THE NEXT DAY. ATHENS, TNG DISTRICT. 7:20 AM EASTERN TIME. SATURDAY, MAY 9, 2026.

“We bow our heads around here, when we talk to God,” an old man in a ministerial robe said to Jenny.

She ignored him, keeping her head upright and her eyes open. Her father was down front, repeating, “We just want to begin with a little prayer here to kind of unify things, so if you’d all bow your heads…”

“Bow your head for God,” the old man said again.

Jenny turned to him. “God is not asking me to, you are. And because people like you presume to speak for God, I don’t feel safe closing my eyes and looking down, because I can’t trust you. I will talk to God my way; you can do what you like.”

She must have spoken louder than she intended, because she saw her father look up at her, see who was standing next to her, and give a tiny but stern shake of his head. The old minister moved sideways as if he had received an electric shock, and walked down the aisle to join the extremist caucus that sat just right of the aisle. Reverend Whilmire’s lip twitched slightly, as if the incident had amused him, but all he said was, “Let us pray.”

It was a rambling, complicated prayer that verged on being a full-fledged lesson, with many citations in the form of “As you clearly told us in the verse of your word found in the book of…” Jenny smiled to herself. Most of the time when she was growing up, her father had complained about that format for prayers, “as if God hadn’t read the Bible very well and needed footnotes, or like he was the Holy Tax Auditor and you were trying to argue the rules with him.” Apparently Reverend Whilmire had come to the realization that whatever God might like, his followers wanted this.

When the prayer wound down through the last complex footnote and faded out in a burst of HOLYS, ETERNALS, DIVINES, and THEE-THOU-THY-THINES, the Reverend Whilmire announced, “I would now like to present my own daughter, Jenny Whilmire Grayson, who has recently returned from the expedition into the Lost Quarter, for her full report on the tragic situation there.”

Jenny walked down the aisle wondering how many of those billowing black robes concealed pistols. Probably they wouldn’t do anything that overt. At least not right in front of Daddy. Probably.

She couldn’t help noting, when she glanced toward the too-small population of uniforms on the other side of the room, that their holsters were empty. Funny nobody ever mentioned such a useful rule in political science class: in a revolutionary situation, the side of the legislature that has to check weapons at the door is losing.

This was only supposed to be a report and a discussion, but she wasn’t sure how soon that might change. She had heard distant shooting on her way here. It seemed as if in every block, some building had a cross, a fish, a star-stripe pattern, or “1789!” painted on its burned and blackened walls. Jardin had told her, unofficially, that there were anywhere from five to ten politics-connected deaths in Athens per day. A few officers had declined to be part of the Army delegation on the Board because they were afraid of being helplessly disarmed and surrounded by so many National Church people.

She did her best to tell the story absolutely straight, not minimizing the disaster, but also pointing out that the advantages were still mostly with the United States. “In short, there is little hope of destroying tribal power in the Lost Quarter, particularly the Castle Earthstone version, at least not for a year or two, unless they very badly overextend or make other big mistakes, and so far Lord Robert has not been making many mistakes. There is a fairly high chance of another defeat at Pale Bluff, and both symbolically and logistically, that’s much worse. The land routes west are looted and burned out, and the tribes depend on looting to survive, so they’ll almost certainly go down the Wabash and the Ohio for a drive into the middle of the country, probably a mass raid of opportunity, and because Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, and Arkansas are lined up with the Temporary National Government, that will hit our particular government and people very hard. They can hurt us, very badly, and we need to fight them wherever we can, but they still take many more deaths than we do in every encounter, and in the long run they don’t do anything to rebuild their strength.”

“Till now.”

“Yes, Colonel Streen, you’re right. Till now. Lord Robert’s heresy is in some ways more threatening, because he’s not trying to exterminate the human race, so he takes some care of his forces. But in other ways, honestly, he’s a plain old conquering tyrant, and he’s not very well armed, as long as no one supplies him, and there’s nobody behind him—he doesn’t have an assistant or a lieutenant worth talking about. When he does make a mistake he won’t have much to recover with; he has an army and a territory that he has to keep together, so there’s something for our armed forces to fight; and anyway, he might be killed in battle or the RRC might arrange something, and that will be the end of that menace. So for the moment Lord Robert’s True Daybreak might get farther and win more battles than, what would you call it? Daybreak 1.0? but you have to keep in mind he’s much more vulnerable too. His castle can be taken and torn down, his army can be defeated and broken instead of just scattering into the woods to fight again, they have crops we can burn and kids they’ll cut a deal to save.”

One of the reverends growled, “No deals with the Antichrist.”

“I think it would be better to just knock him flat if we can, rather than cut a deal with him—but I don’t think he’s the Antichrist, either. And if we can’t beat him right this minute, better to get a deal and then thrash him later. That’s what I think.” She looked around the room and saw some heads nodding, some arms folded, on both sides of the political divide.

“I’m going to take a moment to mention I’m proud of my daughter,” Reverend Whilmire said. Thanks, Daddy, that felt like a pat on the head. “I suggest we take a few minutes’ break to caucus and consider our options.”

In a large, comfortable room that had probably once been some athletic official’s office, he said, “I am proud of you, you know, and I do admire you. Your role is unBiblical but you are playing it so well.”

“My role is what it needs to be,” she said, “and I believe I already made it clear that I’m no longer giving you a vote about it.”

“You did. Since you won’t take my advice, though, I thought you might be willing to take my offer. The First National Church has adherents in places other than the Christian States of America, and we must never forget that the eventual goal is to have all the old states rejoin under a fully Christianized Constitution. We needed the first President under the Restored Republic to be someone who would work toward that goal, and we still do. And if the arrangements are coming unraveled, then we need the right first president for the CSA even more urgently. And so, even though you and I have some very deep disagreements theologically, it seems to me that with what you have shown you can do—”

“Daddy, are you suggesting you want to run me for president? Has it occurred to you that it’s eight years till I’m eligible under the Constitution?”

“The Constitution was made to serve America, not vice versa. The country needs a popular, effective Christian president—”

“And a woman president? Wouldn’t that be an unBiblical role?”

“It would. But these things can be changed over time—”

“Not if we’re in Tribulation, Daddy. Less than six years left to go before Jesus shuts the whole show down, if you’ve been telling people the truth.”

Whilmire gaped at her; his face was slack, but blood was rushing into it. “You are mocking me!”

“You don’t believe it yourself, do you? You know in your heart that you are going to have to come up with some reason, when it gets to be seven years from Daybreak day, why that wasn’t the Rapture, and it didn’t start the Tribulation.”

“My faith in the Bible is deep, complete, and not the issue here. You will not speak to your father that way.”

“Or are you just hoping it will work out? You want it to have been the Tribulation, you don’t want to be wrong, but at the same time you’re afraid you might be, even if you won’t admit it, so you keep making plans for what to do if the world doesn’t end like you expect, because—”

He shouted; no words, just a cry as if he’d been punched in the stomach, and stormed out.

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