Chapter OneWASHINGTON, D.C., STILL KNEW
how to do holidays.
Though the city was now merely one of seven capitals of the
United Seven States of America, at times like this it harkened
back to its glory days and reminded old-timers of the turn of
the century-before the war changed everything, including the
Dense snowfall didn't slow traffic or seem to dampen spirits
this December 24-Wintermas Eve-of 36 P.3. Lights bedecked
the monuments, those that had survived the war or been erected
since. Only the war memorials remained dark. While military
heroes were acknowledged with appropriate burials, war itself
had not been commemorated for more than thirty-five years.
The main thoroughfares of the historic city sparkled with
blinking white lights that washed the trees with cheer. The West
Wing, all that was left of the White House, shone through the
splatty downfall. And behind it the Columbia Region's
Wintermas tree illuminated the lawn. Santas dotted street corners,
ringing bells and thanking passersby for donations, but
not to the Salvation Army, for neither salvation nor army remained
de rigueur. The money would go to international humanitarian
On a tony, tree-lined street in old Georgetown sat a row of
nearly identical three-story brownstones. In the driveway of one
on a corner, snow slid off the steaming hood of a rented Ford
Arc, and the car's electric power pack began to cool. Fresh footprints-of
two adults and two children-led to the front door.
While there were no outside decorations, the den window
boasted a gleaming Wintermas tree.
Inside that den, Dr. Paul Stepola, Jae Stepola, and their
young family from Chicago awkwardly settled in with her parents,
the former army Lieutenant General Ranold B. Decenti
and his wife, Margaret.
This was the first Wintermas Eve in their ten years of marriage
that the Stepolas had celebrated with the Decentis. Traditionally
they spent holidays in Chicago with Paul's mother,
who was alone, while the Decentis-thanks to Ranold's postwar
ascendancy in the National Peace Organization, for which
Paul also worked-attended a ceaseless round of high-level
year-end parties. But Ranold had eased out of the administrative
fray, and that September, Paul's mother had passed away
after a protracted and painful battle with brain cancer. Her
death was expected and not unwelcome, so it wasn't sadness at
the change of venue that made the holiday greetings so stiff.
The four adults had greeted each other with handshakes.
Daughter Brie, seven, and son Connor, five, were formally
Paul had never settled on how to address his father-in-law.
He had tried Dad, General, Ranold, and even the sixty-six-year-old's
last title in the NPO, Deputy Director. This year Paul called
the man sir and lied that it was wonderful to see him again.
Margaret Decenti might as well have been invisible. She
smiled occasionally but rarely spoke. Her lot in life, it appeared
to Paul, was to do her husband's bidding. This she did, largely
with a blank expression. Occasionally she would ask Jae to tell
the kids to stop doing one thing or another.
Complicating this year's festivities for Paul was that Jae was
again on his case about the time he spent on the road-her code
for not trusting him. He had been caught in an indiscretion,
which she persisted in calling an "affair," more than six years before.
At thirty-six, a muscular six-foot-three, and possessed of a
quick wit, he had always been attractive to women. Often when
traveling he would have dinner with a female colleague who, after
a few drinks, would radiate the signals of invitation, sometimes
even brazenly. If the woman was appealing-and not
infrequently she was-Paul didn't say no.
These encounters were mostly onetime, no-strings flings
that livened up the boredom of travel and, to Paul's mind, had
nothing to do with his marriage. But Jae sifted through his luggage
like Sherlock Holmes and quizzed him relentlessly. Her
jealous obsessions and tight-lipped silences were wearing him
down. Paul used to love merely gazing at Jae. Now he could
hardly stand being in the same room.
They had met in graduate school at the University of the
District of Columbia in 22 P.3., just after Paul had left the army's
top secret, elite counterterrorist strike unit, Delta Force. He had
joined the army to honor his father, who had been killed in
World War III when Paul was an infant. Despite his obvious
proclivity for it, the military wasn't much of a career since there
was little armed conflict in the world anymore. So Paul had
chosen to pursue a doctorate in religious studies, with the encouragement
of his mother.
She had taught him that every war stemmed from the fairy
tales of religious extremists and that the most rewarding career
he could choose would be one in which he helped maintain an
intellectual, humanistic society that eschewed both religion and
war. "Study the major religions," she'd say again and again, "and
you'll see. You'll find out what makes people follow despots like
sheep. Study history or be doomed to repeat it."
It seemed everything Paul read of religion bore out his
mother's belief. His religious studies program was a virtual military
history course, especially when it came to World War III. It
had been sparked by the Muslim holy war against Jews and the
West, which began with the American World Trade Center
attacks in 2001. The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 led to an escalation
of the Israel-versus-Palestine conflict, prompting devastating
terrorist attacks in the nations that tried to quell it-in
both North America and Europe-in 2008. Meanwhile, Catholics
and Protestants continued to war in Northern Ireland, culminating
in the destruction of major landmarks in London; the
Balkans exploded with the mutual persecutions of the Catholics,
Muslims, and Orthodox Serbs; Hindus and Muslims battled
over Kashmir; and various Asian religious factions skirmished.
Soon the globe was ablaze with attacks, counterattacks, reprisals,
and finally, an all-out nuclear war that most thought signaled
the end of the world.
Jae had been a local girl studying economics, and Paul's immediate
attraction to her was returned. She was tall and lithe, a
celebration for the eyes. He-she said-would easily pass muster
with her father, an ex-army general and one of the founding fathers
of the NPO. They married in 26 P.3., right after grad school.
Paul dreamed of a corporate job, but when his Ph.D. in religious
studies didn't open those doors, Jae urged him to pursue
the NPO. The National Peace Organization had risen from the
ashes of the FBI and the CIA after World War III. Like the CIA, it
was a foreign intelligence force-though a skeletal one, since in
the postwar world the United Nations oversaw global peacekeeping.
And like the FBI, it handled interstate crimes-which,
these days, were as likely to be international-such as fraud,
racketeering, terrorism, and drug trafficking.
Paul trained at Langley, Virginia, then spent his first few
years in Chicago on the racketeering squad, where, surprisingly,
his graduate work found purchase. Studying the world's major
religions had introduced him to a broad range of cultures, background
that proved invaluable when investigations drew him or
his colleagues overseas. Now he did much of his work abroad,
on one of the consulting teams the NPO hired out to help other
governments train their own peacekeeping and intelligence
Ranold Decenti seemed to view Paul's work as a cushy desk
job. Paul never felt put down in so many words, but his father-in-law's
tone and demeanor were condescending. Ranold clearly
considered the early years of the NPO, when he was helping
build and run it from its original headquarters in Washington, as
its golden age. "Back then guys joined the agency for the action,
not to teach and consult. And no one wanted to get stuck in some
regional capital. The best and the brightest came to Washington."
"Well," Paul said, "maybe that made sense when it was the
capital of the country. Nobody listens to Washington anymore."
"Tell me about it. Now, instead of visionary leadership, a national
director baby-sits a bunch of bureau chiefs who all set
their own agendas."
"Task forces work across regional lines."
The kids burst in, trailed by Jae, now in their pajamas and
begging to know whether Wintermas presents might be opened
that night instead of the next day. Margaret expelled an audible
Ranold gave her a look that could have stopped the snow.
He growled with such menace that Brie backed away, but
Connor kept staring at the Wintermas tree. "Why do you have a
flag on top of your tree, Grandpa? My friend Jimmy's mom says
when she was little people put stars or angels on top of their
trees. She's still got some."
Ranold waved dismissively. "Not in this house. And not in
yours either, I hope."
"Of course not," Paul said.
Connor climbed into Paul's lap and wrapped his arms
around his neck. Paul sensed the boy's fatigue. "Why not, Dad?"
"We'll talk about it in the morning," Paul said. "Now why
don't you and your sister-"
"But why not? They sound pretty, like they'd look better on a
Wintermas tree than an old flag."
Ranold stood and moved to the window with his back to
them. "That flag stands for everything I believe in, Connor."
"He wasn't saying anything about the flag," Paul said. "He
doesn't understand. He's just a-"
"He's old enough to be taught, Paul."
"It's never come up before, Ranold. I plan to tell him-"
"See that you do! And you ought to check into that mother
who's harboring contraband icons."
Paul shook his head.
"What's wrong with angels and stars, Daddy?"
"I promise I'll tell you tomorrow."
"Tell him now, Paul!"
"Ranold, give it a rest. I'll decide when and how to educate
Jae stood and nodded at Brie, taking Connor's hand. "Right
now he's going to bed," she said.
"Tell him in bed then," her father said.
* * *
Jae avoided Paul's gaze as she led the children to the stairs. "Say
good night to Grandpa and Grandma."
Both singsonged a good night. Margaret formally wished
them the same. Ranold said, "Yeah, yeah."
Great, Jae thought. Paul and Dad are already sparring.
When they were first married, Paul seemed to look up to her
father, but there was always an undercurrent of competition.
Paul had declined a good offer from the Washington NPO bureau,
asking instead to be assigned to Chicago, his hometown, to
escape his father-in-law's shadow. For Jae it was an adventure to
settle in a new city, and she was thrilled to land a position with
the Chicago Board of Trade. Then the kids came along and she
became a stay-at-home mom. Now that they were in school, she
missed the camaraderie of the office but didn't feel she could go
back to work with Paul on the road so much. Even when he was
home, he wasn't much of a companion. In fact, he was so distant
and distracted that her old suspicions came flooding back. She
had been looking forward to Wintermas in Washington as a
break from those worries.
At the top of the stairs, Paul caught up with her. "What?" she
"You know what. I don't like your father criticizing the kids."
"I don't like it either," she said, "but you know how he is.
And you know what he lost because of a bunch of religious
"Jae, come on. He overreacted. Connor brought it up and-"
"He has a reason to be hypersensitive about it."
"We all have painful areas, Jae."
"Of course we do." Jae steered the children toward their beds
and tucked them in. "But, Paul, he did lose his entire army and
the population of a whole state. Hawaii was a state then, you
Paul bent to embrace Connor, who turned away, appearing
upset by the tone of the conversation. "There were a lot of states
"What's that supposed to mean?"
They closed the kids' door and stepped into the hall. "Just
that it's not like losing a whole region would be now. And it
doesn't give him the right to tell me how to raise my kids."
"Oh, Paul, he doesn't mean it that way. He was a general.
He's used to speaking his mind."
"So am I."
Tears welled in Jae's eyes. "Paul, please-I want this to be a
nice holiday. Mom thinks Dad's testy because he's having trouble
adjusting to his consultancy-being out of the limelight."
"That was his choice, to hear him tell it. He was tired of management
and could be more 'creative' in special projects, whatever
that means. And it's been more than a year."
"Yes, but for someone like him, it's tough giving up the big
staff and the authority and the perks, even if he's doing what he
wants. So go easy on him. Can't you go back down there and try
to make nice?"
"How'm I supposed to do that? I'm not going to apologize
because I didn't-"
"I'm not asking you to apologize. Just smooth things over.
Have a drink with Dad. There's a lot you two could talk about.
Let's not start the holiday off on the wrong foot."
"I guess I could do that. Whatever you think, I don't enjoy
butting heads with the old blowhard."
* * *
Trudging down to the den felt like going to the principal's office.
Paul was well aware that nothing upset his father-in-law more
than religion. Ranold had been commander of the U.S. Pacific
Army during the war. He was on his way back from Washington
to his headquarters at Fort Shafter, north of Honolulu, when disaster
struck. Conflict between Asian religious factions in the
South China Sea resulted in the launching of two nuclear warheads.
A colossal chunk of southern China, including Kowloon,
was literally separated from the rest of the continent. Besides the
devastation from the bombs themselves, which snuffed out tens
of millions of lives, the violence to the topography caused a
tsunami of such magnitude that it engulfed all of Hong Kong
Island, swamped Taiwan with hundreds of feet of water, raced to
the Philippine Sea and the East China Sea, obliterated Japan and
Indonesia, swept into the Northwest Pacific Basin and the Japan
Trench, finally reaching the North Pacific Current.
It was upon the whole of the Hawaiian Islands, swallowing
the entire state before any evacuation could take place. Not one
person in all of Hawaii survived. The great tidal wave eventually
reached Southern California and Baja California, reaching farther
inland than expected and killing thousands more who believed
they had fled far enough. It changed the landscape and
the history of millions of acres from the Pacific Rim to what was
then known as North America. The global map would never
look the same, and decades later the grief at the human toll still