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In The Stormy Red Sky: Chapter Sixteen

       Last updated: Wednesday, April 15, 2009 07:40 EDT



Base Amorgos, Fonthill

    The Milton’s gig had four plasma thrusters. A single moderate-sized unit would’ve provided sufficient output to propel the little vessel, but safety and controllability at low altitude required the larger number.

    Daniel grinned. Because gigs were expected to carry senior officers and dignitaries, safety was a greater concern than might otherwise have been the case. He’d landed anti-pirate cutters of about the same size, and that had been exciting every time.

    Cass McDonough, the coxswain, hadn’t served in one of Daniel’s commands before; Daniel had never before had a command that rated a gig or a cox. The clearing, projected on Daniel’s face-shield was rushing up at a pace that made him want to grab the controls, but McDonough caught them on a cushion of vectored plasma and rotated the gig back for front without the hop it would have taken if Daniel had been at the controls.

    McDonough had been Admiral Trelawney’s cox for the twelve years before Trelawney retired. Nonetheless, Daniel never really trusted a specialist till he’d seen him perform, and if it was a specialty Daniel knew something about, he was a very hard judge.

    The gig settled with a rasp/bump/rasp of the thrusters, a delicacy possible only because of the four lightly-loaded nozzles. The touchdown was smoother than many aircars would have managed.

    “Very well done, McDonough,” Daniel said, releasing his straps to rise. “Woetjans, open the hatch, if you will.”

    The cox was in fact a great deal better than her captain would’ve been at the controls of the gig. She should have been, of course, but Daniel was–he grinned again, wryly this time: cocky was the term he’d heard frequently at the Academy–cocky enough to think he could give anybody a run at almost anything having to do with a spaceship. Senior Motorman McDonough had just defined one of the ‘almosts’.

    Daniel lifted his face-shield. While greeting Colonel Stockheim with a polarized ball instead of a face was proper in the military sense–he was in utilities and this was a combat zone–it wouldn’t advance the spirit of friendly professionalism that he hoped would prevail during the negotiations.

    “Sir?” said McDonough, turning her head as best she could while still strapped into the control console; she was prepared for an emergency liftoff, as was a proper if unlikely concern. “You might want to give the atmosphere a minute or two to clear.”

    Woetjans ignored her, cycling the inner and outer hatches together. The gig’s tiny airlock would take two people in airsuits or one rigger, but it was normally going to be opened on the surface or a pressurized bay. It didn’t have the safety features that the locks of a starship would.

    “I don’t believe we’re senior enough to be prostrated by a lingering whiff of ozone, do you?” Daniel said, adjusting the holster on his equipment belt and the hang of his uniform. No doubt McDonough meant well, but Daniel wasn’t a porcelain admiral who needed a coxswain to fuss over him. “I’ll lead, Woetjans.”

    Camp Sixteen, the northernmost of Fonthill’s logging camps and the site Colonel Stockheim had chosen for his base of operations, was the wasteland Daniel had expected, but to his surprise it hadn’t been clear-cut. Hundred-foot spikes, some of them with streamers of foliage still fluttering from the top, were scattered at intervals from fifty to a hundred feet. They’d make landing the Wartburg trickier than expected, though it should be easy enough to bring them down with belts of explosive.

    Assuming the Colonel agreed, of course.

    Daniel tramped down the gig’s ramp; Hogg and Woetjans flanked him a pace behind. Stockheim and two aides stood at parade rest thirty feet away. The Colonel looked furious, but Daniel couldn’t tell whether that was because the bosun was female or just his general attitude to the situation. Certainly the situation deserved a scowl or worse.

    Great stumps dotted the interior of the base, but the trash of branches and scraps which Daniel had noticed in two camps the gig overflew had been bulldozed into the earthen berm which now ringed Sixteen. There were bunkers as well, ready to defend against attack even without the armored personnel carriers now facing out from the berm.

    The APCs were air cushion. Except for them and the aircars aboard the Milton, transport on Fonthill was by boat or by the great hydrogen-filled blimps which hauled logs to Base Alpha.

    Impeller slugs had twice ricocheted from the gig’s heavy plating on the way here. The blimps were easily patched and their lift gas was hydrolyzed from the abundant water, but a slug through an aircar motor or even a fan blade wouldn’t be survivable. The pilots in blimp gondolas didn’t have an easy time either, though the captured officials said there was competition for the job because extra rations were a perk of it.

    Stockheim saluted. He wore a slung sub-machine gun, and unlike Daniel’s pistol it wasn’t for show.

    “Captain Leary,” he said. “I didn’t expect to see you again.”

    His craggy face lurched into a smile as grim as a landslide. He added, “To be honest, after we learned the situation here, I didn’t expect to see anyone I could consider a representative of the government of the Republic.”

    Daniel returned the salute, though not well. Generally he didn’t care, but he hoped Stockheim didn’t feel the clumsiness implied a lack of respect.

    “Colonel,” he said, “you’ve had time to go over the material that Officer Mundy transmitted to you on my behalf?”

    “Yes,” said Stockheim. The syllable was as uncompromising as the slam of a cell door. “Let’s go to the TOC. We’ve got maps there, and besides–”

    There was slightly more humor in his grin this time.

    “–I feel naked standing out here, even though the ferals don’t have heavy weapons that we’ve encountered as yet. They don’t even snipe very often.”

    “There’s no point in giving wogs a chance to get lucky,” Daniel said with a smile, falling in with the Brotherhood troops as they crisply went about face and strode toward the Tactical Operations Center–three trailers dug half-way down into the purplish soil, with layers of sandbags covering the exposed walls.

    “We’d begun to suspect something of the sort ourselves, sir,” said the younger aide, gesturing Daniel ahead of him down the steps of plastic-sealed earth. The three soldiers could have been son, father and grandfather, so close was the resemblance. “Otherwise, I don’t think we’d have been able to believe the documents you transmitted.”

    “If I may ask, Captain Leary…,” said the older aide. “How is it that you came by the material?”

    Each of the trailers held a console, a smaller version of the units on the bridge of the Milton or any other starship from a developed world. Two were manned, but the operators didn’t look up when Stockheim and his companions entered.

    The area in the center of the trefoil had been dug down further and shaded with a tarpaulin. A book of three-foot by three-foot acetate maps of the region lay on the simple folding table there.

    Daniel crossed his hands behind his back. “As I understand it, gentlemen,” he lied, “it was pure accident. An employee of Cone Transport misdirected an internal file to Governor Das. He sent it to his ministry, which passed it up to the Senate. Because Senator Forbes was already in the region, her colleagues requested her to investigate–which brought us here.”

    To the best of Daniel’s knowledge, there wasn’t a word of truth in what he’d just said. Daniel had no intention of answering the Brotherhood officer’s impertinent question. Saying so wouldn’t have helped achieve the ends of Captain Daniel Leary and of the Republic of Cinnabar, so he’d invented a believable lie instead.

    And it was an impertinent question.



    The Brethren positioned themselves on three sides of the map table; Daniel by default took the place, across from the Colonel. Stockheim ruffled the map sheets, his face as harsh as that of the legendary boy whose belly was chewed open by the fox he’d stolen.

    “Captain Leary,” he said, “granting the truth of documents you’ve provided–and I do grant that, they explain matters that made no sense before–there’s still the question of our honor. We have our orders.”

    Hogg and Woetjans stood in the empty trailer. They talked in low voices, but their eyes never left the group around the map table.

    Daniel grimaced. “Colonel Stockheim,” he said, “you’ve seen the secret attachment to the orders posting your regiment to Fonthill. If you like, I can probably get you a copy of the encryption key so that you can decrypt the attachment on your own console here. That is, you can if you had the common sense to make a copy before you handed the chip over to Administrator Disch.”

    He hoped that Adele would provide some sort of emasculated key if necessary, but he hoped even more that it wouldn’t be necessary. Daniel had met officers who seemed to have nothing but the Military Regulations between their ears, but in the present case even the regulations were on the side of common sense.

    “Colonel,” he said urgently, “your orders were illegal. Senator Forbes represents the Republic to which your honor is pledged. Her authority has been accepted by Headman Hieronymos, so I can’t imagine what problem you can have with it.”

    “Women are the lesser vessels,” the young aide said. He’d been looking down at the acetate-printed maps, but now he glared straight at Daniel. “We of the Brotherhood do not accept orders from women.”

    “Really, Lieutenant?” Daniel said. He didn’t have to pretend that he found the situation funny, though he knew there were other possible reactions to this stiff-necked idiot’s words. “But you don’t have any problem taking orders from Prince Willie Beckford, apparently–and I assure you, he’s not a man in any sense that I recognize.”

    The boy blushed, indicating that even the Brotherhood of Amorgos had heard stories about Prince Willie’s revels.

    “Regardless,” Daniel continued breezily, “the question doesn’t arise. A senator doesn’t have any military rank, so you’ll be taking orders from the senior RCN officer in the region. Me.”

    He beamed at the three Brethren. “I hope you don’t question my manhood, Lieutenant?” he added mildly to the young aide.

    The boy blushed even darker. “No sir,” he whispered toward the maps. “I didn’t mean that at all, sir. Sir, I’m very sorry.”

    “I checked your record after we met on Paton, Leary,” the Colonel said. His smile wasn’t wide, but it seemed sincere. As with Adele, one got the impression that his face might crack if his lips spread too broadly. “I’m not in doubt about your manhood.”

    He swallowed; his wrinkled as though what had been in his mouth was sour. “While I realize that my business as a soldier is to take orders, not to question them, has any provision been made to protect the laborers after the regiment is withdrawn?”

    “The ferals are beasts,” the older aide said. He didn’t raise his voice, but harsh emotion trembled in his tone. “I know how Beckford has treated the laborers on Fonthill, but the fact remains that the ones who’ve run–the ones who survive in the wild–aren’t human any more.”

    “And you mustn’t think that they’ll spare the laborers who’re still in the camps,” said the younger man earnestly. “They hate the ones who haven’t run even worse than they do the administrators, or they seem to. They eat laborers they capture, as if they were cattle!”

    “We’ll be taking the laborers away with us,” Daniel said. If Adele had been here, she would’ve commandeered one of the consoles to create a visual display; perhaps she’d have shown the Hydriote fleet which would be removing the former slaves. Still, his verbal description seemed to be holding the Brethren’s attention. “And that includes your ferals, if my colleague Officer Mundy can convince them to go with us.”

    “Are you joking, Leary?” Colonel Stockheim said, his voice getting colder and harsher with each syllable. “What could you possibly offer the ferals? They’re not human any more, we’ve told you!”

    “I’m offering them a cash payment to be determined later, plus citizenship on Bolton,” Daniel said. “Or rather, Officer Mundy is, in the name of Senator Forbes. The same offer that’s being made to all the other laborers on Fonthill. They can stay here, of course, but I can’t imagine why they would want to.”

    “Bolton?” said the young aide, frowning as he tried to get a mental grip on the statement. “Sir, the only Bolton I know is an Alliance world in the Montserrat Stars.”

    “Right,” said Daniel, “at the moment. But they’re about to become Friends of Cinnabar. That’s why we need the labor force from here. The ordinary workers will patrol St James Harbor, where about half the planet’s population lives. That will be peacekeeping so long as there’s enough of a garrison from the start to keep the lid on. Out in the countryside, though, where there isn’t that kind of control–well, that’s work for the ferals. They’ll find the conditions better than they are in the jungle here, and from what you tell me–”

    He met the eyes of each of the Brethren in turn. Their faces were gray. Daniel was smiling, but someone who knew him would have noticed that his cheeks were set in hard lines.

    “–they’ll find anti-partisan work more congenial than you or I would.”

    Nobody spoke for a moment.

    “I told you I’d read your file, Leary,” Stockheim said at last. His face and voice were without expression; his fingers riffled the maps again. “I’m just a soldier, but I’ve seen things; I can read between the lines of a report.”

    “Yes sir?” said Daniel, meeting the eyes of the older man.

    “I read about what you’d done in the Bagarian Cluster,” Stockheim said, “and I thought, ‘He’s as hard as his father, and his father was as hard as the Speaker’s Rock.’”

    Daniel heard a whisper of sound, though it was so faint that the landsmen probably didn’t notice it. A starship was tearing through the upper levels of the atmosphere, coming in for a landing.

    “Colonel,” he said carefully, “we’re at war. And we’ve both taken oaths to defend the Republic against her foreign enemies.”

    “Yes,” said the Colonel. “But I’m glad my duties involve these.”

    He patted the receiver of his sub-machine gun.

    “The work is cleaner, in my opinion.”

    “The Republic is fortunate to have soldiers of your quality, sir,” Daniel said. “And certainly I’m fortunate on this operation.”

    “Captain?” said the young aide. “If I may ask–what do you foresee as the Brotherhood’s role in your operation? You haven’t said.”

    “Ah!” said Daniel with a nod. His face shivered into his familiar grin, like ice breaking up in the rush of a spring freshet. “Yes, I mentioned that Bolton would shortly be joining the Friends of Cinnabar?”

    The Brethren nodded, their expressions all to a degree guarded.

    “Well, gentlemen,” Daniel said. “Your regiment and my Milton are the instruments which going to make that happen.”

    Even if the soldiers had wanted to reply, the thunder of the Wartburg dropping down to land beyond the berm would have drowned them out.



West of Base Alpha, Fonthill

    The innate goodness of the Lower Orders of Mankind was an article of faith with Adele’s mother, Evadne Rolfe Mundy. Apparently the Lower Orders–Evadne capitalized the words–had a simple purity which brought them closer to Nature and therefore to The Good.

    After the Mundy estates were confiscated during the Proscriptions, Adele had spent many years as a member of those Lower Orders. She therefore viewed them without her mother’s blinders of ignorance. Adele had no great affection for civilized Man, but Man in a state of nature stank.

    That was particularly true when–she gave Wiley a cold smile–one member of the Lower Orders had just disemboweled another member on the mud bank beside you. She said, “Senator Forbes has arrived at Base Alpha aboard the RCS Milton and begun to bring Fonthill under proper Cinnabar government. As part of that process–”

    Adele moved sideways to allow Tovera to get out of the barge without stepping in Selsmark’s reeking entrails. The other freed captive, Gibbs, remained seated at the transom. He was still holding the control wheel, and his face was as stiff as if he’d died of strychnine poisoning.

    “–Senator Forbes has granted all current Fonthill residents an amnesty for crimes committed before her arrival.”



    Tovera toed the corpse’s thigh. Daniel had provided the freed ferals with trousers from the Milton’s slop chest before they set off in the barge. The long knife had severed Selsmark’s waist cord, so his pants had fallen to his knees before Dapp had flung the body down.

    “I’d say this was an internal organizational matter, not a crime Lady Mundy would have to report,” she said. She held her attaché case slightly open in her left hand, but her right hung at her side. “Still, it might be a good idea not to repeat it, all right?”

    She smiled at Wiley.

    Wiley’s other four supporters had retreated minusculely when Dapp executed the adjudged traitor. They backed farther now, glancing between Adele and Tovera in amazement.

    “Do you laugh at me, lady?” Wiley squealed. “I eat pretty ladies like you! Do you hear me? We going to deal, yes, but I make the deal! Your people pay plenty to get you back, pretty lady!”

    “Comrade Wiley,” Adele said sharply. She reached into her tunic pocket. “This is an extremely good offer from your viewpoint. If you refuse it–”

    “Dapp!” said Wiley. “The little pale one has a smart tongue. You fix her like Selsmark. Then the pretty lady knows we mean business!”

    Dapp laughed, baring his filed teeth. He reached for Tovera’s throat. Tovera didn’t move, but Adele brought out her pistol.

    “Wah!” Dapp said. He jumped back.

    Adele shot him twice in the right eye. He was so close that a blob of clear jelly splashed her cheek. His left arm and leg flailed convulsively. Wiley tried to jump out of the way, but Dapp’s fist clouted him on the cheek and knocked him down.

    Adele waggled the pistol out at her side to cool it; even two shots seriously heated the barrel. To drop the weapon back in her pocket immediately risked charring the lining and even giving herself a blister.

    A feral lifted his spear. “Put that down,” Adele said.

    The feral threw it to the ground and vanished into the jungle behind him. His three fellows followed an instant later, one of them dropping his crossbow as he ran.

    Dapp fell onto his back. The knives on his bandoliers rattled as his body shuddered. His mouth and left eye were open, and pinkish brains oozed from the crater of the right one.

    Adele grimaced. Wiley rested on his elbows with a dazed expression.

    “Get up,” she snapped. She put the pistol out of sight to encourage him; by now the coil-wrapped barrel was only vaguely warm.

    “What will you do to me?” said Wiley, rising with a careful expression. He was judging whether he’d be better to run or to jump the pair of small women, calling for his henchmen to return.

    Tovera took out her little sub-machine gun. “Stay and listen, little man,” she said. “You’ll like that better than the other ways this could go.”

    “I’m going to make you a fair offer and return to Base Alpha, just as I’ve been saying,” Adele said. She had a good deal of practice at restating the obvious, but she’d never come to like the experience; that was one of the reasons she found dealing with Daniel to be such a pleasure. “I have neither the desire nor the ability to force you to take it, but common sense should be enough.”

    She was suddenly dizzy. The stench, she thought, blinking angrily, but it wasn’t Dapp’s voided bowels. It wasn’t even reaction to the adrenalin that a few instants of violence hadn’t burned out of her system. Some day one of them will kill me instead, and then the dreams will stop.

    Wiley rose, eyeing her warily. Did he notice that? But the feral probably hadn’t seen anything wrong, and anyway it couldn’t matter.

    “You’re welcome to stay on Fonthill if you like,” Adele said, drawing a handkerchief from her breast pocket and wiping her cheek. “We’ll be taking all the laborers and staff off with us, though. Perhaps you can arrange for food with Hydriote traders, though for the immediate present their ships are going to be fully occupied in other matters. And nobody else has the coordinates of Fonthill, of course.”

    Wiley straightened slightly. He didn’t relax, but neither was he on the verge of suicidal action. “And if we go with you, we ferals?” he said.

    “There’ll be fighting,” Adele said. “Quite a lot of the civilians where we’re going won’t like the change of government we’re imposing. You’ll have modern small arms and the overall direction of the campaign will be by RCN officers.”

    “The civilians will have guns?” Wiley said.

    Adele nodded. “Some of them certainly will,” she said. “And many will be retired military personnel. They won’t be organized, but individually they’ll know what they’re doing. Better than you and your personnel will, I dare say.”

    Wiley sniffed. “Maybe in a battle they would,” he said. “From what you tell me, this won’t be a battle.”

    The feral chieftain should have looked ridiculous standing against a wall of jungle in his mud-blotched suit. He didn’t.

    “Yes,” said Adele. “I take your point.”

    She cleared her throat as a pause to collect herself. For a moment, her mind had been other places.

    “In return for your services to the Republic,” she said, “you and your personnel will gain Friendly Citizenship. That is, citizenship on a world classed as a Friend of Cinnabar. You’ll be able to vote in planetary elections but not–”

    Her smile was dry.

    “–for Senators of the Republic. Besides the cash stipend–whose amount has yet to be determined–I have no doubt that despite RCN oversight, your military activities will provide you with ample opportunities for pillage and rape.”

    Wiley shrugged without speaking. His eyes didn’t leave hers.

    “In case your comment about cannibalism was more than just boasting,” Adele said, “I strongly recommend you drop the practice. Quite a lot that happens during a war will be ignored, but cannibalism will not.”

    Wiley tugged his trousers around to glance at the seat, but he didn’t try vainly to brush away the drying mud. “I can’t be everywhere,” he said.

    This time Adele shrugged. “I’m offering you choices, Comrade Wiley,” she said. “What you do with the offers is your own business.”

    “How much time do we have?” Wiley said. “I’m not saying I accept, but if I do?”

    “The last ships will be loading at Base Alpha in four days,” Adele said. “After they’re gone, the remaining residents will have Fonthill to themselves for months or perhaps years. I suspect that when the Republic returns, it will do so with proper military forces and sufficient ships to enforce its revenue regulations, but that’s beyond both my knowledge and my interest.”

    She looked down at Dapp and Selsmark. They were veiled in insects, and worms or perhaps root tendrils were squirming from the mud to nuzzle them.

    “We’ll leave you now,” she said. She stepped carefully into the skiff, trying not to make it wobble too badly as she worked her way back to Gibbs in the stern. Tovera waited on the mudbank until her mistress was seated on the thwart.

    When Adele looked again, Wiley had vanished. Something had raised its wedge-shaped head from the water and was tugging at a coil of Selsmark’s intestine. Like the feral chieftain, the creature was small and rather pretty.

    From the length of its paired fangs, it was probably poisonous as well.

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