IN THE STORMY RED SKY â€“ snippet 58:
Adele sat beside Selsmark on the forward thwart of the square-bowed skiff, balancing Tovera and Gibbs with the control wheel in the stern. The motor sang with high-pitched enthusiasm, but it wasn’t really big enough for the twenty-foot vessel, even with only four people aboard. They were travelling up the sluggish watercourse at what ordinarily would’ve been a walking pace.
It wouldn’t have been possible to walk so quickly along this route, however, or for that matter to walk at all. Sideways the skiff could’ve spanned the stream at its widest, and the vegetation to either side wasn’t so much a wall as a ragged 200-foot cliff.
Though a number of the trees shared common features–corkscrew trunks and an orange undertone to the bark were the most visible ones–Adele wouldn’t have sworn that any two were the same species. Daniel might be able to judge which were age states or genders of a particular tree, but Adele was lost without a database. If Master Beckford’s scouts had bothered to log that sort of information, it hadn’t reached files which Adele could access.
Something in the forest called, “Coo! Coo! Coo!” It was very loud, but Adele couldn’t tell which side of the stream it was on. She thought it might be a signal, but the feral beside her paid no attention.
Adele’s data unit was in her lap, though she’d resisted bringing it live. It had nothing useful to tell her and would’ve been better in its thigh pocket, but she took comfort in its open presence.
“We ought to be getting close,” Selsmark mumbled through a mouthful of protein ration taken straight from the packet without rehydration. He seemed to be speaking to himself anyway, though Adele could understand him when she concentrated. “Bloody hell, I don’t like this, I don’t like it a bit!”
Cory on the Milton’s bridge was tracking her through the data unit, but the satellites that guided Fonthill’s logging crews saw only the top of the triple canopy. Cory could follow the barge’s progress, but he couldn’t give warning of what might be waiting beneath the curtain of foliage. Branches interwove from both sides, hiding the stream from above.
Four-legged, four-winged, insectoids swarmed up from rafts of algae and landed on the passengers. They didn’t bite or sting, but the touch of their feet itched and might raise welts in the course of time. Since all the vegetation was poisonous, the creatures that ate it were likely to transport the toxins also.
The ferals ignored them, and Adele avoided brushing the insects away also. If they were poisonous, spreading their juices over her body wasn’t going to help the situation.
Selsmark finished the ration packet and threw it into the bottom of the skiff. Adele said, “What do you eat in the jungle?”
“Bloody little,” the feral muttered. He scanned the green tangle to either side with nervous flicks of his eyes. “Whatever we can plant, corn and squash mainly. Nothing local, it’ll rot you from the inside. What we steal from the camps, what we trade to the ships that slip in from Hydra, but they pay us crap for logs. Not near as good as they pay Beckford, but we’ve no choice. And mostly we buy guns.”
He looked over his shoulder, his mouth twisted in a snarl. “Gibbs!” he said. “Can’t you get this bloody thing to go faster?”
The animal–or bird–boomed a single brassy, “Coo!”
The mud bank ahead was so fresh that its surface was only vaguely iridescent with algae. Six men stepped out onto it. Four were naked except for breechclouts made from rice sacks. Two had crossbows, while the other two carried spears with plastic shafts and blades made from kitchen knives. Their skin was both freshly ulcerated and scarred from old injuries.
“Wiley!” Selsmark cried, rocking the skiff as he spun around. “I was afraid you wouldn’t come.”
Park rotated the small wheel and pulled it back. The skiff lost way and nosed toward the bank as the little electric motor groaned to silence. Adele slid the data unit away with her right hand.
“Is that what you were afraid, Selsmark?” said the feral chief. “Then you really are a fool–but I knew that already, from the fact that you came to me.”
Wiley was small and delicate, scarcely bigger than Adele herself. Incongruously he wore a gray business suit and a peaked hat of a style that had been fashionable on Blythe five years ago; there was a yellow quill in the hatband. He was unarmed.
The skiff nosed softly into the mud. Selsmark rocked forward, then leaned back on the thwart.
“I’m your friend, your soldier, Wiley!” he cried. “What do you mean? I’ve escaped, of course I come to my leader!”
“Help him out of the boat, Dapp,” Wiley said harshly. “Selsmark, do you think I don’t know you told Disch where we’d cached the last shipment of arms?”
“No!” Selsmark said. “I was a prisoner! The Cinnabars can tell you, they freed me!”
The sixth man was huge, taller even than Disch and muscular rather than fat. He was naked save for a spiked leather jockstrap and bandoliers over both shoulders, but his skin had been painted red and orange and white. Two pistols and six knives dangled from the bandoliers, and he held a stocked impeller at the balance in his left hand.
Leaning forward, he seized Selsmark by the neck with a right hand that looked like a huge orange crab and jerked him up from the thwart. The skiff rocked; Adele didn’t move.
“We moved the guns before the soldiers came, fool!” Wiley said. “As you should’ve known we would, fool and bastard of a fool! But we waited in the bush and watched the soldiers searching. Of course they threw you back in the cage! But you did not lie to Disch, you lie to Wiley now!”
Selsmark wheezed but no words could force a way past the bodyguard’s choking grip. His face was turning dark.
Wiley spit at the man he’d condemned as a traitor. “Finish him, Dapp,” he said cheerfully.
The big man tossed his impeller to a spearman. With his now free left hand, he drew a carving knife with a ten-inch blade. Selsmark thrashed even more wildly, but Dapp held him out at arm’s length so that his bare feet couldn’t reach him. He thrust the knife beneath Selsmark’s breastbone. He shoved it forward till the point came out the victim’s back, then ripped the blade down till it grated on the pelvis.
Dapp pulled the knife out; Selsmark’s intestines spilled onto the mud in long pink coils. Laughing, Dapp wiped the blade on Selsmark’s bare shoulder; his teeth had been filed to points. He tossed the dying man to the side and sheathed his weapon.
Selsmark landed on his back. His eyes had glazed, but his hands made several fumbling attempts to stuff his intestines back into his belly before a tetanic convulsion wracked him as he died.
“Now…,” said Wiley. “Which of you little ladies thinks she will offer terms to Comrade Wiley, hey?”
“I will,” said Adele, rising to her feet. She paused till the skiff’s bow had settled firmly again, then got out. She had no choice but to step onto mud covered with a wash of Selsmark’s gore, but at least she was able to avoid the loops of entrails.
The Milton’s gig rumbled across the high sky, carrying Daniel on his portion of the operation. That would be difficult also, though not–Adele smiled–in the same fashion.
“I’m Lady Adele Mundy,” she said. “Mundy of Chatsworth that is, and this is my servant Tovera.”