THE NEXT DAY. PUEBLO. 10 AM MOUNTAIN TIME. MONDAY, MAY 11, 2026.

James wished they had met at his home; Heather’s office was comfortable enough, and the logbooks and records were there, but it would have felt good to be cooking. Here, he had nothing to do. A review of the facts would have been useless.

All three of them were miserably aware that there had been an EMP over Pueblo, just after Carol May’s last fragmentary radio message, in clear, that the tribal horde was inside the walls. About an hour later, Phat had sent the cryptic message from Paducah that he was going to take a look himself with Bambi Castro, and nothing had been heard since. The Army of the Wabash had only reached Terre Haute yesterday, finding everything destroyed, and would not have air reconnaissance that could reach Pale Bluff until Sally Osterhaus reached them in her Piper Cub later this week.

It was what they had known last night, what they had known this morning, what they had known while they pretended to eat breakfast.

So they sat and waited. Leslie was restlessly patting her dog; Wonder had picked up on her nervousness and was whining and nervously licking her. Heather was fussing over Leo much more than usual, and he wasn’t happy about it. The Good Soldier lay neglected in James’s lap.

Something caught the corner of his eye out the window. “Patrick’s coming, and he’s running hard.”

Heather moved Leo into his crib, opened the door, and called down to the guards to wave Patrick through. She shoved a wad of meal tickets into the boy’s hand. “Sorry, guy, urgent and secret, no socializing this time. Take a rest someplace where you can hear us yell from the window.”

Patrick looked—stunned? James thought. No, scared. Because he’s never seen us so scared before, and we’re the people he depends on to keep the world working. Man, I wish I had someone I could depend on like he depends on us.

The moment the door closed, Heather ripped the envelope open, pulling out an inner envelope on which Ruth Odawa had written I suggest highest possible security.

Heather sighed, sat, opened it, read, looked again, and said, “She wasn’t kidding. It’s from Bambi. Here’s the short version: as far as she could determine, everyone in Pale Bluff was killed, though there may still be some survivors hiding out. The city is a total loss. Quattro died on takeoff, and the Gooney Express was totally destroyed. Here’s a strange sentence: ‘You may assume Lyndon Phat is also dead.’ She’s in Columbia, Missouri—or she was, she’s in the air now, she’ll refuel at Hays and then come here—and she says, full report then. And one last detail: she won’t come here to my office, or anywhere in the city. We have to meet her at the airport.”

“What the hell could that mean?”

“We’ll probably find that out at the airport,” Heather said. “She’s estimating she’ll come in about four p.m.”

“Wow,” Leslie said quietly. “A week ago we thought we were winning the war, worried about getting Phat elected if Grayson ran well or Weisbrod was a spoiler… now, there’s no Phat, no Grayson, no Graham Weisbrod… no Quattro…” Her voice cracked. “Sorry, the rest were people I’d worked with and respected, but Quattro was like, like—”

“Everybody’s hero. I feel like crying myself. And there’s no Pale Bluff,” James said quietly. “We’ve lost the living presence of almost anything we could build a myth out of, to put the country back together. God, I’ll miss Pale Bluff the most. Every issue of the Post-Times, you had this little town struggling bravely on, making the new America. I mean, I knew how Arnie Yang was playing those sentimental cards, he showed me before he was turned, and I’ve been doing it myself for months, now, too, and… that story’s over, in the worst possible way. Including that when the Army of the Wabash finally gets there, there will be a thousand real horror stories, and within a year ten thousand made-up ones, about the death of that town. You know, neither Leslie nor I ever even visited it before it was gone. And the symbolic value…”

Heather stared into space. “And Allie Sok Banh is in a hospital bed and it’ll be months before she’s up and around, and of course Bambi is going to be some kind of psychological wreck, she was my favorite employee back before, and she was so happy with Quattro, it was like he changed her whole life… .” She got up and walked over to her string-and-card chart, which was lying on the table, and raked through it with her fingers, tearing everything out, flinging it over her shoulder. “There is not going to be a Restored Republic, or a United States,” she said. “Everyone is out of action, most are dead, we’ve lost every useable resource. Texas will secede today. White Fang says that the Commandant is probably never going to make an official declaration, but he’s got at least twenty people in jail on suspicion of ‘spying for the United States,’ so whether we admit it or not, we’ve already lost Manbrookstat too. Red Dog reports that Jenny Whilmire Grayson doesn’t have the votes and might have to flee here for political asylum. No options left. We’ve lost. We’ve just plain lost.”

Very quietly, James said, “I have two arrows left in the quiver, actually. One you’ll hate and one that you will never forgive me for.”

Tears were trickling from her eyes, and she said, “Well, let’s start with the one you think I will hate. You know me, James. You know if someone tells me there’s a chance, I have to know what it is.”

“Graham Weisbrod was technically, correctly, the legitimate President of the United States. Everyone who knows the law admits that now.”

“Now that he’s dead and they don’t have to put up with him,” Leslie said, bitterly.

“True but irrelevant; the relevance is that everyone agrees he should have been President, and therefore he was, in retrospect. Clear as a bell, actually, a sitting cabinet official appointed by the last elected president and confirmed by a fully legitimate Acting President. The TNG was all the result of a series of mistakes: if Cameron Nguyen-Peters hadn’t been so full of doubt, if Norm McIntyre had found some guts, or if Lyndon Phat had thought things through, there’d never have been a Temporary National Government.” James sighed. “The trouble was that Graham was highly partisan and, forgive me, Heather, but kind of a rude jerk, and even people who liked him didn’t like Allie, and President Weisbrod would really have meant President Allie in all but name. But now that everyone is dead, if we have a legitimate successor to Weisbrod, that’s the President of the United States.”

“Doesn’t that mean the whole Provi government is?”

He shook his head. “No. Graham Weisbrod was a legitimate President of the US but setting up the Provisional Constitutional Government exceeded his authority by astronomical distances. He was a president who violated the Constitution, but he was legitimately the President; the PCG was never legitimately the government. Now, there’s a provision in the Succession Act that an acting or an emergency appointment to the cabinet is in the line of succession, same as one confirmed by the Senate. So anyone Graham appointed to his cabinet—”

“Doesn’t that make Allie Sok Banh next in line? They’ve got her in an induced coma, and she may not be fully conscious for another few days. And you were right in the first place, even her closest friends don’t want her to be the president. So the next one is… Treasury?”

“I was getting to that. Yeah. Bindel wouldn’t make a bad choice, either, but he’s naturalized, born in India. But their Secretary of the Armed Forces—which is what Graham renamed the Secretary of Defense—is Norm McIntyre.”

“But Norm is a wreck, you say so yourself. Even if he takes the job—”

“He probably won’t,” James said. “Blue Heeler reports that he’s despondent, not even in Olympia right now, he’s outside the city, pretty much just hiding. But technically speaking, he’s the Acting President. He could appoint a Vice President and resign. Then we have a president with at least a fig leaf of legitimacy and some shreds of authority. Then if a new Congress was elected—this year is an election year on the old calendar—they could validate the whole thing. Retroactively we’d be back under the old Constitution with a mess to straighten out, but technically it would be legit.”

“Well, I wouldn’t have wanted Norm before, to tell the truth, and if he’s hiding in a cabin in the woods, I guess he’d better keep hiding. But what good would it do to have a President with no government?”

James said, “This is the part you’ll really hate. Then the President calls a summit meeting of state governors and everyone else controlling former American territory—even Lord Robert—and demands that they plan for a national election. Kharif, that guy the PCG just appointed. Jenny Whilmire Grayson if she can get in. Bambi. Governor Faaj down in Texas. All of those would probably go for it. Others, we’d have to campaign over the leadership’s heads, stir up trouble for them with their own people, because we know most Americans do want to put the Constitution and the Republic back together, even if it’s just out of pure sentiment. Get all the little governments and alliances to play as much as we can. Elect the Congress, we already have a President, start setting up, pretend that the last couple of years didn’t happen.”

“So whoever we made the president that way would have to serve out the rest of the term?”

“For stability and legitimacy, yeah. So it can’t be just a figurehead. It has to be somebody who can actually run a government putting the country back on its feet, and play by the rules, and while we’re at it, if we don’t want guerrilla uprisings, it’ll have to be someone that most people in the country have heard of and trust. Someone who already has contacts everywhere and that people think of as wielding some power in her own right.”

Heather O’Grainne stared at him; she had seen it. “You are working your way around to saying that it has to be me.”

“I told you you’d hate it.”

“That’s why you’re my main advisor, you’re so good at predicting.”

“Then you know I’ve already thought through the rest of the list of possibles and I’m not suggesting this just to be mean or because I want my boss to move up in the world, or anything of the sort. Is there anyone else you’d pick?”

“Doesn’t mean I want to do it. Wouldn’t it make more sense to just let the Republic quietly fade out, and give up? I can find something useful to do somewhere, so can everyone else, and, well, we tried to keep our oaths, kept them as long as we could, but there’s no more America.”

“You could do that.” He looked down at his hands. “I hate to bring this up but there’s another kind of trouble we might head off if you were willing to be President for a day or two. If we don’t do this now, when Allie Sok Banh recovers, she’s much too smart and ambitious not to realize that she is the President.”

“Ouch. That would tear the country apart.”

“If we do this now, your appointment would supersede her position. And while we’re at it, it also shuts off half a dozen other minor people, various deputy undersecretaries and so forth, who might be able to contend that since they were legitimately the acting secretary of something or other, they are now legitimately the president. If you read your Shakespeare or you know the Wars of the Roses, you know that there is only one good number of legitimate successors, and that’s one. Any more than that is an invitation to civil war, and we’ve been close to that a few times already, in fact you could pretty much say the Lost Quarter Campaign was a civil war—just one we lost. So one clear succession would be good to establish even if you decide you don’t want to do anything more than that.”

“And it would have to be now, wouldn’t it? Who knows how long till Allie recovers and tries to take power? Much as I love the lady, personally, I don’t want to see if she can make a bigger mess than Jefferson Davis did.”

“So…” Leslie said, “has James talked you into this?”

Heather sighed. “I might have known you were in on it.”

“And Wonder. And he agreed with us too.”

“Well, then, I guess it’s unanimous, and it does make sense. Set up a voice encryption, and let’s get hold of Norm McIntyre and see if he’ll go along with it. He probably will, because he has enough sense to be terrified of the idea of being stuck as president. And promise me that I’ll be the president for the shortest possible time that works.”

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