Chapter III.

30 Mar

Only a few patrons remained in the small tea room behind the lobby, yet one of them immediately drew the attention of Veta Vermilion. She averted her eyes from where Captain Brek Kont of the C.S. was sitting.

A waitress came over to the table that she and Dey had taken. Both of them ordered mountain sage.

Veta, trying to remove the presence of the recognized security agent from her mind, kept talking in order to avoid the awkwardness of silence.

“You will find the Mineral Mountains a fascinating region,” she told Dey. “In reality, that is the heart of Landia. The bulk of our national wealth is generated from the underground deposits there. Each year our exports rise higher, increasing the balance of trade ever more in our favor. What a glorious future lies ahead!”

The reporter made a wry smile. “That has the ring of a press release of the Department of Information, Veta.”

She hesitated but then gave a short laugh. “I work hard and the material gets deeply into my internal thought patterns. But the gist of what I said is true. There is no secret about what the jewel of our economy is. It lies in our mineral mines.”

“I can hardly wait to get there,” sighed the traveler.

“We leave on an early tracker train tomorrow morning. Reservations are made for a private compartment.” She picked up her cup and sipped some sage tea.

“I hope to see as many facilities as I can,” noted Dey Skull. “One can never tell ahead of time what may end up presenting the greatest interest for yourself. There are always some surprises, I have learned.”

“You do not have concrete, specific plans, then?”

“Only a general outline that I may choose to follow or not,” he replied. “But I will be free to look into anything that may pop up.”

Veta seemed a little shaken by that statement. “You should inform me of the direction your interest takes so that I can assist your study.”

“Of course,” he said with a smile.

“I will do everything possible to facilitate your work in the Mineral Mountains,” vowed his guide. “Just tell me your needs and I will make the arrangements through the Department.”

The pair proceeded to finish their tea.

“You’d better have plenty of rest,” said Veta with visible concern. “I’ll grab a horse cab and ride back to my apartment.”

They said good night and Dey Skull headed for the hydro-lift.

As Veta rose to leave, she saw how the C.S. man was motioning for her to come over to his table.

The small man in tweed stood up and gave a nod as she approached him. When the two of them were seated together, he began to question her.

“How did the evening go for you? We had eyes on the two of you at dinner, in the theater, and later for the incident at the Mother Load. All considered, it was an interesting evening for our friend, I would think. He observed places he has never seen before.

“Did he drop anything about what he really came to Landia for?”

Veta pursed her lips. “What he told me was very vague. His intentions are not too well-defined yet. Perhaps the man is on the lookout for an interesting story that still has to surface. There is not much to report from only one evening with him.”

The green eyes of Captain Kont glinted with a dull light for a brief moment.

“I shall be on the tracker train to Plumbago with a crew of agents,” he informed her. “We will speak again tomorrow night.”

As Veta rose and walked out of the tea room, she failed to notice a burly figure in a brown raincoat sitting in a large lobby chair off by itself in corner.

He had witnessed the foreigner, then the clandestine, talking with Miss Vermilion.

After a few seconds, the heavy bruiser stood up and left the Feldspar Hotel.

A fine drizzle was falling from the stratus above the city the following morning. Dey and his guide arrived at the Central Depot in a covered landau, boarded the tracker train for the Minerals, made luggage arrangements, and then found the reserved compartment waiting for them.

A loud whistle blew and the locomotor unit began to chug forward on the double rails.

The two passengers, sitting opposite each other, gazed out the window of their compartment. Calcedony  passed before them, faster and faster. Soon they were hurtling along at top velocity. Factories, warehouses, brick apartment complexes, and ore yards flashed by. Before long, the tracker was in the open countryside.

Dey Skull noticed how scanty agriculture was in Landia compared to elsewhere on the Continent. The fields were the poorest, sparest he had seen in his life. It was only mineral exports that enabled this land to import adequate supplies of food. By itself, Landia would have been a very hungry place, he reasoned. The ores extracted out of its mines fed this country.

Hills began to appear, growing higher and more frequent with each mile. A range of ridges followed the course of the tracks. The landscape became rougher and wilder. Signs of human habitation were rarely visible.

Shortly before noon, a server brought the travelers a light lunch on trays.

“There will be short stops at Gneiss and Corundum,” announced Veta as they finished eating. “Passengers get on and off for these two mining towns. After that, we reach our destination at Plumbago.”

“We are already in the Minerals, then?”

The guide nodded yes.

Soon after the server removed their trays, the tracker began to slow down for its first stop.

“This will be the station at Gneiss,” said Veta. “We only stay a minute or two, then go on.”

The speed of the train fell to zero as the brakes did their work of bringing it to a stop.

Dey, looking out the window, caught sight of a large group of men in dark green clothing assembled on the steps leading up to a small passenger station.

His companion also saw them. “Miners!” she gasped.

A conductor’s voice came over the audio system of the tracker train.

“We are stopped in Gneiss. Our halt here will be indefinite because of the actions of strikers who are interfering with all traffic on the tracker lines. It is uncertain when our passenger train can proceed.”

The two travelers stared at each other in shock.

What was going to happen next? they both wondered.

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