War! Well, at least the first stages of it. To engage an enemy you have to get your men there first. Faustina leads Legio One and Legio Two out of permanent camp on their way south, over the Smoky Mountains. This puts her in a challenging position: she will be away from any signal, at least until the outskirts of her target city, so will have no choice but to rely upon what the machine Ventidio trained her to do, as well as her own staff, officers, and centurions. If she’s smart, she will listen very closely to her centurions…
In near complete silence they streamed out of their barracks, formed up, and made for old I-40 just to the south, virtually invisible in their mottled gray uniforms. From there it was a thirty-five mile march to their first camp, just outside of the dozen farmers living in what had been called Wilton Springs. A fort had been built there months ago, one of several in all directions, allowing the legions to cover much ground on the first day.
Their artillery was harnessed to oxen and already on the highway. Not that many pieces and no anti-armor at all. If the PLA had armored cars they would have to be dealt with by what few shoulder-launched tubes they had…
Or some other way, Faustina thought, looking at the starry sky with a pale light over the mountains to their east. On horseback she watched the men, eight abreast, tramp up the on-ramp of the highway and turn east. 12,800 men on foot and another 400 on horseback as scouts: her eyes and ears. Something no one had seen in the lands of the former United States in a generation.
“Magnificent,” she muttered. To her right Gibson, her legate, commander of the First Legion, nodded in the early dawn. In her mind’s-eye she could feel how proud Ventidio was of her right now. She had had a cell tower built when the barracks were constructed, as they were just out of range of the City’s signal. By the time they crossed Lake Douglas and turned south, Faustina would be relying entirely upon herself and her men. A completely independent command. The thrill and tension was a double helix in her mind.
The first legion moved past the artillery of the Society. While their General Scott continued to be very unhappy about her quasi-independent force, he did instruct his men that Faustina and her chain of command was in charge for this mission. She was pleased to see that most of them were interested and excited in what they were going to do. The last time the Society had left on a mission to set up a small fission reactor had been years ago. They were bored.
With First past them, the oxen tugged and the guns and ammunition caissons began to roll. Too slow for her satisfaction. And she knew it would be worse ascending the mountains. When she suggested to Ventidio they simply leave an escort force with them, he had made her older about Marcus Antonius’s disastrous campaign against the Parthians – the loss of his entire siege train. Faustina had relented and was resigned to the slow pace for the first third of their mission.
When the tail end of Second passed them she slid off the horse and passed the reins to its minder. Her immediate command did likewise. Like her men, she would walk; being mounted made anyone a conspicuous target.
Even with my demi-human mind, there is simply no way to know the names of everyone, she thought, working her way up through the ranks at a pace half-again faster than theirs, besides the few rankers who have distinguished themselves in some way. Centurions? That was different: she knew their names and personal histories.
“Perfect morning, boys!” she called to those about her. “Thirty-five miles on a flat road? Hope y’all can keep up!”
As she walked on to the next cohort she heard from behind her, “we can get you over them hills today, Princess!” She waved her hand over her head as she started talking to the next group. Their rifles well oiled and bayonets at their belts gleaming dully in the pre-dawn light.
God! I feel so alive!
Held up by the artillery, it was dusk as they filed into the fort at the mountain foothills. There were further pre-positioned camps all along the route to the headwaters of the Savannah River, for the now-constant trade traffic, but mentally recalculating their uphill speed, Faustina realized they were going to be building some marching camps. That’s fine; it keeps everyone in practice. I was originally thinking we would make it all the way across… but even my men would have been pushed. When we have our staff meeting tonight I’ll see if they think we can make the old border and the camp there. That’s, what? Eleven or twelve miles? Even those cows should make that!
There were a handful of wooden buildings at their first camp. Around eight o’clock her twenty centurions, two legates, and the two horse commanders who were not on patrol squeezed into the largest. Her small staff stood at the door looking in. In the center of the room was a table with several maps spread out on it. The one on top was of the Smokey Mountains.
“An easy first day, which is what we all suspected,” Faustina began without any ceremony. “And, as we suspected, the cows with our borrowed guns are slow.”
There was scattered but quiet laughter at her term.
“From what I saw before we left,” and they all had a pretty good idea what she meant by that, “the weather is in our favor for at least three more days, with only scattered showers after that. I don’t see any reason we cannot get to the Walters Shelter and build a marching camp before sundown tomorrow. I’d like anyone’s input on that.”
Most of them had looked at the maps so many times they had memorized them. The two squadron leaders were curious as to where she would want their horses further downhill. That answered, they quickly broke up. Faustina went to her chief aide and took her dufflebag from him.
“Not sleeping indoors, Miss?” her favorite centurion, Chesney, asked as he passed on the way back to his men.
“My boys are under the sky so I am, too!” she said with a smile in the early night. “It’s nicer out here, anyway!”
It was typical behavior for her and thus passed without further comment. Once her little tent was pegged out, she stretched before setting out for a tour of the palisades and perimeter. The wooden walls were twelve feet tall with an eight-foot ditch in front of them, the only exceptions being the north and south gates. One thousand feet per its four sides, with two legions and their artillery it made things a little cramped, but here on the edge of the land claimed by Greater Knoxville, her men would sleep sound and secure.
“How’s the watch, McNair?” she asked after climbing the stairs to the palisade’s walkway, fortunately recognizing the man there.
“All quiet, Miss,” he replied without taking his eyes from the land in front of him.
“Worried about what’s coming?” she asked, always wanting to know what they were feeling.
“Worried? No.” She saw his head shake once. “We’re gonna show those Chinks that ther’s still a lot of fight in this here land! Oh! Er… beggin’ your pardon, Miss!”
Faustina could tell he was mortified for forgetting who her mother was. She laughed and slapped his shoulder.
“We are, aren’t we! Carry on!”
She completed her walk, pausing to speak with anyone who wanted to, and strode quickly back to the central building and her tent. That she ignored and went inside. A single candle burned fitfully on the table. One each side were her legates, Gibson and Owens. Gibson had been with Faustina from the early days. Thirty-years old, black curly hair and constant stubble on his chin. He had a well-muscled body but a head for logistical minutiae, so he also functioned as the overall commander of the non-combatants. Owens was his opposite: pale skin and hair but not quite an albino. Thin, but wiry; she had seen him carry the same heavy loads as Gibson with no tiring or complaint. Looking at a spreadsheet made his eyes water but the thirty-two-year old was a lion in battle, whether with rifle, bayonet, or knife.
Faustina pulled a rolled map from a pigeonhole. She moved the candle to a corner while spreading it out.
“From our first camp tomorrow night to our exit from the mountains about twenty-five miles, all downhill,” she began, pointing to where the relative flat lands began, about a dozen miles west of Asheville. “With the guns we cannot do that in a day.”
“Agreed,” Gibson said, taking a step to look at the map. “But as we have already discussed, where is a place clear and flat enough to build a camp but also secluded enough to not be noticed by the eyes in the sky?”
The Chinese and their military still had perfectly functional imaging satellites. While there was no evidence they knew what was coming, Faustina told all to plan as if they did. Thus, how could they stay out of casual orbital observation for as long as possible?
“Unless we laager in the open…” Owens mused.
“Not happening,” was Faustina’s curt reply, pointing to a spot. We’ll stop here, just fifteen miles on, at Fines Creek. It’s already used by the caravans and we can build an elongated camp, say five hundred feet by three thousand, along this flatland. Trees and hills screen us from all sides.”
It had been discussed as one of their many possibilities, so no one was surprised.
“Objections or questions?”
The two men shook their heads.
“I’ll see everyone at oh-four-hundred,” she said while letting the map roll back up. “Got to get those cows up early!”
Outside in the dark, cool night, she waited her turn for the latrine before crawling into her tent. The little mountains were never a concern to me. We’ll be out of them just fine. No, once we appear on the outskirts of Asheville then turn south, whether by radio or people just shouting from field to field, every single person will know my legions are on the march, with only one logical target.
“We will not have strategic surprise,” she whispered to the canvas a few inches over her head. “I must maintain tactical!”
Faustina stilled her mind and fell asleep moments later.