IN THE STORMY RED SKY – snippet 34:

Adele was looking over the harbor, where the swarm had almost completed. I’ll make a log entry about the fodderflies, Daniel thought. Some future naturalist will be fascinated.

Aloud, speaking to his friend’s profile, he said, “My father among them, I suspect. Money was always a means to power for him, not a thing in its own right.”
“The second folder has the text of the phratry’s transfer orders,” Adele said. She flicked her hand in front of her face to shoo away the last stragglers of the swarm. “Those state that they’ll be dealing with a rebellion fomented by Alliance agents on a jungle world designated PP4/AZ–which exists but apparently was never colonized. Nobody making a cursory check of assignments would determine that, of course; and I suspect the orders were issued by clerks who had no idea that they were being manipulated.”
She pursed her lips and added, “I wonder if the earlier route packs contained the orders also? Well, I don’t suppose it matters.”
She turned to face Daniel. That brought the plantings into her peripheral vision; she blinked with amazement. Instead of speaking, she snatched out her personal data unit before catching herself.
“It’s probably simpler to ask you, isn’t it?” Adele said with an embarrassed grimace. “What are these things, Daniel? They’re eating everything.”
“They’re fodderflies from Hartweg’s World,” Daniel said. His lips smiled, but he was too caught up in the Fonthill business to really feel the humor of the present situation. “They’re hatching in the harbor but not in the sea, you’ll have noticed. I suspect that’s because the flies’ larval stage requires a hydrocarbons that they get from lubricant runoff in the harbor but not the open ocean here.”
He turned and viewed the tattered remnants of the gardens. “Fodderflies take over twenty years to reach their adult stage at home; I have know idea what the cycle here is.”
“I’ll look it up,” said Adele, stepping briskly to a bench. She swept it clear of fodderflies with her side-cap before sitting down.
The flies had stripped almost all the foliage from the garden. In the case of the Vasilyevan pole pine, they’d eaten even the bark into mottled patches; the portions covered by an iridescent fungus transplanted with the tree had been spared.
“They eat in order to lay eggs on the shore above the high tide line,” Daniel said, letting his mind puzzle over questions of natural history. In the natural world, cause and effect had no moral dimension. “It’ll take a serious storm to sweep them into the water, and that’ll disperse them widely as well. Though here on Paton that doesn’t matter, because the harbor is the only suitable habitat.”
Adele looked up. “According to the Garden Club records, there was an outbreak forty-seven years ago, but that’s local reckoning. It’s nearly sixty standard years.”
She looked at the devastation and shook her head in wonder. “It was a terrible disaster,” she said. “The creatures wiped out not only Ravenny Gardens but also many of the members’ individual plantings elsewhere in the city. Just as they’re doing now.”
When the fodderflies descended, there’d been quite a lot of cursing and loud questions from the workmen setting up for the Promenade. That had subsided when they realized the flies didn’t bite or sting; they’d resumed their work. Daniel wondered if they’d even bother to mention when they returned to the garage at the end of their shift that the gardens had been stripped.
He grinned: probably not. The citizens didn’t attend Promenades to look at the foliage, but he suspected they were going to be very displeased to find it missing.
“Did you notice the grass?” Daniel said, pointing. “The ground cover, that is. That’s native to Paton.”
Adele followed the line of his finger. “It looks all right,” she said, frowning at the feathery strips of dull orange. They showed up clearly in the absence of the more vividly colored introduced species. “Isn’t it?”
“Yes, it’s untouched,” Daniel agreed. “So are the other native species–the vines growing up the gate arch and the hedges here, at any rate.”
He carefully touched the hedge framing the vista. The upper side of the reddish-brown foliage was as soft as a cat’s fur, but at contact the leaves rolled inward. The undersides bore hairs as fine and irritating as glass fibers.
“Whereas the fodderflies have eaten all the off-world species that I can see, no matter where the plants came from,” Daniel said. “They literally can’t stomach the local chemistry, though it might take a lifetime to figure out precisely which enzyme or amino-acid chain was specifically responsible.”
He grinned broadly. “If the garden club wants to get rid of the infestation, all it has to do is plant only native species until after the next outbreak sixty-some years hence; the flies will starve, then. But I’ll bet they just redo everything just the way it was.”
The gorged flies were rising again, circling to catch the higher breezes which they hoped would waft them to new territories. No doubt the breezes would, but the eggs would only develop in the water of the harbor, and Ravenny Gardens was probably the only food source great enough to fuel a breeding population of adult flies. It was a remarkable accidental habitat, wholly created and sustained by human beings.
“Daniel,” said Adele. “What are we going to do?”
He nodded. They both knew why they’d been discussing the fodderflies–which, though fascinating, were of no importance compared with the problem of Fonthill.
Sometimes you had to act without thinking. Wise people liked to let matters simmer in the quiet darkness of their minds, however. They talked about trivia while they let their subconscious get on with the business.
Daniel shrugged. “We’re RCN officers,” he said, “and the RCN isn’t a police force. It may be that when we’re back in Xenos I’ll mention the business to somebody who has a professional reason to be interested. But at this level that’s politics, Adele, and I can tell you that Navy House isn’t even a little amused when RCN officers decide to play politics.”
He met her eyes. He’d been staring at the stark, stripped trunks and branches, all that remained of Ravenny Gardens.
“We’re RCN officers engaged in an important mission,” he said, hearing his words rasp. “We’ll carry out our duties, and we’ll ignore matters that have no bearing on those duties!”
Adele nodded. She closed down her data unit and slid the wands away.
“That’s the only rational choice,” she said. “I suspect that we wouldn’t have to search very far back to find that both our families had been involved in similar activities. And as you say, the status of the Hegemony is of critical importance to the Republic.”
She stood and put the data unit into her thigh pocket. Sweeping her eyes over the ruin, she smiled. Adele’s smiles were rare and hard to interpret, but they rarely involved what most people would consider humor.
“Adele?” Daniel said.
“I was just thinking,” she replied, “that it’s a good thing that we don’t believe in omens, isn’t it?”
“I see what you mean,” said Daniel.
But he wasn’t sure that deep in his heart, he didn’t believe in omens.