If there’s one thing I love to write, it’s people talking. And there’s no better place to talk than around the dinner table. This is, obviously, a calm before the storm of war. Before Faustina leads her legions over the mountains and against a professional military of the world’s last superpower.
“Your sister is insane and dragging us into a war we cannot win,” Leslie Hartmann said to his son, Gary. They stood on Leslie’s wood deck behind his house, facing east at the coming darkness of evening. He took another drink of his whiskey. “I know you have assured me that your wife’s family has nothing to do with all this. But somebody must be deluding these poor kids into joining a private army!”
“Not so private after what MacRae did,” Gary made a small motion with his right hand, “but yes, father, I understand what you are getting at. From visiting Faustina when she is with her cohorts, I’ve seen…”
“What?” his father asked.
“She has given them something greater than themselves to believe in, I think,” he said setting his very watered glass of whiskey onto the deck’s rail. “I wouldn’t say that these young men were disaffected… or even bored. There is, after all, so much work to do. No, it’s that anyone can be a farmer or shopkeeper or nuke tech. Not everyone gets a chance to conquer the world.”
“You really think she’s aiming that high? Remaking some kind of American empire?” Leslie asked.
“I… I don’t know if she knows, father. But it is something her men believe. And that seems to have been enough for her to marshal the forces she has.”
“And that idiot, MacRae, gifting her our artillery! Madness!” the older man who had served in both sides of the Society: as a technician and as a pioneer.
Ten more minutes! Faustina called into his mind. You guys gossiping about me again?
You are something of the center of the city’s attention right now, little sister. With your departure in three days, it was nice of you to make time for your family.
He felt her sigh.
I’m winning so much right now, moving from strength to strength. All the while knowing how much mom and dad hate it. I… I wanted to try, Big Bro!
I understand. You behave at the table, though!
Hai, hai! she laughed.
Leslie was aware in the tiny pause of his son, recognizing it from these many years when they spoke mind to mind. First, it had been Gary with the Machines, after his “friend” Pavel nearly killed him and just after when he fell in love with that little girl, Henge. After Fussy was born and we found out she was ‘modified’ too.
At the laughter, he looked out the few yards to the play sandbox he had built for the kids: his granddaughter, Aurelia, whose mother was made of nuclear fire and diamond dust. She could do it, too. So far as anyone yet knew, his third and last child, his son Gabriel, could not.
“Who was that?” his father asked.
“Faustina. She said the food will be ready in about ten minutes. Aurelia! Go inside and get cleaned up for dinner!” Gary called. “See if your mother needs any help, too.”
She stood and paused for a moment.
“Not right now, she says,” as he watched her brush the sand off her feet to slip into her shoes.
“Gab,” Leslie also called to his son. “You, too, please.”
“At least he calls me that rather than “father,”” Leslie said into the bottom of his glass. “But he’s just as taciturn as you.”
Gary had no reply to that. He was what he was. They watched the two little ones run inside, adding to the chaos around the dinner table.
“Sounds like nothing but trouble in there,” his father smiled. “I’m not moving an inch until we’re summoned!”
“That is reasonable,” Gary agreed, seating himself into one of the deck chairs. “I have charged my sister to try and behave for this meal. I think the rest of us can, as well.”
Leslie turned to look at his twenty-one-year-old son.
“That was not at all subtle but I get it, Gary.” He turned back to the encroaching darkness. “After all, this might be the last time we see her.”
“Possibly,” Gary agreed. “but I feel you are wrong.”
“You’ve never been one for the feels, son. Where did this come from?”
“Dinner is ready!” Henge said from the partly open French door, her smile making her gold eyes even brighter. “Come, please!”
“I know not, father,” Gary replied, standing. “Yet I will not retract what I said.”
“Let’s hope you’re right,” Leslie said quietly as they stepped back into his home.
The oven-roasted pork may have already been on the table surrounded by side dishes, but it was still several minutes more before everyone made it to their places. Leslie and his wife had saved to buy a longer table when they found out that not only was their son getting married but that Callie was pregnant again.
“Bless us, O Lord,” Leslie began at the head of the table. A nominal Christian and not a churchgoer, he still held onto just enough of his faith to see him through the astonishing array of people now seated around his table.
Faustina seems to have settled upon the term demi-humans, he thought, leaning back to pour himself some of his homebrew from the aluminum cask behind his chair. As was their wont, Gary, Aurie, and Henge, on his right, all had water… with a splash of peach juice for the little one. His immediate left was empty followed by his young son and Faustina at his wife’s right. Recalling what Gary said, he suppressed his sigh.
We’re all trying, Faustina said to the three opposite her.
And we’re going to try out loud, Gary rejoined. “Could you pass me the green beans, please, brother?”
“Sure,” Gabriel replied softly. Gary suspected that surrounded by such siblings and being what his sister dismissively called “a normie,” Gab was more than a little self-conscious, even at only six years old.
“Not… not to get bogged down in details,” their mother Callie began, “everything is set for three days from now?”
They all saw her look to Gary before she replied.
“Yes, mother! Thank you for asking! It… it’s been the most complicated thing I’ve done in my life, but I am so proud of my boys!” Faustina replied, lightly touching her mother’s right forearm.
“Do your boys,” those soldiers,” Leslie asked after swallowing a piece of meat, “enjoy being called boys by a teen girl?”
Both Gary and Henge looked at Faustina’s exercise in self-control.
“Yes, father, they do.” It was obvious she wanted to say more but instead lowered her head and took another forkful of the pork.
“As it is obvious we are all trying,” their father said, picking up his mug, “I’d like you to tell me why.”
They watched as the girl took a moment to wipe her lips with an old cloth napkin.
“As you and my brother so effectively demonstrated over the years, I, as a girl, will never be a soldier. I’m not built for it,” she admitted, first looking to Gary then their father. “But I can lead. I’ve proven that. Calling my legionaries “my men” implies an equality which simply does not exist. Physically or otherwise.”
Gary admired her control to not carry on about how she was different. He watched her take a sip of water.
“So, I thought, why not call them something else? Something that recognizes the bonds we have but makes it explicit there is and always shall be a gap between me and them.” She took another slow breath. “You know what they call me: princess. I’m not – yet – so cannot call them subjects. But I can be like a mother to them in the field; at once caring and supporting at the same time demanding the absolute best from them.”
“From my boys,” she concluded. She retook her fork but paused to see if Leslie had something more to say. Their father gave a small nod as he scooped more beans onto his plate.
Gabriel continued to eat slowly, only occasionally glancing up at what he saw as “the grown-up’s conversation” while his little Aunt Aurelia seemed to hang on each word.
“Isn’t it icky,” she asked, “to sleep with boys outside?”
Gary resisted the urge to whap his daughter, especially as her mother to her right was laughing so hard as to cry. He shot a look at his sister…
“Here in and around town,” Faustina began with a gentle smile for her niece, “we all have barracks. My staff and I are separate from the legionaries and I have my own little room with a very uncomfortable cot! You should thank your mom and dad for your comfy bed after prayers tonight!”
“Out in the field,” she continued as Henge promised she would, “we construct a defensive camp every evening. It means we cover less ground in daylight but it also means my boys are totally secure and can sleep like the dead after I’ve marched them twenty miles! Still, even then I’ve my own tent with a little bedroll for the night. If we’re staying for more than three days we start throwing up temporary buildings for everyone.”
She wrinkled her nose as she passed the sweet potatoes to her mother. Faustina hated sweet potatoes.
“So, little niece, it’s uncomfortable, but not icky. Even in the rain and mud.” She took a long drink of her water to hold Gary’s eyes and set the cup down. “I’ve never slept with anyone.”
Their mother, Callie, took that pause to engage her granddaughter on whether or not she was looking forward to induction into one of the Sisterhoods on her next birthday. Since the town’s recovery from the Breakup, it was social policy that for ten years – from eight to eighteen – twelve kids, separated by sex, would be randomly assigned to a Brother- or Sisterhood. It was to make sure that they grew up knowing more than the little world of their family and immediate peers. The sons and daughters of engineers, doctors, farmers, politicians, tradesmen would study together, exercise together, go on adventures together. To-date it had proved to be a tremendous force for social cohesion.
“Very much, Grandmother!” Henge said, almost bouncing in her chair. “I know I’m differnt, and I know all’s else know it, too! But that’s okay! I want to make new friends!”
“We are all a little different,” Henge said, leaning left to kiss the top of Aurelia’s head, trying not to laugh at the look on her husband’s face as their daughter spoke more and more the local dialect. “But the Lord God loves us all! That I and you are here is proof of that!”
That was enough to provoke a snort of Gary’s father. He had been there: when Henge had taken human form using the equipotential flux point of a brief fusion reaction and a box full of nanomaterials, woven into being and life by the Machines.
“Mommy?” Aurelia asked, suddenly serious. Her moods were mercurial. She gently poked her fork at Henge’s flat, conditioned belly. “What’s my brother’s name?”
“Well, now! You know the story of how your father and I named you, over lunch,” Henge pointed at her daughter’s plate for her to keep eating. “You know the game: either of us could suggest a name and either of us could veto a name; no questions, no appeal.”
She took a little sip.
“I don’t see why you shouldn’t play this time, too!” she laughed.
“Me, too! Me, too!” Faustina cried.
“No,” Gary said with finality. “You shall have your own children to name.”
“I will! Won’t I?” her face lit up in a great smile. “I will!”