Authors: John Barnes
Colonel Streen, a tall black man who had never spoken much to Arnie before, came in. “Doctor Yang, if we can all meet in your office, I need to talk quickly with my officers and you.”
Arnie’s “office” was a walk-in closet, with barely room for the five of them to stand around Arnie’s tiny, battered old desk.
“It’s the worst.” Streen looked a thousand years old. “We’re out of touch with at least half the force; the tribal attack overran three blockhouses out on our main line right during rotation, they were inside before the blockhouse crews knew what was happening, and the reliefs coming up were hit out in the open—Captain, thank God your TexICs were on top of that or we’d have lost all those men too—”
“Glad to help,” Captain Tranh said, his Texas twang broad and harsh; something about him reminded Arnie of a silly movie he’d seen long ago, John Wayne playing Genghis Khan. “Wish we could’ve been more use on the windmills, though. I think you have to figure they’re all lost; we can run’em off any one windmill but they’re right back on it, or after a different one, as soon as we turn our backs. I’m real sorry about that, Doctor Yang.”
“It’s gear,” Arnie said, though his heart was sinking. “People are what matter.”
Streen nodded. “Right. All right, now when I was with General Grayson in the Yough, we found out there’s no real leadership on the battlefield, even if their plan is sophisticated. Each little tribe has a structured, conditional list of tasks, every single tribal has that list memorized, and they run down their decision tree till they’re killed, dispersed, or victorious. So right now out in the dark they’re all finding each other, getting the right people on their left and right, and then when they’re all in place, there’s gonna be one big human wave, like a banzai charge, focused here, coming from all sides.”
“That’s what the tribals did at Pend Oreille,” Goncalves, the Ranger major, agreed; with his chest-length graying beard and all-black uniform, he looked like the wrath of Jehovah. “Fighting them around Grant’s Pass we could screw them up with three-man teams intercepting their runners and picking off the guys carrying spirit sticks, because they guide off those. I have six three-man teams out doing that right now; that should buy us a few minutes to prepare.”
“Cavalry can probably disrupt even better,” Tranh said. “Anyone running between groups of tribals, and anyone carrying a spirit stick—”
“And anyone that either of those are talking to,” the major said. “Leave no surviving witnesses—you have to kill the wounded. The tribal is just the medium, you’ve got to stop the message. If you get a spare second, break the spirit stick or scrape all that holy bric-a-brac off it, so nobody else can use it.”
“Do it, Captain,” the colonel said. “Cavalry won’t be any use pinned against this house, and we don’t know how much longer they’ll take before they launch their wave.”
The Texan saluted and went out, bellowing, “TexICs with me, now!”
“Other than that,” Colonel Streen said, “we’ll have to open windows—we can’t get enough guns on the enemy with those shutters closed. I want the second floor to open all at once, and then the ground floor, each on my command. Any thoughts?”
“Just glad to be here,” Goncalves said. “And my sympathies on your losses.”
Streen nodded. “Thank you. All right, let’s go. If anyone asks, the plan is to fight till we’re all dead, they’re all dead, or they run away, and the goal is complete victory. Everything else is details. This wave might have three or even four thousand tribals in it, but if all our people are careful about cover, and we don’t let the enemy close enough to set fire to the house, we should be all right, because in tribal attacks, the worst is always the first. Can we can stand a siege?”
“There’s a month of food for fifty in the pantry,” Arnie said, “and we’ve got an inside pump, so there’s water. We rigged up a bucket and pulley in the old dumbwaiter shaft to carry water upstairs; should we wet down the roof and walls?”
“Couldn’t hurt,” Streen said. “All right, let’s go.”
On his way out, Arnie grabbed his six least enthusiastic shooters and put them on wetting-down duty, reminding them to keep their rifles with them and ready.
The Temper infantry had three surviving officers, all lieutenants; Streen allocated Quentin to the ground floor, and the other two to the axmen and pikemen on the north and south porches. “Major, if you would assign your two officers for the attic and second-floor commands, and if you and I declare ourselves HQ?”
“Works for me. Nice to have the US Army all back together again.”
“Isn’t it, though? Makes me feel like Custer.”
“I’d rather feel like Anthony Wayne. He won.”
A lookout shouted, “Colonel! Drums and singing!”
Arnie and Trish crouched to the right of their assigned window and listened; the melody was instantly recognizable—
All we are saying, is give Gaia her rights.
Streen squatted beside him. “Any insight into that?”
“All the tribes use it,” Arnie said. “It’s almost certainly the pump-up before the big wave. Probably they’ll go to rhythmic shouting just as they start the charge.”
“So when they start to shout in rhythm, they’re coming? Is that a semiotics thing?”
Arnie shrugged. “It’s probably hardwired in the nervous system. Build up the feelings on long phrases with tones, release them on short atonal grunts.”
The singing had grown louder. The front door opened. “Sir.” A young soldier leaned in.
“Flames from the control bunker. Nobody answering our calls there. Too much smoke to see what’s happening.”
“Thank you,” the colonel said. The young soldier slipped back out. “Quentin, double the rifles on the windows that can see the control bunker,” the colonel said. “Draw from whatever reserves we have. Don’t change anything else. Pass word up to the other floors to do the same. That’s where the main shock’ll be coming from. Tell them that.”
Quentin began giving orders.
Streen turned back to Arnie. “I’m guessing you’ve lost everyone and everything in that control bunker, but if there’s anything important enough we could try a sortie—”
“Colonel,” Arnie said, “with the windmills wrecked, it’s already the end of WTRC, and the only thing in the bunker we couldn’t replace was Pahludin, Bates, Greene, and Portarles. Don’t worry about saving anything but lives.”
Streen grinned. “One clear objective. Are you sure you’re really an administrator, Doctor Yang?”
“I have constant doubts.”
The colonel squeezed Arnie’s shoulder in friendly encouragement and moved on.
Outside, the singing faded into a chant backed up by drums—
Gave you birth
Give her, give her
All you’re worth!
—louder, faster, blending into booming drums and crashing metal.
“I’m going above,” Streen said. “Quentin, on my command or one minute after you hear second floor open up, throw the shutters open and give them everything you can from the ground-floor windows. On no account leave a window or door unguarded.”
“This’ll be it, people.” Streen bounded up the stairs, the Provi Ranger major at his heels; the spotted and black uniforms made them look like a Dalmatian and a Lab racing after a Frisbee.
They’re enjoying this,
Arnie thought, enviously.
The chant grew louder still, less words than grunts of rage. The shutters above creaked and groaned; volleys of rifle fire roared, a few seconds apart. Quentin clicked his stopwatch.
Streen bellowed, “Lower floor go!”
The men on the porch swung the steel shutters outward in a screech and boom. Arnie rolled to the middle of the window, awkwardly and slower than the soldier and Ranger coming from the other side. The soldier beside him broke out the glass, knocking the shards out with his rifle butt. Trish, Arnie, the soldier, and the Ranger laid their rifles onto the sill and sighted.
The silhouettes in the dingy moonlight became distinct over the barrel of Arnie’s rifle—light and dark smears of faces, hats of all kinds, baggy shirts, pantaloons. “Hold, hold, hold,” Quentin’s voice chopped through the din of the onrushing shouting Daybreakers, as level and even as if advising a taxi to turn right at the next corner. “Choose a target and aim. Fire on my command.”
Arnie kept his sight on a tall man with a bushy beard who was waving a hatchet over his head.
“Fire,” Quentin said.
Arnie held his breath, tightened his finger, felt the rifle shove his shoulder. As the dense smoke blew away on the night breeze, he saw the man doubled over, probably hit in the guts.
“Choose, aim, and fire at will,” Quentin said. “Work fast, people.”
As the curtains of smoke opened and closed in front of him, Arnie chose a young woman who was swinging something burning on a rope over her head, aimed, squeezed, saw her fall backwards.
Chamber and the first from the mag.
The next hole in the smoke revealed a man waving a spirit stick—a prime target because every tribal who could see it would be running to follow him. Arnie shot, missed, shot again. As the smoke cleared, he was thinking,
One left, chamber it, fire.
Spirit Stick Man fell almost at the porch; as Arnie reloaded, the pike and axmen were driving back the followers.
Existence settled into counting rounds, searching, aiming, shooting, and reloading.
Feet on the porch.
“Rifles stay down, axes and pikes away from windows, shotguns
,” Quentin said. Arnie felt feet standing between him and Trish. A great booming roar shook the room. “Rifles, axes, and pikes stay where you are. Shotguns, second barrel,
.” Another boom.
“Axes and pikes advance. Rifles and shotguns support with fire and
Arnie rolled up into a kneeling position; his back leg brushed Trish’s. The porch was an incoherent struggle of flesh, uniformed backs closest to them, hats, plumes, and headdresses beyond. A shaggy man without a shirt, wielding a chain and a small hatchet, rammed between two uniforms; Arnie and Trish beside him shot simultaneously, and the man fell backward, hit in the face and chest.
A tribal rammed through the press, jabbing with a spear. Trish stiffened against Arnie; he felt a gurgle as he planted the muzzle in the tribal’s face and pulled the trigger.
The huge, heavy slug folded the man’s head inward like a rock dropped onto a pillow, and a mess flew out behind him.
While Arnie’s hands chambered another round, he took one instant to look to his right. Trish was pinned backwards by the spear through her neck to the floor, as if she were stretching her knees in yoga. Her goggle/ glasses lay in the pooling blood around her head; it was the first time he’d seen her without them.
Back at the window, a space opened between two uniformed backs, revealing a woman wielding two sickles; Arnie shot her squarely in the chest. A pike, swung like a ball bat, swept her body from the porch.
“Rifles, on your feet, advance behind the pikes and axes,” Streen ordered. Arnie stood up and stepped through the window, careful of the bodies lying there; a Daybreaker stirred at his feet, and as if it had been a venomous snake, Arnie slammed down his rifle butt on the back of her head.
He moved forward a step behind the soldiers with pikes; stray, unaimed arrows and rocks clattered on the porch roof.
The pikemen danced momentarily backward and forward on the edge of the porch. Streen cried, “Pikes, open for rifles,
.” Half the pikemen stepped back and to the side; suddenly it was as if a door had opened for Arnie, and even before Streen bellowed, “Rifles to the front and fire at will,” he was there.
The Daybreakers had fallen back just far enough to form a clear space, littered with bodies, between themselves and the pikemen. They were no longer chanting, and the front row was held in place only by the struggling, oscillating, confused mob behind them.
Arnie looked straight into the terrified eyes of a boy holding a machete. He shot him in the face. All around, rifles and shotguns lashed out into the mob. Arnie fired again and again, reloading as fast as he could, as the Daybreakers fell back screaming and begging; when they turned to run, he shot at their backs until his last couple of shots were simply too far to get even the stragglers; by now the roar of fire had faded down to the last few bangs.
Quentin gently pressed down on his forearm. “Point your rifle at the ground, and take the round out of the chamber. The colonel needs to talk to all of us.”
THE NEXT DAY. CASTLE CASTRO (IN THE FORMER SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA). 11 AM PST. TUESDAY, JULY 15, 2025.
“I appreciate your coming to see me,” Harrison Castro said, as Pat O’Grainne rolled his wheelchair onto the balcony of the big office that overlooked San Diego Harbor. “If you’ll join me at the table, let’s have a drink and just enjoy the fact that it’s a fine day and no one is shooting at us.”
Two weeks after the Awakening Dolphin Children’s assault, the main keep of Castle Castro looked like what it was: a fortress under a collection of wreckage. The original design had concealed its nature as a system of concrete bunkers by putting stuccoed-plywood and z-brick frouf, fancy stained glass windows with steel veining, and ornate (but heavy) metal gratings in front of the bunker walls, all sunny hallways on the inside, all frivolity on the outside.
During the attacks of the last six months, all that faux decor had been smashed and burned. The charred, broken remains of it now clung in strands and heaps to the reinforced concrete walls between open spots where Castro’s own forces had pushed it aside to clear loopholes, observation slits, and sally ports.
“I’m sure glad you built this place,” Pat said, “and even gladder that old Heather had a connection to you, to get me in here. It doesn’t look like the old neighborhood stayed very nice.”
“Well, the people who came out of there sure weren’t.” Castro poured the sweet red wine that his Steward of the Barracks had assured him was Pat’s favorite. To judge by how fast it went into Pat, the steward had been on top of things.
Well, no matter. The old guy took his turns at his loophole, and sober or not, he was a good shot, and how many real fighters aren’t hard drinkers anyway?
“One more bit of business I ought to check with you while I have you here and before I forget. Those wheels we came up with for your chair—”
“Working fine. We were lucky to get a wheelwright in here, too.”
Actually luck had nothing to do with it. I put in years developing a big, big list of people with unusual skills I could shelter whenever it finally all fell down. I had so many people on such a diverse list that I was even ready for something as weird as Daybreak turned out to be. But it’s better for people to believe in luck; they don’t resent it the way they do foresight.
“Sometimes luck is all that matters,” Castro said, sipping at the cheap, too-sweet wine and stretching expansively.
Pat was stretching, also, his eyes closed in bliss. “Mister Castro, I’m aware that you have three thousand people here at your Castle, and an old biker wouldn’t usually rate a private room in the inner keep. So . . . I kind of think you’re hoping to lobby my daughter in Pueblo.”
“Why don’t we talk business after lunch? I take it you’re not offended by my approaching your daughter through you?”
“No, I’m not.
might be. She was always ornery; I always thought she became a cop in the hopes of busting me someday. She might throw a hissy fit, but you know, Mister Castro, I’ve been dealing with Heather’s tantrums since she was two years old.”
After lunch, Harrison Castro refilled Pat O’Grainne’s glass. “Here’s the thing. For all its many failings, this has been a good country, hell, a great country, but what it finally died of was what most people thought made it great—it died of democracy. We just plain forget that the first colonies were founded by men who survived all sorts of hardship and danger to do it, and then rose to the top, so you had about four generations of really brutal natural selection, and then afterward all those natural leaders intermarried. So there was a real, genetic superiority about the Founding Fathers, and they wrote a constitution that would keep power where it belonged, in those superior families. And there have been other little pockets of superiority, produced by adversity and breeding, as well—the Louisiana Creoles, the Russian Jews, and if I may say so, the old Californios.
“The Constitution rests on the premise that the only meaningful freedom is the freedom of the alphas to—” Castro heard a sort of wet buzzing.
Pat O’Grainne was sound asleep, his leathery liver-spotted face tipped up to welcome the sun.
Harrison Castro shrugged, called in a servant, and instructed him to quietly return the old guy to his quarters. After O’Grainne was wheeled out, Castro stood a while on his balcony.
In the harbor, the half dozen boats coming out and going in all belonged to him; the second-biggest port on this side of the continent, now, and
it’s all mine, if I can keep it