Chapter 2 - Operation Bridges Down
One week after Flight Lieutenant Rudel's Squadron had returned to their homeland...
The military witches were trying to get to grips with their upcoming assignment.
“With a strategy like this being announced... wouldn't it have been better to keep Flight Lieutenant Rudel here a bit longer?”
Lying in front of Flying Officer Elma, was a map. One detailing the area around the national border between Suomus and the Neuroi territory. On the Suomus side of the border, were numerous small lakes scattered around the area known as Saimaa lake. Bodies of water like these were the reason Suomus was referred to as 'the country of lakes'.
Extending out to the right of Saimaa lake, was a colossal mass of water; Lake Ladoga, on the Neuroi side of the border.
Midway along the river connecting the two lakes, a red circle had been drawn.
“'Destroy these bridges...' you tell us...” Tomoko said with a sigh.
Due to the recent Neuroi invasion, the Suomi army had come up with a countermeasure to stifle future attacks. Specifically, they would target the bridges used by the invading forces, and control the enemy's movements by making them impassable.
All together, there were five to be destroyed.
The Kauhava air squadrons had been assigned the task of destroying those bridges, but...
“I guess the army wouldn't be able to handle it would they~?” Katherine asked, turning to face Squadron Leader Häkkinen.
Sqn Ldr Häkkinen's sharp eyes glinted beneath her glasses. She shook her head.
“As you already know, all of the bridges are located in Neuroi territory. Ordinary human beings are not even able to approach them. The entire land is enveloped by the Neuroi miasma.”
“What about those tank-like witches that took part in the last operation~?”
“The danger is too great. Are you suggesting we send in a small group of tank witches by ground routes, without holding air superiority?”
Having been promptly rejected, Katherine let out a sigh.
“We're complete novices at bombing~ We couldn't even score one hit on those freakish tanks that trampled all over Slussen~”
Meanwhile Tomoko had been examining the map; she nodded.
“Well, it's fine isn't it?”
“Commanding Officer Tomoko!”
“If you compare them with tanks or other ground units, the target is much larger... and bridges don't move. Our capabilities should suffice.”
Haruka leaped towards Tomoko with glistening eyes.
“Nothing less than expected from my Flying Officer!”
“O, Oy! Get off me!”
Haruka forcefully buried her face in Tomoko's not-too-big, yet not-too-small chest.
“St, Stop that!”
Tomoko tore her off with a bright red face. But Haruka just clung onto her arm with a huge grin.
It seemed that Haruka would persist in acting as Tomoko's second, even when they were on the ground.
Completely ignoring the disturbance, Häkkinen issued her orders;
“And so, I shall explain today's mission. The Independent Volunteer Air Squadron will target and destroy the Vuoksa bridge using bombs. Ahonen's Squadron will escort. Any questions?”
Beurling had been watching with an utterly composed expression. Only now did she decide to speak.
“...and if we encounter enemy fighters?”
“If a situation arises that Ahonen's Squadron is unable to deal with, unloading the bombs at your own discretion is approved.”
Tomoko smiled and shook her head. “The enemy won't turn up anyway. Even the number of fighters escorting their bombers has dropped off sharply.”
“Well, it's good that we can take it easy right~” Commented Katherine.
With that, everyone headed off towards the hanger.
Tomoko was sat in a chair performing the final pre-flight checks, when Beurling walked over to her.
“Are you finished with your preparations?” Tomoko asked.
“Have you got a moment?” Beurling asked in her usual unreadable tone.
“I wonder if you shouldn't have agreed so readily.”
“We're not accustomed to these Striker Units. Perhaps less so for you... but Katherine and Haruka are not at all familiar with these kinds of aircraft. Don't think a bombing mission is a bit too much to ask of them?”
“It's fine. The target's bridge, it doesn't move. It'll be no different from the training exercises.” Tomoko returned to humming as she worked.
A hint of worry crept into Beurling's voice as she continued. “I don't mean to lecture you or anything, but... recently, haven't you been a bit too laid back?”
Tomoko's hand stopped as she checked the Messersharf's oil pressure.
“What are you talking about? I'm not laid back.”
“Rather than laid back, it's like you're underestimating the enemy due to our continuing success. Our enemies aren't human. They might try something we can't even comprehend. We can't afford to be negligent.”
“I already understand that.” Tomoko replied, felling disgruntled.
When Tomoko had finished her checks, the maintenance crew wheeled over a trolley carrying the bomb she would be carrying. It was a sixty kilo aerial bomb. For an ordinary girl, lifting such a thing would be out of the question, but Tomoko was in the Mobile Air Infantry. She was a witch, and thus could utilize her magic to lift the enormous weapon.
Confirming that her squadmates were armed and ready, Tomoko idled out from the hanger towards the runway.
1st Squadron could be seen taking off side by side in one long row.
“Liberion-one, OTR 'k.”
“Fuso-two, I'm O-T-R!”
One by one, the members of the Independent Volunteer Squadron came up behind Tomoko, reporting that they were ready for departure as they did so. 'OTR' was an abbreviation for 'On The Runway'... meaning that they were standing by for permission to take off. With a glance behind, Tomoko opened up the magic engine's throttle.
“Roll on ladies!”
Immediately following that abridged order, the roar of DB601 magic engines sounded, and the witches sequentially lifted of from the ground.
Due to the extra weight, their rate of ascent was slowed to an unsteady crawl.
Far above, the witches of 1st Squadron could be seen by the sunlight reflecting off of their Strikers.
Tomoko led her squadron onwards at an altitude of six-thousand metres. Roughly half a Kilometre ahead, 1st Squadron cruised at high altitude.
As they approached the national border, the level of idle chatter between the witches died down. The tension could be felt in the air. Only Tomoko's wingman seemed to be indifferent to that tension.
“Fl, Flying officer Tomoooookoooooo~”
With shining eyes, Haruka wrapped her arms around Tomoko's waist.
“..Wh, what! I mean, get the hell off me! It's dangerous to fly so closely. A fundamental principle of the Rotte formation is... Agh!” Tomoko flinched.
While carrying the bomb, Tomoko was unable to defend herself against the lick to the back of her thigh.
“Oy! Don't you dare!”
Watching those two, the rest of the squadron couldn't help but grin. The tension in the air dissolved in an instant, and frivolous chatter began to fly back and forth once more.
Once they were over the national border, Tomoko managed to pry off the overly playful girl.
“We're entering enemy airspace. Pay attention.”
Before long the vanguard of 1st Squadron could be seen banking widely to-and-fro.
“Two-Nine-Five. Ten dots.”
Flight Lieutenant Ahonen's voice sounded out over the radio. Just as she had reported; as many as ten distant black spots came into view, having broken through the clouds from the lower-left hand side of 1st Squadron.
It was surely the Neuroi.
As they approached, the shape of the aircraft became clear. Rather than the Laros-kai, it was the original Laros model. With their wings glimmering nostalgically in the sunlight, they lumbered upwards.
1st Squadron quickly headed them off, compounding their attacks one after another. Receiving the Messersharf's initial barrage of 20mm rounds, half of the Laros erupted into smoke and flame. Nevertheless, the remaining Laros continued to ascend, undeterred.
In this kind of situation, there wasn't even a chance to practice the theory behind boom-and-zoom tactics.
Those things were just like the targets on their firing range.
“The Neuroi really seem to have cut back on their air defences haven't they... ” Tomoko said in an astonished voice.
Just as expected, the remaining Laros were torn apart by 1st squadron's second wave. One by one they were ripped apart as they tried to ascend.
“This is about as difficult as going out for a picnic,” Tomoko muttered as she watched the last few Laros spiralling into the ground.
With the Laros interception party utterly defeated, the witches flew on uneventfully for some time. Eventually, they spotted the winding rift in the surrounding forest that signified the river Vuoksa. The unfrozen torrent glittered through an otherwise unreadable snowy landscape.
One endless thread of light snaking through that silvery world...
Spanning that thread, a deep black artificial structure could be seen in the distance. Amidst the natural snowy landscape, only that structure radiated a feeling of malaise.
“That's the Vuoksa bridge.”
Before the recent invasion, the Neuroi had crossed this very same bridge to amass at the border of Suomus. One could call it an artery from the interior of the Neuroi's territory...
If destroyed, the Neuroi would be prevented from gathering in such huge numbers. In other words, it would keep any future invasions in check.
With the Independent Volunteer Air Squadrons sights set firmly upon the bridge, the sound of an anti-aircraft cannon reverberated through the air. High angled shells began to explode around them like fireworks.
Pon, Pon Pon...
However... compared with the occupation of Slussen, the scale here was pathetic.
Even though the Vuoksa bridge is vital strategic location... they're not channelling their remaining forces into defending it?
Tomoko could not begin to comprehend the reason why they would leave it so vulnerable. No matter how she turned it over in her head, this bridge had to be an indispensable asset. The equivalent of an artery to human being.
And yet they've left this vital artery practically unguarded, what on earth are those things thinking?
Considering the matter up to that point, Tomoko shook her head.
The Neuroi aren't human. Measuring their actions by our own standards is foolishness.
For the time being, she needed to concentrate on destroying the bridge that was in front of her.
“Should we attack one at a time?” Beurling enquired.
Tomoko shook her head.
“We'll attack as one, in V-formation. Even though the anti-aircraft fire is sparse, it doesn't mean that it's not a threat.”
If they moved in sequentially, the anti-aircraft guns could concentrate on each aircraft as it approached. Tomoko detested the thought of it.
The Independent Volunteer Air Squadron assembled into a tight V-shaped formation, with Tomoko at the apex. To destroy the bridge using those unpowered sixty-kilo bombs, it would be most efficient to concentrate on a single weak point.
Assuming her line of approach, Tomoko carefully advanced towards the bridge.
“We should target the foundations of the support pillars. If we destroy one of those, the bridge will collapse. It will also make rebuilding the thing more difficult.”
Tomoko nodded in response to Beurling's suggestion.
The foundations of the support pillars...
Tomoko concentrated on the target. Quickly simulating the bomb's trajectory and altitude inside her head. After running it through her mind countless times, Tomoko gave her command;
With a surge of adrenaline Tomoko lowered her head, charging towards the bridge with a 30° angle of descent. Fanning out on either side, her squadmates mirrored her movements.
A shallow dive bombing raid...
Unlike a Stuka, the Messersharf were not fitted with the metal flaps known as 'dive breaks'. Thus, they were unable to perform the nosedive bombings like the Stuka.
Compared with a nosedive release, the bombs would start off with a shallower trajectory making it a far less accurate bombing method. It was simply a luxury they had to forgo.
However, Tomoko's talent for tactical manoeuvres was unrivalled. Having experienced several ground attack missions, she already had a good grasp of the basics. They only had this one shot, but she had absolute confidence that they would succeed.
The pure black bridge drew ever closer.
Increasing her magic engines throttle, Tomoko adjusted her aim by carefully correcting her velocity.
“Enemy aircraft,” Ursula announced from the right tip of their formation.
Glancing in that direction, Tomoko saw Laros breaking through the cloud cover overhead. The Neuroi bore down upon them, swaying side to side as they came. Nevertheless, the Independent Volunteer Air Squadron did not waver from their planned trajectory.
The five enemy Laros headed straight for Tomoko's assault team...
With a series of gunshots, the leading enemy's wing burst into flames, and began to hurtle towards the ground. 1st Squadron enveloped the Laros in a barrage of gunfire from above.
“Don't worry about these. I'll dispose of them in no time.”
Tomoko focused her full attention upon the bridge once more.
Adjusting her course... Intuiting the best possible timing... Tomoko released her grip the bomb...
With Tomoko's signal, the entire squadron simultaneously unhanded their charges. Dutifully obeying the law of inertia the bombs sloped downwards, plunging towards the side of the bridge.
With minuscule time differences, the bombs struck into the bridge one after another, and detonated. A huge column of water was thrown up into the air along with the blinding flash of light.
“Yahaah!” Tomoko yelled. The six explosions had engulfed the support pillar magnificently.
Deep black smoke swirled upwards through the air... No longer able to hold the bridge's massive weight, the partially destroyed support pillar came crumbling down before their eyes.
With an enormous roar, the bridge followed it into the river below.
“Flying Officer Tomookooooooo! That was perfect!” Haruka shouted while throwing her arms around Tomoko.
The rest of the squadron clasped hands and cheered in celebration of their success.
Amidst the mutual congratulations, one witch was carefully surveying the battlefield. It was Pilot Officer Beurling. She had her eyes fixed upon something in the distance, beyond the black smoke hanging in the air.
Is that a surviving Laros?
It's movement was peculiar, as if suspended in mid air. It would be impossible for a fixed wing aircraft like the Laros to come to a halt in mid air...
Straining her eyes, the next moment it vanished behind the veil of smoke.
Did I see that correctly?
Or could it have been a mirage cast by the residual heat of the explosion?
“What's the matter Beurling?” Tomoko asked.
Beurling shook her head.
If it were an enemy, it would surely just come charging in anyway. And that thing looked too small to be a Laros.
...It was probably just an illusion.
“No, it's nothing.”
“Well then, let's report back to base.”
With a clap to her shoulder Beurling nodded. In passing, she glanced back towards enemy territory one more time; the sterile land occupied by the Neuroi...
How long must we wait before mankind can recover this land?
All around, her comrades were celebrating their victory... but Beurling had no intention to join in with the relaxed atmosphere.
How many victories like this must be achieved before we are able to finish them off for good?
Do the Neuroi even posses notions of victory, and loss?
Immersed in these kinds of labyrinthine considerations, Beurling flew on.
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