With so much of my time spent talking, either the new podcasts or slogging through the chapters of “Foes & Rivals” audiobook raws, I have neglected manuscript updates. Time to rectify that. With Kentucky Province now added to Faustina’s imperium, there is still a little more work for “Bob Hardt” and his intel group to do; that is, sounding points west of Frankfort. The center of gravity there is Bardstown, a going concern for nearly 300 years. Taken aside by his CO, Robert is almost but not quite called out as to just who the hell he is.
Early morning, the day after next, saw their now two-truck convoy headed south, not west toward Louisville. The third truck had been for the fort’s supplies and thus was no longer needed. Robert knew that Hill was still brimming with questions but didn’t want to show any favoritism in his little command, so ranker Hardt was back with the others.
“Why not to Louisville?” Mitch asked, being tossed about slightly from the broken road. “Isn’t it as big as Frankfort?”
“From what the centurion told me, and we can guess who told him,” Rockford said from the gate at the rear, “is that command is more interested in the farms and businesses in the interior. That’s where the center of gravity is.”
“And,” he added with a grin, “most of the distilleries!”
Everyone laughed at that. Robert falling silent, first. My great grandparents lived in Frankfort for about a dozen years, as I recall. Granddad had a little protection racket in Bardstown right after the Breakup, when his armored cavalry unit deserted the deserters from Fort Knox. Through my family, I am tied to this area in some way. I am motivated that all this have a favorable end for these people.
They arrived just after noon in Bardstown. They could have gone on but their mission was hearts and minds. Hill mixed things up a little for Mitch, saying that he needed his intel guy for a briefing over lunch. Rockford was already talking to a local farmer with a biodiesel truck about the distilleries. Several minutes later had Robert and his CO before the aged white bricks of the Talbert Tavern, in business since 1779 and once the HQ of his grandfather’s little force.
Hill looked about the tavern, proper, and chose a corner table near an unlit fireplace next to a window, as far as possible from the other three occupied tables. They drew stares, in their uniforms, but none seemed hostile, just curious. The two smiled and bantered a bit with the waitress in her fifties, ordering some bourbon, two glasses, and a pitcher of water. When those came, Hill poured half the whisky into the empty glass and added lots of water. Robert did the same and they raised their glasses and toasted the Empress.
“Who,” Hill immediately began, as Robert suspected he would, “seems to know you, legionary Hardt.”
The prince did not want to diminish himself nor insult his commander with a lie, so chose silence.
“Did some research yesterday, even with all the paperwork from the fallout of what happened to the marquis,” Hill went on with just a little hurt tone. “Into the imperial family.”
“Did you, indeed?” Robert asked but taking a slightly larger sip of his bourbon. Jimmy was right, we have nothing to match this.
“I mean, I’m loyal to the Empress and all, what legionary isn’t? But I’ve never been one to obsess about her family.” He looked out the window at the busy mix of carts, cars, and trucks. This place was thriving. “We all see now and then when something important comes up, of course, like Princess Aurelia crushing the last resistance in the northeast and signing a treaty of Friend and Ally with the Northern Alliance. You know, military stuff.”
“I see.” Robert wondered if he should order another.
“Or,” Hill sailed right on to a port known only to him, “some of the high tech stuff: Princess Elizabeth leaving for the back of the Moon to help build that radio array. Stuff like that.”
That radio array was something Mother was flat out ordered to make by one or a group of the Machines. She never told us who, but I suspect it was her step-daughter we never see.
“So anyway, another round? Good.” He waved at the waitress and pointed to their table with a winning smile. “Yesterday evening I went looking a little deeper. Some of her other kids. You know what? I never knew that some of them were not like her! What’s the term?”
“Demi-human.” Now he’s just playing with me.
“Yes, that’s it! Some are just regular ol’ human beings.” The centurion stopped talking as two much fuller glasses were set before them. It appeared the manager was hedging his bets on his legionary guests.
“Then, just out of curiosity, mind you,” Hill finished his first and poured a little more bourbon and branch, “I looked at some pictures.”
“Did you, indeed?” Robert tossed his back, as well, pouring even more.
“Her Majesty’s youngest, from her first marriage, Robert Hartmann? Damn but if he doesn’t look a lot like you, Bob Hardt.”
Panck Hill put his glass down, stared at his underling, and waited.
“Not only do I think you know why, Senior Centurion,” Robert replied holding his eyes, “but you also must know that I cannot address what you, my senior officer, is saying without… repercussions to my legionary career.”
If it is out in the open that I am a Crown Prince, poor Hill has no choice but to address and treat me as such. I lose everything I’ve tried to reach for this last year.
“Yeah,” Hill said, turned to look out the window again, taking another drink. “It was just a coincidence. Meant nothin’ by it, Hardt.”
“Of course, sir.”
“Looks to me,” he pointed out the window with the glass still in his hand, “that I’ve seen more commerce here than any other place in Kentucky. What are your thoughts on that, my G-2 guy?”
The immediate threat behind him, Robert began to pass on what he knew about the local economy, pointedly suggesting rail lines be reestablished with the imperium both for trade and troop movements. Some back and forth with that had them to the end of their second set of drinks. Hill paid for them both and indicated he had a report to write. But he paused once they were back in the street.
“Thank you for not lying to me. Robert.” He allowed.
“You are welcome, Senior Centurion. You do your entire family honor,” Robert said, saying something a ranker legionary would not.
“See you back at our camp tonight,” Hill walked away with a wave. “Eyes and ears open, my intel guy.”
“Yes. Sir.” Robert muttered to himself as Hill turned a corner.
I would like to go back in there and drink until I’ve forgotten this, but that’s the coward’s way out; how else can I be older? No, I’m here to do a job, so I’d best find a market to ask…
“See ya’, Shelia! No, I’m back at eleven in the kitchen, tomorrow!” a ginger in her mid-twenties called back into the Talbott. The door closed behind her just as she looked around into Robert’s eyes, less than two yards away.
Bustier than I like, but those thighs and hips! This girl is built of nothing but curves!
“Hi there! Name’s Bob! My unit just got into your town and I’m a little lost, I admit,” he said with a depreciating smile and a languid blink of his eyes. “I don’t mean to be a bother…”
He deliberately let his eyes fall to her chest then crotch before back to hers. They were dark blue.
“…but I’d like to know more about you, er, I mean, your town!” He tilted his head and arched his right hand behind it, still smiling.
She brushed at her long red hair with her left hand, telegraphing she wore no rings, and smiled back.
“You… you’re from the empire, down south?” she almost purred in the local accent. When he nodded, she continued. “I’m not doin’ nothin’ else today. What did you-uns want to see?”
“I think I’ve already seen what’s best here,” he laughed and she didn’t look away. “But let’s not do anything boring!”
“Oh, let’s not! I’m Colleen, by the way.”
“Bob Hardt, legionary. Intelligence specialist,” he pretended to boast, holding his right hand out to her. The moment she took it, he pulled her close and linked their arms. “Let’s make each other older today!”
It just had to be Mitch on patrol at midnight when Robert staggered back to their camp south of town.
“Geez, Bob!” Mitch whispered at him. “I can smell the sex on you from here!”
“I…it would be easier to tell you what we didn’t do… mee… er, Mitch,” Robert said with a small weave.
“To your tent, ranker!” Mitch tried to not laugh. “And you’ve got watch in three hours!”
Ten days later, slowly making their way further west, Hill stood with Rockford to his right and Hardt to his left, all looking through their field glasses at the marshland which stretched to the horizon.
“Any idea when the dams were broke?” he asked to either of them.
“No first-hand evidence,” Robert replied, “but tribe Tohsaka tells us of a six-point-two quake of the New Madrid fault twelve years ago, as the Empress was planning her St. Louis campaign. If that is correct, the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers have been uncontrolled into the land since then.”
“Do you know what’s past this? Like Paducah and all?” Rockford asked. “I read once there was some kind of fission plant there.”
“It was a uranium gaseous diffusion plant, mostly for weapons but for reactors, too,” Robert said, not hiding his lamp under a bushel basket. “It closed some years before the Breakup but John Carell grabbed everything which wasn’t nailed down.”
Hill grunted but Rockford laughed. John Carell was a legend in the imperium and a god to scroungers like Jimmy.
“That’s right!” Rockford said, lowering his glasses and snapping the fingers of his right hand. “Carell came through Bardstown, ran across Her Majesty’s father to-be, went on that trip to central Ohio, finding her mother! We are living history right now!”
Just as he did with his CO, Robert said not a word. About his family.
“Well, it’s a swamp and useless now, until the Empress details a legion to rebuild both dams,” Hill said, also lowering his glasses and looking up at the sun. “It’s barely noon. I don’t know the road condition but we should make is almost to Henderson, and that puts us on the doorstep of Owensboro.”
He turned to Robert.
“I do recall you saying the Canadian Army’s center of gravity is just north of there, correct?”
“Then we’ll spend a day there. Minimum. Getting the northerners out of that Covington salient will be enough of a bother; we sure don’t need them across the river anywheres else.”
“Sir.” Both of his men chorused.
“Any thoughts about what’s ahead, Hardt?”
“No, sir. I ain’t a demi-human, after all.”
Hill didn’t look at him but he saw Jimmy’s quick glance.
“Good. If I had you briefing me up front about our destination, I’d have gotten sick from smelling that ginger and y’all’s stink. Do you even bathe?” Who told Hill about that? Rockford was laughing. “So, stay in the back with the flaps up so you don’t disgust my men. Let’s roll.”