Saturday Story: Fountains of Mercy: Part Twelve

As the Peilov-Krehbiel settlement digs in, the still officially unnamed city (that the locals call Vindobona)  gets ready for trouble, and a crazy professor comes out of retirement . . .

Three and a half years had passed since the last major aurora, the red one that lasted for half a day and almost all the night. Pete, walking back from a neighborhood water meeting, looked around the city square and marveled. I’m surprised we’re here at all, let alone surviving this well. The Lord granted us a miracle. The walls of the new worship center stood almost half finished, started by the great stone-making machine and now being finished by human hands and simpler devices. A fountain bubbled in the square, and as Pete watched, three small children dipped their hands into it, splashing around and enjoying the cool water. Their mothers caught them and after mild fussing, led them off to do other things.

Enjoy the peace while you can, he thought at them, then continued on his way. He caught a whiff of manure and frowned. A young woman with a small catch cart hurried past him on her way to sweep up what one of the farm wagons had left behind. They recycled the manure on the farms, and the workers got credit for every kilo they turned in. The city saved other things too, and Pete wrinkled his nose. OK, Arturo was right, but ugh, I don’t want to admit it.

Arturo Montoya had announced one afternoon at the city council meeting, “We’ll need saltpeter.” At Pete’s strange look, he’d explained, “You know, potassium nitrate. At some point the energy packs and other rifle and handgun parts will wear out, and we still need to defend ourselves.” With the Company’s energies totally focused on keeping order in the few remaining big cities and spaceports, the city, now half-seriously called Vindobona, governed itself and the surrounding twenty kilometers of farmland and forest. “And charcoal and sulfur, but those are easy compared to saltpeter.”

“OK, where do you buy it?” Andrea Okofor asked, making a note. “And how much will it cost?”

Arturo shook his head as Pete and Gerald tried to recall. “You make it, unless you have a place where the heat in the soil causes it to develop and you can mine it. I’ve been talking to Alex Danilov and Fritz Gunter, and they have two bricked-up cellars we can use to ‘ripen’ human and animal waste into saltpeter. Charcoal we’ve got in abundance, and sulfur’s found in a couple places, like that area near the fire fountain that used to be at the edge of the Triangle Range.”

The light dawned and Gerald said, “You’re going to need a powder mill as well, won’t you? It had better be way outside the city limits, young man.”

“Would I mix dangerous chemicals in my basement?” Arturo sat up straight, and affronted expression on his face. “I am shocked, shocked, good sir, that you would even suspect that I might once have gotten into mischief with a chemical synthesizer as a young man.” Then he grinned, flashing white teeth, “And it’s Ann you should worry about. She’s also found a source of flint if, God forbid, we reach that point. Brass and lead we have, and we can recycle those as we use them.”

Only on the frontier would you find people discussing power rifles and flintlock muskets in the same breath, Pete thought yet again, nodding to a woman who tipped her hat at him. Of course, if you’d told him five years ago that Bettina Monsiérvo and the Company would have deserted the city, that he’d be the acting mayor, and that horses and oxen had replaced rovers for the moment, he’d have called the medical center to see if a neuro-perception specialist could come by and talk to the person. No even back to solar power or internal combustion engines, but straight to animal power. Because we don’t have a way to refine the oil into fuel and don’t have the machinery to make the parts anymore, not since the auto lathe died last year. And no one can make integrated or nanowired circuits, and that surprise hailstorm terminated enough solar panels that we can’t charge the rovers.

The precision machines failed first, and without replacement parts available, people adapted them to other uses or cannibalized the failed devices to keep still-functioning things running. Hamid bin Marwan had become an expert at converting the dead or dying equipment into new devices, and he kept detailed records of what worked and what didn’t. They’d run out of welding gas two years ago, and had reverted to pounding semi-molten metals together. Despite rumor to the contrary, no one had started bottling and shipping the natural gas to use for welding yet. Pete admired Hamid’s skill, and hoped he’d take on more students. If anything happened to him, they’d lose a critical resource.

Pete walked into his section of the former company administrative building. After Tom Kirkland’s observation that it wouldn’t need many changes or additions to become a damn good defensive position, since the big windows faced inside, onto a garden, Arturo and Sergeant Professor Martin Starhemberg had wasted no time matching truth to appearance. They’d used labor from the former subsistence settlers, most of who realized that hard work beat starvation. “Yes, Colonial Plantation Limited has an obligation to feed, house, and clothe you. We don’t, unless you provide some service in return. The world’s different now,” Pete had told them at an unruly meeting. They’d protested mightily, but the former subsistence settlers knew what waited away from the city. Ann and Arturo had been especially blunt when they described the dire conditions at the biggest urban areas. If even half the rumors about ColLandPlat were true, working for the administrators of Vindobona or at the farms was a thousand times better than chancing their lives on what they’d find in the remains of the big cities. Most of the remaining sub-sett residents stayed. Some of them learned, and learned well enough that they became stonemasons, carpenters, and master builders with skills much in demand. A half-dozen of these masters and their families now lived at Starland, building a walled shelter there.

No, call it a fortress, because that’s what it is. Walled cities and small fortresses had sprung up over the past three years as order broke down, rippling out in waves from the mega cities. Disease had rippled out as well, but the plagues had missed Vindobona thus far, in large part because of the city’s clean water.

Pete nodded to a few of the building staff as he went first to his office. Cynthia had insisted that it be comfortable to the eye, and so pale blue with darker blue trim formed the basic idea. He’d kept Bettina’s holo art, and now a few local pieces joined the collection. A sunset painting showing the city from the western hills especially appealed to him, as did a printed photograph of the same scene in winter. It shared the same feeling as the long-lost painting of hunters in winter that he recalled from his art and cultural history class years ago.

He’d just gotten comfortable and picked up the latest progress report from the new library when someone tapped on the door. “Come in.”

Ann Montoya, now grey-haired from stress but still energetic, bounded in. “Got news, boss, and a rumor.” She shut the door behind her.

“Have a seat. Good news or bad news?”

“If by good you mean we’ve finally answered that question about what else can go wrong, then good. Otherwise probably bad, but I’m not sure yet.”

Pete settled back in the chair, bracing mentally as well as physically. “OK, what hit?”

“We’re on our own. That Company supply shipment everyone’s been counting on? Didn’t come. No word why, no answers on the sub-light systems, nothing on the must-respond emergency system. Zip, zilch, nil.” Ann looked down, and when she looked back up at him, she had tears in her eyes. “I,” she swallowed hard. “I think it’s time to give up waiting for someone to save us.”

Pete got up, walked around his desk, and rested his hand on her shoulder, as much familiarity as he could allow. “Ann, I suspect deep down a lot of us thought this day might come. That’s why we’ve been retrieving every bit of information we can salvage, and adapting to lower and lower tech as things break.”

“I know boss, but it’s one thing to know it here,” she tapped her head. “And another thing to accept it here,” she tapped her heart.

“Agreed.” Cynthia had cried for several days when she finally acknowledged that she’d never see or speak to their other children again. Pete had channeled his grief into planning and digging up part of the inner fort’s garden so Cynthia could plant local flowers. But they had Pete Junior, and whoever Cynthia now carried. Pete hoped for a girl, but he prayed for healthy.

He went back to his seat. “So, assuming that we are on our own, what security position does that put us in?”

Ann straightened up. She’d taken over administration of the security teams, letting Arturo and Martin handle the grunt work (literally). They’d recruited and trained a core of decent soldiers and peacekeepers, with a larger group of volunteer helpers and watchers. “OK, we are pretty safe from anyone coming from the south, mostly because there’s just not that many people down there, and they are all farmers, herders, small towns. Except for Starland and those folks who fortified the spa in the hills, um, Heilbrown I think it is, anyone who wants to come here has a long road to march, literally.”

“And the folks on the east side of the Dividing Range have their own problems, if any of the rumors are true.”

Ann nodded. “And may the good Lord grant that none of them are, and that the settlers and indentured workers are living in peace and harmony and prospering.”

“Amen.” Pete agreed. “So that leaves the west and north, since the women at the sisters’ farm are no threat to anyone except plant-eating pests. I don’t think we have much to worry from the western side, though. Kossiusco Peilov may be nuts but he’s not crazy.”

“He’s nuts, well defended, and sneaky. I want him on our side, boss. You know that he’s been asked to start looking after the north side of the Donatello River as well?”

“I’d heard.” Pete doubted that a settlement comprised only of Jews and Mennonites would work anywhere else, but for now seemed to be thriving. Of course, having how many children to work and to make available for marriages can’t hurt, can it? Not that I’d dare ask Cynthia what she thought about my marrying a second woman. She shoots too well, and she’d look too good in black at my funeral. “An agreement of friendship with Peilov would be beneficial.”

Ann rolled her head and neck, loosening tight shoulders. “Sorry. Spent too long copying that biography of Rommel last night. But we finished copying both Clausewitz and the book about crop rotation and plant protein.” She shrugged up and down. “Yes, we need to keep Peilov friendly. It’s the north I’m worried about, Donaupas, Basileus and beyond.”

“The cities, in other words. You know about the refugee group that passed through two weeks ago, while you were scouting to the west?”

“While I was being humiliated by a horse, you mean.” But she smiled. “Yes, that is I heard a group had come through. They kept going?”

“Yes, down south of the central hills. Apparently one of them had family down that way, and all of them were either farmers or knew a minor craft or trade. One of the men had designed the carts they pushed, very clever things using old rover wheels but wooden boxes. Sturdy but light, and they rolled easily and quietly.”

“No such thing as a stealth farm wagon,” Ann sighed. “Thanks for the ban on wooden axles and wooden mounts within the city before eight in the morning, by the way.”

“You’re welcome. The refugees said that they’d come from between ColLandPlat and, ah, the garden city, what was it, grrr,” he searched his memory. “Rosevill, the one by the lake. Apparently the cities have collapsed now that the last of the farmers have fled or been starved out.”

Ann got up and paced, thinking aloud. “So that means the rumors were true, the ones about the Company confiscating people’s crops for the urban dwellers.”

“And even enslaving the farmers, or trying to. I’m told it was not successful and not to ask for details.” The woman’s haunted, half-dead eyes had told Pete more than he wanted to know. “Now I’m really glad to be in a rural backwater, even if it is a long trip to ColLandPlat and the fashion shops.”

“Quoting your wife, are you?” Ann sat back down. “So, assuming we are not attacked by anyone from outside the atmosphere, because if we are we’re toast, will the cities turn in or out? Will they cannibalize themselves, reach the bottom, and start rebuilding, or will people abandon them and try to take over those of us who were blessed enough to have the strange combination of resources we needed to survive?” Her tone told Pete what her answer was.

She continued, “As of this morning, according to the messenger system, there’s fighting going on around Donaupas and the river-run dam, and over the larger dam upstream. Not sure what’s going to happen there, but we should have word in a day or two if the couriers get here.” They’d set up a series of riding relays for news and small, valuable supplies. The farmers like the news and possibility of medicines reaching them, and the city kept ahead of some goings on. And riders could travel when the heliograph and messenger birds couldn’t.

“Well, that could be interesting, since the river’s rising.” After the cool spring, the thaw had begun slowly, then cut loose, or so the reports had it. “Which reminds me, I need to talk to Alex and Fritz about their flood evacuation plans.” He stopped, “Oh, what was the rumor?”

Ann’s eyes went cold. “That Raymond Young managed to get himself made head of a bunch of the sub-sett survivors from up north and west, and is claiming that since he represents the Company, everyone must follow his dictates ‘for the duration of the emergency’ or whatever the old wording used to be.” She added, “and he still hates you.”

“Thanks.” I think. Pete considered the rumor and discarded it. Young never struck Pete as the surviving type.

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

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