I particularly enjoyed Faustina’s non-denial denial of what happened to the refinery. And how she uses Alene as a conduit to let Dysart know she is sincere. As readers, we know, via Thaad, the hole she dug for herself and her army. The GSS President doesn’t know that. He only knows this freak led 10,000 soldiers into his backyard. I find their jockying for position to be very interesting!
“What do you mean, “down”,” he yelled into the old land-line phone to the general manager of the refinery, once back to the meeting room.
“It’s just that, sir,” the old man replied. “Our tech guys think it’s some kinda virus in the PLCs that may have spread – ”
“Can you fix it?” Dysart shouted.
“Not… not anytime soon, sir,” came the apology. “And if we’re offline too long, getting a refinery back up is, as you know, a bear.”
“How long before that happens?”
“Three, maybe four o’clock if we can hold it together with men on the manual pumps and valves. That’s dangerous work, though, sir.”
“Do what you can and keep me informed. Thanks.”
President Dysart slammed the phone down hard enough to partially crack the aged plastic.
“Mister President?” General Brant asked.
“That damned witch has hacked into the refinery! Undoubtedly to make a point! That she can!” he continued to shout.
“Sir, if we lose the refinery… it’s not a matter of fuel for the army so much as – ” Brant began.
“Yes, yes. Our two oil-fired power plants. Without those we’re back to the age of sail, and New Orleans will be dictating terms to us,” Dysart agreed. “Dammit! Why did this have to happen now?!”
“You! Alene!” The captain froze as he was walking quickly through the open door. “It seems this crazy girl can attack networks… what are your ‘speculations’ about that!”
“They are this, Mister President,” he replied softly, standing just behind his chair, “that about twenty years ago in Knoxville, there was some altercation with one of the AI originally from Japan. That altercation produced a few dozen children whose brains had been modified somehow.”
“Somehow. What does that mean, exactly?”
“I don’t know, exactly, sir,” Alene admitted. “From what I have heard they think a little differently than most people. Some of them can see into something like the internet without a computer. If I may, about three years ago there was a young man who was a part of either an exploration mission or just some thrill-seeking kids, who brought a sailboat from Savannah all the way around Florida and into Mobile Bay. They were questioned by the port police but not detained. The young man seemed to have a surprising grasp of the immediate news and situation in Mobile.”
“So,” Dysart considered that, “if some can listen, it might be that there are some who can send signals as well. Okay. Let’s get the rest of the staff in here so I can bring everyone up to speed: we’ve been issued an ultimatum and I need an answer by three o’clock.”
Not sure how the next meeting would play out, Dysart had it radioed to his men at the northwest gate to move the tables to the base side of the covered area. No reason to act friendly this time. It was also decided to put the base on a war footing in case of a complete collapse of talks. Not knowing the opposing force’s anti-air capability, some drones were lofted rather than helicopters to get a better understanding of their positions. General Brant had a simple, flexible plan to hold with his left and hit with his right, to try to roll up the legionaries from east to west, if they came to blows.
I honestly hope it does not. Everything here is so fragile! Dysart was starting his third page of handwritten notes about possible negotiation points and positions. He glanced at his watch. Damn. Time to go.
He had ordered Captain Alene to accompany him this time. The officer had first demurred, thinking his anonymity more important at this moment. Then, after looking through notes in a folder of his, he changed his mind. More and more clouds were scudding across the sky from south to north as his little force came once again to Camp Shelby’s covered gatehouse. The rain would probably start in about an hour. An omen? For who?
This time, it was two fifty-five when he made out the group coming down the road. Dysart spent more time studying them through his field glasses, this time wondering if those small drones on their side were for communication. He spoke softly to the Major in charge, telling him to make knocking them down a priority in case of immediate hostilities.
“What do you think?” Dysart asked Alene, at his left.
“My opinion, sir?” he ventured. “She keeps her own counsel and has a peculiar sense of humor. Please keep those points in mind as you speak.”
The President was a bit taken aback at such a direct answer but grunted in agreement. Seeing the girl at the head of her little column he walked to the far edge of the gatehouse cover and waited. He again spoke first when she and her ten – no Centurion Chesney this time – stopped fifteen feet away.
“And who am I talking to now?” Dysart demanded.
“Empress Faustina,” was her neutral reply.
“You have attacked my country: an act of industrial sabotage,” he accused. “Are we at war?”
“In reverse order: no and we have not,” she said.
“So you calling out our refinery at the end of our last meeting, only to have me find out it is in disarray,” sense of humor, he recalled, “was just some elaborate joke? I cannot say I see the humor in the crippling of our economy!”
“I hear,” she lifted her left index finger to the side of her head, “news from all over. It seemed something that you should know.”
“So you are denying you sabotaged the refinery?” Dysart said, voice tightly under control.
“Sure.” She lowered her hand. “Do you need help fixing it?”
“I assure you, Miss Faustina,” he insulted her, “we have things under control.”
“That’s not what I see,” she was just a little quieter as they saw her pupils dilate and become surrounded by a fiery turquoise ring. “In fact, one of the minor subsystems just failed and a man is badly injured. Ah…. ahhmmm… fixxxing… it-t-t… n-now!”
No one moved until she shut her eyes and took a deep breath. Opening them, they seemed… human… again.
“President Dysart? Please return to your communications Hummer and check in with the refinery’s manager,” the girl said, waving over his shoulder with her right hand. “While you are briefly occupied at that, leave me Captain Alene. I would care to speak to him.”
Conflicted and curious, Dysart finally turned without a word.
“You know my name, Empress Faustina?” Alene asked softly.
“As you have guessed, we know all of you that is in your military records, Captain,” the empress elaborated, “and find you an intelligent and subtle man. You would be an adornment to our imperium.”
“Odd that you are first-person with my President,” he said, ignoring her offer, “and third-person with me. My rank?”
“Of course! President Dysart is sovereign here and we address him so. We mean no disrespect: this is protocol.”
“None taken, empress,” he glanced over his shoulder at hearing his commander-in-chief get out of the Hummer. “Out of morbid curiosity: did you sabotage the refinery?”
“Please! We let ourselves in yesterday for a look around,” she said with a flicker of a smile. “Such a confusing place! Perhaps I brushed something with the hem of my jacket while there?”
Her smile evaporated as President Dysart returned to his place.
“Word is everything is back to normal now,” he growled. “Your doing?”
“Yes. You are welcome.”
He ignored that, too.
“So. Onto your unreasonable demands – ” Dysart began.
“We are to remain standing?” they saw her roll her eyes heavenward. “Whatever did become of Southern hospitality?”
“It is offered to those who are hospitable!” he answered.
“And now, President Dysart,” her eyes came down and fixed onto his, “you know how the government of Louisiana felt at your ultimatum! Uncomfortable to be on the business-end of the spear, is it not?”
There was a long roll of thunder from the south but as yet no rain.
“So,” Dysart began carefully, “if we withdraw all claims on Louisiana and take a purely diplomatic approach, then, what you demanded this morning can also be negotiated?”
“Precisely, President Dysart!” she allowed a smile now. “Your timing of the entire affair has been rather poor! Had you worked out a treaty with Louisiana, recognized by Texas of course, you might not have come to my attention for months; perhaps a year! But: here I am!”
“And,” she continued before he could address her ‘poor timing’ accusation, “I am in a much better mood that you will talk your way to an accommodation with the statelet of Baton Rouge-New Orleans! To wit: the incorporation of the Gulf Shore States into the imperium is tabled. I recognize the GSS as a Friend and Ally. However, with one exception, the GSS authority ends thirty miles from the water’s edge. That exception is here: Camp Shelby. You may hold and administer the wedge defined by the road and rail lines needed to supply this base. Further, a cohort of the imperial army will be permanently stationed here to cross-train both of our men in different forms of war-fighting.”
Dysart understood her walk-back of her earlier completely unreasonable demands. But: thirty miles?
“Thirty miles, Mister President. And tell General Brant that his roundhouse right against us would not have worked,” she taunted with her mind-reading.
His scowl returned.
“Mister President? I have the impatience of youth and would see this mess resolved today,” she said as a light rain began. “It is nearly sixteen hundred, eight more hours to midnight. Can we not strike a bargain in that time?”
President Dysart knew the final decision was up to him. He also knew that to make it alone could alienate his governing faction.
“Is there a way to get a-hold of you at short notice?” he asked her. “I’m sure you’d rather not wait on our base.”
“Not yet. I am looking forward to soaking my worn feet in the Gulf, though! You can reach me at,” she called out an FM frequency. “We’ll be listening.”
Dysart nodded. Right before turning, he forced himself to extend his hand.
“You prayed at brunch yesterday, Empress Faustina. Try praying for peace today.”
“I shall, Mister President.”
He turned and heard Alene fall in next to him. For once not hearing the girl’s boots, he glanced back. She stood in the same spot, increasingly drenched by the rain. Seemingly waiting for him.