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Chapter 25

Ed Piazza underlined the last word on the blackboard, with all the flourish of a former teacher, and marched back to the table. "That's it," he said. "That's the bottom line. Ten thousand people. Able-bodied and able to work. Over and above, you understand, the folks we've already got."

He clasped his hands on the table. "Some of them can include healthy old people and big enough kids. There's a few thousand jobs that don't require any kind of heavy labor. But most of it does. Especially the farming and construction work."

Mike leaned back in his chair and clasped his own hands behind his head. He studied the figures on the blackboard for a few seconds before speaking. "And if we don't get them?"

Quentin Underwood shrugged. The mine manager had been part of the team which, led by Piazza, had developed the production plan. "Then we have to change the equation the other way, Mike. Subtraction."

"Driving people off, in other words," said Mike. "Push the extra mouths back into the furnace." There was no heat in the words, just clarification.

Quentin and Ed both looked uncomfortable. So did Willie Ray Hudson and Nat Davis, the other two members of the planning team.

Nat cleared his throat. "Well, I don't know as I'd put it that way."

"Cut it out, Nat," growled Quentin. "Mike's putting it bluntly, but that's exactly what we're talking about."

He sat up straight, half glaring. "I don't like it any better than you do, Mike. But that's the way it is. It's just an estimate, of course, but I think it's pretty damn close. We need ten thousand workers in order to build the infrastructure that'll keep everybody in this area alive through the winter. Food production and shelter are the big jobs. Even if we meet this schedule, winter is going to be a pure bitch. Pardon my language."

Mike lifted his hands off his head and made a little waving motion. "I'm not criticizing anybody," he said mildly. "I just want to make sure we're all on the same wavelength." He pursed his lips. "Does this include the labor force in Badenburg?"

Piazza shook his head. "Badenburg's not included on either side of the equation, Mike. We're just figuring the people already in town and our best estimate of all the refugees camped out in the area. A fair number of them are drifting in, now. All the churches are already packed to the gills. So's the community center next to the fairgrounds."

Dreeson, the town's mayor, looked alarmed. "That fast? What's that doing to our sanitation program?"

"Straining the hell of it," replied Ferrara bluntly. The science teacher leaned forward. "And that was true even before we got all these newcomers. The prisoners and the people from the soldiers' camp."

Dreeson was looking very alarmed, now. Bill Porter interrupted before the explosion came. "Relax, Henry! The refugee center by the power plant will be operational in eighteen hours. We've got a sanitation system up there that has way more capacity than anything in the town itself. We can cycle hundreds of people an hour through it, easily."

Melissa snorted. "And how are you going to get them through it, Bill? With cattle prods? You did notice that I was wearing a bathrobe earlier, didn't you? Is that the way you think I normally prance around in public?"

Porter shrank a little from the same piercing stare that had abashed teenagers over the years. Melissa relented, after a few seconds. "Folks, I just learned from bitter experience that these people coming in are so—so traumatized—that the only way I got them through the showers was to lead the way personally. Even then—"

She broke off, shuddering a little.

Mike took his hands from his head and set them on the table, palms down. The gesture had an air of authority about it.

"Okay, then. I've been trying to make a decision anyway, and it just got made. We're going to lean on the soldiers. The prisoners, I mean. We don't have any choice."

Ed cocked his head. "Lean on them?"

"Rely on them. There are well over a thousand able-bodied men in that crowd. When the wounded recover—those of them who do—that'll add maybe a couple of hundred more. That's the start of our labor force. We'll run them through the sanitation process at the power plant as soon as it's open for business."

The squawks started immediately.

"That's forced labor!" protested Melissa. "How are you going to get them through the showers?" demanded Underwood. "What about resistance?" queried Ferrara.

Mike scowled. "Melissa, give me a break! I've been a union man all my life, so I'd appreciate not getting any lectures about forced labor. Those guys aren't downtrodden workers. They're prisoners of war captured after launching an unprovoked attack on us. I'm not proposing to work them to death, for Christ's sake. But they will work."

He turned to Underwood, still scowling. "How? Simple. 'Take a shower or a bullet. Delouse your hair or we'll delouse your guts.' How's that for motivation?"

Melissa started to screech, but Mike slammed his hand on the table. The flat palm sounded like a rocket. "Melissa—cut it out!" His scowl was purely ferocious. "These aren't traumatized women and children, goddamit. These are the guys who did the traumatizing! Frankly, I don't care if they drop dead from fear. They will be sanitized, and they will work."

The scowl moved on to Ferrara. "What was that? Something about resistance?"

Ferrara smiled. "Ah—never mind. I think it's a moot point."

Melissa's mouth was still open, ready to speak. Her eyes were slits, her shoulders tense. She'd faced down bullies before, by God! Southern sheriffs and D.C. police and company goons. If Mike Stearns thinks he can intimidate me . . . !

Suddenly, she puffed out her cheeks. For a moment, she looked like a slender, elegant, sophisticated blowfish. Then, with a rush, blew out the air.

"Okay," she said.

Mike eyed her with suspicion. "What is this? Since when do you give up so quick? I was expecting you to throw up a picket line next."

Melissa grinned. "Well . . . Don't think I'm not tempted." The grin faded. Her face grew a little weary. "I don't like it, Mike. Not one bit. But I imagine you don't either. And—well, you're right, much as I hate to admit it. The alternative is just to drive them and their camp followers out."

Underwood cleared his throat. "Excuse me, folks, but I've got to say here that I think we should consider that alternative." Hastily: "Well, the soldiers anyway."

Frank Jackson started to speak but there came a knock at the door. Ed got up and went to open it. When he saw who was standing there, his eyebrows lifted in surprise.

Jeff Higgins. Flanked by his three friends, Larry Wild, Jimmy Anderson and Eddie Cantrell. All of their faces bore the same expressions. An equal mix of stubborn determination and deep apprehension.

"What's up, boys?" Ed asked. "We're in a meeting, you know."

Jeff took a deep breath and spoke.

"Yeah, Mr. Piazza, we know and I'm sorry to barge in like this but I thought—well, me and my buddies talked it over after I talked it over with them and"—a look of surprise and relief washed quickly across his face—"since they backed me up even though I thought they were gonna give me a hard time about it we talked it over and after we did we all agreed that I should come here first—they said they'd back me up—and tell you about it first on account of there's probably going to be all hell to pay—pardon my language, Ms. Mailey—so we might as well get it over with right away. So there it is."

He braced himself, obviously expecting some sort of onslaught.

Ed frowned, and turned his head to face the adults in the room. They responded with frowns of their own. In the doorway and the corridor beyond, four teenage boys braced themselves.

Ed shook his head. "Jeff, uh—what's this about, exactly?"

Jeff's eyes widened. "Oh. Yeah. Sorry." He took another deep breath and launched. "Well, it's like this and we've already agreed—both of us—and it's over and settled and done with and nobody can do anything about it because I'm legal age and my parents aren't around anyway and neither are hers either. So there it is."

The boys braced themselves.

Silence. Frowns.

Suddenly, Melissa started laughing.

"Oh, Lord!" She bestowed a look of sheer approval upon Jeff. "Young man, I want you to know that I've never inflated a grade in my life, but you are guaranteed an A in any class of mine you ever take."

Jeff frowned. "I'm about to graduate, Ms. Mailey."

"Silly! Adult education. Instruction in German, if nothing else. I've already started learning the language so I can help teach it."

She beamed at Jeff. "Had to use a dictionary, didn't you?"

He looked sheepish. "Well. Yeah."

Ed exploded. "What's this all about?" he demanded, throwing up his hands.

"Isn't it obvious?" Melissa pointed a finger at Jeff, wiggling it a bit. "He just proposed to Gretchen and she accepted." Grinning: "So. When's the wedding?"

All hell broke loose.


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