Into The Maelstrom – Snippet 13

A peeling section of bark on the plant stem waved gently in the breeze near the caterpillar. An oddity as the air was as still as a cat watching a mouse hole. Not that the caterpillar cared, incapable of noting anomalies in cause and effect. The caterpillar had the excuse of a tiny brain consisting of a sliver of nervous tissue. Human beings could claim no such excuse but many still shared the caterpillar’s issues with cause and effect.

A pincer on an extending arm like an angle-poise lamp shot out from under the bark peel. The sharp tip impaled the caterpillar. The insect wriggled and twisted in a fruitless attempt to escape but was lifted off the stem. The bark peel raised itself on four stubby legs. It retreated backwards deeper into the vegetation dragging its lunch after it.

Allenson’s estate manager clapped his hands together excitedly.

“See, I told you it was working.”

“It seems you were right, Frederick,” Allenson said.

“I thought the heavy armor on mealy bugs gave them an even chance of surviving even gunja plant stings.”

“Yes, my only concern now is that we have imported an exotic species. We need to keep a close eye on developments in case something unexpected unravels.”

“Like at Frempton?” the manager asked.

“Exactly like at Frempton,” Allenson replied.

“The Frempton disaster was something of a one off,” the manager said, frowning. “But I take the point.”

Frempton was a colony further up the stream. Its economy had depended heavily on a cash crop of a popular recreational narcotic exported back to Brasilia. Some local entrepreneur imported a goat strain and released it into the wild to provide sport as Frempton lacked anything worth hunting. Unfortunately the goats ignored the bushes provided for their sustenance and took a liking to the cash crop instead. The goats weren’t even good sport for hunters as they tended to lie around stoned most of the time after feeding.

By the time Fremptoners grasped the scale of the problem the goats were past culling. The genius involved then imported an exotic predator to control the goats. The predator was so-so about dining on stoned goats but developed a voracious appetite for a native predator that fed on the rat infestations. Wherever humans colonize you sooner or later get rats.

The resulting overpopulation of starving rats broke into the fleek enclosures to steal their eggs, spreading a variety of diseases. The bird populations, ever susceptible to disease, were decimated. The narcotic crop duly rotted in the fields because they were no fleeks for the harvest.

All of which goes to show that biological control might be elegant in theory but had a propensity to spin out of control in practice.

Frederick Elberg, the Pentire estate manager, was one of Trina’s second cousins who had fallen on hard time. When the bank foreclosed on his plantation, Trina put his name forward to Allenson.

Allenson had not considered employing an estate manager. When he did consider it he found the idea distinctly unwelcome. But although Pentire was a legacy from his brother Allenson had inherited little in the way of capital. His development and expansion of the estate was funded by Trina’s family money as so he felt obligated to fall in with her wishes. He rather hoped that her cousin would stay out of his way and drink himself quietly to death somewhere. Incompetence coupled with indolence was generally harmless compared to energetic bungling.

Elberg tuned out to be both energetic and competent, which was something of a shock. In Allenson’s experience such paragons were rare as fleek’s teeth. Dynamic proficiency took some getting used to. He had come to increasingly rely on Elberg to oversee his ideas for improving the estate. Indeed, he would be a lot less happy about travelling to Nortania without knowing Elberg would be there to watch over the demesne.

Nevertheless, he needed to reassure himself with one last tour of his small empire in the estate manager’s company just to make sure that Elberg was on top of matters. They rode on a four wheel drive electric scooter. Currently the transmission powered only three wheels which made steering challenging especially on slopes.

Allenson stopped outside the fleek enclosures to examine the beasts through the windows. Fleeks were bird-like organisms about the size and bulk of an ape.  They came from a world that had never evolved mammals so birds filled all the mammalian ecological niches. Colored feathers covered their bodies forming patterns of metallic blue and green. Non-flyers, they possessed only vestigial wings and ran on long sturdy legs with a backward-facing knee joint.

A heavy beak mounted on a flexible muscular neck had evolved to probe the ground. Buried eggs made up their natural diet in the wild. This life style required good forward vision and a high degree of dexterity so the beaks made excellent manipulatory appendages.  Fleeks were not sentient. Their mental development more or less equaled a chimp but their bird-type brains memorized and repeated complex behavioral patterns much more proficiently than any mammal of similar intellect.

In short they made acceptable agricultural workers for routine repetitive tasks like weeding or harvesting. Specialized agricultural automatons were more efficient. However, they were expensive and in short supply in the colonies. The ones that washed up on the far shores of the Bight tended to be reconditioned models with appalling break down rates. Royman Destry experimented with importing equipment to assemble robots on his demesne. It had not been a success. The reliability rate of the manufacturing system proved as bad as the imported automatons.

Human labor for such tasks was wasteful. The sort of indentured servants that ended up as agricultural workers had to be constantly supervised to get any work out of them at all. Fleeks filled the gap. Their one big advantage over automatons was that could be bred to make more fleeks.

But what blessings the good fairy gave with one hand the bad fairy buggered up with the other. Fleeks were inbred to the point of dangerous biological fragility so highly infectious and lethal diseases raged through their flocks. Death rates of ninety per cent plus were not uncommon.

“You have the Fleeks siloed behind tight firewalls?” Allenson asked.

“Each flock is kept within an air-filtered enclosure. No two flocks are ever used on the same land. Each flock has its own gangmaster and feeders who do not share equipment. No one gets in or out without going through the antibiotic sprays.”

Elberg listed the points on the fingers of his hand as he reassured Allenson.

“I can’t guarantee an infectious agent won’t be windblown from another demesne onto a flock working in the fields, you understand Allenson, but everything possible is in place to limit an outbreak to a single flock.”

“I know it is, Elberg.” Allenson patted the man’s shoulder. “But fleek plague gives me nightmares. I have seen crops rotting in the fields because of it.”

The tour ended at a small field where Allenson was trying a new cultivar of rosehip berries grafted onto the roots of a wild bramble-like plant from the Hinterlands. He cupped a small cluster of flowers gently in one hand and noted that berries were already forming.

“These will be ripe for harvesting in a week or two,” Allenson said, wistfully. “I shall probably still be on Nortania listening to endless prevarication.”

“Not to worry, I shall keep an eye on them for you,” Elberg said reassuringly.

Allenson nodded assent.

“Of course, it’s just that I would have liked observe the process.”