Beank Ountar knocks on the boss's door, holding a thick ledger and frowning.
Coleman: Come in, come in. I don't have all day.
Beank: Yes, sir. Of course not, sir.
Beank enters, pushing his glasses up onto his nose.
Beank: I have something... unusual showing up in the accounts, sir.
Coleman: Fine, fine. What is it? The James boys overcharging us again? I'll send them a stiff note.
Beank: No. It's about some of the workers. Starting with Ferrox.
Coleman: Oh, what's with him? Not working up to quota, hey? He's the one that hurt his foot, hey? Malingering, or I'm a grease monkey.
Beank: Well, his productivity is still below average, from the payroll accounts. Yet he has just paid his rent in full and the shopkeeper tells me he has settled nearly half of his tab, even after making a number of purchases.
Coleman: What? What? He must be stealing. Find out where he's stealing and report back. Then can him. No, can him first and find out afterwards. Send him packing. And his family too.
Beank: He isn't stealing. Nor are the two other miners who have also paid off a good deal of their debt. It's something a bit more... unusual.
Coleman: Well, what, what is it, then? I assume you've got a report for me?
Beank: It's our visitor. They got it from him.
Coleman: What? What visitor? You mean that Sime? What's his name? You mean him? Why the hell would he be handing out free money?
Beank: It's not free. It's in exchange for... well, the same thing Simes always want.
Coleman slaps both sides of his head at the same time.
Coleman: Good God. Not in my town. How many workers are "some of the workers"?
Coleman mocks Beank's overly-precise tone.
Beank: Only three so far. At least, only three who seem to have a lot of money that they shouldn't have.
Coleman: It figures. Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, but three times, three times is enemy action. Run him out of town. Run them all out of town.
Beank: Sir... that might cause problems. A major incident, with government investigators.
Coleman: Damn them. Well, run the workers out of town, then. And pass the word, nobody to talk to that Sime. He'll soon leave if he's sent to Coventry, hey?
Beank: I don't know, sir. It might depend on whether he came here to disrupt your workforce or for some other purpose.
Coleman: Said something about some criminals around here. Damned if I see why the government can't take care of our own criminals ourselves. Oh yes, he says it's not a crime here, right.
Beank: If the disruption was unintended, perhaps just speaking with him would stop it?
Coleman: What's that? What'd you say? Oh, all right, talk to him. Better yet, get Rodgers to do it.
Beank: I do believe that the labor laws are a bit different in Simeland.
Coleman: Doesn't much matter unless they can enforce 'em, hey? We know which palms to grease, hey?
Beank: Sir, we do sell quite a bit of coal to Simeland. If they block those sales because we treated their official badly, they could hurt us.
Coleman smiles evilly.
Coleman: Who's treating him badly? None of our people feel like speaking to him, that's treating him badly? Hey?
Beank: Sir, if we run the workers out of town, our production will stop. And we do have that contract coming due...
Coleman makes a dismissive hand gesture.
Coleman: Fine, fine. Find some way to do it. Keep 'em quiet and keep the money out of their hands. You'll figure out a way, Beank.
Coleman doesn't need to even think "or else"; everyone around him takes it for granted, including him.
Beank: Sir, what resources may I bring to bear on the problem?
Coleman: Whatever you need, whatever you need. But above all, downhold expenses. Anything else?
Beank: ...no, sir. I'll see what I can do.
Beank scuttles out.
Coleman grabs his coat and follows with a somewhat more measured pace, stopping only to enquire just where the Sime and his -- unfortunate victim -- are staying.
Gerrhonot is wrapping some flatbread he made on the hearth around some wild herbs he gathered. He had to wash a lot of dust and soot off the herbs, and the coal fire hasn't imparted the nice flavor a wood fire gives food cooked with it.
Gerrhonot: Here, Hajene. Try this.
Gerrhonot offers the flatbread wrap and a slice of cheese, and takes a bite out of his own. ~~ tasty, really ~~
Seruffin ~~ gamely ~~ takes a bite.
Seruffin: It's... not bad.
Seruffin tries not to gag as he swallows.
Gerrhonot looks ~~ concerned ~~.
Gerrhonot: Um. You don't have to eat the herbs if you don't want. The flatbread isn't bad by itself.
Seruffin sets his portion aside.
Seruffin: I'll try some later.
Gerrhonot rummages in his supplies and pulls out some dried apricots.
Gerrhonot: Um. I've got a few of these...
Seruffin: I shouldn't cut into your supply.
Gerrhonot: That's okay. You should eat something. Try the apricots with the bread. I wish I could get you some jam or honey or something.
Gerrhonot resolves to bring some along on their next trip into the wilds of Gen land. He figured a Gen town would have a reasonable food supply.
Gerrhonot takes a quick peek at the pot of water to see if it's boiling yet. Almost.
Coleman knocks on the door, ignoring the minor ~~ pain ~~, of course.
Gerrhonot gets up and looks to Seruffin.
Coleman would technically be within his rights to barge in -- he owns the building -- but he remembers what that pipsqueak Beank says. Never make more trouble than is actually useful.
Seruffin: Go ahead, Gerrhonot. I'm fine.
Gerrhonot opens the door.
Gerrhonot: Oh. Hello, Mr. Coleman.
Gerrhonot moves back to ~~ protect ~~ his channel from this aggressive Gen.
Seruffin ~~ leans ~~ on Gerrhonot and puts on his bland, diplomatic face.
Seruffin: Good afternoon, Mr. Coleman.
Coleman: Afternoon, afternoon. Settling in well? Good, good. Say, what's this I hear about you buying from my workers, hey?
Coleman: You know. What you Simes are always interested in. That stuff. Hey?
Coleman: Sure, sure, whatever you call it. Anyway, you're buying it. And that's disrupting my economy. So I thought a word to the wise, hey? Hey?
Seruffin: Disrupting your economy? How so?
Coleman: Too much money, not enough goods, the price goes up. Hey?
Seruffin: I hardly think that anything I've done has affected the economy of the district.
Coleman: Damn it, a man's supposed to make his money by working for it. Not by growing himself as a -- God damned feed animal. ~~ anger ~~
Gerrhonot increases his level of support. ~~ reliable, strong ~~
Seruffin: Sir, no one is going to pressure you to donate. However, the First Contract permits the Tecton to collect selyn from any Gen who volunteers, and requires that compensation be offered.
Coleman: The only contract any man in this town is bound to respect, other than me, is mine! My Contract! Not some God damned government fit-up.
Seruffin: Sir, you are obliged to follow the laws of your own land. Including its treaties with my government.
Coleman guffaws even louder this time.
Coleman: Unless, of course, I can buy off that government. Which, on my own property, I certainly can.
Coleman: Now I'm not looking for trouble, so I'm not sending you packing, though I could. But I'm putting you on notice. Anyone you buy -- stuff -- from will no longer be employed by this company. And you'll find that most of the men don't know anything but coal mining. And you won't be here forever. No, not forever. Now what have you got to say to that, hey? Hey?
Seruffin: Your government can be bought on some issues. This is not one of them.
Coleman: And you would know this how? Hey?
Coleman: ~~ tough facade beginning to crumble ~~ as the usual bullying tactics don't seem to be working.
Seruffin: I'm a diplomat. I've been working with your Senate for years, mostly on trade issues.
Coleman throws his head back and laughs in earnest this time.
Coleman: Got me that time! I'm trumped for sure. Say, I like you -- I do. Put 'er there!
Coleman holds out his hand for the first time. ~~ sincere ~~
Seruffin retracts his tentacles and reaches out to shake hands.
Gerrhonot puts a hand on Seruffin's shoulder to increase his support for this contact.
Coleman ~~ drops the belligerence ~~.
Seruffin zlins ~~ curiously ~~ for what is underneath.
Coleman: Now here's the real story. The way I keep my miners working for me, as I'm sure you know by now, is the fact that they owe me money. Now I don't do this just to be a hard-ass.
Seruffin: You do it to ensure that essentially all of the profit from the mine goes to you, and as little as possible to the people who work for you.
Coleman: Well, naturally! After all, it's my mine. It's just good business to keep my costs down, and the biggest cost is always going to be labor.
Coleman is ~~ pleased ~~ that the Sime understands so well.
Seruffin: What I don't understand, is why you continue such an arrangement when it isn't cost-effective in today's world.
Coleman: Oh? Telling me my business now?
Coleman is not really offended.
Coleman: Sure, why not? Tell me your story. I always have time for my friends.
Gerrhonot is a little disgusted that this mean guy is claiming Seruffin as a friend, but keeps it out of his nager.
Seruffin gestures Coleman towards a seat that is located close enough for conversation but far enough away to give Gerrhonot a realistic chance to block the man's unpleasant nager.
Seruffin: Please, sit down, and I'll try to explain.
Coleman is a little ~~ piqued ~~ that this Sime is telling him to sit down, but after all, it's the guy's territory -- at least for the moment.
Gerrhonot positions himself to listen, and more important, protect his channel.
Seruffin: What do you know about the cause of the Unity War?
Coleman is willing to humor Seruffin.
Coleman: Well, the usual pablum they spout in schools is that our troops stopped you from raiding us any more, but I know the real reason is that you couldn't afford to keep on wasting Gens -- they're a slow-reproducing asset.
Seruffin: That is true, as far as it goes. I was asking about the more immediate cause, however. The trigger, as it were.
Coleman: Something happened up north; I disrecollect the details.
Seruffin: Yes. The Pen system collapsed.
Coleman: Right. And then the Simes invaded. Bad judgment on their part!
Seruffin: Not at all. It was a chance at survival, compared with no chance at all. Desperate people do desperate things. And they very nearly succeeded.
Coleman: Do you really think they could have created a Pen system here? But no matter. Spit out your point, man.
Seruffin: If your field army and ours hadn't made a completely unauthorized alliance, without the consent of either government, the refugees from Norwest Territory would have hunted down and killed every Gen between Norwest and Nivet.
Coleman: And died. Some plan. ~~ contempt ~~
Seruffin: Many of them would have died. But it is quite likely that before the dust settled, New Washington and Nivet would have collapsed as well.
Coleman: Perhaps so, perhaps so. But anyhow, what's all this got to do with how I run my mine?
Coleman suspects that Seruffin is just trying to get him into a somber mood. Of course it won't work.
Seruffin: It was a close enough thing that both governments were willing to make fundamental changes to prevent any chance of such a thing happening, ever again. Even when those changes mean severe hardships for upstanding citizens like yourself.
Coleman guffaws again.
Coleman: That's me, fine upstanding citizen. All my office-holders think so, too.
Seruffin: One of the changes that our citizens were forced to accept was granting citizenship to their children who turned Gen. Since most still believed that Gens were animals, you can imagine how happy they were about it.
Coleman: Go on, go on.
Seruffin: Well, people being people, there were quite a few who felt that the new laws didn't mean that they actually had to treat Gens as fellow citizens. They didn't feel that they should have to hire Gens, or rent houses to them, or welcome them as customers. Some towns were worse than others... and strangely enough, the young Gens from those towns tended to go away to the big cities, where they could get employment.
Coleman: Yes, yes, that's all obvious, hey?
Seruffin: That was the first year after the war ended. By the following winter, some of those towns had very few resident Gens.
Coleman: Killed, hey? Not surprising either.
Seruffin: There weren't killed. They weren't present to be killed. And the local channels couldn't travel to collect selyn from towns that had it because of the snow. There were at least three towns I know of in which almost half of the adults died before help could arrive.
Coleman sighs in ~~ exasperation ~~.
Coleman: Will you kindly come to the point, hey? What's all this history got to do with me and my mine, hey?
Seruffin: Only this. It became very clear to the new government of Nivet that the only way to prevent such disasters in the future was to make sure that Gens weren't driven out of the small towns by economic hardships. That was when the Tecton started paying Gens for donations, and that is why donation payments are such that a Gen can procure at least the bare necessities of life without outside employment.
Coleman: I guess they got you over a barrel -- not one at a time, but collectively, hey?
Seruffin: Indeed. All that was happening as the First Contract was being negotiated, of course. And it wasn't only our home-bred Gens who had us over the barrel. There weren't enough of them, you see.
Seruffin zlins Coleman to see if he's starting to think the situation through.
Seruffin: We needed a lot more selyn than we could get from our own Gens, or the Tecton would collapse. Nivet is a lot larger than Norwest was. The New Washington army would never have been able to hold. And so, although you had us over a barrel, we also had you in a similar position.
Coleman: So we were holding each other's trapdoors closed, hey? And the trick was how to get loose without letting go.
Coleman is growing ~~ interested ~~ in spite of himself.
Seruffin: Yes. And the only solution was to cooperate: to combine both Territories into a single selyn-delivery system.
Coleman narrows his brows in ~~ suspicion ~~.
Coleman: Say, how do you know all this? You must have been a kid at the time, just like me.
Seruffin: I went through changeover just as the Unity War was drawing to a close. Channels were in very short supply, then, so they put me right to work.
Coleman: Oh. Right, right.
Seruffin: By that time, a sufficient number of your higher government officials had learned enough of the realities of Sime life to understand how critical it was to your own Territory's security that the Tecton be allowed to recruit sufficient selyn donors from New Washington Territory.
Coleman: And so you do, hey? From the cities, hey?
Seruffin: From cities, yes. And from anywhere else there are sufficient potential volunteers to make the effort worthwhile. Or where a channel happens to be present on other business.
Coleman: Now there you go too damn far. You have to get permission from the local authorities for one of those Sime places, hey? And hereabouts, that's me, hey?
Seruffin: Not at all. The Tecton has limited resources, and so permanent Sime Centers are placed where there is some expectation that it will be worth our while.
Coleman: But not just wherever you want! I read about it in the paper, that university town? Turned you down flat, hey?
Seruffin: It's more common than not for a community's leaders to petition for a Sime Center, but there's no legal requirement for that. The Cordvain Valley was selected over the protests of the local authorities, because sufficient local residents petitioned for one.
Coleman: Oho. That was your doing, I guess. And the mine owners' situation has gone to hell in a handbasket since then, from what I hear. But it won't work here. Maybe I can't stop you from corrupting a few of my miners, but comes the time to set up one of your Sime Centers, you're going to find you need land. And construction permits. And quite a lot of local assistance. And that's where I've got you over a barrel.
Coleman is ~~ smug ~~.
Seruffin: That depends on your workers, don't you think?
Coleman ~~ dismisses ~~ that argument. He has his workers over a barrel, too, and once he and his lawyers figure the angles, even extra money won't save them.
Coleman: Anyhow, you were going to talk cost-effectiveness. All I hear so far is veiled threats.
Seruffin: Not threats. Realities. In this case, the reality that your government will support my right of access to any of your workers who wish to donate. Also, that any of your workers who are willing to donate really do have a realistic options of leaving your employ and making at least as good a living elsewhere.
Coleman: We'll see about that. But unless you can back up that word "cost-effective", we got nothing to talk about. And remember, it was your word not mine.
Seruffin: Your current system depends on your workers not having better options elsewhere. And on your ability to quickly replace any workers who die or are otherwise unable to work.
Coleman: So it does. And so I can.
Seruffin: Your workers are now aware that they can earn about as much by donating as they can by risking their lives for six long shifts a week. And so can their wives, and the older children.
Coleman: For now. ~~ tight-lipped anger ~~
Seruffin: Yes. Do you really want half your workforce deciding to take advantage of the chance to leave?
Coleman shakes his head and ~~ laughs ~~.
Coleman: Nice game of bluff. But if you had enough channels to collect all the -- stuff -- in Gen Territory, you'd be doing it. And this would be Sime Territory. So you don't. You barely have enough to cover the Sime Centers you've already got, I'll bet.
Seruffin: True. But Gerrhonot and I are here, and both our governments have decreed that we must stay here until our investigation is complete. Much as I wish it were different, that is enough time for any of your workers who wish to leave to earn enough to settle their debts and do so legally.
Coleman: [through his teeth] Don't you threaten me with ruin, Sime. Or there'll be a Church of the Purity preacher in here, though I don't hold with religion generally, and we'll see just how long it is before a mob burns down this house with you and your -- minion -- in it. Of course the mob will be put down by the Army soon enough, but that'll be no solace to you, and a good warning to whoever your masters are fool enough to send next.
Coleman: I can be a good friend. I'm a damn bad enemy.
Gerrhonot does his best to keep his ~~ alarm ~~ off his face and out of his nager. He ups his ~~ support ~~ and waits for his channel to react.
Seruffin has been subjected to plenty of posturing by various Senators in the past, and objectively rates Coleman's performance as decent, but not nearly as convincing as Tsibola at his best.
Seruffin: Sir, our investigation is critical enough that I would be considered expendable. If you set a mob on me, my replacements would come with a sufficient security force to prevent a recurrence. That would make the whole affair even more disruptive.
Coleman: See, the difference between our situations is this. You can buy from one more Gen, or five, or ten. You've got flexibility. I don't. I've got only one weapon, and it's a bomb. It'll damage me, but I've survived wars before, and crushed the competition, too. You aren't ever going to know when I'm going to set off that bomb. And I don't care if it's you or the next one that gets blown up by it. Eventually your Tecton won't be able to afford to send precious channels into a hotbed of vicious anti-Sime feeling.
Coleman pauses briefly for effect.
Coleman: So do your damn job and leave my men alone. Or not. The choice is yours.
Coleman stands up.
Seruffin: No. The choice is theirs.
Coleman: They will have their orders, and we'll see who dares defy me. What you don't seem to get is that most men aren't wolves like you and me. They're sheep, like him over there. And sheep -- follow.
Coleman turns on his heel and walks out, leaving the door open behind him.
Seruffin looks at Gerrhonot.
Seruffin: That could have gone better.
Gerrhonot looks ~~ worried ~~.
Gerrhonot: Um. Maybe we should send a telegram to Jaklin. Or a letter, so nobody reads it.
Gerrhonot looks down.
Gerrhonot: Um. Do you think she wants you to get this boss guy all upset like that? Even to collect selyn and help these poor Gens?
Seruffin: This is the man who hired Sosu Nick's kidnapper. He's already dragged us into his war with his workers.
Gerrhonot: I guess. But I'm worried you might get hurt.
Seruffin: So am I. We'll have to do our best and hope that's enough.
Gerrhonot: Tell me what to do, when you think of things. I don't always think up the right thing to do on the spot.
Seruffin: We've got to keep talking to people -- there's no other way to search for Distect influences -- but we'll have to be very careful about it.
Gerrhonot nods, and strokes Seruffin's forearm for ~~ mutual comfort ~~.