Chapter XII.

30 Apr

Labo changed paths three times, making pursuit absolutely impossible for anyone still trying to follow them.

Lea breathed with strenuous rapidity. She did not find it easy to keep up with her shorter, smaller escort. Neither of them had said a word since the discovery of the sentinel who had been on their trail. Even though they had lost him, Labo continued his sudden turns and zigzags.

The surrounding trees grew ever taller, until the two fugitives were nearly under solid shadow. The kapoks and chaulmoogras gave way to towering purplehearts, greenhearts, and virolas. Where are we heading? wondered Lea, knowing little about the dangers of the forest. She had a hard time keeping up with her naked, speedy companion. Her breathing grew strenuous and rapid. She had never in her life felt so exhausted. Never before had she experienced anything like this strenuous effort. Both her mind and body grew exhausted.

Labo was running forward as if he were completely alone, she bitterly concluded. He is unaware of how painful this is for me.

All at once, though, he slowed his stride and caused Lea to do the same.

There was suddenly something new and different about the trees that surrounded their pathway: wider trunks and greater heights. She sensed an ominous silence that seemed to remind her of something else.

What could it be?

The truth finally came to mind.

Dendrology Station Five. These were the specially augmented trees that towered upward. Lea recalled the solemn impression those words had made on her at the time of their visit there. The term hypostatic light rays returned to her mind. This was an area of daring scientific experimentation. That was what made it so unique and different from the common, ordinary forests of this part of Tochsylvania. She was in a new, never before existing environment, one that had been planned and engineered.

What had the tall, handsome Resh Zayeth said to them?

Optical technology was behind the giantism, that much she remembered from his discourse on the subject. The researcher had revealed to them that he was importing trees not native to the Tochsylvanian rain forest, giving them special photonic treatment using the innovative penetrating light rays that he himself had developed. There was an inventive, enhanced form of photosynthesis in operation in this unique forest region.

Her father had shown more interest in the technology than she had. He understood the science of it much better than she ever could. But the results were present on all sides of her.

Yes, she decided, this had to be the dendrological reserve where the tree experimentation was proceeding. That would explain these strange trees there around her. Their height was astounding, overpowering. Their size overwhelmed her mind. There was an overpowering majesty to these giant trees that she was unable to identify as redwoods and sequoias.

Lea sensed that her guide was slowing his pace, as if they were coming to some specific location.

Their path fell into a small, steep ravine. Little daylight reached the ground about them. As the pair looked upward toward the ridge they were about to climb up, both of them stopped.

Sparkling eyes of a yellowish hue gazed down on them from the top of the hill.

Neither could have spotted the motionless figure watching them until they had come down to the floor of the forest gully.

Lea heard a gulping noise from her startled companion.

The configuration of the ground had created this surprise for him. But we are not yet captured, Labo told himself. Escape is still possible for us. He started to whisper to Lea without turning his head.

“Follow me back the way we came,” he managed to get out of his mouth before spinning about and retracing their descent to the bottom of the ravine.

Lea made a desperate attempt to follow him, turning her body around and taking several steps away from the threat on the ridge.

Labo was already at the summit and out of the depression when a voice called out.

“Miss Vexa, do not be frightened,” it shouted to her. “You know who I am. There is no danger whatsoever here. Please do not run off. Stay where you are.”

Lea stopped in her tracks and spun about again.

Gazing back up at the ridge, sudden recognition struck her.

“Is that you, Mr. Zayeth?” she nervously called out to the scientist.

“Indeed,” came the answer. “But what are you doing in the station reserve? And who was that small person I saw with you?”

She turned around once more, to see what had become of her guide.

No, Labo was gone. She had no idea how he had disappeared without her noticing anything at all. Fear had driven him back into the tropical forest, it would seem. His natural instincts had made him run away.

The voice of Resh Zayeth was clearly audible to her once more.

“If you are lost, it is best to accompany me to the Center. I will drive you back to the latifundium where you and your father are staying. That is the best way for you to return there, believe me.”

He climbed down to the bottom, then helped the bewildered young woman out of the ravine, supporting her with both his arms.

After she had rested a little at the station office, the Director and the young woman he discovered had a long conversation together.

A chilled glass of cocoa-colored theobromine stilled Lea’s palpitating heart and calmed her jangling nerves. She began to feel comfortable.

The two sat in the scientist’s cluttered office, directly opposite each other. It took a while for Lea to regain her complete composure.

Averting her eyes as much as possible, she described  what had happened to her in the forest.

“I only learned of the abduction today, from one of my assistants,” said Resh Zayeth in a reassuring tone. “He knew few of the details, only the outline of the story. It occurred during the party fireworks, I understand. While the planters were gathered together for a social celebration.”

“Yes. Perhaps Thav was foolish to take food to those in the lock-up last night. It resulted in the tragic situation that occurred.”

“And the dacoits asked that you act as intermediary, carrying their demands to Master Samekh?”

Lea gave an affirming nod. “I seem to have bungled my mission,” she muttered darkly. “My return to the plantation will be an empty-handed one, I fear. I failed to make contact with the outlaws who captured and abducted my friend.”

Her eyes fell to the violet-tinted kingwood floor.

“Do not despair,” gently said the researcher. “Though you have lost the boy guide named Labo, there is another possible path for you to take.”

She looked straight into his solidly square face.

“Yod Teth, the outlaw, is a distant relative of the tribal datto of the Varzeans in our district. Do you know what a datto is?”

“A hereditary chief, I believe,” she answered. “They are mentioned in the history of Tochsylvania that I read. At one time, these individuals had great power, but the central government took it all away from them. Now they are nothing, nothing at all.”

“No, that is not correct,” countered Resh. “The datto related to Teth is an old man with enormous authority over the tribers of the area. He is their traditional patriarch in the most intimate portions of their lives. The people of the rain forest bring disputes to him for adjudication. He is an informal, non-official judge, interpreting and applying traditional Varzean common law. The tribers have enormous trust and faith in this individual. He exercises great influence over all of them. He is an individual who is well-informed and can accomplish many things.”

“You know the person yourself?”

“Yes. I have made his acquaintance and had some very long talks with him. He is called Rambatan by the natives, though that is only a popular sobriquet. No one dares call such a charismatic elder by his given name. Can you interpret the meaning of the nickname attached to the old man?”

Lea stifled an incipient grin. “It’s a red fruit that grows in the tropics.” She waited to hear his reaction to her knowledgeable identification.

“That is right.” His yellow eyes brightened as he scanned her face. “What would you say, Miss Vexa, if I took you to visit this friend of mine? I wager that you have never seen or met a Varzean datto like this man.”

“No, I haven’t.”

He glanced at the horologe on his ring finger.

“It is still early, not even midday.” His eyes settled on hers. “I could drive you to the nearest point close to his village. We could leave my land carriage by the road. It is only a ten minute hike into the forest to where Rambatan has his cabin. He is poor today, like all the tribers. Being their datto does not bring him any material wealth, none at all to speak of.

“We can ask him to put us in contact with Yod Teth.”

“You believe that he will agree to help us?” said Lea with visible anxiety.

Instantly, Resh rose to his feet.

“Conscience is a mighty force in him,” he murmured. “You will see that for yourself. He enjoys an amazingly strong moral character. I can assure you of that. This old man possesses incredible intelligence, you shall find.”

Lea placed her glass on the small table beside her chair and then got up.

“I think it is a good idea,” she admitted. “Perhaps this will turn out to be the best possible way of making contact with the dacoit who has hold of Thav. Such a chance is well worth taking, I would think.”

The dendrologist began walking to his motorized land carriage. The visitor from Landia followed him a step behind.

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