Mackenzie adjusted her headset one more time before feeling comfortable enough to relax in the co-pilot seat. She tried to recall the last time she actually piloted an aircraft but couldn't. Any memories of wearing Kevlar recently seemed to be fading as well. She knew it really wasn't that long ago that she had engaged the enemy in combat, but the days, weeks, and months from the last year had smashed together. It seemed like it was only moments ago that the Easy Eight first made landfall back into their home country.
While overseas, she had kept up fairly well on current events, thanks to her fiancé. Yet nothing seemed to prepare her for the true direness of the situation. Things had changed drastically over the course of two years. News pundits and editorial authors claimed that things weren't as bad as they seemed; those who partook in the revolution were pessimists and extremists. Mackenzie couldn't dispute their claims. After all, compared to other parts of the world, America was still much stronger and full of liberty.
"Is there something on your mind?"
She turned to see Warren calling from the ground through the open co-pilot window. A concerned expression had etched itself onto his face. She had to admire his powers of observation; or maybe her ability to mask her thoughts had suffered thanks to recent events. Regardless of the reason, Warren had noticed her mind was plagued with heavy thoughts. She would not let his inquiry go unanswered.
"I was just wondering how many liberties it is expected you give up in order to live in society," she said.
"It's unusual for you be philosophical, Miss Ross," he said. He wasn't teasing and she didn't take it as such. It was fact. "But if I may lend you my small amount of wisdom, I would say that you do not need to give up your liberties to live in a society. You must only give them up to live in a nation. And which, Miss Ross, do you think is necessary to humanity? Society – a place in which we are governed only by our own morality and justice? Or nations – where we are governed by other men and women of equal ranking to our own?"
There was a pause between his question and her response. She pondered it, unable to answer immediately. When she finally did, it wasn't what he expected. "I thought you were only supposed to advise King Raymond."
The title jolted him. It would take many more times of hearing it before he could let it pass. He was also surprised by the lighthearted tone in her voice. He smiled at her and said, "I reserve the right to share my mind with beautiful women, as well."
"You've been hanging around Jordan too much," she joked back. They shared a brief laugh, but things were serious once more. "You really should go counsel him, though. The last time Wallace was missing, he practically started a war. He's ready to do that again."
"He is very close to Wallace," Warren said. He muttered quietly, "I'd almost swear the man was gay." She pretended to not hear his little mumbling. His voice rose when he said, "Be careful out there. I pray for your safe return. And I pray that war is not in our future."
The sudden burst of air from the helicopter blades didn't faze him. As the engine revved up, Soto and several others sprinted past Warren without a word. They piled into the helicopter one by one, until only Soto remained on the ground. He latched himself onto the outside, one foot on the skid, and shouted something at McGill and Mackenzie. Soon, the helicopter was airborne. Warren kept his gaze locked on the metal beast as it rose into the sky.
Royal joined Soto on the skids. Upon seeing his eldest son bravely perched outside the helicopter, Warren gave him a smile and a slight nod. It was returned in the form of a quick salute. Royal turned his attention to inside the helicopter, where two tagalongs had a private conversation. Riane had her mouth pressed up against Edwin's ear as she tried to give him advice on being a good photographer. Royal was certain he could feel Edwin's heart racing. He loved the man as a brother – and if things went well with Evelyn, Edwin would indeed one day be his brother-in-law – but truth be told, Edwin was a bit of a coward.
At that moment, Edwin wasn't too afraid. His heart was racing a little; it wasn't his first time in the air, but it was definitely his first time headed toward a potential warzone. Riane had just let the last word she said linger a bit in his ear before she pulled away. She made him so damn uncomfortable. Despite that, he went with her without question when she asked him to go. She did a good job convincing him that journalism was a powerful tool. No effort was needed on her part; the impact of her work on the population was all the proof he needed.
"Don't focus too much on their radio banter. Most of it is useless," she advised him. He nodded and then placed the headset back to its rightful spot. As soon as it was over his ears again he forgot all about Riane's advice. He couldn't help but overhear every word because it seemed as though everyone was screaming.
One person truly was screaming, and his wail of a voice berated relentlessly on everyone's ears. Edwin was the only one to physically react to the screech. The strange mixed accent of a Bronx bark and Texas talk said, "I ain't flying no damn thing anywhere, kid! I've got a widow in labor, so I better get my ass down there and do what I can. Now Johnnie and I are staying grounded. How the hell would we fly anyway? Just sprout wings and be on our merry way? We don't have planes!"
"You're an idiot, Lewis," Percy's voice interrupted. His tone made it clear he wasn't amused. "Offutt alone gave us five planes to use however the hell we want. There's a dozen more with just minor damage in Ellsworth."
"And what in the hell do you want Johnnie and I to do?" Conroy harshly barked back. "Go bomb the fuckin' hell outta America until She gives you your butt buddy back?"
Everyone could hear a smash and crash on the other end. Percy was furious. Disobeying him was never a good idea, but doing it when he was stressed over a comrade was just plain terrible. Mackenzie knew she had to intervene.
"Commander Lewis, this helicopter can't defend itself from multiple drone attacks. We need you to escort us," she tried to explain.
"Oh, like hell," he cursed. "By the time we get those planes in the air you guys would have gone over Plattsmouth four times."
"Conroy, please," she begged.
There was a shocked silence from his end; it was followed by a sigh. "Alright," he said. She swore she could see him pinching the bridge of his nose, frustrated with his own actions. He repeated, "Alright. I'll be airborne ASAP. You owe me, sweetheart."
"Ohh, 'sweetheart?'" McGill's voice teasingly mimicked.
There was radio silence after that. Everyone in the helicopter seemed content with it, except for a few private words exchanged by McGill and Mackenzie. Edwin spent his time scanning over every inch of the helicopter. There was nothing unusual about it, so why did he seem so fascinated by it? He asked himself this several times as he gazed about.
The tranquility was broken when an unknown voice spoke over the radio, "Break-break! Attention aircraft! You are entering a no-fly zone! Break away or land immediately! I repeat: Attention aircraft! You are entering a… "
McGill covered the microphone on her radio and asked Mackenzie, "What do you want to do?"
From beyond Mackenzie, McGill could see a drone pull abreast of them. There was no doubt that at least two others were ready to shoot them down. Mackenzie contemplated what the best course of action was for only a second. "Identify yourself," she ordered.
"Tell them who you are."
McGill hesitated, so her first few words sounded somewhat timid. "Th-this is… This is General Jennifer Rae McGill of the Federation of Free States. Requesting permission to cross international borders. I say again: This is General McGill of the Federation of Free States. Requesting permission to cross international borders. Over."
There was a long pause. They could only imagine the confusion erupting inside the military as they tried to figure out how to respond. It would be easy to simply shoot them down, but they would feel guilty; while it was true they no longer called themselves Americans, everyone onboard that helicopter were once comrades or one of the many the American soldiers protected. It wasn't the same as shooting down "the enemy."
Finally, after ten long seconds, the American operator responded, "Uh, copy, General. You may enter the airspace. Over."
Radio silence followed. There was a sudden wave of tension that hit everyone onboard. They were in enemy territory now. Soto gazed at the city of Plattsmouth below. It was seemingly deserted, aside from the American soldiers that craned their necks upward at the newly arrived aircraft. It had become a military-state, where people weren't allowed out of their homes without permission and random searches of person and property were accepted as a fact of life. The transformation had taken place almost overnight. It wasn't that long ago that Plattsmouth was just as free as any other city in America, but its proximity to Union made it a sudden focus. The people were passive to the new authority.
It irritated Soto. Submission was exactly what Soto hated more than anything. He wasn't sure if it was a trait he had carried his entire life, or if it was something he had learned from McGill. Either way, he couldn't stand the thought of another person being unwilling to stand up against authority. It was effortless for him to rise against the United States government. For as long as he could remember, he had believed that was his duty as a soldier.
Royal's peripheral vision caught the sight of Soto's grip tightening on his gun. Royal was raised to be obedient; he was told to listen to his parents, his elders, the church, his teachers, and God. Perhaps that's why he was so rebellious. He thought about it briefly from time to time but had yet to find an answer. It just felt natural to fight against power. When he questioned what motives the others might have in fighting a revolution, he just chalked it up to human nature. People desire to struggle against those who have more than them. It was as simple as that.
A new voice entered their headsets. "This is Colonel Rowe. What business do you have over Plattsmouth?"
Mackenzie answered before McGill could even open her mouth. "We've reason to suspect Prince Brunhart may be after the President considering recent events in Europe."
"And what makes you think the President would be dumb enough to be Plattsmouth?" the Colonel asked.
"Since you're obviously not important enough to know such information, you're not important enough for our time. Over and out."
Mackenzie's finger was not even a centimeter away from the radio button when the Colonel's voiced stopped her. "Now you hold on a minute, lady! You best stop that chopper right where it's at or I'll be sending you and your crew to the Earth!"
The two pilots looked at each other. A silent understanding was had. McGill asked, "Soto, what's the situation on the ground?"
"Looks like Hell, Jenny," he answered honestly. "Almost like Poland after Hitler invaded."
"Are you dumb enough to compare us to the Nazis, you son of a bitch? Wait until I get your damned ass in front of me! I'll skin you and the rest of those traitorous bastards alive!" the Colonel screamed. It was loud enough that half of it was distorted.
"Ross to Major Raymond, requesting permission to liberate Plattsmouth," Mackenzie said over the radio for all to hear.
Percy allowed the largest grin he had ever held to grace his features. It was the exact same radio chatter that was spoken the night they raided Istanbul; those same words gave warning to the insurgency that The Easy Eight was knocking on their door. When he responded, a small laugh almost slipped through. "Permission granted."