Not His War



Also Featuring:

autumn_icon.gif calvin_icon.gif colette2_icon.gif dajan_icon.gif dong-tian_icon.gif eileen_icon.gif feng_icon.gif grace_icon.gif leroux_icon.gif sarisa_icon.gif tamara_icon.gif tau_icon.gif veronica_icon.gif walter_icon.gif

Scene Title Not His War
Synopsis Heading into a war with Humanis First, Avi Epstein looks to the past.
Date July 22, 2018

Artillery fire thumps heavy through the thick hull, tracer rounds burn bright against the dark of night, and rain slides off in sheets from the windscreen.

Lights on the console flicker in a wave pattern, like something was moving beneath their surface and disrupting their illumination ever so briefly. Autopilot kicks on, less sophisticated than the last automatic pilot manning the helm. Hydraulics whirr and hiss, followed by a clang that seals up the roar of wind at his back. Avi Epstein slides his seat forward on an oiled rail, locking it into place. Unsteady hands move up to the flight controls, and his attention moves to a threat detection system flashing red.

On your right!

His throat works up and down in a tight swallow. The past burns hot in his mouth.

Your right!

Somewhere Over Afghanistan

November 14


«On your fucking right!»

As its controls are jerked to the side, the F-14 Tomcat rips through the air, right wing dipping toward the mountains and left wing angling up toward the bare slate of the sky. The nose pulls back, and the jet cuts a sharp arc through the air, a streak of brightly-lit tracer fire streaking across its underbelly, one bullet skip-hopping across gray-painted metal.

«Fox one! Fox two!»

Through the canopy, an A10 Warthog can be seen zipping past, moving in an aerial ballet following the Tomcat's contrails. Another Tomcat is righ tbehind it, and a pair of missiles discharge from below the wings and scream through the air, striking the A10 in the tail and right wing, sending the plane spiraling out of control and hurtling toward the rugged and steep mountains thousands of feet below.

«You are one lucky son of a bitch,» crackles over the lead pilot's headset, and Avi Epstein feels his breath finally return as he levels his aircraft out and comes up alongside his rescuer.

"Thanks," Avi says into the comm with heavy breathing, hands shaking on the controls. "Was that the last of them?" He scans the horizon, looking out either side of the canopy to the jagged mountains in every direction.

«Affirmative.» Is a relieving thing to hear. «Ruskies won't know what hit 'em. We're wheels down soon, the mujahideen have it from here.»

Avi leans back against his seat, eyes closing briefly in spite of being thrown through the air in a metal tube at hundreds of miles per hour. He takes in one deep breath, holds it, and then exhales slowly as his eyes open.

His stomach stops turning.

CIA Headquarters

Langley, VA

March 5


"The internal name for it is Thrudheim."

The ninth floor, southeast-corner conference center at Langley is dimly lit today. A projector displays satellite photographs of a shipyard in Berlin with a red box around a specific port. The table is full, not an empty seat in the house. Avi Epstein sits on the side with his back to the window, with General Sebastian Autumn on his right and an empty seat for the current presenter on his left. The remaining CIA brass arranged around the table have had their hands in every international conflict since the seventies. This was home.

"Our numbers estimate that there are 154 Vanguard operatives in place. The bunker was one of the most well-guarded secrets our internal investigation has uncovered, and is numbered as the primary Vanguard operation center in Europe." Sarisa Kershner knows what she's talking about. As she stands in front of the nascent Operation Apollo task force, she references data points included in a spiral bound workbook with colored tabs sitting in front of every seat. "Our NATO allies are ready to move on our command."

"What's the status of Operation Cuckoo?" Epstein asks, flipping back and forth through the document in front of himself. Sarisa raises one brow slowly, looks down to the documents in front of Avi, then back up to the agent with a flat expression.

"Operation Cuckoo," Sarisa says with a flash of a smile, "likely won't be necessary. Once we manage to stamp out the Berlin cell, the others should— "

"But what if they don't?" Avi interjects, motioning to the projector. "Volken's dust in the wind, but as far as we can tell the Vanguard hasn't stopped operations. So if we cut off this head of the hydra and two more grow back, we're going to be right back to the drawing board on this, boots on the ground interrogating people who were fucking— ironing Ethan Holden's goddamn shirts, trying to get intel. We need someone inside."

Sarisa blinks slowly as sh estares at Epstein, then affords a momentary look to General Autumn who folds his hands in his lap and leans back into his chair. The room is momentarily silent, and Autumn's expression is an expectant one as its leveled on Sarisa. She looks into the bright light of the projector lens, then nods and recovers.

"Michael Lowell," Sarisa indicates with a motion of one gloved hand to nothing in particular, "is our top candidate for Cuckoo. If we're going ahead with this," she says with a look to Autumn, who gives her a slow nod of acknowledgement in return, "then… we'll be targeting eastern European assets. We know there's a Russian Vanguard cell and one in China, Lowell will move east and attempt to gain information access on these smaller cells."

"That's all I wanted to hear," Epstein says as he closes her spiral-bound folio, drumming his hands briefly on the edge of the table. "By all means, continue."

Vanguard Bunker, Codename: Thrudheim

Berlin, Germany

March 19


Progressing down the concrete corridor, Feng is silent and swift on his feet, ducking into doorways as another squad of three rush past what they assume is a cleared area, climbing up and into a ventillation duct before dropping out in a different section of the compound. Once he leaves the ducts, Feng passes by stacks of ancient wooden crates marked with the symbol of the Reich, a bird clutching a swastika. He hesitates, glancing down at the crates and the hint of gold bars inside illuminated through the cracks in the crate by the ceiling lamps.

So much is being lost here.

Proceeding to the door of the storage facility, Feng quickly types in his access code to the keypad, then dives out into the hall and sweeps down both sides, finding himself alone. The distant sound of gunfire catches his attention, along with a yelp. Dark eyes wide, Feng hastily makes his way around a corner and up a flight of stairs, hearing the sounds of automatic gunfire echoing off of the damp concrete walls. When a bullet whizzes over his head, he jerks into a crouch reflexively, looking to the direction of the ricochet at the top of the stairs, creeping up the rest of the way.

"This is King of Pentacles reporting in to Royals command, loading dock is secure." At the top of the stairs, crouched down to floor level Feng can see a tall and broad-shouldered man in urban camouflage and black body armor holding a pump action shotgun in one hand. Three NATO soldiers stand around him, spattered in blood. Notably, his eyes are shielded by a pair of mirror-lensed aviator sunglasses. "Wands, Cups, Sit-Rep."

Ducking his head down below the level of the stairs, Feng presses his back up against the concrete steps, eyes closed. «This is Queen of Cups! I am in pursuit of High-Value Target!» A woman's voice crackles over the radio that the man in the aviator sunglasses carries. "«Proceeding on foot towards train sub station!» Hissing sharply, Feng rises up to peer over the top of the stairs again, and this time when he looks past the NATO soldiers, he spots a dark-haired woman lying in a crumpled heap, face down in a pool of thick blood.

Footsteps approach from the bottom of the stairwell, the squad that he passed likely spotted their dead comrades and are doubling back. A jittery leg bounces up and down, Feng's nervous energy and adrenaline fills his senses with twitches and tics as he considers the four men in the other room and untold numbers heading back in this direction.

Popping up slowly from the stairs, Feng raises his hands above his head, throwing his handgun to the ground. "I surrender!" He proclaims from the stairwell, hands folded behind his head. The three NATO soldiers by Aviators are on him in and instant, guns leveled in Daiyu's direction and screamed orders to get down on the ground bellowed out with an authoratative screeching. Aviators picks up his radio, lips crooking into a smirk. "Wands, you out there? I think I got someone you're gonna' want to meet."

Outside Antananarivo


//December 30


"Hold on to your asses!" Aviators shouts as he throws the truck into park, looking up over the dashboard towards the eastern horizon where four black specks grow in size rapidly. Low-flying fighter jets streak towards the mountainous capital city up ahead. The sudden eruption of tremendous explosions demolishes the checkpoints and a six-hundred foot section of concrete barricade. The ground throbs with the reverberations of the explosions and the windshield of the truck rattles from the shockwave.

Tires screech loudly as Aviators kicks the truck into drive, flooring it to full speed as it ascends the highway towards the city, past the burned out wrecks of cars and homes demolished in Edmund's bloody coup. "Shoot anythign that moves!" Aviators calls out, sewrving around a piece of concrete debris that smashes down in the middle of the road, flames rippling off of it.

The jets bank and turn, a hairpin one-hundred and eighty degree turn before strafing the city again. This time the explosions are more distant, sending three hundred foot fall fireballs rising up from the inner portion of the city, four massive plumes of flame for each of the four jets, a constant bombardment of seismic waves that shake the truck as it drives. Glass, stone and wood rains down in tiny flinders from above, and those in the back of the truck can see the devastation wrought by the air-strikes.

Another explosion goes off, this one closer, sending a brilliant orange-white ball of fire and choking black smoke up into the air. Antananarivo is awash with the sounds of air-raid sirens. As the assault truck moves in to the city, Aviators turns on his ear-piece headset. «We've got to move into the city, Rasoul's hunkered down on that big stone building up on the hill. Used to be a museum or some shit, he's ocnverted it to his palace. No intel on where the bunker entrance is, but I'm willing to bet it's up there!»

In the back of the truck, Dajan turns to look at his mother, the injuries from the day before so many more scars over his form, but weighing more heavily on him were what he thought might have been his last words. He says nothing, now, as he watches her where she stands at the turret, turning to look back towards the city ablaze. Another explosions rocks the city's industrial heart nearly a mile away, sending a ball of fire rising up in the black darkness of the pre-dawn city.

Resting a hand on Eileen's forehead, Tau watches the young woman slip into her trance as she begins scouting the streets of the city with the birds at her command. The truck jostles, shakes and trembles, an explosion just a block away nearly lifts the pickup truck on two wheels from the shockwave, and Aviators lets out a howling «Wooo!» over his headset as the truck crashes back down on two wheels.

«American military forces are moving in to the city, boys and girls! We've got thirty minutes before this place is a fucking warzone to cover as much ground as we can. I ain't stoppin' for nothing! Gray, keep the street ahead of us clear! Any debris, do whatever it is you do!» The truck thunders over a pile of concrete debris, scraping the undercarraige, and as the jets make their last pass, screaming overhead with a roar of their engines, one of the many hilltop buildings in the city simply disappears in a ball of fire.

As the city of Antananarivo burns in a haze of flames, smoke and ash, Team Bravo makes their path into the ubran center past the checkpoints, into the eventual oncoming path of Rasoul's panicked army.

Outside Staten Island Hospital

New York, NY

August 12


The emergence of an army Humm-Vee roaring down the street bodes ill, its olive-drab paintjob and rear-mounted machine gun looking particularly unlike rescue until the headlights flash twice in perhaps some sort of pantomime of greeting. Hana steps out into the road, narrowing her eyes because she's figured out who's behind the wheel and one hand is still on her gun, processing whether or not to shoot anyway.

When the Humm-Vee comes to a rolling stop and the passenger side door kicks open, the man sitting behind the driver's wheel in the aviator sunglasses is a familiar face to only a handful of the people here. "Pile the fuck in and let's get going!" Avi Epstein's arrival is an unlikely one. Dressed in a USMC uniform, it appears he may have stolen this Hummer off of the base.

"Any one of you kids know how to fire a fucking SAM?" Avi asks as he leans towards the passenger seat, even as Rickham is led towards the back doors and slouches inside, causing the frame to creak, groan and strain under his substantial weight. "Cause we got one shot to take out that last jet!" Pointing a thick finger past Ash and towards the sky, Avi is directing attention towards the last fighter jet circling in to drop its payload.

Lowering his glasses and motioning to Ash, Avi queries in a sharp tone of voice, "You look like a jarhead, you ever fired a surface to air missile, son?"

Avi Epstein's question is met with one in return as Rickham is no longer needing assistance. "It's got a crosshair setup and easy to find trigger, yes?" Cat's never fired a SAM, but seems to think she probably could. "Shoulder fired weapon, recoil goes out the back, yes?" Maybe some of the Marines on the George Washington told her about how it works and she's only letting it seem she needs to ask questions. Maybe they didn't and she believes she can do it anyway. But even while asking, she's setting her rifle to safe and moving to get inside the vehicle.

The next lightning strike misses its intended target and the jet banks sideways, skimming through the flock of starlings that Eileen sent to intercept it, but the same strategy does not work twice. The only thing the weather shaman and the Englishwoman succeed in doing on the next pass is spooking the pilot, but in this instance spooking the pilot is enough: the maneuver has him aborting the run and adopting an alternative flight path that brings his aircraft parallel to the road where the Humvee is idling as he lines himself up one final time.

This time he won't be dissuaded, and McRae and Eileen won't be able to recuperate quickly enough to arrange a third counterattack. The thin, shuddering hiss the team can hear over their radio isn't interference — it's the exhausted rasp of Eileen's breathing.

Epstein could not have been more correct.

This is their last shot.

Adirondack Mountains

New York

October 14


"Ferrymen in the truck."

The words come out loudly, surely it is on some sort of radio or megaphone. "We will open fire on your vehicle if necessary. Everyone lay down with your hands behind your head. Or we will open fire." There's an awkward pause over the megaphone. "Another moose attack will be met with lethal force."

Four soldiers start to walk out of the tree line, all rifles trained on what they can see. Doyle. Standing out in the open. Moments away from pulling the trigger.

Several complicated things happen simultaneously. Kaylee's in Avi's head, rearranging the furniture and also presumably complaining about the state of things. His mind reels, the sensation like sudden sinus pressure. Paul is under the truck and Avi cannot comprehend both phasing and telepathy in the same breath. He giggles in a fit of nervous laughter, reaches over blindly and grabs Paul by the scruff of his jacket and shoves him on top of Nick. "Baby sit," Avi instructs, before swinging one arm out from under the truck.

Head, shoulders, knees, and toes, rings in Avi's mind and through to the link with Kaylee.

Gunfire pops out from below the truck, not beanbags, not rubber bullets, the kind of gunfire that blows bark off of trees. The kind of gunfire that takes out a man's knee, sending bone, cartilage, and fragmentary shrapnel skittering up through his body. The kind of ammunition that strikes a man in the foot, blowing it clear off and sending chunks of heel and toe scattering across the pavement before he drops into a screaming heap. The same kind of gunfire that, when fired into the top of a prone man's head —

Shoulders, knees, and toes, knees and toes

Fifteen shots and an empty magazine, less than half of them hit but that's not bad for firing blind. Avi rolls out from under the truck, takes a knee, and slaps another magazine in by touch. Doesn't need Kaylee's help for that, but the other things are most appreciated.

How many more? Knees and toes, knees and toes, Guards. Sorry. Songs. Avi's mind is a dirty funhouse mirror.

Outside of the Commonwealth Institute

Cambridge, MA

November 8


Snow floats down from a pale sky mottled with clouds that are just thick enough to obscure the shape of the sun behind them. It’s quiet now; the alarms blaring throughout the facility at their backs have gone silent, replaced by the sound of haggard breathing and dozens of feet sloshing through the waste. In just a few minutes, they’ll arrive at the ladder and climb to freedom.

«Epstein, Rowan,» Grace Matheson’s voice crackles over the radio as they approach the opening. The extraction team must be close. «Report. How many of you are there?»

Screams echo up from the sewer tunnel, a riotous choir of howling voices that builds into a crescendo that has to be dozens of people. But there's a shrillness to the voices, a high-pitched whine like that of a playground at noon, but with no joy. From the tunnel, dozens of dirty, bloodied, and terrified children come scrambling out of the sewer tunnel. They collide with one another, some are trampled and others are picked back up by slightly older peers and dragged to the side in relative safety.

"Fuck! Fucking run!" Backpedaling out of the tunnel, Avi Epstein fires indiscriminately back into the darkness. Bullets ricochet off of the walls, followed by a high-pitched mechanical scream that comes from a six foot tall mechanical behemoth lunging out of the grate. Bullets tear through its chassis as it collides with Avi, knocking him down to the ground and pinning him to the concrete with curving talons. Its broken head sputters and sparks, broken jaws working open and closed against the stock of his rifle he's jammed into its mouth.

"Get this fucking thing off of me! Fuck! Help!" Avi screams over the cries of terrified children as more pops of gunfire echo out of the tunnel. The Ferry is in full retreat and the Arcology is on a meltdown behind them.

"Go, go, go," Veronica says, still wearing her badge proclaiming her to be the Commonwealth Institute's Lab Security Chief. She's doing a very bad job today. "Keep running. There's a ladder up ahead. It'll take you out," she tells a young girl that seems to have made herself den mother of some of the children. She and Dong-tian had gone ahead to make sure this part of the canal was clear, but there's no promises as to what lays ahead. Now that the stampede has flooded past, she and looks back at Avi's cry. "Duck," she says, lifting a P90 assault rifle to shoot at the robot.

"Keep moving the others," she tells Dong-tian, or at least the one by her side, seemingly willing to take up the rear of the group and help Epstein. But Lynette's on it as well. She scurries forward to try to pull Avi back out of the jaws of death if she can.

Six pairs of boots pound against the sewer in perfect unison. Six identical soldiers rush at the end of the party. All garbed in protective gear scavenged by his former comrades on the security team. Dong-tian, six of him, secure the rear of the fleeing crowd.

A seventh is with Veronica, nodding quietly in response to her command. The lead sprints out by himself to the forefront near Doyle. A man very familiar to him, though it may not go both ways. He is sprinting ahead urging the children on.

The six men left behind swarm on the robot terrorizing Avi. Lynette's electricity bolts, and Veronica moves in to get Avi up and away from the robot. The six identical men move to finish off the work. After the blast of electricity, six shoulders in unison go to ram against the robot, hoping to give at least an inch of separation to the downed man. Once that's done six P90 rifles are leveled at the robot in case it needs finishing off.

"I got it." One of them calls out. "Keep going!"

Seeing the Brians trying to move the beast, the hooded women sprints forward, slinging her rifle on her back, so she can wrap fingers in the fabric of his clothing, snagging at the shoulder straps of his vest and pulls. Teeth grit as she digs her heels into the cement, throwing her back into it, the hood slides down to show the features of one Claire Bennet. Only this one is blonde. "You better help, old man," she says sharply, voice stained as she works to pull Avi out from under the twisted metal.

The light smoldering in the robot's eye dims, goes out. Gradually the gears inside its body slow and, with one last shudder, whirr to a halt. Walter Trafford clips past, his sword trailing in the dirty water behind him like a rudder. He stops to take in the sight of the downed robot and lets out and impressed whistle that echoes throughout the tunnel. "You guys really know how to crash a party, huh?" he asks and gives the still-steaming piece of metal a tentative poke with the tip of his sword. "Neat."

"You're clear in back," Walter adds, in case anyone was wondering.

Bannerman's Castle

New York

December 19th


The explosion shook everything.

Epstein’s head swims, vision blurs, the weight of the gun he's been carrying disappears with a splash into the water. Blinking against the darkness, working his mouth open and closed against the tinnitus, he tries to piece together what just happened. Everything comes back in blots of recollection and muted shapes.

Nearby, Colette is pulling herself out of the icy water, having fallen backwards into it. She's soaked to the bone now, can barely feel her bare feet, can't stop trembling. She tries to focus enough to create light, but all she creates are amorphous blots of illumination like fireflies that flicker and dance through the air. She's cold, scared, and possibly hypothermic. Jupiter finds her, keening a whine as his nose presses to the side of her face. The old dog canters around in the water, barking once loudly when he's around people in distress. No one outside will hear him this time.

Nat never answered either inquiry as to who she was crying about. The blast saw to that. Flecks of rock cut her face, scratches at her brow and in her hairline, some deeper than others, a few deep enough to make her bleed more than superficially, dribbling out of her hair as she pulls herself from the water. The child sees Benji, his condition, sees Calvin, parses none of it. Instead she just stands in shock, breathing rapidly and hugging herself.

Avi sloshes past. Fumbling at his belt. “Get back,” he slurs to Quinn and Rue, hoping they can corral the children. As he approaches Benji and Calvin he's unhooking a grenade from his belt. The blast in an enclosed space would probably kill everyone in the room, even if it managed to loosen some of the rubble.

But if they had a blast mat or — in Avi’s case — a big enough body, it might shield them from some of the harm. “Move,” he gutturally instructs Calvin and Benji. He's hoping someone else comes up with a better idea between here and the stairs.

If not, at least he could die trying.

Calvin surges up out of the water with fist-sized lumps of stone still punching through the chop around him, brains rattled, ears ringing, ginger mane spiny with river muck. He registers Noa’s tears and Benji’s blood as if through a two way mirror, looking down on the pair of them without any compulsion to react. Someone’s (practically) shrieking.

His, “— fuck’s sake, stand her up, see if she’s spurting,” could probably stand to be less acidic, in the face of Noa’s look up to him.

The one-eyed ogre lurching towards him with a grenade is of greater immediate concern from a purely utilitarian standpoint. Sheridan is smaller, but the only move he makes is to step to Epstein’s advance in a snit, right hand outstretched behind him. With a silvery flick, Benji’s sword — turns sort of dead-fish-like just under the surface, and sinks again.

Great. Good.

Magnetic efforts stooped sideways down into a graceless, UFO catching grope at the wolf’s head in the water beside him, he comes up with the blade in a watery huff that’s more Dobby than Dumbledore.

“I know you’re a human but try using your brain for two fucking seconds.” Shivering, toothy. There’s no strategic benefit to jabbing the pointy end at Avi like a 7-year-old in a gradeschool production of Pirates of Penzance, but he does it anyway. Huuuman.

“Where’s the water coming in?” He casts the question off into the not quite dark past Avi, hoping beyond hope there’s someone sane and focused enough back there to answer.

"Avi." Two syllables of chiding disapproval float out of the dark. They're followed by an outburst of splashing as a dog surges forward into the wan illumination cast by Colette — a fawn-colored, fluffy dog who pads up to Colette and whuffs companionably at her, then promptly redirects to commiserate with Jupiter. Curiously, she's wearing a harness.

"There is no up."

Walker Army Airfield

Walker, KS

February 11th


The Wolfhound operations tent isnt as busy as it once was. Under a hazy, gray afternoon sky Avi Epstein is the tent's sole occupant, hunched over a map of rural Virginia with push pins marking the position of military assets on both sides of the conflict. A radio beside him on the table chatters troop movement and aircraft sightings, less now than there ever were. Outside, the whine of jet engines as they taxi across the runway masks the sound of approaching feet.

The clatter of a fistful of dogtags onto the table announces the guest's arrival instead. Epstein looks at the tangle of beaded chain and tin rectangles, then looks up and over his shoulder to the young brunette that threw them at him. Colette Demsky is thinner than he last saw her, cheeks hollow and dark circles around her eyes. Her hair is shaggy and unkepmt, blind eyes unblinking and cold. Epstein's throat works up and down, eyes cast back to the dog tags.

"Seven," Avi says quietly, one hand coming up to the back of his neck. Colette nods once, slowly, sliding her tongue across her teeth behind her lips. Avi tentatively reaches for the dogtags, then hesitates and curls his fingers against his palm, turning a one-eyed stare back to the young woman. "I heard about Utah."

"No you didn't." Colette is quick to shoot back, heat in her voice in the way Hana has it when she's mad. Epstein swallows audibly, looks back down to the table and slowly plucks seven pushpins off of the map and keeps them in his hand. "I'm taking some leave time. I don't know when I'll be back," Colette ammends her report, and Epstein just closes his eyes and nods slowly, squeezing the pushpins painfully against his calloused palm.

Colette says nothing else, just looks to the map, then back to Avi, and slowly turns to walk out of the tent without another word.

Avi exhales a deep sigh, and looks back to the dog tags.

The Bunker, Wolfhound Command

Rochester, NY

July 16th


"Every piece of intelligence we have says this is the nerve center of Humanis First."

The second floor, southwest-corner conference center at Wolfhound Command is dimly lit today. A flat-screen television displays satellite photographs of a US Army base in the Mojave Desert with a red box around a cluster of buildings. The table is full, not an empty seat in the house. Avi Epstein stands by the flat screen display, with Hana Gitelman seated to his right. The remaining Wolfhound brass arranged around the table have had their boots on the ground in nearly every post-war operation within the US borders, pushing back the nightmares of the past. This was home.

"Intelligence gained from Liberty Island and former DoJ Jason Pierce indicates that Humanis First elements within the current administration were moving prisoners and military assets out west." Epstein walks in front of the screen to stand at its other side. "We were given the name Fort Irwin, a FORSCOM training facility prior to the war. This is located well within the border of the Dead Zone." The screen changes to another slide, showing pre-war layouts of Fort Irwin.

"Our Keelut recon team, with the help of allies out west, were able to confirm what we learned from Pierce." Epstein points around the map, indicating some red X's. "And informed us we're looking at a possible technologically advanced defense system, some kind of lightning grid that knocks planes out of the air if they're detected."

The slide changes again, and Epstein shows a flight path over the base. "Wendigo is going to fly an insertion mission ahead of the ground forces the US Army is throwing at this problem. We'll fly in under photokinetic cloaking, deposit a payload to drop the lightning grid, and then make a second pass. During that time, we've got a team codenamed Bullwhip that'll be running diversion with US Army assets, and we'll drop Wendigo right on top of their central command."

Epstein waits for the slide to change, showing a red circle on the map. "Out here, there's some sort of robotic transmitter. The major is going to talk more about what that does and how we're going to take it out." As Avi cedes the floor, he makes brief eye contact with Colette, who slouches back into her seat and folds her arms over her midsection, turning her focus to the screen ahead.

Avi momentarily brings his hand up to the right front pocket of his shirt, where seven pushpins are kept.


Artillery fire zips through the air, and out the cockpit window of the Tlanuwa, Epstein can see Fort Irwin burning beow. A plume of fire and smoke rises up from another successful air strike, and the engines of the experimental jet whine angrily. With both hands gripped to the controls, Avi banks around the base, leading a stroke of suppressing fire from the nose-mounted gun.

His knee aches, the restricting tightness of his brace digs into his leg, and he lets out a grunt of effort to straighten it as he banks to the left as the threat detector in the center of the console flashes red. A surface to air missile streaks past the Tlanuwa, and Avi pushes the controls down and dives the jet toward the ground, then drags them back as he pulls up. Two more missiles impact the ground at his tail, and rain comes hammering down on the nose and windscreen of the plane as he makes his ascent.

A dog-eared and partly burned photograph is tucked into the console in front of him, a dangerously skinny blonde girl no older than ten.

She's smiling.

This isn't his war, it's hers.

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