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In The Stormy Red Sky: Chapter Nine

       Last updated: Wednesday, February 11, 2009 07:48 EST



Ravenny Gardens, Hereward on Paton

    The gateway with Ravenny Gardens worked into the top of the arch was made to look like wrought iron, but when Adele tapped it with her knuckles, she found that it was extruded plastic she expected. A sign beside the entrance read A GIFT FROM THE ASSOCIATED GARDEN CLUBS OF PATON, IN HONOR OF THEIR LATE FOUNDER, DOLORES RAVENNY. This really was wood, and the paint had flaked badly.

    Barnes reversed the amphibious vehicle, then snorted back down the street toward the dock area with his partner and the two midshipmen. Daniel watched them go with his usual mild smile.

    “This is quite a pleasant neighborhood,” he said. “Not at all the view that a spacer normally gets of a port city, I’m afraid.”

    “Yes, I suppose it is,” Adele said. She’d checked slant imagery of the district before she picked the gardens as the venue for her discussion, but all that had really impressed itself on her was the fact it was suitably private. Out of politeness, she looked around her now.

    The two and three-story frame houses were spacious by the standards of Xenos, where land was at a premium. Each sat in its own lot, set off from its neighbors and the street by waist-high hedges or occasionally a fence of wooden pickets.

    Adele returned her attention to where it needed to be. “The east edge of the gardens overlooks the open sea,” she said. She was uncomfortable with what she’d just learned in the Spezza. It wasn’t unusually awful as such things went, but she didn’t know what to do about it.

    The easy solution, of course, was to do nothing. That came naturally to Adele Mundy, who was more interested in knowledge than people. She wasn’t sure it was the right answer here, however, so she was deferring the decision to Daniel.

    Besides, Adele found herself caring more about people than she had for the first fifteen years after the massacre of her family. Either she was allowing her emotions to resurface or–

    She smiled wryly.

    –like Tovera, she was training herself into a series of behavior patterns which others would read as emotions. Either way, it eased life within society.

    The gates were open, but a caretaker in a white–whitish–jacket got to his feet as Adele and Daniel entered. Tovera was a pace behind, moving her eyes more often than her head, but turning her head frequently as well.

    “Sir?” said the caretaker. “Sorry, we’re closed except for the workmen. We’ll open again for the Promenade at nine.”

    Adele took out her data unit, casting around for a place to use it. There were benches along the path ten yards in, but if she wanted to sit without getting past the caretaker, the best alternative was moist ground covered with russet tendrils like fur. They would probably stain badly.

    A lace-winged insect landed on her wrist. She flicked it off.

    “Here you are, my good man,” Daniel said cheerfully. He spun a florin toward the caretaker. Sunlight caught the coin at the top of its arc, flashing from the ruby hologram within the central crystal. “We won’t get in the way of your people, I promise you. Setting up for the Promenade, you mean?”

    “Why, thank you, sir!” said the caretaker, turning the coin over in his fingers. Adele had noticed before that Cinnabar coinage–holograms within silvery rims–had a flashy presence beyond its actual value. At that, a florin was worth about half a day’s wage in the scrip passing current on Paton. “Yes, the Promenade, every tennight. Ah, if you’ll be careful, then, I guess it can’t hurt anything.”

    Smiling pleasantly, Daniel led them briskly past lest the fellow change his mind. Tried to change his mind, Adele suspected, but it was better to avoid a problem than to deal with one that’d arisen.

    Adele grimaced at her data unit. She couldn’t use it unless they stopped, which would be a foolish thing to do for no more important reason than she had now.

    Daniel must have read her expression correctly–they did know one another well. He grinned and said, “The tennight Promenade is the major social event in Hereward. Everyone who’s anyone dresses up and comes here to listen to the live band and look at one another. And nine is early evening here–Paton uses a ten-hour, daylight-to-dusk clock.”

    The gardens were laid out on a tongue of land. It was only twenty yards across here at the entrance, but it spread to over a hundred near the tip. To the right was the harbor; to the left, the open sea whose water was equally opaque but a clearer gray.

    Circular planters, generally with a tree as the centerpiece, were spaced just inside the perimeter hedges; a graveled walk wound around them. At the end of the peninsula was a larger plaza, also graveled. Workmen were setting up a small bandstand and a dance floor, using boards from the dump truck parked on the walkway and the trailer behind it.

    Daniel’s eyes narrowed; then he shrugged. “I suppose they used a dump truck because they had one,” he said. “That’s a good enough reason, after all.”

    “Ah,” said Adele, putting the data unit away. “Thank you.”

    “It’s not surprising that I’d be more aware of high society in Hereward, after all,” Daniel said with a chuckle. “Mind you, if I let the locals learn that my signals officer is Lady Mundy, you’ll get even more invitations than I do.”

    Adele felt her lips squeeze into a sour bunch. “Thank you for not doing that,” she said. She nodded toward a gap in the outer hedge, where a railing gave a view over the harbor. “I think we’ll be adequately private here. I wasn’t confident of that aboard the Milton, since the Senator was aboard.”

    If Forbes–if her staff–were skilled enough, they could have set timed recording devices virtually anywhere. If the devices were designed for recovery, not real-time broadcast, they would be completely undetectable.

    Though that wasn’t the real reason for Adele’s discomfort. She was tense and miserable because of Forbes’ existence in the middle of her RCN family, not at anything Forbes was really going to do there. For all the cruiser’s size, the Milton wasn’t a safe haven for Adele so long as there was a senator aboard.

    “These gardens are full of exotic plants,” said Daniel in a whimsical tone. “If you’re from Paton. If you’re moderately well-versed in horticulture–and I’m barely that myself–you recognize a good half of what you see as standard species which humans take everywhere they go. Many are from Earth originally–the roses, the pansies…. But the rest as well, the wagtails–”

    He pointed to the clump of plants with finger-thick stems from which petals like pastel flags waved in the sea breeze.

    “–are from Hinson’s Rest, the bluebrights–”

    He pointed to the clumps whose spiky cyan foliage overwhelmed the white florets at the center of each.

    “–that they grow by the square mile on Melpomene for medicinal extracts, but you find them in gardens on just about every other inhabited world too.”

    He swept his hands across an arc of the plantings. “Pretty much all of them, the ones I can identify by name but I’d guess all the rest, they’re off-world species. Whereas what I’d like to see is a nice slice of Paton’s own plants in their native habitat.”

    Adele laughed, surprising even herself. She opened and closed her hands; she’d been gripping the railing so fiercely that they’d started to cramp.

    “I’m sorry, Daniel,” she said. “I’m angrier than I’d realized at Forbes’ presence. And what I learned in the Spezza’s log… fed into it.”

    She cleared her throat and continued, “The Brotherhood, this phratry of it, is being sent to put down a rebellion on an agricultural world named Fonthill.”

    Daniel nodded. “All right,” he said. “If you don’t care what gets broken in the process, they’re good troops for the purpose. Maybe the best.”

    He frowned slightly and added, “I’m not familiar with Fonthill, though.”

    “Fonthill,” Adele said, brushing away several more of the lace-winged insects, “is owned by William Beckford. It isn’t a listed world–anywhere.”



    Daniel frowned. A dozen or more of the large flies were crawling on his sleeves. He pinched together the wings of one and lifted it to where he could see it more easily. The slender body arched and straightened, while the four little legs paddled in the air.

    “I presume there’s something valuable on Fonthill,” he said as he peered at the insectoid. “Minerals?”

    “Fonthill is the source of shinewood,” Adele said, looking toward the empty horizon. “All direct contact is through Hydriote vessels, not those of Beckford’s companies. The Spezza has made two voyages to Fonthill in the past five years; the route pack they received from Factor Amberly is for a third, though Captain Kelly may not realize that until he arrives. The Spezza hasn’t gone from Paton to Fonthill in the past, and the chip provides a route rather than a destination.”

    “That…,” said Daniel. He looked around them. “Here, let’s walk to the harbor side, if you don’t mind.”

    He walked around a planter centered around a tree that looked like a forty-foot coat rack swathed in streamers of thin green fabric. Around its base were plants with blue tubes which grew out of leaves the color of sunburned skin.

    The foliage was covered with the winged insectoids. As Adele watched, a further cloud of them lifted over the perimeter hedge and settled to join earlier arrivals to the garden.

    “Daniel,” she said, though she continued to walk with him. “There seem to be more of the insects in this direction. Insectoids.”

    “Yes, I want to see if they’re hatching from the harbor,” Daniel said in an oddly lively voice. He continued, “No one’s ever known the source of shinewood. I can see why Beckford would keep the location secret, since it’s so valuable a product. Products, really, since there’s at least a dozen identifiable species. They have nothing in common except their sheen under UV.”

    “The other thing that all the types of shinewood have in common…,” said Adele. She brushed the railing of structural plastic clear of insectoids to that she could cross her hands on it before her. “Is that their sap is an ulcerating poison. Working with it–cutting the timber and milling it, since that’s done on Beckford also–is debilitating and fatal within five years.”

    She gave him a cold smile, ignoring the tiny feet causing tiny prickles as they crawled over her face. “That’s an average based on the number replacement workers which the Hydriotes bring in. They have lot numbers, which permits me to extrapolate to a rough total.”

    “That implies very high wages,” Daniel said. There was no more humor in his smile than there had been in hers. “Or that the workmen are slaves. Which would surprise me slightly, since Hydra became a signatory to the Blythe Convention over a century ago, barring its citizens from the slave trade.”

    He raised an eyebrow.

    Adele nodded crisply. “I suspect it’s a matter of definition,” she said. “Beckford’s companies buy labor contracts, particularly prison contracts. There are many worlds which aren’t overly scrupulous about policing that sort of thing. That was the case in the Protectorate of the Veil until Governor Das was appointed, as a matter of fact. And it’s still the case in the Hegemony. Headman Terl preferred to avoid public executions, but his security police were zealous in removing troublemakers.”

    “I see,” said Daniel. “And I can’t say I like it very much….”



    Daniel tossed the fly he’d been examining into the air and watched it vanish into the amazing swarms of its fellows. They were rising from surface of the harbor like spindrift, never more than thirty feet out from the shore as best he could judge. He thought of slipping his imaging goggles down over his eyes, but there was no call for that.

    “The labor purchases are made through a variety of intermediary companies,” Adele said. “The only ones that can be directly linked with Beckford are completely aboveboard, as for the Cone plantations on Paton. Separate entities recruit labor from those plantations with promises of wages and better conditions, but Cone and similar traders will have properly signed documents when Protectorate inspectors come by.”

    Daniel nodded, dislodging a platoon of the insectoids. They were fodderflies, native to Hartweg’s World deep in the Montserrat Cluster. The harbor was boiling, not only with the flies but with the fish and birds which gorged on the hatching.

    “And when the laborers find themselves on Fonthill at no wages,” he said aloud, “there’s also no recourse. Except to run into the bush.”

    “‘Going feral,’ it’s called,” Adele said. “Beckford’s managers call it that, I mean.”

    She paused, then said, “I don’t understand why Beckford allows the Hydriotes to know the location of Fonthill but not his own companies. I’ve searched the Cone Transport files here on Paton, and I find no hint in them of the world’s existence. Or that Cone personnel have any idea where shinewood comes from. The shipments are brought to emporia–like Paton, occasionally–on Hydriote bottoms before being carried to secondary destinations by third parties from all over the human galaxy.”

    “He’s rather clever in using the Hydriotes as cutouts, Adele,” Daniel said musingly. Considered simply as a puzzle, it was an interesting one; rather like judging where to tap a hooked stick on the surface to bring a mudfrog from the bottom of the pond. “He can trust them, you see.”

    He turned and grinned at her. She was squinting and making quick brushing motions with her right hand to keep the fodderflies out of her eyes.

    “The Hydriotes are a clannish lot,” Daniel said. “They don’t talk outside their own world. They won’t try to poach the ownership of Fonthill, since Beckford would bring in the RCN before he let go of the world completely. Hydra must be making a pretty trissie on the carrying trade, which they’d lose if they got greedy. But don’t you think some spacer from Cone or IMT would sell what he knew? Some hundreds would, I’d judge.”

    “One rarely goes wrong in assuming that humans will be venal, Daniel,” Adele said. She held her right hand over her mouth with the fingers slightly spread, trying to prevent the flies from crawling in while she spoke. “And this business on Fonthill is an unusually striking example of venality, I would say.”

    “Yes,” said Daniel. “It is.”

    He cleared his throat and went on, “I can see why Beckford would want Brotherhood troops to deal with his rebelling slaves, but I wouldn’t have guessed that he had enough influence to arrange it. When word gets out, whoever signed off on the mission is almost certainly going to be executed. Such a misuse of troops in the middle of a war is treason, and there are still patriots in the Senate who won’t brook that.”



    Adele was looking over the harbor, where the swarm had almost completed. I’ll make a log entry about the fodderflies, Daniel thought. Some future naturalist will be fascinated.

    Aloud, speaking to his friend’s profile, he said, “My father among them, I suspect. Money was always a means to power for him, not a thing in its own right.”

    “The second folder has the text of the phratry’s transfer orders,” Adele said. She flicked her hand in front of her face to shoo away the last stragglers of the swarm. “Those state that they’ll be dealing with a rebellion fomented by Alliance agents on a jungle world designated PP4/AZ–which exists but apparently was never colonized. Nobody making a cursory check of assignments would determine that, of course; and I suspect the orders were issued by clerks who had no idea that they were being manipulated.”

    She pursed her lips and added, “I wonder if the earlier route packs contained the orders also? Well, I don’t suppose it matters.”

    She turned to face Daniel. That brought the plantings into her peripheral vision; she blinked with amazement. Instead of speaking, she snatched out her personal data unit before catching herself.

    “It’s probably simpler to ask you, isn’t it?” Adele said with an embarrassed grimace. “What are these things, Daniel? They’re eating everything.”

    “They’re fodderflies from Hartweg’s World,” Daniel said. His lips smiled, but he was too caught up in the Fonthill business to really feel the humor of the present situation. “They’re hatching in the harbor but not in the sea, you’ll have noticed. I suspect that’s because the flies’ larval stage requires a hydrocarbons that they get from lubricant runoff in the harbor but not the open ocean here.”

    He turned and viewed the tattered remnants of the gardens. “Fodderflies take over twenty years to reach their adult stage at home; I have know idea what the cycle here is.”

    “I’ll look it up,” said Adele, stepping briskly to a bench. She swept it clear of fodderflies with her side-cap before sitting down.

    The flies had stripped almost all the foliage from the garden. In the case of the Vasilyevan pole pine, they’d eaten even the bark into mottled patches; the portions covered by an iridescent fungus transplanted with the tree had been spared.

    “They eat in order to lay eggs on the shore above the high tide line,” Daniel said, letting his mind puzzle over questions of natural history. In the natural world, cause and effect had no moral dimension. “It’ll take a serious storm to sweep them into the water, and that’ll disperse them widely as well. Though here on Paton that doesn’t matter, because the harbor is the only suitable habitat.”

    Adele looked up. “According to the Garden Club records, there was an outbreak forty-seven years ago, but that’s local reckoning. It’s nearly sixty standard years.”

    She looked at the devastation and shook her head in wonder. “It was a terrible disaster,” she said. “The creatures wiped out not only Ravenny Gardens but also many of the members’ individual plantings elsewhere in the city. Just as they’re doing now.”

    When the fodderflies descended, there’d been quite a lot of cursing and loud questions from the workmen setting up for the Promenade. That had subsided when they realized the flies didn’t bite or sting; they’d resumed their work. Daniel wondered if they’d even bother to mention when they returned to the garage at the end of their shift that the gardens had been stripped.

    He grinned: probably not. The citizens didn’t attend Promenades to look at the foliage, but he suspected they were going to be very displeased to find it missing.

    “Did you notice the grass?” Daniel said, pointing. “The ground cover, that is. That’s native to Paton.”

    Adele followed the line of his finger. “It looks all right,” she said, frowning at the feathery strips of dull orange. They showed up clearly in the absence of the more vividly colored introduced species. “Isn’t it?”

    “Yes, it’s untouched,” Daniel agreed. “So are the other native species–the vines growing up the gate arch and the hedges here, at any rate.”

    He carefully touched the hedge framing the vista. The upper side of the reddish-brown foliage was as soft as a cat’s fur, but at contact the leaves rolled inward. The undersides bore hairs as fine and irritating as glass fibers.

    “Whereas the fodderflies have eaten all the off-world species that I can see, no matter where the plants came from,” Daniel said. “They literally can’t stomach the local chemistry, though it might take a lifetime to figure out precisely which enzyme or amino-acid chain was specifically responsible.”

    He grinned broadly. “If the garden club wants to get rid of the infestation, all it has to do is plant only native species until after the next outbreak sixty-some years hence; the flies will starve, then. But I’ll bet they just redo everything just the way it was.”

    The gorged flies were rising again, circling to catch the higher breezes which they hoped would waft them to new territories. No doubt the breezes would, but the eggs would only develop in the water of the harbor, and Ravenny Gardens was probably the only food source great enough to fuel a breeding population of adult flies. It was a remarkable accidental habitat, wholly created and sustained by human beings.

    “Daniel,” said Adele. “What are we going to do?”

    He nodded. They both knew why they’d been discussing the fodderflies–which, though fascinating, were of no importance compared with the problem of Fonthill.

    Sometimes you had to act without thinking. Wise people liked to let matters simmer in the quiet darkness of their minds, however. They talked about trivia while they let their subconscious get on with the business.

    Daniel shrugged. “We’re RCN officers,” he said, “and the RCN isn’t a police force. It may be that when we’re back in Xenos I’ll mention the business to somebody who has a professional reason to be interested. But at this level that’s politics, Adele, and I can tell you that Navy House isn’t even a little amused when RCN officers decide to play politics.”

    He met her eyes. He’d been staring at the stark, stripped trunks and branches, all that remained of Ravenny Gardens.

    “We’re RCN officers engaged in an important mission,” he said, hearing his words rasp. “We’ll carry out our duties, and we’ll ignore matters that have no bearing on those duties!”

    Adele nodded. She closed down her data unit and slid the wands away.

    “That’s the only rational choice,” she said. “I suspect that we wouldn’t have to search very far back to find that both our families had been involved in similar activities. And as you say, the status of the Hegemony is of critical importance to the Republic.”

    She stood and put the data unit into her thigh pocket. Sweeping her eyes over the ruin, she smiled. Adele’s smiles were rare and hard to interpret, but they rarely involved what most people would consider humor.

    “Adele?” Daniel said.

    “I was just thinking,” she replied, “that it’s a good thing that we don’t believe in omens, isn’t it?”

    “I see what you mean,” said Daniel.

    But he wasn’t sure that deep in his heart, he didn’t believe in omens.

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