This is a little longer, too, but there was no good place to break it up. Just think of it as a nice read to distract you from all of the stupidity in the news. Which is mostly propaganda, anyway.
Having made her point and walked-back her over-the-top demands, Faustina gives Dysart time to reach out to the main players in his coalition government. No one, not even Faustina, I think, sees this as a long-term treaty, but it is a start… a peaceable start.
Looks like we get another “beach episode” in the next scene!
Back inside their transport, Dysart immediately asked the intelligence captain what he thought.
“She has some ability to read electronic records, no doubt,” he began, “so please assume any email or phone call is being monitored.”
“Wonderful,” Dysart muttered. “Our IT guys not up to the task?”
“Safest to assume they are not, sir.”
“She’s not reading minds – ”
“But, much like a card shark, she is paying extraordinary attention to our bodies, especially our faces,” the captain explained. “And before you ask, sir, no: just keeping a neutral expression won’t work. I suspect, Mister President, that whatever has been done to her makes this as natural as breathing. Lying to her will be impossible.”
“Unless we hold all future meetings in the dark!” Dysart joked.
“She likely could pick up enough from your voice to do the same thing, sir.”
“Jesus H! Is there any good news you can give me, Captain?”
“I… I think she genuinely desires peace, Mister President,” Alene allowed. “But in the long run? She wants peace and empire.”
“Damn,” his boss breathed.
Back at the command post in the main office, Dysart first spoke to General Brant that Faustina was aware of his plan but that her comment on it could be a bluff. He next used a radiotelephone to talk first with Admiral Stewart then later to the Secretary of State – and the number two in their governing faction – in Mobile. During both conversations Dysart imagined that girl was in the room, listening.
“I’d say,” the Secretary observed in a slow drawl, “that gal has us by the balls with the refinery. Until we can get a tight lockdown on those computers, I think we’re gonna have to roll with her proposal, John. Cain’t say I’m happy about the ‘thirty mile’ thing, but we’ve looked south, not north, since we got back on our feets, right?”
“That’s was what Stewart said, too,” Dysart sighed. Half a loaf and all that… “I’ll get back to her in an hour and get this hammered out. You’ll get a copy via fax or email as soon as possible, Jerry.”
“’Preciate you keepin’ me in the loop, John,” the Secretary said. “Oh! If y’all can, take some pics. I’d love to see what this army and their little empress looks like!”
“Can do. Dysart out.”
The President leaned back in his chair and relaxed for the first time in over an hour. I can’t say I’ve saved my country but I have bought us time. And that is something. He stood and called for his aide Simmons as well as Brant. A message was sent on the frequency they had been given to the opposing forces and their commander indicating tentative agreement and a request to meet at nine PM. The acknowledgment was immediate.
“How do you think we should proceed, Robbie?” The President asked his General. “Low-key or put on a show?”
There was a flicker of lightning and the patter of rain on the windows.
“Given the weather? I don’t think the tuba players would like their instruments to fill up with water, but I think a little flourish is in order. Especially if this is going to be recorded for distribution and history, Mister President,” Brant replied. “I’ll get together an honor guard and make sure my communications people have the lights and cameras they need.”
“What are your thoughts, Alene? You’re the one I’m paying to get into this girl’s head, after all!” Dysart asked.
“I think,” he said in his careful voice, “that Faustina Hartmann, while thinking highly of herself, is a surprisingly informal individual. Consider her uniform: no indication of rank or badges of merit, beyond that small gold circlet. You’d have thought her a cook if not introduced. So long as nothing challenges what she sees as her ‘specialness,’ I think she will be amiable to some ceremony.”
Dysart glanced at his watch.
“Right. We’ve got three hours. Let’s get this done.”
Having received word from the gatehouse that the imperial contingent was there thirty minutes early, Dysart’s first thought was to depart immediately in case there was any stupidity from either side. However, after a moment’s reflection, he realized that was not only beneath his station but also a slight against the professionalism of his new army. He returned to the pile of papers that was the lifeblood of any government, only looking back up when Simmons tapped at the door.
The rain was much lighter on the short drive west. The tables had been moved to the north side and held a smattering of food and drink for later. A small band stood to the south. The girl with ten retainers – wearing the same nondescript uniform; was Alene correct? – who were gathered around her, laughed at some joke. She seemed, just for that moment, normal to his eyes. I know better, now.
Besides the armed Hummers further back in the dark and rain, Dysart’s only immediate companions were Alene at his right and Simmons on his left. The bandsmen and culinary staff all had sidearms, not that he expected such action. The three walked quickly to the center of the wooden shelter, just to the south side of the gatehouse proper. The girl moved by herself to meet him. The small band began to play and the two camera crews started filming.
Just shy of him, she stopped and raised her arm in what he now understood to be their salute. As this was a diplomatic and not military event, it came quickly down in her hand out to him.
“President John Dysart!” she called clearly. “Thank you for your wisdom and intelligence in choosing to be a Friend and Ally of the imperium! I pray for peace and prosperity between us!”
“Empress Faustina!” he replied, equally loud, taking her hand and for once feeling the weight of history on him. “It is the pleasure of the Gulf Shore States to enter into this lasting accord with you! I am sure your unique nature will ensure we grow and thrive together, as partners!”
Dysart saw the sparkle in her eyes at his calling out her difference. Thank you, Captain Alene! I’ll make you a Major for that suggestion!
One of her men who had peeled off from their group toward the tables reappeared around the gatehouse carrying a platter with two small glasses. But didn’t she say…?
“My grandfather,” she said, letting go of his hand and reaching for the glasses, “as well as distant cousins of mine, say that any meeting which does not begin with a drink is inherently hostile! This, Mister President, is anything but! A toast to the imperium and to the Gulf Shore States!”
He took a glass from her and they both turned to smile at the cameras for a few moments. He tossed back what was a surprisingly good whiskey, seeing in the corner of his right eye she did as well.
“I thought you hated alcohol,” Dysart muttered through the smile on his face.
“I do. Ceremony is ceremony,” she muttered right back.
The band drew to the end of their song and per orders the cameras were turned off.
“Do you have a copy of the treaty?” Dysart asked, setting the glass back onto the platter. Her man retreated as another stepped to her right and presented her a thick manila envelope. He watched her double-check the wax seal before passing it onto him.
“Just as we discussed earlier,” she said, still smiling from when the cameras were on, “with one minor addition.”
“What minor addition?” he demanded, his hand freezing in the motion to take it.
“Just formalizing what I mentioned: I’d like to soak my sore feet in the Gulf! I’ll be bringing a cohort as a bodyguard, of course!” Her smile got a tiny bit bigger. “If that is okay with you, Mister President? I think the photo ops should be superb!”
Dysart tried to recall how many men were in a cohort…
“Just under five hundred,” she answered his unspoken question. “Is that a problem? I am a unique person, after all!”
He ignored her showing off and continued to think the matter through. Five hundred light infantry could wreak havoc in our towns along the Gulf. Then again, she will not be in contact with the rest of her army, and Brant and his men will be between her and them. And she’s right about the propaganda from this… He completed his motion and took the packet.
“Sound all right to me, Empress Faustina,” he said, first casting a look to the men with the cameras. “Shall we move to the tables to my right for a formal signing?”
That done and recorded, the cameras remained on with the mics off, lurking around the fringes, while both sides picked at the collection of appetizers on the table.
“The closest point to the Gulf is Gulfport, about fifty miles due south,” President Dysart observed around the barbequed chicken wing in his left hand. “Will you call on your transport we assume are somewhere far behind your lines?”
For some reason, she let out her girlish laugh.
“No, that’s fine!” she replied, almost spilling her juice in her mirth. “We’ll walk.”
“Walk?” As that made her five hundred even less of a threat, he had no objections. Still: “shall we make arrangements for one or two stops?”
The laughter stopped but the mirth was still there.
“Unless you’ve allowed the road to fall to pieces, we’ll cover that in one day,” she paused to take a drink. “What? Did you think I was kidding about my feet?”
“To ask that of your men, your legionaries, Empress Faustina, you must inspire great motivation in them,” Alene observed, giving his boss time to process what moving an army fifty miles per day could imply.
“They love me as their empress and respect me as their general,” she agreed, scooping up some cottage cheese with celery and taking a bite. “Ah athk nuthin’ of thum ah cont do myth… myself.”
“If only my boys at home were as motivated,” Dysart ventured, picking up a mug for a thin sip of the local beer.
“Your boys are eleven and thirteen, Mister President,” the empress noted. “At ten my dad had me and my big brother on twelve-mile marches at least twice each week. Do you spoil your boys?”
“Honestly? A little,” he admitted, placing the mug back down. “I lost my first son and feel a little protective of my remaining two.”
They watched her toss her celery off into the bushes and give a curt, formal bow to the President, even with the cameras rolling.
“I am very sorry for your loss, Mister President,” she sounded honestly saddened. “The world is a smaller place without him. May I ask his name?”
“John Junior,” Dysart managed. Why had she stirred all these old memories? “He would have been four years your senior.”
They were surprised when she sniffled and looked north, away from them.
“A perfect marriage alliance, wasted!” they just barely heard her angry whisper. “Why? What are you trying to tell me?”
When she turned back, it was obvious they were done here.
“I and my cohort will be there,” she pointed with her right into the darkness in the direction of where highway former US49 would be, “at first light. If you have an escort for us, fine. If not, that’s fine, too, but we will march. The rest of my army shall draw away from Camp Shelby into a fortified camp a little west of here.”
“I would like,” she spoke to Captain Alene now, “to have some system of fraternization between our forces created while I am away. They will anticipate my return on the fourth day after my departure.”
“Mister President?” she turned back to Dysart with her hand out. “My Friend and Ally? I hope to see you again in Gulfport. Goodnight.”
Quietly with no rush or fanfare, they watched her and her men fade into the blackness in the west. After a minute, Dysart spoke up.
“Right. Let’s get back to the General. Treaty or not, I do not want five hundred armed foreigners marching unescorted through our country! Let’s go!”