ABOUT THE SAME TIME. PALE BLUFF, NEW STATE OF WABASH (FORMERLY ILLINOIS). 5:00 AM CENTRAL TIME. MONDAY, APRIL 20, 2026.

The MacIntosh Inn, a big old 1920s frame-and-gingerbread house, had been built to display the cider-fueled wealth of its owner during Prohibition. It had successively been the last refuge of his spinster daughters, a real estate agent’s cross to bear (and rumored to be haunted), and the retirement project of a chef and her cabinetmaker husband, who had turned it into a highly successful bed-and-breakfast back before. As Pale Bluff had become the key town on the Wabash frontier, they had served increasingly famous and important guests.

For the past week it had been Grayson’s main headquarters, and maps, lists, and charts covered every available surface in the main dining room, except for the places at the table where Grayson and Phat ate silently, sharing reverence for hot meals indoors off of plates. By firelight and candlelight, the room was cheery enough, even though the curtains were drawn and the sun had not quite come up yet.

The day before, at Grayson’s insistence, Phat had reviewed intelligence, plans, and decisions exhaustively. Once breakfast was cleared and they were savoring the privilege of hot coffee, he said, “Jeff, from everything I can see, you’ve got it right. You’ve already shown you’re a better general than I am, frankly, at least in this new world; I wouldn’t have done nearly as well in the Yough campaign and I am really not sure I could have managed the Ohio Valley at all.”

“That wasn’t a campaign, that was a series of massacres.”

“Sun-Tzu, Jeff. Best way to win is without fighting. You did so well they never had much of a chance to fight. And if they’d had as big an advantage over you, you know they’d have used it, and for what. Now, as for your attack up the Wabash, I stand by my assessment. If there’s anything you’re missing, it’s beyond me to see it too. We both know there’s no guarantee of success and no guarantee against surprise, but if things go wrong it is not going to be your fault, and if things go right it will be very fairly to your credit. If anything I say can boost your confidence, consider it said, really, with my whole heart.”

Grayson had nodded and extended his hand. Shaking it, Phat thought, People think that weird little smirk of his is contempt or not taking them seriously, but he does that because he thinks he’s a fraud and he’s fooled us, and he’s ashamed. I wish I’d realized that years ago.

It might have been a mutual dismissal, but instead the two men sat next to each other in armchairs, huddled close to the fire, holding their coffee cups surrounded by both hands, as if already out in the cold wet field.

Grayson finally said, “I don’t know whether to thank you more for coming or more for making such a public show of support for everything I did and said. You’ve certainly been more than fair and supportive.”

“The country needs you to succeed, and you needed the support, and most importantly, as far as I can tell you have been right about everything.” Phat gulped at his coffee as if afraid it might be his last cup ever. “One thing that hasn’t changed, and you’d think would have: we leaders live in an insulated world. Even in the worst of Daybreak, I don’t think any top officials ever went hungry, or even were at risk of going hungry.”

“Do you think we should have? For solidarity with the common people, or whatever you would call it?” Grayson’s expression was hard to read; he seemed to be seeing something a thousand miles beyond the fire. “I’ve given specific orders so that I’ll never eat if any of my troops have to go hungry.”

“Like any sensible man,” Phat said. “Of course you do that. No, I was just thinking. The world came to an end, people were hungry and cold and scared, they turned to the institutions that they were used to counting on—armies, churches, businesses, the government—and mostly we all did rise to the occasion, some individuals screwed up, of course, but mostly the armies set about creating order and safety, and the businessmen tried to get the wheels turning again, and cops and preachers and leaders of every kind got onto the job as much as they could. But one thing’s for sure: it has consistently been more comfortable to be one of these leaders people are counting on, than it has been to be one of the people counting on us. For good or ill we take care of ourselves first.”

Grayson nodded. “Remember airplanes? ‘If you are traveling with children, put your own oxygen mask on first’?”

“Unh-hunh. That’s part of it. Another part is like my old man always said, it’s good to be king.”

“Yeah, that too.” Grayson finished his coffee. “Most of my troops got up to big pots of venison-sausage and noodle soup, all the apple fritters they could eat, and beans-and-rabbit, which they’ve had so much that they have new lyrics for ‘Caissons,’ a cheerful thing called ‘The Bunny-fart Boogie.’ But as far as they were concerned, the soup made it a treat and the fritters were a trip to heaven. If O’Grainne and her wizards are putting the numbers together right, then if we get a decent harvest in this year, we’ll finally be growing as much as we eat in a year.”

“So you think about that too,” Phat said.

Grayson shrugged. “Have to. Bet you it’s Graham Weisbrod’s last thought before he goes to bed and his first when he gets up, too. We’re the three people most likely to be president, and our thoughts can’t get too far away from food.” Grayson stood. “Well, at least we had coffee at breakfast.”

“And no dishes to wash.”

“Amen. Thank you for coming, and for the support.”

“We have differences, and we are not friends, but I have never doubted your competence.”

“Isn’t that strange? I doubt it all the time. If you’re willing, I’d like to go out to meet the others arm in arm, smiling, and looking like the best friends in the world. Really, nobody’s ever been able to do much for my confidence, but perhaps we can do something for theirs.”

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