Saturday Story: Fountains of Mercy: Part Fourteen

Pete, Arturo, and Vindobona brace for hell and high water . . .

Well, Peter Babenburg thought, two weeks later, studying the water system’s master plan for the umpteenth time, we’ve finally got enough labor. I just wish to hell it hadn’t happened like this. Dear Lord, how I wish it hadn’t happened like this. The last of the refugees from around Donaupas and the villages downstream had trickled in that morning with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. They looked behind them with almost every step, as if afraid the very hounds of hell were on their tracks. No, just two-footed hellhounds, Peter sighed, rubbing tired eyes.

A meaty hand gripped his shoulder. “Easy there, Peter,” Arturo Montoya said. “Worry about the water and organizing supplies for the city. Let Ann, Martin, and I worry about defending the farms and everything else.”

Peter rubbed his eyes again, then ran his hand through thinning brown hair. “I am. Worried that is. We need a miracle.”

The former space marine colonel grinned, white teeth shining against dark tanned skin. “We’ve had one already, Pete. We got five years to get ready. Now it’s our turn to show our gratitude by doing the next bit ourselves, as best we can.”

He’s got a point, Pete told himself. Water and tunnels are your thing. Fighting is his. And Martin’s. And if you don’t get some sleep, you’ll nap through the next meeting and find yourself officially elected mayor or something equally horrible. “OK, I surrender. You keep the bad guys out and I’ll keep the clean water in.”

“Deal. Because I’ve seen what happens when you try to shoot. No offense but I’d be safer standing right in front of you than anywhere else.”

“Uh huh.” Pete straightened up and folded his arms. “And who was it that didn’t believe me when I said don’t drink from that spring, hmm? And how long did it take you to recover?” But that potassium nitrate in the water will help make your saltpeter a lot more powerful.

The angry growl answered his question. Pete slapped Arturo on the shoulder and left.

That evening after supper he looked at Cynthia, her attention distracted by a sound from Pete Junior’s room. For this I will fight. And fight hard. And maybe, just maybe, if God blesses us, the river will fight as well.

The next morning Pete went over the plans one more time. The rabble, well no, he reminded himself, not rabble. The army of thugs and conscripts Raymond Young had formed around Basileus moved slowly and were easy to keep track of. Which may have been Raymond’s point, as Pete and Art thought about things. Prof-Sergeant Starhemburg chewed on his pipe and wondered if anyone read books anymore. “Of course we can find him, sir. This way the fear will get here first. They’ve sacked the strongest, best-located city on the Donau Novi. Even their walls couldn’t save them, nor being in the middle of the river. So of course Vindobona will be easy pickings.” Starhemburg shifted his pipe. “That no one thought to guard the high point overlooking Donaupas so the bad guys could lob everything in from above, and no one had thought to guard the water-gates, are of course superfluous details that need not be considered.”

“That and the traitor who opened the gate from inside,” Pete added. The refugees had sworn that someone had helped Young’s people come in, and Ann and Artruo had believed them.

“An ancient and dishonorable tradition,” the NCO affirmed.

Arturo raised his hands. “Enough. We can write the after-action-report after we survive the action.” That generated some chuckles. “We have at most four days before the first parts of the army get here, according to the last courier report. Tomorrow we’ll stop sending out couriers, because I don’t want to give them hostages or warnings of what we’ve got.”

“Agreed. And we need to get all the battle horses inside the walls, while the last Heritage people finish driving their livestock into the hills.” Pete had been aghast at how many animals now crowded into the city, while even more streamed west-southwest, up into the broken lands and hidden pockets of the hills. “Most of their people and valuables are already here.” There’d been enough empty housing to accommodate them, if they doubled up. The farmers brought food for at least two weeks with them, and the security people had stockpiled fodder. Sanitation could get to be a problem, notable the disposal of animal waste, but it could always be dumped into the storm-water outflows if need be, provided the flooding didn’t cause a backup. Yet another reason not to drink from any river, Pete mused.

“If they stray off the high road, they’re going to make slow progress,” Martin observed. “The mud is ankle-deep at least already, so those siege machines will bog. And bog badly.”

“So will their carts and any wagons or rovers. And they can’t all camp on the high road, can they?” Pete didn’t think so.

“Nope. They’ll fight over the right to. And they’ll loot the heritage farms terribly, especially the gardens and any poultry or those lagom things: the rabbit-guinea pig chimera.”

“They don’t taste like chicken,” Arturo observed.

“Not even chicken tastes like chicken anymore,” Pete winked. “Not after those fryers got into the pepper patch. Pre-seasoned!”

The men discussed troop distributions and plans for a while when a heavy hand pounded on the door. “Yes?”

Antonia Okofor poked her head in. “Bird message, sir. That dam upstream started leaking from the top. The watcher’s going to join the refugees in the hills.”

“Good on him,” Pete said. “Well, gentlemen, how good is Raymond Young at amphibious warfare?”

“Not as good as he’ll need to be.”

 

Nine feet high and rising, the ancient song said. What Tye Kuyper described easily matched that and more. He shivered and panted, soaked to the skin and exhausted. “It’s a breakin’ sor. Breakin’ up bad. Chunks of rock in the river just up the bend,” he pointed that way, the same way as the approaching force. “Anyone caught out’s gonna be gone.” He wheezed a little, “An’ trouble from east, refugees from the sisters’ farm comin’ here too. Wilem’s with them, trying to get ‘em to hurry so don’t get caught.”

“Good job” Martin Starhemburg said. “Very well done. You’re dismissed.”

The teenaged boy bloomed at the praise, drew his shoulders back and nodded crisply, turned and strode out of the room. Martin leaned back against the edge of the table. “Those gals’ timing always sucks.”

“Don’t it, though, Sarge?” Thao Nguen observed. “Get here just in time for the Fires, then have to go it alone after their sponsor dumps ‘em, lost half last year’s crop, and now this.”

“If it weren’t for bad luck, Mr. Nguen, some of us would have no luck at all.”

“They’re Gerald’s problem,” Pete decided.

“What?” Martin looked incredulous. “Gerald doesn’t have any soldiers, just the bridge staff.”

“And the sisters have to cross the bridge to get to us. If they can and he can still keep the bad guys out, then great, if not, I’m sorry, but we can’t go out and get them, women or no.”

Five years he would never have said that. Five years ago he would have been petrified by the very suggestion that someone might attack Vindobona. Now he just wanted it over, and for the river to cooperate. That’s the problem with rivers, no matter where you go, Pete thought looking over the maps and diagrams once more. They do what they want when they want, and if you happen to be in the way, or inconvenienced, well tough. You’d better flee or float. “I’m going up on the wall to see for myself.”

Martin didn’t try and stop him, just saying, “Stay low and look cheap, sir.”

Thao went with him. Pete climbed the interior stairs of the western gate, on the highroad to the Heritage Center. He nodded to the guards and they let him pass. He went up a half level, stepping out onto what was supposed to have been a place for sunset viewing and star watching. Instead he saw a wide sweep of brown and gray flecked with debris, all rushing past where a blue-white river had once run. The northern and eastern banks, lower than the city side, already caught debris as the swollen stream expanded out of the flood plain. Pete turned and looked west and south, noticing how wet the area between the river and the high road already looked. Young’s men would have a horrible mess if they tried to cross the fields, and they couldn’t all fit on the high road. We’re dry, with food and water, fuel, and walls. They have a rising river, artillery, and desperation. I think we’re even, maybe.

The “army” approached before dawn the next day, during the dark twilight as yet another rain shower dribbled to a stop. Arturo called Pete up to the gate to watch. “They’d look pathetic if I didn’t know what they’ve already done,” Pete told his head of defense.

“They would. Never underestimate desperation, boss. Never, ever; think what Cynthia could do if cornered.”

The mass moved slowly, and Pete imagined he could hear the sounds of thousands of boots sliding down into the mud and sucking out again. At least Young had thought to put the siege machines on the highroad, so they could move and would be in position to hit the gate and surrounding wall. But his men labored through the muck. A few had climbed up onto the high road and Pete thought he could see shapes moving toward the Heritage Center wall. “Surprise waiting there. Not just attack shahma, either.”

“Nope. And they can’t mine under the walls, if they’ve even thought about trying. The groundwater’s so high it will flood their tunnels and trenches. If we could, I’d say just wait them out. But we can’t.”

No, we can’t, not really. And I suspect someone is already trying to come in through the outflow sewers. Pete growled a little as he watched the grey and brown mass of men and some animals oozing across the sodden fields.

Pete hoped they were men. He’d been surprised to discover that he didn’t like the prospect of killing women, even if they were part of the force attacking his city. Arturo’s suggestion that Raymond Young might use any surviving female captives from Donaupas as shields and hostages made him first queasy, then furious. I knew he was slimy, but I had no idea he’d turn out to be a monster. And where did he learn military tactics, or is he listening to former professionals, like I am? Or was he just lucky, and the people upstream just foolish?

As the mass of men, oxen, and horses advanced on the city, a series of flashes to the west caught Pete and Arturo’s eyes. A knowing smile appeared on Arturo’s face, and he studied the Heritage Center gate with his digital binoculars. “I can’t see much yet, between the distance and the dim light, but the little surprise seems to have worked. I wonder if they’ll find the other ones, or if they’ll give up for now?”

“I don’t know, sir,” Martin Starhemburg said from the shadows on Arturo’s other side, spooking Pete. “But I suspect we’ll have a messenger at the gate in a few minutes, unless something truly strange is going on back up the highroad.”

As he peered into the grey, Pete saw some sort of commotion, people moving out of the way of something, then getting back into loose formation. A few of the animals spooked and one of the throwing machines lurched out of line. Pete held his breath, hoping it would plunge off the road, but someone or something stopped it while still on the pavement. “Damn.” The source of the disturbance seemed to be a rover. Yes, now he could see it better, a rover with a lot of modifications: what looked like armor plate on the sides, an energy rifle or two mounted on the roof, people riding on the rear in a framework of metal, and no front lights.

“Stealth or saving the batteries, Sar Major?” Arturo inquired.

“Batteries. Wonder how they charge it,” Martin replied, watching the people around the rover and farther up the road. “Who’s watching the sewers?”

“Lonnie’s Rats. Loknori’s people know the system, and the subbies know dirty tricks. They make a good team, a long as they stay downwind,” Arturo said, as much for Pete’s benefit, Pete suspected, as to answer Martin’s question.

As the soldiers watched the road, Pete turned and walked north, along the wall. A surge of motion out in the field struck Pete as odd, and he stopped to peer that direction. What the? How’d they . . . OK, I’ll give him points for anticipation. I wonder how many animals he’s killed, though. Someone had mounted a stone thrower onto a flatboat or sledge of some kind, and oxen and men dragged it over the boggy ground.

Pete saw that Tom Kirkland had come up on the wall as well. Tom shook his head and spat as he watched the figures laboring to drag the monstrosity within range. “Well, that should be fun to watch.”

“Fun?”

“Sure. Just a touch smarter than mounting a ballista on a boat. What’s going to happen when they fire from that soft, uneven surface? Nothing good, since actions generate reactions: rock goes forward and thrower goes backwards or down, or both.”

The man beside them sniffed. “That could be a hell of a muddy splash.”

“Yes indeed.”

Pete continued along the wall, trying not to hurry, trying to act as if he and Arturo had everything under control. What Pete really wanted was to see the river’s level. He needed daylight, but the twilight refused to brighten under the thick clouds. He’d reached the northern curve of the wall, by the administrative fort, before he saw what he needed to see.

The Donau Novi had begun overrunning the docks. Upstream, it lapped into the water meadows and fields on the city side of the stream. Cold knowledge made the hydro-engineer shiver. He and Don had run the calculations twice each yesterday and reached the same conclusion: once the dam went, which he’d suspected would happen during the night, the flood surge would reach the highroad, two kilometers at least from the normal riverbank. And come a meter up the walls, possibly more but not too much more. Would Gerald’s bridge hold? It might, if that stupid little breakwater upstream diverted enough flow.

He went back to the top of the western gate. “I think that’s a, what was the term, not catapult, back there,” he heard Arturo saying.

“Trebuchet, sir, and the one on the flatboat is a ballista. I’d be more worried about the trebuchet. It can get things over the wall,” adding under his breath, “if it doesn’t come apart after the first few shots.”

The “armored” rover approached the gate and stopped. One of the doors opened and a figure in a tailored, remarkably clean light-colored coverall stepped out. Pete and Arturo both blinked at the sight of Raymond Young, looking like he’d arrived for a high-profile administrative meeting instead of a siege. He folded his arms and patted the ground with his foot, as if expecting something. Pete shrugged. Young could go first.

Finally Young grew impatient, or decided that the watchers could not read his mind. “Open the gate,” he called up to them.

“Why?” Pete called back.

“Because I’ve brought Company security people, the settlers you dispossessed, plus refugees. Under the Company charter for this municipality, you are required to provide subsistence-level shelter and consumables to those forced out of their own residences.” His voice carried well and he sounded bored, as if going through the usual formalities of a meeting or annual conference.

Don joined Pete and Arturo up on the top of the gate. “What’s he want?” Don asked. “And Gerald says he votes in favor of whatever Pete wants.”

Gerald for mayor. All in favor? “He wants in, him and his friends.”

“A question, Mr. Young,” Arturo called down. “What happened at Donaupas?”

Raymond seemed taken aback, or so Pete guessed from his step backward. Does he not know, or are we not supposed to know? “What do you mean? Did they have some sort of trouble?”

“Some sort, yes.” Arturo gave Pete a look. Pete shook his head a little. Arturo called down, “Oh, and apparently the dam upstream was built by a low bidder. There’s some question of its integrity.”

“Ah, much like anything else touched by an engineer, then,” Raymond called back with a sneer. “Enough. Let me in.”

“Sorry, Mr. Young. You and your friends will need to go around. We don’t have supplies for us and for you.”

Young smiled, a long, lazy, nasty smile, as if he’d wanted to be told no. “Oh good. That’s what the fools at Donaupas said too. I suspect you’ll like my toys even less than they did.”

Pete took a deep breath, about to call down and warn them about what might be coming. Then he stopped. No. He and his followers made their choice, and if they reap the consequences, it’s their problem. That was, assuming they didn’t breach the walls, or sneak in the back, or come up through the sewers, or . . . He probably shouldn’t have listened to all of Arturo, Martin, and the other soldiers’ talks about siege warfare.

“Get under cover, boss,” Arturo didn’t quite order as Raymond Young’s vehicle wove back through the crowd on the highroad. “And be glad they didn’t shoot at us with that roof mounted gun.”

People shooting energy rifles at the walls didn’t bother Pete. Part of the matrix holding the basic stone material together absorbed and diffused energy blasts. After the Jarlorm War, that had become standard in all colonial walled structures, and the clash with the Gormies just reinforced it. As long as Young had not found or devised a high-power energy cannon, the walls could take what he dished out. However, the ballista and trebuchet could cause damage, depending on the loads and what they intended to do with them. Pete stopped at the administrative fortress long enough to make certain that Cynthia, baby Sabrina and Pete Jr, Sheila White, and others were still under cover in one of the half-cellars. Then he trotted across the city to Gerald’s bridge.

Panting, Pete climbed up to the top of the wall on that side. In the distance he could see the women of the sisters’ farm colony hurrying as fast as they could. Gerald’s people waited by the bridge on the city end, and a few sharpshooters lurked behind false rocks atop the eastern wall. The area around the road on the eastern shore already swam with grey brown water, making the highroad the only route. It looked as if a few men on horses raced to intercept the women, with minimal success, so far. Pete wondered how Raymond’s men had crossed the river, then turned his worries to more important things. He looked around and found Gerald listening to someone on the radio. Oh, yeah, need to turn mine on. He dug the earpiece out of his belt pouch and turned the receiver on. After a moment of hissing and popping, he heard a faint voice. Pete adjusted the volume to a more comfortable level, just in time to hear a dull “boom” from the west.

“They found the second surprise at the farm. Alex was right, that stuff’s dangerous,” Thao said.

Damn, there go any windows they didn’t remove.

“What stuff?” Gerald asked, eyes on the bridge and the water levels.

“Something from soya beans. When they are a little damp and you try to store them, the gas is intoxicating and asphyxiating. And explosive.”

“Oops.” Gerald leaned forward, eyes on the women. “Crap. Trouble behind and the water’s surging.” Pete leaned as well and saw how the surface seemed to be jumping. “We’d better hope that damn mill weir does more than cause a debris jam.”

The sound of yelling began in the west. Pete wanted to go look, but fighting was Arturo and Martin’s job. He was supposed to lead, as unlikely as that sounded. So he stayed on the wall and watched the three-dozen or so women, some on foot, some in overloaded wagons or on animal back, racing to the city, with the river and Young’s outriders both after them. Come on, please Lord, please, he begged.

Behind him he heard a “swish THUD.” He turned in time to see bits of something falling back to earth on the western side of the city. “The trebuchet works,” someone said in his ear. “Damage report.”

“Went through the storehouse roof, two blocks inside the wall. Looks like a stone block for ammo,” a new voice replied.

Thanks be, not fireblobs then.

“Concentrate fire at the crew and at the frame,” Martin ordered. “Keep them from reloading easily.”

After another long pause he heard a thud and an odd squelching sound, barely audible over the river noises and yelling. “Scratch one ballista,” Arturo reported.

“Come on, come on,“ Gerald prayed under his breath. “Faster, faster.” The women seemed so close, but now that they’d gotten to the paved road, the men behind could move faster too. Pete bit his lip. He’d been ordered not to tell the men when to fire: he didn’t know sniping from stardust, as Prof Sar-Major Martin had let him know. Shoot, shoot! What are you waiting for? They’re in range, come on, shoot, for the love of Heaven shoot! He grabbed the edge of the stone in front of him, trying to will the women across and the men to fire on the raiders.

One of the women, the slowest runner, stumbled, and Young’s men whooped, their triumph audible over the sound of the river and Pete’s own heartbeats. A burst of light shot out, hitting the woman, before a spatter of shots began darting out from the towers of the bridge and the top of the wall. The other women continued on, leaving their dead sister behind. The first horse set foot on the bridge, and the rider slowed but kept coming. Pete heard the gate open below him, and the women surged ahead. Those on foot picked up speed as best they could, and the soldiers fired close behind them. The instant the last form crossed the central arch of the bridge, Gerald called, “Pull back! Pull back! Activating pass through in five.” Several men clambered down from the far tower and ran pell-mell toward the city, and the men on the wall began firing, covering the maneuver. Two of Young’s men returned fire: their shots splashed against the wall and Pete ducked.

“Four.” Pete sensed a rumble through his feet and heard a new, growling tone in the river sounds.

“River’s in, the river’s in!” Arturo called.

“Three” Gerald reported, calm.

A thud from below and, “East gate shut and locked. All present or accounted for.”

“Two.”

The rushing roar drowned out everything else and Pete thought he felt the very city shake as the floodwaters hit the lower wall.

“One.”

The central bridge deck slid up and back as the guard rails became guide rails and hydraulic pistons pulled the span in toward the city. Through the gap Pete saw the odd shape of the pier, with an upstream prow like a boat.

“Wait, the piers deflect water.”

Gerald smiled. “And debris. And without the center span, there’s more vertical space if anything needs to come through. And it keeps unfriends out. We found a shipment of well casings and used those and that heavy crude for the fluid for the pistons.” His smile weakened a little as he looked down. “I believe we are seeing a point one percent probability flood.”

Pete looked as well and felt his eyes bulging. A thousand-year flood indeed, he gulped. The water came a meter up the outside of the wall. The other side of the river stretched as far as he could see, at least to the trees three kilometers away.

He crossed back through town, alert for back flow through the sewers, and for other things. Nothing seemed to be getting through the guards and gates, and he reminded himself to repeat the warning to the people not to flush, but to use containers for the time being, at least until the river dropped a little. He found a curious crowd gathering to inspect the trebuchet damage. Pete skirted the group and went up the wall once more. I’m certainly getting my exercise today!

He looked over the top of the wall and felt his jaw drop and his mouth going dry. “Holy shit.” The Donau Novi lapped a meter up the side of the highroad, and as the sun broke through the clouds, he caught a glimpse of a shimmer to the west and south, at the foot of the little ridge. “Glasses?”

“Here, boss.” Arturo loaned him his, and Pete zoomed onto the farthest setting. A white tongue raced across the pastures, coming to the farthest fields of the Heritage Center. “The Lord still works miracles.”

“That He does.”

Pete lowered the glasses and looked at the carnage on the highroad. Dead people and animals lay here and there, and the remains of the trebuchet hung precariously off the edge of the road. “Are you sending out a follow-up force?”

“Not for a while. Most of the rabble tried to flee once we began shooting. A few shot back, but we had more disciplined fire. And then the river arrived and brought panic with it. They began fighting each other for space on the highroad, and we took care of the survivors.” Arturo turned his back on the scene. “I don’t want to hear screams like that again. In space, you don’t hear the screams.”

“If the Lord wills, and word gets around, we won’t have to do this again.” Dear Most High, may we never have to do this again, nor our children.

 

Of the fifty women from the Sisters’ farm, forty had made it into the city. Some had been too old to flee and had taken their chances on staying behind. The body of the woman who’d gotten the mercy shot washed away, never to be found.

“We don’t have any valuables but our books and liturgical items,” their leader, Sister Maria Sabrina, said. “Mother Kiara took most of the books and crop with her when she went to start a new House south of Starland, leaving us with enough to get through the winter before we relocated.”

“You are welcome to stay here,” Father Mou said. “Especially if any of you have nursing or elder care skills.”

Sister Maria pointed to the sisters in the wagon. “They do, and many of us can sew fabric as well as sow crops, and do other things. Sister Martin is a carpenter, and two are vet technicians.”

“You are welcome,” Pete agreed. “I’m Pete Babenburg, the acting head of Vindobona.”

Sr. Maria looked around, as if searching for someone. “Who built the bridge? The company told us there’s never be a bridge because of environmental preservation, but rumor reached a few months ago that someone had been working on one, and we took a chance once your messenger told us about Donaupas and Basileus.”

“Gerald White, over there, did,” Fr. Jan Mou pointed to the engineer.

“Truly, he is a saint among men!”

Well, his wife might disagree, but I’m not going to argue right now, Pete thought. And I’m not going to tell him, either. It’ll just go to his head.

 

The last of the floodwaters receded three weeks later, but the stench lingered in places until the first frost. An initial survey revealed that the Heritage Center survived, aside from what the looters had gotten to or that had been mined. The complex sat just high enough that the water missed it. Although sand had ruined the fields closet to the river, the flood left lots of timber and even some stone for salvage, as if in exchange. Of Raymond Young’s army, little trace remained.

“Have you found Young?” Pete had inquired two days after the battle.

Arturo and Ann exchanged a private look. Art planted his forearms on the table and leaned forward. “Some of the refugees and the tunnel rats did. We’ve confirmed the body’s identity.”

“He died in the battle? Huh.”

The expression in Ann’s eyes made the hair on Pete’s neck stand up and he leaned away despite the width of the table between them. “We confirmed the identity of the body. I wouldn’t worry about it, sir.” Her tone suggested that Pete really, truly did not want to know the story.

“Very well.” He glanced down at his files and changed the topic. “Gerald says the bridge footings on the far side of the river are intact, but the roadbed beyond’s going to need some work.”

 

“What became of the ballista?” Cynthia asked a few weeks later at a general council meeting.

Martin didn’t look up from his notes. “As Tom warned, physics got it.”

Helga Starhemburg sighed a little at her husband’s terseness. “A ballista is a giant crossbow, so when they fired the first rock forward, the reverse thrust dug the stabilizing bar into the soft ground and the thing flipped over. Ruined it and smashed two men, or so I heard.”

Martin sighed in turn. “Dear, by now everyone should know what a ballista does.”

“This is not a class and no, they do not, dear,” Helga replied. Cynthia and Pete smiled at each other and held hands under the table.

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

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One thought on “Saturday Story: Fountains of Mercy: Part Fourteen

  1. That’s a win for the good guys! 🙂 Nice end to the building tension, and proof that one doesn’t want to mess with Mother Nature!

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