Here in the US, it is a three-day weekend for Memorial Day. One which, fortunately, I am not assigned to work for my DayJob. So, besides a short honeydew list – and my own need to rebuild my rusty outdoor grille – it is a chance to write and write.
As I’ll be busy doing that, here’s a much longer update to the story. Sit down with some coffee in the morning or a drink in the evening and look over the shoulders of President Dysart and Empress Faustina as they have their first, real, diplomatic exchange. And it ends up being a doozy. Hope to have more late Monday!
That meeting has lasted another two hours and went off in several military and political directions. At its close, Dysart went to the offices set aside for him to contact his close associates in Mobile and Gulfport, both.
With everything copied to his own man in IT, the President wrote to the Secretary of Defense and then the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Stewart, currently in Gulfport, to monitor their actions against New Orleans closer at hand. He didn’t particularly think they would have anything to directly contribute but after the unexpected series of revelations from Captain Alene, who knew what intel those two men might be sitting on?
In the dark outside of his window, he could hear the rumble of engines and the occasional squeal of tracks on paved road. She looked cute. Is that a part of what she is: to fool us? Every now and then she would act as if she read my mind. Or would say something which sounded wrong to my ears. Because she’s not… human? There was a tap at the door.
“It’s one o’clock, sir,” his chief aide, Simmons, noted, a folded blanked over his left forearm. “You did tell me once to always recommend you sleep…”
“Yes, yes. And thank you for listening to me!” Dysart heaved a great sigh. “I will need some sleep if I’m to face that… thing.”
“Nothing,” he said, stripping out of his suit and making for the tiny bed along the wall. “Have these at least pressed for tomor- for later this morning. And get me up at four.”
Simmons waited in the doorway until his boss’s six-foot-two, fit frame was settled before putting the old army blanket over him. He scooped up the suit and left.
Seated at long picnic tables relocated from somewhere on the base, Dysart drank his coffee as he finished the very short report of what they got from the soldiers opposite them, which was almost nothing. A few giveaways were: “…raised outside of Knoxville…” and “…the Empress says…” and, more ominously, “…lookin’ forward to my patch of land after all this!”
Even under his greatcoat over his suit, the President of the Gulf Shore States shuddered. Listening to Captain Alene over a sparse breakfast at six, he’d learned that Roman legionaries were settled on conquered land. Is that what she wanted, here? He noted that tramp of boots to the west and looked up from his reports.
About the same number as yesterday evening, their ranks split as General Hartmann stepped out. Dysart watched her raise field glasses to her eyes… were they fake, too?… to survey what lay ahead: him, four aides, and a bodyguard of ten. He saw her turn about and call something before one man came to her side and ten soldiers fell in behind her. Right before they arrived at the shade of the gate’s large wooden cover, Dysart glanced at his watch. 1059. At least she’s punctual. He stood and walked to where she had stopped. His hand stayed at his side.
“You lied to me,” he began with a rumble. “That is certainly impolitic.”
“I did not,” her voice and face neutral.
“You said you serve your master, Empress Faustina,” he accused, “who is, in fact, you.”
“Both of those statements are true,” she agreed. “Where is the lie?”
“By omission, Empress Faustina,” he said snidely.
“Telling the complete truth in diplomatic talks is a recipe for war, Mister President. And I was sincere when General Hartmann told you that I desire peace.”
“What are you, bi-polar?” his tone had his men slowly stand, sensing a threat. “Hartmann yesterday; Faustina today. Who in Christ’s name will I be talking to tomorrow!”
“I hope one of us,” she finally ventured a very small smile. “I am older that jaw-jaw is better than war-war.”
‘I am older…’ one of her odd phrases, again!
“I have heard something else about you, Faustina Hartmann,” he deliberately omitted any and all of her titles. “You are not human.”
For ten long seconds, the little smile never changed. He did not understand why but had the distinct impression she was laughing at him.
“That is correct. I am demi-human,” she agreed. “But that means I still need to eat! You did invite me to brunch and I quite deliberately skipped breakfast in anticipation of your Southern hospitality!”
“Why, young miss,” Dysart said to depreciate her rank, and finally putting his hand out, “I hope to surprise you! Have you had grits before?”
“Yes!” she took his hand and held it until his photographers had what they wanted. “My legionaries like it with honey! A treat before a fifty-mile march!”
And she still lies to me about their transport, he thought, indicating a place on a bench in the middle of the long side of a table. Dysart moved directly opposite her before sitting down. While platters were brought out, the rest of their entourages settled themselves as best they could. He was about to reach for some food when he saw her staring at him.
“Yes?” he asked.
He watched her smile turn wry as she closed her eyes and pressed her palms together before her. Putting him in the wrong, again.
“Jesus,” Dysart clasped his hands before him, “thank you for this meal and please let it warm our bellies as you warm our hearts between our two nations. Amen!”
His amen was echoed by all, even the young woman opposite him. But she quickly moved her hands apart and slapped them back together with an odd cry.
The man to her right, with some badge of rank Dysart did not recognize, suppressed a laugh as they all grabbed at a platter. Dysart watched carefully what she took: one piece of chicken fried steak, grits – she plopped a spoonful of honey in the middle – and some green beans. Does she – it – really eat?
“Yeth, I do,” she rudely said around the grits she had shoveled into her mouth.
“So… demi-humans read minds?” Dysart tried to ask lightly, fearing he could lose his country this cold morning.
“No,” she said, wiping her mouth and taking a sip of tea with a grimace.
“Not one for sweet tea? Y’all’s will never make it in the South,” he pushed.
“My legionaries by and large do; I just don’t have a taste for it,” she corrected.
“We have some peach juice or wine…?” Dysart offered.
“Peach juice, thank you. I hate alcohol.”
“Is that so?” he took time to cut some of his peppercorn pork. “Allergic?”
“An allergy is the body’s false-positive to something in the environment, thank you,” she explained, the last to a soldier who set down a glass and small beaker of juice. “What few I had as a child I have re-coded out of myself. No: alcohol messes up my lines.”
Dysart had no real idea what that meant, so thought to move their discussion to the matters at hand.
“Per what you said yesterday, about all the players around a table…” he began.
“A table at which we are sharing a meal. As civilized people. The remnant of the Western Civilization that was once part of the dead United States,” the girl managed while swallowing some meat. “We will talk politics after. May we keep things personal until then, please? Here: I’ll go first: I’m eighteen years old and plan to rule the North American continent until I transcend human form and become a goddess! I have a big and little brother and an ever-increasing number of meatspace relatives!”
At the cough next to her, bringing some of the sweet tea out of his nose, she paused and gestured with both hands.
“This is senior centurion Chesney, First Legion, sixth cohort!” she now laughed while he tried to wipe his nose and mouth and stand to give a bow to the GSS President at the same time. “He’s very clever, for a human, and amuses me!”
Dysart noted that everyone within earshot had stopped moving. That was deliberate: to claim you want us at ease then to suddenly tell us things that are just not possible nor make any sense! It fanned the ember of anger in him. Time to redirect that anger.
“Mister, forgive me if I do not get your rank correct, Chesney, was it? How long have you been with General Hartmann, here?” he asked while picking up his glass of tea.
“Almost since the beginning, Mister President,” the man said with a sidelong glance to his commander. “All courts need a jester and it would appear that role has fallen to me.”
“As if my family doesn’t!” Hartmann muttered.
“I thought,” Dysart mused, “that court jesters were to tell the king, or empress, unpalatable truths.”
“True,” Chesney paused the fork before his mouth, “but none of us lie to our commander. Think instead that I provide her a side of humanity she is currently blind to.”
The President was very interested to see Hartmann draw back and look as if her subordinate slapped her. He was just as interested that, rather than lashing out verbally or physically, she seemed to take his words to heart. What was that phrase she used? …made me older…
Brunch seemed over so they waited while the plates were cleared away. The tea and juice remained. Even with the sun high in the sky, a cold breeze from the north made Dysart shudder.
“Maunder Minimum,” Hartmann said. At the look in his eyes she went on. “Solar activity began to decline just before the Breakup and continues to. We are on the cusp of at least a little ice age if not a full-blown one. The Canadians will be relocating south, putting population pressure on all of the South. This will be a replay of the barbarian migrations of the late fourth and early fifth centuries, A.D. There will be much chaos and many lives lost unless I can control the situation.”
“Which makes you, Empress Faustina, one of the principals here for today’s meeting,” Dysart said, moving the business on. “The others are Knoxville, Texas, and Louisiana. Did I miss any?”
“None germane to this meeting, Mister President,” she agreed. “Will one of yours be taking minutes? I have perfect recall but would like a copy for our files.”
“Yes, someone shall. I’ll let you review and sign off on it once we are finished. Now, point one: you and your army.”
“As alluded to yesterday,” the girl jumped right in, “are here to understand why the satellite of our commercial partner is having their shipping pirated.”
That provocative word triggered grumbles from his men.
“Louisiana, and let us speak frankly to one another, is too small to exist on its own,” Dysart began, looking around to quell his men. “Unlike vast Texas, they are oriented toward the sea and would thus be a natural fit with our country.”
“I agree,” the little commander said to his surprise. “But why not negotiate that rather than hitting them with a hammer and hoping they come ‘round to see you as a friend and ally?”
“Are you speaking as Empress or General?” he asked.
“This is politics. I am Empress.”
“So you concede Louisiana is best a part of the Gulf Shore States?”
“I concede nothing, human,” Faustina gave a disturbing smile. “I agree they are a better fit with your country than with the Republic of Texas. It is obvious you and they speak: witness your riverboats up the Mississippi.”
“So,” Dysart said carefully, “you would not object to Louisiana’s… reorientation?”
He understood where this was going.
“In exchange for… an accommodation between my country and yours?” he went on.
“Well then! I’m sure a financial reward – ” He realized his mistake as her officer, Chesney, suddenly turned his head away.
“You will personally swear an oath of fealty to me and mine,” he tone, like her smile, was inhuman. “You will sign a treaty that the Gulf Shore States are self-governed vassals of my imperium. You will disband your army. My legions will suffice for defense.”
Some of his men stood at this outrage. Dysart did not move.
“I think,” he said carefully, placing his hands on the worn and splintery table, “this is a good place to pause. Shall we continue at, say, three o’clock?”
“I agree,” she said, standing. Neither extended a hand. After extricating themselves from the bench, the girl spoke again. “Before that, Mister President, please contact your refinery in Pascagoula.”
“What do you mean by that?” he demanded.
“Nothing. Nothing at all.” Her smile never changed. “Thank you for brunch, President Dysart.”
He stood still as she and her entourage departed. Only when they were out of audible range did he turn and walk quickly to his transport.