Operation Trident (78.4)

14th of the Postill’s Dew, 2031 D.C.E

Republic of Ayvarta, Dbagbo Province, City of Loima — Kubera Air Force Base

“Sir, Hierophants are on mission!”

A young woman sat in front of a large radio set. At her back, a second woman watched several vision tubes for radars and other equipment. There were several stations just like hers, monitoring the coming and going of aircraft from the dark, gloomy control room, each assigned a communications officer and a telemetry and radar officer. Their faces and bodies were lit by the eerie green light of the screens. Pulses on the radar screen indicated the formation of planes in the process of disappearing from sight.

“K-Keep me posted.” A deep, commanding voice responded. Commodore Robin McConnell had mostly hidden a surprised tremor that had run from his back to his jaw.

There should have been nothing to be nervous about, but McConnell was restless.

He was always nervous when the planes took off. That was a commitment; soon as they left the base, they were on mission, or they just wasted takeoff fuel. There were not many corrections they could afford to make in flight. Everything had to be precise. Only as much fuel as it took to fly to the mission and back. Only as many munitions as needed, only as many personnel as it took. Calculated and budgeted, communicated through the wires like the current to a vacuum tube. Too much current and something would burst. Like a machine, Kubera Air Base had to run with scientific certitude.

Certitude was hard to achieve with human bodies.

However, an appearance of certitude might well bring about the result of certitude.

McConnell tried to remind himself that he had every advantage.

When President Lehner himself gave McConnell the greenlight for Unternehmen Donnergrollen, he quickly set about making Kubera Air Force Base the nerve center of its constituent missions. The Ayvartans had done much of the job. Kubera was one of their few Air Bases outside of Solstice or the northern coastline that had a large radar array. Using parts from a FREIJA system, they upgraded the existing infrastructure. Radio and telephone lines had already been installed. Spacious hangars and runways that had been freshly laid a year prior allowed Nocht to house much of its strategic fleet. Demilitarization would’ve turned Kubera into an international civilian airport.

That would have been a waste of the space.

McConnell was glad they got to it this fast. He felt more confident in himself now that his palatial base had been established to his precise specifications. Seeing his massive fleet of aircraft, his vast stocks of fuel and aero-engines and parts, and the veritable army of pilots and specialists at his disposal, made the undertaking feel smaller. It made the destruction of the enemy feel achievable. He was vastly superior to them.

Interrupting McConnell’s train of thought, a young woman stood up from one of the stations and walked up to him expectantly. She had her hair up in a bun and a grey skirt uniform. In her hands she had a neatly folded piece of paper. She saluted before him.

“Sir, I’m out this shift, but my replacement is new. I wrote some notes for her. I know we’re not supposed to put anything about the system in unauthorized writing, but– “

“It’s– It’s fine.” McConnell said. He put on a smile. “Nobody will read it but her.”

Normally there was a Captain around to handle the specialists, but he was out back.

Nevertheless, McConnell spent the energy to appear courteous to his little cogs.

Nodding, the girl laid the note on her station desk and walked out of the room.

In a perfect world one set of specialists could just work the entire mission without complaints; in the end however the disruption of shift changes could be mitigated with superior training. One radio girl was easily replaceable with another. It was not a perfect world but it approximated the functioning of a perfect world. That was it.

“As perfect as I can get it.”

There had been setbacks, but it was not the time to focus on it. For what they had achieved so far, a few damaged Wizards and some knocked-out old Archers were an acceptable loss. Every life lost and every hull burnt was well within the budget so far.

Everyone who had died had been green anyway.

Most of the Air Force was green, after the debacles of 2030.

He still had a core of veterans to rely on as a trump card, though, and that sufficed.

Superior planning and state-of-the-art equipment could make up for rookie pilots.

Look at how much even these green boys and girls had managed to do so far!

“We were the first in.” McConnell told himself. “The Air Fleet was the first to put a bullet into Solstice. We took out one of the airfields of the invincible city. And we’re going to do it again, and again. We’ve proven it’s possible; that it’s effective even.”

He watched from afar at the radar images moving farther and farther away.

His position would only grow stronger the more munitions he could drop on Solstice.

It didn’t matter what he hit, or with what.

That was why the Hierophants flew out. Not only did it look good for the corporations if experimental aircraft operated openly and scored victories, and not only did it make the President happy to see wiz-bang new weapons; every shell and bomb he could put inside Solstice was another thing he could brag about to the higher-ups in the army.

His hands opened and closed nervously. He was getting fired up.

He had taken out an airfield! Set fire to the people hiding behind those archaic walls.

Something in his brain chided him.

It was an ancillary airfield that they took out.

There was a greater, gleaming prize, a jewel in the dung heap.

Armaments Hill.

Solstice’s largest military base, composed of underground factories, barracks and even an airfield. Armaments Hill was the brain of the Sunhera Thalsena, the “golden army” rebuilt by Daksha Kansal from the ashes of the previous regime’s defeated demilitarization battlegroups. McConnell could end the war by destroying Armaments Hill. Gaul Von Drachen was wrong; there was something of vast importance within the walls of Solstice, and that was the hope that the communists could rebuild anything that Nocht destroyed. That they could hang on as long as their defenses could last.

McConnell would show them that there was no wall that couldn’t be broken.

“God, those screens are going to burn my eyeballs.”

Gretchen van Illum rubbed her eyes hard as she exited the mission control room. She was temporarily blinded by the harsh lights in the concrete tunnel hallway leading back out onto the main base areas. Her particular job and workspace for this mission was dubbed “Special Command 3.” She had spent four hours on the radio in the initial phase, and she expected to spend another four hours in her next shift. At that point the mission would definitely be over. She had been lucky not to get an “action shift” within the space of the mission’s hottest moments. Last time, she nearly went hoarse.

Instead, she mostly sat around and listened to men and women relaying runway instructions, weather reports, and intelligence from the front line. She heard the pilots signing off and gave takeoff instructions. It was the easiest job she had gotten yet.

Gretchen figured she would spend the four hours between her shifts having a meal, catching up with some of the other girls, and studying for the radar specialist test.

Going from radio girl to radar girl would add 300 more marks to her pocket a month.

At the end of the tunnel she walked up a smooth ramp and found herself coming out under a semicircular, covered concrete entryway, laying just off of the main runway.

Cloudless blue skies and a fresh breeze greeted her.

It was hot and humid out, but the wind was strong and soothing.

Far in the background, the Kucha mountains seemed to loom over the massive fields of fuel tanks, gas cylinders and oil containers fenced off from the main body of the base. There were vast stretches of sprawling, empty blacktop before her, marked up to be used as runways whenever needed. The tarmac was broken up with hangars, service buildings, warehouses and the semi-circular entrances to underground control rooms, all connected by cement road. There was even one functional radar tower.

A second radio tower was going up, surrounded by scaffolding and trucks of workers.

She noticed the workers on that day because most of them were Ayvartans.

These were the people they had come to free from oppression.

It felt a little jarring to see a brown or black face, she had been so distant and isolated from them before. She heard about them plenty, but never saw any. Seeing those workers under the guidance of a pale Nochtish overseer, handling the generators, cables and steel and other parts for the radar array, her immediate reaction was “oh, they exist?” She didn’t know whether to expect them to look happy or miserable. But they were construction workers. What kind of face should they have been making?

Shaking her head at her own foolishness, Gretchen kept walking.

Her barracks was quite a walk away from Special Command 3. She was exhausted by the time she arrived, but the smell of food cooking briefly enlivened her as she entered the cafeteria. She was almost excited to eat until she reminded herself of what they had to cook with. Unlike the men, who had dedicated (male) cooks and higher-rated rations, the girls took turns manning the cafeteria and trying to make gold out of the lead contained in the packs of dried eggs, pickled sausage, canned bread, powdered milk, salt pork and other such ghastly rations that they were regularly given to eat.

Fighting men on the front could raid their enemy for local food, what limited amounts there were; women had no foraging opportunity. All pilots got to eat some fresh food in their canteens too. Radio girls, radar girls, secretaries, they had no right to anything.

“Salt pork or canned chicken today?” Gretchen asked as she walked in.

“Canned chicken!” a pair of voices shouted back.

Gretchen felt her entire body shiver.

Among the most galling of the ration items was the “canned chicken.” A gelatinous, bony mess studded with fat and meat that flopped out of the can like the devil’s effluvium. Gretchen felt the product must have visually represented the trauma of the bird’s final moments before its remains were stuffed into the can. Gretchen read the cursed words on the blackboard in the cafeteria entrance, written in the pretty cursive of a young woman trying to conceal and beautify the horror it meant. Even if you picked out the bones, the remaining chicken was barely fit for stock. She cringed.

Sighing, she snatched a tray from a stack and walked up to the service counter.

Gutentag, Gretchen. First shift again huh? Lucky.”

Specialist Mia Pfennig stretched the ‘y’ into a rising, song-like note. She was about Gretchen’s age, she must have been mid-20s at the oldest, and had a curly red hair and a freckly face. In her hand was a ladle which she dipped into a pot of chicken-y slop that she then spooned onto Gretchen’s plate. It looked like something obscene.

“Chicken porridge, veggies in fortified butter and a roll of bread.”

Using a different ladle, Mia spooned a dull heap of canned vegetables and then a ladle of butter over them, in a different slot on the tray, well away from the chicken. Finally she deposited a hard-looking piece of black bread that could barely be termed a ‘roll’.

“Chicken porridge, Mia?” Gretchen said. “Chicken porridge?”

Mia narrowed her eyes at her. “Ask your parents to send you a care package if you want better meat. Look, the barley almost makes it into something. Give it a try.”

“I should report this war crime to the liaison office.” Gretchen grumbled.

“You should be thankful to Meridia and I for finding a way to make this stuff edible.”

Mia was clearly fed up with Gretchen’s prissiness and shooed her away.

Gretchen fixed a glum stare on her plate as she shambled toward a table in the back.

She set down her tray, sat herself down, and then sat her head atop the table.

Poking the chicken porridge with a spoon, she rubbed her fist on the table and tensed up all of her body in preparation. She whipped her head up, spread her lips, scooped up a spoonful and thrust the spoon into her mouth. It was salty; a salty, slimy sensation was most of what she got out of it. It was mostly flavorless. She remembered when they tried to serve it up from a pan with butter, and how sour and tangy and odd it was.

Heaving a sigh of relief, she still tried to spoon the porridge down her throat as fast as possible without making any contact with her taste buds. It was still not acceptable.

Her vegetables, mostly long peas, potatoes, corn and carrots, swam in a puddle of butter that had been fortified with vegetable oil to make it last longer. Gretchen scooped the butter onto her bread and took one tough bite out of the bottom of the slice, where there was less crust and the crumb was closer. All the outer crust was too hard, and dropping it into the porridge to soften would make the porridge impossibly thick. The vegetables wound up the meal’s highlight, tasting mostly like themselves.

Midway through poking at everything on her plate, she saw someone come in and sit down. Because of the clothes and their general appearance, at first Gretchen mistook them for a pilot that had walked into the wrong place. And this was indeed a pilot. No one would have been assigned that tight grey jumpsuit by accident. It fit too well.

“You look like you could use some company, miss. Might I sit here? I can share.”

As she approached, the pilot spoke to Gretchen in a voice that was deep but that carried the tone and character of womanhood. She had the face of a photo model, high-cheeked, with a sleek jaw and a gently curving nose. Her lips were glossy but only lightly painted. Her golden-brown hair was cut short and swept back in a dashing fashion. She was tall; taller than Gretchen, probably as tall as some of the men.

Indeed at first, Gretchen was convinced she was a boy on silhouette alone. However, the face, the voice, and the hint of breasts in that tight suit, all proved otherwise.

“Oh, of course.” Gretchen said. She was slightly taken with the newcomer.

There was something glamorous about her, something unique.

And she was carrying some rare goods with her.

On her hands, she had a tray of real food, probably prepared fresh at base. Lamb rib, vegetables, some kind of brown sauce, and a fresh, flat bread in the Ayvartan style.

Gretchen’s eyes darted from the newcomer’s handsome face to the handsome spread on her plate in quick, confused succession. This drew a soft, elegant laugh from her.

“We had prepared meals brought to us at the hangars, but I felt I could do better for company than the lads, so I asked where the girls congregated.” the woman said.

Gretchen shut her eyes in a long blink. “You’re actually a pilot? A woman pilot?”

“Indeed!” She set her tray down on the table and took a little bow. “Andrea Lockhart.”

Upon hearing the name Gretchen nearly fell back from her seat in shock. Her whole body had wanted to jump up. She didn’t know what to do with her hands, so they suddenly jumped out themselves and took her counterpart’s hands into themselves in a tight, almost lovestruck hold. “Lockhart? You mean ‘Rocket Girl’ Lockhart?”

Lockhart smiled. Gretchen noticed her hands and pulled back, but the pilot seemed untroubled by the attention or the touch. She took Gretchen’s retreating hands again, and her eyes fell to Gretchen’s chest, where her name tag was — among other things.

For a moment Gretchen wondered where exactly Lockhart was staring.

“I see that you are specialist Gretchen van Illum! You have a lovely and notable family name. It is a pleasure to meet you, Gretchen. I am indeed known as ‘Rocket Girl.'”

Gretchen’s heart thundered in her chest. She felt the thrumming under her skin.

“Ah, no, my name means nothing, I’m nobody! You’re the rocket girl! Here, for real!”

In the Federation of Northern States, there was an archaic system whereby the families of the founding members of the nation, as well as leading industrialists and great heroes of the war, were honored with prefixed surnames that indicated great status. A surname prefixed “Von” indicated the highest honors and longest lineages; the “golden” families. While entry into this highest echelon was ultimately closed, several more families were inducted separately with the all-lowercase prefix “van”. These were the new “silver” families, as they came to be known in high class gossip.

While her great great grandfather had been honored as “van Illum” for his services as a military doctor, her family was currently of average means and nothing special.

Andrea Lockhart might have had no great lineage, but she had made quite a modern name for herself. Before the war she had been all over the papers: the rocket girl who flew a solid fuel rocket-powered glider over the Großschild mountains. Gretchen did not know her from Eve when meeting her in the flesh, as any pictures of her always included her in heavy jackets, goggles, caps. That name, however, was very famous.

“Oh, I’m sorry!” Gretchen collected herself. “It must be annoying to hear this stuff–“

“It’s fine, I’m quite pleased to hear it, actually. After all, my goal is to inspire women.”

Gretchen hated herself for her momentary vulnerability, and the star-struck way in which she responded to Lockhart. She took solace in that Lockhart looked happy.

“Ma’am, I’m sure you’re higher ranked than me, I should have been more–“

At this remark, Lockhart’s expression darkened for an instant.

Gretchen noticed, but thought better of apologizing any more. Lockhart was quickly restored to her previous sunny disposition, and urged Gretchen to sit with her.

“At ease, soldier,” Lockhart jokingly said, patting Gretchen’s arm, “I am technically a pilot, in that I fly a plane, but my rank is exactly yours. I’m Specialist Andrea Lockhart.”

“That doesn’t make any sense.” Gretchen said. “Aren’t pilots at least Lieutenants?”

“Not women pilots.” Lockhart said. “Of which there is only one.” She winked at her.

Gretchen realized that Lockhart must have been in a difficult situation because of her gender and aspirations, and the structure of the military. She resolved not to remind her of such things and to try to control her embarrassment. Nobody liked a squealing admirer, but it was even worse to spend the whole conversation apologizing instead.

“At least they feed me well.” Lockhart cheerfully gestured toward her tray.

She pushed Gretchen’s own tray aside and laid hers firmly in the middle, sitting across from her so the food was in reach of both. Gretchen looked down at the spread with eyes and mouth watering. Up close, it definitely looked like fresh food, rather than the stuff that came out of the cans and boxes they brought from home. Meat glistening with fat and juices, crispy colorful vegetables in real butter and soft, still warm bread.

“Tuck in. I need to watch my figure anyway.” Lockhart said.

Gretchen stared at her for a second before taking her fork and sliding it over the lamb.

It was tender! It was pull-apart tender!

“Did you know? Many Ayvartans don’t eat meat at all. Of those that do, there are some Ayvartans that don’t eat beef, and some that don’t eat pork. So then, lamb and chicken are the easiest to source locally. I personally prefer a nice medium steak, but oh well.”

Lockhart held her head up on her hands and watched with a gentle expression as Gretchen carefully put the forked piece of lamb meat into her mouth. Gretchen almost expected it to be some kind of trick, some mirage, but she was delighted to find the lamb almost melting in her mouth, juicy, warm, patted with pepper and a sweet sauce.

“It’s incredible! This is incredible!” Gretchen said through a full mouth.

“You’re cute.” Lockhart said with a little laugh.

Gretchen brought her eyes up from the plate and hastily recollected herself.

“You’re a radio girl, right? I think I might’ve heard your voice before.” Lockhart said.

“Yes, I do radio. I was told I’d handle runway communications and training sorties but they have me doing all sorts of things with no warning.” Gretchen said. She started to feel chirpy when the subject turned to her line of work. “Yesterday I handled a combat mission, even. Have you flown in combat, Ms. Lockhart? You may have heard me yell.”

Her bombers had managed to escape mostly without harm, though they failed to reach their target. She tried not to think about what it would be like to hear someone die on the radio. Probably nothing; the sound would probably cut out beforehand.

“I have not yet flown combat. I expect to soon.”

Gretchen shook her head a little, trying not to think about combat.

“I certainly hope you will be safe.”

“Do you think ‘rocket girl’ would get shot down so easily?” Lockhart asked.

She had a playful expression, but Gretchen just felt like she had put her foot in her mouth. “So, um, what do you pilot? Is it an Archer by any chance?” She asked.

Lockhart blinked for a moment and smiled.

“I’ve flown the civilian version of the Archer before, but here I’m flying something a little special.” Lockhart said. “One of the Standardfliegerei A.G.’s new prototypes.”

“S.F. huh? Did they approach you because of your world records?” Gretchen asked.

“Well, I approached them. But I made a convincing case for myself.” Lockhart said.

“Huh, interesting. I guess your name has more reach than mine after all.”

Standard Aviation was one of Nocht’s prominent aircraft corporations. No one in the Air Force could avoid the name, as they manufactured many of the combat model aircraft they were using. There had been a bit of scandal surrounding it over the years. Current President Achim Lehner had made lavish yearly contributions to them, eventually becoming a major shareholder. They in turn gave lavish contributions to Achim Lehner’s political campaign, and it was unclear whether he ever divested from the company when he took office. Since then, they outshone all of the other aviation companies. Gretchen knew if she ever quit her army position she might have a job at S.F. A.G., as long as she buttered up the right officers during her time in the corps.

You couldn’t try for the radio and radar positions without hearing gossip like that.

And as far as the prototypes were concerned, Gretchen knew there were certainly many one-offs and weird pieces in Kubera’s inventory. In the current mission, three S.F. A.G. conversions that had yet to enter mass production were fielded. In addition, they had S.F. A.G. rocket-assisted squadrons on standby who could reach the mission area in half the usual time. She knew Commodore McConnell loved to show off prototypes; but she did not know any specific ones, so she couldn’t guess what Lockhart piloted.

She had to wonder though how Lockhart had managed to convince them.

“A woman pilot, huh?” Gretchen said idly. “It sounds really romantic.”

“I’m glad you think so. I believe women will revolutionize this army.” Lockhart said. Her eyes started to wander, as if she was seeing past Gretchen and at something greater. “There’s a lot we can do the same or better than men. I will see us acknowledged.”

“Like what?” Gretchen said. She was not quite thinking when she spoke.

“Fighter pilot, for starters.” Lockhart said. “Nobody flies like me– like we do.”

“I heard they have women fighter pilots; and riflemen and everything else.”

“Perhaps. But they’re uncivilized about it in other ways. They lack culture here.”

Gretchen blinked, chewing on some bread.

She thought for a second that Lockhart sounded offended. Indeed, she was averting her gaze somewhere. Gretchen thought they were both talking about Ayvartans and saying fairly uncontroversial things about them at this point. She felt a bit surprised.

Lockhart turned her head over her shoulder as a plane started down the runway. For a moment Gretchen thought it had not actually caught her attention. Rather she was using it as an excuse to sigh or groan. Perhaps it was all in Gretchen’s mind, of course. When Lockhart turned back around to her she was smiling at her quite fondly again.

“Ms. van Illum, I should be going soon, but I very much enjoyed talking to you. What say you we schedule a more involved get-together? I’ve no real friends here and could dearly use someone to talk about girly things with, rather than all this dull business. I’ll take you out on the town. My treat; with all the needed authorizations included.”

Lockhart raised her hand, beckoning Gretchen to shake.

Gretchen was taken aback. She knew all of her coworkers, and they talked often, but she would not have presumed to be a real friend to any of them. In Gretchen’s mind it was not possible to be someone’s friend, when one’s career aspirations might require one to step over their shoulder someday. However, Lockhart and Gretchen did have utterly different ambitions. After all, Gretchen would absolutely never fly an aircraft.

And furthermore, Lockhart did look so very dashing–

Snap out of it, she’s a girl, you’re both girls. Her respectable brain quickly took over.

More importantly, it was not often at all that a radio girl got to have a night out in town.

Gretchen raised her hand to meet Lockhart’s for a gentle shake, but instead, Lockhart dexterously took her fingers and brought her lips to them, delivering a warm kiss.

“You have lovely skin, Ms. van Illum. I look forward to seeing it under the moonlight.”

Gretchen’s face turned as hot as the cowlings on a Wizard’s engine in-flight.

Lockhart stood up from the table, winked and bid goodbye with a charming little wave.

“You’ll be notified when I’ve secured your release! Good day!”

As if taken by the same wind that brought her so suddenly, Lockhart was soon gone.

For a several minutes Gretchen sat in silence, wondering if all that had truly happened. When she looked down, she saw Lockhart’s tray of food. Her lamb was still there, along with remnants of the bread and the vegetables largely untouched. Gretchen knew that she would have never gotten this kind of food from the girls here.

She took a piece of lamb and put it into her mouth.

It was still real, and still delicious.

As she was polishing off the rest of Lockhart’s food, Mia appeared from behind her, looking over her shoulder at the food with a conspiratorial grin. Gretchen glanced sidelong at her compatriot’s fiendish face. Mia put a finger down on the tray to pick up some of the sauce the lamb had been coated in and tasted it. She smiled and sighed.

“Lucky you! Don’t think I didn’t see that pretty-boy making eyes at you. He even brought you food. Oh, if only I was as sexful and curvaceous as you, Gretchen.”

Gretchen’s eyes briefly rolled over Mia’s silhouette.

She quickly frowned and chided herself for having that reaction to Mia’s nonsense.

“You are being ridiculous. And that wasn’t a boy. That was Andrea Lockhart.”

“What? That stunt pilot? Why would she be here? This is a war, you know?”

“She invited me to a night on the town.” Gretchen said.

Before Mia could back up her immediate, scandalized expression with some words of affirming heteronormativity, there was a knock on the propped-open door of the building. Gretchen turned from her companion over to the doorway. There stood a man in a gray and silver coat with quite a sizeable helping of pips and rank markings. He was tall, and his limbs seemed just a little bit off, out of proportion with the rest.

His expression was quite sunny, but his face seemed a bit rigid, as if he had been carved into stone with that smile and was always wearing it involuntarily. He was clean-shaven and his skin was only a touch weathered, good for a man who was perhaps in his early thirties. His cheeks were a bit hollow and his nose a bit sharp, and his blonde hair was unevenly slicked such that some of it stuck out from under his hat.

Gutentag my ladies. I’m Brigadier General Gaul Von Drachen. I have been searching in vain for the main command of this air base. I am told that officers in charge move between various offices for different missions, so I am left confused as to where they could be. I would very much like to meet with Air Commodore Robin McConnell.”

“Von” Drachen? Gretchen had never heard of a golden family by the name Drachen.

Gretchen and Mia exchanged glances.

Mia silently pleaded for Gretchen to take the lead.

Acquiescing with a barely-hidden groan, Gretchen stood to meet Von Drachen.

“I’m Specialist Gretchen van Illum sir. I know where the Air Commodore is sir, but for security reasons I am not allowed to disclose his whereabouts.” Gretchen said.

Von Drachen chortled. “Oh my dear lady, I’m a General! I have a security escort. They’ll be here soon, after they fail their sobriety tests at the gate, I’m sure. Anyway: it’ll be fine if you tell me. Here, if you require my credentials I shall show them to you.”

He proceeded to withdraw a leather pocket case from his coat. His face glistened with sweat. Despite how unbothered he seemed by the Dbagbo heat and humidity, his body was protesting the choice of attire. When Von Drachen flipped open the case at her to reveal its contents, Gretchen saw his identification papers, including his commission.

Indeed, this was the genuine article, a “Gaul Von Drachen” serving in a Panzer division.

What did the army need with Kubera Air Base that it would send a tank man for it?

“With all due respect sir, it’s security protocol that a specialist like me just can’t take you to meet an officer. It has to be a member of the security staff. What did you say happened to your security detail, sir? I do not think I heard it quite correctly.”

Gretchen was hoping beyond hope she had not heard him correctly.

Von Drachen crossed his arms and put on a pensive expression for a few minutes before lifting a finger into the air to speak– at that point he was drowned out by the sounds of rocket engines burning propellant on the runway. It was sudden, and accompanied by a lot of dust and smoke spreading over the center of the base.

There had been some surprise launches it seemed.

Staring past Von Drachen, Gretchen could just barely make out the Archers flying out of the base with their disposable rocket boosters and drop fuel tanks. It was a new procedure they were testing, to surprise the enemy. They had come to expect Archers to fly certain speeds and to take a certain amount of time to reach a mission area.

How long had it been already since the mission started? Gretchen lost track of time.

“Oh, quite interesting.”

Von Drachen himself turned around to look.

“I especially like that black aircraft. I’ve never seen its like. Do you know what it is?”

At that point, Gretchen spotted the “black aircraft” taking off, a trail of white smoke in its wake, its tail burning with pink and blue flames. There was no propeller on the front, but it was also not assisted by a rocket. All rocket aircraft had disposable boosters. This must have been something else. There were all kinds of prototypes stored here.

In the shadow of the archers, the black aircraft took off and climbed away.

Not before doing a loop or two to how off its maneuverability.

Gretchen blinked, and giggled lightly. Pilots could be such showoffs.

Someone was probably mad about that display, but there were a lot of gawkers enjoying it. Von Drachen was probably the man most openly amused by it. His face lit up like a boy’s when the black aircraft performed its loops and sped off elegantly.

“Remarkable. A waste of fuel, but beautiful flying. Anyway, Gretchen, could you–?”

He turned back to Gretchen, who was about to chastise him for using a lady’s first name with such familiarity, when he was a man in a designated space for women. However, before she could shout Von Drachen down for his carelessness, her own voice was drowned out. Not by rockets or any other takeoff noise, but by an alarm siren followed by a broadcast across the base of Air Commodore McConnell’s voice.

“There has been an unauthorized launch! Do you hear me, an unauthorized launch! This is a security breach of the highest class. Whoever authorized the launch of the S.F.-X Musket is to report to me immediately! I repeat, whoever’s in charge of the Musket will report to me right now! Your pilot is disobeying orders to turn around!”

Gretchen was left speechless as the alarm and McConnell’s voice faded into the air.

Could that have been–?

Von Drachen clapped his hands suddenly.

His cheeks stretched with a grand smile.

“Oh, opportunity knocks. Excuse me, my lady. I shall go wait and follow those indicted men to my destination. Thank you for your courtesy, and have a good day.” He said.

He took her hands, shook them vigorously, and quickly ran out to the tarmac.

“Wow. God, what a day.” Mia said. She looked at Von Drachen running out. “You know, he’s a little odd, but I think he’s charming. I like older men too. I hope he stays a while–“

Gretchen was not listening to her companion at that point.

Staring at the sky, she hoped whoever had launched that prototype knew what they were doing. And she hoped dearly it had not been one dashing lady she met that day.

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