IN THE STORMY RED SKY – snippet 54:
CHAPTER 15: Fonthill
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!”