They were at the airfield early because “Let’s face it, we want to know what’s going on,” Leslie said. “We’d’ve been no use anyway, sitting around at the office, right?”
“Well, we could have pretended to work, but that’s probably your point,” James said.
“I think Leo was just relieved to be dropped off at the sitter’s,” Heather said. “He’s sort of sensitive to my moods lately and I was making him nervous.” She touched her shoulder holster. “Also I think that I feel weird to him because I’m always extra careful whenever I’m carrying.”
James said, “Why are you? We have guards around and no reason to think Bambi is dangerous.”
“No, but Bambi thinks something is,” Heather said. “Why is she insisting on meeting at the airport? All I can think of is that either she’s got urgent information that she can’t trust to encryption, or she has reason to fear being attacked in town. Either way means something bad going on that we have no idea about.”
“Is there any possibility that it’s us? That she’s decided
“James, based on what we know right now
The Stearman made a slight whump on landing, the greased linen tires having deflated during the long flight from Hays, Kansas. The plane taxied around in a broad circle to stop about ten yards in front of them.
Bambi shut the engine off, braked the prop, climbed out, and walked toward them. Leslie said, very softly, “Her hand is by her holster.”
“I know,” Heather murmured. “I’m keeping my hand away from mine.”
Bambi walked as if she had counted and measured the steps between her plane and her colleagues, and was putting each foot carefully on its mark, like an unconfident movie actor or as if she were crossing a river on not-quite remembered stepping-stones. She had not taken off her flying helmet, but her goggles were pushed up onto her forehead; despite the warm afternoon, she left her jacket zipped. And, as Leslie had noticed, her right hand was resting by the grip of the pistol strapped to her thigh, almost as if she expected a gunfight.
Quietly, Heather said, “You can just tell us what happened, Bambi. We haven’t heard anything from anyone else.”
She nodded. “Lyndon Phat decided that my plane and I should stay in Paducah because he needed us and wanted to keep us. He arrested me and locked me up. He didn’t let me fly to Pale Bluff, where my husband was fighting for his life, kept me locked up while bad news was pouring in over the radio and barely bothered to tell me about it afterward. Then ten minutes after the EMP, he ordered me to fly him to Pale Bluff for a reconnaissance. I saw Quattro’s burned body in the wreckage; all the ground crew died with him too. I think maybe they tried to fly out just as the EMP hit, or maybe they were shot down and the plane flipped. I don’t know. It was too badly burned. So… I walked back to my plane, and I pointed a gun at General Lyndon Phat, and made him get out of
The hideous silence stretched as if it might go on forever.
James didn’t see any point in bringing up any arguments that she should not have done it; it was done, with nothing to change. He didn’t see a reason to blame her; either she would blame herself, or not. He didn’t fear the gun at her hip; she clearly had control of herself. He just wished someone would think of something to say.
When it seemed painfully clear that no one else was going to break the silence, James said, “Is there any chance anyone survived, or there might be anybody holding out there?”
Bambi shook her head, and now tears were flowing. “Not a chance. We circled. No fighting. Bodies everywhere. If anyone was still alive they were hiding in a cellar or something, and the tribals were lighting fires everywhere.”
Leslie said, “I am so sorry about Quattro. He was special to all of us but he was your husband and you’d loved him a long time.”
“Even before I knew I did,” Bambi said softly. Her hand moved decisively down away from her holster. “What now?”
Heather asked, “Are we the only people who know? Because if we are, then I think we’re the only people who decide. There’s nobody I have to report it to, now, and there never will be.”
Bambi’s shoulders began to shake, and Heather said, “I don’t want any accidents, so, is it okay if I come over there and hold you? You know, old friend to old friend, not—”
Bambi raised her hands away from her weapon, and the two women embraced.
Heather looked at James and Leslie over her friend’s shoulder. “Uh, guys.”
Taking their cue, they went into the office.
After a long time, Heather and Bambi joined them. Bambi sat quietly, looking at her boots. Heather said, “Well, to begin with, Bambi knows I’m now the President. So really, this is the President and her closest advisors dealing with a difficult situation. I guess… Bambi, can you tell them about how you feel about the Duchy of California? The same way you told me?”
Bambi said, “I can try. It’s hard to say this. Look, my father… the whole time I was raised with his libertarian Ayn Rand right-wing thing going on, and hating it, because, well, Daddy always thought somehow or other that everything that happened around all that money and all those people working, he thought he did it. Like, all by himself, you know? Ten years after Obama said ‘You didn’t build that’ he was still in hysterics about it because he couldn’t stand the idea that the people who drew a paycheck from him had anything to do with the work that got done.
“So you know, you want to piss off your parents, or anyway at least I wanted to piss off mine. In eighth grade, I showed him a copy of ‘Questions from a Worker Who Reads’ and he tried to get my English teacher fired, and I went to the School Board meeting to testify against him. He had a whole career track laid out for me at Castro Enterprises and I never showed up to do anything he wanted me to, instead I went to a public university and volunteered for all kinds of unpaid do-gooding and ended up as a Federal agent. I don’t think you can imagine how angry that made him, that I was working for the tax-and-spenders and revenuers and gun-grabbers, even if I was carrying a gun myself.
“But he was proud of me too, in his weird way. And he kept telling me to take care of things, make sure guys like Donald, his favorite chauffeur, were taken care of. And then later… Quattro was one of the few other people in the world who understood me, I think. You know he was raised all his life to figure that someday the government would be all gone, and it would just be crazy looters in the street and red barbarians in the Statehouse, and… but he’d loved me, forever, really, I guess, since we were kids, and since putting the United States back together was what mattered to me, and my oath, and being part of society, and being in it for something bigger than myself, and all that”—her hands sawed the air—“it’s important and I can’t seem to keep it all in order, but you get the idea. Since I wanted my United States put back together, Quattro wanted me to have that.
“But he always wanted to go home and take care of the duchy—
“I had a lot of time flying to think. I know that the general saw a pilot and a plane and said,
“I still love you all and you can come for asylum any time.” She made a strange choking noise, and then smiled strangely. “After all, Daddy always said California was one big asylum. Or a visit or because you’d just like to say hi. But the years I put into the United States of America… and the husband I lost for the cause… none of that was worth shit, and I wish I had everything back. From now on, I take care of my duchy. And Heather, I wish you’d just resign as President, come out to California, I’ll give you a fief somewhere where you can have your dad with you and raise Leo and make your part of the world decent. Because I think you’re going to end up losing everything else, and there still won’t be any United States, and even if there was, it would never be what you imagine. It never even
Heather said, “Bambi, I’m so close to agreeing with you.”
“Come down to Castle Castro at San Diego. Stay with me for a long while. Get reacquainted with your father and let him get to know his grandson. Seriously, think about it. You could get Leo, climb into the front cockpit, and be gone with me today. You have your oath, but there’s no country to keep it to.”
Heather thought for a long while. At last she said, “James, maybe it is just because of the compliment you paid me earlier, about how I don’t give up and so on. But I can’t help thinking, before we all part company, you said there was one more thing we might try before we give up forever. And you said it was something I might not forgive you for.”
“Actually I don’t think anyone will forgive me for it. Anyone on our side, I mean. And it really… it isn’t something we can do. I don’t think it will even lead to anything we can do. But it’s one last place we could look for a suggestion, or an idea, or some pathway or approach. And chances are there will be nothing in it.”
“You’re a hell of a salesman,” Leslie said flatly, and they all began to laugh, even James. “Seriously, dude, do you want us all to think about this, or is this something you’re trying to scare us away from before we even hear it?”
“Some of both.” James looked back at each of them, drew a deep breath, and said it. “I kept Arnie Yang alive. He’s Interrogation Subject 162. I switched in a different prisoner when he had that seizure on the way to his hanging, and we hooded him. He wasn’t very happy when he woke up from his seizure and found us still prying at the Daybreak in his head. About half the time he warns us about how dangerous it is, and the other half he sounds perfectly reasonable and helpful—sometimes because he’s actually providing insights and helping us, and sometimes because Daybreak has taken him back over and he’s trying to trick us into doing something against our interests. The problem the interrogation team and I have is sorting out which is which, at any given time. But he’s alive, and we’ve been using him all along.”
Heather was staring at him, slowly shaking her head. “So your little digs at me about getting carried away and executing him and how much that was senseless, you were just… getting me ready for when you pulled him out of your hat?”
“I’m afraid so.”
She shrugged. “He was one of my closest friends for a long time. A day hasn’t gone by that I haven’t missed him. I think I might even be glad to see him alive. You’d better take me to him. Bambi, would you like to join us for this?”
“Arn and I used to be regulars at the departmental happy hour, back before,” Bambi reminded her. “I guess it’s going to be old home week. Keep our guns or check them at the door?”
“We’ve never allowed weapons near him,” James said. “Well, let me send out some runners.” He thought for a moment. “We’ll need to get the interrogation team together to meet us there; that’s just safety. Then a carriage for us, I guess, we have him in the super-secure wing of Facility 1 and that’s about a mile and a half, unless you want to walk.”
“How about two carriages?” Leslie said. “One for you guys to do old home week in, one for James and I to talk. Because, frankly, we need to talk.”
“I think the budget can stand that,” Heather said. “Considering there’s about to be no government of the United States, and we run on its credit.”
James nodded and headed for the messenger’s bench at the other end of the building.
“Besides,” Heather said, “I might as well spend it now before it goes away.”
Bambi smiled. “Spoken like a true bureaucrat. You really think you’re going to lose your budget?”
“Oh, hell, yeah. One big funding source is going to disappear when the Tempers turn into the Christian States of America. Who knows how long the PCG will want to keep funding us, especially once Allie wakes up and finds out I prevented her from being President?”
Bambi snorted. “Jeez. Our old office politics are now running the continent. Well, look, hon, I’m a duchess. You were a pretty good bureaucrat, and I bet you’ll make a pretty good vassal. And one advantage of being a duchess is, le budget,
• • •
“Well,” James said, closing the carriage door, “You said you wanted to talk.”
“Yeah.” She reached out and grasped his wrist. “James, I—shit. I don’t have any idea what I feel. I mean, he almost killed me.”
“He did. For what it’s worth, he’s gone after me or one of the others with his bare hands, or silverware he stole, or a piece of broken plate or a garotte he tore out of his underwear. More times than I can count. About a third of the time he’s plain old, gentle, nerdy, numbers-and-graphs-loving Arnie. Another third, he’s a treacherous evil snake of a liar, but very persuasive, and he sounds just like he does when he’s himself. And the last third… well, no predicting, but he’s tried to kill us, sometimes by biting out our carotids, sometimes by sounding as reasonable and mellow as a stoned kindergarten teacher. And he jumps from one to the other and there’s no warning.”
“Yeah. But… okay, whether you feel good about it or not, this is about me.” She sighed, and played with Wonder’s ears; he panted and looked up at James.
“Yeah,” James said, “I knew it was going to be.”
He sat up stiffly, looked out the window, and kept his voice very flat. “You’re right, we don’t talk about all that.”
“You wanted me to let him be hanged, as revenge for what he almost did to you? Don’t think I didn’t consider that. I would honest to god have
“But I did it all, anyway, instead. I arranged with MaryBeth to handle the switch, and got the note from Allie that we could be sure would trigger a Daybreak seizure. Then when he had the attack, MaryBeth and I took him to the infirmary. We only needed a couple of minutes because we had a prisoner we hadn’t logged. Deb and Larry Mensche knew a guy about Arnie’s size and coloration, who had been a Daybreaker, and killed his own family while he was under it, and didn’t want to live. They were waiting with him in the infirmary, and they had already dosed him up on barbiturates and got him all weepy and sleepy and hooded him, and that’s the man we took back out to ride in the wagon to his hanging.
“Meanwhile Jason and Beth took Arnie Yang to the high security section we had just set up in Facility 1; there are about a dozen high-level deeply infected Daybreakers in there at any given time, and the roster tends to change pretty fast because what we do to interrogate them, um, uses them up.”
“If they don’t find a way to kill themselves, or die of a related accident, or turn into gaping, drooling mannequins.” He rubbed his face. “It’s one hell of a job for an ex-librarian to take on, but there was no one else for it.”
“Did it have to be done?”
“Yeah, I still think so. If we’d won, anyway, I think it would have been justified. Anyway, it was the fake Arnie that went back out on the gurney, up the steps, and down the drop. Nobody saw his face till MaryBeth and I took his hood off, and you know, with the weights on his feet and using aircraft cable on such a long drop, we had turned his face into one big swollen bruise, with a big black tongue sticking out and red eyeballs bulging like Ping-Pong balls. No one who had been friends with Arnie was going to look closely. We let them have one glimpse, then MaryBeth signed the death certificate, I fed fake-Arnie head down into the incinerator—supposedly to prevent his grave becoming a pilgrimage site—and we made it work. That’s how we did it, and no, at the time, I didn’t tell you about it. You’d just been released from death row yourself and you were drinking and partying like all of a sudden there
“When I’ve been scared, I like a lot of sex. And I’d never been so scared before.”
“I know. I understood that, Leslie. We’ve been friends a long time.”
“Yeah. I try to keep you from hearing too much about it, or seeing me when I’m that way.”
“I appreciate it. Anyway, the point is, I didn’t hang Arnie, and I decided not to hang Arnie, but it had nothing to do with you. Not that I wasn’t angry enough, just that it made no sense, if I was trying to do my job running an intelligence service. I certainly didn’t save Arnie because I loved him, or forgave him, or wanted to spend time in his company. So I’m sorry but for once in my stupid, infatuated, never-learn life, this
Leslie leaned forward, looking at him with an expression he couldn’t read, astonishment, maybe, even shock. “James, James—shit, I’m handling this so badly, I was trying to be careful not to hurt you. I just wanted to say… James, you didn’t have to keep it secret from me, you don’t need my forgiveness because there’s nothing to forgive,
She reached over and clutched his arm; he looked at her hand as if it had magically appeared there. “James,” she said again. “What I wanted to tell you was… of
“You? You apologize to me? For
“I really thought you were that dumb. I thought you were so infatuated that you felt like you had to be loyal when it didn’t make any sense, and I thought… well, it was something I felt for a long time. Maybe ever since we became friends, ever since you got that crush.” She was looking down, now, embarrassed herself. “I had the impression that you thought I was a little bit dumb, myself, I mean, nice and articulate and all, but not really capable of thinking and deciding like a mature person, and your life was built around pleasing me even though you thought I was silly and dumb. Like, patronizing self-sacrifice, you know? Doing what you thought I wanted because you didn’t think I was smart enough to see what was right. So when you hanged Arnie Yang, or staged the hanging, anyway, I thought you did it for me because you thought I was stupid enough to want it and demand it.”
The carriage rolled another couple of blocks before James ventured to say, “And now you’re thinking… or feeling… differently?”
“You used the staged execution to convince Daybreak we didn’t have that intel source,” she said. “Didn’t you?”
“Yes, actually. At least that got some mileage out of that silly piece of theatre.”
“Well, I think that bit was brilliant, and pretty damned cool, and I’m proud of you.” The hand moved from his arm to caress his cheek; startled, he looked straight into her eyes, as he rarely dared to do for fear of revealing his feelings.
She smiled and winked. “Maybe we should have some long talks, later. Meanwhile, let’s go see if we can get anything more out of that little asshole.”
• • •
James had invited the whole “senior interrogation team,” which meant Jason, Beth, and Izzy. It was rare that they all worked together, so they knew something was up even before he showed up with Leslie, Bambi, and Heather. “So today’s the day we come clean?” Jason asked. He was grinning like a child at Christmas.
“It just might be the end of everything,” James said. “Or the beginning.” He looked around the group. “Now, everyone be ready. And if you’re carrying any concealed weapons as a backup, now is the time to leave them behind. He’s got literally inhuman abilities to detect them and he can move faster than you’d believe—I don’t know if that’s Daybreak, insanity, or that he spent so many years in martial arts. If you have a knife on you somewhere, he’ll take it from you and use it on all of us before you know it.”
“No shit,” Beth said. “I used to carry a little blackjack for just in case. Arnie was talking reasonable as could be this one time, just like the small talk before we started, and holy fuck, Jason slapped my blackjack out of Arnie’s hand and put him into a half-nelson strangle, or I’d’ve been dead, and the first I knew that my blackjack wasn’t in my coat pocket was when I saw it flying across the room.”
Heather and Bambi exchanged glances; Bambi pulled out a steel spring whip from somewhere, and Heather a short set of nunchaku.
“You can pick’em up on your way out,” James said, locking them into the box by the front door.
When James slid the door panel open, he stood well back, then looked through carefully. Arnie Yang sat on a single-piece poured concrete bench, big enough to be his bed as well as his seat, at the center of the floor in a windowless room. “Coming in, Arnie. Big group.”
“Good, it’s been lonely.”
When Arnie saw all of them, he said, “Something has happened since we talked last. Did Pale Bluff fall?”
“Yes,” James said.
“I had thought that sometime soon, there would be a bigger group to see me. It makes me happy to see you again, Heather, Bambi. Leslie, you probably won’t believe me, or accept it ever, but I really want to say I’m sorry about everything.”
“Actually I do believe you,” Leslie said. “That you want to say that, and even that you mean it. You know I’ll probably never accept it?”
“I know. I just wanted you to know I offered my apology, sincerely.” He paused a long time. “So Pale Bluff has been destroyed. I was rather thinking you would have brought along General Phat.”
“He died in Pale Bluff,” James said, very quietly. “And nobody is here to gape at you. We want to ask your advice, just as I have regularly asked it. Could you say one of the phrases, please, while we watch you?”
“‘Daybreak is a mind virus,’” Arnie recited. “‘Daybreak exists only for its own purpose. Daybreak’s purpose is to degrade and destroy the human race, everyone I love, and me. Daybreak is entirely evil. The world must be rid of Daybreak so that it can resume the development of technological civilization, whose benefits are the birthright of the whole human race.’ Hey, no seizure, today
“Or Daybreak doesn’t want you to have that clear period like you get after a seizure,” Beth said. “You know it could be either, and we don’t know any more than you do if it’s got you right now. But you’re right all the same, it’s a good sign.”
“Well, then,” James said. “Here’s the situation. Pale Bluff is burned, orchards and all, and will probably never be rebuilt. The Army of the Wabash is so far behind Lord Robert’s horde that there’s really no likelihood that they’ll ever catch them; they just can’t move as fast and there’s still more than a hundred miles. They can loot their way down the south bank of the Ohio and arrive at Paducah in better shape than they are now. Then they can bypass Paducah or overwhelm it, and that’s the last thing between them and the really good looting on the other side of the Mississippi. So if you were right that this is basically one last giant suicide raid to try to crash what’s left of civilization on this continent, well, we’ve probably lost our last chance to stop them before the blizzards start on the Great Plains next fall, and it’s only May.
“Every competent person we could have elected president was killed in the last week.”
“Have you thought about Quattro—” Arnie saw it in Bambi’s face, and said, “Oh, god, no, I’m so sorry.”
“You may trust me, no one with the charisma, ability, and national reputation we need is left. Nobody. We played a little fast and loose with the succession rules, so Heather is now the President, officially, but as far as any of us can think, we don’t see any way to turn that to our advantage. So the current plan is that we’re going to give up here. Heather is going to join Bambi in the Duchy of California, the rest of us will fold up shop, and the middle of the country will do whatever it can in the face of the Great Raid. Maybe their death rate will be higher, sooner, and their raid will be less effective, than they are thinking, and they’ll empty out the Lost Quarter enough so that Manbrookstat or the Christian States of America—”
“Wait, has that been declared?”
“Going to be any minute. You’ll never believe it, but Jenny Whilmire Grayson is the biggest asset the Army has in trying to stop it. But she’s not enough, and it’s too late. They will formally declare the CSA within two weeks, according to our source. Anyway, maybe Manbrookstat, the CSA, or whatever the Provis organize will be able to reconquer the Lost Quarter, if the tribes pay too high a price this summer or stay out on the plains too long and get caught in the winter too far from home. But the dream of the Restored Republic is finished.”
“I’ve decided to resign as soon as I’m at Castle Castro,” Heather said. “And there’s no line of succession left after me. In a couple of days, I will have officially been the last President, of the United States that is no more.”
Arnie howled like a coyote with its balls in a trap, arched his back farther than any of them might have imagined possible, and tried to backflip toward the bench. Jason lunged forward, knocked him sideways, and tackled him to the floor. Beth and Ysabel joined in holding him down.
The seizure ran “longer than most, and more violent than anything we’ve seen this year,” as Beth noted.
When it was over, Arnie Yang seemed more unfocused and blurry too. They thought they would just put him onto his bench with his blankets and go, but then he spoke very softly. “That was a bad one. I think that was because Daybreak is giving up on me, trying to scramble my messages as it goes, I’m no longer useful it doesn’t want to leave me around as a record of what it did.” He was crying. “I think it will try to get me confused enough to have an accident or get me someplace where I just die. James, I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.”
“It’s all right, Arnie, but tell me what you are sorry for. I’ll forgive you.”
Normally a seizure didn’t come this quickly after a previous seizure, but this one tried; Arnie again arched and kicked, but subsided very quickly. “The whole thing. The whole thing. Daybreak gets gets gets stronger from people fighting it, and we got you to fight a whole war… .”
James seemed to sit back as if he’d been kicked.
Arnie babbled a little longer, then fell asleep. They covered him and left.
In the conference room, James said, “I know what he meant.”
Heather nodded. “Does it matter anymore?”
“We should all know, if only for the history books. Look, the big camps along the Ohio were on the brink of starvation if they didn’t start moving; we went in and attacked them and created our big scary army to motivate them. What if we’d just built up defenses for a rapid response, then sat down and traded with them? Kidnapped shamans, recruited defectors, sent over agents to sow doubt and confusion, let the camps collapse? Arnie steered us toward making it a war in the first place—one where Grayson would have to win eleven battles back-to-back.
“So then they retreated. We could have just said, the danger’s over for the summer, because it was. They couldn’t have come back to mount a raid across the whole territory. What they could do, though, was rally all the tribes against an invading army—and we sent them one. Not only that, they put themselves under Lord Robert’s command; now he’s surrounded by an army of loyal Daybreakers, who might reconvert him or his followers.
“And then… well, this one wasn’t through Arnie, but isn’t it interesting how Quattro suddenly pushed us all into defending Pale Bluff, which couldn’t be done, instead of evacuating it, which could? Where do you suppose a guy who had been fighting Daybreak for a couple years got that idea?” He looked down at the table, and then looked up again. “You see it? I absolutely blew it. I am the biggest idiot in the world. Daybreak knew that we would give it a war, and the war would be how it would unify the Lost Quarter around a plan that has now totally defeated us. Heather, I know the RRC probably won’t last another two weeks, but I would like it on the record that I resigned on grounds of manifest incompetence.”
“Only if we agree that I did too,” she said quietly. “It’s been a terrible day full of terrible news. I want us to all gather at James’s house, for one of those quiet evenings of food and being together, and then maybe tomorrow we will tackle Arnie again. But I’m very afraid you’re right, James. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if Daybreak has only finally let us realize just to make its triumph more complete.”
“And to demoralize us,” Leslie said, very quietly. “I was just thinking how much I feel like giving up, and then I realized Daybreak wants me to think that. So we are going to hang on for a day longer, and if that doesn’t make a difference, maybe another. Meanwhile, tonight, there’s food at James’s, if he’ll cook.”
He sighed and spread his hands. “I’m not going to give up the only thing in the world that feels right. All right, let’s all give it one more day, after the best meal I can make you.”