ABOUT THE SAME TIME. PALE BLUFF. ABOUT 3:30 PM CENTRAL TIME. THURSDAY, MAY 7, 2026.

Carol May tapped her finger on the map at St. Francisville. “Everywhere else with a decent place to land is at least seven miles further walk to Pale Bluff. And if they land at one of the not-so-good places it will take them a lot longer to get onto shore and set up. So we’re looking at sending a few men on mules over there to wreck St. Francisville, but it’s two days to get there and then the question would be, what could they do to make it really useless to the Daybreakers? Anything ten guys could pile up on the ramps, ten thousand guys could take off the ramps pretty fast. And just burning the old buildings wouldn’t accomplish much. Lord Robert might like to sleep under a roof, but he won’t let it slow him down if he can’t. And most of his force will be camping out anyway.”

“You couldn’t mine anything, or booby trap it?”

“Not so it would mean anything. We might set up a few black-powder bombs or some tripwire deadfalls, but at best you might kill or injure a couple dozen tribals, and we figure we’ll be facing tens of thousands of them. And the only one that would really count is Lord Robert, and we will not get a shot at him, I think. It’s just… we know where they’ll be coming ashore and we could probably get a few troops there first, but we can’t think of anything useful for the troops to do once they get there.”

Bambi said, “What about trees along the bank upstream? Cut them down so they fall in the river, create snags?”

“Maybe, but—”

A chime from the other room announced a radio message coming in. Carol May put on her headphones, charged the capacitor, set the spark, and keyed QRZ, “who is calling?” She listened a moment and said, “Bambi, my one-time pad is in the drawer at your right. Key 310, please.”

Bambi handed her the sheet printed with triple rows divided into neat boxes; the middle row was typed in with random numbers, the top row blank for recording the incoming message, the lower row for the decrypt. Carol May set the sheet in front of her, put a fresh pencil beside it, and keyed QRV—go ahead.

“Apparently whatever it is, it’s a big deal, because Pueblo is calling way off their regular schedule, and they—” She picked up the pencil and took down a string of letters and numbers. When the page was about half full, she set down her pencil, keyed an acknowledgment, and shut down the transmitter. “Hunh. And they repeated the clear-code for DECIPHER IMMEDIATELY at the end of the message. Like anyone would get an emergency message and not decipher it ASAP. Whatever it is they really want us to know right away.”

After the first sentence, Carol May said, “All right, you finish the decryption. I’m going to make you a bag of sandwiches and a big thermos of coffee.”

“Am I going somewhere?”

“Ninety-nine percent chance, I’d say, if when you decrypt the rest of it, it’s like that first sentence. I’ll get your food packed. Good thing you got as much sleep as you did.”

Carol May had the sandwiches and thermos ready to go in a sturdy cardboard box when Bambi emerged from the radio room. “You were right. Thanks so much, and I hope you packed enough for two.”

“Of course. I’ve already put up my TAXI YES flag, so—there we are.”

A pedicab was pulling up at the front of the house. “Just a sec while I grab my flight bag and gear,” Bambi said. By the time that Claudia, the pedicabbie, was knocking on the door, Bambi had returned to the front room, bag slung over her shoulder, in her fur-lined moccasins, jacket, scarf, and goggled helmet. Claudia gaped for a moment, and Carol May couldn’t resist teasing, “Have you never seen a pilot before, or never carried a duchess?”

Sheepishly, Claudia said, “Actually, I’ve been looking for that pattern to knit a scarf for my husband.”

Bambi grinned. “Get me to the airfield in less than ten minutes, and since I have a spare scarf in the plane, you can have this one to copy. Just remember I’ll want it back; a tough thug of an FBI agent named Terry Bolton made it for me as a wedding present.”

“With my life,” Claudia said. “And I’ll see if we can make the airfield in five.”

At the airfield, the Stearman was ready—local ground crew were efficient—so Bambi just tossed her things into the forward cockpit, switched scarves with her spare, tossed the other to Claudia, and hugged the cabbie. “What’s the fee?”

“Carol May keeps me on retainer, and the loan of your scarf is the best tip I’m getting all year. Thanks, your, uh, Duchessness? That can’t be right.”

“Don’t get too good at titles. Doesn’t look good on an American. Thanks, Claudia, see you soon I hope.”

She felt like she really shouldn’t take the time, but she trotted over to the black and yellow checkerboard-patterned Gooney Express. Quattro was in the rear. He had already removed the passenger door and bolted the S-shaped, hand-fed bomb rack to the underside. Now he was reinstalling the black-powder Gatling as a door gun.

When he saw Bambi, he dropped the tools and jumped down to hug her. “Where to, Duchess Babe?”

“There’s a revolution forming in Athens and we might be able to replace the goofy religious nuts with an only slightly crazy right-winger, which is Jenny Whilmire Grayson, so I’m going to pick her up from the Army of the Wabash and plunk her down in Athens.”

“Charming company.”

“She’s not so bad, really, and we understand each other. We both were brainy hot chick trophy daughters for power-mad fathers.”

“So you’re in the same support group?”

“Yeah, and we both know the secret handshake. No shit, she’d piss you off and she’d drive Heather or James bugfuck crazy, but I can relate to her. I’m sure that’s a character flaw of some kind.”

“Well, better you than me. And while you’re gone I’ll have the Gooney to play with. By the time Lord Robert gets here, we’ll be set up to surprise the shit out of him.”

“Eahh. That’s another piece of bad news. Estimated time of arrival is way sooner, according to Heather’s emergency message. Carol May can fill you in on that. But if I were you I’d never leave the Gooney unflyable overnight.”

“Then I won’t. I’m just a flyguy with some charisma. You’re the one that knows how to do all this danger and fighting stuff. Think I should sleep out here?”

“Well, you might need to take off in a hurry any time, but you should be okay for a day or two. Maybe after tonight. Carol May’s place isn’t that far away, and mostly I’m just paranoid these days, and I worry about you. Also there might be some delay about me getting back here; I’ll be picking up some high-priority secure communications at Athens and delivering them to General Phat at Paducah, and I kind of think he’ll have more work for a pilot and plane, and then there’s a blackout on the tenth—the moon gun went off this morning—so I might be grounded someplace for a while.”

“Bambi, hon, being apart sucks, and I want you back as soon as you can be, but I’ll be fine. I’m going to be inside a wall, and guarded by armed troops, and my plane will be safe on the ground when the EMP hits. You’re flying over hundreds of miles of tribal territory in something that isn’t much more than a powered kite, and you know how when there’s a big military operation, like the one you’re visiting in Paducah, they always want you to fly right till the second before blackout starts.”

“Well, I’ll tell them no if they ask.”

“You better. You’ve already had one force-down in tribal country, and whatever it was for you, it was the scariest week of my life till we got you back. So you are not going to worry about me.” He held her a long time, and hugged extra hard. “Be back soon, Bambi, okay? I like the world better when you’re close.”

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