The Last President

John Barnes - Author

Paperback: Mass Market | $7.99 | add to cart | view cart
ISBN 9780425256466 | 400 pages | 27 May 2014 | Ace | 6.49 x 4.29in | 18 - AND UP
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For more than a year, Heather O’Grainne and her small band of heroes, operating out of Pueblo, Colorado, have struggled to pull the United States back together after it shattered under the impact of the event known as Daybreak. Now they are poised to bring the three or four biggest remaining pieces together, with a real President and Congress, under the full Constitution again. Heather is very close to fulfilling her oath, creating a safe haven for civilization to be reborn.
But other forces are rising too—forces that like the new life better...
In a devastated, splintered, postapocalyptic United States, with technology thrown back to biplanes, black powder, and steam trains, a tiny band of visionaries struggles to re-create Constitutional government and civilization itself, as a new Dark Age takes shape around them.

FBI Headquarters, West Coast (formerly an office building in Chula Vista, California, just south of San Diego). 5:45 AM Pacific Time. Thursday, December 25, 2025.

Dave Carlucci checked both black–powder four–shot Newberry revolvers and holstered them. His heavy fighting knife slid easily in its scabbard. His broom–handle–and–chain flail had tight eyebolts and no cracks. He turned to Arlene, his wife—

Outside the office door, Bolton said, “Horses are saddled.”

“Yeah. In a sec.” Carlucci kissed Arlene; they held each other a little longer as they always did when rough stuff was impending. “Back before sunset, I think. They’ll feed us at the Castle.”

“You be careful and come back. And we’ve got a couple Christmas treats for this evening, so take it easy on the desserts up there.” She kissed him again, retying the laces that ran through the upper two buttonholes of his coat. The ruddy light from the lantern on the desk, throttled back to conserve precious vegetable oil, touched her face with gold between pitch–black shadows.

One more hug. I’m getting too old to look forward to action; damn, it’s nice to be held. “You take care too,” he whispered. Carlucci turned toward the door, speaking too loudly to Bolton. “Okay, Terry, let’s do this.”

Their four deputies were already mounted, vapor rising from the shuddering horses. Carlucci swung up into his saddle, and they set off at a comfortable walk, with Bichsler, riding point, holding the lantern up to reveal frozen puddles and slick spots.

“This is one long ride for something they’re better equipped to do themselves,” Bolton said, as they turned the horses north. “And having to keep a lantern out—”

“And I’d rather be at home on Christmas morning, too, Terry, but we’re the Feds, and it’s a Federal bust.” Carlucci shrugged. “Besides, the lantern isn’t giving anything away to the tribals; FBI riders are out all the time, anyway, dark and ice be damned.”

“No shit,” Bichsler muttered from the point.

Bolton sighed. “It’s a dark, cold Christmas morning away from my kids. And I’ll never again swing through the McDonald’s drive–up and get a great big hot cup of coffee on the way.”

Carlucci thought, That sigh was too sincere. Every little thing Terry Bolton notices that isn’t here anymore, Tupperware to movies to McDonald’s, all those little things are just wearing him down. His added thought, Nothing I can do about it, made him sad, so he was too bluff and hearty when he finally spoke. “One short nasty job, Terry, and then you can go back to being your usual sunny, jolly self.”

Montez, riding drag, snorted.

They clopped along at a steady walk; except for their lantern, the only light was the stars and the distant beacon on Castle Castro.

It had been too damp to desiccate bodies and not cold enough to freeze them; Chula Vista and National City smelled like spoiled hamburger. Maybe now that Bambi’s the freeholder at Castle Castro, we’ll be able to do something about all the unburied bodies. She’ll be more cooperative than her father was, anyway.

Predawn glowed bruise–purple. Bichsler doused the lantern. A light sea breeze chilled them but dragged away the smell. The horses moved more confidently.

Bolton shivered. “I didn’t even own a coat before Daybreak.”

“Well, the scientists in Pueblo say there’s more carbon dioxide in the air than any time recorded, so once the soot settles, you’ll forget frozen–dead palm trees and complain about San Diego being like Baja used to be.”

“Lying in a lawn chair on the beach with a chilled beer?” Bolton said. “Let’s skip to that part right now.”

They rode on through the dark, wet cold. At least there was no sleet. This Christmas sucks ass, but giving birth in a stable in the winter probably really sucked too.

Bad analogy. If we were in that story, we’d be working for Herod.

Half an hour later, dawn greased the tops of the old office buildings and hotels, the abandoned Navy ships across the bay, and the few remaining power poles. This close to the Castle, the streets were cleared of rubble and cars, and every standing storefront was walled up.

Four men in Castle Castro uniforms appeared around a corner. The leader waved. “Mister Carlucci!”

“Hey, Donald.”

“Miss Castro said to come out and meet you. She didn’t say what it’d be about, so I figure I’m not supposed to ask.”

They swung north to follow the line of sealed buildings linked by the Castle’s outer wall.

Bolton said, “This wall must’ve been some work.”

“Yeah, ’specially without no power tools, but I’m real glad it’s there. Last summer when the Awakening Dolphins attacked, we had to crowd up in the keep for three weeks, and we lost lots of garden beds we could be eating from now. I like having some room inside the walls if we need it, ’specially since we’re up to eight thousand people now.”

The guards on the towers at the big gate waved them through z–form barriers wide enough for a pre–Daybreak semi.

Fishing boats were pulled up for the holiday on the beaches of the old luxury hotels, which had been mostly torn down for materials to build the walls. Just for today, no one tended the vegetable beds on the old lawns. Picks and shovels were stacked by the parking lots; tomorrow would be soon enough to resume breaking them up.

Across the hills just north of the harbor, behind what remained of the chain–link fence that had marked Harrison Castro’s estate, back before, the inner wall reared up yards higher than the outer wall. Wheelbarrows, piles of blocks, and stacked tools waited beside its remaining gaps.

“You built the outer wall first?”

“Mister Castro said the outer wall was what would really matter ’cause if it held we could stand a siege. This wall’s just a backup. Miss Castro says she can’t plan nothing better than her dad could so we’re staying on his plan.”

Carlucci said, “’Miss Castro?’ not ’Countess Castro’ or ’Mrs. Larsen?’”

“Just habit. I drove the limo that brought her here the day she was born. Most people in the Castle call her ’the Countess’ now.”

Bambi Castro did not look very Countess–like in thick–soled moccasins, a black baggy sweater, and jeans, with her long black hair pinned up close. She looked more like what she had been fourteen months before, a young Fed, the liaison from an obscure agency, when Carlucci had welcomed her to his office. Now she was welcoming him to her fief, which was about a third of pre–Daybreak California.

They shook hands with Quattro; Bambi greeted them with quick, hard hugs. “This will not get any easier with delay,” she said. “Donald, you and your party stay here. If we come this way running, cover us.”

“In your own house?” Donald muttered.

“Maybe. It’s bad.”

“Is this about Mister Castro’s murder?”

“It is.”

“Then go get’em, Miss Castro.”

She nodded her thanks. To Carlucci, she said, “Officially it’s your murder bust.”

Carlucci said, “I have warrants from Judge Thanh. We’re as legal as we’re going to get.”

Nathan Signor’s apartment was in the senior department heads wing. Terry Bolton, Montez, and two of Bambi’s men took a ram and went around to the back entrance; with no radio or phone to coordinate, they had to rely on synchronized watches.

After they had gone, Carlucci said, “It’s good that they’ll have to be silent, so Bolton can’t crack the same bad joke over and over just before going into action, like he usually does. Four minutes. Let’s go.”

At the main door to Signor’s apartment, Carlucci took the knob side, and raised his arm over his head, eyes fixed on his watch. Quattro tried to take the hinge side, but Bambi shoved him aside and took it herself. The second hand swept up to the twelve; Carlucci dropped his arm, and drew his pistol. The ram smashed against the lock.

Frightened shrieks—besides Nathan, his wife Ingrid and daughters Molly and Nellie were inside. The ram hit again and the door swung wide. Carlucci shoved through, Bambi just behind him. Bolton’s ram was booming on the back door.

Nathan Signor was standing just inside. Carlucci backhanded him with the flail, knocking Signor to his hands and knees, brought it around to scissor the man’s neck, and pressed Signor’s face to the floor, making him lie flat. “Nathan Signor, you are under—”

Signor shrieked and curled into a ball, even against the force of the flail on his neck. Carlucci held against it with a foot planted on Signor’s back, until Bichsler could wrap the man’s neck in a choke collar. Bambi reached under, felt around and pulled out a knife. “This doesn’t look like a real Daybreak seizure to me.”

They cuffed Signor’s hands behind him and rolled him onto his belly. He kicked, sending some still–wrapped packages flying and threatening to knock over a candleholder; they bound his feet to his wrists.

Other deputies had been hog–tying Ingrid and the two girls; they lay along the wall.

“Friendly coming in,” Terry Bolton said.

“We hear you,” Carlucci responded.

Bolton emerged from the back. “Books and papers behind the headboard. We’ll search the kids’ room next—”

Quattro raised Ingrid’s head to try to look her in the face. “If you can assure us that the kids didn’t know—hunh.” She had bucked hard against him, and he pushed her back down. “Daybreak seizure, this one’s real.”

Bambi rolled Molly over; the girl was kicking like a poisoned grasshopper, indifferent to the agony it must be causing in her wrists and shoulders. “The kids are having them too. Catellano, get the doc.”

A few minutes later, the girls had been drugged and carried out. “I suppose they won’t get to say goodbye, then,” Bolton said, sadly.

Carlucci said, “Yeah, I don’t see any way we can let them. Terry, you don’t have to see what—”

“I can deal with it.”

“I know you can. If I needed you to, I’d order you to. But I don’t need you to. And somebody has to go through those papers you found behind the headboard.” When Bolton had gone into the back bedroom, Carlucci said, very softly, “All right, let’s get this over with.”

The doctor said Nathan Signor had a broken collarbone and cracked teeth. “Also, even though he was faking it before, this is one of the worst cases of Daybreak seizure I’ve ever—”

“Sorry,” Ingrid gasped.

Carlucci squatted beside her. “Talk to us. You had a Daybreak seizure. You’ll be free to talk, freer anyway, for a few minutes now.”

“Sorry. Sorry. Nate was . . . Nate was . . .”

“It’s okay, just let it out,” Carlucci said, wiping the tears and mucus from her raw red face.

“I’m not even his wife, never met him till the mission. Mollie and Nellie are not our kids, ’ot ’r kids. Don’t pun pun pun—” Her neck spasmed, yanking her head far back, in a fresh seizure.

“Dad hired Signor the January before Daybreak,” Bambi said. “As an HVAC engineer. So he had go–anywhere keys and people looked right at him without seeing him, the way they do anyone in a service uniform. That’s how Daybreak could slip someone in to attack Daddy twice, even with the whole Castle on alert.” She stared at something far beyond the walls of the room. “Crap. Ingrid did preschool supervision. I guess we’ll have to review the Jamesgram about blocking Daybreak in young children. And their girls—”

Not ours. Mollie and Nellie were fosters,” Ingrid said. She gasped. “Real parents are named Green, they . . . were . . . in . . . Reno. Violent abuse don’t . . . send. The. Girls. Back.” She drew a deep breath, and her face cleared for a moment. “It it it wants to give me another seizure, but it can’t quite yet–et. Those girls liked me, they thought I’d be their mom, and Nate made me fee, feed, feed, fee fi fo fum, feed them to Daybreak ache ache. Our whole affinity group’s records are behind that bed and we’re all there were were were—”

Her back arched in a savage, almost audible jerk; then she went limp.

“All right,” Bambi said. “Officially she’s a POW, since she was trying to resist Daybreak. Sedate her, doctor, and let’s get her out of here.”

“I’ll go arrange getting her and the kids into the Gooney Express,” Quattro said. He would fly them to their main holding and interrogation area at Castle Larsen, his home base far to the north. “Tell Terry maybe they can be a family if the doctors can get them all cured.”

“I heard.” Bolton was in the doorway with couple of rag dolls and a teddy bear. “The kids might want these.”

“Thanks, Terry!” Quattro sounded too appreciative, but he bundled up the toys and hurried off, obviously intent on getting into the air and away from this.

When he had gone, Carlucci asked Bolton, “How many were in the affinity group?”

“Just five—the Signors, a guard that was killed in the fighting last June, and another married couple—a kitchen helper and a gardener. Round’em up?”

“Do that.”

Bolton dashed out, at least as fast as Quattro had.

Now it was just Carlucci, Bambi, and the doctor. Carlucci said, “All right. We need to start,” and silently prayed If we’re doing the wrong thing, please remember You didn’t make me smart enough to think of the right thing.

The doctor said, “We have to do this?”

“That’s what the orders are from RRC,” Carlucci said.

Bambi added, “Which we all follow.”

“And me a Catholic,” the doctor muttered. “All right, just hold him down while I do this.” He injected something into Signor’s neck.

“What’s that?” Bambi asked.

“Wood alcohol, angel dust, and some meth, he probably won’t wake up but the facial contractions’ll make him look like he died crazy and terrified, and the convulsions will add some bruises and broken bones for anyone who looks at the body.” He pulled an old–style straight razor from his bag, lifted Signor’s head by the hair, and slashed across the man’s face. “Roll him over. Don’t lose your grip.”

As Carlucci held Signor’s kicking legs and Bambi braced his shoulders, the doctor slashed, over and over, forehand and backhand across the torso, letting blood fly wherever it did, before cutting deeply across the femoral artery on each side. He finished by removing Signor’s right thumb. “You’ll want to get your clothes into cold water quick, you can probably get most of that off if you do.”

Bambi shrugged. “The laundry staff and the maids are the only ones I feel sorry for.”

Carlucci looked around; blood had splashed up to the ceiling on all the walls, dripped from limbs of the Christmas tree, pooled on the still–wrapped presents. He avoided looking down at his clothes.

“We’ll have your clothes clean and dry in a couple hours,” Bambi said. “We’ve got wood–fired dryers now. And meanwhile we can loan you something. But before you clean up”—she handed him a steel tenderizing mallet—“please pound on that thumb with this, and leave both on the floor beside him.”

She pulled an artist’s brush from her back pocket, dipped it in the still–warm puddle of blood around Signor’s thighs, and wrote ECCO on the wall. “That should explain the thumb so the maids will remember it.”

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