My hunch was correct: in eastern Kentucky, especially once you get up into the hills, the population has not really recovered from the Change, so almost no industry or trade. Centurion Panck Hill turns his team of speculatores north. But something seems to be in their way…
In other news, I’ve been approached for a series of book reviews and perhaps another author interview. I find such to be a waste of my time if they focus on me. To paraphrase Pope Pius XIII: “I am nothing; my stories are everything!” However, as Oscar Wilde observed, “the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”
Mount Sterling was only ten miles to the east. Their three trucks rolled into an empty town center before 0800. Five locals just stood and stared. Seeing no reason to linger, Hill alone got out to strike up what conversation he could. Looking out one of the flaps over the back of the second truck, Robert smiled when his CO walked back to their vehicle less than twenty minutes later.
“Just a local farm community,” he said. “They only come into town on Sundays for church and their market. The local strongman seems to be a guy called Partlowe, but he’s on his lands five miles further east. One guy did say something about shrimp farming, but color me doubtful about that in east-central Kentucky!”
“No, sir, that’s true,” Mitch spoke up. “The brand is called Bluegrass Shrimp and I’ve had ‘em. Tasty! Seems they started that up before the Change and were able to stick with it.”
“Okay. My mistake.” The centurion seemed to take the correction in stride. “Per my modified plan, we’ll be turning north and making for Flemingsburg, about an hour for us north of here. That will have Maysville on the Ohio River another twenty miles north. If Flemingsburg is as dead as this place, we might press on to it. Questions?”
With none, he walked back to his lead truck and they moved again. For the first ten miles the land was low rolling hills dotted with farms, most of which seemed to be occupied. Much easier to weather the abrupt transition of nearly fifty years ago from the 21st to 19th century on a rural farm than in a city. Much had improved since then but even Winchester did not seem to have electric power.
The next ten miles saw them gain in elevation a little as the hills about them got a bit taller. There was a sudden deceleration followed by Hill’s voice telling them to pile out. Not knowing the situation, they swung their rifles about on their tactical slings as soon as their boots hit the cracked pavement of the road.
“Stand down, lads,” Hill said just as they were forming a skirmish line. “Non-combat problem: the bridge ahead is out.”
He waved for them to follow him forward. The steel and concrete two-lane bridge which had crossed a tiny river had a section from its center fallen away, too wide for them to bridge with any temporary materials. They watched the centurion pull a map from inside his jacket pocket.
“Dammit. This river,” he pointed with his other hand, “the Licking River, stupid name, wanders everywhere from east to west. It looks like the next bridge isn’t for fifty miles east…”
“Sir?” Robert spoke up. “This land was settled in the late eighteenth century. Paths lead to tracks lead to roads. If there’s a bridge here now, that means there must have been a ford wagons could use, then.”
It was legionary culture, from top to bottom, to always try to think of a better way. As such, rather than upbraiding the young ranker for making him look foolish, Hill merely nodded and walked north again, out onto the broken bridge. The others followed.
“How close do you think that ford would be, Hardt?” he asked, stowing his map and taking out his field glasses. He spoke again as Robert was about to reply. “Never mind. There’s a spit of land and shallow turbulence just seventy-five feet east of us.”
He turned just to his right.
“Looks like a deserted barn and farmhouse, just there,” he pointed again with his left. “Rockford? Get three on you and get down there to make sure it’s clear and find a way through for these trucks. We’ll be following you in just a few minutes. Everyone else, mount up. Hardt? You’re with me.”
“That was good thinking, Bob,” the centurion said as they walked back to the lead truck. Rifles forward, Rockford and his team trotted down the embankment toward the river. “Whoever picked you for intel after Basic had a good eye.”
“Thank you, sir. I think it has to do with moving around a lot as a kid. I had to get used to new places every few years,” Robert replied, pleased to be praised.
“Really? That’s unusual. Was your dad in the legions, too?” Hill asked, genuinely curious, as they climbed into the truck.
Well, shit. Did this to myself.
“No. Dad got his start in Huntsville.” Robert thought quickly, for a human. “He… worked at the reactors there. He was good at it, so often traveled to some of the other fission plants. Just over to Tupelo or even all the way to Oak Ridge.”
“I see,” Hill said in his non-committal tone.
Mitch was waving them forward, past the empty house, through a treeline, and onto the spit of gravel Hill had seen. They halted just at the water’s edge. The scout came to the CO’s side of the truck.
“Water’s not more than ten inches deep, max, right here,” Mitch reported. “Jimmy wanted to press and an see what’s past them trees on the other side.”
“Very good. We’ll wait until he’s back.”
The driver immediately killed the engine to save fuel but Rockford splashed back to them only ten minutes later.
“Looks like what used to be a tiny settlement of maybe a dozen houses and two dozen more buildings, set into the bend of this river,” he said. “Deserted now. I bet when the bridge broke, that must have killed the local economy.”
“Guess they forgot about this ford!” he grinned at Robert.
“Right,” Hill ordered. “You four go on across and make sure it’s secure. We’ll wait five minutes then come up behind you. Is there a road or path past those trees?”
“Kinda, sir. There’s a fallow field for about a hundred feet then a gravel road leading to a busted paved one. I think that’ll take us back left to where we wanna be.”
“Got it.” The team of four crossed and they sat in silence.
“You’ve my complete confidence. But you’re a lousy liar. Please consider that the next time we talk.”
“Yes, sir,” Robert replied over the driver’s poorly stifled laughter as he turned the engine over and moved them into the stream.