---- September 5, 1943
---- Capel-le-Ferne Airbase, Folkestone - Britannia
---- Great Hall: 21:40 hours
Wing Commander Minna-Dietlinde Wilcke was feeling uneasy in the presence of so many Military Medals and Epaulets. Having a half dozen top brass from the Air Ministry milling around her base set her teeth on edge. The fact that they brought a cadre of civilian press photographers and reporters thrilled her even less.
Minna walked into the main hall where a catered buffet had been set up for the VIP and the Press Corps. She knew most of the Command staff by sight, the rest by reputation. Air Marshall Bader and AOC Keith Park – both of whom she saw on a regular basis – were chatting amiably with her friend and second-in-command, Mio Sakamoto, and an older man with iron-grey sideburns, moustache and overloaded epaulettes. That had to be Brigadier-General D.W. Briggs.
The Strike Witches CO also noted the presence of General Trevor Maloney. That was rather surprising. The last Minna had heard, he had been stationed in Liberion. 'On-loan' to the U.S.A.A.F. Central Command Group in Norfolk, Virginia. She had met the man on two separate occasions and found him to be a thoroughly unpleasant individual.
So, almost all the players were here and she was still in the damn dark as to what exactly was going to take place here tomorrow. The most she could get out of Commander Park was "Don't worry. You're going to love it, trust me."
| **** ****
As a rule, mission briefings for the 12th Air Group (of which, the 501st Joint Fighter Wing was a part), took place at RAF Watnall. Earlier that week, Watnall had phoned and informed Minna that this weeks mission briefing would take place there, at Capel-le-Ferne.
She was ordered to provide overnight accommodations for six members of the Command Staff, three pilots and barracks for twelve members of the civilian press corps. Also, she was told to clear out one hanger bay and assign security. Pressed for more details she was simply told, "I'm sorry, ma'am. Classified Deep Blue by OCC. The Air Marshall will give you the details in person when he arrives."
Frustrated, she had contacted her friend Jane Thach, commander of the 508th JFW, to see if she had heard anything at all about the change in venue. It turned out she hadn't. And had only been told that same morning that the 12th Air Group's briefing was to be held at Capel-le-Ferne this week.
Minna knew the other WC's in the 12th would also be out of the loop so she just left it alone. Showing any anger at the situation would be counter-productive. By her nature though, she couldn't help laying out probable scenarios.
You don't call together one-third of the Allied Command Staff and a dozen reporters for a 'mission briefing'. Factoring in the pilots, the hanger request and security detail one could take a pretty educated guess. A new aircraft design. Or some new kind of weapon. It would have to be something radically new to warrant both this level of secrecy and the level of hype implied by the presence of the press.
Minna was aware that an upgraded Striker model, the Jet Striker, had been in the planning stages for some time - although actual development was hitting some snags. So it couldn't be that.
"Curiouser and curiouser, cried Alice..." she thought to herself.
**** **** |
A rushing murmur near the main doors signaled the rest of the circus finally arrived. Minna gestured to Mio. The Major disengaged herself from the conversation she was in and moved to the side of the room to stand at ease beside her Commander, hands clasped behind her.
“What's up Minna?“ she questioned the younger girl informally, calmly surveying the room.
“Do me a favor and take care of the small-fry that just came in will you?” the Karlslandian answered quietly, gesturing towards the door. “I have to go deal with Bader before he pops his buttons. He wants to introduce me to his boss apparently.”
Mio gave an affirmative nod. “Will do.”
Air Marshall Bader saw Minna approach and waved her over towards the group. "Commander Wilcke come over and meet General Briggs."
Grimacing inwardly, she put on her most professional smile and strode over to the buffet table, holding out her hand in greeting as she approached.
"General Briggs. A pleasure to meet you, sir."
The Brigadier took her hand and gave her a warm and genuine smile. "The pleasure is all mine Commander Wilcke. The 501st has shown some impressive combat statistics. And many in OCC hold you up as an example of how a CO should lead. You should feel quite proud of your unit. You've done a fine job."
"Thank you, sir. I appreciate it." Minna answered, somewhat bemused by the older man's upbeat demeanor.
"Actually Commander," he continued "we have met once before. Although you may not remember. It was a pretty big night for you I believe."
"My wife and I were vacationing in Vienna three years ago and we just happened to attend the Vienna Philharmonic during the Student Guest Soloist series. You performed the most evocative and moving rendition of 'La Clemenza di Tito' I've ever had the pleasure to witness." the General enthused. "We simply could not believe such a clear and powerful voice came out of a 15 year-old girl."
The Brigadier looked a bit sheepish as he continued, "My wife insisted that I arrange a backstage meeting with you, and…"
"Oh, my god." Minna yelped. "Blonde hair? Mauve dress with a white collar? You were vacationing from Cardiff. She kept hugging me and picking me up off the ground shouting 'Bravissimo'!"
"Yes." the he chuckled "That's my Marjorie."
"And you," grinned Minna, narrowing her eyes accusingly "didn't have a moustache then."
"I believe the moustache gives me an air of authority…" Briggs answered mischievously "…although Marjorie once told me it makes me look like a walrus."
Minna took on a serious look. "And your wife? I mean… Cardiff… Is she…?"
"What? Oh! Oh no, she's quite well, thank you." Briggs said happily. "I sent her to stay with her sister's family in Birmingham long before Cardiff was hit, thank god. She'll be tickled pink when I tell her I got to meet you again."
Minna couldn't help but grin. The man's genial nature was infectious. He leaned in close and whispered conspiratorially, "Errr… do you think, before I leave, I might possibly be able to get your autograph for her."
"General Briggs, it would be my pleasure." Minna answered sincerely.
Briggs straightened and continued in a normal voice. "So, after this war is won, will you be returning to your vocation? Will you continue to sing?"
The question startled her for an instant. A scant two weeks earlier she would have given this man a completely different answer. But she had finally laid those ghosts to rest. She already knew she would return to the stage.
"Absolutely, sir. I still have a lot I want to accomplish, after all."
The Brigadier appeared satisfied with her answer. "Well, Commander, I suppose I should let you go." He rolled his eyes to the right. "It appears that someone is desperately trying to get your attention. I'll leave you to it."
Taking a step back, he bowed courteously. "I wish you a pleasant evening."
"And you as well, sir. Thank you."
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Of course she had noticed General Maloney. He had spent the entire evening hovering around the periphery of the party, shuffling his feet impatiently and giving her the occasional glare. She had simply ignored him.
Beyond the petty feeling of satisfaction she got from making him wait, the conversation she just had with General Briggs had buoyed her spirits considerably. It was good to be reminded that all this was just a detour in her performance schedule.
Unlike Major Sakamoto or Lieutenant Barkhorn, Minna was not career military. She didn't care about promotion. She had no taste for the politics of the front office. Her only concern was taking care of her people until the job was done. Making sure they were kept safe… that they would come home alive. She couldn't do that if she wasn't on top of things.
Suddenly, she was as eager to confront Maloney as she had been dreading it earlier. She would find out what was happening on her own base. Time, as the Liberions liked to say, to grab the bull by the horns. She squared her shoulders and waded in.
“General Maloney. You wanted to speak with me, sir?”
“I do indeed Commander.” the General answered. “I think it's high time you were let in on what we are going to be doing here tomorrow. Please excuse yourself and meet me at the hanger you reserved for us. I will explain everything to you there.” With that, the man spun on his heel and made for the exit. Mio approached from behind as soon as she saw Minna was free again.
“So, what's his deal?” she grinned “Bitching because the floor doesn't have a military polish?”
“No.” Minna mused. “I think I finally got invited to see just what the hell is going on.”
Mio arched an eyebrow. “Oh? When is this happening?”
Minna glanced around the room and saw that everyone was occupied. “Right now apparently.” Turning to her subordinate, she gave a wry grin. “And you're coming with me. Think you can tear yourself away from kissing brass?”
“Try and stop me.” Mio answered seriously.
The two made their way to the periphery of the gathering and discreetly slipped out of the room.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Approaching the hanger, they saw the guard on duty stand aside, allowing the two Witches to pass. In the center of the open space were three gigantic packing crates. A small cluster of people stood to one side, deep in conversation. In the semi-darkness of the hanger, the crates loomed over Minna and Mio like featureless monoliths. They had to be well over 12 feet in height.
"Commander Wilcke, I don't believe my invitation extended to Major Sakamoto." Minna didn't bother to look at Maloney as she answered. She continued eyeing the massive shipping crates. "If it concerns me it concerns my second."
The General chose to drop the issue. Gesturing to three of the Army grunts standing by the far right-hand crate, they cracked the seal and the front panel slammed to the ground. Contained within was what appeared, at first glance, to be an oversized suit of armor. The combination of the moonlight streaming in through the open hanger doors and the dim 60-watt emergency lighting above them gave the armor a sickly yellowish-grey cast.
It was the smoothness of the angles and the octagonal scaling on the armor that tripped a trigger in the girls' minds. They both jumped back a step, taking a defensive stance and invoking their spirit animals without a moments thought.
An instinctive reaction even though they knew, intellectually, that what they were looking at couldn't possibly be what they thought it was.
"Stand down, ladies.” Maloney barked gruffly. “These are not Neuroi." He gestured for Mio to put away her weapon. Mio looked to Minna for confirmation. The Karlsland girl gave her friend an almost imperceptible nod. Only then did Mio sheathe her katana.
"What you are looking at…" the General continued, ignoring being ignored. "… is the next step in combat weaponry. A powered battle-suit. A manned suit of armor that has flight capability, on-board weaponry and regenerative plating. All adapted from researching and reverse-engineering captured Neuroi technology."
The man's jaw didn't even twitch as he delivered that last half-truth.
"Witches can only do so much, right?” the General continued. “You guys have needed help in the front lines from the very beginning. Now we can finally give it to you."
"That's all well and good." Minna answered carefully "But what's with this late night skullduggery and a press corps that doesn't even know what story they'll be covering?" A frown marred her features. "I would at least expect to be informed ahead of time when classified weaponry is being brought onto my base."
"The 'skullduggery' as you call it, is mostly because up until three days ago this project technically didn't exist." Maloney answered honestly. "The press coverage is because, frankly, public moral is at it's lowest. We need a shot in the arm to let the people know that we can fight back, that we can win this war. And we are hoping Commander... I am hoping... that you can help us to do just that."
---- September 6, 1943
---- Capel-le-Ferne Airbase, Folkestone - Britannia
---- Main Briefing Room: 16:00 hours
"These are the three gentlemen who will be piloting the MAGUS armor." Minna told the assembled unit. She gestured to the first man on the left. A slender, dark haired man with an easy smile. "Pilot William Fiske."
"Call me Bill. Nice to meet you ladies."
The man in the center was rather short and blocky by comparison, with red hair and a ruddy complexion. He simply nodded tersely when introduced. "Lieutenant Padric Hughes."
"And finally, " Minna concluded "Pilot Vincent Mallory." The youngest of the three grinned, his tousled brown hair falling into his eyes. "Howdy girls. Pleasure t'meet ch'all."
"I have chosen our three best combat pilots to help put on this aerial display for the Press Corps. Lieutenants' Barkhorn and Yeager, along with 2nd Lt. Hartmann, will engage in four 15 minute mock battles with the MAGUS Squad. The objective is to show off the MAGUS' speed, maneuverability and firepower."
Minna fixed her gaze on the aforementioned Witches. "I expect you to put them through the wringer. No holding back. I have been assured that they will perform accordingly."
Gertrude Barkhorn narrowed her eyes menacingly and grinned. "Not a problem."
~~ somewhat later ~~
The mock combat/photo op was over. The three Striker pilots were sitting on their staging areas, still panting with exertion. "Holy…" gasped Charlotte "what the hell was that?"
"They *gasp* were very *gasp* impressive." Gertrude wheezed.
"Impressive?" griped Erica "They toasted our asses. If those matches didn't have a time limit, we would have lost every one."
"Yeager, is what I heard true?” Gertrude asked with an incredulous tone. “They're using pieces of a Neuroi core to power those things? How in god's name is that not a bad idea?"
"The Major looked them over with her sight. She saw electron dispersal patterns but no visual evidence of Neuroi resonance." Charlotte answered seriously. "Sanya couldn't hear a Neuroi presence either. Still…"
"… ... look, Sanya's and my powers work differently. Well, obviously. But I mean the hearing aspect. When Sanya 'hears' a Neuroi presence she is 'hearing' a disturbance in the electromagnetic spectrum." Charlotte had unconsciously took up a lecturing pose as she tried to explain her misgivings. "I hear the Neuroi presence, the 'resonance' as well, but I can actually hear it… audibly. It's pitched in the lower hypersonic frequencies and I can easily hear it because of my spirit animal."
Gertrude raised an eyebrow. "And you can hear something from those core pieces?"
"No… yes… no… arrgh. How do I explain? Oh! I know! You've used shortwave radio before, right? When you run up the dial you hit static then a station then more static then a station?"
The Karlsland ace nodded in the affirmative.
"Well," Charlotte continued "you know how sometimes you run into absolute silence? You can feel an absence of sound… like a hole or tunnel waiting to be filled with noise? Like dead air?” Another nod from Gertrude. “That's called an 'open carrier'. The frequency is active but not in use. When I focused on those MAGUS suits that's the impression I got. Dead air."
"Did you tell anyone?"
"Of course. I told Major Sakamoto. She said she'd inform Commander Wilcke of my observation." Charlotte chuckled "And she said if it means anything, we'll probably find out sooner than we want and at the worst possible moment."
"Her mouth to God's ear." Gertrude quipped.
~ ...to be continued ~