THE NEXT DAY. PALE BLUFF. 7:00 AM CENTRAL TIME. THURSDAY, MAY 7, 2026.

Pale Bluff had been far too small to have an airport, back when it had first come to the attention of the wider world in December 2024. That had been a pure accident; the very first EMP attack from the moon gun—the one that had destroyed the original recovery center at Pittsburgh—had forced down the Gooney Express that had been carrying Graham Weisbrod in his escape from the TNG prison, on his way to found the PCG.

Now, as Quattro Larsen brought the Gooney back to Pale Bluff for perhaps the thirtieth time, he wished he had Bambi in the co-pilot’s seat, so that he could say something like, “Remember when we made our first landing, here, babe?” but she had insisted that if the aviators of the continent were going to converge to win this war, she would want her own plane. At this moment her Stearman was off to his right and a little below him.

That first emergency landing had been on I-64, miles away. It seemed like such a big deal at the time that Graham Weisbrod was the true President of the United States, so my plane was Air Force One. Once they were safely on the ground, however, any pretensions Quattro might have had had deflated like the greased linen tires on the plane. Everyone, including the nominal President of the United States, had walked into Pale Bluff with Freddie Pranger, the Township Constable.

Now look at what you did, Gooney, Quattro thought affectionately at his heavily modified DC-3. In a bit over a year, Pale Bluff had grown from a tiny town sleepwalking toward ghostliness, to the important crossroads where Weisbrod had given his Pale Bluff Address, to the most important town, industrial center, and military base on the Wabash frontier.

What one opportune forced landing had wrought was visible on the ground below, now. The old orchard-market town of back before was the center spot of a bull’s-eye. Surrounding the old town in a broad circle, where there had been only open fields leading out to the orchards, were newly-built wood-and-scrap metal shacks and cabins, and a profusion of temporary shelters ranging from lean-tos to tents, and every other conceivable arrangement in which people might sleep between shifts of work. Most of the refugees pouring out of the Lost Quarter after the rise of the tribes last spring had kept right on going after a brief stay in Pale Bluff, but enough had stuck to triple the town’s population.

The apple orchards, now dense as the spring green darkened to summer, were the next ring, which had a prominent notch in it: an old plot of aged, underproducing trees, surrounding a stretch of serviceable county road, had been sacrificed to create an airfield within the city wall, which outlined the whole bull’s-eye.

Quattro leaned back and shouted to his passengers over the thump and thunder of the biodiesel engines. “I’m going to let Bambi land first; she’s got less fuel reserve and the Stearman isn’t as durable as this old pile of junk.” He put the Gooney into a wide circle around the airfield, and enjoyed watching the golden early morning light dance across the green orchards below. When he saw his wife’s plane roll to a stop and the ground crews running out to pull her in, he swung down lower by the tower, caught the go-ahead signal from the flagman, and came around to land.

Like so many times before, Carol May Kloster was waiting for Quattro and Bambi, but this time she was joined by the town government and the local militia commander, there to meet the party of officers Quattro was delivering to them. It had been short notice; he had only radioed from Cape Girardeau, about 150 miles away, a couple of hours before, but apparently the radio operator had realized he needed to awaken Carol May, and she’d turned out the officials of the town.

Quattro removed his leather flying helmet with a sweeping bow. “Gentlemen, and lady, I come not to replace your authority but to enhance it.” He tucked the helmet under his arm, where his plumed hat had been, and set the hat on his head. “I bring you two lieutenant colonels, four majors, and three captains, all experienced Army and Guard officers from Kansas, Missouri, and Kentucky, who volunteered literally overnight to come here and help you organize your defenses against the expected tribal attack.” He made all the introductions, secretly pleased that he’d managed to remember everyone’s name. “And aside from their sterling qualities as officers, these are also the winners of the Good Sport Award. While I was on the ground in Cape Girardeau, I got a radio relay from Bret Duquesne, whom some of you may know as the Freeholder of Castle Newberry—the place where all the nice guns come from, and currently the leading aircraft manufacturer in North America.

“Bret had received a message from me and taken it upon himself to round up a cadre of officers for the Army of the Wabash, and he’ll be flying them direct to the army on the NSP-12, Newberry’s first experiment with an airliner of sorts. They should be arriving within a couple of hours.

“I had been flying these officers to the Army of the Wabash, and in fact they will still be joining it, but when they heard that the Army of the Wabash was going to be all right, but Pale Bluff was still in terrible danger, they agreed to come here and give you a hand. I suppose if you don’t need any more officers—”

The local militia colonel shook her head. “Don’t you dare take them away. Gentlemen and ladies, you are all very welcome here. If you’d like to follow me, we can start planning our defense.”

As the officers walked away, Carol May said, “And those officers were willing to get up in the middle of the night, and get on a plane, just because of your request.”

“I was surprised too,” Bambi said, “at first. Then I realized that the same charisma that had so gripped me completely into Quattro Larsen’s thrall was affecting other people just as strongly, and like a sort of Pied Piper in a silly hat—”

“Aw, shit,” Quattro said. “It’s just that everybody out there wants to friggin’ do something. Nobody wants to just hang back and wait for the blow to fall. They were all just fine and in solid with the restore-the-Constitution stuff when it looked like we would just clean up the Lost Quarter, raise the Stars and Stripes over the ruins of Castle Earthstone, go home, vote, and have our nice old familiar United States all back together again.

“Now they’re being reminded of the kind of thing that made my parents into libertarians, the stuff that made my old man start building Castle Larsen back in 2013. When minutes count, the national government will need to spend weeks negotiating and deciding; and because they always see the big picture—or that’s what the government types always call whatever they see—little details like a town facing a tribal horde get swept to the side as details. So even though a couple of years ago those officers couldn’t have imagined being invited to get out of bed and climb into the Duke of California’s airplane to go take a stand for civilization, nowadays—”

“They’ve already believed a hundred other things just as crazy,” Bambi finished for him. “I’ll admit, ‘The Duke summons you to defend a friendly realm from a most desperate foe’ has more of a ring to it than ‘You have been assigned to maintain a full level of readiness in the Western Kansas Military District.’ If any of those officers ever saw Star Wars or The Three Musketeers, I mean, how could they not be on board with all that romance?”

“Maybe so,” Quattro said, “but people are starting to realize that the real world today is romantic, and that no matter how much they miss back before, and would like to go back to filling out forms and voting on resolutions, that’s no longer their world. So a chance to get in some hard shots at Daybreak, and for it to be just plain personal instead of about all this abstract nation-and-Constitution stuff, well, that gets a lot of people pumped up.”

Quattro had always enjoyed arguing with Bambi, but lately arguments were always about this subject and never seemed to go anywhere. Perhaps Carol May saw Bambi’s irritation, and decided to intervene before it turned into a public quarrel. She said, “Chris Manckiewicz, and General Phat, and James Hendrix all keep talking about how we’re slipping back in time, and I guess as we get more feudal, war gets more personal. I don’t know if it’s a good thing, or a bad thing, but it’s definitely a thing.”

Quattro felt vaguely reprimanded, but before he could sort out why, Carol May added, “Nobody else is going to be coming in till late today at earliest. And you’ve been up all night flying and need some rest. Let’s go back to my place, and I’ll fill you full of pancakes and dump you into my guest bed.”

Quattro had always liked walking through Pale Bluff in the morning; this wasn’t even the first time he’d done it while exhausted from a long flight overnight.

Pale Bluff was the most irreplaceable link in the chain of airfields linking Athens and Olympia, but the town proper was a tight little jam of nineteenth-century gingerbread frame houses, interspersed with twentieth-century ranches and brick bungalows. It looked like a set from some historical drama back before, one of those gentle stories about life in a bygone day. Kids were trudging off to school, just as always. Adults were carrying lunch buckets and toolboxes more often than briefcases, and no one had a phone at his ear or a screen in front of her face.

Rounding the corner into the main part of town, they saw a militia company march by; they weren’t in uniform but their badges and insignia were all pinned in place, and “they march as if they’ve done it before,” Quattro observed.

“Not by much,” Carol May said. “We sent every soldier we could spare with Grayson, and now we have to hope they make it home in time. These aren’t raw recruits, but they’re not seasoned troops either. More like half-baked recruits. And if the numbers Jenny Whilmire Grayson reported are anything like right, we just don’t have anything like enough. We really need the Army of the Wabash to get here before the tribals do, but since I don’t see how that’s going to happen, we’re counting on that handful of militia to hold the tribals off till the A-o-W gets here.”

Quattro looked around again, still cheered by the bustling prosperity of the town, but also letting himself realize, “It’s hard to imagine we could lose all this.”

“Harder to imagine when it’s always been home,” Carol May said. “Hope you can stand some of the usual apple butter on those pancakes.”

“I relate well to apple butter,” Bambi said. “Always have. Lead on.”

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