ABOUT THE SAME TIME. FORT NORCROSS (ON THE OHIO RIVER, NEAR WARSAW, KENTUCKY). 6:30 PM EASTERN TIME. SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 8, 2026.

In the clear twilight, Bambi Castro could see the runway, a black slash of carefully cleared and graveled highway, while she was still several miles from Grayson’s camp. The JNE seemed to like the chilly, wet, dense air, which made the engine run well and gave the wings a little extra lift. Of course, that’s till it freezes the fuel line and ices the wings, which it would be doing if it were any colder. Glad I’m landing now.

As the ground crew took over the plane, General Grayson rode up on a white stallion. Well, now, that’s putting your symbolism in order, Bambi thought. Behind him, his wife, Jenny, rode a palomino that Bambi immediately pegged as the horse every girl wanted when she was twelve, and led a gray-and-white pinto, already saddled.

Feeling like she should salute—the general was in faultless-as-far-as-Bambi-could-tell uniform—she handed over the message. He accepted with that annoying, mocking smile of his. “Are you going to make me wait till it’s processed through crypto, or can you just tell me if it’s what I’ve been expecting?”

Security violation be damned, Bambi thought, give him every spare second we can. “Yes, it’s exactly what you’re expecting.”

“In that case,” he said, “I’ll turn you over to Jenny, who will entertain you for dinner; I’ve got a long night ahead of me. Thank you for bringing such good news.” He mounted again and rode off at a fast trot.

Bambi had met Jenny Whilmire Grayson a few times before, and tried hard not to detest her because she understood her so well: they had both been the beloved, brainy, spoiled-but-pushed, beautiful daughters of famous, spectacularly wealthy fathers. But I used the head start Daddy gave me to become a Fed and go bust bad guys for thrills, and Jenny used those boobs and that hair for a shot at being the First Lady.

Meow, and stop that, Bambi reminded herself sternly.

Jenny said, “I told Jeff that there was no way that Harrison Castro’s daughter wouldn’t be an expert horsewoman, so I just brought along Splash here, but I thought you’d have more recent practice on airplanes, so in case I was wrong I brought a horse that’s more docile than most armchairs.”

“Daddy made me learn to ride,” Bambi said, “but the truth is I was a lot more in love with the Porsche and the sailboat than I ever was with the horse.”

“Oh yeah. I would so have agreed with you when I was sixteen. If there were still Porsches, I’d still agree with you. But since you can ride, let’s get to dinner. Our cook Luther is kind of a genius, and he won’t have many more chances to show off till the campaign’s over.”

They rode for several minutes in silence. At the gate to the airfield, one of the younger soldiers started to salute and caught himself. Jenny grinned. “You go saluting the wrong person too often and my husband’ll catch you.”

“Yes, ma’am, I’m sorry, won’t happen again.”

After another block, safely out of earshot of the sentries, Jenny sighed and said, “The regular Army held together pretty well down south around the big bases, but as for the militia, Jeff says we’re back to recruiting cannon fodder, and forget esprit de corps, they’re just thrilled to have a job, regular food, and someone to tell them what to do. The regular Army sergeants that are all captains now have terrified the militia boys into saluting, but they’re not so good on who or what yet.”

“Pbbt. It’s a different world. I go to grab a sandwich in the kitchen and fifteen bowing fools are there to tell me a duchess can’t slice her own bread,” Bambi said. “See your salutes and raise.”

Jenny laughed. “Fold. At least they don’t expect me to go around in a tiara.”

“Part of why I insist on flying so much—that leather helmet precludes even sillier hats. Quattro loves the hats, though.”

Dinner was everything Jenny had implied; “Luther is not ‘kind of’ a genius, he’s a genius,” Bambi said.

“Let me write that down.” Jenny grinned. “He keeps a quote book of things famous people say about his food. He’ll love getting a quote from a duchess.”

“In that case,” Bambi said, “write down that I said that if I’d known about him, I’d’ve had him cook for my coronation.” She let Jenny have a moment to scribble before asking, “So was the general just being a workaholic, or did he really need to ride off in a hurry like that?”

Jenny smiled. “Both, always. Jeff only relaxes when I shame him into it, but I only do that when he’s falling-down non-functionally tired, because he really does need to be that busy. We’ve been talking with Heather about Operation Full Court Press since Cameron Nguyen-Peters proposed it last fall.”

“It’s a shame he’s not here to see it bear fruit,” Bambi said, staying carefully neutral in tone. She had only met the last regular NCCC of the United States a couple of times, briefly, and hadn’t liked him at all, but he had been one of two indisputably legitimate links to the old United States government, his assassination had made everything far more difficult, and Heather was absolutely certain the Graysons had been behind it.

Jenny sighed, not taking the bait. “Jeff says, at least ten times a day, that he wishes he had Cam at the other end of the supply lines.”

Gosh, do you mean now he thinks that shooting Cam was a bad thing? Bambi wanted to ask. Red Dog’s report had said that Grayson had actually done it personally, and that Jenny had not only known it was going to happen, but had urged Grayson to go through with it. Bambi remembered James’s briefing about Jenny Whilmire Grayson: Looks like Barbie but under that plastic is the brass heart of Lady Macbeth, and don’t forget it. “So I guess there’s a lot on his mind and a lot to take care of.”

Jenny grinned fiercely. “We’ve been doing everything we can to convince everyone below battalion commanders that it’ll take us ten days to execute an order to start. Everybody thinks they’re in the very first advance guard and that other troops will be catching up with them for days, but most people aren’t dumb enough to talk about what their own unit is doing. But an ‘obvious problem’ for the whole army, though, well, that doesn’t seem like much of a secret, and so the cover story about the ten days has been leaking like crazy.”

“How do the tribals hear any rumors from our side of the river?”

“Oh, there’s a huge black market across the Ohio. Tribals aren’t supposed to but lots of their scouts trade looted jewelry and tools for canned food and real bread. So by now everyone at the first big tribal encampment, just downriver from here, is dead certain that they have a week at least before we even start to move.”

“So how long do they really have?”

“Jeff was riding off to tell the engineers to start putting a temporary bridge across the ice right here; it’s all preplaced ready-to-go pieces. That will be done by about two in the morning, he hopes. Meanwhile the tribal spies and scouts won’t be meeting the people they expect, and their regular patrols are going to have some real bad luck; we’ve been following but not taking them for weeks. So with a little luck, almost none of them will make it back to the tribal encampment before our army is on top of them, right about dawn. If Jeff’s plan works, the first tribal horde will be gone before lunch tomorrow.” Her eyes, reflecting the candlelight, seemed feral and vicious, but her smile was still a beauty-pageant dazzler.

“Brilliant,” Bambi said, meaning it. Lady, you scare me just a little, but right now we need scary people on our side.

Contents