Excerpts from books by Matthew Hughes
Excerpt from ‘Black Brillion’
Their destination turned out to be Olkney’s main airdrome, where the trickster had apparently booked passage on the Sherit shuttle. By the time Baro reached the wicket and obtained a ticket, the airship had already begun running up its gravity obviators in preparation for departure. There was no time to contact his superior. The young man threw himself along the connecting tube into the blue-ordinary compartment just as the crew was closing the aircraft’s door.
En route to his seat, he looked about for Imbry, and felt something cold climb his spine as he realized that his quarry was not in any of the blue-tab seats. Had the swindler spotted him for a clumsy neophyte and decided it would be a good joke to gull the greenhorn into a long and pointless trip out of town? A droplet of chill sweat ran between Baro’s shoulder blades as he imagined the ensuing conversation with Arboghast. It would involve a great deal of standing at quivering attention on his part, while the section chief indulged his well known proclivity for inventive profanity and unflattering rhetorical questions.
He rose, and was about to ask the cabin attendant to halt the aircraft’s departure. But the crewman was busy pulling closed the curtain that separated red-tab travelers from blue-ordinaries. Behind the cloth, first class passengers lolled, freed of any uncomfortable awareness that, nearby, fellow human beings were crammed into seats designed to suit only the abnormally short and underweight. Beneath the attendant’s raised arm, as the curtain was drawn, Baro caught a brief glimpse of his quarry hoisting a goblet of golden wine in first class.
The sweat evaporated from Baro’s brow and he sank back into the undersized seating. He comforted himself: whatever else Imbry was up to, he could now be charged with fraudulent conversion of a travel authority. As well, although it was not an offense to have unknowingly frightened an agent of the Bureau, Baro meant for Imbry to learn that it was nonetheless a bad idea.
Now, as the probationary agent sat in his hotel room and watched Imbry sleep, his mind again reluctantly turned to Ardmander Arboghast. The lull in activity afforded him ample opportunity to make contact with his section chief, yet Baro did not do so. His thinking was leading him in other directions.
He had definitely overstepped when he had followed Imbry out of Olkney, and there was no guarantee that Arboghast would accept his protestations of being too hurried to make contact. He sensed that there was a mutual lack of empathy between his commander and himself. His explanations, no matter how cogent, might therefore meet with automatic dismissal. He could find himself branded unsuitable for field assignments. Instead, as his Academy tutor, Bost Hamel, had recommended, he might be consigned to the desert of the Bureau’s research branch, to spend his career coaxing correlations and coincidences out of endless data banks.
The prospect of forty years in the research office was not what had drawn Baro into the Bureau. It had been a desire to follow in the footsteps of his father, Captain-Investigator Baro Harkless, who had blazed a brilliant career in the investigations branch — or at least the first half of a brilliant career.
His father had died in the crash of an aircar while bringing Cham Fretilin, the selective cannibal, to face justice. The aircar’s controls had failed over a populated area. Unable to prevent its fall, Captain Harkless had wrestled with the steering yoke, managing to guide the aircraft into the sea.
Now, watching Luff Imbry, Baro knew that if he were to make contact with Directing Agent Arboghast when he could report nothing but the presence of a somnolent criminal on a hotel bed, his career within the Bureau might be diverted into unwelcome channels. On the other hand, if Luff Imbry were to lead him to an actual offense in progress — and he had no doubt that crime was the trickster’s aim — then Baro could swoop like an unsuspected nemesis at the appropriate cusp and affect an arrest.
That would give him undiluted credit for scotching Imbry’s scheme, an accomplishment sure to outweigh any quibbles over whether or not he had reported in quite as often as was stipulated in the manual on surveillance.
He allowed himself a few moments to savor images of Imbry’s apprehension, then replayed it with various changes. He also mentally constructed an encounter with Directing Agent Arboghast, in which the section chief gruffly sought forgiveness for doubting his qualities.
His ruminations completed, Baro settled back in the chair and resisted a tinge of envy as he watched Luff Imbry breathe. He wondered how a man who had devoted his life to fleecing his fellow citizens could so easily find the solace of sleep. He decided that consciences, like most other human attributes, came in various strengths and sizes; Imbry’s inner voice was apparently a pale and puny specimen, in inverse proportion to his outer bulk.
Baro’s conscience, however, was robust. It was again nudging him toward making contact with Ardmander Arboghast. To distract himself, he recalled the forger’s curiosity about the section of the Trabboline reserved for members of the renunciant class. Since this was the only feature of Sherit in which Imbry had taken an interest, Baro reasoned that it might have some relation to his presence here.
He spoke aloud. “Hotel integrator?”
“What do you require?” came a smoothly modulated voice that seemed to originate from the nearby air.
“Information regarding the renunciants.”
“There is quite a lot of it. What degree of detail do you require?”
“Enough to satisfy a tourist’s idle interest.”
A screen appeared in the air before him, and was immediately filled with printed information. Baro began to read, then paused to ask the integrator to render the screen and text semi-transparent, so that he could keep an eye on the recumbent forger across the courtyard. Returning to the text, the young man became acquainted with Sherit’s peculiar institution.
The renunciants had been created centuries before, when stresses and pressures within the Sherit societal matrix had threatened to tear the community apart. The problem had arisen from a worsening inequality in the distribution of wealth. A small segment of the population, whose members demonstrated ruthless inventiveness in commercial matters, had come to control most of the total worth of the Sherit polity. The vast majority of the Sheritics shared the minority portion that was left. They eked out an increasingly impoverished existence in which none of them ever had too much, and most rarely had even enough. Generation upon generation, the few who enjoyed abundance managed to pile up yet more, while the many mired in poverty saw their scant portions further shrunk.
The divide between the two unequal parts of Sherit society gradually widened into a chasm. Resentments festered on both sides. The rich told each other that the poor suffered the consequences of their own innate lack of initiative; the wealthy were entirely deserving of the fruits of their strivings, even when the strivings had actually been undertaken by some long-dead ancestor. The poor told themselves that it was wrong that a handful should live in sybaritic splendor while a multitude swinked and sweated for a daily crust that grew ever meaner. Neither solitude felt much inclination to speak to the other, and even less to listen. But both were becoming aware that revolution roiled and rumbled on the horizon.
The rich had begun to fortify their manors and the poor had taken to fashioning simple but brutally effective weapons, when a novel and unlikely solution appeared. No one was quite sure whence the concept originated — some suggested that the idea had been planted by the Archon himself, wandering the world incognito — but suddenly a few of the younger plutocrats let it be known that they were willing to forgo their inheritances. They offered to donate all of their assets to a new institution called the Divestment, which would hold the wealth as a perpetual trust. Moreover, each citizen of Sherit would receive an equal dividend from the trust’s profits. In return, those who gave up their riches to the Divestment were rewarded with a newly created exclusive social rank — the renunciant class — which entitled its members to special preferences and distinctions.
A renunciant need never pay for anything, be it a twelve course feast in Sherit’s most exclusive restaurant, or a roast chestnut from a street vendor’s wagon. He or she could step into any conveyance, public or private, and ride farefree, saunter to the front of any queue. Whatever was required, a renunciant had only to put out a hand and it was filled. And filled gladly. At first, of course, the common folk suspected that the proposal was some ruse of the rich, but as more and more of the elite joined the movement — and as the first dividend payments arrived — the new institution caught fire in the popular imagination. People began to compete for the honor of serving their benefactors.
Most of Sherit’s plutocrats soon saw the wisdom of relinquishing their holdings to the Divestment, so that they might reap the adulation and the very substantial material benefits that only renunciants could command. Why be hated for heaped up treasure, when one could ascend to a rank which conferred all the essential perquisites of wealth as well as the adoration of the populace?
The Divestment soon came to embrace the combined wealth of almost the entire Sherit ownership class. Those few magnates who could not bring themselves to part with their hoards found themselves isolated from their former peers. They were pitied and derided, their impatient heirs waiting for the death that would usher them into the new elite.
Meanwhile, the flood of wealth that Divestment dividends poured into the pockets of the formerly dispossessed Sheritics created a vibrant economy at all levels of society. The most enterprising recipients soon found ways to make their money propagate, and before long were founding new fortunes. But now the rising rich pursued wealth with only one end in sight: to amass enough to meet the Divestment’s standard for donation, thus qualifying the donor to “take platinum” and be elevated to renunciant rank.
Meanwhile, many in the commerciant class strove to win the favor of the supremes. Restaurants preferred by renunciants, even though they dined in segregated rooms, became wildly popular with those who were not quite rich enough to approach the Divestment. Haberdashers who outfitted the cream of Sherit found their designs in mass demand. Any enterprise entitled to advertise itself “used by renunciants” enjoyed a swelling flow of recipient customers. Some merchants grew so prosperous by fulfilling the rarefied expectations of renunciants that they were eventually able to divest themselves of their earnings and join those they had formerly served. Without exception, they did so.
Under the Divestment, Sherit society achieved a dynamic equilibrium. The circulating wealth bred upon itself and multiplied through the economic matrix. The best and bravest of the recipients used their dividends to struggle up through the layers, aiming to reach a level at which they could live in penniless abundance. The culture demonstrated harmony and vigor, and the Divestment was regarded throughout Sherit as a pinnacle of social development.
Some found a minor flaw in the system: renunciants who traveled abroad received a more than comfortable stipend from the trust, but still found themselves enjoying a less luxuriant standard of existence than they were accustomed to at home. The original articles of incorporation decreed that the purpose of the institution was to benefit Sherit; why export the county’s wealth to outlanders? Besides, it was felt that nothing available outside Sherit’s borders could match the exquisiteness of the fine stuffs created for renunciants by the Sheritics themselves, so the point was moot.
Baro paused in his reading and asked the hotel integrator, “Have there been any strong representations from Sheritics wishing to alter the terms of the trust?”
The hotel replied, “Some years back, there was a discussion about increasing the stipend to allow renunciants to live abroad in the style to which they are accustomed.”
“Who opened the discussion, and why?”
“A few young commerciants. They felt that renunciant status brought a disadvantage to those who enjoyed gadding about beyond the county’s borders.”
“What happened to them?”
“The College of Trustees declined to alter the Divestment’s Grand Charter. Some of the petitioners left the county without taking platinum. The others donated their fortunes when they became grand enough and were duly accepted as renunciants. They are now themselves members of the College. So all is as it should be.”
Baro decided that, as the guiding intelligence of a fine hotel, the integrator was disposed to err on the side of conservativism. Besides, the young man’s training had encouraged him not to accept bland assurances. “How may I contact the College?” he asked.
“They do not welcome casual inquiries,” said the hotel.
“I am an agent of the Bureau of Scrutiny. My interest concerns a possible offense,” said Baro, producing his identifying card.
“Probationary agent,” said the hotel’s integrator, whose visual percepts were more exact than the eyes of the front desk clerk, though both man and machine seemed to be afflicted with the same disdainful sniff.
The young man cleared his throat. “True,” he said, “and you are at liberty to refuse a probationer’s query, although that may mean that someday you will see me return fully fledged at the head of an audit team.”
“Audits disrupt our operations,” said the hotel. “Guests are discommoded.”
“The Bureau’s suspicions are easily aroused, and once an investigation is begun, we fearlessly follow wherever it may lead. I must inform you that your reluctance to answer my innocuous question has already set my curiosity to tingling.”
The hotel muttered something Baro couldn’t quite catch, although it might have included the phrase “cranny-poking scroot.” Then the voice said, in its normal plummy tones, “As it happens, this afternoon the Divestment holds an annual general meeting at its headquarters on South Hoadeyo Prospect. All the Trustees will be present.”
“Is the meeting open to the public?”
“It is not closed,” said the hotel, in a tone that somehow indicated a shrug.
The young man thought for a moment, then asked, “What time is the meeting?”
“Three hours past meridian.”
Another thought occurred to the agent. “Has Florion Tobescu asked for a wake-up call?”
The hotel confirmed that he had.
“For what time?”
“Two and a half hours after meridian.”
Baro thought some more. “What kind of matters are decided at the meeting?” he asked.
“Policy matters,” said the hotel. “Investment strategies. Recipients consider it ungracious to pry into the College’s deliberations; it is like receiving a gift then sending it out to be valued.”
“Nonetheless,” said Baro, “have any recent decisions of the College generated controversy?”
The hotel’s answer was a while in arriving. “It is not a subject for polite conversation.”
“We are not having a polite conversation. In fact, I am beginning to think of this as an investigation in its formative stages.”
“They are no more than vile rumors,” said the voice, “scurrilous natterings of envious malcontents. Decent recipients pay no heed.”
“The Bureau weighs decency on its own scales,” said Baro. “What is the nature of these rumors?”
The hotel was not forthcoming, but in the next few minutes Baro Harkless coaxed some snippets of information from its data banks. The hotel integrator knew little, and most of what it could tell him had been gleaned from overheard conversations among menial employees.
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