Saturday Story: Fountains of Mercy: Part 5

As Pete tries to follow through with the Comapny’s demands, the Improved Settlers make life interesting . . .

Even as much as she irritated him, Pete admired Bettina’s sense of design and art. The waiting area outside her office sported pale blue walls with ivory-colored trim, a restful combination. Four reproductions of great works of human art hovered on the walls: a neo-Scholastic landscape based on an ancient Chinese original, a Rembrandt of a preacher explaining a text (or practicing his sermon) to his wife, Nkbele’s “Starscape”, and a landscape painting of an arid part of the original North American continent with a man on a horse looking out over the scene. Pete hated to waste time waiting, but if he had to stare at walls, at least Bettina provided magnificent images to stare at.

The door to the inner sanctum opened and he walked in. More art projections added the only touch of life to the office, including a three-D hologram of a marble statue of Moses and one of an ancient Greek god in bronze. “You may sit,” Bettina told him, interrupting his thoughts.

Pete settled into the chair facing her “floating” work surface. She frowned. “Have the anti-flood measures for the outflow been finished yet?”

“No, Ms. Monsiérvo, they should be ready in a month.”

The frown deepened into a scowl, her black eyes almost disappearing as she scrunched her face. “That’s not acceptable. The system is backing up now, or it will tomorrow at the latest if the forecasts hold true.”

What forecasts? “As of this morning, the river remained below the main outflows as well as below the secondaries. And there is a three week backlog on the materials and labor to make the necessary back-flow and debris gates, unless the Company declares it a life priority.” And even then it may take a week to scrounge pipe.

“Not acceptable. There should not be any backlog.”

“Well, ma’am, there is, because the extruders can’t run until the processors and some other electronics are replaced.”

She called up the manifest of the next industrial shipment due on ColPlat XI. “The parts should be here in a week. Get the sewers fixed. I am tired of complaints from the improved citizens about the lack of sanitation facilities and other basic necessities. As water supply specialist, it is your duty to see that all citizens of Corporate foundations have access to reliable sanitation and hydration facilities.”

If there’s a problem in the sub-sett, I should have heard about it by now, as should Don. Pete dug out his portable computer, logged on, and called up his messages. He found nothing in either his company account or his personal files. “Ms. Monsiérvo, I have no record of failure reports from the subsistence settlers’ portion of the sanitary system. When did the problem occur?” Besides last summer during the magnetic storm, that is.

She glared at him, tapping blue lacquered finger guards on the clear metal of her work surface. “Of course you won’t have reports, since the improved citizens know better than to bother trying to report to your department: your discriminatory attitude is well known. They told Raymond: they trust the Company to see to their needs.” He could almost see the cloud of self-righteousness floating over her head.

Two could play the more-official-than-thou game. “Which blocks hare having problems?” You want a dumb engineer, you’ll get a dumb engineer.

“L four and K four.”

He made notes. Those are the areas where Don said he’s had repair crews attacked for interrupting the holo broadcasts. Great. Well, that’s what robots and auto-pigs were for. “I’ll see to it this afternoon,” he assured her.

“You’d better. And I’m hearing more rumors about individuals disturbing the protected autochthonous resources again. Supposedly someone’s cut stone out of the hills in the reserve near Crownpoint to use for grinding things. You tell the other engineers that this is not acceptable. Such a materials usage is not on the permitted list and must stop at once.” She shook her lacquer-tipped finger at him, giving him a glimpse of a faceted yellow stone embedded in the end of the long nail. “Go.”

Pete left and went straight to the master control rooms for the city’s entire sanitary system, located at the far corner of the building from Bettina’s office. “Stay where you are, Jill,” he told the shift supervisor. “But call up the status of blocks L four and K four.”

He heard a quiet swish and the desired data appeared. “Have you logged any problems here?”

“Yes, sir. We sent an auto-pig with a rooter down the main lines yesterday and found what looked like textile material blocking part of the secondary and residential feed line. The rooter pulled it through and disposed of it.”

“Good. Send another rooter pig this evening, and when someone gets a chance, see if the monitor wires have been disturbed in that section. No rush,” he added, “Just the next time someone is out on a routine inspection or confirming repairs.” So she calls me in for a problem we’ve already solved. And then wonders why people become reluctant to work harder than necessary.

 

That evening, once the dishes were cleared away and proper homage had been paid to Cynthia’s magnificently light floating lemon cake, Pete told Gerald about the morning visit as they got out the cribbage set. “I’d like to say that I’m surprised that they don’t get credit for subsistence work, but that sounds too much like Company policy to be false.”

Gerald set up the board projector and called up four positions while Pete logged in the card projector. “Because the Company can’t make any exceptions, of course, so work is work only if they say it is work.” The virtual pegs did not want to behave and Gerald frowned as he rebooted the projector. “Talk to Arturo, but I could use some of their help on the other side of the bridge as well, out in the water-meadows where the road will cross to the high road east.”

“Equipment problems?”

Gerald triple checked the cribbage board. “Nope. Environmental preservation regulations. Horses and oxen would be OK, machinery no. The current road predates the environmental set-aside.”

Pete snorted a little. “Speaking of which, if you find someone cutting rocks out of the hillsides, remind them that we’re not to use autochthonous geomaterials without written permission, and then only from approved sources.” He did his best to mimic Monsiérvo, squinching his eyes like she did.

“What now, illegal gravel?”

“Nope. Grindstones? Stones for grinding something, or so the Administratrix said.” Pete heard steps behind him and moved out of the way as Cynthia and Sheila came in.

Gerald’s eyebrows rose. “Really? I’ve heard a story that someone found what looked like a reproduction of a milldam on one of the streams that feeds into the Donatello, a few kilometers upstream of Crownpoint. I wonder if there’s another heritage project that isn’t talking to Bettina’s department.”

Sheila shook her head as she sat down at the game table. “I’m starting to think that when you move into upper administration with the Company, you sign a non-disclosure agreement that you won’t provide any information to any other department within the Corporation. Ann Montoya found out this morning about the uprising in the factories around Delhi II last month, and she’s supposed to be updated at least weekly.”

“Uprisings?” Pete glanced to Cynthia and she shook her head; she hadn’t heard.

“The indentured workers rioted, but according to Ann it looks more organized than your usual labor riot. They gutted the warehouses and Unitary and Jewish religious centers but no others. On the gripping hand, the rioters killed every administrative-type they crossed paths with. Ann’s pretty steamed that no one passed the word on. The justification was that the riots were put down and that only subunits and firms with indentured labor need to be aware of the problem. Oh, and that no one else has labor conditions that bad and that violate so many corporate regulations, so no one else will have any problems.”

Gerald rolled his eyes as he told the game to shuffle the cards. “Because what percent of the population is still under indenture, only half? What color, dear?”

“Orange, and a third are under firm indenture, according to the files I’ve read.” Sheila worked in resource distribution and supply, coordinating transportation for the region, so she talked to Ann Montoya in security on a regular bases, Pete knew.

“I’ll take green,” Cynthia announced.

“Red.”

Pete growled, “Thaaanks, dear.” Everyone knows blue loses for me. I sense a conspiracy. “Decicredit per point, house rules.”

Sylvia White fluttered at him before looking at her card projection and pouting. Pete knew better than to take the bait. She’d be a vicious poker or starland player, the way she bluffs and feints.

As they wrapped up the game a little before midnight, Cynthia wrinkled her nose. “Thinking of oddities, has a name for the city been approved yet?”

Pete shrugged. Gerald shook his head. “No. The location appellation department disallowed the last suggestion because it translates something rude in Gorgani.”

What isn’t rude in Gorgani? “We may be back to ‘Ibistadt’ at this rate.”

“Nope. Ibis is a claimed corporation mark, remember?”

Sylvia finished totaling up her winnings and stuck out her tongue. “Thppth. Ibis is also a type of bird on Old Earth. I suspect we’ll end up with River City or Here.”

Pete suspected that “Here” was all too likely a possibility. He struggled to hide a yawn and failed. “Sorry. It’s not the company, I assure you.”

The next morning he and Cynthia attended the latest of the three morning services at the Unitary Church. She hadn’t felt well the previous mornings, and he’d been glad of a little extra sleep. A lazy sun beamed down and by unspoken agreement they decided to take the long way back to their apartment after worship. “Going somewhere?” a cheerful voice called from behind them not more than a block from the church.

Arturo and Ann Montoya waved and caught up with them. They chatted about commonplaces and new developments as they strolled. The quartet stopped in the tree-filled park not far from the site of the proposed larger worship center. “ . . . And if rumors are true, it will be in synth-stone, with colored windows,” Arturo explained. “But that’s just rumor.”

“Synth-stone would fit with the walls and the zoning for this area,” Cynthia thought aloud. “Will it be designated Unitary, you think, or will it be another worship-box like the ones in Delhi II or on AlGorik?”

“Probably a compromise, since—“ Arturo stopped. Ann had turned around, one hand to her ear, as a security call came in over her auditory implant.

“Gotta go,” she snapped, all trace of her usual warm and sunny demeanor gone. “Trouble in the improved neighborhoods.” She gave her husband a peck on the cheek and jog-trotted off to the nearest security muster point.

“What now?” Pete wondered, taking Cynthia’s arm. I trust Ann’s people, but I’d rather be in the compound with the gates shut.

Arturo called up the general announcements on his portable messenger. “Not sure, but you need to get to the central control center, Pete.”

“Later, love,” he told Cynthia.

“I’ll walk home with you,” Arturo offered. “I’m going that way as it is.”

Cynthia nodded and they walked briskly up the street as Pete turned northwest, then hustled to the administrative complex and the control center.

He slid the door open, eased into the main control room and found three techs on duty, with a full detail holographic projection of the sub-sett and adjacent neighborhoods floating over the main projector. “Boost water pressure to main J four if possible, and close the gates at M four and L five,” Uhuru Lonkori ordered. He looked irritated but sounded calm.

“Unable the gate at L five,” one of the techs replied. “The controller’s still nonfunctional.”

Pete leaned over her console. “Can you bypass to full flow closure at L five?”

“Affirmative.”

“Do it.” That would block anyone trying to use the sewer for mischief.

Uhuru, the supervisor on duty, called up a live feed from the visual recorders in the area. Pete felt the hairs on his neck standing up and he reached back without thinking, smoothing them. Didn’t matter which planet it was or what city, mobs looked alike. A crowd in subsistence issue coveralls surged back and forth between the buildings and Pete saw broken windows and debris in the street. That’s why you use vis metal instead of glass, he growled. A few people, arms full of coveralls and other cloth goods, ran with the hunched posture of looters scurrying back to their lairs. Two figures used something dark to paint “No water, no food, no peace” on a wall before running off. The image shifted as the recorder pivoted on its mounts to show smoke and flame coming out of an opening that had once been a doorway.

“Faster food, faster food,” came over the audio recorders’ broadcast. “Bring back benefits, bring back benefits!”

The shouts carried an ugly, harsh undertone, like an animal growl. Pete knew the sound: a mob turning angry, ready to lash out at anything and everything. “Uhuru, any of our people out there?”

“Not anymore, sir. The last two ducked into the drainage sewer and cut under to J four, came out there and are inside the main settlement.” The grey-haired man glared at a secondary display. “I’m showing automatic electrical shutdowns beginning. Nothing of ours.”

Pete took three steps to the left and looked at the master infrastructure status readout. “Fire alarms. No surprise there.”

“Should I boost pressure at L four?” The tech sounded hesitant.

Pete and Uhuru both shook their heads. “Not unless security or fire ask for it,” Uhuru advised.

They can’t fight the fire with the mob in the way. Even Tim’s not that dedicated, although Harding Korso’s probably screaming at him to do something. Harding’s fine as long as everything works the way it’s supposed to. Pete folded his arms and watched the chaos unfolding in the sub-sett. How far into the main city will they get? Not as far as Cynthia, but Gerald and Don may have some tense minutes until security moves in.

The chants of “Faster food” shifted into an unintelligible yowl, and alarms began appearing on the western end of the sub-set: more fires and electrical shut-downs. A sense of detachment settled over Pete as he watched the riot unfold in colored lights and video record images. He looked away twice as the mob caught people: he didn’t want to know. The security rovers appeared and people in brown and black augmented armor and full masked helmets began pushing the mob back into the sub-sett. As the mob fought against the security officers, the fire alerts began flicking out behind them inside the sub-sett. Tim was making good use of the distraction to get the fires out.

“As soon as the last fire alarm stops, return pressures to normal,” Pete ordered. “If the security people want a spot source, give it to them if we can.” If they used dispersal fluid, they’d have to rinse the area down within half an hour or evacuate the district for twenty-four hours.

Uhuru grunted and pointed. “Terror gas. That’s the end of that, then.”

One of the techs made a gagging noise. Pete agreed with her. He’d been exposed to the stuff as part of his emergency repair training not long after the Unified Worlds government authorized it for corporate civilian use. He’d never felt such overwhelming fear before or since, and had no desire to again. How many will die, trampled or killed by the others in their panic? And who authorized it? That had to come from the sector administrator, Bettina’s boss.

Pete waited, monitoring the situation until the last fire warning ceased and the security service reported all clear outside of sections J four and K four. Even then, he made certain that the wind remained out of the west before going home. Terror gas could linger in stagnant pockets for up to three hours after initial release. Almost no one else walked or drove through the streets, and Pete made record time, walking steadily and pointedly not looking around too much until he reached the gate of his apartment section. He tapped a pattern on the gate. Someone tapped back and he finished the rhythm. The gate eased open just enough for him to slide in before thumping shut behind him.

“Is the lock-down over?” Martin, owner of one of the ground-floor apartments, asked.

“Yes. Security has everything back into the point of origin.”

“Any idea how bad?” another resident inquired.

Pete started to answer but changed his mind when he noticed four children and a young teenager lurking behind the adults, listening avidly. “Not too bad,” Pete lied, pointing at the youngsters. “More mess than anything, trash and papers, about what you’d expect.”

Martin glanced over his shoulder at the listeners, then back to Pete. “Good to hear.”

“But nothing’s open and no one’s out yet besides security and sanitation, so keeping the gate closed is a good idea.” He saw Cynthia waving from the balcony and waved back. “ ‘Scuze me. I think I’m late for lunch.”

The others looked up at the balcony. “I’d say so. Let me know if you need an alibi,” Martin offered with a wink.

“I may have to do that. Thanks,” and he took the steps two at a time.

Cynthia locked the door by hand once he came in. “I could hear the mob. How bad is it?”

He shook his head and set down his bag, plugging in the chargers. “Not bad inside the wall line. The sub-sett is a mess.”

“Not just the sub-sett. Don and Wolfgang had to relocate on the fly because of smoke.”

“Shit.” How’d it get to them? That doesn’t sound good.

He found out two days later. “Something’s up more than just a mob,” Don announced before the start of the monthly engineers’ meeting. “Saw two groups of ‘improved settlers’ with firebottles and other goodies. Wolfgang and I had to go out the roof hatch and over to the next building after they set fire to the gate and punched in. Didn’t get into the residences, though. Quan and Thao chased them right back out.”

Pete raised his eyebrows. Do I want to know? No, I don’t think I do. “That’s a relief. Any damage?”

“A little soot here and there but nothing major. We just didn’t care to get trapped.”

“Good call,” Arturo said. “Ann’s stories would curl my hair if I had any.” He ran a hand over his one centimeter of stubble.

Pete nodded. “Any word on a cause, besides the usual?”

Gerald walked up. “Yeah. Not enough luxuries, not all the high-end food dispensers are back in service, and a story that the company’s promised to move the sub-sett to the other side of the river but the people inside the wall-line argued to keep them closer to the water.”

The men all frowned, puzzled looks on Arturo and Don’s faces. OK, the first two are no surprise, but the third one’s mighty strange.

“Who’d you hear that from?” Arturo asked.

“Gal goes by Maria,” Gerald explained, dropping his voice after looking around for Company staff. “She, her husband, and their two kids are hiding with Sheila and I until they can get housing in the Heritage Center. Maria’s a level two accounts processor and her husband, Fritz, just passed the level one animal care exam. The mob went after them even though they’re sub-setts born: someone accused them of ‘getting above themselves.’ Sheila knows Fritz from the worship center and he managed to get Maria and the others close enough to call Sheila. She let them in the emergency door. They almost lost one of the kids, couldn’t keep up, but security appeared and the scum chasing them hesitated just long enough to let Fritz drop back and grab the boy, then run like mad. Keep it quiet, OK?”

Pete nodded. I’ll see if Alex Danilov knows of someone who needs a vet tech.

Arturo and Don gestured their agreement. “Well, I know what we’re going to be focusing on next,” Don said louder, sweeping his hand a little in the direction of the main meeting room. The four walked in and found seats.

That evening Pete came home to find Cynthia pacing. “What’s wrong, dear?”

She shook her head, her eyes large. “Not wrong, love, just, um, a big surprise.”

A big surprise? “Surprise?” He repeated.

Cynthia nodded. “I stopped taking hormone treatments a year ago, remember, because of my age.”

“Yeeeessss.” He felt a quiver starting in his gut.

“And I’ve been sick in the mornings for the past few weeks?”

Pete put two plus two together. “You’re pregnant?”

She gave him an enormous smile. “Yes!”

He hugged her tight, leaning back and lifting her almost off her feet.

(C) Alma T.C. Boykin 2014, 2016. All Rights Reserved.

 

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