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In The Stormy Red Sky: Chapter Fifteen

       Last updated: Wednesday, April 8, 2009 07:28 EDT




    Daniel breathed deeply as he looked up toward Base Alpha, the primary facility on Fonthill. The nearest structures were a few hundred yards from the harbor, as close as you could build something that wasn’t raised on pilings. They were low, constructed of sheets of beige structural plastic with pillars of the same material. Someone familiar with colonial buildings would notice immediately that these didn’t use the abundant local wood.

    Daniel had learned it was good to get used to the local atmosphere quickly, because you couldn’t avoid it except by wearing an airpack. Given that a a voyage between stars could be thought of as weeks or months in a giant airpack, it was pleasant to get out into something different even when that involved decaying vegetation and smoldering mudbanks.

    The usual rot and organic haze were profusely abundant on Fonthill, but there was also an undertone that set its claws in Daniel’s throat when he sneezed. The sap of Fonthill shinewood was corrosively poisonous. Apparently the trait was evident even as far down the evolutionary ladder as the algae growing in the water of the harbor.

    “Gods!” said Senator Forbes. “Great Gods, this is worse than I dreamed! What sort of stinking hellpit is this, Leary?”

    “A pretty standard one for undeveloped worlds, your Excellency,” Daniel said, considering the network of interlinked ponds surrounded by lush vegetation. “The smoke from things our thrusters set alight during landing will clear. Though it’s still going to be hot and humid, of course.”

    He wondered how many shades of green there were within immediate sight. To his left, the prickly seedhead on a waist-high stalk was a particularly striking chartreuse.

    The only color that wasn’t black or green came from the underside of a bird–well, a flying lizard–which shot out of a clump of bushes on the bank and began circling. Its wings appeared to have three folds, and their underside was pink.

    From orbit, the temperate and equatorial expanses of Fonthill’s sole continent had seemed to be a huge bog. Now that he was here at Base Alpha, Daniel saw no reason to change that assessment. Because the water table was so high, even a landing on an area that wasn’t covered in open water would’ve been cushioned by steam rising from the marshy soil.

    A pair of men were coming from the group of buildings on a hill above the pond which the Milton now filled. Daniel had landed easily enough, but the berths here on Fonthill hadn’t been intended for ships the cruiser’s size. The locals each wore a white brassard on the right arm, presumably uniforms.

    The lower end of boarding ramp was set on firm ground, rather remarkably. Ordinarily harbors were placed on large bodies of water, and for safety ships landed far enough out from the shore or quay that some sort of extension was necessary to reach land.

    Major Mull and his detachment had double-timed down the ramp even before it quite touched the ground. Four Marines carried an automatic impeller and its tripod.

    Heavy though the latter was, it wouldn’t by itself anchor the weapon for bursts of more than two or three rounds. The Marines were furiously shoveling dirt into sandbags to weight the gun’s legs as well as to shelter the crew. The soggy soil oozed back through the sides of the bags almost as soon as they’d been filled.

    “They’d get a better field of fire from a hatch, like the spacers’re doing,” Hogg said in a derisive tone. “From down there they can’t see aught but the bloody brush.”

    “I think Major Mull is concerned to control movement onto the ship, Hogg,” Daniel said. He’d never had Marines under his command before, and he was learning that they weren’t as much under his command as he might have wished. Mull had his own way of doing things. He seemed to regard suggestions from a spacer–even the ship’s captain–as being either amusing or blasphemous, depending on how firmly the suggestions were put.

    “Well, I’m more concerned with getting on with the job,” said Senator Forbes. “That’s the headquarters up there?”

    She nodded toward the nearby buildings. In consideration of the terrain she wore in a zebra-striped business suit with practical looking boots. She and her effeminate secretary weren’t armed, but DeNardo and the two muscular servants carried sub-machine guns.

    “Right,” Daniel said. He paused a few heartbeats to decide how to phrase the next statement, then decided to simply go ahead with it. Forbes claimed she wanted the straight truth, and she seemed willing to make that more than lip service.

    “Your Excellency,” he said, “the quicker we get to the compound, the better. I’d like you there from the beginning so that we’re agents of the Republic instead of rival gangsters, but that means walking. It’ll take an hour at best to deploy the truck and longer than that to set up the aircar.”

    “Yes, all right,” Forbes said with a moue and a toss of her head. “It’s what I expected, after all.”

    Which was probably true, given the way she’d dressed. Daniel grinned and said, “All right, Woetjans. Lead on–and remember that we’re the stern but just forces of law and order, not the Shore Patrol breaking up a drunken brawl.”

    The bosun, waiting farther back in the hold with a detachment of armed spacers, grinned and said, “What would I know about the Shore Patrol, Six? Except being on the other side, I mean.”

    Laughing, she slapped her left palm with the length of high pressure tube she carried. She’d slung a stocked impeller over her right shoulder, but Daniel doubted she could hit anything useful in the unlikely event that she tried to shoot.

    For this duty Daniel had directed Woetjans to dress her party in new utilities, issued from the ship’s store and charged to the RCN’s account rather than paid for by the spacers themselves as they normally would be. In its new uniforms the detachment looked less like a band of pirates than it would have in its usual shabby, grease-stained slops.

    “Let’s go, then,” Daniel said. Though Woetjans was treating the warning as a joke, he knew she and her unit had understood him. Spacers didn’t have the formal discipline of Marines, but neither were they out of control.

    “Move it, spacers!” Woetjans said, her harsh voice echoing in the big compartment. “And remember we’re going to a reception, not a bloody riot!”



    Led by Woetjans herself, half the detachment double-timed around the Senator and Daniel. Some were shouting, “Hup! Hup!” or similar things, and the clatter of their equipment added to the drumming of their boots on the steel ramp.

    Each carried a sub-machine gun or stocked impeller, but almost all had a club, knife, knuckle-duster or similar personal weapon as well. Daniel didn’t see any pistols, for which he was thankful. Despite training, most spacers were more enthusiastic than skilled with projectile weapons. Pistols greatly increased the risk of accident that was inevitable even with long-arms.

    “Great Gods,” Forbes muttered in amazed horror.

    “They’d follow Captain Leary to Hell, Senator,” said Adele primly. Daniel started; he’d expected her to be on the bridge. “In fact, they’ve done so a number of times in the past and come back from it.”

    “These have, at least,” said Hogg, grinning broadly. “Good folks to have with you in a hard place, for all that they don’t clean up as good as a lot of prissy house-servants.”

    “That will do, Hogg,” Daniel said quietly, but he hadn’t forgotten the Senator’s contemptuous dismissal of his servant on Karst either. “Though what he says is correct in my opinion, your Excellency. Shall we go?”

    The only weapon Hogg carried openly was a stocked impeller. If there was a better marksman with such a weapon aboard the Milton, it was Daniel himself. Hogg’s pockets bulged and clinked, though.

    They started down the ramp. Daniel let Forbes and her entourage get a little ahead because he wanted a chance to talk to Adele. He would’ve told Woetjans over the helmet intercom to slow down if he’d needed to, but the Senator kept up a good pace and spacers–unlike soldiers who were used to marching–weren’t likely to stride away from you anyway.

    “Carry on, Major Mull,” Daniel said as they passed the Marine outpost. The gunners were trying to spike their weapon’s trail to the ground with entrenching tools, since the sandbags wouldn’t hold a sufficient weight of the available soil.

    Mull muttered, “Aye aye, sir,” but he watched the spacers pass with open frustration. He’d announced that his troops would secure the head of the ramp after landing–and Daniel, instead of arguing that he thought his usual squad of spacers would be sufficient, had simply agreed.

    Daniel preferred having an escort of spacers anyway, because he knew they’d obey without question no matter how stupid Six’s order seemed. He didn’t doubt the Marines’ courage, but he knew they didn’t trust him like the former Sissies whom Woetjans had picked for this duty.

    That was an added incentive not to screw up, not that Daniel needed more reasons not to screw up. He grinned and whistled the chorus of Down in the Valley: “A rolling stone gathers no moss, so they say, but a standing stone gets pissed on.”

    Judging Forbes was out of hearing, he turned to Adele and said quietly, “I thought you were going to stay aboard, Officer Mundy?”

    Adele shrugged. “There’s at least one database up there–”

    She nodded toward the compound. The two men who’d started toward the cruiser were now going back up the hill at an accelerating pace.

    “–which isn’t linked to any kind of a network, so I have to be on site to examine it.”

    The Milton began to squeal and complain. Sun, predictably if against what had almost been a direct order, was rotating the dorsal turret to bear on the dull buildings. His excuse would probably be that he’d thought that the locals’ flight from a band of armed men meant that they were hostile. In truth he just liked to play with his guns. The eight-inch turret set up stresses in the hull as its great mass shifted.

    Daniel looked at his friend. “Well,” he said, “I’d trust your judgment on any other opinion you offered. I’ll therefore trust it on this.”

    But I’d much rather you’d stayed where it’s safe, he thought. Which here on Fonthill, the bridge of a heavy cruiser really ought to be.

    Very possibly Adele understood what he was thinking, because her lips seemed to twist on something sour and she said, “They’re not going to fight us, Daniel; I was able to listen to the control-room conversation through their satellite receiver. They’re all atwitter, as you might imagine, but they were in the process of locking their weapons in the shipping container that serves as an armory. They didn’t want any chance that they’d be mistaken for hostile.”

    “And if anybody does point a gun in our direction, young master…,” said Hogg with a self-satisfied smile. “Before he shoots, he’ll have a hole in his forehead and a bloody sight bigger hole in the back of his skull, where the brains all splashed out. Not so?”

    Tovera laughed. “Unless Sun gets ahead of himself,” she said.

    The trees started ten feet out from the pond and grew taller as the increasing slope reduced the likelihood of floods. Many species had strongly conical trunks, but a number of quite different varieties rose in corkscrews which their branches repeated. Daniel had noticed similar patterns in shinewood panels, but he’d assumed that the grain was artificial.

    “Spread out!” Woetjans rasped to her section. “Keep your eyes open but don’t bloody start the trouble!”

    Then, presumably over her shoulder, “Six, we’re outa the woods. Nobody’s showing at the windows, but there’s an enclosure and a couple guys without clothes looking out through the wire.”

    “Those are prisoners, captured rebels,” Adele said. She was using a commo helmet for the moment, but she would probably set it on the floor as soon as she’d found a place to settle and bring out her personal data unit. “The administrators call them ferals.”

    She frowned and added, “Don’t let the administrators kill them if you can help it. We’ll need them.”

    “Woetjans!” Daniel called. “Secure those prisoners! Do what you need to keep them safe!”

    He thought for a blink of time, then said, “Come on, Hogg! Dasi–”

    The bosun’s mate commanding the rear guard.

    “–stay with the Senator. I’m going forward!”

    They jogged past Forbes and her aides. She looked startled and concerned. It was hard to tell how much she’d understood of the shouted conversation with the advanced guard.

    It was uphill and spacers don’t get a lot of practice running, but it wouldn’t be far. Daniel burst out of the trees, allowing Hogg to get ahead as he couldn’t on the narrow path. Unless he’d been willing to clout the young master out of the way, of course–a plan that he’d probably considered for the young master’s own sake.



    The vegetation on the hundred feet remaining between the woodline and the nearest of the three buildings was blackened and dead, killed by herbicide rather than fire. Burning it off would’ve released a lethal cloud of the toxins that the staff was trying to keep away from their quarters.

    “Base Alpha, this is Captain Daniel Leary, RCN!” Daniel called as he trotted forward. “We are taking control of this facility in the name of the Republic and of Senator Elisabeth Forbes!”

    He was trying not to wheeze and also trying not to fall on his face. Quartz outcrops in the coarse laterite and the twisted remnants of vegetation made the footing treacherous, but he didn’t dare take his eyes off the buildings he was running toward.

    He wore a pistol on his equipment belt, more as a badge of rank than a weapon; he wasn’t a good pistol shot. The holster slapped his thigh as he ran.

    “If you resist,” called the public address speakers under the eaves of both buildings, “you will infallibly hang as rebels against the Republic of Cinnabar! Depend on it!”

    It took Daniel a moment to realize that the threatening voice was Adele’s. He should’ve expected that, he supposed; she’d said that she’d been listening in through their communications system. That meant, being Adele, that she could take control of it as she wished.

    “I surrender!” someone cried shrilly from inside the nearer building. “Don’t shoot! I surrender!”

    The twenty-odd spacers of the advanced guard had spread around the buildings and were pointing their guns at whatever seemed most threatening to each individual. Nothing seemed very threatening to Daniel, but his spacers were determined not to miss a bet.

    Woetjans was poised to kick in the front door, which was dull red plastic and contrasted with the beige walls. Since it opened outward, she’d probably fail–and then somebody would shoot the latch off without bothering to see if it was locked in the first place.

    Daniel grimaced. This wasn’t at all the placid stroll to the door and presentation of credentials that he’d hoped for before they’d landed, but there wasn’t any help for it. He certainly wasn’t going to come without an armed escort; and even if he had, the Milton’s enormous bulk would probably have put the wind up the locals’ tails.

    “Please, please, don’t shoot!” the voice squealed. The door quivered as someone grabbed the handle from the other side.

    Woetjans tensed. Daniel tapped her on the shoulder and gestured her back forcibly.

    “Come out, then!” he said. “You won’t be harmed so long as you turn over control of the facility promptly.”

    The door opened. The man who came out was fat besides being tall. Though balding, his moustache flowed into the beard that covered his neck; the facial hair was intensely black. He wore a white shirt and a shoulder sash of red silk.

    “I’m the, ah…,” he said. His voice was higher pitched than his bulk suggested. “That is, my name’s Disch. Please, we’ve put up all the guns and we only have them for the ferals anyway. We’ll do anything you say!”

    Looking down he noticed his sash. He tugged violently without being able to tear the cloth, then lifted it over his head and threw it onto the ground.

    A barefoot woman wearing a brown shift stepped out of the door behind Disch. She held a frying pan before her.

    “Right,” said Daniel. “Now, Master Disch, how many staff members do you have–”

    The woman brought the pan up and around in both hands, slamming the edge into the base of Disch’ skull. The cast iron rang dully, but the sound of crunching bone was sickeningly audible as well.

    Blood splattered, a drop splashing Daniel’s cheek. Disch’ eyes rolled upward; he pitched forward on his face. Daniel stepped to the side to avoid the big man; he grabbed the woman by both wrists.

    “Let me–” she shouted; then her taut muscles relaxed. She let go of the frying pan. Meeting Daniel’s eyes, she said, “There’s five of us, and him.”

    She kicked Disch’ thigh with her heel. Though she was barefoot, her soles were callused like hooves; the stroke would have hurt if the fallen man had been conscious. He was breathing in great snorts.

    Adele stepped around her to get to the doorway. She was holding her data unit and the wands in her right hand; her left was in her tunic pocket. Her utility trousers were stained by the dead vegetation she’d been sitting on, though that wasn’t obvious on the black-and-gray mottled fabric.

    “Mistress!” said Tovera.

    Woetjans gripped Adele’s sleeve, pulling her back; Tovera entered the room with her sub-machine gun ready. Adele looked up with an expression as cold as the blade of a guillotine; the bosun released her.

    Adele smiled faintly. “Yes, I take your point, Woetjans,” she said, taking her left hand out of her pocket. “But be careful, please. Sometimes I just react when I’m thinking of other things.”

    Barnes and four other armed spacers entered the building; Adele followed them. Close up, Daniel could see that algae with a faintly orange cast was creeping over the structural plastic, softening its lines but probably making it dangerous to touch.

    “He’s just a trustee,” said the girl Daniel held. She prodded Disch with a toe–not a blow but a disparaging reference. “No different from the rest of us, but he thinks he’s god because the off-planet staff lets him act like one. They won’t stay here, so Disch does what he pleases.”

    She half-smiled. “Did,” she said.

    This would be a more unpleasant place to live than many of the apparently harsher worlds which Daniel had seen. You could move normally on the surface, unlike some iceworlds, but that surface would inevitably begin to devour you. The woman had a rash beneath her chin and on the inside of both arms, and a line of sores circled the neck of the sprawled Disch where his collar rubbed.

    Forbes and her aides stamped up from the woods. Dasi had kept his spacers from rushing forward when Woetjans charged the compound with the lead section; he deserved a pat on the back for that, which Daniel would see he got as soon as things quieted down. Not quite yet, though….

    “In the name of the Senate and people of the Republic!” the Senator said. “I declare the entire world of Fonthill under martial law. Cinnabar forever!”

    Spacers cheerfully shouted, “Cinnabar forever!” and, “Up Cinnabar!” Some of the most gleeful weren’t, as Daniel knew from their enlistment records, even Cinnabar citizens.

    Daniel shot a sharp glance at the woman he was holding. She was much younger than he’d judged, no more than eighteen. Her arms and legs were badly bruised, and he suspected there were more bruises on the places that her loose shift covered.

    “Are you going to be all right if I let you go?” Daniel said. He could get one of the spacers to watch her or even tie her up, but he didn’t want to do that if he could avoid it.

    She laughed without humor. “I’m fine,” she said. “If you mean, am I going to hit that bastard again–”

    She jabbed Disch with her foot.

    “–no, don’t worry. Though I don’t know why you bloody care. He’s not worth anybody caring, believe me.”

    Daniel did believe her, but he was a naval officer and the matter didn’t fall within his remit. If Forbes wanted to set up kangaroo courts, he as the ranking RCN officer would provide the civil authorities with support as required. Until then, he’d maintain order among the local population so long as that was consistent with his naval duties.

    Forbes was trying to get into the headquarters building, which was part of Daniel’s duties. The Senator’s two servants were about to try pushing through the spacers who clogged the doorway, and that wasn’t going to end in a good way.

    “Poindexter!” Daniel said, stepping between Forbes and the spacers’ backs. “Smolich! Get your asses out of her Excellency’s way. Woetjans, I want all personnel out of the control room now except you and two others. Put the compound in a posture of defense!”

    He paused while the room emptied. There’d been a dozen spacers inside, along with the Adele, Tovera, and the Fonthill officials–trustees, the woman had said, as though this were a prison. Which it obviously was, in the minds of everybody who was involved with it.

    Daniel and Hogg followed Forbes into the control room. The building didn’t have climate control, and though the large openings under the roofpeaks provided ventilation, they did nothing for the mugginess.



    The officials were three men and an older, heavily tattooed, woman. The men stood with their backs to the wall while the woman leaned against it, supporting her weight with her arms. She glared over her shoulder at Tovera, but Tovera’s smile was considerably more threatening.

    Adele was speaking into a modern communications console. She looked up when Daniel entered.

    “The rebels are dealing with interloping traders,” she said. “Hydriotes, I’m sure, moonlighting between runs to Fonthill under contract to Beckford’s companies. But that means they must monitor the shipping frequencies, so I’ve been calling the local rebel commander, Earl Wiley.”

    “Carry on, Mundy,” Daniel said. “Excellent!”

    He turned to the captured officials. The men appeared harmless, cowed and frightened. The tattooed woman–well, she was harmless with Tovera watching her over the muzzle of a sub-machine gun, but it might be as well to transfer her to the prisoner cage outside.

    “Right,” Daniel said. “First, I’ll want the location of all the labor camps here on Fonthill. Who’ll find that for me, hey?”

    “I schedule the runs,” the eldest of the three men said. His left arm was shrunken, though all the fingers moved; Daniel wondered whether it was a pre-existing injury or reaction to the endemic poisons of this hellworld. “I can show you on the other computer, the one in there.”

    He nodded toward the room to the left. The doorway was arched and closed with a screen of glittering plastic ribbons.

    “But it won’t be quite up to date on where they’re cutting, because the satellite link’s been out for the past week.”

    Which explained why Adele couldn’t access it from the Milton: bad maintenance instead of exceptional security. If all the personnel on Fonthill were slaves, the chances were that bad maintenance was the only maintenance there was.

    “We’ll see if we can’t get that working shortly,” Daniel said, wishing that he’d brought Cory along. Well, they’d sort it in good time, he was sure. “For now, show me the unit. And what’s your name, my good man?”

    “Daniel!” Adele said. “I have contact.”

    That wasn’t according to RCN protocol, but none of the spacers present looked startled. They didn’t think of Adele as a signals officer, and however Lady Mundy spoke to Six was fine with them. Lieutenant Commander Robinson might’ve had conniptions, but he was smart enough to keep his mouth shut–and anyway, he and the Wartburg were still in orbit.

    “Who is this that calls to Comrade Wiley, over?” said the console’s speakers; Adele must have cut them on when she got the signal.

    “I’ll speak,” said Forbes, stepping in front of Daniel in the assumption that he would give way. As he did, because this wasn’t a tactical situation; but he felt his face harden slightly.

    “Go ahead, then,” said Adele, looking up. Her face was blank, but again Daniel had the realization that the Senator might want to be more careful about what she said and how she said it.

    “This is Lady Elisabeth Forbes,” the Senator said, striking a pose unconsciously. “Senator of the Republic and Ambassador Plenipotentiary to the Veil and neighboring worlds. I’m here to bring Fonthill under direct Cinnabar rule and to right any wrongs which may have been done here. I want you to come to Base Alpha immediately so that we can negotiate an arrangement which will greatly benefit you and your followers.”

    She stopped. “Over,” said Adele, more punctilious as intermediary than she ordinarily was with her own communications.

    “Are you mad, woman?” the console replied. The cackling laugh that followed suggested that the man on the other end of the conversation–Comrade Wiley himself–wasn’t too tightly wrapped either. “Wiley does not come to Base Alpha or anywhere else. If you wish Wiley, you come to him! Over.”

    The Fonthill authorities–if that wasn’t too grand a description–must be completely lacking in military skills and equipment if the rebel chieftain was willing to communicate directly. Whether the sender was broadcasting or bouncing his signal through the satellite net, Adele certainly had a fix on the location. A missile or a company of Marines could be on top of it within an hour if that were the plan.

    Which it wasn’t, of course.

    “Don’t get above yourself, Wiley,” Forbes said sharply. “Of course I’m not going off into a swamp to meet a run slave. You have my word that you and your followers will be safe when they come to Base Alpha.”

    Instead of adding the closing protocol, Adele said calmly, “I didn’t transmit that, Senator. I’ll take it from here.”

    “What?” said Forbes.

    “Quiet down the tattooed lady if she moves, Woetjans,” Tovera said, shifting her stance. She’d hung the sub-machine gun under her right arm in a patrol sling; now the waist-high muzzle pointed at the Senator’s aides. The men with guns merely blinked, but Platt squealed and dropped the briefcase he’d been clutching to his chest on the hike from the Milton.

    Hogg chuckled. He’d slung the impeller and was holding a folding knife with a knuckle-duster grip. It was made for close quarters like this, but Daniel had seen Hogg throw the weapon fifteen feet to put the point through the eye of a flying lizard and into the creature’s brain.

    “She’s too smart to do that,” Hogg said. “Isn’t that so, sweetie?”

    The woman snarled a curse, but she didn’t try to straighten from her off-balance position.

    “Comrade Wiley…,” Adele said. She’d made her initial contact behind an active cancellation screen, but she left that down now so that everyone else in the room could hear her conversation. “This is Lady Adele Mundy, Senator Forbes’ colleague. We’ve freed two of your fellows, Comrades Jarrod Selsmark and Fred Gibbs. I’m going to put them on in just a moment.”

    As she spoke, Barnes and another rigger, Jimmi Laursen, chivied the two prisoners down the short hallway from the cage. They were stinking and emaciated, and despite their attempts at bravado they were obviously afraid of what was going to happen next.

    “I want you to set up a rendezvous with them,” Adele continued. This hadn’t been planned; but Adele had a quick mind and didn’t bother discussing things she considered obvious. “I assume you have some kind of code. The Republic will provide your colleagues with whatever form of transportation they wish, and my secretary and I will accompany them to you. Then we can go over the Republic’s offer in person. Over.”

    She gestured the–former–prisoners toward her. Barnes prodded one at the base of the spine with the muzzle of his impeller; they both lurched forward.

    “This is not enough!” cried the console. “I am Wiley! I will meet with the Senator!”

    “You’ll meet with Mundy of Chatsworth, Comrade Wiley,” Adele said, “and if you know anything of Cinnabar history you’ll feel honored. Now, I’m turning the console over to your colleagues. Comrade Selsmark–”

    She pointed at the nearer prisoner. He was tall and must once have been powerful. His red beard was in two braids, though they had frayed into a tangle.

    “–see if you can convince your leader that it’s in his best interests to deal with me as a friend.”

    “You’re on,” she said, chopping her index finger down.

    In a quiet aside to Daniel, Adele added, “Because he is going to be dealing with me.”



    Adele sat beside Selsmark on the forward thwart of the square-bowed skiff, balancing Tovera and Gibbs with the control wheel in the stern. The motor sang with high-pitched enthusiasm, but it wasn’t really big enough for the twenty-foot vessel, even with only four people aboard. They were travelling up the sluggish watercourse at what ordinarily would’ve been a walking pace.

    It wouldn’t have been possible to walk so quickly along this route, however, or for that matter to walk at all. Sideways the skiff could’ve spanned the stream at its widest, and the vegetation to either side wasn’t so much a wall as a ragged 200-foot cliff.

    Though a number of the trees shared common features–corkscrew trunks and an orange undertone to the bark were the most visible ones–Adele wouldn’t have sworn that any two were the same species. Daniel might be able to judge which were age states or genders of a particular tree, but Adele was lost without a database. If Master Beckford’s scouts had bothered to log that sort of information, it hadn’t reached files which Adele could access.

    Something in the forest called, “Coo! Coo! Coo!” It was very loud, but Adele couldn’t tell which side of the stream it was on. She thought it might be a signal, but the feral beside her paid no attention.

    Adele’s data unit was in her lap, though she’d resisted bringing it live. It had nothing useful to tell her and would’ve been better in its thigh pocket, but she took comfort in its open presence.

    “We ought to be getting close,” Selsmark mumbled through a mouthful of protein ration taken straight from the packet without rehydration. He seemed to be speaking to himself anyway, though Adele could understand him when she concentrated. “Bloody hell, I don’t like this, I don’t like it a bit!”

    Cory on the Milton’s bridge was tracking her through the data unit, but the satellites that guided Fonthill’s logging crews saw only the top of the triple canopy. Cory could follow the barge’s progress, but he couldn’t give warning of what might be waiting beneath the curtain of foliage. Branches interwove from both sides, hiding the stream from above.

    Four-legged, four-winged, insectoids swarmed up from rafts of algae and landed on the passengers. They didn’t bite or sting, but the touch of their feet itched and might raise welts in the course of time. Since all the vegetation was poisonous, the creatures that ate it were likely to transport the toxins also.

    The ferals ignored them, and Adele avoided brushing the insects away also. If they were poisonous, spreading their juices over her body wasn’t going to help the situation.

    Selsmark finished the ration packet and threw it into the bottom of the skiff. Adele said, “What do you eat in the jungle?”

    “Bloody little,” the feral muttered. He scanned the green tangle to either side with nervous flicks of his eyes. “Whatever we can plant, corn and squash mainly. Nothing local, it’ll rot you from the inside. What we steal from the camps, what we trade to the ships that slip in from Hydra, but they pay us crap for logs. Not near as good as they pay Beckford, but we’ve no choice. And mostly we buy guns.”

    He looked over his shoulder, his mouth twisted in a snarl. “Gibbs!” he said. “Can’t you get this bloody thing to go faster?”

    The animal–or bird–boomed a single brassy, “Coo!”

    The mud bank ahead was so fresh that its surface was only vaguely iridescent with algae. Six men stepped out onto it. Four were naked except for breechclouts made from rice sacks. Two had crossbows, while the other two carried spears with plastic shafts and blades made from kitchen knives. Their skin was both freshly ulcerated and scarred from old injuries.

    “Wiley!” Selsmark cried, rocking the skiff as he spun around. “I was afraid you wouldn’t come.”

    Park rotated the small wheel and pulled it back. The skiff lost way and nosed toward the bank as the little electric motor groaned to silence. Adele slid the data unit away with her right hand.

    “Is that what you were afraid, Selsmark?” said the feral chief. “Then you really are a fool–but I knew that already, from the fact that you came to me.”

    Wiley was small and delicate, scarcely bigger than Adele herself. Incongruously he wore a gray business suit and a peaked hat of a style that had been fashionable on Blythe five years ago; there was a yellow quill in the hatband. He was unarmed.

    The skiff nosed softly into the mud. Selsmark rocked forward, then leaned back on the thwart.

    “I’m your friend, your soldier, Wiley!” he cried. “What do you mean? I’ve escaped, of course I come to my leader!”

    “Help him out of the boat, Dapp,” Wiley said harshly. “Selsmark, do you think I don’t know you told Disch where we’d cached the last shipment of arms?”

    “No!” Selsmark said. “I was a prisoner! The Cinnabars can tell you, they freed me!”

    The sixth man was huge, taller even than Disch and muscular rather than fat. He was naked save for a spiked leather jockstrap and bandoliers over both shoulders, but his skin had been painted red and orange and white. Two pistols and six knives dangled from the bandoliers, and he held a stocked impeller at the balance in his left hand.

    Leaning forward, he seized Selsmark by the neck with a right hand that looked like a huge orange crab and jerked him up from the thwart. The skiff rocked; Adele didn’t move.

    “We moved the guns before the soldiers came, fool!” Wiley said. “As you should’ve known we would, fool and bastard of a fool! But we waited in the bush and watched the soldiers searching. Of course they threw you back in the cage! But you did not lie to Disch, you lie to Wiley now!”

    Selsmark wheezed but no words could force a way past the bodyguard’s choking grip. His face was turning dark.

    Wiley spit at the man he’d condemned as a traitor. “Finish him, Dapp,” he said cheerfully.

    The big man tossed his impeller to a spearman. With his now free left hand, he drew a carving knife with a ten-inch blade. Selsmark thrashed even more wildly, but Dapp held him out at arm’s length so that his bare feet couldn’t reach him. He thrust the knife beneath Selsmark’s breastbone. He shoved it forward till the point came out the victim’s back, then ripped the blade down till it grated on the pelvis.

    Dapp pulled the knife out; Selsmark’s intestines spilled onto the mud in long pink coils. Laughing, Dapp wiped the blade on Selsmark’s bare shoulder; his teeth had been filed to points. He tossed the dying man to the side and sheathed his weapon.

    Selsmark landed on his back. His eyes had glazed, but his hands made several fumbling attempts to stuff his intestines back into his belly before a tetanic convulsion wracked him as he died.

    “Now…,” said Wiley. “Which of you little ladies thinks she will offer terms to Comrade Wiley, hey?”

    “I will,” said Adele, rising to her feet. She paused till the skiff’s bow had settled firmly again, then got out. She had no choice but to step onto mud covered with a wash of Selsmark’s gore, but at least she was able to avoid the loops of entrails.

    The Milton’s gig rumbled across the high sky, carrying Daniel on his portion of the operation. That would be difficult also, though not–Adele smiled–in the same fashion.

    “I’m Lady Adele Mundy,” she said. “Mundy of Chatsworth that is, and this is my servant Tovera.”

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