EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is part two of a three-part sci-fi series chronicling the adventures of several leaders in a post-petroleum, climate-ravaged San Francisco Bay Area in the early 22nd century. It is under consideration for publication within John Michael Greer’s next post-oil sci-fi anthology. For more about his first work, please visit the publisher’s page.
Regional hall was crowded like never before, bustling with scores of councilors and their aides from towns as far north as Pittsburg, as far east as Pleasanton, and as far south as Fremont. Everyone had been summoned with the same basic message: an attack by SF forces seemed imminent. But was an all-out conflict inevitable? Could anything be done to stop it?
Council President Imani slammed her gavel on the podium. Conversations ebbed, and everyone quickly took to their seats. The tension in the air was palpable. The president would have a lot of explaining to do. “This emergency session of the East Bay Regional Authority has commenced,” announced the hall guard. “Council President Nessalla Imani presiding.”
“Friends… allies… freely elected representatives of our united East Bay — I want to thank each and every one of you for making the journey to Regional Hall on such short notice,” Nesalla began. “You elected me president to look out for the best interests of our communities and to safeguard our common defense. As you know, access to our precious waters is vital to our economy and to all of us who call this land our home. Today, I fear we face the greatest threat we’ve ever faced: SF Citadel’s renegade premier, Alara Alito.” Approving cheers mixed with angry jeers rang through the hall.
Nesalla raised her arms, sending her commanding gaze throughout the room. Shushes and calming pleas brought the frenzy to a murmur. “I understand those are harsh words,” she continued. “But you all know her forces were caught sneaking through security at San Pablo Reservoir three years ago. And now, we have proof that SF forces with high-power explosives were patrolling inside the security perimeter only two days ago. Please shut the curtains.”
Darkness consumed the hall. A large projection image flashed above Nesalla showing several men carrying what appeared to be bundles of dynamite. “These three were spotted only yards away from one of the main aqueducts at San Pablo. If our security teams hadn’t seen them in time, who knows what they could have done?” She went on to outline the threat posed by potential sabotage, emphasizing how vulnerable East Bay communities would be if any of San Pablo’s flow were disrupted. “Each of these aqueducts serves over 50,000 people,” she said. “If we don’t come together with a defense plan — and soon — I fear we won’t just lose our water, we’ll also lose our freedom.”
The room remained uncomfortably quiet. People whispered to one another, assessing the evidence, wondering aloud what the appropriate response should be. Finally, Richmond Councilor Jerrod Jones stood up. “President Imani, you’ve made a compelling case. There is clear cause for concern,” he said. “But how can we be certain these infiltrators hail from SF Citadel? There seems to be a lot of assumptions being made here. Should we really be fanning the flames of conflict at such a sensitive time?” Councilor Jones had made a habit of questioning the president, having lost his own bid for president three years ago. Since Richmond now had the most functional port in the East Bay, his town had a unique relationship with the citadel across the waters. Moving into defense mode might threaten that relationship. Still, his questions resonated with other councilors.
“Yes, with all due respect, president Imani, shouldn’t we confirm the identities of these men before doing anything rash?” asked Walnut Creek Councilor Sasha O’Reilly. Similar questions followed, creating a flurry of conversation in the hall. What had initially seemed a clear-cut case for action was quickly degenerating into furious debate about whether any action should be taken at all.
Sitting calmly in the far back of the hall, SF Citadel’s Defense Chief Bryce Morgan grinned. His disguise as a council aide was convincing, dressed as he was in semi-professional attire, and fitted with a wavy blond hairpiece. Earlier that morning, in a private meeting with Councilor Jones, he promised very favorable trade relations with the port town of Richmond, and assured the councilor that Premier Alito had no plans for aggressive action. The councilor harbored suspicions, but given the dire times facing his constituents, he managed to suspend them.
Nesalla surveyed the room, visibly flustered by the turn of events. She pounded the gavel firmly three times, and took a deep breath. This would be her last chance to turn the tide. “Friends, it’s moments like these when I’m reminded why we’ve stood so strong together over all these years. While so many regions have devolved into little more than feudal states lorded over by fools and tyrants, we’ve built on our democratic traditions, holding fast as one of the last remaining freely elected regional authorities in California.” She paused for emphasis, hoping people would remember that other decidedly undemocratic district ruled by its citadel across the bay.
“I understand your hesitation, and I respect your call for clear evidence,” she continued. “What I haven’t yet told you is that our survey patrols were able to monitor the infiltrators’ movements after they left the scene. Upon reaching Richmond Inner Harbor, they boarded a schooner and sailed around Angel Island, veering southward toward Fishermans Wharf, SF Citadel’s main harbor.” That clinched it. Only the most cynical representatives in the room would doubt Nesalla now. Throughout her entire political career, she had sued for peaceful relations between and among the cities and townships of the Greater Bay Area. And even with this obvious case of attempted sabotage, she was really only calling for a united defense plan, not retaliation.
Hayward Councilor Brandon Lee rose from his bench, meeting Nesalla’s eyes for permission to speak. “President Imani, the people of Hayward — I dare say all residents in these parts — thank you for your efforts to protect us from this clear and present threat,” he said. “But given that Alito’s original plan has failed, I assume you believe we now face the possibility of a full-scale attack to seize control. If so, I fear we will need nothing less an army to defend our shores.”
“I agree with your assessment, councilor. And yes, we’ve acquired intelligence confirming that SF forces have stepped up military exercises in the Presidio, and that cross-bay rifle shipments rose sharply in the days leading up to the breach,” said Nesalla. “We’re going to need all the troops we can muster. That, and probably a hundred large ships from the coastal marinas.”
That last suggestion immediately raised the stakes. Nesalla wasn’t just shoring up East Bay’s defenses, she was planning on taking the battle directly to Alito if necessary. Problem was, most of those ships were already moving people and cargo across the bay constantly. It would take a major sacrifice for harborside communities to spare that many ships.
Suddenly, the sound of people turning around in mass echoed through the hall. From below the rear balcony, about a half-dozen soldiers from Piedmont Citadel marched forward in perfect unison. Commander Torm Dolman motioned for them to halt. Looking squarely at Nessala, Torm said calmly, “You’ll have your ships. Twenty from Piedmont’s defense fleet, and however many more we can requisition by twelve hundred hours tomorrow.”
“Thank you commander,” said Nesalla. “Please send our appreciations to Premier Stewart.” Piedmont Citadel was making amends. Last time things came to a head over security issues, East Bay Regional didn’t hear a word from them, which didn’t help their standing with the low-lying communities. Clearly, they’ve come to see Alito as a threat to their own interests as well.
By this time, Bryce’s grin had long-vanished. His plan to sow the seeds of discord amongst the councilors had failed. Their unity under pressure was an alarming surprise, and now with Piedmont Citadel coming to their defense, there was little time left to prepare for a frontal assault. SF Citadel’s forces would need something more powerful to carry the day. As all eyes were on Torm, Bryce snuck out through a side passage. He had to get back to Alara at once.
Brandon, by contrast, was pleased by this turn of events. Still, it would take far more than a few dozens ships to change Alito’s mind. She would need to see thousands of people on the move, and ready to take a stand. That made Desirae’s mission all the more critical. But would it be enough? “President, I’ve put out a call for support from our friends in the Urban Water Guild and neighborhood assemblies,” he announced. “However, I strongly suggest that we all appeal to our local assemblies, and urge them to set up neighborhood recruitment centers, just in case.” Cheers of agreement filled the hall. The East Bay was truly coming together on this, Brandon thought. Now, if only he could get Premier Stewart to make a stronger gesture of support for the lowland communities. Then, perhaps only then, might they stand a chance to rally the support of the people.
* * * * *
March 14, 2115, 1115 Hours, Ferry Plaza, San Francisco, California Autonomous Region
Bryce became anxious as his shuttle boat approached the docks at the Ferry Building. He glanced up at the old clocktower. Time was not on their side, not with all the newfound unity being forged, minute by minute, amongst his enemies. Enemies. Is that what they were? The word came forth so easily in his mind now. Granted, most people he’d encountered in the East Bay were hard-working and honest, but their backward devotion to democracy, and meetings — constant meetings! — was exhausting. Good lord, it was enough to drive any normal person insane. And for what? So they can bicker and posture, make false promises to one another, and in the end, forge weak-kneed compromises where everyone loses just a little bit more of the dignity they once had.
Yes, those people were definitely his enemies. They may feel smug and secure now, but their fixation on process would soon be their undoing. The San Francisco Bay Area needs bold leaders like Premier Alito to restore the international glory it once had, he thought. As he strode through Ferry Plaza, Bryce surveyed the landscape. Or rather, the seascape. Most of the piers, the Embarcadero, and China Basin were now under water. But thanks to a major seawall and land bridge constructed to connect the Ferry Building and the foot of California Street, there was still a major point of embarkation on the city’s eastern waterfront. Keeping it safe was another matter.
His carriage entourage wended its way along the well-guarded waterfront streets, newly restored with perfectly laid bricks and lined with well-trimmed hedges. This sector, once known as the Financial District, now boasted some of San Francisco’s finest construction firms, SF Waterworks, locally-renowned breweries, and bustling butcher shops. A few furniture, textile, and carriage dealers were also tucked away amidst the cafes, groceries, stables, and tailors.
As they turned to begin their ride up Columbus Ave., Bryce was suddenly showered in white light. He looked up at the Transamerica Pyramid, where a repeating flash of sunlight beamed down upon him, reflecting off a hanging sheet of metal. Most of the upper floors had been gutted of useful materials, having long been abandoned due to their sheer height. Without electrical lifts, most of the upper towers had simply ceased to be useful, except to the birds. That piercing reflection of light though. Now that could be useful, if only it could be harnessed in battle.
They passed through citadel security at the Columbus and Broadway gate. Bryce leaned forward. Something was amiss. A dozen or so soldiers surrounded his carriage, pulled him abruptly from his seat, and escorted him to the main lift. “What’s going on?” he demanded. Silence. The workhorses began circling the lift turnstile. He gazed out toward the bay as he and four soldiers made their ascent. Those few minutes seemed like an eternity. What had he done to deserve this? Once they reached the eastern defense corridor, he was pushed out of the lift.
Alara stood facing him, arms crossed, clearly enraged by his recent East Bay adventure. “Leave us,” she said, waving the soldiers away. “I had half a mind to send an assassins party to come after you. What if you’d been captured? They could have assessed our plans straight from the SF Defense Chief himself! Wouldn’t Nesalla have thoroughly enjoyed that?” she laughed.
Bryce carefully considered his next words, knowing his future with the citadel was far from certain. “Premier, please forgive this oversight,” he said. “You’re right to be upset. I acted rashly.”
“Rashly?” she asked, flashing him a look of disbelief. “Foolishly is more like it.” She began to walk toward the main defense chamber. “Lucky for you, we’re on the eve of a major operation that requires your leadership, such as it is. And what did you learn on your secret journey?”
“They know we’re preparing for an assault,” he said. “But it’s clear they have little sense of the scale of our forces. Most coastal leaders appear committed to Nesalla. She whipped up quite a frenzy at Regional Hall. Her, and that damned peacemaker Brandon Lee.”
“The water deal-maker?” asked Alara. “What a curious new role for him. Peacemaker turned warmonger. He must be up to something.”
“He’s definitely rallying to Nesalla’s cause,” he said. “Seems to think they’ll need an army to withstand us.”
“Well, he’s right about that. But it won’t be enough,” she boasted. “The armada we’ve amassed will carry thousands of our soldiers swiftly to their shores. They won’t know what hit them. We should have control of their command base, their waterfront, and all major East Bay power centers before the week’s out. No more water swindles from Regional Hall.”
Bryce was afraid to bring it up, but Alara had to know. “Premier, I’ve also learned that Piedmont Citadel has struck an alliance with Nesalla. They’re offering ships, at least twenty from their fleet.”
Alara fell silent. This was unexpected. She’d never known Premier Stewart to take major risks. He’d always shied away from conflict whenever possible. Sometimes she even sensed he felt guilty for presiding over the East Bay’s elite fortress. It was, after all, a largely self-sufficient hillside sanctuary for the privileged, thriving amidst a sea of struggling cities, townships, and shanties. How much could it matter to him if new leadership took over at East Bay Regional? A lot, apparently.
“I never thought we’d reach this point,” she said, sighing in disbelief. “A clash of the citadels.”
At this, Bryce began pouring over their battle plans. Yes, they still had naval superiority. Yes, they had them outnumbered, at least in terms of battle-ready soldiers. And yet, he could sense that momentum was building amongst the people of the East Bay. A growing sense of unity and pride. As a veteran of many battles, he knew that counted for something. Indeed, it often makes all the difference in the world. SF Citadel must strengthen its hand. But how?
And then it came to him: the light. The painful, blinding light that rained down on him as he rode back this morning. “Premier, do we still have that large reflector telescope in the observation tower?”
“Yes, I think Proctor Gabriel has been using it to study sunspots and flares, or something like that,” she said. “Why are we talking about astronomy right now?”
“Let’s just say we’re going to have to commandeer it. It may just give us the advantage we need.”
* * * * *
March 14, 2115, 1230 Hours, Piedmont Citadel, Piedmont, California Autonomous Region
Premier John Stewart scanned the intel reports his defense team had drawn up detailing SF Citadel’s recent military buildup, its attempts to sabotage San Pablo Reservior, and Council President Imani’s increasing defense measures. Ever since the war for California Autonomy had ended, Piedmont Citadel hadn’t really engaged in military matters, leaving East Bay Regional Hall in the driver’s seat. The past couple of decades have seen mostly peace throughout the region, interrupted only by the occasional ground skirmish or gun battle between contending parties.
Now, however, with water reserves running low, and tensions running high, a crisis seemed unavoidable. John was a reluctant premier, having questioned the continued rationale for the citadel since secondary school. Now that last century’s food and water riots were largely over, and democratic rule had returned to most of the East Bay, why couldn’t Piedmont simply rejoin the rest of the region in shared governance and economic development? “They’ll always covet what we have,” scolded his father. “You can’t trust a lowlander. Plain and simple.”
What his father didn’t know at the time was that he was dating one of those “lowlanders” since he was 16. Maya caught his eye on one of father’s trade trips to the Oakland shipyards back in 2095. Her graceful poise, silky dark hair, and stunning smile kept him dreaming for days. Finally, when he journeyed on his own to the waterfront one fateful afternoon, they found joy in each other’s shared passion for bayshore hikes, rowboat adventures, and deep conversation. Her sharp wit, dry sense of humor, and social prowess captivated him. They fell in love. Now, with her and their two children by his side, the thought of possible war with SF Citadel made him cringe. But would anyone be safe under Alito’s reign? Perhaps this crisis could serve as an opportunity, a chance to rebuild normal relations with the broader region — assuming they win.
“Premier, Commander Dolman has returned,” one of John’s security guards informed him. “And he’s brought an elected from Hayward, Councilor Brandon Lee.”
“Please show them in,” said John. He gathered the intel reports, and took a seat at his desk.
Torm Dolman hurriedly entered. “Premier, my apologies. Councilor Lee insisted on meeting with you,” he said, clearly irritated by his tagalong visitor. Brandon entered, following closely behind.
“Greetings, Premier Stewart,” Brandon said. “Deepest appreciations for your contributions to the defense of our shores. President Imani sends her regards.”
John took a moment to look upon him, a man whom he deeply respected. From what he knew of him, Brandon Lee was an honest broker, an idealist who put his people skills to the service of peace. And he produced results. He must be here for the same purpose, John thought.
“You’ve made quite a name for yourself,” he said. “I’ve watched your political career with a great deal of admiration, councilor.” He smiled at Brandon, stood up, and extended his hand.
“Thank you, Premier,” Brandon said, shaking his hand. “Your father was very helpful in the ’95 water accords. It was an honor working with him.” He paused, knowing that there was still an awkward feeling in the room. He had to ask: “Pardon me for my curiosity, but I can’t help but wonder: why is Piedmont Citadel now taking such an active role in regional military affairs?”
“The situation calls for greater involvement, don’t you think?” John said. He turned to walk around his desk toward Brandon. Facing him, he continued: “It’s been far too long that we’ve allowed our divisions to fester, letting our past get in the way of charting a new future together. Alito’s aggression has simply sped up that poorly tended possibility, I’d say.”
Commander Dolman stepped forward. “Premier, I’ve relayed to President Imani that we can add at least twenty of our coastal defense-class ships to their contingent. If I may, my team and I plan to continue seeking additional vessels in the event of an attack.”
“Please carry on, commander,” said John. “And thank you for representing us today.”
Brandon was intrigued by the premier’s collaborative tone. Obviously, he was willing to put serious resources toward their campaign. Still, he knew SF Citadel’s forces were far more numerous than the East Bay’s largely volunteer army, and far more experienced. They would need more than a fleet of ships and a rag-tag militia to carry the day. “Premier, Piedmont Citadel’s participation is truly a godsend. I had my doubts that we could resist SF’s formidable forces before Torm showed up at Regional Hall,” he said. “But I need to be honest with you. It’s not enough.”
John’s face turned quizzical. He looked down for a moment, pondering Brandon’s words. “What more would you suggest, councilor? Guns, bayonets? Perhaps commanders from our guard?”
“Yes, yes, all that would help,” Brandon replied. “But if Alito is serious about gaining a commanding foothold here, she must be readying thousands of her troops. Even if a sizable fraction of them broke through our defenses, what resistance would they meet? Hundreds of freedom-loving, courageous souls, to be sure. But not enough to withstand the power and number of her forces.”
“I see what you mean,” John acknowledged. “But even if we offered all of our commanders, soldiers, and field officers, that would only double, or at best triple East Bay forces, as I understand them.”
“True, true,” said Brandon. “But there’s something you can offer that’s even more powerful, premier.” He paused for emphasis, and said: “A share of your water flow as a gesture of good faith.”
John was taken aback. He couldn’t even begin to fathom the opposing cries from the Quorum, much less the protests he’d receive from the master gardeners, the metalsmiths, the chefs, or the bath, pool, and fountain stewards — the list of expected grievances seemed endless in his mind. But perhaps that was the point. If everyone sacrificed a little, that could add up to a major contribution.
“Despite appearances to the contrary, councilor, this isn’t a dictatorship,” John said. “I’d need to consult with the Quorum, our water chief, and forum of advisors. We’d need a compelling story to convince our ten-thousand-plus pampered cita-dwellers that it’s all for the greater good, you see.” He smiled at Brandon, and raised his eyebrows in search of suggestions.
“Well, if the prospect of a military occupation by a competing citadel at your doorstep doesn’t concern your people, premier, I don’t know what would,” said Brandon. “Thinking optimistically, it’s fair to say an offering of this scale would not only bring far greater numbers to our cause, it might go a long way toward healing the mistrust that has built up over the years.”
John reflected on Brandon’s words. Perhaps a new era was truly within reach. He walked over to a west-facing window on the far end of his quarters, and peered out over the bay toward SF Citadel. Its stone towers rose ominously above San Francisco’s aging skyline. The peoples of the Bay Area have a lot of healing to do, John thought. It was time for him to do his part to turn history’s pages.
He turned to Brandon and said, “It would appear I have quite a bit of leading to do this day.”