2 DAYS LATER. PUEBLO. 4:30 PM MOUNTAIN TIME. THURSDAY, APRIL 23, 2026.

“Even back before,” James Hendrix said, “spring snowstorms weren’t unusual around here.” Outside, stinging sleet sprayed across the old corn snow and mud patches of James’s yard. “Look at that, it’s still a couple hours till sunset and it’s dark enough for lanterns.”

Beside him, Leslie also stared out at the tumbling, billowing gloom, then hefted the jug. “Another round all around? Still an hour and a half till classes start.”

“Sure,” James said. “It’ll lift the mood, or deepen it.”

“Sticking to water,” Heather said.

“We have that too.” Leslie filled their glasses and Phat’s. “To being warm and dry, and having something to think about, and sharing it with others.” She sat, and Wonder scrabbled around to lay his head in her lap. “Seriously, General Phat, you’ll be fine. I’m no kind of a teacher, and James is a dusty old pedant, but the adult students keep coming back because it’s a frontier town with too much work to do. Learning stuff is a chance to lift up their heads and feel human now and then. And you’ve got a great subject. I mean, ancient history, right? They can just listen and read, nobody’s life is hanging on whether they remember anything, but they’ll feel like today they were more than muscles turning wheels.”

Heather looked up from playing with Leo on the floor. “Leslie’s right. Everyone is tired after a full day, they’ve mostly just come from mess hall and bath shift. So their bodies are exhausted but comfortable, and their brains are starved.”

Phat yawned. “I still feel like, how is this relevant? An old man’s favorite stories about Greeks—”

“Who were cold and hungry and in danger a lot, and trying not to let barbarians smash everything, and making time to enjoy life anyway,” James said. “How is that not relevant? And besides, people who work too hard and long don’t want to hear more about work, or that life is futile. They want some heroic adventure.”

Leslie smiled dreamily. “In books, you mean. That hard work they’re escaping from is how we’re coping with being in deep shit, a.k.a. adventure, and not giving up, a.k.a. being heroic.”

“Touch?, Leslie.” Phat shook his head, smiling. “In Peloponnesian War Athens, I’d’ve wished I could just stay home, read Homer, and ignore Alcibiades, who was as big a character as anyone in the Iliad. Now that we have a larger-than-life but despicable hero striding around the stage—”

James said, “I don’t really know Grayson well enough to despise him—”

“I despise him enough for all of us, and I notice you had no trouble figuring out who I meant.”

“But you still think he’s a larger-than-life hero?”

“Oh, yeah. That’s the problem, and why he scares me.”

Heather looked up, frowning. “I thought I was following your chain of thought till right now. You’re worried about him being heroic?”

“Yeah.” Phat’s tone seemed like an extension of the icy wet spray, now turning twilight gray, outside James’s window. “Despicable, we can deal with. Plenty of our allies are pretty bad human beings but we just use’em and watch’em, same as they do with us. But look at Grayson. Look how he’s reorganized his force from a mission to clear two big river valleys to a totally different mission, invading enemy territory and forcing a decisive battle. And he did that in less than eight weeks. That’s on par with Alexander, Caesar, or Napoleon, maybe.” His gaze was lost in the storm intensifying in the dimming light. “He’s been brilliant. People may not have my feel for the technical aspects, but they sense that brilliance.

“When they look at that, they’ll think he damned well deserves to be president, and you know, they won’t be completely wrong. In any fair election, he’s very likely to win. We’re impaled on a classic fork—something else Caesar would have recognized. If Grayson hadn’t won so far, right now Daybreakers would be cutting the country into vulnerable enclaves full of refugees, and we’d have lost most of our least-damaged areas; non-tribal society might not have lasted another five years.

“Now, maybe, thanks to the brutal mauling he gave the Daybreakers in the Ohio Valley, the main danger is past, and he can close the deal by midsummer, get us ready to retake the Lost Quarter the year after, turn all the curves on all those social-welfare graphs back upward.

“But here’s the fork: we had to back him to the hilt and make sure he won, because the stakes were pretty much whether or not there would be civilization on this continent. We still have to; he broke three tribal hordes but the other eight are only turned back, not gone yet. So he’s now our greatest visible hope, and a proven winner. If he confirms that by winning the Wabash campaign—and there is every likelihood he will—then no one, no one, no one is going to beat him in the election. You better believe that fork was deliberate.

“And it gets worse. My guess is that Grayson’ll be a big success as president, at least if ‘big success’ is defined as ‘getting what he tries to get.’ At the end of his first term we’ll have an established church, a military that totally ignores the courts and Congress, a political police enforcing blasphemy laws, a licensed press—and clean streets, trains that run on time, and shiny schools full of very polite children. If he loses, we’re screwed, but if he wins, we’re really screwed.”

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