4 HOURS LATER. RICHMOND, KENTUCKY. ABOUT 8:30 PM EASTERN TIME. THURSDAY, MAY 7, 2026.

Conversation was impossible between the open cockpits. Bambi and Jenny could communicate in very occasional shouts over the roar of the engine, but that was all. So Bambi’s view of Richmond at sunset—a little town with lights coming on, the guard changing on the city walls, and people trudging home from work—was all her own. They had built a new landing strip within the walls, and she flew low to take a look at it. They were just hoisting the white-circle-on-blue that meant “We have clean fuel,” and the long pennon that meant “Welcome, you were not expected.” Bambi waggled her wings to indicate she’d understood, then came around and brought the Stearman in for a smooth landing, or as smooth as you could do on partially deflated greased-linen tires. She taxied over to the reception area and killed the engine.

As they climbed out, Jenny said, “Whenever you and Quattro get a chance you should take a look at that NeoGoliath’s landing gear. Chris was all impressed that they used a double-spring axle like on an old-time covered wagon, with iron-rimmed wheels.”

“Yeah, interesting. I wonder what that lands like—”

A light cough nearby made them turn to see an older man in a somewhat lumpy, probably handmade blue uniform, sort of an inexpert copy of a police patrolman’s uniform, with the Cross and Eagle insignia on both shoulders. On his chest, he wore a metal disk with the words “Airfield Master—On Duty” stenciled in black paint. “Uh, I’m supposed to ask you to identify yourselves and what you’re doing here.”

“Of course. Bambi Castro Larsen. Pilot, RRC courier service.”

“Jenny Whilmire Grayson, urgent government business, en route to Athens.”

“Uh. Well, that is, uh. I have orders to detain you. I mean you, Ms. Grayson. I have no orders about you, Ms. Larsen.”

“I would like to see that order,” Bambi said, and held out her hand.

“Um, I don’t think—”

“Would you like me to demand it as an RRC courier who has an absolute right anywhere in the United States to protect my passengers from harassment? Or as a senior RRC agent who could call in troops to occupy this airfield if I don’t like the answer? Or as the Duchess of California, so that this can be an international incident? Because I’ll be happy to play it any of those ways. Or all of them.”

The man looked terrified, which was exactly what Bambi had intended, and handed over a transcribed radiogram. Without asking, Bambi also reached out and took the lantern from the man’s hand, holding it up to read. “‘All stations, Jenny Whilmire Grayson is to be detained but not harmed, for reasons necessary to the government.’ And then it adds ‘This order has been authorized by Reverend Donald Whilmire, National Constitutional Continuity Board Chairman and Acting NCCC.’ This doesn’t give an appropriate and specific description of the reasons, it doesn’t specify anything that you would need for an arrest warrant, and it’s signed by an authority that isn’t recognized in the rest of the United States.”

“They say I have to hold her.”

“They can say you have to shoot down the moon, depose God, or kill all the firstborn males in Kentucky, and you’re still the one who has to decide whether to try to comply or not.”

“I’m a Federal official—”

“What were you back before?”

“Ain’t got nothing to—”

“Because, buddy, I was a Federal agent and we learned about warrants, since screwing one up, or using an invalid one, could cost us a job or the Attorney General a conviction. And this is not a valid warrant. Now, you can point that gun at us and see if you can make us take orders that you have no power to give, on behalf of people who also had no power to give them, or you can shut up and do your job as Airfield Master, which I would bet you’re a lot better at than you are at playing cop.” She had been walking closer to him as she spoke, holding the lantern up so it shone in his eyes. “Now are you going to be a real Airfield Master or a fake cop?”

As she asked that question, she reached forward and lifted the man’s pistol from its holster, gently, not grabbing, and held it out in her open hand, so it pointed at neither of them, but he could reach for it easily. “You need this for routine protection on your job, I know. Do I have your word you aren’t going to go any further with this arrest nonsense, you’re not going to radio anywhere for orders or instructions, and you’ll get us a maintenance and fuel wagon out here? If you’ll give me your word about that, then I’ll fix things up tonight, we’ll sleep by the plane, and we’ll take off at first light. And you can always say I took your gun away from you and you had no choice.”

The man had seemed to shrink the whole time Bambi had been talking to him. “I don’t know what—”

“Exactly. I took your gun, I had the authority, and you didn’t know what to do so you just did your job as Airfield Master. Now take the deal—and your gun back. Just say, ‘Yes, ma’am.’”

He mumbled, “Yes, ma’am,” and took the gun as if afraid it might go off, sliding it uncomfortably back into his holster, then slouched off toward the main buildings.

“Think he’ll keep his word?”

“Probably, at least for a while. One of those things I’ve learned to have a feel for, spotting the people Daddy used to call ‘Natural omegas,’ people who are just looking for someone to tell them what to do. He probably really is a good Airfield Master and he’ll feel a lot more comfortable doing that than he did trying to be the KGB. So I think we’re all right. And anyway, I just volunteered us into sleeping under the wing, so we’re right where we need to be if trouble starts.”

“Good thing it looks like a warm night,” Jenny said.

“And thank god for Carol May’s sandwiches. My plan is, sandwiches now, get the checkout and fuel done right after, sack out, then open the coffee thermos when we get up and take off just as the sun rises.”

“Sounds good to me.”

The meal was good, no repairs were needed, and after fuel, tire air, oil, and lye were all topped up, they stretched out in blankets next to each other under the wing. Bambi said, “Hope you didn’t mind being a mechanic’s helper before bedtime.”

Jenny snorted. “I’m only afraid I might like the job so much I decide to give up on politics and become a full-time mechanic. You ever think about being just a pilot instead of a duchess?”

“Only about every other breath.”

“Well, good, it’s nice when you take a flying trip to know that the pilot isn’t crazy.”

From the sound of her breathing, Bambi knew that Jenny fell asleep almost immediately. Well, compared to what she’s been through recently, I guess sleeping under a plane wing and hoping you won’t be arrested in the middle of the night is probably pretty restful. For that matter when I consider what’s happened to her, I realize how lucky I am. A moment later, Bambi fell asleep too.

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