Blood and water

Faustina is not one to avoid an issue or responsibility, to the point of taking on too much blame.  Even with the minor casualties of Augusta their campaign must move on to their next and final stop.  As such, her little army has much to do.  Sleep, for her, will be a luxury over the next six days.

 

Faustina stopped abruptly next to what had been a junkyard, just shy of Gibson’s CP.  After what just happened, riding past a hundred POWs was not a good idea.

“Find Legate Gibson,” she said to her comm aide, “and ask if needs anything from me.  If not, I’m going north to the river then back to and across the bridge and will see him at our meeting tonight.”

“Miss,” he acknowledged, dismounting and walking ahead.

“And also tell him Adams is dead,” she continued, looking at her hands before wiping them on her pants.  “I killed him.”

Her man looked back, his face twisted with concern, before continuing on, shaking his head. Less than three minutes later he had returned.

“He’ll see you tonight, Miss,” he said once back onto his horse.

She nodded once and turned north to pick their way through the junk.  To the levee in minutes, Faustina glanced once at the break that led to the docks.  As much as she wanted to assess the damage – would it still be possible to get their borrowed artillery onto barges? – she was older that she had to leave the area before there were more deaths.

Trotting past the injured she forced a smile onto her face and waved at them.  Nearly to the bridge, the legionary she had kissed seemed to be sleeping.  Riding up onto the bridge, the sun was very low in the west.

Time moves so quickly.  Of course for Adams, now not at all.  Faustina knew he had been Episcopalian so would have to put up with one of their heretical services once back in Knoxville.  Besides her and her three, there was a steady flow of people and carts across the bridge:  supplies south and badly wounded north.  I am so tired but have so much to do…

Directly opposite where the PLA docks had been was a small, one-street neighborhood of larger homes facing the river.  Built just before the Breakup, a few of them had been re-occupied since Augusta’s rebirth as a trade town.  With no electric power, the families who lived there used them to sleep in; there were latrines down by the riverbank and fire pits for cooking.  Two of those were in use now and the dozen or so civilians stared and talked in hushed tones about the group of soldiers from over the mountains who had just seized control of their town.  There was confusion and consternation, yet not one of them took it upon themselves to walk over and ask just what the hell was going on.

Protected by several maniples from Chesney’s Sixth cohort – who were already her unofficial bodyguard – with horsemen in a screen further out, Faustina looked left and right to the men there:  the centurions from the odd-numbered cohorts, minus one, as well as her legates and Connor of the cavalry.  A canvas tarp occluded them from prying, or sniper’s, eyes.

“I would like to begin by formally thanking all of you.  This is your victory.  The first, I hope, of many,” she began.  “I am still compiling the reports of my boys and there will be awards and promotions for many.”

“At the same time, I would like to express my apology for acting stupidly,” Faustina kept her arms at her side and bowed about forty-five degrees.  “I disregarded the recommendation of my senior officers and, in putting myself in harm’s way, killed my centurion, Charles Adams.  I am very sorry.”

“Your foolhardiness can be discussed later,” Owens spoke up, “but this is war; casualties are expected.  You did not kill Adams and we do not appreciate you saying so.”

Faustina rose and let her eyes move about the men illuminated only by the single lantern in their middle.  Reading humans was easy to her; reading those she had been around every day for so long… it was clear her legate was correct.

“Understood,” she agreed and moved on.  “The assessment of the barges was not completed before nightfall, thus we will not know if we can emplace the guns on them until tomorrow afternoon at the earliest.  Since we assumed a maximum four-day transit for them and a six-day march for us, we shall nonetheless move out both legions at oh six-thirty.  Cohort Three of the Second will remain with the artillery.  Cohort Nine of First will act as a screen between them and our tail until they push off.  McFall?”

“Miss?”

“You know that will have you and yours two days behind our main force.  I want you to push your men to catch up but I will not make that an order,” she said, taking a breath.  “They are your men.  Use your discretion.”

“Thank you, Miss,” he agreed.

“As we planned,” she swept on, “staying on old highway twenty-five is just too obvious and too far from the river if something happens to the barges.  We’ll be taking back roads and paths between here and Savannah.  That’s what my boys do best and do not expect for a moment anything less than twenty miles each day!”

Everyone nodded.

“Once we’re closer in, we will make final plans then,” Faustina again looked about at her senior officers.  “We will assume they know we are coming.  Once within drone and signal range, I shall use my skills to assess their deployments so that we can defeat them with a minimum of bloodshed to my boys.”

And everyone knew exactly what she meant by “my skills”:  with an army on their doorstep, maintaining signal silence was worse than useless.  Faustina would process the visual signals from their eyes in the sky as well as likely breach the Walls of any systems they would be using for command-and-control.

“You will be an interesting force-multiplier, Princess,” Tapscott smiled at her from the far end of their gathering.

“It is time, as a demi-human,” she agreed with him, “that I am good for something!  Did anyone have anything else?  Connor?”

The cavalry commander gave a short report on his scouts to the south and southeast; so far, all clear.

“Good night, gentlemen.  And thank you,” she concluded by raising her arm and saluting them first.  They returned it.  Owens snuffed the lantern and they all made their way into the darkness.

Whatever they are cooking over there smells good, Faustina thought, looking at the families close to the fire across the street and about fifty yards away.  But I’ve so much to do!  No sleep tonight!

There was a rumor of color in the east when she finished the reports from the centurions and synthesized it into a weekly dispatch to the Council of Five in Knoxville.  That left one more thing to write on her small laptop.

My dear family!  I am pleased to report that Augusta is mine.  There were casualties on both sides, including my centurion, Adams, which I’ll get to later, but not as many as there could have been.  I credit my boys’ training and the good sense of the local PLA commander to give up once things looked hopeless.  Understandable, really:  if we think we’re at the end of a long tether between here and Knoxville, imagine these poor Chinese, stuck on the other side of the planet on sketchy neo-colonial duty!

It’s going to be a fast, six-day march from here to Savannah, barring what sort of their patrols we encounter.  As you know, big brother, intel has them with at least six armored cars, a clutch of 82mm mortars, and likely some field pieces we’ve not seen.  My legionaries have at least a 5:1 numerical advantage but that will not avail us if I do something stupid.  Again.

Father?  You might want to get more whiskey before this next paragraph.  As Augusta was falling but not yet secured, I and my staff rode into the battlefield.  To say my legates were not pleased would be a gross understatement; Owens threatened to spank me and send me packing.  It was just after speaking with him, with Adams escorting me back, that a sniper who refused to give up shot Charles in the chest.  From the medical report I read earlier this morning he was dead before he hit the ground.  While I was able to avenge him by shooting the sniper myself, it was my thoughtlessness and arrogance that created the situation where he was killed.  Figuratively and literally, his blood is and was on my hands.  I will, of course, speak with his family once all this is over.  I am so sorry.

Even with that loss, morale remains high.  There are multiple, parallel roads from here to our destination so my boys will not be a bunched-up target from the air.  Or space.  And yes, Dad, I am assuming they know we are coming and that we outnumber them.  While I hope the overall commander will surrender just as quickly as the Major at Augusta, I’m not planning on it.  Personally, my worst-case fear is that they have a nuke to use if the situation looks hopeless. I will, of course, make finding out if that’s true or not one of my priorities once in signal range.

On that front, silly sister-in-law Henge, your father made it very pointed that tribe Tohsaka will have nothing to do with me and my little campaign.  My mentor, Ventidio, was not so explicit but I think he is curious what a demi-human with human troops can accomplish, win or lose.  I think that there will be many observers of this battle from many tribes, all wanting to be older in their own ways.  Both of us, sister, have ‘heard’ rumors about tribe Mendro and the new Russian imperial family… are any of them not modified?  Speaking of which, tell my niece I love her!

Faustina looked up and stretched her arms over her head.  Her boys in camp were nearly ready to begin their march.  They would reunite with those cohorts scouting across the river and then head south together.  The sky to the east was blood red.  Not a particularly pleasant thought.  Time to finish this!

All of this will be concluded in just less than a week.  I would be lying if I said I was not nervous.  Not for me, but for my boys and my centurions.  They rely on me for so much!  I hope I can be a good a mother to them as you are to me, Mom!  Give Gab my love as well and please keep me and mine in your prayers.  Deus Vult.  ~Faustina.

She ran the message through the encrypt key and copied it to a flash drive the size of one of her thumbnails.  By the time they get this, that week will have passed.  I’d better not die, then; that would make my letter really macabre.

As the legionaries were already marching out the south gate, their general handed the pouch containing her official dispatches and her private message to her family.  Were they intercepted, the dispatches were too vague and euphemistic to be of military value and the encryption on the flash drive could only be broken by Henge or one of the Machines.

“Swing those legs, boys!” she whooped.  “A week from today you’re gonna be soaking your sore feet in the Atlantic Ocean!”

Everyone within earshot cheered.

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