Saturday Story: Fountains of Mercy: Part Nine

The soon-to-be named city has reached the breaking point as Company and colonists collide.

 

That evening, Pete lay back in his reclining seat at the apartment and wondered what would come next. Cynthia had gone out to a music performance, leaving Pete to reheat food and consider the next disaster looming just over the horizon. Thinking about Arturo’s news made him shiver all over again, with fear and anger both. People from ColLandPlat, the enormous sprawling hub of the planetary administration, spaceports, and home to hundreds of thousands of improved settlers, had begun raiding the outlying settlements. “Sometimes the sub-setters take food and clothes, other times furnishings and cookware, although no one knows what they do with those. Probably sell them as scrap or just dump them somewhere, or use them as weapons. They harass the livestock and have even killed a few of the farmers, roughed up more. And security won’t stop them. They say the farmers need to be faster calling them in, because they can’t station security people everywhere.” Arturo’s fists had clenched. “And the Mennonites at least won’t fight back.”

Pete could barely process the idea. Why would someone not defend themselves when their lives were in danger? Arturo had tried to explain, but Pete still had trouble wrapping his mind around it. “They use an old, pre-Unification Bible, and they have Scriptures that say you need to forgive your enemies and not to hurt people. Apparently some translations take it to the point that you should not defend your physical person or property.”

I like your Holy Writ better, Lord, Pete thought. No wonder they’re so shy, if they’re pre-Unification Christians. Talk about an endangered species! Or so everyone said, and Pete didn’t doubt the conventional wisdom and Church teaching. Yes, we’re supposed to be forgiving, but the prophet Jesus never said we should let people kill us without trying to at least protect our wives and children. And the threat of death by starvation counts as an attack in my book. And in exchange for their freedom to live in the old ways and worship as they choose, as part of their transportation contract, people at the Heritage Centers couldn’t draw on any subsistence assistance except in emergencies. Apparently the Company didn’t think having the winter food supply threatened and crops and livestock ruined counted as an emergency. The veins in Pete’s temples throbbed.

Pete left Cynthia sleeping when he went to the office the next morning. They’d both forgotten how much energy being pregnant took, even with modern nutritional boosters. He crept out of the apartment, glancing the grey sky overhead as he crossed the courtyard. The warm, heavy morning air suggested that he’d need his rain jacket before the day ended. The low sky matched his mood.

Once at the office he worked steadily for an hour or so, confirming the timetables and sending any updates to the subcontractors involved in the project.

Someone knocked on the door frame. “Tap, tap, tappa tap.”

“I gave at the office.”

“Tappata tappata tap tap.”

“I like my current religion.”

“Tap tap taptaptaptap bang bang.”

Pete gave in and opened the door. “We don’t need any cleaning supplies and I paid Guido already.”

“Glad to see you, too,” Gerald said, holding up a container. The scent of hot egg casserole wafted out of the box like incense. “The password is food.”

“Password approved, access granted,” Pete stepped aside as Gerald and Martin came in. Martin had a thermal carry bottle and cups, and a second box. “Is this a bribe?”

“No,” the white-haired man assured him. “It’s bait to lure you into a trap and then to force you to listen to Bettina Monsiérvo’s voice at a terribly early hour.”

Pete’s eyes widened and he glanced over at his computer displays, automatically checking to see if anything “unprofessional” were on the screens. “She’s coming here?” What disaster’s unfolding now? She never leaves the corporate office complex unless she has to, or is on her way back to the district headquarters.

“No, no, sorry to scare you before breakfast.” Gerald assured him, “She’s still in the office complex, will be for a few more days I suspect, unless she gets called back to headquarters. No, we recorded our meeting yesterday.”

“With her knowledge and permission,” Martin added quickly. “So there would be no confusion later on. Gerald being a slow engineer type and me being half-deaf as well as retired.”

Pete helped himself to a mini egg casserole and one of the maize sticks, perching on the corner of his work table. My parents would cry if they knew I’m eating real chicken eggs, cooked in cow butter. Sorry, it’s a hard fate, but that’s what living on the frontier will make you stoop to. He savored the taste of the rich, eggy, cheese-filled concoction, alternating with bites of the sweet, crisp maize-ear shaped maize-bread. Animal rights be damned, the Lord wouldn’t have made these taste so good if we weren’t supposed to eat them. He noticed Martin and Gerald didn’t waste any time devouring their share. Pete finished and disposed of the boxes while the others washed their hands. “So, bribe accepted and stomach settled, what happened yesterday?”

Prof. Starhemberg drew himself up and assumed a most officious pose. “It is the considered opinion of the Company that any infrastructure that might impose on the comfort of, and negatively impact the non-physical amenities of, the improved settlers requires additional study. A full re-engineering of the city terminal of the bridge would not be amiss, so as to minimize the footprint on the opposite bank,” he quoted.

Gerald had turned faintly pink during the recitation. Pete translated silently; anything that might upset the sub-sett is bad. You need to rework this end of the bridge so you can make the other end smaller. Huh? “This end, the city gate end, of the bridge has to be redesigned in order to change the opposite end?”

“Yes. She found engineering drawings for the tapered span at the Qui-tau Gorge on Randallia. She wants the Donau Novi span to look like that one. That we don’t have access or funds for the anti-grav components is irrelevant,” Gerald growled. “Hell, we don’t even have the power to run that sort of anti-grav installation. It needs its own dedicated fusion generator.”

Martin, ensconced in Pete’s chair, rotated a little from side to side. “Granted, I am not an engineer, merely a historian, but even I can tell that a bridge that is fat in the middle and skinny on the ends won’t last long on an unchanneled river. And traffic will be a stone bi—, ahem, beast to manage.”

“And she wants the access on the east bank to be,” Gerald made air quotes, “composed of permeable, low-environmental-effect native materials that will blend harmoniously into the preserved landscape.” Gerald sipped a little of his drink. “OK, to be fair, that’s not Bettina’s idea, but from the district supervisor. She agrees, though.”

Pete pinched the bridge of his nose. “Gravel or bark?”

“Gravel. The good news is they have some leftover from the dam going in upstream, so I won’t have to budget for more than transport.”

“Wha—? Dam upstream?” Shit, is that what Arturo was talking about?

Gerald turned on his pocket data box and called up the image, passing it to Pete. He studied the miniature holo. That was supposed to be a weir. This is a constant-flow hydro dam on one of the channels where it splits at Donaupas: that’s going to make navigation a challenge until they finish.

Gerald explained, “They’ve already started the upstream flow diversion. I hope they calculated for debris rafts.”

Pete grimaced and returned the box. “So, what was the rest of the meeting yesterday, the bit you taped?”

“Here.” Martin handed Pete a data drive stick. Pete plugged it in, turned on the sound broadcasters, and leaned back.

Bettina’s voice sounded harsher than usual. Pete stopped the play for a moment. “Is she ill?”

The others made noncommittal gestures. “There’s a rumor that the district administration meeting two days ago turned into a literal screaming match between Administratrix Monsiérvo, District Director Pu-Erh, and Sub-director for Settler Improvement Graustein over the problems in the sub-setts here and up at Donaupas and Basileus. Apparently our lot are nothing like the mess they’ve got at Basileus,” Martin said.

Pete turned the recording back on. “I am concerned about the security of my construction staff,” he heard Gerald saying. “There have been multiple assaults and incidents of abuse on people trying to repair the housing and other structures.”

A loud sigh gusted over Gerald’s words. Bettina replied, “Mr. White, if you paid more attention to the opinions of the people in the housing section, your workers would have fewer misunderstandings. The subsistence settlers are frustrated with the slow pace of repairs and recovery. Of course they will express their sentiments, what do you expect?” Her patronizing tone set Pete’s teeth on edge.

“Ms. Monsiérvo, the pace of repairs would increase if materials quit being ‘appropriated’ or repurposed. I know that only a few individuals are misusing the construction supplies, but those few are delaying work. Is there any possibility of increasing security in the work areas during the overnight period?” Pete thought Gerald sounded remarkably patient. He’s the most diplomatic of all the engineers here.

“No, because the company does not care to upset the improved settlers by implying that they are not trustworthy. I’ve already had to discuss this with Ann Montoya and I do not care to repeat myself again.” Pete heard sounds of an incoming file alert pinging, and someone muffling a cough. “Which brings up a question, Mr. White. Why does the end of the bridge cover these settlement blocks?”

Pete paused the recording. “Which ones?”

“N four and five, M four. M four has not been built because of the revised flood information,” Gerald supplied.

Pete nodded and restarted the recording. “Because M four, or what would have been M four, is now designated as floodplain and so is no longer suitable for residential or residential-support construction, and the N blocks are no longer habitable. The last fire left them structurally unsound, and given the shifting housing needs of the improved settlers, using this area for the access to the bridge seems the most efficient use of the space. Better housing, farther from the river and closer to amenities, is under construction, as you know, Ma’am.”

“And who said they were uninhabitable?”

“I did, along with Frank Taliaferro and Mr. Young. The new usage includes greenspace,” Gerald added, as if to pacify a pending outburst.

It didn’t work very well, judging by the changing pitch in Ms. Monsiérvo’s voice. “That is for Company specialists to decide, not mere engineers, even structural engineers. Those blocks include prime amenities and access to recreational areas, and can’t be flattened just because someone thinks they look bad.” She took a deep breath and her voice dropped a little. “I still fail to see why the bridge has to be there instead of up on the north side of the city, or well south, away from the housing areas.”

Prof. Starhemberg’s voice rolled into the discussion. “Because the wetlands on the east bank, south of the city, are of critical habitat and water quality consideration, as the founding charter for the city says. And a northern location would require cutting the wall and routing traffic through the administrative sector. The charter again specified that any bridge or causeway north of the city needed to be at least four kilometers north, which now means building a high road as well as the bridge.”

Gerald leaned over and slapped palms with the professor. “Having an urban history expert helps.”

“I bet it did,” Pete said under his breath. Bettina didn’t respect engineers, but she practically worshipped academics. I don’t understand people, Pete thought for the thousandth time at least. I like water. Water is predictable. People are not.

“You can stop the play-back,” Gerald said.

“No,” Martin leaned forward. “Skip ahead to forty minutes instead. You need to hear the last bit.”

Pete did as suggested. “And the fence has to come down,” Bettina’s voice demanded. “It is demeaning and an insult to the improved settlers, as well as an eye-sore.”

“I need to confer with Ann Montoya before I have the men remove it,” Gerald began.

“No you do not,” Bettina snapped. Pete could hear her teeth biting off the words. “There is no difference between any class of settlers unless one is imposed by the preconceptions of outsiders.” Pete saw the pages in the corporate settlement guide in his mind’s eye as she recited, “Improved settlers, also called subsistence settlers, are members of previously discriminated against or culturally deprived residential groups, and while they receive additional support and intermediate assistance from company settlement specialists and uplift workers, they are in no way different from any other residents of any Colonial Plantation Limited world. Although they may receive initial supplemental benefits, improved settlers differ in no other way from others and must be treated with the same respect for their human dignity as members of any other group.”

She stopped quoting as she continued, “Under no circumstance is anyone, even the municipal public safety department, to harass or oppress their cultural standards on the improved settlers unless a regulation is being broken or human life is in immediate danger.”

“Oppress their cultural standards?” That’s supposed to be “impress” like you impress a pattern into metal, isn’t it? Strange. And considering how the company is treating the Mennonites and other farmers north of here, that’s rather damning. Pete caught the edge of that thought and reached over, turning off the replay. “Wait, so we’re not supposed to protect ourselves from, ah, let’s call them problematic individuals or groups?”

“I asked that, more tactfully,” Martin said. “If the two or three problem people are identified after a proper investigation by Company rule enforcers and residential condition investigators, then they should certainly be removed and either counseled or reassigned to more congenial locations. And since we have no Company rule enforcers, because they are all needed at Basileus and ColLandPlat, among other places, we are not to interfere with matters not of our concern, either as citizens or otherwise.”

He paused, crossed his legs and wrapped his hands around one knee. “You know, I’ve dealt with bureaucrats and toadies in academia, the Union navy, and with ColPlat, and most of the time, with the right words and nudges, you can get around things. But Ms. Monsiérvo is a true Company believer. I’m convinced that she can’t imagine anything happening outside the Company manuals and policies. If the Company says the improved settlers only burn their homes as a way to protest mistreatment, then that’s the truth.” He rocked forward a little, then back. “It’s fascinating to watch, in a pathological sort of way, and from a distance.”

“So the fence comes down. But I’m consulting with Ann anyway,” Gerald frowned, hands jammed into his pockets. “Ms. Monsiérvo will be leaving again tomorrow. There’s a major administrative meeting up at that northwest coastal resort, near Niu Haarlem, and she and Raymond Jones have to go. She did not sound pleased. Oh, she says to be patient. We’ve been moved back up the list for incoming goods, so we should at least be able to get the critical equipment and some rovers back up, along with replacing the food and textile synthesizers for the sub-sett.”

Martin uncrossed his legs and stood up, then stretched. “Sorry. The metal bits get stiff if I don’t move every so often.”

Metal bits? Pete removed the data stick and returned it to the professor. “I see why you wanted moral support and a witness, Gerald.”

“I have a feeling I’m going to need more once the rain finishes. Assuming it even starts.”

Martin turned, looking out the window. “Indeed. Because when certain elements sense weakness, they take advantage of it, be that weakness physical, moral, or financial.”

 

A week later Pete shivered despite himself as he watched sparks raining down from an improvised bonfire in the sub-sett as it exploded out of control. Dark shadows of people surged this way and that before the visual signal terminated. “Lost another one,” Uhuru Lonkori snarled. He’d have to find a way to replace the ruined camera some how. Behind him he heard thumps and the sound of cabinet doors slamming open.

“Right. Enough’s enough,” Ann Montoya stated. Pete turned and saw her in full riot armor, backed by Arturo and an unfamiliar figure, also in armor. “Administratrix Monsiérvo is unavailable for consultation, so I’m assuming incident command. I need water to the resupply points outside the sub-sett, but nothing inside the sub-sett until I report things are under control.”

“Sir?” Uhuru turned to Pete.

“What Captain Montoya said, Mr. Lonkori,” he ordered. “I take it you are going to establish a blocking point here?” Pete called up the map projection and zoomed it onto the road from the sub-sett into the main residential area, where the fence had once run.

“And people up here as well.” She indicated the top of the half-built wall section to the south. “Art’s got some surprises, as does the Sergeant Major.”

“So much for a quiet retirement,” the third figure sighed. He lifted his helmet visor and Pete recognized Martin Starhemberg. “I hate urban warfare almost as much as I hate fighting outside the hull.”

Pete caught himself gaping at the professor. “What’s the matter, son, never seen a Marine before?” Martin snapped before dropping his visor again.

“No sir, that is, yes sir,” Pete fell back into his cadet days.

“Don’t call me sir. I work for a living.”

Ann and Arturo exchanged weary grins. “Track us and release the water behind us, Mr. Babenburg,” Ann ordered.

By the time the public safety responders got into position, the riots had spread well into the city, almost to the site of the new house of worship. Pete and Uhuru and their staff worked like fiends, trying to anticipate which junctions and points would need pressure boosts as the firefighters and riot-breaker water-jets came into action. Teresa, one of the usual night-shift workers, kept them updated with situation reports. “Looting mostly, sir. A few assaults but most people have fled ahead or barred their gates and are beating off attempts to climb or break down the gates.”

Given the situation, Pete wasn’t surprise when people started taking matters into their own hands. He was surprised, however, to see how much damage flowerpots could do when dropped from ten meters above the street. “Sir, we have a situation,” Uhuru reported, voice trembling a little. “Teresa, give me video unit eight seven, please.”

Flashes of energy weapons sparkled in the dark street. Wait, Ann’s people are two squares over. What’s going on? A concerted attack seemed underway against one apartment block gate, and after some seconds, a bright flash washed out the image. “Shift water there.” He found Ann’s communications code. “Captain Montoya, Babenburg.”

“Talk fast.”

“Men with energy weapons blew open the gate on Riverdell House.”

“Shit. We’re moving. Out.”

The figures surged into the now-open gate. Pete watched as other figures appeared in windows. First one, then another jumped out of the lower windows. One of the attackers reappeared at the gate, aimed, and the camera’s image turned black. “Damn” Uhuru snapped.

“Not our problem,” Pete reminded him. “Water supply access is our problem.”

Two hours after midnight, municipal security pushed the last rioters back into the sub-sett and set up a cordon around the area to keep them there. Six hours later Ann, Pete, Arturo, Don McAllen, Don’s partner Wolfgang Chan, Hamid bin Marwan, and Tom Kirkland gathered in a warehouse just inside the wall, near the remains of the sub-sett. An array of energy weapons, mostly small pistol-type things, lay in neat rows on the floor. “I’d love to know where these came from,” Arturo growled.

“So would I, since they all have Company stamps on them. But that’s not our problem right now,” Pete reminded him.

“No, dealing with the remains of the sub-sett is.” Don said. “We’ve got about three thousand people under guard right now. That’s three thousand too many.”

“Agreed.” Arturo met everyone’s eyes. “Fifty people died last night, several hundred were injured, and most of the sub-sett burned, as did a few bits of the city, and Riverdell House, well, the attackers have already paid for that.”

I can guess. Pete had grown up believing that nothing justified taking another human’s life. He’d since changed his mind. Given what they did to that woman and her daughter, I’m sorry they died so quickly. He never wanted to see people jumping off a roof to get away from other humans ever again.

“So. Most of the decent people have already gotten out, or been vouched for by their employers and congregants. They are in a separate area, to protect them from the nasties.” Arturo began. “The plan at the moment is to evacuate them, quietly, and get them out of the area to prevent reprisals.”

Tom Kirkland nodded. “That leaves 2600 or so problem children. We’re going to need to deal with them.”

“2300. Three hundred are going to the Company disciplinary section.”

Tom bowed a little at the correction. “2300. I say we offer them a choice. Work or starve.”

“How so? You intend to toss them out to fend for themselves?” Pete wondered where they’d put them.

“Yes, in short.”

Hamid gestured his agreement. The metals master stated, “Either they earn their food and shelter like the rest of us, learn a skill or provide labor, or they go fend for themselves on the other side of the river. Far on the other side.”

“They can start by clearing the remains of the N block of the sub-sett for the bridge,” Ann said. “I suspect after a few days without food, the best will be willing to work.”

“And the trouble makers? Or the ones who can’t work?” Don asked.

Arturo, Tom, and Hamid wore similar grim expressions. “The truly incapable? There’s only a few and we’ll find things for them to do. The lazy ones starve or leave,” Pete said for them. “Times are going to get very hard this winter, and if they don’t want to be part of society, they can live outside of it. I suspect we’re going to lose more of our machines from overuse before things improve. Those who don’t want to participate in civilization don’t have to, but they might not like what they find out in the woods.”

 

Hunger proved a powerful motivator, as did the first snowfall. All but a few hundred die-hards agreed to work in some capacity. Pete didn’t ask what became of the “problem children.” He had other things to worry about. Work had started on the bridge, and on the highroad from the hills to the city.

The first administrative meeting following the Riverdell Riot proved to be the last meeting. The district administrators denied that anything could possibly have happened and especially not on the scale Ann Montoya claimed. As a result, when Bettina Monsiérvo finally saw the tapes, and the damage and injury reports, she fled the room in tears. Raymond Jones, lips pressed so tight they turned white, stared at the pictures, hands clenched into fists. “You’ll pay,” he snarled. “You bastards goaded them into fighting and you’ll pay for enslaving them.”

“Really,” Pete said, Martin standing at his shoulder. Or rather, looming, with Arturo looming on the other side, both in part armor. “How is this any different from working off an indenture penalty?”

“Because it’s wrong and immoral. You forced them to fight back, and now you’re torturing them with forced hard labor.”

“So how did they get Company weapons, weapons that are supposed to be restricted to the planetary defense troops?” Arturo asked.

Pete nodded, “Yes, how did they accomplish that? And how did we ‘goad’ them into burning down their own homes and food sources, pray tell.”

“I’ll get you, I swear, I’ll get you, whatever it takes,” Jones hissed, eyes wide, leaning forward, his face too close to Pete’s. “The Company will make you pay for massacring and torturing settlers.”

Preternaturally calm, Pete waved one hand. “Go. If you have nothing more to contribute you are free to go.”

Jones looked as if he wanted to try something stupid, but after darting glances at the two soldiers behind Pete Babenburg, he stormed out.

Pete flopped into a chair. “Good riddance. And it will be what, a week, before we have to deal with them, assuming they can get Company security to respond?”

“At least,” Martin agreed. “Closer to a month, I’d wager. I am sorry about Mayor Korso, though.”

“So am I. He was a decent guy. Misguided, I think, but decent.” He’d died after something failed following his third surgery.

Martin leaned on the end of the table. “So we are now in charge of Vindobona, for good or ill.”

“Did your name get official approval?” Pete hadn’t heard one way or another.

Martin shook his head and Arturo shrugged, saying, “Anything’s better than the last proposal, and it does suit the place and the situation. Gerald says ‘Fine, just don’t ask to engrave it or have it spelled out in fancy brickwork on the bridge or carved into the walls.’ He’s” Arturo paused, thinking. “What’s that old term, Sar Major?”

“Up to his ass in alligators, I believe is the ancient phrase, sir,” Martin replied. “Apparently alligators had a special fondness for the meat of civil engineers.”

Whatever an alligator was, Pete decided, he’d just as soon not meet one.

 

Two days later Cynthia went into labor. And brilliant red and yellow auroras danced in the sky, like great fires from heaven.

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

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