Chapter IX.

2 Apr

Dey and Veta followed Mentin, neither of them certain what the miners’ leader intended to do. Down a flight of stairs the three descended, then walked along a long corridor, past the rooms assigned them for the night.

“For many years after the Cataclysm, this building was empty,” explained Bato as they made their way toward a metal door at the end of the hallway. “When the Miners Organization purchased it from the town of Rutile, the place was a dusty, broken wreck. New partitions and furnishings had to be installed. Local miners contributed their labor to the remodeling that was necessary. All traces of the crimes of fifty years ago disappeared, except for one area down here. It was left unchanged, the way they found it.”

Mentin stopped in front of the end door, extending his arm and turning the bar handle. Once the door was open, he pressed a button on the inside wall and a light went on.

“This is where the furnace and the water heater are,” said the ex-miner, motioning his companion into the basement utility chamber. When he followed them in and closed the door, Bato stepped to one side and pointed to a corner of the room. Dey and Veta looked there, both of them noticing large brown splotches on the smooth surface of cement.

Dey walked over to examine the enigmatic markings closer.

Veta looked at Mentin, then joined the journalist in front of the strange basement wall. She grimaced as she realized what had produced the brown discoloration four decades earlier.

Neither of them heard Bato come up to them from behind. His voice caused both to give a start.

“It appears that this basement was used to interrogate prisoners held upstairs. The hunting of fugitives was going on and the Extirpators were desperate to round up every last Xart they could. In this section, they applied physical torture in order to wring information out of the recalcitrant. Those blotches of blood that you see in the corner are evidence of how far the process went.”

Veta, gasping for breath, began to lose her balance. For a brief moment, she swayed about, until Dey offered her his right arm for her to lean on. Equilibrium returned to his guide.

Bato drew closer to the pair he had brought to view the wall of pain and torture. “I think that you have seen enough. We should turn in early, so that an early start for Plumbago can begin.”

Dey took hold of his official guide by the arm as the three of them left the furnace room where evil deeds had once been committed.

The storm had passed, taking away the dark rain clouds of the previous day. Dawn revealed a sky of lofty cumulus of puffy pink and white. The new day, like most in the Mineral Mountains, would be less than a clear one. But perhaps a spell without rain was in the offing.

Rising up while it was still dark out, the two travelers and their driver ate a quick miner’s breakfast, paid their bills, and left on what they hoped would be the last leg of their journey.

No one was willing to talk about what they had seen in the hostel’s basement.

“Plumago has become the busiest mining center in Landia because of the cerium metals in the crystal deposits of the area,” explained Bato, breaking a long silence inside the locomobile. “It is the national headquarters of the Miners Organization, for that reason. The Founder himself began his activities there years ago, when the local mining boom was beginning. He was a staff geologist for the Neodymium Corporation, but they fired him for his public support of the miners and their interests. Ever since then, he has been the leader of our struggle for change.”

Dey attempted to conceal his acute curiosity about the historic figure he was now interested in studying.

“Your Founder must have enjoyed an excellent scientific education,” he remarked.

“Indeed, he attended several universities abroad. Isn’t it ironic about the condition of the educational institutions in Landia? Fifty years after the Cataclysm, we still suffer from the purge of our schools’ teachers in those days. All Xarti were expelled along with anyone suspected of softness or sympathy toward them. For a number of years, serious education ceased in our country.

“Five decades later, we have still not fully recovered. There are no first-rate departments of geology here in Landia, so our students are compelled to study abroad. Graduates from elsewhere on the Continent are recruited by our mining companies, since today we lack an indigenous cadre of experts.”

“So, Mr. Slyn was out of Landia for a number of years,” said the journalist. “Did his family go away with him?”

“The Founder has never married and lives alone. He comes from the far south of Landia, at the end of the Mineral Mountains. That is where the whole cordillera begins.”

Old memories instantly flashed into the mind of Dey Skull. His mother’s family came from the extreme south, where Xarti had been few and knew each other personally. His father had gone there as a traveling commercial agent and returned with a bride whose last name was Slyn. That had happened shortly before the Cataclysm broke out.

Bato continued talking on the theme of the Founder.

“He has dedicated all of his considerable energy for many years to building up the Miners Organization to its present strength. His initiative and inspiration have guided us on the correct path. No one is more trusted or revered. Yet Garen Slyn has never asked anything for himself. He receives only a stipend for his expenses, but no regular salary. His life is spare and modest.”

Veta now decided to make a comment. “The Founder truly must be an amazing individual.”

“You will see for yourself when you meet the man,” said Mentin with conviction, in a firm voice.

Bato braked the loco the instant he caught sight of a roadblock ahead. Veta, in the seat behind him, made a gurgling noise in her throat as they came to a sudden stop. The driver turned his head toward the pair in the back of the vehicle.

“It’s the military police. They are checking everything entering Plumago,” announced Bato.

Dey asked him a question. “What is the reason for that, do you suppose?”

“The authorities may suspect that some activists are coming here in recent days after the tracker train blockage. They may be hunting for suspicious persons traveling between mineral centers. I suppose they are after persons like me.” The miners’ leader pondered a few moments. “We are only a short distance from a M.O. unit office. It is wise for me to get out and make my way there on my own. There are plenty of miners around who can drive the two of you into Plumago without me. It will be safer for both of you that way. Neither one of you is connected in any way with the miners’ cause. Nothing should prevent your immediate entrance into the city, then proceeding as you wish wherever you want. That seems the best to me.”

“We have reservations at the Neodymium Hotel,” remembered Veta. “Although our arrival will be a late one, I am sure they will still be honored since it was the Department of Information that made them for us.”

“One of our men can take you there at once,” said Bato with a smile. “Once you are settled in and rested, we can see about making arrangements with the Founder for a meeting with him. I imagine you wish to see Dr. Slyn as soon as possible, Dey.”

“Indeed,” replied the latter, hiding all signs of eagerness.

Bato gazed out the front windshield, sweeping the horizon from left to right with vigilant eyes.

“It is only a short hike from where we are to the Samarium Shaft No. 8. The crewmen working there ride into Plumbago in funicular cabin cars. I can accompany the shift now on duty when they return home and then make my way to the Founder’s apartment.”

Before Dey or Veta realized what had happened, Bato was gone.

The two passengers in the rear turned to each other.

“What is going to happen to us?” asked Veta nervously.

Dey placed his hand over one of hers. “We must wait patiently, as Bato told us to,” he assured her. “Try to look ahead to our entering Plumbago. There is a lot waiting there for us in that city, Veta.”

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