Chapter One: Iq’her

General Rouhr let out a deep breath, sat back in his chair, and closed his eyes. “Estimates on how long our food supplies will last?”

“Unknown, sir. This could simply be a blight that is temporary or this could be the result of something far more sinister,” I answered. “When Sylor killed the first set of vines, the numbers increased by nearly nineteen percent. In the subsequent weeks, with all of the vines making the dome now destroyed, the numbers had increased at an alarming rate of just over thirty-seven percent. More than a third of the plants on this continent, half of which were used for food, were either dying or dead.”

“How quickly will that affect us?” Rouhr asked.

This would create a problem of nearly apocalyptic proportions before too long. During the near year that we’d been a part of the population, I’d noticed that many humans knew next to nothing of proper distribution, use, and storage of their perishable goods.

Of course, I was a bit biased and perhaps a bit spoiled. While living on the Vengeance, the food simulators were capable of taking the most basic of edible materials and could turn them into meals.

The simulators could take two tons of materials and feed sixty full grown Valorni three meals a day for an entire year. The simulators aboard the Aurora were even more efficient.

However, there was a slight problem.

“If I were to put a timeframe to it, I would say at current levels of consumption and loss, less than a year.”

He let out a groan that sounded as though he had just been struck in the chest. “This is not something that I wanted to have to deal with,” he said quietly. He never mumbled, but I wondered if he had said those words more for himself than for me. He looked up at me and rubbed his hands together. “So, what are your suggestions?”

“There are only two reasonable courses of action that we have, sir.” I sighed. “For long term stability, both will require investigating if the Puppet Master is involved or not. We need to understand the connection between those vines and the rest of the planet’s ecosystem.”

“Tell me.” He pursed his lips.

“Rationing, or finding ways to create new and more efficient simulators.”

He cocked his head to the side. “Could we build enough simulators?”

I shook my head. “Even if we used every system from the Aurora, as well as every computer system in all of Nyheim and Duvest, we would not be able to create enough simulators to feed the entire population. We would be forced to eliminate nearly eleven percent of the population in order to feed them.”

“And that’s obviously a terrible plan.” Rouhr sighed and shook his head. “What we need is to follow your original suggestion of rationing.”  He clicked a button on his office comm unit. “Tobias?”

Nothing.

Another click, and static answered.

“This thing hasn’t worked properly all week,” Rouhr muttered. “What does it take for a general to have working hardware?”

“Would you like me to take a look, sir?” I offered.

“No,” he waved the offer away. “I know resources are still tight. Everyone is doing the best they can, there’s just too much to do. I’ll wait my turn.”

He stabbed the button again.

“Sir?” finally came the response.

“Bring me the records of our city-wide food stores, if you please,” Rouhr ordered.

“Will do, sir,” Tobias’ enthusiastic voice answered. I smiled at Tobias’ optimistic nature. He had taken the tragedy that came with our arrival in stride.

“With the amount of food we have available, and I’m guessing based on the reports I read last week,” Rouhr started. “We’re going to have to share some of our food with the small settlements, and we still might not have enough.”

“No, sir, we won’t. At least not in the long run. If every major city donates food to help out the smaller settlements, we will still only make it through a year,” I explained.

“I know.” He sighed. “But, it will help the smaller settlements stay alive, and that is what we need to focus on. We need to find a way to save everyone, if possible.”

“And if it’s not possible, sir?”

“I’m not going to think about that for now,” he answered. “Let’s concentrate on right now and what we can do to fix all of this.”

I nodded.

Tobias brought in the reports that Rouhr requested and we spent the next hour reviewing them with Vidia.

Finally, face tight with strain, Vidia looked up.

“There’s really only one way to handle this, isn’t there.”

Rouhr wrapped his hand over hers and nodded. “Rationing. There’s no choice.”

Decision made, Vidia nodded sharply and rose. “I’ll start telling people, and start contacting the other cities. This affects us all.”

She left, Tobias in her wake, noting down the list items she’d already started making in her head.

“What about us, sir?”

He sighed. “You and the teams are going to need to be on patrol to make sure that first, the Puppet Master doesn’t decide to stir up more trouble, and second, the people don’t start to riot. And then we’ll need to coordinate with the other settlements, arrange for distribution. You may need to set up guards for the food drops, just in case.”

I nodded in understanding. It was the only reasonable way to proceed.

As soon as Vidia and Rouhr announced that we would need to start rationing, people would become upset. They would start demanding answers, and without any immediate answers to give, those upset people would then become angry.

Angry people weren’t likely to listen to reason or take kindly to being asked for patience.

Rouhr reached for the desk comm. “Attention all strike teams. Effective immediately, we are instituting a mandatory rationing system. I repeat, effective immediately, we are instituting a mandatory rationing system. Meet immediately for details–”

Tobias rushed into the office, face white.

“Sir! The message… Your desk comm…”

Rouhr stopped. “What about it.”

The human male swallowed, then again. “It didn’t broadcast to just the strike teams channel.”

Srell.

“Where. Did. It. Go?” Rouhr asked, every word falling like a stone into the silence.

“City wide emergency broadcast,” Tobias whispered. “All over Nyheim.”

“Srell.” we said in unison.

“You better get out there,” Rouhr commanded. “I’ll contact the other teams to let them know immediately.”

“Yes, sir,” I said. I left his office and headed for the armory. I was going to need some protection.

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