Nektonic Light

9 Nov

Oego Biffin walked along the harbor streets with a feeling of returning home. The smile on his broad, round face deepened, and then vanished as he remembered what his mission was.

The head of the Cetacean Oil Trust had dispatched him into the old Whale District on a serious, urgent assignment. Concentration on the task ahead was necessary.

Both his father and grandfather had in the past related to Oego tales of the hunt on water for monodons, cachalots, balaens, and physeters. To the farthest limits of the Cold Sea sailed the fast, sleek boats of Cetacea, seeking these mammals with precious oil in them. The Trust, the largest employer in the country, then turned it into a source of useable light. This had been the dominant industry in Cetacea for generations. It produced livelihoods for the greatest proportion of inhabitants.

Row upon row of whitewood structures rose on the shores of the sheltered harbor. It was not hard for Oego to locate Decapod Lane and the tiny old house of the man he had an appointment to see.

Was this bizarre character, Cacoe Depone, a conman or crank? The message he had sent to the president of the Trust had been secretive and indefinite, hinting at some astounding discovery. The task of investigating the unusual claims fell to the chief research chemist of the Oil Trust, Oego himself. He felt certain that nothing of any value was going to come of his exploration of the matter with this strange character.

A knock at the front door was answered by a short bald figure with small, sparkling chrome green eyes. The visitor introduced himself and was invited in.

When both were seated in the spare, modest parlor, Depone began to speak. “Have you been informed of my previous employment with the Trust, or has that been forgotten in the course of the last forty years?”

Oego gave an involuntary start. “I don’t understand,” he said in evident confusion.

The older man grinned slyly. “It is an old story, I suppose. Most of the people involved must be gone by now. As soon as I graduated from the Marine School, a job was given me in product research at the Trust laboratory. But I did not last longer than a few days. My superiors considered me too independent and summarily fired me. It was quite a shock to such an ambitious youth as I was. My life became one of poverty and difficulty. My economic survival depended on whaler captains willing to take me on their crews. Years of sailing the Cold Sea followed and I obtained much first-hand knowledge of the hunt for cetaceans.

“I undertook scientfic work on my own, self-financed and highly original. It went forward slowly, year after year. And now, at last, I have obtained my research aim after four decades of lonely labor.”

“What is it you have accomplished?” inquired the skeptical Oego.

Depone made a wry face. “For many centuries, oil from the creatures of the sea has lighted our homes, stores, offices, workshops, factories, and streets. Why not something else, I asked myself long ago. The number of whales in the sea is not unlimited. The supply will inevitably run out. What will Cetacea do then?”

He stared at the chemist with eyes ablaze. For several moments, the host remained silent. His mind was absent and distant. Finally, his voice came as if from the depths of he frigid ocean itself.

“There are more than the large cetaceans in the waters out there. Since our people first sailed into the Cold Sea, tales of tiny nekton that glow with light have been handed down. We have all heard them.”

“No doubt about that,” interjected Oego, “but what are you implying? That the oceanic protists, those one-celled beings, can provide exploitable light?”

Cacoe Depone’s eyes grew in size. “Precisely,” he triumphantly declared. “I have uncovered the secret of what some call radiant plankton. Up to now no one has been able to explain their luminescence. It took me many years of concentrated effort, but I have solved the riddle of the nektons.”

“How is that possible?”

Cacoe smiled. “First, I shall show you my most recent achievement. The research shed I use is down by the harbor. Come, I will reveal to you how light can be drawn from the one-celled protists.”

A series of disturbing dreams invaded the mind of Oego that night, filled with brilliant, blinding white light. The memory of what he had experienced in the experiment shed of Cacoe Depone had taken possession of all his thoughts, even in sleep.

Oego recalled his promise to inform the Oil Trust about the startling breakthrough. He rose and dressed early, then headed for corporate headquarters. His steps were fast and his thinking excited. It was not going to be an easy task to describe what he had seen. Much that he experienced still seemed incredible.

The secretary to the president refused him immediate access to the busy Caprico Fetch. “His time is fully scheduled,” argued the young woman in plain office attire. “I will have to put you down for late afternoon,” she insisted.

“This is urgent,” said Oego. “Mr. Fetch will be angry unless what I have for him is reported at once.”

“Tell me what it is about and I will convey it to him,” she sneered.

Oego thought a moment. “The invention works, tell him that. It miraculously produces light.”

It took only seconds for this message to be carried to the chief of the Trust. The secretary returned, somewhat crestfallen, and informed Biffen he was to go into the private office at once.

Tall, muscular, and athletically handsome, Fetch stood behind the glass desk he worked at. Sharp xanthous eyes burned with force and energy. A low, rich voice came from his thick throat. “You have something important to tell me?” he asked.

“The man has succeeded beyond anything imaginable,” gushed Oego, his face flushed with excitement. “I can’t begin to describe the brightness of the light that he generates from nektons. It comes forth from thin, translucent tubes in which he keeps protistic creatures. There has never been anything like this before. He has achieved all he claims.”

For a time both of them remained silent.

“You have talked with him about purchasing his secrets?”

“No,” replied Oego, “I was not authorized to do that.”

“I myself will take charge of that matter, then. But first I must see the invention for myself and evaluate its future worth.”

“When will that be, sir?”

“You and I must visit him at once, this morning. There is no time to lose.”

The pair took a Trust-owned fish oil car to the edge of the Whale District, then strolled down Decapod Lane to the delapidated home of Depone.

Oego knocked at the door, soon opened by the independent researcher who lived there. The latter stared at the tall stranger accompanying his earlier visitor. Caprico Fetch introduced himself without hesitation.

“You are here to see my nektons?” asked Cacoe directly of the industrial boss.

“In a word, yes,” said Fetch. “Can I witness it for myself this morning?”

The discoverer nodded. “I will take you to my work building at once.”

As Cacoe led the way, Caprico questioned him. “I understand you were once employed by the Trust?”

“That was years ago. Since then, I have worked on my own without outside support or direction. No one in your organization shared my interest in studying the one-celled life of the sea. I remember being laughed at for my interest in the protistic, nektonic forms.”

“I pray there is no bitterness in you,” said Fetch, his tone softened.

Suddenly Cacoe came to a stop and turned to face the captain of industry. “Whether I feel this way or that makes no difference,” he muttered with a measure of emotion. “The Trust is an absolute monopoly that we all have to deal with. There is no other alternative.”

The threesome continued to the research shed, Oego completely silent.

It took only minutes for the first demonstration to run to completion. The corporate president demanded to see the spectacular illumination once more. His eyes grew large with excitement and frenzy. They studied all the visible details of the brightly glowing vitrine tubes. His hunger to learn how this was accomplished seized strong hold of him. Question followed question, until Cacoe decided he could tell no more without losing the central secrets.

“I cannot reveal any more than I have already,” stated the inventor at last. “If the Trust wishes to exploit my process of light production, a contractual agreement will be necessary.”

Caprico Fetch bit his lower lip in anger. “I can have my lawyers and technicians draw up a document,” said the industrialist through clenched teeth. “Can we meet tomorrow morning?”

Cacoe agreed to see them here at home. As his guests departed, he exchanged silent glances with Oego.

A pair of corporate jurisprudents employed by the Trust were summoned to Fetch’s office for instructions on drawing up a covenant by which Cacoe was to reveal and hand over his invention. Oego listened as the president outlined what he wanted written in the agreement. As soon as the lawyers were dismissed, the two Trust men were left alone.

“I have something special for you to do as well,” the chief told the scientist.

The latter looked at him with curiosity, saying nothing.

“This contract must be air-tight in all respects,” asserted Caprico Fetch. “There can be no omission of anything that the fool can later claim is his. Please tell me this: could you make an exhaustive list of each and every one-celled nekton in the Cold Sea?”

Oego gave a start. “It would be very long and by no means total. There are an infinite variety of different forms. The plankton and protozoans go on and on. I myself have studied and am familiar with plasmodia, ciliates, sporazoans, heliozoans, sarcodinians, and radiolarians. And I have colleagues who have investigated mastigophorans, dinoflagellates, tropanosomes, and volvox. They go on and on, sir. There is no definite end to them.”

“What I want is some wording that will cover them all,” explained the president. “There must be no loopholes for him to crawl through.” The xanthous eyes of Fetch stared frigidly at the other. “You see what I am trying to accomplish?”

Oego frowned, thinking as fast as he was able. “I don’t see why the contract has to include so much beyond the present discovery as we witnessed it ourselves,” he slowly said. A growing sense of losing his moorings seized hold of the biologist.

All at once, Caprico rose from behind his glass desk and moved close to him. When he spoke, his voice seemed muffled in secrecy. “There shall be no development of any new illuminating system. We shall not provide anything new to compete with fish and whale oil. I intend to suppress the possible manufacture or use of the tubes with nektons.”

“Kill it!” said Oego. “You are going to kill it!”

“Precisely,” whispered the president. “And all use of protistic life, as swell.”

“When do you wish to receive the list, sir?” inquired the stunned scientist.

“By tomorrow morning,” curtly said Caprico.

Oego excused himself, hastening to his office.

The rest of the day was spent in internal mental argument for Oego. No list of protists was written by him. He had important decisions to make about what course to take.

Oego realized that the futures of both Cacoe and himself were at stake. Was it right for anyone to participate in the suppression of such a discovery?

No sleep came to him until an hour before dawn. A final decision was then made in a brief period just before awakening fully. He came to consciousness instantly, the imprint of his vision while asleep still in his mind.

It was now necessary for him to see Cacoe Depone and present him with the plan that had struck him like a flash of lightning.

Yellow auroral light suffused the empty streets of the Whale District as the excited Oego made his way to the little whitewood house. A few vigorous knocks brought the sleepy-eyed Cacoe to the door.

“I have to talk with you,” said the surprise visitor.

Without a word, the perplexed Depone led him into the tiny parlor. The two sat down, and then Oego began an explanation.

“Unless you and I act, nektonic light will never enjoy practical application. Let me reveal to you what Mr. Fetch intended to do with the invention you are providing him.”

It took little time to relate what was planned. Cacoe gazed at the exposer as if thunderstruck. “What can be done now?” asked the stunned Depone.

The answer was another surprise. “You have to leave the land of Cetacea, where the Trust has unlimited power, where it can stifle forward progress and the application of science.”

“What are you thinking of, my good fellow?”

In a few words, Oego told him. “We must leave immediately. I will go to the docks and find a boatman willing to take us. Throw some clothes in a suitcase and be prepared to sail.”

The owner of a prawner about to leave the harbor agreed to transport the pair across the chill water. They boarded the vessel and were about to depart when a familiar figure appeared on the docking.

Caprico Fetch, accompanied by a team of company guards, rushed to the edge of the planks. “What is this?” he screamed thunderously. “Where are you two going, Oego?”

The latter stood on the stern, staring at his employer. The boat moved several yards away from the angry, hysterical Fetch and his companions.

“Cacoe knows of your scheme to suppress nektonic lighting. He has chosen not to sign away his invention to the Trust.”

“But where do you intend to go? What will the two of you do?”

It was Depone who shouted a reply. “Beyond Cetacea lie the free islands of the Cold Sea. On Macrura, for instance, or Palaemon, I can continue research snd develop new, better tubing for varied uses.”

“Where the Cetacean Oil Trust cannot reach,” added Oego.

The prawner moved out of hearing range. Fetch watched the boat grow small. Oego and Cacoe looked in the opposite direction, out over the water to the prospect of freedom for both of them.

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