Now beginning Part III of “Empress’ Crusade.” Following Colonel Rigó getting news from Texas, Faustina has re-mobilized her army and is moving south. I’m not entirely sure why as yet, but am confident they’ll let me know soon. In the meantime, the two young cousins have a chance to talk.
“You seem disappointed, my cousin,” Ryland observed, looking to her left at Faustina as they cantered down the almost completely overgrown old lane.
“Why would I not be!” Faustina snapped back at her. “What had been the most powerful fission reactor in the old United States now falling to pieces? It could have lit up the southwest corner of my imperium and let me see my other family! Disappointed? For the sake of the fifty mounted troopers ahead and the other fifty behind us, I think I am taking this rather well!”
As First, Second, and Third legions marched down what was left of an old US highway some miles east and running parallel with the Mississippi River, Faustina had taken her cousin and a bodyguard taskforce of cavalry to ride off to the west to see with her own eyes the Grand Gulf Nuclear Station, close to the great river. Its condition had shocked her: unlike the Oconee reactor at the headwaters of the Savannah River, where her brother and Aunt Dorina had brought her back from the dead – twice – this facility was in such disrepair she suspected it must have been abandoned in the early days of the Breakup, a generation ago.
The huge cooling tower on her left showed several cracks but nothing that couldn’t be repaired with the right men and tools. The rest of the complex stretched off to her right, rusting and being reclaimed by the surrounding forest. Faustina saw no signs of looting. It was if the personnel simply walked away. She longed to take the time to go inside and see the condition of the reactor but knew that would not be until after the conclusion of this new campaign.
“You talk to them that much? The others?” Ryland asked, bringing her cousin back to the present.
“I love spending time with my godmother,” Faustina said with a nod, “and of course owe Dorina my life. From tribe Arpeggio, Ventidio is my mentor and the first-among-equals of tribe Mendrovovitch, Reina, is… an interesting person.”
“I think Reina’s a self-centered bitch,” Ryland breathed as they slowed to a trot.
“I didn’t say she wasn’t, I just said she’s interesting,” Faustina clarified, halting her horse and leaping off. “Here we are!”
“And where is that?” the young genius asked, also dismounting. “I was sure you had some reason to take this ten-mile – so far – detour after the reactor, but I was guessing it was maybe another lost piece of tech.”
She looked around seeing nothing.
“Or do you just have to pee?”
“Hmm. Now that you mention it, I probably should,” Faustina agreed, “but for now, follow me!”
Ryland now could just make out what might have once been a narrow dirt lane leading into the trees away from the river. Following her cousin, she passed a rotted pile of wood; presumably a sign from years ago. She quickened her pace to catch up.
“Not that I forget things,” Faustina said when Ryland drew close to her, “but seeing the derelict Grand Gulf reactor twigged an association about another ruin I learned about when making myself older for this campaign. I never expected to be in a place and time to see it, though.”
“So you were meant to,” Ryland noted, having learned from her mother at a very young age to disbelieve in coincidences.
“I think so,” Faustina agreed, pushing through some trees. “Ah, hah!”
Stepping next to her, Ryland briefly wondered if she was hallucinating.
“How are there ruins of a Greek temple in the middle of nowhere former US?” she whispered, looking at the two dozen massive Corinthian columns nearly covered by vines and trees.
“Striking, isn’t it?” Faustina smiled at her. “But this was a plantation home, built right before the first near-Breakup of the US. It survived that war but burned down just before the beginning of the twentieth century. All that survived were these massive structural columns. See how the tops are all rusted? They are iron. Again, just like the reactor, I’m a little surprised they have not been looted.”
“Coming,” Ryland’s voice caught for just a moment as she mentally caught up with her cousin, “coming south from Vicksburg, we’ve seen what? Maybe a dozen people? The die-off or migration in the early weeks of the Breakup must have been severe, here. And I guess there was no good soil to entice anyone to come back.”
“An excellent analysis, young princess!” Faustina’s smile grew larger. “This area is only really suited to plantation or mechanized farming. As I will not allow slavery, I imagine someday this entire area will be controlled by a viscount who is adept at managing such automated systems. Let’s pee then go back.”
They were a mile south at canter when they came to a fork in the road. The lead escorts had already taken the left-hand road but the two young women drew up sharply.
“What was…?” Faustina asked.
“Shush!” Ryland ordered without thinking, dropping her reins and cupping her hands behind her ears, her head turned right toward the river. “Diesel engines. Three of them!”
She picked up her reins and looked to Faustina.
“Let’s go see!”
Faustina put two fingers into her mouth and issued a piercing whistle. The lead group halted and looked back. She pointed right and returned to canter with her cousin next to her. Two miles down an even more overgrown old road had them looking out at the great river, nearly a mile wide at this point. They saw the craft at the same time.
“Tell me what I am seeing, Seaman Rigó,” General Hartmann ordered while turning to tell the cavalry to retreat out of sight.
“The two small boats, fore and aft of the large one, are antiques: riverine patrol boats from the Vietnam War. The large one is just pre-Breakup. It’s a Mark Six patrol boat. All of them,” she looked pointedly at her temporary commander, “are loaded to the teeth with twenty-five and fifty-millimeter machine guns, General.”
“Nothing to worry about, Seaman,” Hartmann replied, looking at the boats, not her cousin, “as we’re just two girls out for a ride.”
“Two girls in uniform? Two mixed race girls in the middle of nowhere? I’d rather not be abducted, General!” she hissed, shying her horse back a few paces.
“You have no sense of humor or adventure, do you, little girl? Faustina laughed.
“As you keep pointing out, General, I am only human!” the fear in her voice was palpable.
“Fine, then,” Faustina said, turning her mount about. “Are you able to make out the flag on the big boat?”
“The ensign, you mean?” Ryland corrected, glancing over her shoulder. “No.”
“I’ll sketch it for you later, once you are less scared.”
Faustina was pleased to hear her genius cousin’s teeth grind together in anger. They had just vanished back into the trees and brush on the broken road when the loud cry of a siren came from one of the vessels on the river. So, they saw us, Faustina thought. But what do they think they saw? Another few minutes had them back to the fork in the road. This time they went left; she had been away from her army for long enough.
Hours later they emerged from their side track to the old four-lane highway. The overpass was still standing so she waved for her escort to move on south at a trot while she cantered to the top of to look south. No orders to the contrary, Ryland trailed along behind her. Shading her eyes from the sun in the low quarter of the west, Faustina could just see the tail end of her army, meaning they would make the tiny village of Fayette in plenty of time.
“Forty miles on a good road,” she smiled. “I spoil these boys!”
“While scaring your own family…”
“I swore to your father, cousin,” Faustina turned her horse to trot back down to the highway, “to keep you safe, not comfortable. Speaking of which, you can help the kitchen staff this evening.”
“But…! I’m a foreign national!” she sputtered. “I’m an observer!”
“You are a princess in my imperium and you are legally seconded to General Hartmann. You will do what you are told.” Faustina kept her voice cold but her laughing face turned away from her cousin.