Zahn

Part of 2100 CE.

Rolling up the sleeves of his blazer, Beowulf Zahn stepped from the lobby of the Administrative Center and onto the covered portico outside.  He paused in the artificial sunlight to let it warm his face.  The light was reflected from mirrors mounted around the colony’s northern axial end, the end which extended most deeply into the asteroid, and came not from the sun but from a series of powerful, specialized solar simulators.  Their light was fed against a ring of mirrors which in turn illuminated and warmed the colony interior, the mirrors moving with the passing of time in order to simulate day, sunset, night, and sunrise.

            Down the portico stairs he stepped onto to the plaza below, an old-fashioned municipal staple which had made a comeback among mining colonies.  Here the administrative center for the colony and its mining operations faced a Spanish plaza shared by security headquarters on the one hand and the colony’s clinic on the other.  The plaza itself was dotted with trees, park benches, a café, and the inevitable urban avian, in this case an engineered variant of sparrow introduced to provide 8-Gitano greater environmental aesthetic to the urban and suburban landscape which had found its ecological niche as a sort of dwarf pigeon.  The tiny obese birds waddled from his path as he crossed the plaza, waving to Frederica and her friend from the clinic—Dulceza?—waiting on coffee and lunch from the café.  They called out to him, as most people on the colony did: Mister Zahn.

            At the end of the plaza he paused in another patch of light.  The boulevard here ran the length of the colony, from the spaceport at the base of the southern mountain to the nature preserve of the northern mountain.  It was on that very northern end that the sunlights were mounted, hidden behind an immobile end cap mounted at the colony’s cylindrical axis.  Were one to look directly towards the light, the effect would not be the same as looking into true direct sunlight.  It would instead appear like the sun were just hidden behind a distant mountain peak—still very much apparent in its perpetual shining radiance, but just out of sight.

            On the southern end the opposing mountain was barren of any construction.  At its base stood the terminal of the Gitano Spaceport, where passengers and cargo would pass to cars mounted on the colony’s exterior and be shuttled to the asteroid’s lone spacedock, itself constructed along the colony’s southern axis and thus in zero-gravity.  From within the colony, there was no visible evidence of the spacedock or any of the operations behind the mountain.  At this distance, Zahn could just make out the cave located near the axis which disguised a second entrance to the spacedock.  It was high up on the mountain from any direction approached and was surrounded by fencing hidden well among the trees, keeping the illusion real.

            If viewed casually—and without awareness of the colony’s artificial nature—the internal construction of 8-Gitano gave the impression of living in a mountain valley.  There was no evidence of the asteroid surrounding them or the vast emptiness of space beyond.

            Zahn had not appreciated the scale of the operations in this part of the solar system.  He had started his career among the more recent settlements founded on Mars, some years before war exploded on the red planet.  Although in that setting he had served a substantially larger population than the thirteen-hundred of 8-Gitano, on Mars he had been one of hundreds of administrators tasked with one particular role or objective, and they themselves were part of a larger system of individuals serving a total population exceeding some three million.  If something went wrong on Mars, as it did at Harbindale, he and his colleagues could call upon the substantial resources of both Mars’ surface-based operations and its orbiting support networks.

            Out here, there were no such supports, no neighbors to call for assistance or deux ex machina orbiting supervisors.  Zahn had been selected to administer 8-Gitano specifically because of his proven skill in managing a complex, multifaceted situation—in his case a crisis—which affected all parts of society, from governance and civic services to the continued working of commercial services and jobs.  He had been far from resolving the Medea crisis in Harbindale when the Martial Union took direct control of the settlement, but then he had never been expected to put an end to such a precipitous crisis.  The virus had affected one in three exposed to it—you were either genetically predisposed to fight it off, or you were not.  Those who were able to fight it off suffered from a form of bronchitis requiring only a few weeks of steroid treatment, with no known cases of recidivism.

            Those who could not fight it off simply died.  They suffered excruciating deaths as their lungs were ravaged by the virus, expiring just three days following the onset of symptoms.

            The administration on Harbindale had at first assumed it was a problem with atmospheric mixtures being fed down to the crater, since the virus presented itself primarily as inflammation in the upper repository system.  No one could have imagined it had come through the water supply, syphoned from the presumably pristine meltwaters of the polar ice cap.  Its precise nature and provenance were never clearly explained, the authorities opting to evacuate Harbindale wholesale and abandon the settlement pending further investigation.  Zahn knew now as he had known then that there was absolutely no incentive for the companies which had sponsored Harbindale to go back.  Their other investments on the red planet were paying off and showed no sign of the same problems their little polar experiment had shown.  To Zahn’s knowledge, no team had ever again visited the abandoned settlement to investigate the virus, and now in place of a settlement there was the Harbindale Exclusion Zone.

            The experience and the resulting economic slowdown on Mars had soured him to continuing work on the red planet.  An international development seminar he attended with a colleague from Hardindale opened his eyes to advances in settlement operations across deep space.  Where for a time it had been more cost-effective to bring asteroids to the major hubs of human activity in Earth and Mars orbits, the growth of settlements further afield had come to change that calculus.  The Galilean moons and Titan competed with the likes of Mars and Earth as much for scarce resources, as for the mundane, like ice.  It no longer made sense to transport materials to the orbits of these earlier hubs, just to then ship them once again across the gulf of space to market.

            An aerial drone buzzed past overhead, on its predetermined route inspecting traffic along the boulevard, as well as the boulevard’s structural integrity, itself lying along a subterranean reinforcement beam.  Drones, not unlike that one, were what had made the difference, if indirectly.  Packs of drones were operated by individual miners within the layers of rock surrounding the colony cylinder, operating along a station-wide wireless network that kept track of both robot and human.  At any given moment, Zahn could pull up the exact location of a single dog-sized mining drone or its handler a few yards down the tunnel, controlling anywhere between fifteen to twenty of the drones.  The miner’s job was mostly redundant, however; the system’s creators had long since acknowledged that a single handler could manage a pack of drones numbering in the hundreds.  It was the Confederation’s perception of economic imbalances on Earth that maintained certain checks on industrial automation.  These were in turn written into the agreements governing mining rights, all but requiring the employment of large numbers of individuals to supervise even larger numbers of automated A.I.

            These conditions implied a necessary move towards an in situ model of mining, one which provided for a minimum of housing and food for its labor force, but in practice also accounted for the availability of other social and commercial services.  Early experiments took a military-style approach of twelve-month deployments at a colony mining operation followed by twelve months of paid leave at residential habitats at Ceres, Pallas, and Juno.  For the most remote asteroids where operations are often deemed short term, this model works and continues to work, but on a larger scale it requires a particular type of individual, one whose demands on residential and commercial services extend only to their person—and not members of the families and affiliated communities which had sprung up across the host planetoids.

            8-Gitano and its sister colonies were a move to mitigate the situation.  Here a cohort of miners, numbering some five hundred, was tasked with the mining of not only 8-Gitano, but the other dozen asteroids of the Gitano mining cluster, an operation expected to take as much as two to three generations.  Unlike the deployment model, here after each shift, miners would return to the creature comforts of a rural settlement rather than the cramped confines of mining barracks.  Here they could have families, and their families would have education and jobs.  It made life in deep space truly bearable, and in turn the communities which served the miners would one day become the basis of multiple such communities in deep space, each supported by their own self-sufficient economies—for while the colony’s primary export were the minerals mined for Ceres Materials Company, it was its secondary export, food, which made profits for the colony.

            Zahn looked up to the vast swathes of golden and green vegetation growing densely on rolling hillsides some one hundred meters over his head.  The engineered environment combined with foodstuffs engineered to thrive in that environment made for an explosively opulent agricultural industry, one which exceeded the colony’s needs by a factor of four.  What surplus they made were sold at profit on the open market—because everyone needed food.  This had been the facet of deep space settlement that had attracted Zahn most when applying to CMC, and it was now also what give him the greatest measure of unease.  The economic gray area in which the Gitanolese economy existed had become problematic because of the shifting political situation in space.  The Ceres Materials Company was itself a private corporation and therefore not a party to the war, but its existence was precipitated on the understood authority of the Confederation to lease out regions of space across the solar system.  In practice CMC policy was to have no trade with the separatist Galilean League, which remained true here on Gitano: no materials mined under the terms of the Confederation’s leasing agreement with Ceres Materials Company were traded with separatist states.  But the restrictions placed on CMC and the other mining corporations of the Transmartial orbits did not extended to the theoretically independent economies of hamlets like 8-Gitano, giving them theoretical right to trade domestically produced goods and services to whomever they pleased.

            And if Ceres took nine percent of the revenue in the form of lease—rental fees—did that not amount to a form of concession?

            The way Zahn saw it, the war was as much about the competition over resources as Jovian independence.  The fine line corporations like Ceres walked between opposing sides was a recognition of this reality, providing—if indirectly—for the demands placed on the interplanetary marketplace regardless of their origin.

            It had not manifested itself in the way some had feared it might.  There were no Eurusian merchants or Ganymedean restaurants, no separatist student underground, or pro-separatist demonstrations.  Andalus Boulevard remained the main street of a sleepy, rural town whose residents might share separatist sympathies, but were more likely to remain indifferent to the war.

            He waved to a passing car—someone he certainly knew but did not immediately recognize—and started after it in the direction of the distant spaceport.  He had not gone far when a pair of giggling boys ran out from around a corner and collided with him.  With a small yelp, one fell back on the sidewalk, landing squarely on his backside.

            “Whoa there,” Zahn said, looking down at the two boys.  He instantly recognized them as Colonel Santiago’s twin grandsons, Jaime and Will.  He helped the first back onto his feet.  “Didn’t anyone ever tell you not to play in the street?”

            “Sorry, Mr. Zahn,” the second one said.

            “Thanks,” the first one—he could never tell them apart—said, rubbing his behind.  “We were just hurrying home so we wouldn’t miss Thomas Drake.”

            “A show?”  Zahn smiled.  “I’m surprised your grandfather doesn’t have you working…”

            The boys exchanged mischievous looks.

            “Why do you think we’re in such a hurry?” the first said.

            “He saw us in there,” the other went on, pointing to store down a narrow pedestrian roadway, “but we gave him the slip.”

            Zahn grinned.  He never tired of these two’s antics.  “Well, I guess I should hold you here until he comes out.”

            “Well, you could,” the first said, shooting a quick glance over his shoulder, “but then he would give you the same lecture he would give us.”

            “Oh?”

            “You know how he is,” the other said, rolling his eyes.  “When I was your age…

            “You don’t say…”

            “Besides,” the first one continued, spreading his hands before him, palms up, “it wouldn’t really be fair, would it?  We managed to give him the slip, so we should be able to escape, don’t you think?  He says that all the time.  If you can’t manage your own people and they get away with nonsense, you can only blame yourself,” he said in a fairly decent imitation of his grandfather.

            Zahn looked past the two boys toward the store.  Through the windows he could see the older man darting glances between aisles of comic books and toys.  It was a wonder he hadn’t seen them yet.  “Alright,” he said with a mock resignation.  “I suppose you have me there.”  He stepped aside and gestured.

            The two boys did not hesitate and at once took off at the sort of dead run only twelve-year-olds could manage, hastily calling back over their shoulder, “Thank you, Mr. Zahn!”

            A heartbeat later, the gruff visage of Victor Santiago appeared at the window and a moment later burst out from the store.  Noticing Zahn starting past, he called after him.  “Administrator!  Mister Zahn!”

            Doing his best to keep a straight face, Zahn turned back to face the older man.  “Good afternoon, Colonel.  How are you?”

            The colony’s Chief of Security waved the pleasantries aside on approach.  “I’m looking for those good-for-nothing grandsons of mine.  Have you seen them?”

            Zahn smiled, savoring the moment.  “They ran into me a moment ago.  They said something about avoiding some work…”

            The colonel glowered at his boss.  “You let them go?”

            Still smiling, Zahn spread his hands in the best imitation of the twins.  “What can I say?” he responded with a shrug.  He had long since stopped finding those older members of staff, some significantly older, intimidating.  “They were in a hurry.  Besides, I remember how much I liked my holidays off when I was a kid.”

            That at least brought a smile to the colonel’s face.

            “That’s because you’re still a kid.”

            Zahn returned the smile.  “My point exactly.”

            The older man shook his head.  “You’re something else, Mr. Zahn.”  He took a final glance up and down the street, but seeing no sign of his grandsons sighed in resignation.  “I suppose one extra day of rest won’t do any harm.”

            “What sort of work do you have them doing?”

            “Livestock, mostly.”  The retired Dragoon officer clapped his hands together.  “There’s nothing like some good hard work to turn a boy into a man.  It builds character, you get my meaning?”

            Zahn had never once stepped foot onto a farm until moving to 8-Gitano, but he nodded all the same—better than suffering an earful from the old man.  “I’m heading down to Silver’s for lunch,” he said, changing the subject.  “Care to join me?”

            Santiago looked down at his watch.  “Sure.  Why not.  Maybe a bite-to-eat will get my mind off those grandsons of mine.”

            Zahn shook his head and smiled.  As they started walking, he asked, “How often do they work?’

            The retired colonel shot Zahn a critical glance.  “Why, so you can help them out of work again?”

            Zahn laughed.  “Just curious.”

            The old man softened a tad.  “Monday through Friday, they’re at school until fourteen hundred, but after that I have them until nineteen hundred.  That gives them just enough time to get home, eat, do their assignments, and then get to bed by twenty-two hundred.  Saturdays, though, follow a totally different POD.”

            Plan of the Day, Zahn thought.  He had heard this—or a variation of this, before.

            “—up and working by oh-six hundred,” Santiago was saying, “breakfast at oh-nine hundred, and then back to work.  Lunch is at twelve hundred hours, and then its work until nineteen hundred.”

            “Do they get any time to breathe?”

            Santiago cocked a silver eyebrow.  “If you mean, do they get a break, then yes.  A fifteen-minute break every four hours—and that’s in addition to thirty minutes for lunch!” he said, adding the last part as if that explained everything.

            “And Sundays?”

            “You disapprove,” the retired colonel stated sourly.

            “I’m just curious,” Zahn replied in his most innocent tone.

            Santiago studied the younger man for a few paces.  Another familiar habit of the colonel’s, he was sizing his boss up, determining whether he posed some threat.  “Sunday is the Holy Sabbath, Mr. Zahn,” he said, apparently determining the younger man posed no such threat.  “They attend mass at oh-seven hundred and are home by ten hundred hours…to waste the day away.  Doing whatever they damn well please.”  These last few words came with some strain, Zahn noticed with no small amount of amusement.  It was clear the concession bothered the older man.

            “You disapprove of my ways?”

            For being in his late sixties, the old man had quite the appetite for confrontation.  “Forgive me, Colonel, I spent most of my life in the city.  I was just curious how it all played out.”

            The old man nodded.  “I wouldn’t expect a city man to understand.”

            Zahn bit his tongue against a retort.  Maybe the old man was sharper than he looked.  Then again, Colonel Santiago was from Earth, so sounding arrogant came naturally…

            “I hear the Jennings farm has a skive infestation.”

            Zahn nodded.  “Although it’s not quite as bad as Faye made it out to be, we did find a queen.”

            “How big?”

            Zahn furrowed his brow in thought.  “Not very large at all.  Only a centimeter or two.”

            “Had she lain her brood?”  Skive beetle mating season had only ended recently, and a brood in one farm could easily spread to another.

            The administrator shook his head.  “We found her so heavily laden that not even the drones could get close enough to nest the eggs.”  Skive queens were infamous for being overprotective, killing even those skives whose sole purpose was to nest and nurture the young.  It wasn’t until the fourth week of gestation that the queen grew so exhausted from guarding her brood that the nesting period could begin in earnest.  “We burnt her and smoked the colony.  By the looks of it, though, it wasn’t very big.”

            “Did you gas them?”

            Everyone asked the same bloody question.  “No, we’re still out.  We isolated the area with concrete, though, until the next shipment arrives, or they starve to death.”

            The colonel frowned, the action forming deep creases across his weathered face.  “Wasn’t there supposed to be a shipment coming today?”

            Zahn sighed.  Nodding he said, “It’s a Confederal holiday.”

            “What’s that?” Santiago shrieked, one of the few instances the old man in him really came out.  “These are Ceres shipments, aren’t they?”

            Zahn shrugged.

            “So the higher-ups at corporate get the day off for this holiday,” he said with contempt, “while we’re stuck with all the work?”

            “It seems that way.”

            “Bunch of lazy, good-for-nothing spacelings, if you ask me!”

            Zahn shot Santiago an angry look.

            “What holiday is it anyway?”

            The younger man paused a moment, letting the momentary anger pass.  He thought back to the notation on his office calendar.  “V-A Day.”

            All at once Santiago’s expression softened.  “Oh.  Well, good!  As good a day to have off as any—better than most!  It’s nice to hear that some people observe Veterans Affairs Days.”

            Zahn cleared his throat.  “I believe it’s ‘Victory in America’ Day.”

            The colonel’s grew sun-beat red.  He hesitated a few steps, before starting again, “And what better way to honor our veterans than by commemorating the end of a war?  Why, if we spent more time remembering our wars, we would probably have fewer of them!  You follow my meaning?”

            Zahn had stopped listening.  It was always the same thing, a lecture on freedom and liberty and the vices of spacelings, especially those damn Jovians.  And so it came as a surprise when Santiago said something else instead.

            “You received my report about those two warships we spotted?”

            Zahn blinked, thinking back through his inbox.  He came to a stop outside the diner and shook his head.  “Sorry, Colonel, it’s been a long week.”

            Santiago looked annoyed.  “Two warships of Separatist design.  They were lingering on the far side of one of the cluster, near 14.  They’ve moved along since.”

            Zahn sighed.  Great…

            “I reported it to Ceres—or rather, I was going to,” Santiago went on, “except for the fact that the long-range comm operators had Friday off and won’t be back until next Friday.”

            Zahn nodded.  The communications people were all specifically subsidized by the Confederation, which meant a holiday like V-A Day might translate to a week’s paid vacation for the entire team.  They were probably on Juno or Pallas getting drunk.

            “Damn nonsense,” Santiago said.

            “I won’t disagree with that.”  Zahn ran a hand through wavy, unruly hair.  “There’s not a whole lot we can do.”

            Santiago nodded.  “They may not realize we’re here.  The way they moved into our space and out, I would hazard a guess that they were shadowing something further off.”

            The last thing they needed were merchant raiders using the Gitano cluster as a base of operations.  “Any idea what it was?”

            “This far out, there are only a few options, most of them military.”

            That made Zahn’s stomach turn.  He had watched hours of newsfeed footage of the war on Mars and the fleet skirmishes throughout other parts of the Transmartial.  The war broke out only a few months after he had taken his place as the colony’s chief administrator and so far, they had managed to keep most of its effects at bay.  “And no idea where they have gone?”

            “They continued deeper in space,” Santiago said.  “That is about all I can say at this time.  Ships of that size are rarely deployed in pairs, and I would expect another two and possibly a cruiser lurking just beyond the fog.”

            Zahn nodded grimly.  It was the one part of the war they had not been able to avoid, though whatever the enemy’s entanglement weapon had done, their line with Ceres had remained open.  “Well, it’s nothing for us to worry about—not for now,” Zahn said and opened the door to the diner.  He held it open for Santiago.  Just keep your eyes peeled.”

            The older man squinted in the midday light.  “I always do, Mister Zahn.”


Continues on the Oceanfront.

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