Chapter X.

3 Apr

A bellhop carried the luggage of the two travelers into the magnificent lobby.

Veta was relieved to learn at the registration desk that two rooms were awaiting them. After the young carrier received their keycards, he asked them to follow him to the lifters for the upper floors. They began to walk away when the hotel clerk suddenly called out “Miss Vermilion, there is a message for you.”

Veta returned to take an envelope, a small lump in her throat. She opened it to find a short note written by Captain Brek Kont.

“I will make contact at your convenience. If you need me, I am staying at the Neodymium. Brek Kont.”

She nervously stuck the note and envelope into her coat pocket.

“Is it important?” asked Dey in a hushed voice.

“It is a message from the Department of Information,” she lied. “It can wait for a while.”

They resumed moving across to the other side of the lobby, past walls decorated with pale blue chalcedony, apple green chrysoprase, yellow cairngorm, ruby red rubasse, brown pyromorphite, orange sard, blue cyanite, vermilion cinnabar, and white tremolite. This riot of quartzes and amphibolite minerals produced an impression of garish extravagance on anyone seeing them for the first time. So it was for Dey Skull that day. He surveyed the rainbow of rich colors with wonderment as they waited for the lifter doors to open.

Once upstairs, the bellhop spoke to Veta first, taking the pair into her room.

“I will take you to yours in a moment, sir,” said the young man in the hotel uniform of red. “It is only a few doors down the corridor.”

Skull nodded to his official guide, then followed the bellhop out.

The travelers ate an early dinner downstairs in the hotel restaurant, then returned to their rooms to rest.

Veta lay down on her bed, still fully dressed in her traveling suit. She was worried about the situation she was in. The memory of the captain from the Clandestine Service had vanished. But the little man had proceeded to Plumbago and waited for the two of them to arrive. Soon she would be seeing him again and forced to think up answers to his questions. How much did he know or suspect about what she had been doing? Their encounter with Bato Mentin would have been of great interest to the secret agent of the government.

Veta’s brain was spinning like a top when a quiet knock sounded at her door, audible all the way into the bed chamber. She trembled as she got up to answer it, trying to guess who had come to see her. It might turn out to be the person she was thinking about with dread.

Another knock sounded as she approached the door. Opening it, her mind made an irreversible decision. Nothing was to be revealed that might compromise her friend and charge, Dey Skull.  There could be no mention of Bato and what they had learned from him. She had to concoct a plausible explanation of how they had reached Plumbago on their own and why they had climbed off the halted tracker train. She now had two new friends who must not be betrayed to the clandestine police of Landia. That was what she owed to them.

Veta opened the door and smiled. “Hello, Captain,” she said, masking her thoughts and feelings. “I’ve been expecting you.”

Brek Kont entered without speaking, closing the door behind him.

The two stood staring at each other for a second.

“What happened?” he asked in a sharp voice.

“Mr. Skull was eager to reach Plumbago without delay. It was he who suggested we hire a locomobile and a driver. How could I deny his strong wish to get here quickly?” she said with an innocent grin. Will he buy my story? she wondered to herself. It was the most reasonable explanation she was able to invent at the moment.

The agent nodded that he understood and accepted her explanation. This greatly relieved her internal fears and tension.

“A serious crisis is now developing in the mines around the city. There is a dangerous threat of violence. This ominous conflict will be taking up my time and that of all our agents here, but I still expect to get reports on Dey Skull from you. Has the man said or done anything suspicious in your presence?”

“No,” said Veta. “Not a single thing.”

Kont carefully studied her face.

“You must learn all you can about why this foreigner is here at this particularly troublesome time. I want to know his plans in full. Do you understand? Become as friendly as possible with him. Make him reveal his private thoughts to you, so that I can come to know what they are. Will you do that for your country?”

Veta replied with a single nod. She desired to make no more promises to the strange little man who used people like her for indecent purposes of spying. Veta was filled with disgust for him and his shady occupation.

“I shall see you again tomorrow,” he told her, turning about and leaving without another word.

When he was gone, the young woman gave a long, relieved sigh.

Dey also had a visitor that evening.

A rap brought him to the door, where he faced a short female with curly flaxen hair. She wore a plaid raincoat but no head covering. Her large circular eyes had a bright glow to them.

“Excuse me, are you Mr. Skull?”

“Yes,” he confirmed. “How can I help you?”

“I am an assistant to the Founder,” she said in a low, thick voice. “He sent me here to arrange a meeting with you.”

“Come in, please,” said the surprised journalist.

He closed the door behind her and pointed to the large plastine sofa chair. Once both of them were seated, the visitor got down to business at once.

“My name is Beryl Sehr and I am charged with keeping track of the Founder’s appointments. He is completely tied up at present, of course. Things are moving fast on all fronts. But as soon as Brother Mentin told him of your mission here in the Mineral Mountains, he asked me to set up an interview where the two of you could converse in private.

“Dr. Slyn is curious to meet you and make your acquaintance, Mr. Skull.”

Dey smiled warmly at her. “I plan to write about the miners’ economic plight among other topics of interest. It is important that all of the Continent learn the truth about Landia. There has been so much propaganda and distortion by the government that the picture abroad is false and inaccurate. I aim at puncturing these fictitious lies by revealing the reality of this country’s past and present, regardless of the official versions that the government promulgates.”

Her brown eyes took his measure as she was speaking. “You are traveling with a guide assigned you by the Department of Information, according to what Bato tells me.”

“That is correct, but she is trustworthy, I have discovered,” he said.

“You are certain about that?” she asked him sharply.

“Of course. Why do you say that? Do you have doubts?”

“According to Brother Mentin, she has had contact with an agent of the Clandestine Service in Chalcedony. Has she given you any reason to be suspicious? For instance, has Miss Vermilion ever tried to enlist your help in gathering information about the miners’ movement?”

“No,” he replied with feeling. “In fact, she has been relatively reticent about that. I really doubt that Veta is cooperating with any security agency. She is too straightforward. I might even say naïve. No, that could not be true of her, I assure you.”

Beryl Sehr thought a moment, biting her thin lower lip.

“When we take you to see the Founder, she will not accompany you. Do you understand?”

“Of course,” he affirmed. “But I can vouch for her sincerity. There is no reason for any apprehension concerning Miss Vermilion, believe me. She is one whose character stands out as moral and honest.”

For a short time, neither of them said a word. The visitor’s brown chestnut eyes wandered about the sitting room as if interested in the furnishings of the hotel.

All of a sudden, the journalist posed her a personal question.

“How did you come to be involved with the Miners Organization, may I presume to ask?” politely said Dey.

She looked him in the eye. “My father was a physician in a mining town at the southern end of the Minerals. He dealt with illnesses that shortened the lives of those who worked the pits and mines. His first-hand experience made him a fervent opponent of our present system of mine exploitation. He realized that the workers were being paid in sickness and painful death. This made him desirous of improving their lot in life. It became his burning passion.

“A geologist working for the Neodymium Corporation came to our town. His name was Garen Slyn. I was only a small child at the time, but I can recall the first time he came to our home. There was charismatic power in him that was felt by everyone he encountered. My father had discussions with him lasting into the small hours. They opened up completely to each other. All aspects of the miners’ situation came under their scrutiny.

“A committee was formed to present wage and safety demands to the mine-owners. The identities of the leaders were secret for a time, but the Clandestine Service sent undercover agents who infiltrated the movement. Both the Founder and my father were arrested, then tried and sent to prison. My mother and I had to leave our area and move to Plumbago. Our lives turned into terrible, painful tragedies.

“Father died under suspicious circumstances in prison and mother survived him by less than a year. I was alone, only a teenager here in the city. There seemed no future for me.

“But then I learned that Garen Slyn had been released and had come to Plumbago. We met and he told me that he planned to set up miners’ committees all over the Minerals. These would have to remain underground. We talked for hours and the Founder related the plans he had formed while imprisoned. I became thrilled by what he dreamed of doing and asked if I could join and help. He made me his aide and secretary, which I have been ever since.

“That was the beginning of a new life for me. I believe that I have tried to redeem the death of my father through my service to the movement. There is no sacrifice I would not make for our aims.”

Her face was flushed with excitement, her breathing became fast and labored. It took some time for Beryl to relax.

“What you say is most interesting,” gently murmured Dey. “I can sense how impressive your leader must be. When will I meet him?”

“Tomorrow. A locomobile will pick you up at nine. You must be alone. Do not give your guide any information about what you are doing. Is that clear?”

Dey nodded yes.

“There will be a workers’ rally at ten. The Founder will speak there, then meet with you immediately after.”

Beryl departed shortly, leaving Dey to ponder what he was going to ask the Founder.

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