Crusade, Part 1, Sunset

I kinda/sorta knew where and how to wrap up part 1 but the details eluded me for a couple of days.  I was able to make some notes yesterday and had a final image early this morning to bring my “prologue” to an end.  My 13.8k prologue…

From first meeting her in “Worlds Without End” I knew Faustina was going to be a very interesting person and all this has confirmed my suspicions.  Part 2 will be about her Savannah campaign – what prompted it, how she got involved, the way south, and the battle and aftermath.

Little Aurelia in this installment just handed me the arc of part 3:  a campaign to the lower Mississippi:  not bringing nuclear power and civilization like the early Knoxville Society did in “Echoes of Family Lost,” but a straight-up neo-imperial effort to establish colonies and client-kingdoms between former eastern Tennessee and the Republic of Texas.

Depending on the length of all that, part 4 will either be an epilogue pointing to a sequel or it will make this one of my longest works as Faustina leads an army to St. Louis… and the massive political-military ramifications of such an act.  Yeah… that might best be its own book… The Black Muslim Brotherhood that controls that area; the remnants of central Canadians coming south, fleeing the advancing ice…  Complicated.

 

Clearing the Smoky Mountains and coming at Knoxville from the southeast, Gary first radioed the University Hospital helipad control with the unusual request that they clear all road traffic from the Alcoa Highway just to the west of their facility and to have an ambulance waiting.  When he got a call back from some admin flack about two minutes later, all it took was mentioning his sister’s name for the man to back down.  From her position in the back of the airplane with medic Corporal Mahan, Faustina laughed into his headset.

“They really do love me, bro!” she called.  “But I think this kind of landing is a little much, even for you…”

“The closest real airstrip is the city’s Downtown Island, almost five miles away,” he replied, unhappy that someone like her would find his actions reckless.  “Too many things could go wrong in transport.  Once we’re on the ground and you and Mahan out, Henge and I will take the plane south to the main airport.  We’ll be back to check on you on our way home.”

“Fine…” he heard her sigh.  She was just elevated enough to barely see out the back windows of the Piper Seminole.  The city was just to their left as they flew over the Tennessee River.  She felt her brother crank the flaps down and cut the motors a bit.  Even for her talented brother, this was going to be tricky.

“See down there!” she said, just as Gary was about to bank left onto approach.  “The main road, Henley Street, where I had my first ever, official triumph!  I guess that First Councilman MacRae finally realized he’d be safer on my side than opposed!  And there’s the stadium, just by the river.  It was as if the whole town was there!  To cheer me and my boys!”

“Quiet, please,” Gary said softly, banking left again onto final.  He cut the engines again to just enough to keep them in the air.

Over the river once more he slid them right.  The aircraft had a nominal rating for a 1200-foot.  He had 1500 in front of him.

The tires barked on the highway and he immediately cut the engines and leaned onto the brakes, stopping them just before the overpass that led east to the medical facility.  The ambulance, nearby, was already driving over to them.  Back in the town’s signal, Gary quickly told Henge what she needed to do while he stayed behind the controls.   She was out and turning to help Mahan hold Faustina up while the stretcher was wheeled over to them.

See y’all!  Ooo!  That still hurts! his sister called to them as they closed the transporter’s doors on her.  Henge climbed back in to his right.

“Good landing, my love!” she praised him, leaning over to kiss his cheek.

“As if she,” he grumbled about his sister, “would think I would do anything to endanger the lives of everyone I love!”

His wife just laughed while he set about getting the twin-prop plane turned about and ready for a short take-off.  Minutes later they were airborne and headed for the largely unused McGhee Tyson airport about ten miles further south.

It was close to ninety minutes to address all the physical and paperwork needs to get the aircraft seen to.  On the short drive north Henge raised a question.

“Something Faustina brought up a bit ago:  that first boyfriend of hers, Paul.  Whatever happened there?” she asked.

“Boredom, I think, more than anything else,” Gary replied, driving their little electric car.  “Fussy likes being the center of attention, certainly, but as you well know, gets bored easily.  Having grown up half in your world with your family, a typical Knoxville boy won’t make the cut, no matter how much he liked her.”

“Ah,” Henge replied with a nod.  “So the rumors I’ve heard about her since were just physical flings?”

“I,” he said with his teeth on edge, “have no more say about that after she turned eighteen earlier this year.  But I have also tried to turn a blind eye to it!  Her behavior is not an adornment to our family!”

“They are just rumors, husband…” she tried lightly.

“Scandal is scandal.   Whether to her family, her friends, or the Church!”

“Gary?  Beloved?” Henge tried again as he turned to park in the hospital’s lot.  “What you and I did in my home, all those years before…?”

His halt was abrupt and they jerked against their seatbelts.

“Acquit me of hypocrisy, wife.  Fine.  I’ll ask my sister when we see her.” He flung the door open and stood.

Sometimes happy to provoke her man into any display of emotion, Henge looked forward to the show.

Better at gathering data than her husband, Henge led them to the bank of elevators and took them up to the fourth floor.  Most everyone recognized them and greeted Gary, who was a doctor there, with respect.  Hearing several people in 412, Faustina’s room, she rapped once on the door frame to announce their arrival.  She noted two doctors, a physical therapist, and a nurse.

“The center of attention again, sister-in-law,” Henge laughed at her.  “You must be happy!”

“I’d be a lot happier back with my boys!” she snarked a little.  “No one here can tell me what’s going on in Savannah and there is no direct radio traffic!”

Faustina suddenly brightened at that, batting away the therapist who was trying to see the range of motion of her arms.

“Your fam, Henge!  Can you have them ‘look in,’ so to speak, and get me a précis of the situation?”

Henge looked to Gary who looked to the older of the two doctors.

“I’m guessing she’s your patient, Bob, so that is your call, not mine.”

“Thanks, Gary,” the white-haired man replied with a small smile.  “But then she is your sister and, in a way, is a part of our whole community, now.  I… I don’t think it will stress her too much to get a report.  But just a report!  You are no longer in command down there!”

Both Gary and Henge could tell from her eyes that she ignored that last.

“In that case,” Henge said carefully, “I’ll speak with my Aunt Fausta.  Please excuse me.”

Gary watched her step out of the doorway and take three steps before leaning on the wall.  Her eyes were open and her lips seemed to be whispering something.  He returned to his sister’s room and listened, only commenting when asked.  Fifteen minutes later they filed out and Faustina gave a huge yawn.

You should hurry home to my little niece, brother… err…

“…before she gets too spoiled by mom,” she concluded verbally.

Gary stepped to her bedside and eyes before lightly rubbing the stubble of her dark hair already making a reappearance.

“Talking the other way still hurts you,” he stated the obvious.  “Pulling data will likely damage you.  Maybe forever.”

“Yes, yes, I know and I’ll be good.  But it’s soooo boring!  Will you bring me some books, big brother?”

“Library or home?  I can swing back by tonight – ”

“Just go home and back tomorrow morning,” she cut him off.  “I’ll talk to the staff to find out what’s been going on since I left.”

“Getting further and further into local politics, little sister?” he tried to ask lightly, hearing Henge come in behind him.

“Greater Knoxville will be the southeast anchor of my new realm,” Faustina continued, her eyes open but not seeing them.  “I would all of north America hail me as their sovereign.”

“Sister?” Henge stepped to the other side of the bed.  “Fausta tells me all is well in Savannah.  Half of Second Legion is detailed to local security while the other one-and-a-half are engineering and reconstruction.  It is thought the port and harbor will reopen in three to four weeks.  Our outlet to the sea.”

Gary watched his wife lean down and kiss Fussy’s stubbly head.

“I confess I do not understand you or what you want to accomplish, but you strive on behalf of your family and friends.  I love you so, sister!”

“How is it,” Faustina smiled, her eyes now seeing her family, “that a fallen Machine is so loving and my big bro’ a shambling automaton?  And how in the world did they fall in love?”

“Love,” Gary spoke up, “is, I have found, an odd thing.  Speaking of which, Henge did mention to me earlier about what she called some of your ‘flings’…”

“FFS!” his sister hissed, turning her head away from him.  “What I do on my time is my life, brother!”

“You are a very public figure,” he countered.  “Any action of yours reflects upon our family and this city.  And our Church.”

She turned her head back to face him, her turquoise eyes burning.

“I’ve done nothing that you didn’t with her,” she made a tiny wave at Henge with her right hand, “before you were married!  My hymen’s still intact!  Would you like to publish pictures of that, brother?!”

Henge knew all families fought.  She still hated to recall the exchanges she had with her father, Thaad, when she announced she would take a mortal form.  It nonetheless hurt her to see Gary and Faustina like this.

“Of course not.  I apologize,” he said softly.  “Let us pray together before we leave you for the night.”

Faustina had just enough strength and motor control to trace a tiny cross in the air before Gary took her left hand and Henge her right.

“In the name of the Father, Son…”

Walking back to their car, it was Henge who noticed the trickle of people arriving by car and bicycle to the hospital’s main entrance.  Even as they were walking out a crowd of five was being told “…she cannot have visitors right now…”  Given the emotional tumult her husband had just been through, she didn’t want to voice her concern quite yet.

Across the river again and immediately right along the waterfront, it was minutes to their small townhome between the university district and downtown.  The location suited both of their interests no matter how Gary’s parents had raved about “cities are death-traps!”  They had lived through the Breakup and the death of one hundred million in the US.  Gary had come of age in the aftermath and recovery and so saw the world differently.  Henge, of course, saw the world more differently still.

Gary parked without a word.  As they crossed the street their front door was flung open.  A tiny form came running out waving.

“Daddy!  Mommy!” Aurelia cried.

She had the small facial features of any four-year-old so it was difficult to predict what she might finally look like.  Her happy eyes were gold like her mother’s but not as bright.  Her quickly-growing hair was a perfect blend of Gary’s near-black and her mother’s purple.  “Tyrian Red,” Henge had called it:  dark in low light and an imperial purple when in the sun.  She also dressed like her mother: a white tee shirt and blue denim overalls with no shoes.  Gary scooped her up into his arms as she covered his face in kisses.

“Put me down!  Put me down!” she yelled again, so he did.  Suspecting what she wanted, Henge knelt.  She was correct:  Aurelia placed her hands onto her mother’s belly and rubbed them about.

“My baby brother!” she exclaimed.

“That answers that,” her father muttered as his wife began to cry.

“Okay!” came his mother’s shout from the doorway.  “It’s getting late and I need to take Steve home!”

Gary’s much younger – and much quieter – brother stood with his arms about Callie’s leg, staring at all the goings-on.

“Yes, Grandmother!” the little girl yelled again.  It seemed to be her preferred mode of communication.  Gary watched as she awkwardly took the few steps of their stoop back into the house.

“How long has she been out of her shoes,” Gary asked his mother, not entirely pleased.

“Just since we ate about thirty minutes ago.  She’s fine for a little bit,” Callie said right back.

Gary said nothing.  He did not need another family row after Faustina.  Their daughter’s left leg was a little shorter than her right.  She adapted quickly when it came to walking and running but he knew the long-term danger was to her spine.  Hence his wish she always kept her special shoes on.

“Thank you for looking after her on such short notice,” he said instead.  “Y’all have been at your land up until today?”

“Yep,” she replied with a sidelong glance.  “Aurie really loves it there.  You two should move out to the country, you know!”

Before he could reply she brushed him aside and took Henge into her arms.

“Congratulations!  Thank you for my second grandchild!” she said.

“As my daughter just informed me, more specifically, your grandson, Callie,” Henge said, hugging her right back.

Aware they were going to have one of those ‘women’s moments,’ Gary continued further in and dropped his medical bag and overnight bag onto their couch.  He followed them a moment later.  Perhaps a hot bath… a snack… and I’m sleeping in tomorrow…

“Daddy!” his daughter yelled.  He’d been asleep for less than a second.  She was shoving her little flatscreen into his face.  “Lookie!  Lookie!  Princess Faustina!”

He tried not to growl as he took the device and held it where he could see…

“Oh my God.”

Henge was instantly behind him and looking over his shoulder.  What she saw confirmed what she thought was happening as they left the hospital.

A crowd of at least one hundred had gathered; an even mix of men and women but almost all under thirty years old.  Some waved signs about how much they loved Faustina and hoped she was better.  In the grassy expanse just to the north of the main building, he saw many kneeling in prayer.  He shuddered.

For her… or to her? he wondered and feared the answer.

“Princess,” Aurelia used it more as a name than a title, “is going to be okay, right Daddy?  You’ll make her all better?”

“She… she’s been hurt.  But, yes, she’ll be all better soon.” Her body.  What about her mind?

“Yeah!” she cried in happiness.  “Next year:  on to Vicksburg!”

“What – !” Gary began to yell.  Henge squeezed his shoulders hard.

“What,” she asked much more softly, “did you mean by that, precious one?”

“It’s what everybody’s saying!  Princess’s next crusade:  to link up with Texas!  Unite the South!”

Under her strong hands Henge felt Gary shake a little.

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