IN THE STORMY RED SKY – snippet 25:
“I hope you won’t mind if I loosen a few buttons, your Excellency,” Daniel said. He grinned across the compartment at Das and his aides, perched on the edge of their rear-facing seat. “Even these Grays are bad enough. I really should’ve gotten out my Dress Whites to accompany Senator Forbes, but I find them the most uncomfortable things I’ve worn since I was put in the stocks on Manzanita in the course of a midshipmen’s cruise.”
Das’s official vehicle used the chassis of an armored personnel carrier. It was quite roomy, given that the present occupants weren’t a squad of troops in battle dress–and the furnishings were reasonably comfortable. The suspension was tuned for an additional five tons of armor, however. Jolts over potholes didn’t harm the vehicle in the least, but the passengers bounced like peas in a maraca.
Das gave a sigh and unhooked his collar–as Daniel had intended he should. In fact his Whites wouldn’t have been bad at all; he’d lost a few pounds on space duty, as he usually did. The governor was as miserable in his dress uniform as any middle-aged man would be squeezing into a closely tailored garment that he wore only rarely. Putting the poor fellow at ease was a kindness and was likely to lead to a better conversational atmosphere.
“It’s part of the job,” Das murmured with a self-conscious smile, “but not a part that I take naturally to.”
His face dropped into bleak misery. “I needn’t have bothered today, should I?”
Daniel looked out the vehicle’s big side windows. The larger flying species on Paton had scaly bodies and used their hind limbs to flap wings stretched by rigid tails. A pair were curveting through a cloud of chitinous glitters drawn by a spill on the sidewalk.
“I’m afraid Senator Forbes suffered a very embarrassing political defeat recently,” Daniel said, keeping his head turned to imply that his whole attention was on the wildlife. “You wouldn’t go far wrong to suggest that she’s in mourning for her senatorial hopes.”
“I told you!” said Das’s female aide. “It had to be something like that, Governor.”
Well, no, it didn’t, Daniel thought. And indeed, it probably wasn’t anything to do with Forbes’ behavior. But a polite fiction, like a loose collar, made for a more comfortable ride.
“Well, of course the ambassador was merely stretching her legs on Paton, I realized that,” Das said. “There’s nothing here of real importance to the Republic, or–”
His smile wasn’t bitter, though perhaps it was a little sad.
“–I wouldn’t be here myself, Captain Leary. Still, I like to think that although this is a small corner of Cinnabar’s influence, we keep it well swept.”
“You do indeed, sir!” said the young male aide. He had acne scars, and his uniform–beige with scarlet piping, apparently the diplomatic equivalent of Dress Grays–had been taken in and lengthened considerably after being cut for a shorter, fatter man. “It’s an honor to be assigned to your tutelage.”
Either that was blatant flattery, or the boy must have trouble in the morning deciding which foot to put each shoe on. Given that he’d been sent to Paton, Daniel suspected his Ministry instructors were of the latter opinion.
The vehicle–was it technically a limousine since that was the function it fulfilled?–pulled up in front of a long, low building similar to many of those it had passed on the way from the harbor. The walls were structural plastic, originally white but muted to a pleasant cream color by decades of sun and dust. The surface could be burnished to its original brightness, but that would just make it blindingly unpleasant in full sunshine.
The guard seated in front of the building had jumped up as the vehicle approached. He stood at attention with his weapon–an impeller carbine and not, Daniel thought, of Cinnabar manufacture–butted alongside his right foot.
“You run a tight ship here, Governor,” Daniel said, surprised and amused.
Das coughed. “Well,” he said, “not always. Charcot, you can relax. Senator Forbes is off on her own business, and Captain Leary here takes a reasonable attitude toward appearances.”
The guard grinned and lost his stiff brace, but he didn’t sit down again while Das was present. “Glad to hear it, sir,” he said.
“Come in and have a drink while we talk, Leary,” the governor said. “And Amos can find something for your man–”
He nodded toward Hogg.
“–if you don’t object?”
“The young master doesn’t object,” Hogg said firmly. “Let’s go, boy. And if you know where a pack of cards can be found, maybe we can try a few friendly hands of poker.”
As Hogg and the youth disappeared through the front door, Daniel took a better look at the building. To the right, a number of women–several with children in their arms or clinging to their skirts–were talking with people inside. One was even holding hands. It was a moment before Daniel realized that the windows were barred.
“The jail’s in that wing,” said the female aide. “Mostly drunken knifings. Some theft, but that’s mostly drunken too. There isn’t much scope for master criminals on Paton, I’m afraid.”
Daniel followed the governor through the swinging door and into a rectangular hall. It was dim after the street, because the only illumination came from clerestory windows shaded by the eaves. The air was noticeably cooler than that outside.
Half a dozen men lounged on wooden benches, apparently taking advantage of the temperature. Two were playing checkers on a board set between them. No one spoke, though several looked up when the door opened.
“We fine prisoners or sentence them to a term of labor if they can’t pay the fine,” Das said, leading the way down the hallway to the left. “Which they generally can’t. Cone Transport buys the labor contracts, which is handy for everyone concerned.”
He opened the door at the end of the hallway and waved Daniel through. A massive desk faced out from the back wall, and a modern console purred across from it. The aide moved to the console, while Das stepped behind the desk and opened a drawer.
“Have a chair, Leary,” Das said. “Or–” he patted the conformal seat of off-planet manufacture beside him “–would you like this one?”
“This suits me well,” said Daniel, easing himself onto one of the pair of massive wooden chairs in front of the desk. The seat itself was of braided leather and unexpectedly comfortable, but that didn’t really matter for the brief period he expected to occupy it. “Ah–you mentioned Cone Transport. How much interaction do you have with Master Beckford, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“I don’t mind a bit,” said Das, pouring an inch into each of the three glasses he’d taken from the drawer along with the bottle. Daniel’s eyes were adapting to the light; he thought the liquor seemed to be cherry-colored rather than simply a dark brown. “No interaction at all, is the answer.”
“We’re aware that Beckford owns Cone Transport,” the aide said, taking a glass and sliding a second across the table to Daniel. “But he has nothing to do with running the company or any of his companies, as best we can see. He lives on Paton by choice, not because Cone Transport is a major industry here.”
“Take water to taste, Leary,” Das said, rotating the water pitcher so that the handle was toward Daniel. “It’s porphyrion, something of a specialty of the Veil, you know. I like to cut it by half myself, but I know you spacers have heads that an old landsman like me can’t imagine.”
Daniel sipped, wondering what porphyrion might be when it was at home. Adele would have her data unit out if she were here. In fact, she’d probably have started checking the instant the bottle of ruddy fluid came out of the drawer instead of waiting for Das to use the word.
“It’s beet liqueur,” said the aide helpfully. “Some claim that the best is distilled on Karst, but we’ve grown to like the flavor of the Paton product better.”
If there was a flavor–and the color indicated porphyrion wasn’t simply industrial alcohol–Daniel missed it, but he’d drunk his share of Power Room slash during his years in the RCN and this wasn’t any worse. “Thank you, sir,” he said. “Straight up is fine with me. Ah–what sort of labor does Cone Transport need?”
“Lift and carry, mostly,” Das said, leaning back in his chair. “They’ve got huge farms, maize and turnips for greens mostly. It’s heavily mechanized, but you still need human beings. Cone brings in contract labor in its own ships when they take out the crops. They’re always glad of a little extra that doesn’t require transport costs, though–and that’s where the prisoners come in handy.”