For the next three nights, Dirk flew Minerva along the eastern part of the nation, hitting one city a night with EMP. His father made his way back across the country, taking out two cities along his route and then hiding Khan in outposts he’d set up beforehand.
That way, the cities would seem to be chosen at random and the government wouldn’t suspect that Overdrake was traveling east, back home.
The first night, Dirk picked Lancaster, Pennsylvania to hit. When his father called and yelled at him, Dirk pretended not to know the city was mostly Amish. He was tired of hearing news stories about looters and shivering children. The Amish had fireplaces and weren’t the looting sort.
After that, his father sent him a message to attack Columbus. Dirk chose Marietta instead. It was a small city that only had a couple hospitals to avoid, and it was near enough to other cities that it wouldn’t take long for relief workers to reach the people.
His father called him the second morning and spoke to him in a clipped tone. “Is it so hard to follow directions?”
Dirk continued eating breakfast, unconcerned. “I was worried your directions had been leaked. I figured no one would be expecting an attack in the suburbs.”
“Leaked,” his father repeated.
“You can’t be too careful.” Dirk ate a bite of cereal. “After all, you’ve had problems with leaks.”
“You think your brother . . .” His father huffed in aggravation. “Never mind. I’m not going to argue with you about it. Just hit an important target tonight.”
The third night, Dirk chose Abita Springs, Louisiana. A small town in a warm climate. They probably didn’t even use their heaters much. Which meant he wouldn’t have to see reports of those residents bracing themselves against the winter weather.
When Dirk returned to the house that morning, he found his father sitting in the kitchen, drinking coffee while he searched through internet sites on his laptop. He took a slow sip from his mug and gave Dirk a considering stare. “Abita Springs? That has a population of what—two thousand?”
Dirk wandered to the fridge to find something to eat. “I was making the point that your mandate applies to everyone. Even small towns are at risk if they don’t obey. Now everyone will worry their city could be next. It’s a sound strategy.”
His father scrolled through a page of links, scowling.
“No one new has surrendered?” Dirk guessed.
“Plenty of people have surrendered. The internet is clogged with videos of individuals who’re either applying for jobs or begging for mercy. Just not any more mayors.”
The day after his father’s demands, hundreds of mayors had posted videos asking that their residents not be harmed. Four mayors had pledged their allegiance in return for their city’s safety.
The backlash from the rest of the nation had been immediate. Protesters drove to those cities, bashed in windows, spray painted cars, and set fire to buildings. City officials had to leave their homes. The news had shown rioters chanting until the president interrupted the coverage with a press conference calling for unity, patience, and restraint.
Since then, no other mayors had posted anything.
Dirk’s father shook his head, scrolling through information with dissatisfaction. “Imbeciles. That’s what people are. As long as the President keeps reassuring everyone that he has the situation under control, they’ll all sit back like idiots and believe him.”
Dirk took some leftover enchiladas from the fridge and reheated them in the microwave. “Well, we can’t destroy cities indefinitely. We’ll be the ones who have to rebuild them once we take over. Or was your dream to rule over a smoldering heap of rubble?”
His father didn’t respond. Fox news was picking apart a speech Senator Ethington had made earlier this morning.
Dirk sat down at the table and ate in wary silence. The longer his father listened to Senator Ethington, the more he clenched his jaw. Cue the bad mood. A caustic remark would be coming in five, four, three…
His father’s eyes narrowed in on the video. “Speaking of imbeciles, there’s the man who couldn’t manage a simple weapons pickup, let alone smuggle anything to my operatives.” He listened to the speech for another minute and then shook his head in disdain. “The money I paid to put him where he is… Ethington is supposed to be the voice of reason. He’s supposed to be suggesting concessions. Instead he’s acting the patriot to save his own skin. He thinks he can play both sides of this war.”
Dirk took a bite of his enchilada. Despite the spices, it tasted dull on his tongue. “You didn’t really expect the politicians to resign right away. They’ve got to at least make a show of courage.”
“We’ll give them a show.” His father tapped his fingers against the side of his coffee cup. “It’s time the country knew they can’t depend on their leaders for protection. Perhaps a show of our own will unloosen some of the mayors’ tongues.”
Dirk felt too exhausted to argue for more patience. “What sort of show?”
His father brought up a map of DC on his laptop. “Political theater. The dragons need to make their debut.”
An attack on DC already? “We don’t have troops in place for a successful attack,” Dirk regretted bringing up the point as soon as he said it. He didn’t want his father to call in troops. An offensive of that sort would be much bloodier. Dirk was playing both sides of this war too, and urging for restraint in the present might make the future worse.
“This won’t be a full-scale invasion,” his father said calmly. “Not yet. We’ll simply demonstrate that we have every ability to take down those who oppose us, including this country’s bloated leadership.” His gaze went to Dirk, and he regarded him with a hard intensity. “I’ll need you to follow my orders—exactly. You think you can handle that?”
“As long as your orders don’t involve killing civilians.” That was always the sticking point for Dirk.
“As long as civilians support the leadership that opposes us, they’re culpable. They’ve decided to take their chances with Congress. It’s not our fault they’re backing the wrong horse.”
Dirk jabbed his fork at the enchilada. “They don’t really have a choice. Especially the kids.”
His father finished off his coffee in one quick swallow, then began typing an email. “In life, the strong do what they want and the weak suffer what they must.” This was one of his father’s favorite sayings, uttered by Thucydides, an Athenian leader. For all the Athenian’s democracy, they loved the spoils of war. Slaves, land, riches. In their height of power, there weren’t two consecutive years that they didn’t vote to go to war.
Dirk’s father lifted his gaze from his computer. “Will you be strong? Or will you be among the weak who’ll suffer what they must?”
Dirk didn’t speak. There was only one right answer to this question and he’d already given it to his father enough times. Strength was all his father understood.
His father went back to typing. “I gave you orders about the cities you were to take down. The last three nights, you did as you pleased.” He held up his hand in a conceding gesture. “I’m not saying your strategies don’t have merit, but when we go to DC, I expect exact obedience to my plans.”
“Civilians?” Dirk pressed. He knew his father wouldn’t give him a detailed plan of the attack beforehand. He didn’t trust him enough for that.
“We won’t target any civilians, but I can’t promise none will be hurt. Buildings will burn. I’m not going to stick around to make sure everyone gets out.”
Burning a few buildings didn’t sound so bad. As long as the dragons only hit the upper parts of the structure, the exits would be free. “Fine,” Dirk said. “We want people to fear us, not hate us. We should—”
His father held up his hand to silence him. “After you’ve proven yourself in DC, after you’ve shown unwavering support, I’ll give you more say in how I run the revolution. Until then, we do it my way.” He lowered his hand back to the table with all the finality of a judge issuing a ruling. “You understand what I’m saying?”
Dirk understood. If he wanted to save lives in the long run, he had to do things his father’s way in the short run. “I’ll follow your commands.”
“Good,” his father said.
Dirk didn’t finish eating his enchiladas. He’d lost his appetite. His father didn’t seem to notice that the food ended up in the garbage. He’d gone back to looking at an aerial view of DC on his laptop and was zooming in on Capitol Hill.
Dirk left him to his plans, went upstairs, and opened Aaron’s door. The bedroom was empty. He considered tracking down his brother before he went to sleep, then decided against it. Aaron couldn’t avoid Dirk forever. Besides, it was probably better if their next conversation didn’t happen when Dirk was tired and his father was around.
Dirk trudged to his room, peeled off his clothes, and threw them in the general direction of his hamper. Then he wandered into the bathroom and popped a couple of sleeping pills. Without them, he lay in bed, stared at the ceiling, and relived images from the night. City lights snuffed out. A tide of darkness expanding beneath him.
When he awoke six hours later, he roamed through the house searching for his family, well, mostly Aaron. His father was still asleep. Cassie was in the upstairs great room, shopping online for baby clothes. She’d already bought enough stuff to keep a set of triplets dressed. He went downstairs and found Bridget and Aaron lounging in recliners, watching a movie.
Bridget sat with her legs tucked under her, twisting one of her brown pigtails around her fingers. Several stuffed animal ponies were scattered at her feet, part of a larger herd that she shepherded around the house. Those were the perks of being seven.
Aaron’s gaze was firmly fixed on the TV, his relaxed stance a little too forced. He was blond and blue eyed like Dirk, a miniature of him in many ways. And Dirk had liked the kid right up until the time Aaron had told their father that Dirk offered to help him escape. Aaron had stabbed in him the back, and now that he was back home it was finally time for the two of them to have a little talk.
“Bridget,” Dirk said cheerfully, “Cassie wants your opinion on which baby clothes are the cutest. Go help her.”
“Okay,” Bridget said. She didn’t move. Her eyes were glued to the TV.
“Now,” Dirk told her and picked up the remote. “Our baby brother’s cuteness is at stake. You don’t want him dressed like a dork, do you?”
She still didn’t move. He turned off the TV.
“Oh, all right,” Bridget grumbled and got to her feet. She trudged out of the room, making a point to stomp. “But I get to watch TV when I’m done.”
Aaron’s gaze ran over Dirk’s pajamas—old flannel pants and a stained T-shirt. “I guess it was too late to save you from dorkiness.”
Dirk didn’t take the bait. He let his gaze drill into his brother. “I know what you are.”
Aaron picked up a second remote from the side of his chair and turned the TV back on. “I know what you are too—jealous.”
Dirk took slow steps toward his brother. “Jealous?” He glanced at the ceiling as if deep in thought. “That’s not exactly the emotion I was feeling. Try again and use your counterpart sense this time.”
Dirk was not only counterparts with Tori, but with Aaron as well. The ability had been a surprise when it showed up last summer at camp. Slayers with the same ability were counterparts, and Dirk hadn’t realized he had any Slayer DNA, let alone that Tori’s mix of Slayer and dragon lord genes would make her his counterpart. Aaron had inherited that same mix and being his counterpart was about to come in handy.
Aaron shrunk further back into his chair, still gripping the remote like he might use it to fend Dirk off. “If you hurt me, I’ll tell dad. He knows you have it out for me.”
Dirk folded his arms. “You’re the reason five dragons are dead. I just don’t know why you did it. Care to explain?”
Aaron gulped. “I don’t have to explain anything to you.”
“Why would a dragon lord help the Slayers?”
Aaron picked at a button on the remote and let the question hang in the air. Dirk waited, feeling Aaron’s nervousness grow.
“Why?” Dirk asked again.
Aaron still didn’t answer. The kid apparently realized that if he said something, he might reveal more to Dirk than he wanted. Right now, all Dirk could pick up from him was fear.
“Have you told Tori anything else?” Dirk demanded.
Aaron showed no increased guilt. So probably not. Or maybe his lack of shame was just proof that he didn’t feel bad about the dragons’ deaths.
“Is she in contact with you?” Dirk asked.
Aaron rolled his eyes. “I’m not in contact with anyone. Dad took my phone.”
The resentment in his voice was real. Dirk felt that emotion clearly enough but not anything that suggested Tori had contacted him.
That was good news at least. “Are you planning to tell Tori something else?”
A flash of anger went through Aaron. Which could mean anything. He might be angry at their father, angry at Tori, or just angry that Dirk kept grilling him. Dirk eyed Aaron, trying to decipher his emotions. Could Aaron have accidentally told Tori about the eggs? After all, he’d thought Tori was connected to Vesta. Still, if the leak had been an accident, wouldn’t Aaron have felt some sense of remorse? Maybe Dirk had missed that emotion in the swell of Aaron’s anger and fear.
“Tell me how you feel about Tori Hampton,” Dirk said.
Aaron craned his head to see the TV. “I hardly know her.”
True. “Are you trying to help her?
Aaron didn’t answer. He was still radiating fear and anger. Dirk didn’t sense any other emotions. Was his fear the fear of getting caught or just the fear of Dirk? Tori was so much easier to read as a counterpart. She was all concern and hope, softness.
Aaron lifted his chin, defiantly. “I’m going to tell Dad you’re harassing me. If I yell and wake him up, he’ll be ticked at you.”
Now the kid was threatening him? Seriously? Dirk had to suppress the urge to pick him up, push him into a wall, and finish the conversation with him upside down.
Instead Dirk let out a controlled breath. Aaron was only twelve. He didn’t realize the sort of game he was playing. “Do yourself a favor,” Dirk said slowly, “and keep this in mind: I’ll be able to tell If you betray us. And I won’t let you get away with it.”