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Chapter 8 - Showdown! Mobile Fortress!


The winds and dense clouds that had been burying the landscape in snow were clearing away, revealing the sun once more.

Along with that weather, the fated day of February 5th had arrived.

A visible tension hung in the air; conveyed by the expressions of the witches as they stood in their ranks. The army's forces had already departed, and were now deployed around Slussen so as to cut off the enemy's ground forces.

Whether or not they would be able to secure the town of Slussen depended entirely on the efforts of the Mechanized Air Infantry stationed in Mikkeli.

Squadron Leader Häkkinen arrived accompanied by an elderly gentlemen, and several armed guards.

Flying Officer Elma gasped. “It's General Mannerheim!”

“Hmm, who's that~?”

“He's the commander-in-chief of the entire country's armed forces!”

commander-in-chief!

Everyone snapped to attention giving a panicked salute. The general casually waved his hand signalling that they could stand at ease, and began to speak;

“Ladies. Loyal and brave witches from around the world. First of all; as a representative of my homeland, I would like convey how grateful we all are for you assistance. For coming here from each of your respective countries, you have my most sincere thanks. Now then, under normal circumstances it would be impermissible for girls of such tender years to be allowed to face the brutality of war. However, we now find ourselves in a state of emergency. The entire population of Suomus must unite and stand as one to confront this approaching threat. As much as it pains me to do so, I must ask you to spearhead our resistance, and pulverise mankind's grotesque enemy; the Neuroi.

General Mannerheim cleared his throat, and resumed;

“But you ladies are not alone. Understand me, the entire population of this country are standing behind you as your comrades in arms, do not forget that.”

The General raised his right hand, and saluted the Mechanized Air Infantry with the utmost grace and authority. The salute was returned as one by the witches.

Following this, Sqn Ldr Häkkinen stepped forward and formally announced the mission with a rather loud voice that didn't suit her one bit;

“Our mission objective; the destruction of every Neuroi ground unit currently occupying Slussen! This operation will conclude with the complete destruction of the enemy!”

Everyone was lost for words. Essentially, she was saying that there would be no return until the enemy forces had been destroyed, and the occupation of Slussen overturned.

The Neuroi multiply. There would be no meaning in this counter-strike unless a complete victory was secured. Nevertheless, this was a very difficult task.

In no time at all, Sqn Ldr Häkkinen gave the order.

“All squadrons! Move out!”

  

Once airborne, the three squadrons split up into their designated cruising altitudes, and began the advance.

Taking the position of vanguard were the ace fighter pilots of 1st Squadron.

Next came the Independent Volunteer Air Squadron led by Tomoko.

Bringing up the rear at a lower altitude was Flight Lieutenant Rudel and her Stuka Squadron.

Seeing the armaments carried by the Stuka, Katherine exclaimed loudly; “Those aren't bombs! They're cannons!”

“37mm to be precise. Originally they were anti-tank guns, but have now been modified for aerial use.” Beurling explained while flying alongside.

37mm anti-tank guns...

That was the new strategy that F/L Rudel had devised; a direct assault on the enemy ground units. It was a last ditch effort to preserve what remained of the town, while also allowing them to destroy their targets.

“Compared to a bombing run, it will be rather drawn out, right? And if they have to deal with enemy aircraft the entire time...”

“That's why we need to protect them with everything we've got!” Tomoko declared confidently.

“I guess the Neuroi probably wouldn't just leave us alone today would they~?” Katherine wondered out loud with a shake of her head.

Her hopes were quickly destroyed as the lead pilot of 1st Squadron began to bank to-and-fro.

It was the signal that an enemy aircraft had been sighted.

  

“They're not messing around with today's reception are they.” Katherine said as she stared on at the looming enemy formation.

The number of aircraft was twice what they usually encountered; roughly fifty Neuroi were en-route to intercept. Watching 1st Squadrons response, Tomoko shouted out her first instruction;

“Everyone! Follow my lead!”

Tomoko stroked the repaired Ki-44. Now that the damage caused by Haruka had been rectified, the Ki-44 was performing perfectly; powerfully pushing her up through the sky.

Even facing the overwhelming enemy numbers in front of her, Tomoko's heart did not waver.

The Ki-44 was not your typical aircraft.

It connects me to Itokawa, the thread that binds our destiny.

So even if we were separated... the two of us are still connected.

Tomoko looked back to see how the Stuka were responding; they were ascending in formation. In front, 1st Squadron were entering into a violent battle. Because the enemy had substantially superior numbers today, it looked like they were using a proactive approach.

The Laros-kai that hadn't engaged 1st Squadron were closing in from the front.

The count was approximately thirty enemy craft.

Tomoko licked her lips.

  

Looking up at the Independent Volunteer Air Squadron, F/L Rudel smiled.

Tomoko and her group vanished through the clouds streaming overhead.

Pilot Officer Adelheid spoke up in a worried voice; “That immediate-response fighter escort of foreigners is breaking off from us...”

“Huh? I'm sure that Anabuki Pilot Officer has something planned. Shouldn't we trust in her?”

The entire squadron was extremely uneasy considering the enemy bearing down upon them but;

“Preserve the formation.” F/L Rudel commanded.

“Bu, but Flight Lieutenant ma'am! There are thirty Laros-kai coming this way!”

“Do not worry about them. The fighter escort will protect us without a shadow of a doubt.”

The enemy formation adopted a heading that would allow them to gently loop around and take the Stukas' backs. It seemed that they were intending to bring down the entire Stuka Squadron in the most reliable fashion.

“Flight Lieutenant! They've circled us! We need to evade!”

Don't change course! Fly straight ahead! Trust in our comrades!”

Even as she yelled her orders, beads of sweat were forming on Rudel's forehead. If they were attacked by thirty enemy fighters here... the unsteady Stuka with their huge anti-tank guns wouldn't stand a chance.

However, they did not have the time to take evasive action in the current situation.

If they did not promptly arrive in Slussen and commence the ground attack; the deployed ground forces would be overwhelmed by the Neuroi. With that, the entire operation would lose its value.

The enemy formation appeared to have recognised them as the most important 'target'.

They came straight for the Stuka like beasts following the scent of their prey...

In that moment, the Independent Volunteer Air Squadron appeared from above with startling momentum, and the sun to their backs.

After she had made sure that the enemy force targeting the Stuka were focused on their target, Tomoko began her dive. The Ki-44 quickly gained tremendous speed as she began to descend.

“It's amazing... this Striker. Even at these velocities the tail-plane is still functional.”

Being able to alter her heading so freely while diving down was not something that could be attempted with the Ki-27.

The rest of the Independent Volunteer Squadron followed in Tomoko's wake. In the blink of an eye, they were bearing down upon the enemy formation from behind.

The Laros-kai were so intent on their pursuit of the Stuka, that they didn't even notice Tomoko's group approaching.

It was a perfect ambush.

“Everyone! Don't try to shoot them down! As soon as you hit your mark, move on to the next target!”

A collective; “Roger,” resounded back over the radio.

Tomoko locked on to one of the Laros-kai, and squeezed the trigger with no hesitation.

Da-! Da-! Da-!

Those bold gunshots were different from the 7.7mm machine gun she had been using thus far.

It was a 12.7mm machine gun. That level of power could barely be compared with the 7.7mm gun.

The fuel tank on board the targeted Laros-kai caught fire, and burnt out the aircraft from the inside in one go. Tomoko immediately adjusted herself to target another aircraft. Releasing several bursts, the next enemy suddenly rolled over. Noticing this, Tomoko once more moved onto a new target.

After riddling three aircraft with bullets, Tomoko shot over the top of the enemy formation and entered a steep climb. Her comrades followed the climb as far as they could, having hit many more of the enemy fighters.

The Laros-kai that had received fire could be seen struggling or falling from the sky. Naturally, most of them had not sustained fatal damage.

However, the number of enemy fighters capable of chasing Stuka Squadron had decreased by roughly half. With a second run, Tomoko and her group would be able to neutralise the threat posed by the remaining Laros-kai.

“Alright! That was good! We'll make one more pass like that!”

Without pursuing the impaired enemy fighters, Tomoko instructed her squadron to regain their altitude once more.

That turned out to be a good choice.

To her right, Tomoko glimpsed a different Laros-kai formation ascending in the distance. If they had continued to pursue the previous targets... even if they could have earned a large number of shoot-downs, they would not have been able to deal with the new threat.

She recalled Itokawa's hypothetical situation;

Because you can't pursue at close range, the same shoot down count will not been attained, but in doing so; you hold the same potential energy as you had before the battle. So even if a new enemy comes into view, it can be dealt with at once.

“You really knew what you you were talking about, Itokawa. This is the way to fight with the Ki-44... no, these are going to be the tactics used throughout he world from now on.”

Tomoko once again directed her squadron into the Laros-kai's blind spot with the sun to her back. The new enemy formation headed straight towards the Stuka seemingly oblivious to Tomoko's small squadron of witches.

Tomoko faithfully repeated the same manoeuvres she had used on the last wave of fighters.

  

“Those lot, they're using us as decoys aren't they.” P/O Adelheid said in a disinterested voice as she watched the independent Volunteer Air Squadron led by Tomoko.

Three times, they had repelled the enemy's attacks. That itself ought to be to praised, but they were first using their comrades as bait. That was the real issue.

Rudel laughed.

“It's probably the only way. Our immediate-response fighter escort is comprised of a mere five aircraft. Nevertheless, for us; who must be guarded at all costs, to boldly act as their lure... it's an interesting situation to say the least.”

“If they make one wrong move we'll be wiped out.”

“In that case Pilot Officer, what would you suggest they do?”

Adelheid was completely silent.

“This is war after all; it's like picking chestnuts out of the fire bare-handed. You're only able to buy safety with the courage to risk life and limb. Those who fear becoming a victim go unrecognised.”

  

“Hahhhh... That's the lot of 'em right~” Katherine sighed after they had repelled the fourth enemy formation. “I'm almost out of ammo~.”

“Same here.”

“Me too.”

“I'm also low.”

Tomoko checked her own remaining ammunition.

The 12.7mm had a lot of power, but a small capacity. So she too had exhausted her reserves.

The remaining Laros-kai however, were just loitering around at low altitude. Each time the damaged craft tried to unsteadily ascend, Tomoko's group would head them off. Now it seemed that they had completely lost their will to fight.

Out in front, 1st Squadron just looked like small dots.

While the independent Volunteer squadron had been handling the Neuroi that slipped past, the 1st squadron went on ahead to preserve air superiority in the skies directly over Slussen.

“Yeeah! I can see Slussen!” Katherine yelled.

Under their eyes, the foggy grey town was in sight.

Tomoko let out a sigh of relief. It had been her responsibility to deliver F/L Rudel's team to this point. That job had now been safely completed. From here on out, it was up to F/L Rudel and the Stuka.

If the fighter escorts managed to keep the skies clear until Stuka Squadron finished clearing up the enemy ground units, they would win.

  

F/L Rudel loaded the first round into her 37mm anti-tank gun. With a showy *GaShan! Sound, the powerful spring chambered one of the wine-bottle sized shells.

Each time a shot was fired, the bolt had to be operated to chamber the next round. This was a little troublesome, but it had been justified. Originally, an automatic loading mechanism had been planned, but it was scrapped in exchange for a higher ammunition capacity.

That capacity was twenty-four shells. If each one of those shells were used to its fullest and hit their mark; twenty-four multi-legged tanks could theoretically be destroyed. Thus, F/L Rudel did not intend to miss a single target.

Once Stuka Squadron had pressed on and entered Slussen airspace, they began their approach descending one aircraft at a time.

“Listen up ladies; Fly low! As low as the rooftops, no; fly as low as the street lights! That way their anti-aircraft fire will be useless!”

The Stuka witches slipped into the streets like they were skimming across the earth. They were enclosed from above by the roaring anti-aircraft fire, but Rudel's team were underneath their effective range.

“Excellent, ladies! Act without reservation! Were surrounded by nothing but the Neuroi now!”

Up ahead, a multi-legged tank came into view occupying the middle of the street. The moment Rudel passed underneath, she spun round onto her back and squeezed the trigger from point blank range.

Boun-!

Together with that thick, dull sounding impact; a gaping hole erupted from the multi-legged tanks back.

The amour piercing incendiary round plunged through the tanks body, apparently detonating its own ammunition.

The tank exploded. Its gigantic gun turret was thrown into the sky by the blast from within.

Strike from underneath or the side! Even a 37mm can tear through it from there!” F/L Rudel yelled to her Squadron.

  

Explosions resounded from each and every direction of Slussen, as smoke and fragments soared into the sky. It was the victory song of the 37mm equipped Stuka Squadron.

Each time a multi-legged tank or a humanoid Neuroi was blown away, Tomoko and everyone would raise a cheer.

“It looks like this strategy's a total success!” Flying Officer Elma shouted...

At that moment, a building in the heart of the town groaned and twisted.

“Eh?”

Wh, what the heck is that!”

Tomoko was not able to believe what her eyes were telling her.

“Th, the building's moving!”

  

Having done everything possible to eliminate the multi-legged tanks, F/L Rudel was combing the area and cleaning up the remaining enemy units.

“This method is surprisingly effective. If we don't report back to Karlsland immediately... Wha!” P/O Adelheid suddenly yelled out in surprise.

Right in front of her eyes a building shuddered, and started to move upwards like a time-lapse film of plants stretching towards the sunlight.

From its foundations came an ominous cracking sound as some kind of structure extended from its base... they were legs. The six-storey building was being supported at the corners like some kind of four-legged octopus.

The windows all shattered as their frames distorted, and machine guns projected out of the holes.

Upon seeing it, Rudel gasped one word; “Ziggurat.”

F/L Rudel and her team were driven back by a volley of enemy fire. Someone let off a 37mm round, but the moving building; the 'Ziggurat', was completely unfazed.

  

Watching from the skies, the fighter squadrons collapsed into panic as the building began to move and attack Stuka Squadron.

“Wh, What the f*** is that!”

F/L Rudel reply came through on the radio;

“It's a mobile fortification, a Ziggurat. The Neuroi can make use of buildings and other structures once they progress to that state. This is serious. That thing doesn't just have machine guns...”

A moment later, the building's rooftop split open as a huge number of gun barrels punched through it.

They were large calibre anti aircraft guns.

Don!   Don!

     Don!           Don!

Don!   Don!  Don!Don!

With overbearing volume, the fighter squadrons were forced downwards as the skies were filled with soaring metal.

Hidden in a nearby ruin, the witches could do nothing but stare the writhing fortress.

From somewhere deep inside the Ziggurat, two gigantic cannons burst through the walls.

“Those are..!”

They were 20cm class cannons. With a grinding noise, the angle of elevation was adjusted...

BoFhun!

Smoke filled the sky as the tremendous shells were spat out. With a sound like distant thunder, they were sent flying towards somewhere outside of town.

A distant hill appeared to erupt as the huge charges impacted.

It's aiming at the ailed ground forces!”

The gigantic cannons were targeting the ground units preparing to move into Slussen.

“This plan will fail without the army!”

F/L Rudel valiantly led the Stuka in an attack against the Ziggurat, but with the hedgehog-like array of machine guns and intermittent launching of ground-to-air rockets, they weren't even able to get close enough to attack. On top of that, as powerful as the 37mm anti-tank guns may be, they were nothing but pea-shooters against the colossal brick walls of the mobile fortress...

“Aah, if this keeps up, the operation will utterly fail... Is there anything we can do...”

“No matter what we do, we can't stop that thing, it's impossible~”

Katherine and Elma were completely shaken.

Tomoko on the other hand was hovering in the shadows and fixedly examining the enemy fortress.

The Neuroi, are fearsome things... utilizing the town, stealthily fabricating something like that! Transforming a six-storey building into a mobile fortress...

Covering itself in machine guns like a hedgehog, successively firing off those gigantic cannons. A Ziggurat... that's the name of those ancient constructions built in order to approach the gods of old, physical manifestations of human desire.

Tomoko motionlessly stared at the Ziggurat.

“It's possible.” She whispered to herself.

“Tomoko, did you just say something?”

Tomoko then gave a single, confident nod.

“We can bring it down. With this Ki-44, it's possible!”

“Huh? What's possible! For us Mechanized Air Infantry, fighting that building-monster would be like tryin' to hold back the tides! It's impossible 'right!”

“Impossibilities and stuff like that, don't exist in this world.”

With that, Tomoko shot off into the sky.

Tomoko!”

  

As if chasing Tomoko, the Ziggurat concentrated its fire on her. Every anti-air weapon at its disposal was trained on her.

Machine guns, anti-aircraft guns, rockets... Tomoko rolled and twisted around them all.

It was a magnificent display of evasive aerial manoeuvres.

Spinning and dancing like a leaf in the wind, she avoided being struck down.

After reaching an altitude of three-thousand meters Tomoko flipped over and looked towards the ground.

The two 20cm cannons repeatedly fired at some distant place outside of the town.

If that's its only weak point...

“It has to be those cannons.”

Tomoko turned her head.

Looking back at her was F/L Rudel carrying her 37mm anti-tank gun.

Tomoko nodded. It seemed that F/L Rudel was thinking along the same lines as herself.

“I agree. We have to drive an attack down one of those barrels from a high speed dive.”

“It would be more than just difficult though. Even for us Stuka, whether we could pull off a risky feat like that involves some degree of chance.”

“Nevertheless, we only have this one chance.”

“I guess so. With what they're capable of, there will be no second chances.”

Rudel stared into Tomoko's eyes. “Can you do it?”

“I have to do it, right? Flight Lieutenant.”

During their conversation, each Squadrons' witches arrived having fought their way through the anti-air fire.

“Tomoko!”

“Flight Lieutenant Rudel!”

F/L Rudel called for order and explained the plan to everyone.

“Myself and Flying Officer Anabuki will perform an attack on that monster while diving down from here. I want you ladies to cover our approach with everything you've got.”

Everyone nodded with meek expressions.

“This is our one shot.”

Rudel took out a 37mm shell and loaded her gun. “My last round.”

Tomoko unsheathed the Hizen Osafune.

“Tomoko! Using that samurai sword here would be nothing short of suicide!”

“I'm out of bullets.” She said plainly.

In response, Haruka timidly approached.

“Haruka?”

“This... Please use this! It still has one burst remaining!”

It was her 20mm Type 99-2 auto cannon. A long barrelled machine gun developed by the navy...

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. You would be able to make so much better use of it that someone like myself!”

Tomoko nodded, and accepted the machine gun from Haruka. Its weight was enormous. Tomoko sensed that her comrades were waiting for her to prepare herself.

Well then, shall we get going?” Rudel asked with a tone of voice that suggested they were doing nothing more strenuous than departing for a picnic.

With no further ado, Tomoko and Rudel began their charge side by side.

  

The air shook as the Ziggurat viciously concentrated its fire upon the approaching witches. The anti-aircraft guns tore through the sky, forcing them to stagger their dive.

"Sh**!”

One of the ground-to-air rockets came flying directly at Tomoko. She bit her lip.

I can't evade at this velocity! I'm going to be hit!

Tomoko flinched. Just when she was about to shut her eyes, F/O Elma shot across in front of her.

DON!

With that jarring blast, Tomoko saw F/O Elma spiralling down towards the earth.

She shielded me!

Elma!”

Even though she was out of control, F/O Elma did her best to give Tomoko a thumbs up in response to that yell.

Right after that Ursula appeared from nowhere, receiving a barrage of bullets before unsteadily losing altitude.

They're using themselves as shields because they're out of ammunition!

“Everyone! Liste-”

“Don't get worked up now.” Beurling's voice reached her ears. “We're using our magical shields with all our strength. A couple of hits are nothing to worry about.”

“But...”

“I promised Flight Lieutenant Rudel. I promised that even if I had to strike down the enemy with my own body, I'd make this mission a success.”

At one-thousand-five-hundred meters, the intensity of the enemy fire increased.

Uncountable shots sunk into Beurling's body. With a direct hit to her side from an anti-aircraft gun, even she was taken down.

Katherine was the next to take up her position. Just like before, Katherine's sturdy figure endured a wave of bullets before reaching her limit.

“Tomoko! After this, it's all down to you!”

Lastly, Tomoko and F/L Rudel were being protected by all the witches of 1st Squadron and the remaining members of Stuka Squadron.

They spread out in front, bearing the brunt of the downpour of bullets.

Flight Lieutenant Ahonen muttered; “it's in your hands,” as she seemed to lose consciousness and unsteadily drop towards the ground.

Haruka even sounded happy as she gave her parting words. “It was an honour... to act as your shield.”

Do you understand? You're not the only person fighting this war,”

Those words enveloped Tomoko like never before.

Not only the witches of the Mechanized Air Infantry. But Itokawa too. By flying this Ki-44, I'm fighting together with him.

Her heart was filed with courage, and this gave her the composure to do what she must.

Tomoko rolled to avoid the stream of bullets.

The Ki-44's diving ability is magnificent. Even at these velocities, the control surfaces react perfectly.

Using that nimble rolling manoeuvre, Tomoko flipped her entire body into an upright position, and easily fixed her aim to the target.

Altitude; 200 meters.

To her side, F/L Rudel's eyes shone keenly. In an instant, her shot was taken.

Tomoko too had the centre of the the huge enemy muzzle in her sights. She squeezed the trigger.

Leaving a heavy recoil behind, the 20mm machine gun bullets flew towards her target.

“Hit it!”

The interior of the enemy's cannon shone white as it too, fired a shell.

As if time had slowed to a crawl, Tomoko acknowledged this just before her 20mm bullets plunged into the muzzle.

The shell and her 20mm bullets clashed.

A white flash expanded outwards, enveloping the Ziggurat along with a mighty explosion from within.

Tomoko was swallowed up a fraction of a second later... despite the terrific noise, she heard nothing at all.



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