"Ready yourselves, pilots," the pale man said. "We will be arriving shortly."
The audience started talking excitedly to one another as they pushed their way out of the auditorium. Paladin sat there numbly for a moment and stared at the map until they were all gone.
"You see, perhaps, a flaw in this plan?" a female voice from the dark asked.
The woman who had been near the stage, the one who had always been by the pale man's side, was seated a few feet away from Paladin on the bleachers.
His heart skipped a beat then pounded in his throat. She, if anyone here, would recognize him. She had gotten close to Paladin before. Maybe she couldn't quite see him in the darkness.
"No flaw," he replied.
What stumped Paladin were the pale man's motives. No unionist in their right mind would attack the Capitol Building of the old United States. Paladin couldn't ask him directly, but maybe his friend here might spill the beans.
"I don't see the analogy between this plan and Napoleon's passive lure," Paladin said in the calmest voice he could muster. "The French used cannon, cavalry, and infantry. We have none of that."
"An educated pirate?" she cooed. "On aura tout vu. I'm impressed, mister...?"
"Call me Dashiell," Paladin told her.
She moved closer. From the reflected light off the screen Paladin saw she wore a tight skirt that flared around her shapely calves, a tight blazer and ruffled white shirt. He also spied the sparkle of diamonds on her fingers.
"Well, Dashiell," she said, "the analogy does hold. Our zeppelins carry over a hundred rockets. The exhaust backwash is ducted out the opposite side so we can launch dozens simultaneously. That is our artillery. The machinegun nests next to them are the infantry. And you, and your fellow flyers, are the cavalry."
Paladin imagined the battle: rockets could do a boatload of damage from a considerable distance to a tight formation of planes. If they got closer, the machine guns would finish them off. Add a dozen fighters and two more zeppelins bombarding the incoming wave of advancing planes...there'd be nothing left of them but smoke.
"It will work," Paladin admitted, "but why bother? I mean, bombing a few buildings hardly seems profitable. Unless profit isn't your motive?"
"Are you sure you're a pirate?" she asked. "Most pirates concern themselves only with money."
Paladin started to say he was a piratebut he checked himself. He always tried to tell the truth, because frankly, he was lousy at lying. Most people picked up on it.
"I'm not a pirate," he whispered. "I'm a patriot. My great-grandfather fought in the American Revolution and my grandfather lost both legs in the Civil War. My father died when the states fell apart. I guess my family always ends up fighting and dying when their country is in need."
That was not far from the truth. Paladin's father had died during the break up of the statesbut on a bootlegging run gone sour.
Was telling her this the right approach? Were the pale man and his crew Unionists? Paladin had found a Unionist signet ring in the pale man's room, but that didn't mean he was member of the Brotherhood of America. It could have been a trophy taken from an enemy, or for that matter, he could have picked it up in a pawnshop. Yet, would a man like Peter Justin have allied himself with anyone but a patriot? Paladin decided to take a gamble.
"I guess what I'm trying to say is that a real American has to operate outside the law when he lives in a country that itself is illegal."
"Eloquently put." She set her hand consolingly on his. "Would it help if I told that you are in the right place at the right time to serve your country?"
Her touch gave him the chills. Paladin didn't move away, even though every instinct screamed that this woman was poison.
"How, exactly?" he asked.
She was silent a moment as she considered his question, then she said, "As we speak, representatives for every nation in North America are in the old Capital making deals to strengthen their political ties and lower trade barriers."
"Isn't that a good thing?"
"Good?" She withdrew her hand. "I suppose it is good for the tiny state nations. Good that they will become complacent with their diminished status. And good that their divisions with be all the more permanent, cemented by new treaties and agreements and guarantees of peaceful coexistence. But there is another way...not necessarily easier, but better for all in the long term."
"I think I see where this is going," Paladin murmured.
He had heard similar words seventeen years ago in Europe, and he had witnessed the brutal consequences.
"Then you understand," she said. "We disrupt the talks and encourage the state nations to believe another state was responsible. We drive them toward conflict. The most aggressive we back with money and weapons and guidance. Only as strong nation, willing to risk everythingto do anythingwill have the willpower to reunite our country and make it great again."
"Under a banner of war," Paladin said.
She gave his arm a squeeze. "Yes."
Paladin had a couple of other names for this deal: Nationalism. Fascism. Rotten through and through.
But as much as the morals of the pale man's scheme repelled him, the logic driving the plan was sound and its eventual outcome was horrifyingly possible.
A klaxon blared, echoing throughout the chamber.
"We are preparing to launch phase one," the dark woman said. She kissed Paladin lightly on the cheek. "You must go."
"Yeah, I better," Paladin said and stood.
It looked like he was going to be a patriot after all. He had to stop the pale maneven if he had to die doing it.