Chapter IV.

30 Mar

Veta possessed information known to only a few people. She now revealed the kernel of it to the foreign journalist sitting across from her in the tracker train compartment.

“There has been nothing about these mine slowdowns on the audio waves or in news publications. The government believes that broadcasting anything would only encourage the troublemakers to continue and incite more conflict. It would be completely counterproductive.

“But the Department of Information has received warnings that there have been sporadic walkouts at scattered mines across the region. We were supposed to be prepared in case of wider strikes or actual physical violence. This was a way of telling our staff to have explanatory releases ready if needed.

“I heard several people in my section discussing the dangerous situation in the mines. It is apt to become very serious, according to what they were saying.”

Dey looked at her with incredulity.

“The authorities want to keep the public in the dark when such events happen,” he complained. “That contradicts all the principles of free journalism, Veta.”

Blushing with embarrassment, she made no immediate reply.

Minutes passed. After half an hour, passengers for further points began to climb off the train and scatter into the town of Gneiss.

“They appear to be giving up hope.” commented Dey. “Should we do the same?”

The young woman thought a moment.

“Why not? If we stay close to the station, we can hear any announcements about tracker movements to other points on the line. There would be enough time for us to climb back aboard, I am sure.”

They rose and left the compartment, walking to the end of the corridor to where a door stood open. Dey offered both arms to his fellow traveler, helping her climb to the ground. The two then headed toward the station, where the crowd of miners continued to mill about.

Unexpectedly, a voice spoke from behind them.

“Can I be of help to you?”

The pair turned around to see a towering figure wearing a brown raincoat. Both of them knew at once, despite his not being in miner’s uniform of green, what his occupation was.

The journalist decided to be the spokesman for their side.

“We were on our way to Plumbago when the stoppage halted us. That is our destination, but it seems we are not going to reach there anytime soon.”

The stranger moved closer. Dark veins stuck out from his craggy, flinty face. Mine work had carved his countenance into a hardpan mask.

“I can take both of you by locomobile to Corundum. From there you can catch a local tracker that runs to Plumbago. I will help you make the connection you need so that you arrive in Plubago as quickly as possible.”

Dey and Veta glanced at each other. Before she could tell him what she thought, the reporter replied to the big man in the raincoat.

“What about our luggage? It is still aboard the tracker train.”

“I can arrange to have it taken off and brought along with us. You see, there are friends of mine in the Transport Service.” He made a try at a smile that was a failure. The expression on his face became indecipherable.

“Very well, we shall take up your offer,” said Dey in a strong voice, taking command of affairs. He turned to one side and spoke to Veta for confirmation of his decision. “It is important that we go forward and not lose time waiting here. Who can say when this train moves again?”

She gaped at him in surprise at his initiative.

“Let me introduce myself,” said the husky bruin in the raincoat. “My name is Bato Mentin.”

The two travelers gave their names, but nothing beyond that.

“Follow me,” said the stranger. “I will tell you more about myself when we get into my locomobile.”

The vehicle was a small motorized coupe that ran on mini-batteries.

Bato Mentin sat in the driver’s seat, while the other two occupied the rear.

Their bags and luggage were brought from the tracker by two miners and placed in the storage trunk of the road car.

In less than two minutes, the loco was out of Gneiss on the narrow, bouncy road to Corundum. Up and down steep inclines it followed the strip of asphaltum.

Mentin kept one eye on his overhead mirror, watching the two he had picked up.

“I am a business agent of the Miners Organization. My presence in the capital concerned matters of importance to the M.O., as its members call it.”

Veta drew her leg beside that of the man sitting on her right. Dey read her signal as a warning not to tell this man too much about the purpose of their journey on the tracker.

The reporter realized the importance of weighing each word from now on.

“I am not Landian, as you can recognize from my foreign accent. My work as a writer has brought me to the Mineral Mountains to gather material for a series of articles I hope to publish. My purpose in your country is one of research.”

“There has been no news abroad of our spontaneous strikes, has there?” asked the driver.

“That is the truth,” answered Dey, gritting his teeth. “It is surprising to me how totally controlled all information is in your country. I have seen nothing like this complete censorship anywhere on the Continent. The news is hermetically sealed here, it appears. Control of public information is total and complete.”

Bato Mentin set his gray, colorless eyes on Veta’s reflected face in the mirror above his head.

“It is evident to me that you are his official escort,” he muttered lowly.

She turned her head to the side, gazing at the passing mountain landscape and saying nothing.

The driver leaned back his head and addressed his passengers in a deep, muffled one.

“You were being tailed by clandestine persons back on the tracker, my friends. But my men are very careful. There is no trace back there of what became of the two of you. The agents on board the train thought that you went to the station to look around and expected you to return. By now, they will have realized that their subjects of surveillance are gone. But I doubt they will think of stopping locos on mountain roads like this one. You are no longer under official gaze, we can conclude.”

Veta glared at the back of Mentin’s hatless head.

“What are you after?” she demanded with suspicion. “Is there a hidden purpose in this ride you are providing us?”

The burly one gave a laugh of surprise. “You are quite observant, Miss Vermilion. Yes, there is something I want from your fellow passenger.” His attention focused on the man sitting behind him. “The truth is what the miners must have. You must bring the story of our cause and what we are doing to the attention of the people of the entire Continent. The public everywhere must learn of our desperate struggle against oppression. Pressure from abroad will help us, but it will never come if news does not get out of Landia.” He paused a moment. “You have to act as our voice to the other nations, Mr. Skull.”

Rapid thinking occurred in the latter’s mind. An instant decision was made and immediately announced.

“That will certainly be accomplished, but I will need some assistance in exchange. Do you wish to know at this moment what I will need from you in return for my help in publicizing your movement in the other countries?”

Bato made a little smile. “Yes, I would like to learn what your price is.”

For a short time, there was no sound but the hum of the locomotor.

Veta stared at the journalist, her eyes large with expectation.

“I am in this country for a special purpose,” confessed Dey. “Until now, not one person has heard me say what it is. My journey to Landia has to do with the events of a generation ago, when the Xarti were expelled.”

He glanced to his right and saw that his guide was gaping at him.

“My purpose is to write the first full history of the Cataclysm. For that to be done, I have to locate a person who is one of the few Xartic survivors in your country. Exiles have furnished me his new, assumed name and last known address, which was in Plumbago. Perhaps he is no longer alive or has moved elsewhere. Finding this particular individual, though, will only be my first step. I will also have to locate and examine whatever documents still exist. And there may well be other persons who have succeeded in concealing themselves in the half century since the tragedy.”

Mentin turned thoughtful and distant.

“I have heard many tales of those terrible years. What was done to the Xarti was inhuman. At that time, our mineral industry was only in its infancy. Most of it was in the hands of Xartic families who were the pioneers of excavation ventures. They were the people who developed our mining technology. But the success of their enterprises attracted envy and venomous hatred.

“Numerous anti-Xartic groups and organizations arose, encouraged and subsidized by political extremists. The latter saw hatred as their road to power. The government in Calcedony grew increasingly chauvinistic, ending as the authoritarian state that continues to rule in Landia today.

“The Xarti lost everything when their mines were confiscated. They were banished from the Mineral Mountains, then the whole country. Their enemies were permitted to go after them with impunity. From the Rebukers and Reprovers, to the Ejectors and Extirpators, the ultra-nationalist hate groups went mad. They pursued their enemies with brutal bloodlust.

“I have heard about horrible torture and massacre. Those forced into exile were luckier than the slaughtered victims within our boundaries. The inhumanities committed are a blemish on our national history.”

The interior of the loco became tomblike, with only the hum of the battery engine audible.

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One Response to “Chapter IV.”

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