Saturday Story: Fountains of Mercy: Part 8

The situation inside the (still) Unnamed City is growing worse, and the Company is not helping. But Pete’s water supply system is on track, for the moment.

Ann Montoya shook hear head, then turned to look at the display behind her, giving Pete Babenburg a glimpse of gray in her black hair as she did. “How many this time?” she asked her deputy, Tui Nguen.

“Only two residence blocks, but that’s because the ones on either side burned out last time. Helped contain the damage,” the wiry security officer said. “That makes, ah, twelve in the past year, starting from last October.”

Pete scrubbed his cheeks, feeling stubble. I need to de-whisker. It’s been, what? Two days? Feels like two weeks. Ann looks like hell, Arturo’s not much better, and the only person who seems to be doing at all well is crazy Martin Starhemberg, the mad professor.

Martin, called in because of his “past life experiences” as he called them, radiated enthusiasm and energy that, to Pete, bordered on obscene. It’s not fair—how can he be so energetic? He’s at least twice my age. The white-haired former academic gave Pete a pitying look. “A good breakfast does wonders for the outcome of the day, young man.”

“What is this ‘breakfast’ of which you speak?” Arturo pointed to the time display beside the city map. It read nine PM. They’d been working since six that morning, when the first hints of another riot began bubbling out of the sub-sett. The new fence and armed guards standing across the remains of the area separating the sub-sett from the main city had helped confine the day’s mischief, but not as well as Ann Montoya and the others had hoped. Thus the meeting, and plans.

“What’s Harding Korso going to do, do you suppose, when his largest voting block discovers that it must grow-up or learn to swim?” Martin asked, chewing on the end of an unlit pipe.

“Not much, since he’s still recovering from manual surgery on a perforated bowel. Which, as much as I detest his policies, I would not wish on anyone.” Pete didn’t like thinking about how much pain Korso must have been in by the time he got to the medical center. His assistant said he’d mentioned some problems but had waved off her suggestions that he get medical help, until he collapsed after turning green and vomiting blood. The nerve-blocker at the emergency center closest to the municipal center had failed and not been replaced, leaving medicines the only option. But until they knew what was wrong, the medics refused to give Korso anything that might throw the scanner off.  Lord be with him, Pete prayed.

“Right,” Martin stated, drawing everyone’s attention to the map. He had a stick of some kind in his hand and used it to point to the eastern side of the city. “The remaining residents of the sub-sett refuse to abide by the law. They continue rioting, destroying sanitation and energy infrastructure and their own production units as fast as our workers can get them repaired. We and ‘our’ being the municipal administration and its employees and associates,” he specified. “The regional administratrix in turn insists that providing more goods and services will solve the problem. It has failed to do so thus far. And the security problem has reached the level that it endangers the rest of the city and the farmers around it.”

Gerald White, just sliding into the room, protested, “Easy there, Prof, that’s going a little far. ‘Endangers the rest of the city’ is a bit much.”

Ann and Pete both shook their heads and Martin gave Gerald a stern look, blue eyes dark. He tapped the map with his stick. “Someone tried to rip out the debris gates and back-flow gates on the sewage system, apparently to gain access to the outflow tunnels for reasons thus far unknown. And they’ve been harassing the livestock at the Heritage Center, as well as trying to steal things, mostly vehicles, building material, and small tools.”

“I suspect those last two are people trying to patch their dwelling units without attracting notice from company workers or from their neighbors,” Ann explained. “I don’t entirely blame them, given some of the trouble and threats I’ve heard about.”

Martin tapped the map again. “This new lay-out is not optimal, but should work. My understanding is that these areas are too badly damaged to rebuild, correct?”

Gerald peered at the blocks in question, a group that paralleled the line of the unfinished wall. “Correct. I’ve looked at them, and my test engineers agree—the material’s been heated and quenched too often to be stable. The first good storm or another fire, or even a heavy vehicle going past and ‘whomf’ down the walls will come. Synth-stone’s like real stone until you bake it four or five times and pour cold water on it every time. Then the bonding matrix fails.”

Martin tapped the projection again. “So we raze what’s left, after the current inhabitants leave, and finish the wall.”

“What about the wall’s foundations?” Pete asked. “You go deep enough and you’ll cut off the water and sanitation for the entire sub-sett.”

Ann unfolded her arms and pointed. “Nguen, how much of the sub-sett remains habitable and defensible?”

The small man skimmed through some files. “Forty percent at most, Ma’am. September’s high water removed five percent of the outlying area, and most of the active settlers either left then or are in the process of sneaking out, getting indentures, or even signing farm labor agreements down south, on that new venture Ildefonso Destefani’s part of.”

“The one centered on that old volcanic thing?”

“Yes, ma’am. The organizer, Dominic deTour, is calling it Starheart since he won the mining rights from the leaseholder at high-stakes starheart.”

Pete and Gerald started laughing. Maybe I should see if Sheila wants to go into gambling for leases? She’d probably own everything east of the Triangle Range by the end of the year. Pete waved a hand. “Inside joke. Sorry.”

Nguen continued after glaring at the two engineers, “Officially it’s a mining property, but deTour intends for it to be as self-sufficient in food as possible.”

Gerald studied the wall until his snorts subsided. “So which sixty percent of the sub-sett is unusable?” Martin ran his hand over the main roads and the section closest to the unbuilt wall. “And the river flats?”

“Yes.” Arturo folded his arms. “And don’t look for any assistance from Administratrix Monsiérvo.”

Everyone in the room shrugged. She and Harding, and her assistant Raymond Young, had made that perfectly clear. “Speaking of which,” Gerald sighed. “I need moral support and hard-data backup tomorrow. I’m going to meet with her about the bridge.”

“Not me,” Pete reminded his friend. “I’m out of sight, out of mind. Plus I need to go inspect the work at the head of the aqueduct. Now that everything’s surveyed, property questions answered, and equipment scheduled, we need to get as much done as we can while we have everything here.”

“And I’m going with him,” Arturo said.

Martin walked away from the map. “I’ll come along for moral support if nothing else. I’m harmless, after all. Just a retired academic with strange notions about toponyms.”

“Yeah. He wants to call the city by the obscure name of some ancient city on Old Earth,” Ann muttered, mock-glaring at the older man. “But it would beat ‘Here’ which is what we’ll be stuck with at the rate things are being approved.”

“What obscure name is that?” Pete inquired.

Martin’s grin flashed with a metallic gleam where several a missing teeth should have been. “Vindobona. The Roman name for the camp that became a city on the Danube River. It fits the location and Vindobona had walls, although they were rectangular like all Roman encampments, instead of mostly circular.”

It’s pretty obscure all right, but on the other hand it’s still better than Ubistadt, or ‘Here,’ Pete thought.

The next day Arturo and Pete drove out in one of the rovers. “We’re down to five now,” Pete reminded Arturo. “No rock hopping in this one.”

“I don’t rock hop. Hover tanks ignore rocks.”

“Do they?”

Arturo slowed until they edged past a slow-moving rock-maker and its tow vehicle. “Pretty much. It has to be one massive rock for the lift system not to be able to get over it. Not saying you can’t get stuck, because I’ve seen idiots manage it, and it’s a stone bitch to get the beast off the obstruction, but it takes work. They don’t cross deep water, though, or at least they didn’t when I was in. Rumor had it a new, really all terrain version was coming out, but people have been saying that since the first tank rolled out of the smoke at Cambrai a few thousand years ago or so.”

“Probably the same people who predicted that we’d have a completely safe mining system in just a few years. I think four millennia is more than a ‘few’ years. And who promised that we’d have the fliers back up a week after the magnetic storm.” The failure of the aviation system rankled. That should have been one of the priorities, but no. I can see how people come up with conspiracy theories about the evil machinations of ColPlat Ltd., even though bureaucracy overwhelms any conspiracy ever hatched.

Pete looked out the window and eyed the surface marks designating the new right-of-way for his water pipes. The farmers had already harvested the area, letting the surveyors correct any errors by the auto-markers. There’d been more than usual this time, Pete grimaced.

“Rover sick already?”

“No, just thinking about equipment burps.”

A loud snort came from the driver’s position. “Forget equipment. What do we do when the sun burps again?”

“The Company’s astronomers and solar weather office says that the flare cycle is over and things will settle down for a thousand years or so. You doubt them?”

Arturo frowned and drummed his fingers on the leg of his trousers, eyes on the auto-nav display and the roadway ahead. “No more than usual, since they only have one solar satellite back up and working. We’ll have at most eight minutes warning the next time a major flare launches our way, by the time the data are recorded, transmitted to the observers, evaluated, and then broadcast. I’ll probably lose the last of my pavers, and may the Lord help anyone out in the field. Can you stop one of those big harvesters or planters and unplug, then shield everything that’s electrically fragile? Certainly the district and regional power grids will finish collapsing, more or less.” Arturo tapped beside the autonav’s display and frowned before concluding, “Plan for worst case and hope for the best.”

“Point.”

Pete watched the land on his side of the rover, studying the old river terraces and how the river looked at the moment. He’d been surprised to learn that the Donau Novi peaked twice each year: once in late spring and again in mid autumn. Rains south and west of the city’s district fed the second rise. The fall floods tended not to be as large or long-lasting as those of spring, but still needed to be considered in his plans. The less we do in the floodplain and lowest terrace, the better off everyone is. He’d heard rumors of someone petitioning for a new dam on the Donau Novi, in a narrow spot just below the eastern edge of the hills, roughly a hundred and fifty kilometers or so by river upstream, in addition to the weir near Donaupas. He doubted that either request would go through to final approval, given the Company’s approach to human interference with native hydrologic and faunal patterns. Right. They terraform the planet so that nine-tenths of all species of everything die, replace them with things taken from at least eight different worlds, and then gripe about mining or building hydro dams. Typical bureaucracy—once it gets big enough, it loses contact with reality.

The road began climbing into the hills, giving Pete a better view of the river until the trees grew too thick. Arturo resumed manual control of the rover after finding signs of someone else’s collision with a cow. “That’s not supposed to happen.”

“I guess the cow didn’t read the traffic warning bulletin.”

They arrived at the work site half an hour later. “You’ll need these,” Pete said, tossing Arturo a helmet, safety harness, and locator beacon from the stack next to the sign-in point.

“Why the harness?”

“So we can pull you out from under any rock falls. We used to have rock shields too, but most of them fried in the first storm, so now we only check them out to the men working the active tunneling face.”

Pete led the way past a knee-high metal and composite barrier fence to the edge of the work area. The site did not exactly hum with activity. Instead a low, constant rumble, more felt than heard, filled the air as mechanical diggers excavated the rock below the top of the hill. Pete walked a little way down the slope until he could see the edge of the next valley to the east. They’d have to use a siphon to cross it, and he dug a set of very old-fashioned, primitive binoculars out of his rucksack and looked across the valley. “There,” he whispered, sighting the black hole marking the next run of pipe.

“That’s going to be a mess to bridge,” Arturo observed from over Pete’s shoulder.

“Not going to bridge. Going to use a siphon and gravity. The entrance over there is half a meter lower than the outlet at this end, so the water will go down, across, and back up, then reenter the hill and keep going. Officially it’s to avoid disturbing the viewshed.” He turned back to the construction specialist. “Actually it’s because it would be a very obvious target.”

“Gormies?”

“Anyone with a grudge,” a new voice corrected. Pete and Arturo turned to see Thomas Riley limping up to meet them. “Hi Boss, come to get in the way?”

“Nah. Arturo’s wife wanted him to disappear. Told her we could arrange that. Tom, this is Arturo Montoya, the gent who gets to hide the last run of the aqueduct. Arturo, Tom Riley, the site supervisor and our horrible warning.”

“Pleasure,” Tom said as he shook hands with Arturo. “If you see me running, you’d better catch up and don’t ask why.”

“Let me guess—you played with firecrackers in your misspent youth,” Arturo grinned.

In reply Tom lifted the leg of his coverall, revealing an artificial limb. He held up one gloved hand, “This too, and other bits and pieces. There is no timer long enough for my taste.”

“How’s work on the qanat coming?” Pete asked, cutting to the point.

“So far so good. We’re not drilling or blasting at the moment, and the pumps have been going so we could finish the lining, so it’s safe to go in if you want. Clock in, please.”

Pete beckoned and led Arturo up the slope a little, then almost a kilometer south, past the parking area, to another work site. “Tunnels bother you?”

“No. Why?”

Pete signed another time log with his and Arturo’s names. “Clip both leads to your harness, please. We’ll unclip at the bottom of the access.” He attached a cable and a rope to his safety harness, then opened a heavy metal hatch on the top of a large grassy hump. “Don’t try to slide down the ladder. This isn’t the Navy.” Pete swung one leg, then the other, over the edge of the curbing and began climbing down the long access tube. He descended almost twenty meters straight down, stepped off the ladder and unclipped before getting out of Arturo’s way.  Water reached his ankles and he sniffed carefully. He smelled wet tunnel and fresh air, but nothing else. Good. Once the other man unclipped, Pete turned on his helmet light. “This way.”

“What are we in? I’ve never heard of a ‘kanat’ before.”

“It’s an ancient type of water gathering and transport system.” Once in the main tunnel, Pete pointed upslope. His light shone on damp synth-stone and petro-composite brick that formed an arched tunnel. The tunnel extended into the distance with a slight uphill run. “The main tunnel intercepts a major subsurface aquaclude, or water barrier, four kilometers that way. From there the tunnel runs almost to the edge of the hill to the east, where it joins the main aqueduct line. Right now the water’s being diverted out upstream, so the men can repair one of the catchment wells within the line, down that way.”

“So it’s another gravity-run aqueduct. Why not just call it that?” Arturo’s voice echoed a little.

“Because this takes the water from underground, stays underground, and is also augmented by a few rainwater catches that feed in through the vertical access tunnels. There’s no above ground runs anywhere, at least not until we reach the connection to the main line at the edge of the hills.” Pete led the way to one of the wells and pointed his light down. “These help clean the water during low flow periods, acting as stilling ponds of a sorts in case any sediment gets into the system.”

“What happens when they fill up?”

“Then someone has to clean the catchments downstream more often. In case you were curious, the usual water flow will be about here,” Pete indicated waist-high.

“That must be one hell of a water layer at the source.”

“It is. We’re drying up a stream by catching it at the spring, but in a few years no will know anything ever flowed in that little valley.” Pete turned around and led the way back up to their entry ladder. “Seen enough?”

“Yeah. It’s kinda chilly in here.”

Pete waited to answer until they reached the top and logged out of the tunnel. He needed all his breath for the climb. I am not in as good shape as I thought, he puffed to himself. I need to work out more, in my copious spare time.

After looking around other parts of the work area, Pete and Arturo checked out of the site and began the trip back to the city. “You mind if we stop by the Heritage Center on the way? I need to see about something,” Arturo asked.

“No problem. Getting a pie for Ann?”

“Confirming a delivery.” With those cryptic words, Arturo sat back, watching the computers and drive monitors do their thing. Pete studied the landscape again, seeing with his mind’s eye how the aqueduct would run out of the hills, over the old river bend, through the end of the small ridge and into the city.

“You were serious about not using the river, weren’t you?” Arturo asked after a while.

Pete nodded, still looking out the window. “Absolutely. Be too easy for someone to cause trouble from the river, and it needs chemical purification, and is vulnerable to floods. Tapping the groundwater is much safer in the long-term, needs no chemicals or very few, and after a few years, no one should be able to find the route of the aqueduct without special equipment. I trust the Union navy, but we’re a hell of a ways from help if someone shows up.”

“Point. Speaking of which, ah, never mind. Just answered my own question.” The rover slowed and Arturo guided it down into the vehicle parking area outside the Heritage Center gates. They got out and Arturo led the now-familiar way through the gate, past the information station, and into the semi-private section of the village.

“Nicholas, are you in?” He peered into the carpentry shop.

“If it’s Alex, no, I’m not. If it’s Mrs. Patten, I’m in the fields and won’t be back until at least after sundown.” A square, brown-haired man with thick-muscled hands walked up to meet them. “How can I help you?”

“I just wanted to make certain you’d gotten the delivery without any trouble,” Arturo explained.

Nicholas relaxed. “Yes, I did. It’s tucked into the main stack and drying nicely. They came through the back way and didn’t bother anyone.”

“Good. There’s probably be two more, that size, before my crew finishes.”

“We’ll take them all. It’d be a sin to let them go to waste. Especially ones of that quality.”

“That’s what I thought when I saw them. Thanks for taking them off my hands.”

Pete wondered what strange business he’d gotten pulled into. Art’s delivering something here? Rocks? No, because a carpenter doesn’t need rocks for anything. The light dawned. Logs. I bet Art’s disposing of some of the trees he has to cut here, since they need wood and won’t ask about papers, permits, and species harvest limitations. How many more Company regulations are we going to break before sunset, I wonder?

“Ah,” Nicholas glanced around and lowered his voice. “Could I interest you in some fresh produce?”

They left with three bags of various vegetables and some apples. Arturo said, “You never heard this, but they’ve expanded the farms again. So far, the Company surveyors haven’t caught on. If anyone asks, they are vocational therapy gardens for improved settlers who are suffering from PTSD due to events in the sub-sett.”

“Vocational therapy.” Pete looked at a beautiful, faintly blue apple on top of one of the produce bags.

Arturo nodded. “It’s almost true, because most of the newcomers are either people from the sub-sett like Fritz and Maria, or—.” He stopped. “Or Mennonites fleeing trouble up north.”

“What trouble?” Something inside Pete began to chill.

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

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