“How do you hurt a man with nothing? Give him back something broken.”

Part One of Goddess’ Crusade MS is complete. A hectic excerpt below. Part two is one chapter complete and another started. I’m… thinking about things. For 2.5 books of this soon to be published work, the camera has been fixed on Faustina. Sure, that includes interaction with her army, family, adversaries, and brief lover, but still her.

I’m not sure what to think of this idea, but as Pope Pius XIII said: “absence is presence.” That, coupled with the title of this post, is how I am carefully approaching Part Two. So carefully that I think there might be a Part Three and that “GC” will NOT be ready by 31 December 2020. *sigh*

Faustina made a great shrug of her shoulders at the start of her second 24-hour day, aware one of her little observation drone-copters was just shotgunned out of the sky some miles to the east.  No matter:  what her ears could not hear her feet could feel.

“General?” the aide asked, now just feeling nervous for no perceptible reason.

“Subsonics,” she explained.  “There are tanks headed across the river toward us.”

The man shuddered while she raised her fists to the quickening sky.

“Today, I am the Change!” she said to no one in particular.  “Get word to my legates:  we’re pulling back.  I cannot see to the south yet… anything from Connor’s cav scouts?”

“Nothing yet… wait!” one of hers paused, tilting his head to listen closer to his headphone.  His face lost some color, Faustina saw.  “Estimated eighty to one hundred armored vehicles have crossed the river and are driving west toward Crawford.”

Protected by Reina, she was not able to speak directly to Peterman but did tell some of his men to tell him to get Fifth Legion moving north, right damn now!  With a last ‘look’ around, Faustina returned to meatspace and indicated for the comm equipment to be broken down; it was time for them to move, too.

Trotting north, she noted that the area, while flat, was fairly heavily wooded and cut here and there by shallow streams.  Much like her boys’ native land around Knoxville, it was perfect terrain for her legions.  A call and counter call from just ahead halted them.  One of the centuries from Tapscott’s dispersed command had been busy sowing mines and was now camouflaging their work before withdrawing.  Faustina understood the danger of a controlled retreat, especially with her units so close to one another, but had faith in their training and experience.

Riders caught up with her and told of what looked like three infantry regiments coming northwest from the Benning area.  On the enemy’s left was, for lack of a better term, an armored brigade, already passing through where Peterman had held Crawford.  It was his withdrawal which troubled Faustina most:  not only the furthest but in the face of their foe’s striking arm.  As the overgrown two-lane road they had been following bent east, she turned left onto what was little more than a trail.  The two riders were told to wait at that little crossroads to direct the next messengers in the correct direction.

Now well into morning, Faustina’s eyes and ears detected movement to her little group’s left.  She waved everyone to a crouch and waited.  While down, she dropped her head to the ground for just a moment to listen:  subsonics.  They were still coming.

Another call and counter and a suppressed sigh of relief:  the unit they just met was a century from eighth cohort of Fifth Legion.  Announcing herself, Faustina got an idea where Peterman might be and continued through the woods in an easterly direction.  A sudden increase in horse traffic was her clue she had found her legate.  Rather than bursting upon them and screwing things up, Faustina stood a few yards away, behind some fragrant pines, and watched and listened:  as his command reformed around him he was about to pull his entire legion to the northwest, away from the rest of the army, potentially unmasking the imperial army’s right.  But in fact unmasking something else, entirely!

“Things sound fine here, Peterman,” Faustina said without preamble, walking up to him.  “You understand why I must stay with the core of my army?”

“Of course, General,” he replied.  “The men are a bit tired for the dozen miles they just quick-marched, but this next evolution will give them a few moments to rest before the next phase.”

“Glad to hear you’re looking ahead, legate,” she smiled at him, “’cause if my opposite number, one General Braddock, comes charging in, I’m going to need my boys under your command to come running!”

“Braddock?  Got a name did you?” Peterman asked, beckoning a just-dismounted rider forward as he did.  “Any help?”

“Yes and yes,” his general replied, not needing to let him know why to either.  “I need to move fast, now.  Are there some spare horses for me and three of mine?”

While her legate quickly got that sorted, Faustina told her staff where she was going next and where she expected to find them immediately after.  “And the comm gear will be ready to go!  Things are going to be very interesting in less than an hour!”

The rumble to the south had developed into the squeal and clank of treads, joined by intermittent shelling, with one shell shrieking over their heads as she galloped in the same direction.  At a low rise, no more than a mile on she found Eigen in the front rank of his special command.  Men with several different kinds of tubes on their shoulders stretched off to her left and right.

“Anything I need to know?” she yelled down from her saddle.

“Nope,” he called back calmly.  “Sound like the party’s about to start.”

His sudden levity surprised her.

“Fifth is moving out of the way, well, now,” she agreed.  “This is your moment… all of my boys!  Code Tiger!”

“Tiger!” all who heard her shouted back.  ‘God bless us; there’s none like us.’  Faustina galloped east, just skirting Gibson’s right, where legionaries were furiously digging in.  A mile and a half later, behind an arc described by, east to west, Second, Third, and First, she slid off her shuddering horse, looked at the wifi router, and took the battle to her enemy.

Every single drone she had was in the air.  Her small set of artillery was lobbing a few perfunctory shells ahead of the rolling armor as it skirted the east edge of Opelika.  Listening in on her legates and some of her Senior Centurions had her confident in their line.  When she ‘saw’ the first flight of anti-armor Javelin missiles jump into the sky, followed moments later by the tops of a half-dozen Bradley’s blowing up, she spoke to her cousin.

“Reina?” Faustina asked.

“Human?  It looks to me as if you are about to lose.”

“What you know of battle could fit in one of your crystal glasses in Kuban’s, cousin,” Faustina deliberately snarked at her.  “Speaking of crystals, I have a surprise for you!”

“It takes much to surprise me, human,” Reina said, not happy at being criticized.

“With another stipulation, I agree to your codicil,” Faustina thought clearly, looking closer at her right as AT4’s were now pounding the armored cars still trying to penetrate and turn her line.

“Stipulation?”

“When the time comes, Alexandra must see what I see.  Possible?”

“Human.  Please.  All things are possible to me.”

In the Void, Faustina beheld that odd, metallic egg with its fractal nightmare bands wrapped around it.  In an instant those bands were all about her, seething in patterns that made her mind hurt to even perceive them.  Fortunately, Reina’s defense seemed up to the task.

“You said face-to-face, cousin,” she thought.

“So I did!”

Alexandra was slumped against a crystal tree in her construct of the Knoxville Zoo, her hazel eyes open but seeing nothing.

“Why are you doing this?” the older girl cried softly.  “Why not leave me alone?”

“I seem to recall you trying to kill me.  Twice.  Asking to be let alone now is arrogance even I haven’t dreamt of!” Faustina nearly shouted before getting herself under control.  “Please stop this:  this battle.”

“Uncle Braddock says we outnumber you… you have no tanks…” Alexandra mumbled.  Uncle?  “He told me he could ‘roll you up,’ whatever that means.”

Knowing she was pushing her physical design limits, Faustina looked out through her drones to her right.  The armored brigade’s punch was not only blunted but retreating.  Of new concern were the 105mm shells coming onto her main front as the enemy motorized infantry closed in on her position.  She was only vaguely aware of her body being thrown into a trench or foxhole… is someone laying on me?

“I have defeated your uncle’s plan,” Faustina said to her opposite, using the odd familiar she had, “and am winning.  By nightfall, my men will be in Fort Benning.  I will watch as we pull you out of the sensorium; you will watch as we break it to pieces.”

Alexandra’s eyes suddenly focused.  She drew her lips back in fear and hate.

“You don’t dare!” she hissed.  “This is all I have left!  My torture was too great!  You take me out and I die!  You said you wanted me to live!  All of you are liars!  All of you!”

Not from the distressed girl – Reina’s protection was too good – but from somewhere else, Faustina knew that her body was under extreme duress.  Once again she had a corner of her mind wander out…  fantastic:  I’ve been hit by shrapnel.

“Don’t… don’t care if you fill me with Ringer’s and epi!” she spat a little blood onto the medic half on top of her stabbing something into a vein, “but keep me alive and conscious for another ten minutes!  Empress’ order!”

With a blink, she was back into the crystal construct.  And was shocked to see Reina squatting down next to Alexandra, who was spastically trying to scoot away from the Machine.

“Leave me alone!  Leave me alone!” the demi-human cried.

“Reina?” Faustina asked carefully, understanding the danger.

“This human is correct:  she will die if disconnected,” she chuckled as she stood.  “In some ways, she is already dead.  Shall I terminate it?”

“Do not.”

Reina shrugged and turned about.

“You are dying, too,” she announced.  “That will ruin my plans as your political successors will not consider themselves bound by our agreements.  Prepare yourself.”

As the first among equals of tribe Mendrovovitch took a step toward her, Faustina took a step back on the smooth obsidian path.

“Tell your humans what is coming,” Reina continued her steps, raising her right hand to Faustina’s head.  “Quickly.”

Her flesh in agony, she couldn’t see but smelled smoke and blood all around her.  “Who’s there?” she managed to croak out.

“I’m here, General, Poul,” he closest aide.  “Please be still!  You are badly – !”

“I know what I am!  Shut up and listen!” She had to turn her head to spit blood out twice as she dictated a short series of orders for the battle at hand, its aftermath, and the militias scattered hundreds of miles around.  “I will be back in touch via radio or the Void!  I’ve got – ”

She convulsed and stood still as Reina’s hand settled onto her forehead, fingers resting on her skull.  Crystals cried about them.

“You are enjoying yourself, cousin,” Faustina smiled at Reina, recalling her legate Owens.

“So it seems.”  Her fingers sank through flesh and bone.  Faustina felt as if her soul was being torn out of her.

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