Robert and his scrounger colleague, Jim Rockford, continue their walk about the small town. On the porch outside of the Bluegrass History Museum, they meet an old fellow in a mood to talk. Cigars and whiskey always make things better!
Coming back to Main Street, now with the County Building just north of them, as they had heard nothing from their radios, the pair turned south, following signs to a local history museum just a few blocks south. It wasn’t that either was particularly interested in the city’s history, but anyone working there should have knowledge of local goings-on.
A large older home, late 19th century, painted white with slate trim, stood on their left. Walking up the front steps, a man with thinning white hair wearing a somewhat threadbare suit sat in a rocking chair on the front porch. It cheered Robert to see him smoking a cigar.
“Mind if I join you?” he asked, pulling one of his own out of his uniform jacket pocket.
“Not at all, sonny! Look at you boys! Legionaries all the ways up in these parts!” the gentleman laughed. “Ain’t seen the like in a year, I think!”
Rockford wasn’t a smoker. Since that had opened the conversation, he moved to a corner of the porch to observe.
“I certainly hope that Kentucky hasn’t resented any of our help,” Robert began after snipping the cigar’s end and lighting it as he took the other rocking chair. “We have been friends for a generation, now.”
“That’s true, that’s true!” the old man laughed again. “Y’all’s help’s been welcome. Just as much as leavin’ us to our owns!”
Robert knew that besides some tariffs on goods coming into and leaving the imperium, no taxes were levied on the political entity which was once the State of Kentucky. It was not his mother’s policy to antagonize anyone to the point where a campaign and occupation might be necessary.
“By the way,” he said, leaning forward with his right hand out, “I’m Bob Hardt. That’s Jimmy Rockford. We and our little team are just here for the day, but our centurion is talking to your sheriff, so we thought to look around.”
“Centurion.” The man took a great drag and blew gray smoke out at the museum’s front yard. “Cain’t say I’s used to y’alls ranks and all. Truth be told, cain’t say I get America having an empress in it. Oh. And I’m Tom Webb. Pleased to meetcha!”
“At your age, sir,” Rockford contributed, “you survived the Breakup. And that means you must recall the chaos which preceded it. The empress and her legions will never let that happen again.”
“I do, I do,” he said with a tiny hand motion of surrender. “But I’m an old man and stuck in the past. I get the US ain’t comin’ back and that’s fine. But some of the other thangs that get told in these parts, well…”
“Such as, Mister Webb?” Robert prompted.
“That thar empress of yours,” he said, flicking ashes over the railing, “word is she’s not quite, well, like us.”
“Correct, sir,” her son answered. “Her brain and nervous system have been changed, improved, by some of the thinking machines and also by herself.”
“Didn’t mean nothin’ by it!” Webb smiled. “In fact, what few pitchers I’ve seen of her, she’s a cute little thing! Hard to cotton a girl like her rulin’ like a queen!”
You have no idea.
“Were there any other things about the empire,” now Rockford used the simpler word, “that you heard told here?”
“Now this one I didn’t believe!” Webb leaned forward. “Some kids who went south with a caravan to Knoxville came back with stories about flying saucers and space ships! Hell! When they was born we was lucky to have food enough to eat! Empress of not, cain’t see you’uns being that better off!”
“Well now, Mister Webb – ” Robert began.
“And you boys just call me Tom!”
“Tom. I’m just a kid you just met, so I don’t expect you to take my word for it, but those other kids, from that caravan, were right. There are three nations on Earth with what are called reactionless motors and the empire is one of them.”
Robert leaned in just a little and lowered his voice.
“The imperium is not just south of you. We are on the Moon and Mars, too, Tom.” He leaned back out.
Not demi-human but conditioned by his siblings who were to read faces, Robert could see the two thoughts in Tom Webb’s mind: is this kid bullshitting me or have things changed so much?
“Well, now,” Webb began carefully. “That thar sounds like quite the story, young Mister Hardt.”
“Bob, please, Tom. If you don’t mind me asking, would you care for a whiskey with our cigars? It’s kind of a tradition back home to offer a drink to new friends.”
“That’s right Christian of you! I can – ”
“That’s fine, Tom. Jim?” Robert made a motion with his head north along the street. His fellow ranker was on his feet and running without a word.
“Jimmy will be back in just a moment,” Robert explained. “That’s his penalty for not having the good sense to appreciate a fine cigar!”
Webb laughed a bit before letting his eyes examine the legionary uniform the lad in front of him wore.
“I don’t know nothing about y’alls army, but seems to me you have no rank. Yous just a private, Bob?” he asked.
“Pretty much fresh out of Basic and my skill training, Tom, so yes. Just recently we’ve started using some of the old words, so you would call me and Jimmy hastati. Just like a private.” He watched the older man mouth the new word. “We’re just here on a scouting mission to make sure everything’s okay in your homeland. But, if you want that word, that makes us speculatores.”
Tom shook his head at the other new word.
“How old are you, Bob?” he asked instead.
“Seventeen,” he replied, seeing Rockford’s running form in the distance.
“Huh,” Tom said around his cigar. “Seems yous pretty smart for seventeen.”
“All legionaries,” Rockford said, taking the six steps in two bounds as he swung his small rucksack off his shoulders, “are expected to do their mental and physical best for the Empress. Those who still want to serve but cannot maintain that standard are our non-combatants.”
From the bag, he produced three glasses and an unopened bottle of Brazos Whiskey.