Vestal Sins: Prologue: City Upon a Hill
Posted By: Arthur Wellesley<email@example.com>
Date: 12 June 2009, 7:26 am
The smell of coffee permeated the air. Not the communal pot of the station, but his own brew, fresh and over-strong—just the way he liked it.
He stirred his eggs in the pan, adding a little more milk until the color was right. The bacon was simmering nicely on the stove, emitting a few cheery cracks as the grease seeped onto the pan. Neither were real, of course. Too many mouths to feed these days. But they were passable semblances of the real deal, and with a few added ingredients he was able to trick his stubborn memory into accepting them.
He forked the strips of bacon onto his plate and tipped the eggs from the pan into place next to them. From the toaster he retrieved two slices of bread and spread a thin layer of butter across their golden surfaces. He poured some coffee into a broad-based mug, the black liquid overcoming the milk already within.
A fleeting memory. It was the smell, he knew. But never mind. He would remember her later, over a bottle of rum, when his day was through. But for now, he would indulge himself. He deserved it. He knew he did.
One final touch: a bottle of freshly squeezed orange juice. He had bought it especially for today, his first day off in nearly three weeks. He allowed himself a small sip; sweet, so much sweeter than damn saccharin. It was dark red in color and just a little bitter, made from the blood oranges that used to be cultivated so widely in the South. Now they were hard to find anywhere, at any price.
He set his breakfast, coffee, and juice at the table. Turning to his stereo, he scrolled through his catalogue of songs. Bach's Orchestral Suite Number Three: his favorite piece. At last, he sat down. He started first upon the eggs. The texture was good, and a little bit of cheese, salt, and pepper invigorated the rather flavorless concoction.
Retrieving his reader from beneath a stack of files, he downloaded the most recent issue of the [i[Economist. He was somewhat surprised to see the cover. It featured an illustration of a man prostrate before a woman, the man's arms stretching pathetically towards her. The man was clad only in the tattered flag of the UNSC, his arms emaciated, his skin covered in ash. The woman was seated before him, vigorously robust and imperious, herself wearing an elegant blue stola: the unofficial but extremely popular emblem of his own colony, Vesta. His interest piqued, he continued on.
February 9th-15th 2556
The tragedy of Corsini
Sangheili forces besiege Doisac
Recovery efforts in Africa stall
What to do about Epsilon Halo?
Lexington: The Western Union's Reconstruction ambitions
The Colony of Vesta has been mostly known to Earth as a thorn in the UNSC's side. Now it may be humanity's last best hope
"Our world stands alone. We did not ask for this. But we must take up take up the call, and help our brothers across this galaxy. Vesta alone is in the position to lead humanity back to peace and prosperity. Vesta alone can rebuild all that was taken from us."
Alexander Lansing's speech last Thursday night didn't exactly strike the note of unequivocal unity many on Earth were hoping for. Despite the candidate's assurances that he will at last usher his colony into the UNSC, his speech was another reminder of the continued reluctance of many Vestals to join with Earth.
In the event, Mr. Lansing is not wrong. Vesta is the only sizeable human world left that was completely unscarred by the Covenant. Its agricultural and mining activities continue apace, while its industrial sector, which had been languishing since the Battle of Earth, has recently experienced a major revitalization. Furthermore, its native population of around 120 million has been bloated to nearly 200 million by waves of refugees from Earth and other devastated Inner Colonies; Vesta recently surpassed Earth to become the most populous world in human space.
Earth is a ruin, and, despite assurances by all the old hands, it will remain so for the foreseeable future. All her major cities are destroyed; much of her land has been rendered unusable by the Covenant's orbital bombardment. Even three years after the war, Earth's skies are still darkened by ash and debris. Her climate is much cooler, her rains dangerously toxic.
Earth is now dependent on Vesta to take all the survivors she cannot feed and to feed all the survivors the colony does not take. UNSC headquarters have been temporarily moved to Vesta's capital, Massilia, with President Renka's reluctant permission. Almost all remaining slipspace capable vessels are now Vestal in origin, including the meager remnants of the human naval fleet. The irony of the current situation is lost on neither Earth nor Vesta: the one colony to elude the UNSC's hegemony has now become its last port of call.
This has stirred some understandable frustration over President Renka's stubborn reluctance to at last join the UNSC. Her Vesta Party cannot countenance the thought of losing some of their hard-fought independence to an organization which has so long disparaged their existence. UNSC Chairman Terrence Hood did not help this perception when he said last year from his new Massilia abode, "We survived the Covenant onslaught only to be undone by antiquated notions of sovereignty."
This newspaper urges patience. The evacuation of nearly 20 million people from Earth between the first and second invasions—what Admiral Stanforth called "the one logistical success we were able to pull out of this whole Goddamn mess"—were received unflinchingly by Vesta. Since then, the colony has taken a further 60 million, with thousands more arriving every day upon Vestal ships. One would find it hard to question their dedication or their compassion. Their hesitance to officially join the UNSC is a product of a long and complex history, one that the people of Earth would do well to understand.
Vesta's history began, interestingly, at the colony of Abbakum in 2401. After the simultaneous rebellions of Pegasus and Eridanus, which had sparked the Inner Colonies War, the people of Abbakum picked up the insurrectionist banner and joined the fray. The Marine contingent stationed outside the capital was besieged by the colony's separatist self-defense force. A single Destroyer was present in the system at the outbreak of the rebellion: the UNSC Indefatigable, under Captain Francis Perry. Fleetcom decided to draw their line in the sand at Abbakum, and ordered Captain Perry to deploy tactical nuclear warheads to relieve the Marines on the surface. Perry disregarded the order and evacuated the Marines instead. He was later court-martialed for dereliction of duty, dishonorably discharged, and sentenced to three years in prison.
Francis Perry became a vocal critic of the war after his release. At first dismissed as a bitter malcontent, he gained steady popularity as the UNSC's heavy-handed tactics came under increasing criticism. Even many within the Navy supported his cause as the bloody war dragged on. With the conclusion of hostilities in 2409, Perry petitioned the Colonial Administration to allot a newly terraformed planet in the Beta Aurigae system for the settlement of refugees and veterans. Under intense pressure from a war-weary public, the UNCA relented, and in 2410 Vesta was founded.
Perry proved to be an adept coordinator. In lieu of support from the uncooperative UNCA, Perry raised most of his own funds privately from sympathizers on Earth and Reach, as well as from what fortunes remained on the devastated rebellious colonies. He tirelessly visited refugee camps and veteran enclaves, promising them a better life on Vesta. The result was the most rapid colonization effort yet seen. In just five years, four million people were settled on the surface. In 2413, Perry moved to create the Vesta Party, to represent the colonists' interests against the UNCA, whose latent interest had been awoken by the success of the effort. In 2414, Perry was able to force the signing of the Vesta Accord by UNCA director Li Na. The Accord granted Vesta near complete self-governance, bounding the colony only within the parameters of the UN Charter. Perry was able to achieve in peacetime what the Insurrectionists had been unable to obtain in eight years of war: independence.
The success of Vesta continued under Perry's independent leadership. As leader of the Vesta Party, he remained the colony's president for almost two decades, from 2413 to 2432. His legacy continued for many years after his retirement; Mr. Perry never lived to see his party seriously challenged in the elections.
Yet the colony did not develop in the manner Mr. Perry had envisioned. Named after the Ancient Roman goddess of hearth and home, Vesta was always meant to be a primarily agricultural colony. Yet the cooler north slowly leaned towards manufacturing and services and began to urbanize, while the fertile south remained mostly rural. The divide became more and more pronounced, and in 2439 led to the formation of the northern based United Party, which sought to build closer economic ties with the UNSC. Initially an interest party representing big business, particularly the burgeoning shipbuilding industry, the United Party eventually entered the northern mainstream, winning its first election in 2449. From that point on, Vestal politics were split along north-south lines, often finding its flashpoint with periodic demonstrations in the colony's capital, Massilia.
Political contention was partisan and at times became particularly vicious, but it remained peaceful. In 2513, however, a United government under President Kisangi made official overtures to the UNSC representative on Vesta to get a seat on the Council. While the seat was to be strictly nominal, it outraged many as a sign of UNSC encroachment. Unfortunately, the incident occurred during the outbreak of the Second Colonial War at Eridanus. A southern-based group calling themselves the Black Hand, caught in the revolutionary air, bombed the UNSC consulate and Intera Industries headquarters in Massilia. The bombings killed hundreds, mostly native Vestals.
President Kisangi responded by sending Vesta Self Defense Forces to southern cities in order to quell the protests. The heavy-handed tactics inflamed the region. In an incident which is still contended to this day, VSDF soldiers opened fire on a rally in the southern university town of Paredes, killing twelve. Local police forces turned on the VSDF troops, forcing them from the city, killing three. The Paredes incident touched off an eleven year civil war that would claim over one million lives.
After a handful of pitched battles in 2414-15 in which superior northern manpower overwhelmed the south, the conflict devolved into a guerilla war. The Black Hand continued terrorist attacks on northern cities, particularly Massilia, while Northern Legion forces in the south often resorted to indiscriminate bombing and widespread crop-burning. Atrocities were attributed to both sides by UNSC observers, who often noted with some smugness the chaos wrought by their absence.
The glassing of Harvest in 2525 brought an almost immediate cessation to hostilities, as both sides watched together the destruction of an entire world. After the Second Battle of Harvest in 2531, northerners and southerners alike enlisted in the Vesta Expeditionary Force, which was independently attached to the UNSCDF. Despite a few incidents between the two halves of the VEF, the integration was remarkably peaceable and swift. As the press noted at the time, there was nothing like an "other" to halt a seemingly endless civil war.
Far more acrimonious was the relationship between the UNSC and the VEF. Then-Admiral Hood was particularly critical of the arrangement which often saw VEF Marines serving on UNSC vessels. However, after the heroic defense of Paris IV's capital by an all Vestal Division, Admiral Hood grudgingly admitted, "these men are as stubborn on the battlefield as they are in the Council." When the planet was subsequently glassed, Hood pronounced, "the special status of the VEF has never once compromised an operation. We are grateful for their contributions, and we mourn their losses on this day."
City Upon a Hill
Vesta's transformation from the UNSC's pariah to its salvation has been rapid, and neither faction has been as swift to adapt to their new roles. Chairman Hood needs to swallow his pride and realize that he had been reduced to a supplicant. His haughty manner and righteous indignity is winning him no allies among either of Vesta's parties. Yet fundamentally, he is not wrong—the plight of Earth and the continued vulnerability of all humanity necessitates unity now more than ever. A new era has dawned for all men. The old enmities and bitterness no longer make any sense, and do not accord with our age.
Fortunately, the people of Vesta seem to have come to this conclusion as well. Mr. Lansing, the United Party's candidate for the presidential elections next week, commands an almost insurmountable 15 point lead against Maria Renka's Vesta Party. Ms. Renka is still highly respected by many Vestals, particularly in the South, and rightly so. She led her people through the toughest years of the Covenant War, and has adeptly managed the post-war crisis that could have easily thrown the colony into chaos. Despite much criticism from UNSC exiles, she has done everything that could be reasonably expected of her to assist the recovery of Earth and to help the homeworld's diaspora. Joining the UNSC now would be a mere formality, ratifying on paper the reality of Vesta's new position. Yet words matter, and in an ironic twist of history, Ms. Renka's stubborn adherence to the old mantra is likely to cost her a third term.
Yet problems abound for likely incomer Lansing. Fleetcom's "one logistical success" has not been received so merrily by the people of Vesta. While it has coped much better with the influx than other colonies, namely Corsini (see page 56), the near doubling of Vesta's population over the past three years has stretched its services to the limit. The agricultural sector has had troubles keeping up with demand. Not only must Vesta feed its natives and its refugees, but it also exports much of its food to Earth and other devastated worlds.
"I see the newsfeed from Earth, people starving in the streets, and it turns my gut," says Sara Rothschild, a native Massilian. "I mean, people starving to death on Earth
Earth! But we can't shoulder this burden forever, or people will be starving here, too."
Vesta still receives around 50,000 refugees a day, mostly from Earth. Its spaceports are clogged with a steady stream of ships laden with human cargo. Vessels leave the colony bearing food, and return with thousands more mouths to feed. Investments in agriculture have improved capacity, but not fast enough.
"It takes every able-bodied person we have just to function at minimum capacity," explains Secretary of Labor Rachel Stimson. "So far it just hasn't been possible to muster the manpower to sufficiently improve our farming output."
Officially, unemployment on Vesta is less than half of one percent. However, this does not include the vast body of refugees, who for the most part are stuck in sprawling camps located mainly around urban peripheries. This has bred much impatience among Vestals for their unwanted guests. If nothing else, northerners and southerners are now united in a common contempt for the refugees.
But as Ms. Stimson explains, it's not their fault. "We have tried to organize work programs for the refugees, but coordination is extremely difficult," she says. "A given camp can double in size in less than a week. Most of them are undocumented anyway. Just feeding and housing them consumes almost all our resources. Mobilizing them for employment just isn't feasible at this point."
The situation has improved somewhat since last year. More and more refugees are being redirected from northern urban centers to smaller, more disparate camps in the south. There they have been tasked with assisting in the agricultural activities, with some success. The vast majority of refugees, however, still live isolated, monotonous, and sometimes wretched lives in the northern camps.
"If we just had a temporary respite from the flood [of refugees], we might be able to absorb them and put them to work," says Stimson. "But they just keep coming. The situation is becoming untenable."
The influx of refugees is not Vesta's only source of social woes. The demobilization of the VEF continues at its deliberately gradual pace. Vesta kept her forces relatively intact after the war, fearing the remains of the Loyalist Covenant fleet or treachery from the tentative Sangheili Alliance. However, with the Sangheili gaining the upper hand in their struggle and the Alliance proving sound, Ms. Renka decided last year to speed the process of demobilization and ease the burden of the bloated VEF on an already strained economy.
Reintegration of veterans has not always proven easy. At its peak, Vesta had nearly thirty million men and women under arms, around one quarter of its population—the highest proportion of any colony. At the time of publication, that number is now below four million. There is no shortage of jobs these days, but marrying millions of veterans, who are sometimes mentally or physically scarred, with jobs for which they are qualified has often been tremendously difficult. Many have been drafted into the Militia, a paramilitary force enlisted to assist the police with the unstable situation on the ground. While their primary task has been to protect and enforce the refugee camps and provide backup for police in firefights, their responsibilities have grown along with their size. Militia officers are becoming a common sight in urban centers as well, and they recently formed their own investigative branch. This creates considerable overlap with local police jurisdiction, and is the source of much acrimony between the two enforcement bodies.
There is no question that Mr. Lansing will have his work set out for him if he wins next week. Vesta is rife with problems, and many of the colonists are bitter that they must bear humanity's burden alone. Yet Vesta's avoidance of the Covenant's scourge was a matter of sheer chance. Earth has bled to save humanity, and many of her colonies have bled worse still. Vesta has no choice but to suffer with the rest, and use her good fortune to restore humanity to what it once was. Hopefully, Lansing's favor among the voters signals this realization. Hopefully, humanity will weather this era of darkness as one.
He contemplated the article with a sip of coffee. The Earth-based editorials had become more lenient towards Vesta ever since Lansing had surged ahead in the polls. The magazine's stubborn adherence to the term "colony" would irk some, but it had never bothered him. As the article had pointed out, "joining" the UNSC was a mere token gesture. It would solve nothing, end nothing, start nothing. And he was never much disposed towards symbolic flair. But he supposed others were.
Looking up from the reader, he gazed out his window at the city that lay before him. The rising sun, just visible through the clouds, reflected blue off the snow-covered rooftops. Traffic was already thick on the roads below, lines of cars turning the white streets brown. It was the regular hustle and bustle of Massilia, of which he would normally already be a part. But not today.
The phone rang.
His heart turned first to ice, then to fire. His world was admittedly small. It could only be one of two people, and he had told both not to call him this day. He desperately did not want to hear from either.
He grabbed the phone, checking the ID. He closed his eyes. The worse of two evils.
"What is it?" he answered as calmly as he could.
"I know, Eyal," his partner said, her voice pained. "I know. I'm sorry."
"What is it?" he repeated.
"We've got a DB out in Waverleigh. It's a Militia officer. Captain said he needs all hands on deck. I'm really sorry."
"I'll be there as soon as I can." He quickly ended the call and tossed his phone back on the table.
He finished the rest of his meal in a few hurried bites. He swigged the remainder of his coffee in a single gulp, the still hot liquid burning his throat on the way down. The juice he did not touch. That he would savor, no matter what.
He glanced at his watch. His day off had measured exactly forty-six minutes, twelve seconds. The day would have to wait.
But he deserved this. He knew he did.