Okay, she made it out without a slap or spanking. Barely. Still, Faustina got the dressing down she well deserved. But will it take? We’ll see. In the mean time, they all realized they are scores of miles into unknown territory facing an unknown potential enemy. What they need more than anything else is intel. Senior Centurion Chesney then makes an ill-timed appearance.
“While we appreciate letting us know you were looking around,” Owens spoke first as they stood in a broken kitchen, “we misinterpreted that as walking the perimeter, not vanishing for nearly four hours! Not even knowing what direction you went, sending out parties to find you was pointless! What was reckless for a general was GODDAM STUPID for a sovereign!”
“The project of a railroad from Vicksburg to Knoxville, just maybe, maybe, might survive your loss,” Gibson growled, picking up where Owens left off, “but to hold and subdue this vast territory? After you have done so much to poke every hornet’s nest you can see? If Empress Faustina cannot control these lands, then Councilman Klimt’s fear of a march on our homes becomes inevitable!”
Faustina took all this with her head just tilted just a little forward and her eyes down, saying not a word.
“As much as I’d love to put some kind of leash on you,” the scolding passed back to Owens, “I’m sure that since you are oh-so-much-better than us you’d just give us the slip again. So rather than a chain or RFID chip: we’ll just ask. Politely. Do not pull shit like this again!”
“Because if you do,” Gibson seemed to finally begin to deflate, “I will resign from the legions as soon as I am back home.”
Knowing he full-well meant that was the last push she could stand. Faustina let a sob escape her mouth but refused her tears.
“It shall be as you say,” she said in a tiny voice, lifting her head. “What is proper for a centurion, perhaps even a legate, is not for a general and empress. I am older.”
“Good,” Gibson nodded once half a minute had passed and snapped his fingers for their staff to join them. “Now, tell us where you were and what you saw.”
An aide spread an old local map that had been scrounged from somewhere out on a folding camp table. Clipped and precise, Faustina pointed out the path of her little adventure and spoke to what she saw.
“Lastly, that squad,” as she came to her conclusion. “What I saw that my escort did not understand was the patch on their shoulders. It was the same as the ensign of the three patrol boats Seaman Rigó saw on the Mississippi. That means the Gulf Shore States have some kind of landward army. Size unknown, composition unknown, weapons unknown.”
“Fan-effing-tastic,” Owens breathed. “As legate of Second, I formally request you burn some of our diesel, power-up a generator, and talk to your friends via a sat-com link. We are too far from home to be this blind.”
She looked at Gibson.
“I concur,” he agreed.
“With two-thirds of my command in agreement, I shall,” Faustina nodded once. “However: a problem.”
“Noise,” Owens said. “We might have covered it up under the hurricane, but now that engine sound will travel for over a dozen miles.”
“It’s so flat here,” she mused, “that even crossing back across the river would be useless unless I took a cohort and went a score miles back.”
“Which is not a good idea right now,” Chesney of cohort six said, entering unbidden. He tossed his hand in salute to the senior officers before continuing. “River’s way up, about two inches of water on the road and out of its banks about a thousand feet on each side. Rather not have you cut off from your army! What did I say?”
The last was to the icy silence that fell as he saw the two legates glare at their general.
“Then… humint, human intelligence,” Faustina suggested. “We keep the legions still and quiet today: no construction. We also send a picked team into town, posing as merchants, pilgrims, bums, I don’t care, to talk to the locals and get some notion of what is going on in these parts.”
“And, no,” she said as Gibson opened his frowning mouth, “it will not be a legate or general! I was thinking of someone more expendable. You busy right now, Ches?”