Finished the segment I began yesterday: Faustina having a brief chat with the mayor of what’s left of Asheville. With that in the bag, I went to review some maps about their upcoming troop movements. Yeah, there are those three dams, but I’m sure the barges and escorts will fit through their locks… Those dams look a little small… let’s look them up and also check ‘street level view’!
Well, dang. Having spent a half-dozen of my formative years around the Columbia River, I took it for granted that a great waterway would have locks for barge traffic. I realized now that the Savannah River is not a “great waterway.” Important, certainly, but it is a creek compared to something such as the Columbia.
I still think I can get their artillery onto barges in Augusta. But the legions are going to have to cover the 160 miles from Asheville to there, first. Then, while the barges – under guard – move down-river, the infantry will march another 125 miles. I see that a few days of maps, calculations, and re-writes are ahead of me. Hope to have something by Wednesday.
At four in the afternoon of the next day, Faustina stood atop an abandoned aircraft hanger on what had been the Asheville Regional Airport, just south of the town. The buildings in the southern part of the facility were used by convoys and caravans going both directions, but her men were building a camp on the northern edge, in a clear space just next to the unused runway. The eight-foot ditch was already complete and sections of the wood walls were being raised.
When they leave my legions, these boys will walk into well paying constructions jobs. Not just in Knoxville, but wherever I start to found colonies!
Her runner to her left looked over his shoulder at the tamp of boots on the diamond plate stairs. Faustina’s ears recognized Legate Gibson’s footfall. She turned to him just as reached her on her perch.
“Two things,” he began, all business. “One, I was surprised to hear the brewery a half mile southwest of here is still semi-operating. The centurions asked me to ask you if the men can have an issue of beer tonight, if there’s enough to buy for us all.”
“Agreed. No more than two pints per man.” They all knew her views about alcohol.
“Second,” he said with a nod to her comment and pointing north to the highway, “that mounted entourage just there is the mayor of Asheville. He, ah, requests to speak with the commander.”
“Were those his exact words?” she asked with a smile tugging at her lips.
“Yes. I was the one he spoke to.” Faustina watched her legate sigh. “Pretend, again?”
There had been several times in the past when, as she grew her little army and took it afield, Gibson would take the role of over-all commander with Faustina seeming a young messenger boy just behind his right.
“No,” she said, pleased that he relaxed. “Once word of our victory at Savannah spreads – and it will, fast – everyone will know who I am. If we play pretend with this mayor he will feel used and betrayed. That is not a person I want athwart my supply lines!”
“I see,” he agreed. “Did you want to meet him now, or – ”
“Nope! He and his can cool their heels until our camp is complete! My boys will note that and recognize I put them first over some local potentate! Have… er… Tapscott escort them from the north gate to me at the camp’s center. My centurions will still be busy getting the men down for the night – and their beer! – so it will just be my staff, you, me, and Owens meeting them.”
“Understood,” he said, raising his arm in salute before turning.
“Legate?” Faustina called.
“One more thing…”
It was two more hours, with the early June sun getting low in the west, before the increasingly irritated delegation of politicians from Asheville were escorted into the legionary marching camp. The one, older, man on the mayor’s staff who had been in the US Army took a moment to whisper into his boss’s ear that these were neither mercenaries or militia but something not seen since the Breakup. Dirt had been piled up and compacted in the exact center of the camp to created a slightly raised space of about twenty by twenty feet with a table and chairs taken from somewhere of the airport offices. Just before them, facing north, the entourage took note of two men, obviously officers, and a clutch of staff, one of whom appeared to be a teen boy. They all wore mottled gray BDUs and still has their helmets on. Odd, that this was a diplomatic mission.
The mayor was not sure which of the two men was the commander, the thin one with lighter skin or the one built like a bear who needed a shave. He stopped just far enough away to raise his hand ambiguously between them.
“I am the Mayor McGhee of Asheville,” he announced. “While you are welcome through our land, I would care to speak with who is in charge here, please.”
McGhee looked a little to his right. The boy just behind the stockier man’s left stepped forward with a smile. He took his helmet off and tossed it to someone on his right –
On her right. Dark brown, almost black hair fell about her shoulders. She walked the few steps down the raised ground and took his hand, her smile never changing.
“I am General Faustina Hartmann, Knoxville Expeditionary Force! A pleasure to meet you, Mayor!” She tossed a look back over her right shoulder. “It’s just rations, but will you join us at table?”
McGhee, in his fifties, had seen much during the Breakup. Horrors. Heroics. This was the first time he was at a loss.
“But… you’re just a girl!” he said, rudely.
“Please!” she cried, her smile wider. “I’m not even human! Come on!”
The mayor picked a chair halfway down the long side. Faustina took the chair directly opposite him. Both of their staffs fluttered about like nervous birds before finally settling down. Some of her non-combatant staff had grilled some meat; that, plus some carrots and green beans constituted their meal.
“I’ve heard rumors,” the mayor of Asheville began, as plates were being set out. “P-kids, they were called. Mutants, changed by the AIs.”
Faustina flashed him an ambiguous look before raising her hands, palms up.
“Almighty God,” she began, her eyes down, “thank you for this meal and the guests before us. Please lead my men from victory to victory and the townsfolk of Asheville to a just place in the coming order. Amen. Oooh! Did anyone remember to bring any barbeque sauce?!”
Her last question was so surprising that McGhee forgot about the second clause of her odd prayer.
“Thank you!” Faustina said to a young man who set a glass of water before her. There was beer – from the local brewery – and some wine from their provisions if the locals wanted any. “To answer your question: yes! But I’m not just a p-kid. I’m something more!”
Without her father and brother present, she had no brakes.
“I am very interested in what you are saying,” the mayor tried to be tactful, “but I am a bit more concerned about what seems to be fifteen thousand soldiers, something not seen since the Breakup, crossing through our land. General Hartmann.”
“I’m just out for a stroll,” she lied. “Some of my men decided to accompany me.”
“A stroll,” McGhee echoed. “Ending anywhere in particular? And, I do thank you for not looting and razing our town.”
Faustina just stared at him as she chewed a piece of meat. She was more than willing to talk with food in her mouth but wanted him to wait.
“You are welcome. I consider Asheville to be a Friend and Ally,” she said before taking a drink of water.
“You do,” the older man replied, pausing some beans on his fork before his mouth, “not Knoxville or its mayor?”
“I,” he paused to touch a napkin to his mouth, “was unaware there had been a change of government in Knoxville.”
“There’s not. Yet.”
It was not her plan to antagonize him but Faustina was finding this game to be great fun.
Realizing he was not about to get an honest answer out of this girl, he tried something else.
“This meat is very good. Do you eat like this every day?” he asked.
“My men cover much ground each day. Protein is critical but too much meat will knot their guts, so no,” she said, obviously using her tongue to try to get something out her back teeth. “Soups and stews for us when we march.”
“And you are marching…?”
“Into history, Mayor McGhee.”
She sat up and pushed her plate a few inches away from her. The town’s mayor noted the change in the men to her left and right.
“I am the first of my kind to take direct action, Mayor McGhee,” her tone was odd. The sun had touched the tops of the mountains to the west but it was darker, nonetheless. “As we both have spoken to, I am demi-human. Unlike my deluded sister-in-law, I, and those like me around this world, am going to change things. As we see fit.”
She watched as he took a drink of his glass of beer.
“The AS Brewery has been a part of this town for a generation,” he said, looking at the glass, not her. “Did you take this by force?”
“No. We paid for it. Silver.” Faustina replied. “All of my acts are just.”
He set the empty mug down.
“I’m sure they are. Humans,” looked up to catch her turquoise eyes, “prefer mercy. Tell me, General Hartmann, what can our little town do to help you?”
“One of my legates,” she reached left and right to touch the forearms of Gibson and Owens, “will supply you with plans for a large, permanent, legionary fort. Your town is my gateway to an arc stretching from Norfolk to Jacksonville. I do not know how much history you know, Mayor, but to the east, I want Asheville to be the Capua to Knoxville’s Rome.”
“You seek to remake the United States?” McGhee asked in disbelief.
“No.” Her denial was absolute. “I am making something you people cannot imagine.”
Faustina tilted her head back until looking straight up.
“And it won’t end here.”
She stood. After a moment, everyone else did as well. Faustina waved them back to their seats.
“I have to check on the camp and my boys. If you have anything further to ask or contribute, Legates Gibson and Owens will help you. Excuse me, please.”
They watched her walk away with her three staff close behind.
“The first army since the Breakup and you follow a little girl?” Mayor McGhee asked, no longer able to hold it in.
“As she already told you, Mayor, you are just looking at the outside,” Owens retorted, also standing. “It’s a mistake many have made. One we hope many keep making. You play diplomat, Gibson, please. I’m off as well.”
“Even with the caravans,” the other legate began, “I’m sure knowledge travels slowly over these mountains. Do you know anything about the Machines? About the general’s sister-in-law?”
McGhee shook his head. Gibson glanced at his wind-up watch.
“Let me keep you for just a few minutes more and try to bring you up to speed…”
Fifteen minutes later the northern gate closed behind them, Gibson having seen them out. They remounted their horses and rode north in the twilight of evening.
“You believe all that?” the mayor’s aide who had spoken up on their way in asked.
“I… I think we had better. Let’s go home.”