-san gomenasai. This is going to be a bit uncomfortable for you.”
“Get ready for more pain, huh?”
“Well, no. But as your skin begins to grow back, you are going to get really, really itchy. It would probably help to try to keep your mind on something else while I’m doing that.”
Yoshika went silent as she applied herself to the task at hand. Eila laid quietly and allowed her friend to do her thing. In the sudden silence of the operating room, the sounds of the battle seemed amplified tenfold. There was a loud explosion above them and to starboard, jarring the massive destroyer. The sudden peal of emergency alarms indicated that a shell fired from Dunkirk must have gotten through the shield wall and impacted on Akane’s upper deck.
Yoshika seemed unaware of it and Eila tried her best to just ignore it.
A tremor ran through the entire ship as a tremendous explosion sounded from the starboard side.
“Noboru, what just happened?” Briggs barked.
“The shields were breached. We’ve been taking a lot of hits…our girls are getting tired,” the Fuso admiral answered, leaning forward to rest his weight on his knuckles as he tried to see as much as possible from his vantage point. “Not counting the twins, we only have nine Witches to provide shields — and they’ve all been going non-stop since this engagement started.”
There were hits from five more shells, one of which again made it through the shields. Once more the carrier rocked with the impact.
Briggs frowned. “Where the hell is that backup we were promised?” Squinting his eyes, he looked eastward out at the empty expanse. “Come on, Hollister,” he muttered under his breath. “You need to shag ass.”
Minna saw the volley from Dunkirk break through Akane’s defensive shields. Those ship girls wouldn’t have the stamina of Witches who fought on the front lines and pushed themselves to their limits on a regular basis. This was a battle of attrition and they couldn’t afford to lose any more ground.
“We’re going about this wrong. I made a mistake. We’re already down two squad-members and Akane has lost three. We can’t take them on all at once. It just won’t work.” She quickly reassessed her battle strategy. “We need to eliminate their weakest players first and then focus everything we’ve got on the real threat.”
One of the reasons Minna Wilcke was such an effective strategist was the fact that, when she made a decision, she didn’t second-guess it. But if something wasn’t working, she wouldn’t hesitate to scrap it and start afresh. She had split Akane’s six remaining fighters into two groups, three assisting the 501st with the enemy fighter planes, the other three continuously harassing Dunkirk. The Karlslandian commander had forbidden any of the Akane pilots from engaging the MAGI, unless left with no other choice.
Brigadier Briggs had given the Strike Witches commander full authority over the troops in the field, and a mandate to conduct the battle as she saw fit. She intended to make full use of the resources she had at hand. What she had in mind was, admittedly, a bit of a gamble, but when The House holds the stronger hand, a risky play is often the only logical choice. This plan would potentially leave Akane vulnerable but, if it worked, the ship would only be vulnerable for a short time.
“Attention, everyone!” Minna announced, “We’re going to shake things up a bit. First order of business, Akane is losing starboard shield integrity. Ensign Lucchini, you’re closest. Get over there and give them air support and shield reinforcement. Stay with them until you receive further orders.”
“Roger that!” the Romagnan ace responded brightly, immediately peeling off to her new assignment.
“Blue 2, 5 and 12, break off your engagement with Dunkirk and rendezvous with your mates in the lane. Yeager, Bishop, Mallory and Litvyak get over there and join them,” Minna instructed, “All of you are to clear the airspace around Akane and give Lucchini room to work. Captain Yeager is in command. Focus on bringing down or damaging Dunkirk’s fighters. Give it all you’ve got. The rest of us will keep the MAGI at bay until your task is done. If we can eliminate the aircraft from the equation, we may have a fighting chance. It’s going to take every single one of us to shut those mecha down.”
Charlotte and the rest rushed to support Blue squad, while Minna joined Mio, Gertrude, Erica and Perrine in facing the MAGI. They hovered in place, waiting for their leader to join them.
“All right, listen. I don’t want any of you going in too hard, or trying to do it all on your own,” Minna told them. “Our purpose is to keep them busy and distracted until those planes are eliminated. Once that’s done we will attack those mechanized nightmares, en masse.”
Although she was addressing them all, everybody knew she was talking to Gertrude in particular. The heavy-hitting Karlslandian girl tended to get a bit carried away in the heat of battle and their goal, at the moment, was to simply run interference.
Akane’s barrage was being intercepted by one of the MAGI units, performing for Dunkirk the same function the ship-bound Witches were for Akane; blocking any incoming fire from hitting. Therefore, a more concentrated barrage on Dunkirk should help keep that MAGI’s attention elsewhere as well.
“Admiral, could you have your gun batteries step up their firing rate a bit? I have a group tasked with eliminating the enemy planes and we want to keep the MAGI as busy as possible. Also, one of mine is joining your shield unit for reinforcement and defense.”
“Very good, Commander Wilcke,” Nishimura responded, “Just give the word.”
Taking one more look at the battlefield, she nodded to herself in satisfaction. “Admiral, the word is given.”
It was hard to judge the effectiveness of the new strategy immediately. The opposing pilots were good, so there was a continuous dogfight going on in the lane, with neither side scoring any effective hits. Minna and her crew were keeping two of the MAGI at bay, but the third — the one keeping position close to Dunkirk — was out of their effective reach. And in-between intercepting the volleys from Akane, the mecha had time to lob potshots at Akane’s fighters.
Minna knew that eventually those random shots would find a target and, sure enough, she had no sooner thought it than it became reality. There was a gap in the barrage and the MAGI had time to let loose with two mighty particle beam blasts, both of them finding their mark. But the result was different from the damage inflicted earlier in the battle.
The wing of one fighter crumpled out of shape — as if it had hit a solid object — but it didn’t vaporize. The same with the second downed plane. The nose of the aircraft had taken a solid blow and the propeller was mangled, but still in material existence.
“They have a range limit!” Minna noted with interest. It didn’t mean anything at the moment, but it was good to know at any rate. A crackle of static alerted her to an incoming transmission.
“Commander, I need to do something about that maverick or else all our guys are gonna get knocked outta the game. Permission?”
“As you see fit, Shirley,” she acknowledged.
“Sanya, Lynne, GO!” Charlotte immediately ordered. “Remember, you both have ranged weapons for a reason. Keep your distance. Just keep the damn thing too busy to hit any more of our fighters.”
After seeing those two off on their assigned task, she turned her attention back to the engagement before her, only to see that one of the six enemy aircraft had broken off from the others and was heading straight for the under-siege Akane.
“We got one running off the range, people. Be more aware of your surroundings,” Charlotte admonished. “Mallory, take care of it.”
“Ah’m on it, ma’am,” Vince responded.
He broke off from the rest and gave chase, kicking himself for not noticing the enemy combatant break off the engagement. The other plane had a healthy lead on him. There was no way he was going to get into firing range in time.
“Dammit dammit dammit dammit dammit!”
Speed. He needed more speed. How could he get…?
His eyes fell on the control cluster and inspiration struck. The throttles had manual verniers — he could adjust the fuel/air ratio manually! He cranked the dial to the right, enriching the fuel mix. The result was immediate. The roar of the engine grew louder and throatier as the plane surged forward, its structure beginning to vibrate and the engine producing a loud piston knock. That was to be expected. More importantly, the distance between the two aircraft began to close noticeably.
He was almost in firing range. So close…but not close enough. The enemy was going to get there first. In frustration, he let loose with a salvo anyway and, surprisingly, actually pinged the rudder. The enemy pilot immediately took evasive action. As Vince closed the gap he fired a continuous stream, hoping beyond hope to actually do some damage. He ignored the warning buzzer until, finally, the guns overheated. He watched in helpless disbelief as the enemy plane swerved and started diving full speed directly at Akane’s command tower.
“Omagod! He’s really gonna…?”
Through the main window, one of the Optimal Order fighter planes could be seen barreling straight towards the bridge, showing no signs of veering off.
"Everyone down!” one of the command officers shouted.
The pilot was making a kamikaze run. Getting down would not make one damn bit of difference. Everyone there on the bridge was going to die. The old brigadier’s final thought was not regret at his death, but regret that he would be unable to stop the wave of oppression that would engulf the world at their loss.
The sound of the tremendous explosion coincided with a huge ball of fire that lit everything on the bridge brighter than daylight. As the sound died out, Briggs opened his eyes in wonder. He was still alive. They all were. What the hell had just happened?
Hovering before them, outside the pane of still-intact glass, was a vision in black pig-tails and teal striped panties. Flaming bits of fuel-soaked debris from the attacking aircraft slid down the suddenly-manifested shield to drop into the ocean below. The bridge crew erupted in cheers as the tiny Romagnan ace turned to face them, giving them a cocky grin and flashing a peace sign.
The second plane came out of nowhere…
Vince smiled in satisfaction seeing the kamikaze run brought to an abrupt end by the sudden appearance of the twin-tailed terror.
“She is the coolest!” he laughed to himself, bringing the nose of his plane up into an inverse loop. As he began his ascent he noticed, for the first time, that an enemy aircraft had been tailing him. But it wasn’t following him now. It was heading straight for Francesca. And her back was turned. She was completely unaware of it.
“Lucchini!” he shouted, too late.
The whole thing played out in slow motion. The flares from the tracers, the bullets ripping into Francesca’s body, the smoke from her damaged Strikers curling upward as she plunged into the water. Hot angry tears came unbidden as he brought himself around to engage the bastard that just shot his friend from behind. Squeezing the triggers, he once more heard the empty click of the contacts, but no gunfire. A glance at the gauge told him…the guns were still overheated!
Through the clear canopy, Vince could see the enemy pilot laughing. Laughing! The young southerner could hardly believe it was possible to feel the intense amount of hatred that swept over him like a dark tidal wave.
“Laugh at this ya sum’bitch!” he snarled, diving on a collision course with the enemy fighter and ejecting at the last second. The wind bit his ’chute and yanked him above the resulting explosion. He watched with cold satisfaction as the Mosquito impacted with the enemy plane. A couple of jagged hunks of flaming metal whizzed by, chewing large holes in the parachute. The young pilot dropped like an anvil.
He did as he was trained, hitting the water feet first, in as straight an angle as he could manage. It still felt like jumping from a third floor balcony and hitting concrete. If he lived through this, every bit of him was going to ache for days. Letting his training take over, reacting by rote, he halted his downward plunge and rose to the surface in short order. No need to panic…there were spotters, so there would be a rescue boat before long. He just had to stay afloat.
Looking around as he waited, the Liberion pilot noticed that the battle seemed less frantic. Spotting the group he had been with earlier, he noted that the four remaining enemy aircraft were in retreat. Captain Yeager wasn’t having the squad pursue. He wasn’t sure if that was good or bad. It did seem like the shelling from the Dunkirk had lessened, as well.
But it didn’t make any sense. They certainly didn’t have the upper hand. If anything, they were on the defensive right now. So why…
He was jarred from those thoughts by the arrival of the rescue boat. A lot quicker than expected, he thought to himself, until he saw they already had a passenger on board. “And she’s alive!” he noted thankfully, as he was hauled onto the deck.
“Hey, you big dummy,” Francesca called out as Vince fell onto the deck in a heap, coughing water out of his lungs. “What the hell was that supposed to be?”
Rolling on his back, Vince turned his head to face her and managed a weak grin. “Sis! You okay?”
“Do I look okay?” the tiny Romagnan responded sardonically.
“Nope,” he replied honestly, taking in her injuries.
The tiny ace’s slender torso was swathed in white medical tape. Even so, a slight amount of blood seeped through on the left side and around her abdomen. Her left arm was wrapped as well, and slung, as she had broken her arm when she hit the water. But the worst damage was her left leg. The Striker unit was heavily chewed up and it remained on her, whereas the right leg unit had been removed.
“They might have to cut it off,” Francesca stated sadly, seeing Vince eyeing the damage.
Vince sat bolt upright. “Yer leg?” he gasped loudly.
“What? No! The Striker.”
“Oh! Well that’s good,” he sighed in relief. “Jeez, Louise.”
“So?” Francesca pressed once again. “What was with the whole ‘crashing your plane into another plane’ thing?”
“Ma guns were overheated, so ah jus’ used what ah had at hand,” he answered in embarrassment. His grin gave way to a more serious look and he sighed heavily.
“Ah’m sorry, sis. Ah didn’ see ’im get up b’hind me ’til it was too late.”
“Don’t stress about it.” Francesca assured him. “He came out of nowhere. Besides, I guess you got him pretty good there, huh?”
“Yeah,” Vince answered quietly. “Yeah, I got ’im.”
The young Liberion didn’t really know how to feel right now. He had taken a person's life. Yes, it had been in battle and had been necessary. The enemy pilot would have surely killed him, or else continued the battle and killed someone else. But that was all rationalization. In the end, he knew his true motive. Anger. Anger and revenge. He didn’t necessarily regret it, but it was not something he intended to get used to.
Seeming to sense his thoughts, Francesca leaned over and placed her hand on his shoulder, giving it a reassuring squeeze. “Hey, Vince. Thank you,” she told him sincerely. “Really. Thanks.”