IN THE STORMY RED SKY – snippet 33:
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.”