---- July 17, 1943
---- Dover Strait, Britannia
The beaches in Britannia could hardly be called beaches as far as Charlotte Yeager was concerned. Sparse grainy brown sand, littered with rocks ranging in size from pea gravel to small boulders and abrupt drop-offs near the water's edge. She missed the beaches of her native Liberion. California, while it still existed, sported some of the most beautiful beach-front on earth.
Only two short years earlier she had been bumming those beaches with her high school friends. Swimming, sunning, camping… not a care in the world.
After her high school graduation, she had enjoyed an idyllic summer spent honing her motorcycle skills in preparation for her attempt to break the World Land Speed record in Utah at summer's end.
Days spent tearing up huge swaths of dirt and vegetation with her Indian Scout as her friends cheered her on. Evenings spent under the stars, campfires, marshmallows, beer - talking about the past, about where their futures would take them - bonding between close friends who knew that this summer would be their last together.
Girls with the genetic predisposition to become Witches averaged about 1 in 1500. Although Witches were highly respected members of society they were, intentionally or not, held above and apart from the common man. Especially those who chose to enter civic or military service. Usually, when a girl's power manifested, she would suddenly be treated differently by her peers. A deference to their status mixed with equal parts awe, fear and jealousy.
But not the small group of friends who had become so dear to her. Who treated her just the same, even after she had become something more. They all promised to meet one more time, after Charlotte came home with her trophy to celebrate her achievement full out with her.
Charlotte did, indeed, leave the Bonneville Speed Trials in triumph. "Glamorous Shirley" had clocked an unbelievable 187 mph in the Tier 1 Division. She had decided to stay an extra couple of days to party hard with her fellow speed-demons, which is why she was spared the fate that befell her family and friends.
The Neuroi's sudden, overwhelming assault on the western coast of Liberion was as surprising as it was devastating. When it was all over the Neuroi had consumed almost one third of the land mass of the continental United States including, of course, Charlotte's mother and father, the house she grew up in and every single person important to her.
The following day Charlotte had enlisted in the U.S.A.A.F.
Sighing softly, the Liberion ace shook off those old memories and turned her attention to the now... to the kids she was training and the hamburgers that were almost grilled to perfection. Squinting her eyes a bit and shading them with her arm, she gazed upward to watch the four tiny silhouettes as they engaged in practice maneuvers.
Charlotte's training regimen was a lot more laid-back than that of Major Sakamoto or Lieutenant Barkhorn. Flight training, by it's very nature, was much more open-ended and loosey-goosey than combat or survival training. After having spent about 45 minutes running the girls through their pace, she allowed them a bit of free-flight time.
While they were enjoying themselves in the air she had set up the grill and got out the ingredients she had hauled along, looking forward to the impromptu picnic as much as the her charges were.
"You've all come such a long way in such a short time." Charlotte mused as she watched the four youngsters execute a four-point star, each girl peeling off from one another in unison. "I can't begin to tell you how proud I am of you."
Francesca Lucchini, her flight partner and spiritual little sister, didn't need the extra training but she would never pass up the opportunity to log some flight time. Perrine Cloistermann was a capable pilot although, when mixed in with the rest of the squad, she seemed to lack that sense of 'esprit de corps' that many combat pilots possessed naturally. Lynette Bishop while somewhat timid and hesitant, was quite earnest about improving all of her skills, flying included.
She noted with satisfaction that the girls had hit the compass point at the same time and began their climb to meet at the apex of the maneuver. One girl, however, was adding a little pizazz to her climb - spinning exuberantly on her primary flight axis with her arms outstretched. Easy to pick out, with her white seifuku and dark blue sukumizu, was the newest member of the 501st Joint Fighter Wing. Yoshika Miyafuji.
Charlotte had taken an immediate liking to Yoshika. The young Fuso girl appeared, at first glance, to be quiet and unassuming... until she opened her mouth. Yoshika was surprisingly warm, sunny and outgoing. Seemingly always upbeat, she was quickly endearing herself to everyone in the squadron. Even the always-taciturn Gertrude Barkhorn. And she had taken to flying like a duck takes to water.
The radio on the beach blanket behind her gave off a shower of static and she heard the high-pitched trilling of Francesca. "Shirrrrleyyyy. I'm hungry. Are you done yet?"
Charlotte smiled and pulled the microphone from its cradle, keying the talk button. "I was just about to call you in kiddo. Round 'em up and c'mon down."
"Roger!" shouted the prepubescent spitfire.
Francesca banked and flew upwards to where the other three girls were. A few seconds later they began their decent. All four made a smooth landing and, after safely stowing their Strikers, ran eagerly to where Charlotte had set up their picnic. They found the older girl waiting patiently for them, sitting cross-legged in the sand.
"Roasted corn-on-the-cob!" Yoshika chirped happily. "Just like we have at the festivals back home."
"Yup." Charlotte answered. "I found a local farm that grows sweet corn. The owner said he imported the seed from New Britannia. Good stuff."
They all took their places around the beach blanket and began piling their plates with food.
"Burgers, burgers, burgers!" Francesca shouted excitedly, reaching out to stuff one in her mouth. Charlotte smacked her hand lightly and gave her a stern look, nodding towards Perrine and Lynette who had bowed their heads in silent prayer. The little Romagnian stopped what she was doing and waited in respectful silence with the others.
Soon the two Europan pilots raised their heads. Yoshika immediately thrust her arms akimbo and sharply clapped her hands twice. “Itadakimasu.” she shouted happily.
Preliminaries out of the way, they all started wolfing down the feast laid before them. Flying was a light but steady drain on their magic and, as a result, they were all famished. They spent a good hour or so eating and talking and laughing. Eventually, Charlotte sat back rubbing her tummy in contentment. Francesca was sprawled out on the sand, snoring lightly, while the other three were sitting quietly enjoying the peace of the moment.
"You all did very well today. You have the basics down and you all seem quite comfortable with intermediate aerial combat maneuvers.” Charlotte told the group with a smile. “I chalk it up to your having an awesome flight instructor." she concluded with a wink.
"Anyway," she continued "I got permission from Commander Wilcke to camp out on the beach tonight if you all want to." She stood up and walked over to where her rucksack lay by the grill. "We can start a campfire, and..." reaching into the sack, she pulled out a cellophane bag and held it aloft like a trophy "...roast marshmallows. Another great Liberion tradition."
Perrine stood up, brushed the sand off her legs and donned her flight jacket. "I'll pass, thanks anyway. I'd rather sleep in my bed than on the ground." She turned and began heading for her Striker. "You guys have fun though. Good night."
"Good night Perrine." "G'night." "Good night Perrine-san." " 'Night kiddo." everyone chorused.
Yoshika looked at the others, a hint of worry on her face. Charlotte smiled inwardly. She knew that Yoshika had a huge heart and she cared deeply for all of her friends well being. Even a friend as abrasive and stand-offish as Perrine. "Don't worry Yoshika, she's fine. That's just how she is."
"Yeah," Francesca chortled, "she doesn't play well with others."
Charlotte lightly cuffed the tiny terror on the back of her head "Quiet, you." Francesca simply looked up at her 'big sis', giving her a toothy grin. "So, Yoshika," Charlotte continued "would you mind collecting some fuel for our fire? There's some scrub brush up on that rise that should burn nicely."
"Of course Shirley-san." The Fuso maiden answered, standing up and heading for the rise. Lynette shot a nervous glance at the rest of the group and then stood up as well, calling after Yoshika as the younger girl walked away.
"Yoshika-chan? I... I... could help you. I-If you want me too."
Yoshika looked back and smiled warmly. "Sure Lynn-chan. I could really use your help."
The two stood motionless for a moment, staring at each other as if they had forgotten what they were supposed to be doing. Finally Yoshika, with a slightly flustered look on her face, turned back towards the embankment and they started heading up the slight incline, both of them blushing furiously. Charlotte and Francesca watched as the two strolled slowly side by side. Once they were out of earshot the little Romagnian started squirming around in the sand.
"Arrrgh!" Francisca moaned, pulling on her twin-tails in frustration. "So! Annoying! Those two are so obviously into each other. Why do they keep dancing around it?"
Charlotte smiled openly now. "Well, the way they're mooning over each other, I'm pretty sure they'll end up together eventually." She began to clean up the area so she could pitch the two tents she had hauled out of storage. "Y'know, I think it's so cute how Lynne uses honorifics when she addresses Yoshika even though we're all speaking Britannish."
"I know, right?" Francesca squealed. "Absolutely adorable."
---- July 17, 1943
---- Cape Canaveral, Florida U.S.L.
Dr. Harold Ostermann adjusted his tie nervously as he mentally reviewed his presentation to General Maloney for the hundredth time. The weight of the responsibility he had been saddled with was enormous. He had been drafted to head the Cape Canaveral Research Complex in southern Liberion, one of the most extensive and well-funded Neuroi research laboratories in the world. So far they had produced mixed results.
The Neuroi were, indeed, alien. Not just from-another-planet alien but alien alien. All the research so far showed they were a silicon-based life form, something previously thought to be impossible...but there it was.
Almost three years of study, testing and experimentation had yet to yield more than a vague idea of how the Neuroi could even exist, let alone determine their goals and objectives. No declaration of war had ever been issued by the Neuroi. No demands or communication of any kind had ever been offered. They simply showed up one day and engaged in a rampage of destruction.
What was known was why the Neuroi did what they did. The solid matter they consumed, either through direct contact or by the strange miasma that spread from the hives they established, was converted into material to create new Neuroi. This prompted some in the scientific community to conjecture that the Neuroi were nothing more than cosmic locusts, mindlessly moving from planet to planet, devouring everything in their path. Most scientists discounted that theory however, arguing that their movements and attacks evinced a guiding intelligence of some sort.
The CCRC had been the facility that confirmed the Neuroi were a red crystalline structure and were, indeed, sentient. This crystalline core surrounded itself with a kind of ablative armor that some rank-and-file wag had christened 'Grey Matter'. The term, as unscientific as it was, stuck... much to Ostermann's chagrin. Grey Matter could be destroyed rather easily but was regenerated almost instantaneously. The only way a Neuroi could be put down for good was to shatter the core.
Conventional weaponry was simply not up to the task. On average, an entire squadron would be decimated to achieve the destruction of a Core... hardly an acceptable trade-off. The Top Brass and scientific advisors had discovered that a Witches shield could stave off the Neuroi coherent light beam weapons. Witches enlisted in military service were deployed in battle to provide shielding for conventional attack groups. However, while this practice provided solid defense – significantly decreasing loss of personal and equipment – it wasn't enough to make an offensive difference.
That all changed when a multi-national think tank, based in Britannia and headed by Fuso's illustrious Dr. Ichiro Miyafuji, created the magic powered Striker Unit. With Witches now able to get up close and personal with the enemy, Neuroi kill rates increased a hundred-fold. Witch squadons in combination with conventional forces began to achieve some actual push-back against the alien enemy. A welcome turn of events as far as most people were concerned. Most people.
Among a certain segment of the male population, this increase in a Witch's already formidable capabilities was the final straw. Throughout history, they had always been there. Men jealous and resentful of strength that dwarfed their own and powers they could never wield. The powers of a Witch were not only genetic after all, they were also hormonal. Unless you were sporting an X chromosome and a set of ovaries you weren't joining the club. And since this war had started women had begun rising into the Command and Executive ranks, disrupting the Boys Club the upper echelon had been running up until then.
It was in this environment of prejudice and hostility that someone from high-up noticed Dr. Ostermann's report on the first (and only) Neuroi captive.
The Neuroi core had been, almost impossibly, taken intact in a Special Forces operation designed specifically for that purpose. And with the help of [classified], a Witch whose power was the ability to stop time in a confined locus and effect changes within the locus externally. Very difficult to achieve. Ostermann had been told not to expect many more specimens like it any time soon.
Like all too many brilliant discoveries throughout history, this one happened quite by accident. An experiment in atmospheric pressure testing went awry. By the time they were able to stabilize the test chamber, the Neuroi core had been subjected to a pressure of approximately 1,500 psi – over 1000 times the standard atmospheric pressure at sea level. The equivelant of being dropped to the bottom of the Marianas Trench.
Cracks appeared on the surface but the thing didn't shatter and dissolve into pixie dust like they always had up to this point. Instead, it segmented along the cracks into seven equal-sized shards, each shard emitting the same pulsing red glow as the whole. Ostermann's team quickly determined that the core shards were still 'alive' but were no longer sentient.
Of particular interest to the higher-ups who viewed the report, was the discovery that a core shard generated enormous amounts of power. Power that could be tapped like a battery. Not only that, but a core shard still had the ability to accrue Grey Matter. With some experimentation, the team had figured out how to force the shard to grow ablative armor over an articulated frame.
Dr. Ostermann had been summoned to Washington and was given a new assignment… to oversee the Research and Development arm of the newly-formed MAGUS program. To create a Neuroi-tech based, shard-powered battle suit that would give any normal human the same degree of strength and power that a Witch possessed. Six months of development since that day and now the suit was ready for live testing. He stated as much in his daily report to HQ the previous evening. He was unprepared for the phone call he received at 0500 this morning telling him that General Maloney and his staff would be arriving for a demonstration in four hours.
Ostermann glanced at his wristwatch with a furrowed brow. "Fifteen minutes until hell."
As he began to review his presentation for the hundred and first time, the double-doors behind him slammed open and in sauntered General Trevor Maloney, with an impressively-sized entourage following close behind. Hell had arrived just a bit early. The scientist cringed slightly as Maloney's grating voice pierced the silence of the lab.
"Well Dr. Ostermann. Here we all are. Impress us!"
~ ...to be continued ~