Chapter VII.

1 Apr

The clouds covering the valley were the color of carbon graphite. A dark light illuminated the afternoon sky of scudding nimbi. The rain had just halted, but was certain to begin again at any moment. That appeared to be inevitable.

Bato stopped the locomobile, turned his head to communicate with the pair in the back.

“The mines around Conundum are noted for the unique agate and chalcedony obtained from them. These are valuable exports from Landia to the rest of the Continent.” He thought a second. “It is necessary we stop here a little while so that I can talk with the local leader of the Miners Organization. The man’s name is Taval Renda and there have been some problems with him.”

“Problems?” asked Dey with sudden curiosity.

“He is overly fervent and ready for extreme action,” explained Bato. “He is too eager for immediate combat. It is feared by many that Taval might precipitate a general, nationwide strike before most of our local units are ready. His radical reactions tend to be based on emotion, not cold facts. It is difficult to keep control over this wild lawyer. He presents some big problems for the miners’ movement.”

“Lawyer?” said the journalist, surprise on his face.

“Yes, it is unusual to have a professional person who has never worked in a mine at the head of one of our most important districts. Taval began as a legal representative in a number of mine injury cases. He became a believer in our cause, taking an active part in the affairs of the M.O. His popularity grew, until he was elected by secret ballot to become the president of our unit in Corundum. That is where he functions.

“Taval’s voice in the Central Crew of our organization is the one that always calls for the most aggressive attacks on our foes, especially the government. He is willing to take all kinds of dangerous gambles.”

The loco rolled on a bit, stopping before an old, unpainted building on the western fringe of the town’s central area.

“Come along with me and meet him,” proposed Bato. “You will find him to be all that I have said he is.”

Once the loco was parked along the edge of the pavement, the three persons inside climbed out.

The street was empty, without traffic. The stone sidewalks had no pedestrians. Most of the nearby buildings appeared to be mineral storehouses. “Corundum Agate Company” read a large sign on a brick wall opposite the wood frame office of the union lawyer.

Bato led the way to the front door. He had to knock only twice before rousing someone inside.

A short, energetic man in white shirt and black necktie appeared before them. Upon seeing Mentin, he broke out in a beaming grin. His glowing green eyes then caught Veta and Dey behind the large ex-miner.

Bato introduced his two traveling companions to Attorney Renda, The latter stared inquiringly at Veta, then Dey.

“You are a journalist from abroad who is interested in our movement?”

“Yes,” answered the writer. “The history of the mining industry in Landia has become my subject, especially the Cataclysm period and the conditions that resulted from those events. That is where I set my focus.”

The green eyes of Taval fell upon the smooth olive face of Veta.

“You are from the Department of Information?” he asked with suspicion in his voice.

She gave him a nod. “I am a tour guide, nothing more than that.”

“Come in, all of you.”

He led them down a narrow, unlighted corridor with corkboard walls, into an office cluttered with old books, papers, and record tapes.

The lawyer found three chairs for the visitors, then took his customary place at an antique roll top desk, turning to face them directly.

Mentin spoke first, getting to business at once.

“We are on our way to Plumbago. I believe that Mr. Skull can be of great value to us by informing the entire Continent of what our goals are and the nature of our struggle for justice. That is why I am taking our friend to central headquarters there. The Founder will wish to make contact with this man from abroad.”

The face of Taval suddenly reddened.

“He should talk to all of us.” His reptilian eyes fastened on Dey. “The highest authority within the Miners Organization is the Central Crew of six leaders. Both Bato and I are members of that executive committee. No single individual, even the Founder who began our movement, has the power to command actions on his own. We are not a one-man operation, regardless of what some people may think. Our leadership is a group function.”

A hostile glare fell on Mentin from the angry district leader.

“The Central Crew authorized the actions taken at Gneiss,” asserted Bato, his voice growing stern. “Remember what we all decided. The demonstration there was meant to be a warning of what could come later, if the owners refused to sit down with the local shaft committees and discuss their grievances. Now, we have to wait and see what the results are going to be. But this initiative had the full approval of our leadership and must be carried out within the boundaries of the general instructions from the Central Crew.”

The little attorney appeared to bridle, giving his union colleague a look of scorn. His boiling rage was unconcealed. Both Dey and Veta could feel its extraordinary dimensions.

“Wait, wait, wait,” argued Taval. “Our members are tired of our leaders’ indecision. They are the one’s suffering low wages, long hours, and dangerous working conditions. Year after year, time rolls by and nothing happens. Decades pass and the miners are buried in the ground from which they dig the minerals.

“The unheeded cry in the pits and shafts is for action. My people have had their fill of waiting for some salvation to arrive. That has been the history of ever-patient Landia. But the day of fulfillment never dawns. It does not occur at all.

“At the beginning, the hunt for precious gems and minerals was supposed to be the road to prosperity for all. But it did not turn out that way, because the disparities between the wealthy and the rest of the population grew greater. In the last decade, the mining of metallic ores has come to dominate everything in our country. Once again, extravagant promises have been made. The sky was going to be the limit. But look around today and tell me whether our miners are happy and satisfied. Their lot is no better than it was years ago, when the first early diggings were made in the Mineral Mountains.”

By now, the attorney’s face was flushed a ghastly red.

All of a sudden, Bato Mentin rose to his feet.

“There will soon be a meeting of the Central Crew,” he loudly reminded the lawyer. “The Founder is eager that these matters be thoroughly discussed and decided upon. It is time that the Miners Organization have one united policy line and not several divided ones. We must act with concord and harmony.”

The ex-miner glowered at Renda for several seconds, then turned to his traveling companions.

“It is getting late and we have a considerable distance to go,” he muttered to them as if giving a warning. Then he turned to the lawyer. “We shall see each other in Plumbago in a few days, Taval. You will have all the opportunity you wish to make your arguments at that time, my friend.”

Dey and Veta, understanding what Mentin meant, both stood up and said goodbye to the little man with the green eyes.

Before any of them realized it, they were out of the frame building, climbing back into the locomobile. Late afternoon was as dark as early twilight. Ominously, black nimbi threw long shadows through the streets of Corundum.

Bato drove slowly out of the center of town. No one said anything until they were once again in open country, vaulting along up and down the steep, winding mountain road.

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