…and none of us can ever really be sure who we are talking to. The cashier we just insulted? Is his sister your heart surgeon? The co-worker you just humiliated at lunch? Is her son the lifeguard at your kids’ pool?
“Perfectly acceptable to insult someone in private: they might even thank you for it later. But when you do it in public they tend to think you are serious.” – Ben Franklin.
At the exact center of the fort, where the two main dirt paths crossed, was the commander’s wooden quarters. Even though she had been staying by the airport it was obvious her boys had been doing their best to make things not just habitable but actually pleasant for their princess. Rather than already going inside she chose instead to keep walking to the southern wall then to follow the perimeter, speaking to everyone she encountered.
Some of her boys were surprised as to her condition. One cheeky fellow even asked to touch the scar tissue on her left arm. Everyone seemed happy and in good spirits but just below the surface she could also detect a faint desire to return home.
Life has been so incredibly local since the Breakup… a ten-mile journey was nearly considered a two-day affair until I came along. Finding colonists might be more difficult than I anticipated. Perhaps I shall have to sweeten the pot, so to speak?
The eastern sky was purple – she liked that – and it was spreading west. Faustina noted that lines from the PLA fission reactor had been run to parts of the larger fort but her boys preferred the old ways that always worked: torches illuminated her walk back her unoccupied command post that would be hosting tonight’s meeting. The building was surrounded by more torches but she could tell it was a mix of candles and electric lights inside.
“You really goin’ in thar, Princess?” the senior of the four sentries asked. She recalled his name.
“Of course, Jacob! There is no safer place for me in this wide, wide world than with my boys!” Faustina said, tapping her right index finger to the center of his flak vest. “But I appreciate your thought! I would appreciate more that you pray for me while in there… the locals might not like passing from one yoke to another.”
They murmured in the assent but Jacob pressed on.
“It’s just… ain’t never seen so many of them in one place, Princess…” He shook the thought away. “Shall I announce you?”
“Absolutely not. I’ll drift in and assess the room before they even twig to little me along the wall!”
One of the other sentries guffawed at that, stopping instantly when their lead turned on him with a glare. Faustina suppressed a smile and opened the wooden door just enough to slip through.
In anticipation of this meeting, the entire building had been divided into two. The first, where she now entered, moving slowly along a wall to a dark corner, was acting as a reception hall. Free drinks from a bar manned by one of her security staff in the corner directly opposite her and the air already deeply fouled by cigar smoke. None of which surprised her as it was all her idea. What did surprise was the racial mix.
Half the people here are Black. They are less than ten percent of Greater Knoxville and mostly keep to themselves. She thought very quickly. Like big brother, I must set aside aggregate genome data for now and treat them as individuals… after all, if they are here, they must be high IQ with good impulse control to be leaders of area communities.
She stopped in the corner and listened before anyone took note of her.
“…were winning even before that shit-from-the-sky thing…”
“…didn’t ask for their help…”
“…how could you not notice?! They are all white…!”
“They are here now and to look at what they are building are in no hurry to leave.”
Faustina recognized the last speaker. According to records, he was the mayor of Savannah, Will Cooke. He seemed to have successfully kept the core of the town alive after the Breakup and had cordial relations with the occupying Chinese. To look at, I think he’s mulatto, she thought.
“Hey, boy,” a large, bald black man shook his glass at her face. “How’s about a refill?”
“Of course, sir,” she said with a shy smile. “What are you drinking?”
He told her and she crossed the room to the bar. The man behind it, Jakes, could not believe his eyes.
“P…! Prin…!” he began.
“Not a word,” she admonished him, setting the glass down. “Local vodka with water for one of my guests, please.”
She watched his hands shake only a little to see his commanding general act as a waitress. She took the refilled glass and crossed the room to the man who spoke to her. She did notice that Mayor Cooke paused to stare at her.
“Here you are, sir,” she said from just behind his right. He had been saying he was looking forward to profiting from the occupation with all the new mouths to feed.
“Thanks, boy,” he took the drink without looking at her.
“Are you a farmer? Or do you represent a group of them?” she asked.
Surprised at what he thought a waiter would be so rude, he turned and leaned over her.
“The latter, boy,” he said with a smile that was missing several teeth. “I lead the Ogeechee River Co-op about ten miles east of here. The Chinese were good customers but always late to pay. I’m hopin’ the grown-ups in your regiments are at least as square with us!”
“The legions,” she emphasized the word, “are meticulous in all dealings. Since leaving Knoxville we have paid for anything we have needed from the communities we passed through.”
“Paid with what?” he asked, still a little too close. Faustina was aware that some of the others were taking note of their conversation.
“For the towns close to the mountains, the tightly controlled script of Greater Knoxville,” she heard the mayor begin to walk their way, “they have been along our trade route for some years now, after all! However, from Greeneville on south, it was thought best to pay in minted silver coins.”
“Silver,” the businessman finally leaned out of her personal space as he mused on the word. “That would be nice…”
“But very temporary,” Faustina went on, bursting his bubble, “I do not want multiple currencies in the Transappalacian region. It would introduce financial instability.”
“You don’t want – ?” she was pleased he caught that. The mayor was just behind her.
“Hey, there, Pete,” he said like any politician. “Trying to cut deals already?”
“I… I’m not sure…” he said, shifting his drink from his right to left so he could extend his hand to her. “I’m Pete duBois.”
“I am Faustina Hartmann, General of the Knoxville Expeditionary Force,” she said, taking his hand. “A pleasure to meet you!”