Check. Up.

Looked over my notes for a-while this morning (another day off; work the next three) and saw PART 1:  KEEP HUMAN circled.  My handwriting so I guess I was drunk.  Imagine.  Still, per my Lenten oath to not only complete the MS for “Empress’ Crusade” but also to make it more Christian than its predecessor, I’m trying to keep the opening parts of this story in that vein.

My other, more coherent notes, speak to Faustina chatting with MacRae, (check) and Reina.  As she’s the machine who will end up as Acting Prime Minister of the Russian Empire (should I have said *spoiler warning*?  oops) that is not “keeping it human.”  So, instead, I saw Fussy’s nurse drop in at the legionary fort to check up on her.

One of my other scrawled notes was “eugenics.”  That plus Faustina is not something I want to think about right now.

 

Paperwork, she thought, at least an inch thick in places.  In the field, my words were acted upon in moments.  Here, my scratchings are mulled, shelved, lost.  Not so much within the legions but with the contractors for the thousand and one things my boys need.

Front and center was the half-finished report of how Faustina lost two-thirds of the borrowed artillery from the Society, the paramilitary organization that had defended the little city-state during and right after the Breakup.  I have already promised to replace what was spike by the PLA… the city bureaucrats just seem to want someone to blame.  Fine!  Blame me!  And hide behind your desks if I ever let my boys slip their lead!

Feeling better for her little daydream, Faustina dropped into her old wooden chair and reached for a pen.  After an hour one of her aides came in with a glass of tea.  Unlike the local humans, she did not sweeten it.  When she wanted to treat herself, Faustina would add a little butter to it, a taste she had picked up from one of her distant cousins.  She signed the bottom of the artillery report just as there was a knock at her door.  Hopefully for dinner.

“Come,” she announced.  It was someone leading with a tray full of food, but the someone surprised her.

“Tamera!” Faustina exclaimed, out of her chair and around her desk, reaching to take the tray.  Nurse Tamera Keynes growled at her.  Her hazel eyes under her flaxen hair could look like Death himself when she was angry.

“You sit back down!  This is the first time either of us has had a moment and as you were once my patient – a very bad patient! – I wanted to see you with my own eyes!  Sit!”

Not wanting to make such a small matter a trial of strength, Faustina did as she was told.  Keynes balanced the tray on two file folders.  There was a small block of soft cheese, bean and bacon soup in a bowl, and a small pot of more tea.  Faustina muttered a fast blessing as she pulled the bowl closer and immediately began to shovel food into her mouth.

“You look pretty good,” her nurse allowed, “but a few pounds light.  The march back?”

“Um,” Faustina nodded.  “Weef, we tried to make the best time home, over the mountains, so it was a bit of a strain to me.  But I was not going to keep my boys from home another day just ‘cause their general was tired.”

“Uh, huh.  And you walked the whole way?  With a broken right leg?” she asked skeptically.

“Pretty much,” Faustina paused and lowered her spoon, her eyes taking on a haunted cast.  “I’ve seen how easy it is for a sniper to hit someone tall.”

There was obviously a story there but a story that was not Keynes’ business.

“The skin on your left neck and hand looks better, too,” the nurse noted.  “You’ve done well keeping the cream on you.”

About to reach for the cheese, Faustina pulled her arms out of her uniform jacket and tossed it over her chair back.  Wearing only a gray camisole underneath, Keynes could better see the burns healing from just beneath the girl’s ear to the back of her hand.  To her professional eye, the scar on the neck was permanent.

“Wool?” Faustina asked with cheese in her mouth.  “Well?”

“Looks better,” she was not one to lie to her patients, “but what’s on your neck is there for good.”

She was surprised to see the little general smile.

“Good!  A badge in my flesh for my boys to see!” But the smile faltered.  “Until I take a new body, I guess…”

“Until you what?!” Keynes was surprised but Faustina just waved her question away.

“Not for some time so not your concern.  As for the things you cannot see, my right leg is knitting nicely.  The ribs are hurting, probably from me sitting at this tanjed chair all day!”

“Not from the walk over the Appalachians?” the nurse asked with a smile.

“I… guess that could be a factor, too, Tam,” Faustina allowed.  “Will you need me to visit the hospital?  I’m afraid that I am very busy these days!”

“I can just imagine,” Tamera said, “if the rumors are true!”

“About me?  Empress?  Taking over the city?” Faustina rolled her eyes so hard she nearly spilled the tea as she poured it.  “Please!  In the places which survived the Breakup with their tradition of representative government, I’ll try to find good administrators like MacRae.  In my new lands?  I hope to pick talented men of action as a part of my new nobility.”

“But,” Tamera noted carefully, “that new nobility will only answer to you, correct?  So what does that make you, then?”

Faustina lowered her tea with her left and the spoon with her right.

“We all know the answer to that, friend.  But the time to say so is not yet here,” the eighteen-year-old girl said.  “I would appreciate you not encouraging talk like that.”

“I’m just a nurse, not a politician, friend!” Tamera smiled at Faustina’s seriousness.  “But if I have thought about, be sure many more have, too!”

For just a moment Keynes’ watched across the table as her patient’s pupils grew huge, with a turquoise ring of fire about them, as Faustina looked at information or spoke with someone in the Void.  One of the machines.  The girl’s mouth moved but said no words the nurse could hear.

“Perhaps,” Faustina said, her eyes fading and the spoon coming back up, “I shall accelerate some of my plans.”

There was a tap at the door and one of her aides briefly stuck his head in.

“Apologies, General.  Your last appointment?” he noted before leaving and shutting the door.  Faustina sighed.

When no one spoke for half a minute, Tamera knew it was time for her to go.

“That’s enough for me,” she began.  “I’ll check – ”

“I have to visit the mother and younger brother of Charles Adams, Senior Centurion of Cohort Five of the Second Legion,” Faustina whispered to the tray.  “Because… because I was young and stupid, he was killed.  Shot through the heart, standing closer to me than you are now, friend.”

She lifted her head to her nurse who was saddened to see such grief in who was to her still a little girl.

“How do I say, ‘your son died because I was arrogant?’  I’d rather it have been me than him, Tam,” she admitted.

“It wasn’t you and now here you are,” if Hartmann was going to play general then Keynes’ would hold her to it.  “If you are a general you will order men to their deaths.  Once… once you are an empress, you’ll do the same with civilians.  Either grow up and embrace your destiny…”

Keynes turned the doorknob.

“Or walk away from it.  Friend.”

The door slammed behind her.

 

The little bit of nighttime light from the city of Knoxville a dozen miles west was blocked by the hills between there and the legionary fort.  The waning moon was a sliver low on the western horizon but even a human could have seen in the starlight.  Enough light for the guards at the gate to see the moisture on their general’s wet cheeks.

Her driver had wordlessly taken her back to her quarters.  Once he was away she crunched slowly through the gravel back to the chapel.  Keeping her head down spared her the necessity to return salutes.  She opened the door and drifted randomly in, sitting on a pew just to her left.  Two burning candles framed an unadorned cross on the altar table.

They were angry with me, Adams’ wife and kid brother, Faustina thought, but too polite to express it to where a human would notice.  I did.  Charles’ wife seemed a little mollified when I told her of his posthumous promotion and that she would have his pension for so long as I live.  It was only when I suggested that one day the boy could stand at my side where his older brother once did, did the mask slip.  “To die there, too?” he’d asked.

“Things are changing, God, as you well know,” Faustina spoke to the silent hall.  “The Breakup was never just about economies and politics; the coming of the machines tells of a new world – new worlds.”

Another sigh.

“It can be worlds without end.  But they cannot do it alone.  They need us…” she whispered.  “And I cannot, either.  I need You.  Help me.”

After another five minutes, she stood and made her way her way to her quarters and her little cot.

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