3 HOURS LATER. PUEBLO. ABOUT 6:30 AM MOUNTAIN TIME. FRIDAY, JANUARY 9, 2026.

When James Hendrix heard the knock at the door, he had just pulled two trays of muffins from the oven. Patrick and Ntale, of course. Lately Patrick had been teasing him every day with Don’t shoot, it’s me, oh wait, where’s your gun? so this time he carefully took his pistol from its rack by the door, pointed to the side to avoid accidents, and opened the door.

Patrick grinned at seeing the pistol. “Hey, Ms. O’Grainne was right, Mister Hendrix, we’re finally getting you trained.”

James racked the pistol again. “Enter, my young trainer.”

“Lock that door,” Ntale said, following her brother in. “If tribals barge in here and kill us all, no more muffins.”

“Excellent point,” James said. Back before I was always a little intimidated by how fast kids picked up new technology; now it’s the same thing with security. “Nothing new this time,” he said, apologetically, “just oat-and-corn muffins with some dried apple again, and some leftover elk stew.”

Patrick, tall for fifteen and seeming to be mostly head and feet, laughed. “Mister Hendrix, it’s hot breakfast.”

And help on the homework,” Ntale added.

While the brother and sister ate, James scanned through the overnight dispatches; the excuse for Patrick and Ntale to come here every morning was to deliver the first package of received radio messages from Incoming Crypto. Besides, nothing is better for a cook’s ego than a teenage appetite, he thought, watching the food vanish into the kids.

First item on the top priority list: the moon gun had fired again. Word would already be going out everywhere to prepare for an EMP sometime Monday, and normally it would have been no more than a small nuisance to think about, but Captain Highbotham’s note made him stop and think; there weren’t any big stationary radio stations anymore. What the hell had they shot at?

Red Dog, in Athens, reported that Jenny Whilmire Grayson was clearly siding with her husband and against her father, and people had overheard her quarreling with Reverend Whilmire in public. James rated that a plus; if the Army won its struggle with the Church, Constitutional restoration became easier.

White Fang in Manbrookstat had details about the Commandant’s deal granting away everything from Cape Cod to Niagara to Halifax to the Irish. The Commandant’s handpicked judge had refused habeas corpus for a jailed opposition newspaper editor. Not good.

Bambi and Quattro wanted his thoughts about their scheme to hand over taxing authority to a legislature, not easy when you’re already a Duke and a Duchess and most Californians would be happy to make you the King and Queen.

Blue Heeler said he saw no prospect of avoiding the Provi government in Olympia declaring a deliberate policy of genocide against the tribes. Allie Sok Banh had left all idea of restraint behind after fighting off Daybreak’s assault on her mind just a few months ago, and since she was First Lady, Chief of Staff, Secretary of State, and almost any other job she wanted, only her opinion really mattered. President Weisbrod was too weak and tired, and General Norm McIntyre too afraid, to restrain her.

Five pieces moved, James thought. The Commandant moves for more power, the Duke and Duchess move for less, Allie Sok Banh moves for vengeance, Jenny Grayson moves for independence, and Daybreak moves, but I don’t know why. It’s a big, complicated board.

He looked up to see the last of breakfast disappearing into his brother-and-sister messengers. “So,” he said, “how’s that Hamlet thing doing, Patrick?”

“I just wish I could figure out why that guy does anything.”

“You have all the evidence anyone else does.”

“Anyone else doesn’t have to be graded by Mrs. Thrammer. And how can there be so much evidence and no conclusion, anyway?”

“Get used to that question,” James said. “Expect to be asking it forever.”

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