Proper Path to Glory

Amsterdam on Five Dollars a Day Part 2


---- September 21st , 1943
---- Soesterberg Royal Nedurlund Air Force Base

Charlotte had convinced Bill Fiske to take the day off with the others by telling him, quite truthfully, that it would take some serious grinding on her part to make sense of anything she had found and to give her a day or two to show him her findings. She was immersed in the meticulous process of correlating all the data she had gathered when Ursula Hartmann showed up.

She had tried to contact Hartmann the previous day. The Karlslander finally got back to her using a secured channel. That raised a couple of eyebrows in the communications tower but no one said a word. As they were over a secure line, Charlotte was felt able to discuss the situation and her needs in some detail. They had previously met in a professional capacity, and Charlotte knew and trusted Erica Hartmann’s opinion of her sister. In the end, Ursula told Charlotte she would check things on her end and get back to her ASAP. Even though speed was promised Charlotte was still surprised to receive a call back less than two hours later.

The redhead immediately noticed the slightly different tone to Hartmann’s voice in this conversation. “Hey Shirley, I found those R&D fuel-mix charts you wanted.”

"Fuel-mix charts?” thought Charlotte. However she instinctively answered. “Great. Thanks for the help.”

“Y’know,” Hartmann drawled. “I’m overdue for some leave. I’ll drop them by myself since it’s only a half-day’s travel. It’d be great to see you again Shirley – relive all those great times we had together. Ha. Remember that guy with the thing, at that weird little pub in Wickshire?”

Charlotte was confused for an instant. Yes, she had met Ursula Hartmann twice before. The first time was for the span of about twenty minutes, when she flew with a transport into Capel-le-Ferne in order to pick up Erica for their mothers’ funeral. The second time was maybe a total of a few hours when she was on base to demonstrate some new ordnance. They had met but they weren’t really on a first name basis.

And they had never been to a pub together.

“Ok Urs... sounds good to me.” Charlotte answered smoothly in the same casual tone. “There are some great joints in Amsterdam. I’ll treat you this time.”

So. There was something going on. Something much more involved than what she had thought. That was glaringly obvious. Something so big that Hartmann wouldn’t even talk about it on a secure line. She had gone out of her way to try to make both the research request and her request for leave time seem innocuous. Nervous and intrigued, she had awaited the Karlslander’s arrival.

----

Ursula Hartmann proved to be a godsend. She came equipped with a wealth of classified knowledge and a taste for the clandestine. As well as…

“The MAGUS project notes? How on earth did you get these?”

“One of the project heads was on loan from our facility.” Hartmann answered. “It wasn’t difficult to dip into her files and pull this stuff up. Some of it is redacted but that’s mostly personnel-related stuff. The research itself seems to be untouched.”

Charlotte was grateful beyond words. “I can’t thank you enough Hartmann. This will save me so much time in research.” She took the folders offered to her. “I’m sorry you had to come all this way just for this. It wasn’t a problem was it?”

“It is a problem,” The little blonde researcher commented. “...but not in the way you may think. The truth is you’ve stumbled into something way bigger than you are aware of.” She kicked at her rucksack. “I’ve requested a week’s leave. There is some heavy stuff going down and, quite frankly, you are going to need some help.”

Charlotte gave her an inquisitive look. Ursula merely nodded her head towards the stack of reports Charlotte now held. “Why don’t you read over some of that stuff while I talk to the base C.O. about getting a billet for a few days.”

Deep into the night the busty redhead was still immersed in reports. One thing she had gotten wrong… the M.A.G.U.S. program itself wasn’t the problem - the problem was the internecine political forces propping it up. It was astonishing how much could be kept under wraps by hiding it in plain sight. Putting together a number of seemingly unrelated occurrences revealed a clear trail of circumstance and result. All leading to a clear singular goal. A goal that was horrifying.

She now understood why Ursula had decided to stay on and help them. This was undeniable proof of massive corruption and outright treason, of an almost inconceivable scope. When faced with a cesspool such as this, one had few options – turn your back and pretend it doesn’t exist or dive in head-first and get filthy. The redoubtable Ms. Hartmann seemed to like it dirty.

☆ ☆ ☆

---- September 22nd , 1943
---- Soesterberg Royal Nedurlund Air Force Base

Francesca had been at odds as to what to do with herself. Earlier in the day, the little Romagnan had finally tracked down Charlotte in one of the empty bays in the ordinance area, only to find the older girl hip-deep in technical drawings and having a heated discussion with some glasses-girl who looked an awful lot like Erica Hartmann.

A familiar ozone-like metallic tang from a metal lathe hung in the air. Shirley was either building something or taking something apart. Francesca, from experience, knew better than to interrupt the Liberion ace when she was immersed in something like this.

She decided instead to hunt down Lynette and Yoshika. They had had four days alone together, not counting the group exercises, so she figured they ought to be feeling social by now. Not to mention the way the two lovebirds had floated through breakfast a couple of mornings ago and spent a good portion of that entire day in a complete daze. It was pretty obvious they had sealed the deal on the trip over and she couldn’t wait to grill Yoshika for the juicy details.

As she trotted up to the front gate she spotted the two girls in question waiting patiently for her. Both greeted her with a smile. “Lucchini-chan konnichiwa.” Yoshika greeted her kindly.

"Ahhh. Girls day out.” Francesca mused happily. “Just what the dottore ordered.”

“Hi guys. Ready for a day on the town?” the twin-tailed terror greeted cheerily.

“Yes!” Yoshika chirped enthusiastically “There’s a ton of stuff to see. I hardly know where to start.” Lynne gave a warm smile and a wave. “Good afternoon.” She fell into step behind the two smaller girls as they scampered ahead, chattering excitedly.

It was a fun, if uneventful, day. Even though technically the beginning of autumn the picturesque city still looked and felt rather summery. The window boxes of nearly every business and residence were overflowing with colorful flowers. Modern motorcars shared the cobblestone streets with horse-drawn carts.

The light breeze was surprisingly warm - which felt odd considering they had just come through a sleet storm on the USS Manchester just a couple of days earlier. The three power-tripped the town seeing as much as they could. Francesca was amused by the Amsterdam stacked semi-circular canals. “Our canals are like a road system. I don’t quite get the point of these.” the tiny Romagnan quipped.

It was later in the afternoon when all the commotion happened.

Lynne and Yoshika were strolling happily hand-in-hand down one of the main thoroughfares with Francesca in the lead. The girls, as well as the crowds of people on the sidewalk around them, were startled by a loud explosion of a truck backfiring. The unfortunate horse standing next to the truck bolted in terror dragging a crate-laden wagon behind it, sending a crowd of people scattering. Among those fleeing was a young boy who tripped and landed directly in the path of the runaway equine.

The three young pilots had no chance to react before the horse trampled the boy, running over him with the wagon as well, as it raced away. By unspoken agreement Francesca began chasing down the runaway horse while Yoshika and Lynette raced to the boy’s side. He was in very bad shape when they reached him. His entire body was covered in bruises and abrasions. His left leg was bent at such an angle that even a layman would be able to tell it was broken. Dark purplish-yellow with the outline of the broken femur pressing the skin from the inside. Worse was the sickening whistle that emitted when he gasped for breath.

Yoshika’s power flared to life about her. “His ribcage has been crushed. One of his lungs is punctured... the left one most likely.” Yoshika said out loud to no one in particular. Her mind raced as she tried to decide which injury she should attend to first. She was shaken from her thoughts by the quiet but confident voice of her girlfriend.

“I want to help Yoshika. What can I do to help?” Lynette asked.

“Ok.” Yoshika responded. “For right now, try to calm him down a bit. Talk to him. If you can, get his mind off of what I’m doing.” She focused all of her concentration on the young patient in front of her. Lynette held the boy’s hand and spoke to him in a comforting manner. He responded to her voice and tried his best to put on a brave face. Ultimately the pain overwhelmed him and he fell unconscious.

“Yoshika!” Lynne blurted out in alarm.

“It’s ok.” Yoshika assured her. “He doesn’t have a concussion. It’s better this way.” She continued to pour her magic into the small broken body beneath her. There were a couple of small pools of blood forming on the boy’s chest. “Could...” she panted with exertion. “could you try to find some cloth we can make bandages out of? Maybe someone in the crowd could help.”

The little Fuso ace was startled when she immediately heard the sound of ripping cloth. Looking up she was surprised to see Lynette, now clad in only her bra, tearing her white dress shirt into strips. Yoshika allowed herself a small smile of gratification at the way Lynne was stepping up. Her girl really was wonderful.

She directed Lynette to gently lift the small body so she could apply the makeshift bandages. Then, carefully placing him back on the ground, she continued to use her magic to repair the boy’s internal injuries. Throughout the ordeal Lynne was right beside her – supporting her, encouraging her, focusing her... a comforting hand on her shoulder, mopping the sweat from her brow.

"Is this how it will be with us from now on?” Yoshika wondered. While she worked she imagined how their lives might be. Living together, maybe even working together. “That would be...really nice.” she thought happily.

An ambulance had finally arrived. Yoshika’s quick action and her amazing power had ensured that not only would the boy make a full recovery there wouldn’t even be any scarring. She was amply rewarded by the loving hug Lynne had gathered her into – one that Francesca didn’t hesitate to join in on.

As they were in the center of town, they were able to find a woman’s clothing shop in short order. While Lynette went in to find a replacement for the shirt she’d used on triage care, Yoshika and Francesca sat down on a park bench across the street from the store and started chatting amicably.

“Nice job there Yoshika. You really saved that kid’s hash.” Francesca said with a tone of admiration.

“That’s what I do. Well... that’s what I want to do someday you know?” Yoshika answered her seriously. “I want to be a Doctor, just like my okaasan and obaachan.”

“Lynne seemed to be a big help there too, huh?” Francesca nodded her head toward the dress shop. “She jumped right in with no hesitation whatsoever.”

“Yeah,” Yoshika answered with a sigh and a dreamy smile. “She really is great isn’t she?”

“Yeah, she really is.” Francesca shifted a bit uncomfortably. “It really makes me feel like all of us failed her somehow.”

Yoshika was somewhat startled to hear her friend sound so down all of a sudden. Her curiosity was peaked. “What do you mean Lucchini-chan?”

“Lynne was with us for about five or six months before you showed up. She was nice enough - we all liked her - but she never participated in the group. We’d invite her, try to include her, but she always kept to herself. Stayed closed off.”

The tiny Romagnan looked down, almost ashamedly. “After a while, I guess... we just stopped trying.”

“But then you came along Yoshika. You shook up the whole place when you arrived.” The younger girl grinned at the memory. “And you got Lynne’s attention right off the bat. She seemed to change almost overnight. She started doing stuff with the rest of us and she got way more confident in the field. Now look at her. Jumping in to perform triage, getting half naked in public without a second thought.” she chuckled lightly. “I didn’t know she had it in her.”

Yoshika gave her little friend a reassuring pat on the shoulder. “She always had it in her Lucchini-chan. I don’t know why I was the one able to bring it out but I’m glad I was. I’m really glad.”

“I truly believe you were the one she was waiting for.” Francesca looked up through her bangs and gave her friend a warm smile. “In Romagna we say ′Eravamo destinati a incontrarci‘. It means ’We were destined to meet’. I’d have to say that really describes you and Lynne to a ‘T’.”

Their conversation was interrupted by the cheerful voice of the girl in question. “Yoshika! Francesca! Sorry to keep you guys waiting so long.”

“Hope you have a saying for ′destined to be together forever′ Lucchini-chan.” murmured Yoshika as she rose from the bench.

Francesca watched with a smile as Yoshika rushed into Lynne’s waiting arms. “Yeah, Yoshika. There’s one for that too. Gotcha covered.”

☆ ☆ ☆

---- September 21st , 1943
---- RAF Mildenhall Shared Flight Facilities

The Major standing before the expansive mahogany desk threw a nervous salute to the man sitting behind it. “Sir, our IDT reports Dr. Hartmann arrived at Soesterberg late this afternoon. She made contact with Captain Yeager and has been in her company ever since.”

“She should never have been allowed to leave in the first place. The whole base should have been on lock-down after you discovered the security breach. St. Trond’s Commander must be an imbecile.” Trevor Maloney growled. “Well, this works for us in a way. Now we know where all of our leaks are. We can plug them all at once.”

He reached for a notebook lying on his desk and flipped it open to one of the back-most pages. “They will be leaving for Copenhagen day after tomorrow. That means Lieutenant Hartmann will be heading back to St. Trond. Have her intercepted before she returns to her base.”

“Yes sir.” The Major answered immediately.“What about the MAGUS pilots and the Witches from the 501st? How do we deal with them?”

“Quite easily and with no fingerprints.” The General replied. “Have one of our operatives in Copenhagen sabotage the sub-harmonic cloak on the MAGUS units. We’ll just let the Neuroi take care of them for us on their trip to Riga. We’ll go in when it’s done and pick up the pieces.”

“Sir. Yes sir!” The Major snapped another salute and spun on his heel, leaving General Maloney to ponder his thoughts.

"It’d be nice if their heads are still intact afterward, but you can’t have everything."

☆ ☆ ☆

---- September 23rd , 1943
---- Soesterberg Royal Nedurlund Air Force Base

After almost 72 hours of straight research and heavy grinding, Charlotte had arranged a briefing room and the entire Propaganda Squad were in attendance. After all, what she had to tell them affected all of them.

“As the fragment performs repeated functions it creates for itself a ‘neural network’ for lack of a better term.” Charlotte explained. “When each of you first got your suits, the core fragments had only basic neural pathways etched into them. They could fly but that was about it. Am I right?”

“Yeah, pretty much.” Vince confirmed. “About as agile as a tractor in a swamp.”

“But with each test run it got easier to handle? To the point where you feel, as I’ve heard Vince here put it more than once, ’as one with the machine’? Is it really that responsive now?”

“I’ve gotta say yes. It’s defiantly more than just flying it.” Bill answered thoughtfully. “When I’m performing a complex maneuver it feels as if it reads the tiny nuances I envision in my mind. There is no other way to describe how it performs exactly as I want it to.”

“Ah, yes.” Charlotte cut in again. “That brings us to the control yokes. Bill, you said a couple of times you got the jitters and your palms were sweaty, your skin and the yoke turned slightly green. That’s because the yokes are primarily copper. Copper with gold inlays. That’s not a fashion statement.” She poked a finger in Bill’s face. “What do you know about computers?”

“What? Umm... I read ‘Popular Mechanics’ so I’m kinda up-to-speed as much as any layman would be.”

“Well not to put to-fine a point on it, you guys are being used to program the Fragments. Somehow your nerve impulses or brainwaves or whateverthehell are transmitted through the control interface and etched into the Fragment as neural pathways.”

“Like the Positronic brains in Dr. Asimov’s robot books?” Bill asked hesitantly.

Charlotte gave a delighted response “Yes! Exactly so.” She eyed the pilot critically and grinned. “So you do have hobbies besides cruising for girls, huh flyboy? My estimation of you just went up a couple of notches.”

“Uh… thanks?” Bill answered with a hapless grin of his own.

“So… people…” Charlotte continued in a more serious manner. “I have a current working theory, based on what I’ve discovered, along with certain information provided to me by Lieutenant Hartmann here and some gut instinct.” She turned and walked to the back of the room. “First though, I have something I need to show you... Ursula?”

The lab-coat frocked blonde nodded and turned the lights off. Charlotte clicked a switch and the slide projector on the table in front of her flared to life. Projected onto the white wall was what looked to be a nondescript military base – someplace with a lot of sand and wide-open areas with a couple of palm trees in the background. Framed in the shot were four large and very familiar-looking objects.

Bill sat up with a start. “Are those...?”

“Yep.” Charlotte confirmed. “Those are MAGUS units - the MAGUS Mark I to be specific.”

“Mark I?” questioned Lt. Hughes. “We were told that our units were prototypes.”

“That looks like a desert.” Bill stated. “Not the Liberion Mid-west, we don’t have palm trees. Soooo... Afrika? The Middle East?”

“Near as we can figure, Northern Afrika. Ursula here thinks that these photo’s were taken about eight months ago.” Charlotte answered, looking over her shoulder.

Hartmann nodded in the affirmative. Charlotte then advanced the slide show, clicking through picture after picture showing the Mark I units performing maneuvers.

Vince’s confusion was evident in his voice. “So they lied to us about our units being the first? Why? What would it matter if we knew we were another part of the same test program?”

Ursula cleared her throat and spoke up for the first time. “Well, for one thing... Shirley, will you advance to the next slide?” The picture on the wall slid aside for the next in the series. Nothing but sand and the same palm trees in the distance. The buildings from the previous photos were missing.

“...for one thing, the base is no longer there.” Ursula continued. “I tried to research when and why the base was decommissioned. I found that – officially at least – it never existed. And the depository I dipped into to get these records four days ago, when Captain Yeager here called me, has been sanitized. Whatever this is all about, it is current and ongoing.”

The glasses-wearing research scientist frowned. “That’s not the biggest bombshell either. When I pulled these records I was also able to identify who the test pilots were. All four are now listed as M.I.A. All mention as to where or how they went missing and their personnel files have been redacted.”

The slide projector advanced once more. This time showing a thickly forested area, with Quonset huts nestled closely together and covered by air camouflage netting. The mechanical figures shown standing on the air field looked quite different from the now-familiar configuration of the MAGUS Slightly smaller. More angular.

Advancing through this series of slides it became quite evident that these new units were quicker and much more agile. And glaringly, a completely different set of weaponry was in use... particle beams.

At this point Bill was beyond being amazed. “What in god’s name are those things?”

Ursula pushed her glasses up on her nose and glanced down at her notes. “They are called WARLOCK’s. Fully autonomous war machines in the shape of a humanoid.” Looking up from her notepad she continued. “It’s powered by a captured Neuroi core. There is a computer inside that calculates distance, trajectory, firing solutions... basically you give it a target and let it go nuts.”

Everyone in the room was silent as they took in the spectacle of sheer carnage displayed in each succeeding slide. Hartmann sighed deeply as she closed the pages of the folder she held.

“These photos date back to about May of this year. This program was well underway while the MAGUS program was being formed.” a frown marred the brow of the lab-frocked cutie. “The WARLOCK program has since been discontinued. The WARLOCK’s had a tendency to go rogue and turn on their controllers”

She glanced up at Charlotte and indicated she should continue. The Captain advanced the slides once more. Again, some sort of hidden training facility was on display. This time, the mecha units they viewed were radically different from the previous two. Much more compact and angular than either the MAGUS or WARLOCK units. Although much smaller than their counterparts they seemed to exude an aura of deadly intent.

“This is where things get scary.” Ursula commented. “You guys pay attention, because Captain Yeager and I think this directly affects you – in a decidedly negative fashion.”

As Charlotte advanced the slide-show once again, Ursula continued on with her narration.

“This research base is not-so coincidentally located in Karlsland – adjunct to the base you boys will be reporting to. When the WARLOCK program didn’t pan out the MAGI program was instated alongside the MAGUS program. Another manned solution to the AI problem that plagued the WARLOCK In fact the MAGUS is, in a round-about way, a support program for the MAGI.”

Bill continued to be the most vocal of the three male pilots. “Waitaminute. Those MAGI things are manned?” he exclaimed incredulous. “What are they piloted by? Dwarfs?”

The attempt at levity fell flat as Ursula deadpanned “No. Not dwarfs.” She remained silent for a moment. Then continued in a serious voice. “I won’t lie to you, this has me more than a little spooked.”

The slide currently up on the wall showed an indoor facility that seemed half construction bay and half operating theater. Fully visible on the wheeled gurneys were four obviously dead bodies. Obvious mostly because the tops of the skulls of all four cadavers had been removed. The next slide reveled a sight that, while a logical outcome of the previous picture, was highly disturbing nonetheless.

Four human brains – encased in bell jars and floating in some sort of viscous fluid. The sight felt unreal. It actually took some few seconds before it could fully register with everyone in the room just exactly what they were looking at. They all recoiled in a similar fashion, although Lynette seemed more deeply effected by the sight than the other five pilots. She turned away from the screen and buried her head in Yoshika’s shoulder. It took everything she had in her to keep from crying.

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