Chapter 1 – Tomoko's Distress
“Ooy! Tomoko! Yesterday was so hectic wasn't it?”
The person calling out like that as she entered the dining hall with a huge smile on her face, was Pilot Officer Katherine O'Hare. Walking beside her; silently absorbed in a book, was the figure of Flight Sergeant Ursula Hartmann.
They were stationed at Kauhava Airbase in Suomus. Just last week, Tomoko and the members of the Independent Volunteer Air squadron, along with Flight Lieutenant Ahonen's 1st Squadron, and Flight Lieutenant Rudel's dive-bombing squadron, had collaborated to fight back the Neuroi force advancing across the national border. Thus re-capturing this airbase.
Situated near the town of Slussen, the base had now become an important spot for intercepting the Neuroi. Since recovering both Slussen and Kauhava Airbase, the Neuroi's offensives had weakened in intensity.
There was still an air-raid practically every day, but the number of invading aircraft did not exceed half of what they were last month.
Accordingly, the squadrons stationed at Kauhava were steadily increasing their military achievements, but...
“What's wrong Tomoko?”
Katherine stared into Tomoko's face with a concerned expression. It wouldn't take a well endowed, blond Liberion girl to point out that Tomoko's face was lacking in radiance.
From behind her sleek black hair, cut off neatly at different levels; her beautiful narrow eyes just gazed out blankly. A beautiful girl by any standards, but her perfectly proportioned face; every part that of a Fusan doll, was motionless as if frozen.
Her Khaki coloured military clothes were missing a button from one sleeve, and having not been brushed off in a while; looked quiet tatty. For Tomoko; who usually maintained a sharp image, this was a rare lapse in her appearance.
It was like she had suddenly aged inside.
“You shot down seven aircraft by yourself yesterday, aren't you even a little bit pleased~?”
Katherine clapped Tomoko on the shoulder. With that, Tomoko finally raised her face as if she had only just noticed Katherine was there.
“Ah, good morning Katherine.”
Tomoko let out a deep sigh.
“Did you already eat breakfast?”
Katherine was surprised. Even though Tomoko had gone the dining hall first thing in the morning, she had still not eaten breakfast.
What on earth is bothering her... Ah, I see~ That whole Itokawa incident must be having a lasting effect, Katherine guessed.
A young engineer had personally come from Tomoko's homeland; the Fuso Empire, to deliver the latest model of Striker Unit.
At first she opposed the Ki-44, and seemed to despise her new assistant, but due to her inexperience with love she was eventually entranced by him.
Consequently Tomoko and Itokawa became quite close... the goddess of fate however, was extremely cruel to them on this occasion.
In short; Itokawa turned out to be a woman.
Sweeping through like a hurricane, Tomoko then dragged everyone away from the celebrations for Slussen's recovery to conduct a night of demon-training. However... even devoting herself to training wouldn't mitigate the pain of her broken heart.
There was no mistaking that Tomoko's heart had been crushed by the failure of her first love.
Katherine held the utmost sympathy for her.
“It certainly was a shock wasn't it~, to think that Itokawa was actually a girl~. Well she's returned to Fuso now, so you can quickly forget her and find your next love right?”
But Tomoko just shook her head resolutely.
“I don't care about that anymore. Affection, and love; this just isn't the place to be thinking about those kinds of things. We're in the middle of a war here.” Tomoko replied with a momentary gleam of severity in her eyes.
“Hmmm?” Katherine stared at Tomoko.
Tomoko put her head in her hands and shook it from side to side.
It seemed that Tomoko was grappling with troubles other than a failed love and a broken heart.
“There's no two ways about it then, I'll go fetch breakfast for my commanding officer when she's feeling little bit down.” Katherine got up and headed for the counter.
The scars of the Neuroi occupation were still fresh, so usable buildings at Kauhava Airbase were practically non-existent. This dining hall was originally just a warehouse. Some tables had been set out, and an improvised serving counter installed. There were no special arrangements for officers, so everyone ate their meals together. Consequently, the cramped little warehouse was packed with soldiers from around the base, and in a state of extreme commotion.
After standing in line for a little while, Katherine received their plates and returned to the table.
“Bean soup again~ I want to eat crispy grilled bacon with scrambled eggs~” Katherine moaned while she placed Tomoko's breakfast in front of her.
But Tomoko didn't seem like she was ready to eat.
“You have to eat, your body won't last if you don't 'k~”
Despite the prompts, Tomoko just absent-mindedly stared on, lost in her thoughts.
At that point, Pilot Officer Beurling and Flying Officer Elma walked in side by side, followed by Haruka. Tomoko's brow furrowed, and her shoulders gradually began to shake.
“Oh, everyone's here together now~”
Smiling brightly, her pale golden hair swaying, F/O Elma laughed cheerfully. Beurling wore her usual expressionless face, and just walked off towards the counter in place of a morning greeting.
Haruka looked in Tomoko's direction, and gave her a small meaningful smile. The trembling of Tomoko's shoulders became much more pronounced.
While eating breakfast, conversation was entirely focused on yesterdays interception mission;
“But Flying Officer Elma, your marksmanship has also become really good hasn't it~. Yesterday you took down two Laros-kai!” Katherine praised, making F/O Elma squirm bashfully.
“It was all thanks to Pilot Officer Beurling's backing. Because she protected my back the whole time...”
“And because she took down four enemies while providing covering fire for Flying Officer Elma, Beurling's got to be a master on the same level as Tomoko right~”
“I just used the Flying Officer as a lure.” Beurling said flatly. But her initially icy mood had now melted away.
Next Katherine started stroking Ursula's head while she silently ate a slice of bread.
“Ursula too, you did really well yesterday~ you shot down three Neuroi didn't you~”
“Pilot officer Katherine too! You took down two Laros-kai!”
“No, no, it was just the one~. But I'm really happy. At last my marksmanship is improving~.”
“Everyone did well and improved their shoot down count yesterday. Hh!”
Elma suddenly gasped, and looked towards Haruka.
In yesterday's interception mission, Haruka was the only person to not shoot down a single enemy fighter.
“H, Haruka, you just had bad luck yesterday... It was just one of those days...” F/O Elma said, trying to smooth it over.
“Your such a nice girl Flying Officer Elma~”
“It's hopeless. Positioning, manoeuvring, marksmanship, they were all guesswork. With those methods, there's nothing you'll be able to do unless the enemy goes out of its way to come over and let you shoot it.” Beurling said calmly.
“Beurling... you, really know how to put things clearly~” Katherine sighed.
However, Haruka didn't seem to care about that severe assessment, she just stared at Tomoko enthusiastically.
With a small cough, Katherine clapped Haruka on the shoulder;
“Well, eventually a praiseworthy enemy will come rushing out in front of Haruka.”
Thereupon Haruka raised a finger with a triumphant look on her face.
“Don't worry, because I actually raised my shoot down count by six yesterday.”
“Eh? What do you mean~?”
Katherine's eyes widened. Recalling yesterday's battle, she couldn't remember Haruka having shot down a single enemy fighter. Haruka had been flitting about directly behind Tomoko the whole time...
By anyone's standards, Tomoko was a dogfighting expert. Until replacement Strikers arrived, the Independent Volunteer Squadron were borrowing some reserve Messersharf. Tomoko had mastered them in a flash, and was shooting down enemy aircraft one after another in no time. A chance for her wingman to score a hit did not even present itself.
Despite that, she shot down six Neuroi? How is that possible?
Katherine stared blankly, Haruka grinned broadly back at her.
“Flying Officer Tomoko should know the details well...”
Tomoko's hands clenched tightly into a fists, she began shaking violently.
“Commanding Officer Tomoko, what is she talking about?” F/O Elma enquired.
For some reason, Tomoko's face was red. Haruka got up, and whispered in her ear;
“But that's our little secret, isn't it?”
Tomoko slammed her hands down on the table. Bright red up to her ears, she stood up and glared at Haruka with every fibre of her being.
“Y, y, y-y, youuuu... ”
Haruka patted Tomoko on the shoulder as if to parry her. Then;
“It was great!” She whispered just like a gigolo. In spite of being thirteen years old.
Tomoko seized Haruka by her lapels. With a blue vein surfacing upon her forehead, she lifted that small girl up in the air.
“Here, this, this little perverted-navyyyyy...”
“Oh my, Are you going to beat me~? It's ok. Please hit me! To be beaten by Flying Officer Tomoko is a long cherished ambition of mine...” Haruka said ecstatically.
Becoming aware of everyone in the dining hall staring at the two of them, Tomoko shakily unhanded Haruka.
The other members of the Independent Volunteer Air Squadron were also staring at those two in astonishment.
“Ex, excuse me,” Elma nervously raised her hand.
Under Tomoko's intense glowering, Elma let out a forced laugh, but continued with her enquiry all the same;
“Is that... umm, in the Fuso Empire, is being lovers a normal kind of female bonding?”
“It's normal.” Said Haruka.
“It's not normal” Tomoko yelled, once more slamming her fist down on the table.
“Hh!” F/O Elma drew back in fright.
“Right then! Everyone quietly eat breakfast. Henceforth, you are all ordered to remain silent on this matter. If anyone utters a word, you'll be court-martialed,” Tomoko said with a truly terrifying face, one hand resting upon the hilt of her military sword.
F/O Elma and Katherine nodded quickly with tense expressions. Only Haruka was meeting Tomoko's menacing glare with her own spellbound gaze.
“Got it? Haruka. If you say anything, it's a court-martial. Court. Martial. And there will only be one possible judgement. Got it?”
Tomoko patted the hilt of her beloved sword.
Haruka gave Tomoko a provocative smile, and picked up her mug. Assuming that she was going to drink from it however, would be incorrect. Stretching out her tongue, Haruka began to run it around the rim of the cup.
“...o, oy.” Tomoko began trembling once again.
Haruka gave a victorious smile, and stretched out her tongue towards the bottom of the cup.
Sitting next to her, Beurling commented;
“That's some surprising dexterity.”
“Thanks. That's how Tomoko was down six times last ni... gafhu!”
Haruka was not able to finish her sentence. In an explosion of rage, Tomoko had dealt her a magnificent uppercut.
“Y, youuuu... Next time you come sneaking into someone's bed; I'll kill you!”
“Huh? Then why didn't you resist at all?” Haruka asked while staggering to her feet.
“Th, that's...” Tomoko faltered.
Katherine's eyes were squinted;
“Your body's more honest right~” she said with a huge grin plastered on her face.
“Just say you've fallen for me, Flying Officer~”
With a demonic face, Tomoko unsheathed her beloved sword. The military forged Hizen Osafune glinted ominously, and the entire dining hall collapsed into panic.
“Tomoko! Calm down 'k!”
“Commanding officer Tomoko! That's dangerous! Really dangerous!”
While brandishing her military sword about with lethal swishing noises, Tomoko set off after the bolting Haruka.
“Stay right theeereeee! Today is the daaaaaaaay! This sword will finally be put to usssssse! On Yooooooouuu!”
Springing around just like a rabbit, Haruka did all she could to throw herself out of the path of the blade. But even then, she did not overlook an opportunity to provoke Tomoko.
“Your mouth is saying; no no, but your body is screaming; yes~♪”
At that moment the siren in the dining hall began wailing. Followed shortly by Squadron Leader Häkkinen's inflectionless voice coming from the speakers;
“Air raid warning. A Neuroi formation is advancing across the national border towards this base. Fighter squadrons are ordered to sortie immediately. Repeat; fighter squadrons are ordered to sortie immediately.”
With a frustrated expression, Tomoko froze in place.
In one quick motion, Tomoko returned her sword to its saya. The Independent Volunteer Air Squadron all turned to face her.
“We're going, everyone.”
Their expressions becoming serious in an instant, everyone stood up to leave.
The Strikers Units' engines were already warmed up before they had even reached the hanger. With assistance from the maintenance crew, the witches mounted their Karlsland-made Messersharf one after another. The Strikers that had been provided by each of their respective homelands had all been thoroughly shot to pieces in last month's operation to recapture Slussen.
To the sound of the wailing siren, the Independent Volunteer Air Squadron hurried out to the airfield, glided into position, and took off. They were airborne.
Operating the magic engine at full throttle, Tomoko began a steep climb.
She then tapped twice upon her throat microphone, and issued her orders to the rest of the squadron.
“Assemble into formation at three-thousand meters. Don't fall behind.”
“These Messersharf can really climb can't they~” Katherine said in admiration;
“...but like I thought, Strikers from the States are better~ Something this slender seems likely to break right away!”
“This is what we've got until the new replacements arrive.” Beurling said.
“But, why couldn't we have the same Strikers as the Suomus Air Force? If we had the same Messersharf as 1st Squadron, resupplying and maintenance would be easier wouldn't it... ” F/O Elma said, voicing her doubts.
“This is just something I overheard by chance, but it seems we're also serving as test pilots for a prototype Striker Unit.” Beurling said in her usual flat tone.
“Prototype Units?” Tomoko chimed in;
“...ah, well if you compare this place with the Karlsland war front, the scale is much smaller. It's a far more convenient place to test a prototype aircraft. If something were to go wrong, the losses would be smaller too.”
“But that's... they treat us awfully just because we're a rural area of northern Europe,” grumbled the Suomi; F/O Elma.
I see, last month we received newly produced weapons and aircraft from each of our homelands, could it also have been for that kind of reason?
Tomoko remembered Itokawa's face, and shook her head as if to throw off such thoughts.
Well, no matter what kind of aircraft I'm asked to pilot, I'll just do my very best with it.
Tomoko continued to be pushed towards the heights of the skies, by the industry-leader's much boasted of Messersharf.
The ascending power is tremendous, it even rivals the Ki-44... the rudder's a little idiosyncratic, but with a bit of practice I think it has the potential for some very sharp manoeuvring; a splendid Striker Unit.
There's probably no aircraft more suited to boom-and-zoom tactics than this one. As one would expect from the Karlsland aviation industry, it's their officially adopted style of combat after all.
But still, I'd prefer to fly a 'Ki' designated Striker.
The Messersharf are good aircraft... but precisely because this is a foreign battlefield, I want to show the world what we're capable of.
At an altitude of three-thousand meters, the Independent Volunteer Squadron assembled into formation. Tomoko immediately noticed that someone was missing.
“...Where's Haruka?” she muttered in irritation.
A flustered voice came through over the radio;
“Wai, wait for meeee~!”
Flying far below the formation, Haruka could be seen ascending slowly and unsteadily. Tomoko yelled out without a second thought;
“What do you think you're doing! The enemy will be coming in at that altitude!”
“It's just... What did you say about this Messersharf? I can't seem to get the hang of it... Augh!”
Haruka pushed the angle of attack too far, and stalled catastrophically. She successfully regained flight at an even lower altitude, sticking out her tongue in concentration.
“Haha, I messed up.”
“That's not something to laugh about! Jeez!”
“With no other choice, Tomoko dived down and seized Haruka by her hand.”
“Aah! Flying Officer Tomoko! You're so kind!” Haruka clung to Tomoko's hand with shining eyes.
“Whatever! Just come on!”
Tomoko ascended while holing Haruka's hand. Haruka simply held on, completely entranced.
The rest of the squadron stared on at the two of them in amazement.
“Flirting around like that before combat is a bad omen~”
As soon as Katherine said that, Tomoko started roaring; “Oy! You get off me right now!”
Haruka let go, but patted Tomoko on the butt as she did.
“Aah... such a good shape...”
Tomoko was on the verge of screaming at her, but this was the middle of an interception mission. Holding back the surge of rage, she just flew on towards the aerial battlefield at high speed.
When the projected point of enemy contact came into view, 1st Squadron had already cleared the threat. Today it seemed to be a small scale combination of fighters and bombers. The few remaining Laros-kai had fled at low altitude. 1st Squadron didn't bother to pursue, and reassembled their formation.
From the radio came the condescending voice of 1st Squadrons vanguard; F/L Ahonen.
“My my, Tomoko. Aren't you a little late?”
“Tsh... Sorry about that.”
“Well it's fine, because today's attack was insignificant. They're heading in the opposite direction from Slussen, so it seems they exhausted their strength and fled. Ohoho!” F/L Ahonen laughed. But after that her voice became a little colder. “However... to be delayed during an interception mission is a fatal mistake. You are using high speed Messersharf, but were still not in time for the interception? Wouldn't you say the problem lies with the command of said squadron? And that your promotion might have been a little early?”
Tomoko didn't respond, but her teeth were grinding in anger.
In the midst of the molar-creaking noises she was emitting, Tomoko suddenly spun round in surprise. With her mouth half open, Haruka had started rubbing Tomoko's butt in a circular motion. Tomoko couldn't believe it.
“Wh, what the hell are you trying to pull!”
“Hahaa~, with the enemy gone we have free time, so I though a bit of skinship... But truly! What an amazing form...”
“Get it together! Just whose fault do you think it was that we were late!”
Finally free to let her anger out, Tomoko flicked the safety of her machine gun into the 'fire' position. The 20mm MG motor-cannon's bold shots resounded across the sky. *Do-Do-Do-Do-Do-Do-Do!
“I'll be hit! I'll be hit I tell you! Flying Officer Tomoko!”
Tomoko vehemently pursued Haruka as she made a desperate bid for survival.
Looking on, most of the other members were convulsing with laughter. Because the enemy had been headed off once more, everyone could smile in relief for another day.
Beurling alone let out a sigh as she watched her squad mates fool about.
Early morning of the following day...
A fine veil of snow was falling incessantly over Kauhava Airbase. Out of that grey shroud, a huge airship materialized. Depicted on the side of the airship, was the Iron Cross of Karlsland.
It was a transport of the Karlsland Airforce.
Standing in line upon the airfield were F/L Rudel and her subordinates. One after another, each member of the dive-bombing squadron boarded the waiting airship.
They had been dispatched from Karlsland, and that is where they must return to.
Making use of anti tank weaponry, for air to ground attacks... It had proved effective in the recent operation to recapture the town of Slussen, and they planned to teach that method back on the Karlsland war front where the fighting was at its fiercest.
F/L Rudel looked out over the the place that she had been living; Kauhava Airbase. With the power of her own squadron, they were able to recover this very base...
The invasion of Ostmark had come like a bolt of lightning, and the second Great Neuroi War had begun. Now, for the first time, mankind could celebrate a true victory against the Neuroi...
Compared with Karlsland the scale was small, but the was no mistaking that it was an achievement to be proud of.
A fleeting smile crossed her face, before being replaced by her usual serious and calculating expression.
Fitting her cap tightly upon her head to keep her hair out of the way, she turned and left for the airship.
“Here at the break of dawn... this is a surprisingly early departure, Flight Lieutenant.”
In response to the voice from behind, F/L Rudel stopped and turned to face to the grey-haired Pilot Officer standing there with her arms crossed.
“You recovered this base from the Neuroi, and you're slipping off as if it were a moonlight flit? That doesn't seem like something a soldier of Karlsland would do. The people stationed here wouldn't like it. They will want to at least see off the hero that recovered this town.”
“Being seen off by guards of honour, things like that don't really sit well with me. If I were to be given the hero treatment, I don't think I could endure it.”
Feigning indifference with a small snort, Beurling tossed something into the air. F/L Rudel caught it with her left hand. It was a scabbard holding a Gurkha knife.
“Are you sure?”
It was a knife with an unusual curve in the blade. Knowing full well that the knife held some significance to Beurling, F/L Rudel knitted her eyebrows slightly.
“I have a spare.”
With a nod, Rudel attached it to her leather belt.
“We'd be troubled if you weren't around,” Beurling said plainly.
“I'll have to disappoint you on that one. There shouldn't be a large scale offensive in this area for a while. Furthermore, your squadron commander is an excellent witch. You have a good commander here, Pilot Officer.”
“I hope you're right about that. Those guys become intoxicated by victory, and seem to loose their focus. What we really need is a true soldier like yourself, someone who knows well the flavour of defeat.”
“What are you saying, one gains nothing through flattery. What more could anyone wish for, than to live without tasting defeat?”
With that, Rudel set off for the airship.
As if she had just remembered something, Rudel glanced back once more.
“Take care, Pilot Officer. Even if there aren't any large scale attacks for a while, the enemy may be capable of something unthinkable to mankind. Those things, they're just not like us.”
“Ya vol. Herr kapitän.”
Beurling gave a salute, which F/L Rudel casually returned.
Amidst the whirling snowfall, Rudel disappeared towards the waiting airship. Towards her next battlefield...
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