ABOUT THE SAME TIME. ATHENS, TEMPORARY NATIONAL GOVERNMENT DISTRICT (FORMERLY ATHENS, GEORGIA). 11:45 AM EASTERN TIME. THURSDAY, DECEMBER 25, 2025.

Jenny Whilmire Grayson placed the tray of broiled venison steak, brown gravy, and fresh biscuits on the end of the long table that was not occupied by maps and toy soldiers. “Oh, my little boy is playing army on Christmas morning.”

“Well, since someone was busy using up all the hot water—”

“It’s Christmas, baby, for once you’re getting a girl that’s all the way clean. Think about this.” She gave him That Smile, waited to see him react, then shucked the robe and pulled the towel from her head in one grand swoop, tousling her blonde mane. “If you’re quick, dinner won’t get cold.”

“If I’m quick I might hurt you—”

“I know.” She smiled in anticipation.

He dropped his own robe and yanked his sweaters off. “Nobody home but us,” she whispered. As he shoved her hard against the wall, she was already screaming.

When they were done, for now, she was sore, her face was streaked with tears, and she ran her hands over her body, looking for bruised places; his chest was heaving, and his face was red as much from shame as exertion.

She lifted his chin, looked into his eyes, and said, “I invited you, baby. I invited you.”

He drew a deep breath, and found another subject. “If nobody’s home, who got the dinner?”

“I had Luther set it by the fire and go catch the cable car, so he could spend the rest of the day with his family.”

Grayson nodded. “You’re probably the main reason we haven’t been poisoned yet.”

Luther’s patient. Long before he poisons you, Maelene’ll’ve dumped you out an upstairs window. You’ve got to learn she’s not a private and the house does not need to pass inspection. Let’s eat this while it’s still hot.” She pulled her robe back on, wincing more than it really hurt, and ate standing up though she didn’t have to, because she knew he liked to see that.

As always, Luther had done brilliantly. They ate quickly, enjoying the rare combination of hot, fresh, and plenty. Even the most likely next president and first lady can’t count on a good Christmas dinner, Jenny thought. Not this year. Not since back before. Did I ever enjoy any food this much, back before?

Grayson laughed suddenly. “You realize that neither of us took off any of all the socks we’re wearing?”

“Baby, brutality can be fun, in the right mood, but bare toes on this floor is too brutal. If you find some nice girl with a cold feet fetish, you go right ahead.” Before loading seconds onto her plate, she paused to bind up her hair, and noticed she had captured his gaze. “Caught you staring, baby. Now that I’ve taken care of your needs, how about some respect for your little Barbie doll’s mind?”

“I wish you wouldn’t call yourself that.”

She shrugged. “I know I’m not, and so does anybody that counts—here, or in Olympia or Pueblo or anywhere else. That act is over.”

“I never liked that act, and good riddance to it. If I’m going to be a monster I’d rather be a real monster and attack a real woman.” Something on the map caught his attention and he leaned across the table to look at it from another angle. He needed information about that state forest south of Bloomington—hadn’t the RRC sent some scouts through there last summer? Maybe—

Jenny said, “Jeff, why are you putting so much thought into beating up some starving, sickly hippies?”

He glanced up, smiling. “There’s never enough time before to think and plan, and no time at all once it starts. Sorry I got distracted.”

“Baby, I don’t believe for one second that bush hippies on a map could pull your attention away from these.” She sat up straight and pulled her shoulders back. Her pouty spoiled-bimbo routine, just because it was so fake, almost always made him smile and often seemed to get him talking, but today he just looked sad, and she was instantly sorry she’d tried it. “Come on, Jeff. You’ve been pesty for rough sex for several days, and staring out the window, and quiet for hours at a time. That means you’re worried; I’ve had ten months to learn to read your tells. Now what is eating at you so bad?”

He gestured to the map. “Now that RRC agents are penetrating north of the Ohio and east of the Wabash, they’re finding things worse than we thought. The tribal ‘armies’ aren’t really armies—more like mass foot-powered kamikazes. Designed to smash their way through civilization, destroy everything they can’t use right away, and die. It’s amazing how big and fast a force can be if you’re not planning to supply it, or get any of it back.

“They’ve got it timed so that they’ll hit peak strength just as the ground is dry enough to move, and in each camp if they don’t start to move on schedule, they’ll start to starve within days. So they will move on schedule. And once they’re moving… well, an enemy whose purpose is only to kill as many of you as they can before they die—”

“You spent your career in the Middle East, Jeff—”

“And back then I had the greatest military power in history on instant call. It looks different from General Braddock’s position.”

“Have I met him?”

“Not likely. George Washington’s CO in the French and Indian War. Talented, bright, brave, and unlucky. The Indians trapped his force on a road in the forest. Outgunned, outnumbered, no reinforcements, cut off, four horses killed under him, and he held his force together in a fighting retreat before a sniper nailed him. Terrible reputation, though, thanks to historians who never walked that ground. If you remember the Yough—”

“I remember, baby—I wrote your memoirs. And we won.”

“We got the Amish farmers out. That was our objective, so technically we won, but a few more victories like that and we won’t have an army. Exact same kind of country, and very close to, where Braddock went on that expedition. That’s why I was thinking of it.” He gestured at the toy soldiers who pinned down the map. “On this campaign down the Ohio and up the Wabash we have to win eleven times in a row—and win bigger at less cost than we ever did in the Yough. And conditions aren’t any better than they were for Braddock, and I’m not the combat commander he was. Which means I have to be a lot luckier.”

“Eleven times?”

Grayson shrugged. “There are eleven of those—I don’t like to call them armies. ‘Hordes’—I guess that’s the word—waiting for spring and dry ground to cross the Ohio and the Wabash. If even one of them gets past us and penetrates any distance into civilization, they’ll move faster than we do; living on looting, they have no supply train, and they’ll be killing refugees, not rescuing them. So our slow, overburdened army will have to chase after the invading horde, and meanwhile other hordes will be breaking out at other points. Everything depends on stopping them before they can start.” He looked down at the toy soldiers on the map. “Isn’t it strange how toy soldiers haven’t gotten new equipment since World War Two, more than 80 years ago?”

One of Jenny’s friends had found a bag of plastic soldiers, unspoiled by biotes, under a pile of cotton fabric in a wrecked Hobby Lobby, and knowing that now that they were uncovered they would rot within a week or so, had buried them upside down in wet sand and poured molten solder into them, creating lumpy, ungainly “solder soldiers.” They had made Grayson laugh when he’d unwrapped them.

“You’ve been shoving them around on that map all morning.”

“It’s a way to think. The guys standing at attention represent my reserves; firing from one knee, front line infantry. Bazookas stand for artillery, bayoneters for cavalry. Daybreakers are grenade throwers.”

Now that she could read it, she saw how grim the layout on the map was. “And if it all depends on stopping eleven attacks all at once, with only one army—”

“That’s our biggest advantage, that it won’t be all at once—the only good news that Heather O’Grainne’s intel operation had for us. The tribals’re planning to hit first along the upper Ohio, where it’s a shorter distance to better looting, and then unroll the attacks down the Ohio and up the Wabash—the Wabash hordes are farthest away from their own supplies, and will have to travel a long way through country that’s already been looted and burned over, so they’ll start last.”

“Why don’t they go in random order? You’d never be able to catch them—”

“If it were me, I might. I think it’s because of their non-command non-structure; ‘go after these guys do’ is a real easy rule. And it does mean that to some extent they support each other, and maybe it’s so the first one to get past me can focus on blocking me while the others get in.

“But anyway, assuming Heather got the truth out of them, the plan is, I match their schedule, hitting them with spoiling attacks down the Ohio and up the Wabash.” His arm swept over the map in a crooked L shape. “They’ll be most vulnerable just before they’re ready to attack—greatest troop concentrations and smallest remaining supplies. If I beat them to every punch, it can be eleven massacres instead of eleven battles, but they only need to be lucky once, and I have to be lucky eleven times. Luckier than Braddock, at least.”

“If you need to be very, very lucky, then we’re in good shape, because you are.” Jenny rubbed her hair with a towel again, pretending to dry it while making sure she was disheveled the way he liked; the motion stretched her just enough to slightly open her bathrobe. Jeff’s arrogance is his armor, and I can’t let there be a hole in his armor. “This time be gentle, ’kay, baby?”

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