Proper Path to Glory

Don't Stand in My Way!


---- September 23rd, 1943
---- Soesterberg Air Force Base – Briefing Room 16

The Propaganda Squad stared in horror at the grisly display projected on the wall before them. The bodies of the Mark I pilots lay on gurneys, the empty skull cavities prominently facing the camera.

“Once the neural pathways are inscribed into the core fragment they become highly responsive, however they are only fully compatible with the pilot who inscribed them. ” lectured Ursula. “The researchers in the MAGI program discovered the entire pilot isn’t required to operate them...only the living mind that created the pathways in the first place.”

Charlotte resolutely continued the slide-show. A number of pictures showed surgeons inserting electrodes directly into the brain tissue. The bell jars containing the human brains were then placed into the open fronts of the MAGI units and lead wires from within the constructs were attached to the electrode leads. Finally the core fragments from each pilots’ MAGUS were removed and placed within the containment cage of the corresponding MAGI

At this point Lynette began trembling furiously. Yoshika discreetly leaned forward and spoke quietly in her ear. “If this is too much for you...”

"No!” Lynette protested loudly enough to elicit a reaction from everyone. Then, embarrassed, she repeated more quietly. “No. I’m ok, Yoshika. Really. I can take it. This is important. And I’m part of this squad too... I need to know this stuff.”

“Are you sure kid?” Bill asked her with concern in his voice. “None of us will think any less of you if you need to take a breather.” Everyone in the room nodded in agreement.

“You don’t need to force yourself Lynne.” Charlotte assured her. “Yoshika can fill you in on the important stuff later.”

Lynette looked up at the genuinely worried faces of her squad mates. Knowing that not only Yoshika, but all of them, were there for her gave her courage and strengthened her resolve “It’s ok everyone. Really. I’m one of you and I want to face everything with you.” She smiled weakly. “This is no different than some of the things I’ve faced in battle.”

Ursula Hartmann harrumphed loudly. “Of course this is different. War is war. This is butchery, plain and simple. But it is important for all of you to see this” She looked back at Charlotte and gave her a slight nod. Once more the slides advanced showing a mustached man with sharp eyes and dapper suit standing on a raised metal grating overlooking the operating theater.

“That man is the MAGI project head.” Ursula stated. “Dr. Josef Mengelé. He’s a brilliant, albeit twisted, surgeon who lacks any shred of ethics or decency.” Her eyebrow arched in distaste. “He is semi-famous, or infamous rather, in my country already. About 8 years ago, Dr. Mengelé was discovered to be behind a rash of disappearances near Frankfort and Dusseldorf.”

“I remember.” Yoshika gasped.

“What do you mean ‘you remember’?” Ursula eyed the younger girl skeptically. “You must have been like, what, six or seven? And you lived in another country.”

“I’ve always liked to read.” Yoshika replied. “My otosan had every major newspaper in the world delivered to his laboratory. That’s how I learned to read Britannish, Galliash and Karlslandian.”

The tiny Fuso maiden squinted her eyes in concentration for a moment. “Dr. Josef Mengelé...” she recited. “...was convicted of serial abduction, unlawful imprisonment, torture and conducting illegal and unethical medical experimentation on the people that he abducted, right? I thought he was sentenced to life in prison”

“He was.” Hartmann confirmed. “Unfortunately someone in Central Command must have had enough clout to get the sentence mitigated. The general consensus being that his knowledge and expertise were critical to the war effort.” Her frown grew deeper. “If you think that your General Maloney is evil then you just haven’t met Dr. Mengelé. This guy is evil à la mode. Evil with a cherry on top. I am ashamed that he is a Karlslander.”

“But... why?” Vince finally asked. “Ah mean... why? What purpose is served by choppin’ these guys up an’ shovin’ their brains in a freakin’ jar? Ah jes’ don’ git it. Was there an accident? Did they try to save them?”

Ursula looked sadly at the young man – still a boy, really. His expression filled with confusion and hope. She hated to be the person to have to introduce him to humanities darker side .

“I’d like to say yes Mallory but it would be a lie.” she let out a sigh. “This next bit should answer your question. This is a visual record of the first major live weapons test of the MAGI, taking place approximately three weeks ago. Right about the time you people were doing your first combat demo for the press at Capel-le-Ferne, this was going on right under Central Command’s nose. Captain Yeager, please continue.”

Again the picture changed. The first few shots were a flyover of a tiny mountain village. “This Chezhnu village is... was... somewhere in the Orussian Ural Mountains. A good half-days travel from any form of civilization.”

The group stared in disbelief as they watched the MAGI units sequential spectacle of slaughter. Every single inhabitant of the village – men, women and children – without hesitation. The final photograph, a pile of dead bodies lying in the village square, lingered on the wall. The room was dead silent for a few moments. Then everyone began talking at once.

“No... they couldn’t have... all those people... horrible... inhuman... oh my god... impossible... this is insane... how can they do this... how can they get away with this?”

"There.” Ursula spat in anger, pointing at the image. ”That’s why. That is what they have been after all along. Human intellect with no humanity, no personality. An unstoppable killing machine incapable of fear or morality or disobedience...or even independent thought.”

Charlotte took control of the lecture once again. “It is my opinion that all of this has nothing to do with winning the war or beating the Neuroi. This is about power and control. Control over people... over armies... over countries!”

She walked to the front of the room and sat down heavily on the stool leaning forward on the lectern. “Don’t forget, before the Neuroi showed up a lot of the countries in the Alliance were about to go to war with one another. It should be no surprise that there are elements in the Allied command structure that seek to see it undermined.” Picking up a pile of file folders and shaking them for emphasis she continued. “I’m no big fan of conspiracy theories but everything we’ve uncovered, everything we’ve pieced together, leads me to believe that there is a secret cabal within the Allied military whose goal is nothing short of world domination.”

Lieutenant Hartmann faced the MAGUS pilots. “Captain Yeager initially called me because she was worried about you three. The truth is that the tech behind your battle suits is rock solid. You should have no problems with them. But in light of these other discoveries we’ve made...”

The Karlslander was cut off as the Liberion squadron commander stood and walked over to flip the wall switch, causing everyone to blink as their eyes adjusted.

“I’ve already made my decision.” she continued. “We are going to go on with the tour as if there were nothing wrong. We leave for Copenhagen tomorrow. In the meantime Lieutenant Hartmann will fly to Capel-le-Ferne and report this to the one person I know we can trust, Commander Wilcke.”

Looking at each and every one of them in turn and seeing their emotions clearly written on their faces – confusion, anger, fear – she understood that they were looking to her for leadership, for answers and for guidance. She was determined not to disappoint them.

“Our last stop before Karlsland will be Riga. Hopefully this thing will be blown wide open before we are scheduled to leave there. But if it is not, I’m telling you guys here and now, there is no way I will allow you to report to your posting. If you do, I have no doubt you will end up in a jar like those Mark I pilots.”

Charlotte’s eyes narrowed in determination. “I swear to you I’m not gonna let that happen. Ladies and gentlemen somehow, someway, we are going to expose everything that we’ve found, everyone involved and put an end to it.”

☆ ☆ ☆

The following day, the personnel and civilian visitors to Soesterberg were treated to an outstanding and entertaining exhibition of combat piloting. The show went over as big here as it had in Britannia. With one major difference – Yoshika and Lynette were surprised with being the guests of honor at a special award ceremony. The base commander and the Mayor of Amsterdam were both pleased to honor the two girls for their heroic rescue of the young traffic accident victim they had saved. The commander gave both girls a medal and the Mayor – not to be outdone – presented them with a key to the city.

After the festivities were through, everyone prepared for their flight to Copenhagen. After seeing their personal effects were stowed on another ship (this time a civilian freighter) and would meet them at their destination, they did the final flight check on their machines.

Charlotte and Ursula Hartmann both filed their flight plans with Soesterberg’s con-tower. Charlotte to Copenhagen and Ursula to St. Trond Airfield. They parted company at this point, Charlotte admonishing Ursula to be careful and to be sneaky. Both of them knew this was both the most crucial and the most dangerous part of the whole plan.

Anyone plotting to stop them would be targeting Ursula before she could blow any whistles. And anyone looking for her would realize pretty quickly that she had deviated from her flight plan. Hopefully, those people would take some time to figure out her actual destination.

☆ ☆ ☆

-- September 24st, 1943
-- RAF Mildenhall Shared Flight Facilities

“Well?” General Maloney barked at his subordinate. “Do they have her yet? What is the hold up?”

Major Sinquett gulped in distress. “Sir. Lt. Hartmann has not yet arrived at the expected coordinates. We’ve backtracked along the flight plan she submitted but there is no sign of her.”

Maloney steepled his hands and stared at the blank wall in back of the room, deep in thought. The Major was steeling his nerve to ask if something was wrong when Maloney suddenly murmured “Capel-le-Ferne.”

“Sir?” the Major asked in surprise.

“She’s gone to Capel-le-Ferne.” the General responded coldly. “It’s the only answer. Yeager sent her to talk to Wilcke.” His mind raced furiously. “She won’t be contacting the base beforehand. She will likely maintain radio silence until she reaches her destination. She can not be allowed to report to Commander Wilcke.”

He made a decision without an instants hesitation. “Nobody there will know she is en route. No one is expecting her.” His gaze appeared sinister as he looked at the Major over steepled fingers. “Take a few select men and personally see to it that she is shot down over the ocean. Make certain there is no body left to be discovered.”

Not for the first time, Major Sinquett was appalled at his own complicity in these proceedings. He had thought jumping on-board with General Maloney would be his fast track up the ladder of promotion. But the longer he spent time with the man the dirtier and dirtier this whole scenario was becoming. Now he was being ordered to kill a fellow officer.

He knew it would do no good to voice an opinion or openly defy the General, but his conscience wouldn’t allow him to murder an innocent person either. He made a fateful decision. One he knew he would most likely pay for later, but he still needed to be able to face himself in the mirror every morning. All he could do at this point was to make sure they couldn’t find her.

☆ ☆ ☆

-- September 26th, 1943
-- Flyvestation Skalstrup - Copenhagen Danmark -

It had been an entertaining day for Kurtz Kripke. It wasn’t often there were any special events to break up the wartime monotony on the base. ”Those pilots put on quite a show. And those MAGUS things... how cool were they?" Corporal Kripke thought as he headed to the M.P. barracks. The corporal was surprised to find a change in the duty roster for that evening. He wasn’t about to complain. It meant that he would be able to spend some unexpected extra time with his wife and daughter.

He signed off on the log happily and headed home.

At about 0200 hours, a shadowed figure approached the security gate to Hanger E. The figure made a hand signal to the replacement guard and the gate slid silently aside. Entering the hanger the anonymous person quickly spotted the Striker and MAGUS units, prepped and ready for their flight to Riga in the morning.

Making his way through the darkened bay, he confidently strode up to the first MAGUS unit and opened the seal. Climbing into the flight harness, he situated his body so that he could reach the base of the control matrix.

The core fragment was hanging suspended within it’s containment cage, pulsing softly with a blush red light. Working swiftly and quietly, he removed a blue-capped widget that looked like a standard bladed fuse. Slipping it into his right pocket, he replaced it with another, identical one, from his left. He then climbed out carefully, making sure everything laid exactly as he found it.

He moved on and repeated the process with the remaining two suits. As quickly and quietly as he came, he was gone. The night continued on in silence.

☆ ☆ ☆

-- September 27th, 1943
-- Eastern Baltic Sea – Orussian Airspace

Something was different, Charlotte thought. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but something wasn’t quite right. She tried to brush it aside but this feeling of unease kept nagging at her. Finally she keyed her com channel open to the whole squad.

“Hey, Lieutenant. Everything all right over there?”

“Affirmative Captain.” Hughes answered, slightly puzzled by her tone.

“Vince?” she continued.

“Yes ma’am. Everything’s green across the board.” the youngster answered in what he hoped was a professional sounding voice.

“Bill?” Charlotte questioned her fellow Liberion.

“I’m five by five Cap.” Bill returned. He paused briefly. “What’s up? You getting a feeling?”

“I don’t know.” Charlotte answered truthfully. “How about you girls? Everything copacetic?”

“Yup!” Chirped Francesca.

“Yes." Lynette answered.

“I’m not quite sure what that means,” Yoshika added. “but everything is ok here.”

“Hmm... yeah. All right. Just checking.” The redhead tried to shake off the feeling of foreboding in the back of her mind.

“Look everyone. Maybe it’s because of all the crap we’ve discovered, maybe it’s because we’re nearing the Orussian front, maybe it’s something else entirely. But I’m definitely feeling edgy.” Charlotte was all business now. “I want everyone on point. Eyes open, watch each others backs, understood?”

A chorus of “yes’s” and “yes, ma’am’s” followed on top of Yoshika’s hearty shout of “Ryoukai”. They flew on. By some unspoken agreement there was no com chatter. The droning of their engines was the only sound accompanying them. After about 30 minutes of this Bill spoke up.

“The silence is deafening.” he quipped.

Charlotte’s head jerked up involuntarily, her eyes opening wide with realization.

Silence! That was it. That’s what was different. She had grown used to the ‘open carrier’ sub-harmonic the MAGUS’ threw off. It had become part of the background noise and - for the first time flying with them - she didn’t hear/sense it.

“Mr. Mallory I want you to do something for me. Remember that control block I showed you beneath the containment cage?”

“Yes ma’am.” The young man answered confidently.

“In that bank of chips there are two blue ones. Pull the far left one and reinsert it.” She waited.

“Done.” Vince reported back quickly.

“Nothing.” Charlotte muttered, more to herself than anyone else.

She ran a dozen theories through her mind in the space of a few seconds. None of them had a favorable outcome. They were still about 140 air miles from the mainland, but they had been pacing a peninsular outcropping for the past 20 minutes that was significantly closer. It was well off their filed flight plan but...

“Attention everyone.” Charlotte suddenly ordered. “You are all to adjust course 27 degrees port. We are making an emergency landing.”

“Cap?” Bill inquired.

“You three are to ground your units and evacuate the instant you’re over land. Got it?”

“Aye Captain.” Hughes answered immediately. “Alright gentlemen, form up on me and let’s juice it.”

“All three MAGUS sub-harmonic fields are off-line.” The Liberion commander explained. “I don’t know what that means but since it’s new it can’t be good. There is no way its a random malfunction or coincidence.” she concluded. “I need to look your suits over and until I do I want you out of them. ASAP.”

Not long before reaching land, an alarmed Vince Mallory called out to Charlotte over the com system. “Captain Yeager I’m getting some red-zone activity on my starboard engine. The fuel mixture is leaning-out. What should I do ma’am?”

“Keep her steady Mr. Mallory. Just keep heading for land. If you have to ditch in the water we’ll be there for you immediately.”

Charlotte first thought was ”Oh great. What else could go wrong?" As she began to mentally kick herself for inviting disaster, her ears were suddenly assailed by a familiar and dreaded sound. A Neuroi. A very large Neuroi judging by the volume of the resonance she was hearing. ”Crap! Crapcrapcrapcrapcrap!"

“Shirley!” Francisca yelped in alarm.

“Yeah I know, I know.” Charlotte responded seriously. There was no running from it... not at this close a range. The only option was to go on the offensive.

“Ok, people. Its go time. This is the real deal. As we discussed... MAGUS pilots you are on support, back up your team-mate. Miyafuji, Fiske, you’re with me. Mister Mallory you are covering Ensign Lucchini, Lieutenant Hughes you are with Sergeant Bishop.”

The Neuroi craft was now visible on the horizon and approaching fast. “Look sharp everyone. We are about to engage.” Suddenly there was a strange ‘womph’ noise over the intercom. “Ah, damn!” Vince cried out as his engine suddenly seized. “My starboard engine is out Captain.”

“Ditch your unit Mallory. Wait for us to clean up the little problem in front of us and we will be back to pick you up.” Charlotte ordered.

“Sorry Lucchini.” Vince told her sadly.

“Not your fault Vince. Don’t stress. We’ll wrap this up in no time... then you’ll owe me two.” the fanged one chuckled.

Yoshika took lead, throwing up a huge shield to take the brunt of the Neuroi’s attack as the others engaged the enemy with all the firepower they could muster. Bill Fiske and Lieutenant Hughes raked the enemy craft with strafing fire, attempting to expose the core enough for one of the Witches to take it out.

They were working cohesively as a unit and they were steadily taking a toll on the Neuroi defenses. It was regenerating at a slower and slower rate. It was only a matter of a short time before they would have the thing beaten down completely.

Bill suddenly felt his MAGUS shudder slightly as the stick became sluggish and poorly responsive. This had happened before. A sharp smack to the control matrix had put it right in the past. He was about to strike the pesky piece of equipment when he suddenly heard, or maybe felt, an unfamiliar noise. A high-pitched keening that made his teeth ache.

“What’s that noise?” Bill said over the open com channel.

Since she was coordinating the action, Charlotte’s attention was split and it took an extra second for his words to process. She shifted her attention to the MAGUS pilot. “What are you hearing Corporal Fiske?”

“I dunno really. Kind of...*crackle*...and a weird...*crackle*...gh-pitched...*crackle*...kind of like a... *crackle*... in the back... *crackle* ...and don’t... *crackle* ...sponding prope... *crackle*...”

“Fiske I’m not reading you. Something is interfering with communications.”

Suddenly she heard a new sound. There were now two additional Neuroi resonance patterns. One was directly in front of her - Fiske’s MAGUS - the other was in the current location of the Lieutenants unit. She watched as both MAGUS suits floundered about as if suddenly difficult to control. Charlotte’s adrenaline spiked. What the hell? Why now?

“Corporal Fiske respond! What’s happening?” Through her headset came more static and beneath that, a strangled gargling sound and then silence. “Fiske! Come in! I’m not receiving you.” A heavy foreboding filled Charlotte. “Bill! Talk to me. What’s happening?”

Fiske’s MAGUS stopped shuddering in place and began to fly towards the Neuroi attack craft once more. Charlotte gunned her engines and quickly caught up to Fiske’s machine and flew along side him. In the back of her mind, she wondered why the Neuroi craft had stopped firing at them.

Flipping on her back, she flew underneath the MAGUS unit. Since radio communications were compromised she needed to make visual contact with the pilot.

Through the faceplate she could see a form that only vaguely resembled a person. A man-shaped amalgam of grey matter lacking any features, save for a mouth - opened in a permanent, soundless scream. Charlotte watched helplessly as the MAGUS pulsed with light and the man-formed shape disappeared… seemingly absorbed into the suits’ structure as it’s form grew larger with accumulated mass.

She immediately realized where that extra mass had come from and had to repress the urge to throw up.

U.S. Army Air Force Pilot Corporal William Fiske… was gone.

She swung her head around to find Lieutenant Hughes’ armor just in time to see it shudder and flare, pulse and expand and she knew that Lieutenant Hughes was gone as well.

Charlotte Yeager normally had a good handle on her emotions, but this... this was just too much.

“You ate them!” she screamed to the empty sky in rage. “You! God! Dammed! Sons-of-bitches! You fucking ate them!”

The thing that was once Bill Fiske’s MAGUS continued to accelerate towards the Neuroi ‘mothership’ but it could not hope to match Charlotte’s speed. She took off after it like a bat out of hell. Bill Fiske was a good man and had become a good friend. Charlotte would mourn his loss… later. Right now there was something that needed to be taken care of. She keyed her mic.

“Miyafuji, Bishop, Lucchini. Listen to me. You need to trust me and do as I say.” She gave them all a second to focus. “Bill and the Lieutenant are dead. Their MAGUS units have gone rogue. We need to take them out."

She was gratified to hear no questions or hesitation. Only a chorus of “Yes ma’am!”

“Miyafuji, Bishop, you take the one at 10 o’clock. Lucchini, you’re with me.”

Lynette and Yoshika peeled off to their assigned target. Francisca opened throttle and headed for Charlotte’s location. With heavy hearts, knowing that their friends had perished at the hands of the Neuroi, all four Witches converged upon and eliminated the former MAGUS units with extreme prejudice. They then turned their attention to the Neuroi mothership still advancing behind them.

----

Suddenly Charlotte’s com crackled to life and she heard Vince’s voice, full of enthusiasm, giving her a sit-rep. She spun around and watched in horror as the young southerner rose from the waves and raced to catch up with them.

“I got her working Captain. I’ll be right...*crackle*...where did...*crackle*...ll and the Lieutenant go? I thought they...*crackle*...*crackle*...*crackle*...”

“Mallory. Back off! D’ya hear me? Stand down! Now!” she yelled in vain. ”Mallory!" The boy couldn’t hear her through whatever interference the Neuroi was throwing off. The Liberion ace acted instantaneously. Flipping her vector she charged straight at Vince’s machine and, to Vince’s confusion, slammed directly into it.

When it came to sheer muscle, Charlotte was no Gertrude Barkhorn. But she still possessed the enhanced strength common to all Witches. Grabbing the fuselage of Vince’s unit with her bare hands she exuded enough pressure to crumple the Grey Matter armor, succeeding in damaging the exhaust ports.

The engines choked out and she began spin them both around as fast as she possibly could, just like she did when she performed the ‘Fastball Special’ with Francisca. She literally threw the young man at the ground below, hoping that distance would lessen the influence of the Neuroi on the core fragment.

“Miyafuji, you and Bishop get down there and see to his injuries.” Charlotte ordered. “That isn’t going to be the gentlest of landings.”

Unfortunately the Neuroi wasn’t going to give her time to make sure everyone was ok. The Liberion ace sensed more than saw the Neuroi particle beam as it lanced out towards her.

She threw herself forward and, as a result, the beam only glanced her back. She caught the smell of burnt leather and singed hair. A second blast nailed her left engine squarely and she plummeted trying to regain control. “I just fixed that, dammit.”

"Shirley!" Francisca hollered over her mike.

The young Witch watched helplessly as her mentor continued her uncontrolled descent. Vegetation geysered into the air as the Liberion ace hit the tree line. ”Shirley! Shirley!"

There was no answer to her cries. Only a flare of light and a plume of thick gray smoke curling up into the sky. ”NOOOO!"

Francisca was too shaken up to think straight. This couldn’t happen. Not to Shirley.

Shirley was the one she looked up to. Shirley was the one who was patient with her. Shirley was the one who understood her, the one who showed her that she could turn all of her minuses into pluses. Shirley… Shirley was the person she loved!

The tiny terror spun around and glared in hatred at the bloated tic-like shape of the Neuroi craft. Her whole body trembled with the accumulated rage, fear and frustration she was feeling. A blood-red haze clouded her vision and her Strikers screamed in protest as she accelerated full-throttle towards the alien.

**

Charlotte was able to control the profile of her shield to a certain extent. She could bend the leading edges of her shield back to streamline her flight profile. She had decided to try and teach Francesca how to do the same. She had been surprised and pleased to find that, not only could the little Romagnan mimic her ability but was able to take it leagues further. Francesca’s control was much more granular. She could form her shield into any shape she could imagine, as well as vary its thickness and density.

**

As Francesca charged the Neuroi mother ship she manifested her shield and willed it into the shape of a gigantic wedge - only millimeters thick at the leading edge but as hard as diamond.

Pushing it ahead of her she slammed it into the Neuroi craft, sinking the edge deep in to the skin of the ship. The energy construct then shimmered as it was reformed into two intersecting planes connected by a fulcrum. With every single bit of her will, fueled by her out-of-control emotions, she applied pressure. The Neuroi craft split open like an overripe melon.

It began to regenerate almost immediately, but the core was nakedly exposed. With an inarticulate scream the tiny Romagnan ace unloaded a full clip at the Neuroi core, shattering it where it floated. Replacing the exhausted clip with a fresh one she let go with another salvo. The remaining shards were also reduced to their basic components… a glittering trail of pixie dust. The grey matter making up the ship itself also began to dissolve, now lacking the guiding intelligence that allowed it to cohere in the first place.

Just that quickly, it was gone. Francesca hovered there, still pulling the trigger even though she had expended all of her ammo. The barrel of the rifle was so hot there were flames on the tip. The little ace lost her breath as her body convulsed with sobs, crying so hard she couldn’t hear the pained voice that came over her headset.

“Lucchini, I’m all right. Lucchini?”

All the young pilot could hear was her own ragged breathing and cries of despair.

"Francesca! Focus!”

Her sobs caught in her throat. “Sh-shirley?” she questioned in disbelief. “You’re ok? You’re really ok?”

Charlotte grunted in pain. “Yeah, well, you know… my right arm’s broken. And I *yii* probably have a couple of broken ribs too. Nothing too bad.” She gave an annoyed sigh. “My port engines’ hash. That kinda pisses me off.”

Francisca laughed, relieved to hear the older girls flippant attitude again. But the laughter soon dissolved into choking sobs once more.

“I-I-I thought… thought... you died Shirley. I thought you died! I… I… I…” she gasped for breath. “You can’t die! You can’t leave me Shirley. Not ever! You can’t! You can’t! You can’t!"

Charlotte was overcome by the raw emotions spilling out of the tiny trouble-maker. “I-I’m… Lucchini I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to worry you like that. Honestly.”

Over their radio link, Charlotte heard Francesca’s breathing start to normalize. Another pained yelp escaped her. “We can’t gotta mean it ’cause the larks are still there.”

Francesca blinked in confusion. “… What?”

“Uhhh. I-I gotta… sit down for a minute.” Charlotte answered shakily.

“What’s the matter?” Francesca questioned desperately. Her panic grew when she didn’t receive a response. ”Shirley what’s wrong?" Nothing but silence answered. Gunning her Striker’s, she headed back towards the atoll.

"Please God. Oh please please please please please let her be ok.”

~~ to be continued...

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