Saturday Story: Fountains of Mercy: Part Thirteen

The Company is no more, and Vindobona is on its own, with the river nine feet high and risin’ . . .

Pete’s chance to talk to Alex and Fritz came the next day at a water board meeting. Well, more of an “everyone along the right-of-way talk about general matters” board meeting. Alex Danilov, now officially head of the farmers and others living in the community on the west side of the city, had brought Fritz Gunter, the vet tech who escaped with his wife from the sub-sett after the first riot. Fritz served as unofficial liaison between those born to the Heritage community and the newcomers. Gerald and Don were there, and Uhuru Lonkori, along with Tom Kirkland, since he dealt with the run of the river.

“I’ll cut to the chase,” Pete began. “The spring rise is on the way. Observers west of Donaupas say the river’s already out of the banks and carrying a good load of debris. The Donatello’s also up, enough so that it washed out the bridge between Peilov’s place and Donatello Bend.”

“She’s late,” Tom observed. “Late means mean; lots of debris, some good logs.” The shipwright loved salvaging the “free” timber from the river, and had given his apprentices enough scares in the process to cure them of almost any sin you could think of.

Don McAllan shifted in his seat. “I’ve got the backflow valves ready to close once it starts rising here, but I’m concerned about that new weir someone built, the one on a line with the ridge.”

Pete and Gerald compared notes. “Not one of us,” Pete said. “How big is it?”

“It extends ten meters from the edge of the floodplain into the river, is made of stone and wood, and will be the base of a gristmill,” Alex informed everyone. “What’s the problem?”

Don doodled a quick sketch on the scrap pad. “This: if enough debris piles up on it, it will start a backflow into the old riverbed, turning the ridge and high road into islands. And if it gives way, the mass will rip out Gerald’s bridge downstream and flood the city.”

Gerald wagged one hand back and forth. “It might not. I’ve got a trick up my sleeve. You’ll see it once the forms come down, which should be in two days, Lord willing.”

Pete trusted Gerald’s judgment, and opted to continue to the next topic. “OK, so the problems we face are the usual spring overflow, plus debris, plus the weir backing up water into the old valley,” he read off. “From the depth reports I’ve read in the last bird message, we need to start emptying the cellars in the low parts of town, and Tom, you need to pull stuff up as well.” Grumpy faces met his announcement. “At least we’ll still have clean drinking water.”

“Will we? Can’t the stuff get into the holding basins as the groundwater level rises and contaminates them?” Don asked.

“No. They are triple lined, and we’re going to put extra watchers on the pipes, checking quality and adjusting inflow if needed.”

Uhuru waved his hand. “Back up there, chief. You mentioned messenger birds?”

“Messenger birds. It seems those obnoxious, messy, disgusting avian rats have a use. They are not just ‘pigeons,’ but homing pigeons. When the heliograph system is up and running, we can use that, but for gray weather or short distances, and things we’d just as soon not have every Don, Kos, and Martin reading, the birds work pretty damn well, as long as you are not trying to deliver Arturo’s new manual of arms.”

Uhuru spread his hands twenty centimeters apart and raised one eyebrow. Tom shook his head and spread his own hands shoulder width, then winked. “It was shorter until the professor-sergeant-sir corrected and improved it.”

“So, my sewers are safe,” Don read off, “we have some time to get ready for high water, we may have water where water used to be but isn’t right now, and the usual places will flood. And it’s a good time to clean the cellars. Anything else?”

Pete took a deep breath. Damn, I wish Ann, Arturo, or the mad professor were here. “Yes. There’s fighting going on at Donaupas, and at the high bridge upstream. Art’s gone to get more information, and Martin Starhemberg is getting the city protection people organized, while his wife, Helga, who must be a saint, is talking to Alex’s people about stockpiling food here, in this building, and other places in case they need to move in with us.”

“We can get the livestock up into the hills if we need to, but it’s easier if our families are safe,” Alex explained.

Fritz nodded, blue eyes grim. “And we’re going to keep one example of all our most complicated or valuable tools here, in the walls, in the library, so if, God forbid, the center burns down, we have models to work from.”

“You’re making a knowledge ark,” Tom Kirkland exclaimed. “Brilliant!”

Uhuru nodded, his face more animated then Pete had seen in years. “That’s a fantastic idea. We’re safe, neutral, can defend ourselves, are out of the way, and have room to store materials as well as texts and ideas. Once things settle down, if the Company hasn’t come back yet, we’ll have the knowledge of how to keep going and rebuild what’s missing.”

“Great thinking, Pete!”

“Well done. That’s going to make things easier.”

“Excellent work.”

Pete felt his face flushing a little. “Um, thank you. We, that is Cynthia, Sheila White, Father Jan Mou and I thought starting with the old place of worship would be a good depository, and we can expand as the need arises.” It was Mou, Arturo’s and Cynthia’s idea, but this isn’t the time to be correcting people. I need all the credit I can get.

“Anything else we need to discuss?” Gerald asked once everyone settled down.

“What to do if we are attacked.” Pete’s words hushed the meeting. “The city’s easy enough to defend. The bridge and the Heritage Center will be a challenge, depending on the size of the attacking force, how organized they are, and how much notice we get.”

“The bridge keepers will take care of my bridge,” Gerald smiled, leaning back in his chair, arms folded, radiating an air of confidence that made Pete jealous. “It is a very traditional design, with some traditional defensive features built in.”

Alex and Fritz looked less confident. “We will not fight. It is against our beliefs. We will flee, and we will help those in need, but we cannot take up arms.”

I hope you never need to, Alex, but I pray we can find a way to keep you safe and out of the way.

Fritz gave Pete a weak grin. “The plan is to move all the mules and some of those strange shahma throwbacks to the front gate. That should be enough to discourage anyone to leave us alone.”

Those familiar with the animals in question chuckled. “I admit,” Don said, “I’d never believed in a fighting shahma until I met, what are you calling him?”

“Cuddles. My daughter named him Cuddles.” He sighed, the deep, heartfelt sigh of a father dreading the future. “I fear for my sanity by the time she turns ten.”

Someone muttered, “Wait until she turns sixteen,” and some looks of commiseration turned Fritz’s direction.

“On that note, there’s no other business that I have,” Pete said. “I apologize for calling you all in this morning, but I wanted to get the news and rumors out of the way, in case we get really busy before the usual monthly meeting.”

“I needed to come in and look at sheds and pens,” Alex said.

“And I claim salvage on any timber in the river,” Tom announced, slapping his hand onto the table.

“So long as you don’t mess with bodies or try to hook a h’wale or other giant sea monster, I’m fine.” Gerald said.

“Ditto,” Don agreed. “Fish upstream of the sewage outfall and I wish you well.”


Arturo came back the next morning, as soon as the city gate opened. “Fucking hell, Donaupas is a mess and we’re going to have an even bigger one coming our way if those fools actually manage what they’re trying.”

Pete and Cynthia looked at Ann and Arturo. “Pause and reset to the first datafile, please,” Cynthia said, shuffling files on the lap-screen until she found a map. “You got to Donaupas,” she prompted.

“We did, and noticed that everyone else was going the other way, mostly due south, fleeing from the river and into the rough forest. And carrying anything they could pack or haul. Forewarned, Thao Nguen and I left the horses with Ann and snuck as close as we could to the old scenic overlook. Someone put a guard there, but he’d found something really interesting to drink by the time we reached him.” Art frowned. “Unprofessional and stupid, but useful for us.

“I’d say, based on what I’ve read about the old ways of capturing a city, the attackers had broken in and were sacking Donaupas. Buildings burning, people running, people hauling wagons piled with stuff out the north gate, totally unorganized looting. And other things.”

Arturo gave Cynthia a look that made Pete want to go kill something. Cynthia blanched and almost dropped the lap screen. “Other things?”

“The old laws of war, very old, before the Petroleum Age, allowed the winners of a siege a day’s free run in the captured city if they took it by storm. Free looting, no person or property was considered protected.”

“Dear God, we’ve sunk so low?”

Ann shook her head. “No, they did. We won’t. Because we won’t let them get siege machines up close to the walls. Thank the Lord for a moat on two sides.”

“Woah, wait,” Pete protested. “Siege machines? Like the big robodiggers and energy blasters?” There’s nothing that can stop those. Our municipal generator’s not enough to power a shield of any kind, even if we slaved all the smaller generators together and found a way to project the shield.

“Not anything modern, thanks be,” Art corrected. “They have a really, really primitive but effective trebuchet and an arrow thrower, uh, ballista the Sar Major calls them. Use rocks for ammo, machines made of leather or rubber, wood, metal, all right out of my first history of warfare book back at the academy. Which may be where they got the ideas from, because I do mean right out of the textbook. Give me some time and I can probably find the exact illustration and file code.”

Ann spoke up again, “Which is why we need to get everyone’s old books and manuals and store them in a central location. We’re going to lose so much that we need to know. No more keeping copies in people’s houses.”

We’re doing both, Pete thought at her, but kept quiet. “So, Donaupas is looted and probably being abandoned. Anything else up that way?”

“Oh yeah,” Ann snorted. “That higher dam upstream? Someone’s attacked it. With rockets of some kind, judging by the pock marks and cracks.”

Pete’s blood went cold. “Cracks?” Rockets? No one’s supposed to have rockets; that’s a violation of Comp—. Damn damn damn.

“Bunch of small ones, up at the top of the dam, like someone tried to blow a hole in it for giggles and failed.”

“Was any water coming out of the long tubes in the front of the dam?” That would relieve pressure in a controlled fashion.

Ann and Arturo both shrugged. “Not that we saw, just the normal side flow that’s been there for two years or so.”

The spillways and penstocks are closed. The top’s been cracked and there’s high water coming. If it gives way . . . God save Donaupas because no one else can.

“So bad guys are sacking the next largest city upstream, and the dam’s liable to give way. Either way we have our hands full,” Arturo concluded. Under the table, Pete took Cynthia’s hand and they both nodded.

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


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