Chapter VI.

18 May

Ban and Saluma neared the main entrance to the raptorium in silence. Word had reached them that their friend was now awake. There was much each of them wished to say and hear. All of a sudden, a short man with red hair appeared ahead of them. He looked about in all directions to make sure he was not being observed, then came forward as if he were out for a walk.

Both of the visitors stared at the Secretary of Nature as he approached them, stopping as if to ask directions when the three came together.

Cetab Daisan whispered fearfully as he passed by them.

“Tell your friend to be careful. The Dux is flying away shortly, and I along with him. Warn him that he will be taking dangerous risks upon himself.”

Within seconds, the little man with the green eyes was gone.

The two visitors glanced at each other as they ambled on toward the building ahead of them. What was the little man talking about. What threatened Gauge?

Both felt a cold shiver of apprehension.

Gauge beamed with joy, despite pangs of pain in his lower joints. He smiled at Ban to his right, then Saluma standing a little beyond the aviator. At last, here were persons whom he could trust. That fact made him happy.

Questions about his well-being were raised by both of his visitors.

“I’m improving, although there are flashing stabs of awful pain at times.”

How long would he have to stay here before the cast was taken off?

“Something unexpected has arisen. Your father, Saluma, will be interested in what the Dux has proposed that I do for him.”

A brief description of what the dictator wanted from Gauge was given by the latter.

“You agreed to cooperate?” asked Saluma, almost rhetorically. A look of suspicion crossed over her sapphire eyes. “Why?” she demanded with worry in her words and on her face.

The Landian lifted his head from the pillow it rested on. “Explain to your father that I intend to get to the bottom of all this raptor business. Finding out what the truth may be is important to me. It will be valuable to all the people in Avia, I believe.”

He and Saluma turned and stared at each other for a few moments.

“We will be keeping a watch on the raptorium,” whispered the bird observer.

“Indeed,” seconded Ban. “We met a government official on our way here. He is flying back to Arom with the Dux. We will be your only link to the outside world.”

“I will depend, then, on the two of you,” ominously observed the ornithologist from Landia.

Wheels were attached to a high table so that the patient could sit up in bed to work on maps.

Gauge spent his mornings and afternoons going through handbooks brought to him, rummaging his own memory, then marking out raptorial zones across the topography of his native Landia, then the rest of the vast Continent.

What is this project aimed at accomplishing? he asked himself on the occasions when he took rest breaks from his labors.

Once each day his two visitors from the Observatory arrived to see him.

A surgeon assigned to the raptorium by the Dux examined his sole patient several times each day, writing down reports on his improving condition.

“You are making extraordinary progress, Mr. Knave,” reported the medic with satisfaction. “Our Leader will be most happy to learn that your recovery is well along on its course.”

“When will I be able to get up and walk about?”

“By the time of the next Great Roosting for these raptorials, which I understand will be held here in a few weeks.”

“Great Roosting?”

“That is a general conclave of the Raptorial Association. Members will attend from all parts of Avia to meet together and learn what is happening at the raptorium. It will be an important event for all of them.”

“I see,” said Gauge with a deep sigh. “That is something that I too can look forward to.”

Azael Talmon took up a serious matter with the pilot and his own daughter that evening at the supper table.

“I have received a secret letter from Secretary Daisan. It was delivered surreptiously by one of his personal aides.”

“What does it say, Father?” inquired Saluma with rising interest.

“The Department of Nature receives damage reports from all areas of the country. They are tabulated into secret reports for the Dux. According to our friend, the rate of livestock death has risen steeply since Sud Lozon began to release the teratorns to fly about at will. Sheep, goats, chickens, calves, and even grown cows have been targets and victims of attacks by the gigantic raptors.

“There has occurred an astronomical growth of losses by the landowners. Or at least by particular ones.”

“What does that mean, sir?” asked Ban Nephis with excitement.

The Director of the Observatory stared fixedly at his remaining guest.

“Cetab Daisan ordered his personal staff to make detailed correlation studies of the location of the raids by the giant birds. An interesting pattern was discovered. It is startling in what can then be deduced.”

“What was learned?” pleaded his daughter impatiently.

“None of the owners who suffered loss belonged to the Raptorial Association, while no cult members have ever had any livestock killed or injured. There is an uncanny consistency in all those conclusions. The results are clear.”

“It may mean something important,” volunteered the aviator. “What are the raptorials doing that protects their own property so perfectly?”

“That has not been determined yet, but it would appear that such immunity from depredations is somehow connected to Sud Lozon’s work at his raptorium.”

For a few seconds, there was silence as these facts were digested.

Saluma turned to her father with a further question.

“What should we be doing?” she quietly asked. “Did the Secretary send you any specific advice? There seems to be something ominous in the air.”

“He wrote that the raptorials will soon be congregating at the other end of the valley for their national conclave. We already have one person inside the raptorium station as our eyes and ears.”

“That is Gauge,” whispered his daughter.

“He has, willy-nilly, become our chief tool of investigation in this matter. There is no one else there who can find out what is afoot. Everything depends on what he is able to find out there.”

Ban Nephis burst forth with a question that had for some time been festering in the back of his mind.

“Why doesn’t the Dux take action to stop the teratorns?”

The Director gave him a piercing look.

“I’m afraid that the one who governs us knows that the primary point of potential opposition to him lies among the small landowners of Avia. As long as they remain weak and divided, their threat will remain neutralized.”

The daughter took up this same line of thought.

“The Dux relies upon Sud Lozon to keep a minority sector of the gentry loyal to him,” she slowly concluded. “The raptorials are supporters of the Dux and his absolute power in Avia.”

“Yes, while the rest of the farmers live in continual fear of raids from the sky,” muttered Dr. Talmon. “Our dictator is an extremely clever political operator, making everyone either afraid or beholden to him.”

Ban struck the tulipwood table top with his fist.

“What a devious rogue our dictator is! We must do whatever is possible to defeat him. But his evil mind is full of clever trickery.”

Saluma gave her father a look of emotional distress.

“Gauge will be in great danger when the raptorials assemble in convention if he takes any risky steps,” she gasped. “We must warn him about what is going on across Avia with this exploitation of teratorn depredation for political purposes.”

“Yes,” agreed the Director. “Everything depends upon the young man’s good judgment in what he does. He has to be both bold but also careful.”

No one dared add anything for a considerable time.

Urias Asaph’s favorite haunt in the city of Arom was the Auspex Center.

He loved combing through reel-viewers at the debriefings of operatives fresh out of the field. Everything learned in that rock-walled citadel of the hidden service was of some value, sooner or later, to the stability of his personal regime. He enjoyed the search for valuable but hidden information on his own.

The Dux especially enjoyed hearing or reading about the activities of those whose sworn duty was to serve his will and interests. What might some of them be concealing from him?

One particular cabinet member had been vexing him for a long while. The affairs of the Secretary of Nature posed special interest to the autocrat. His curiosity was focused in this particular person. What was he involved in beyond the eyes of his Leader?

Urias left his three bodyguards waiting in the corridor as he waddled into the unnumbered office set aside for his private sessions with field agents.

He sat down behind the spare torchwood desk, reaching over to a panel that signaled for the first operative with an interview scheduled to enter.

Within moments, a nondescript figure in gray business suit entered through a side door. He stood at attention in front of the desk, waiting for the dictator to begin to speak.

“You are in charge of surveillance of Daisan?” grumbled the Dux.

“That is correct, Your Greatness,” meekly replied the perspiring agent.

“Has he done anything of interest of late?”

“Indeed, he has. Shall I give details, Sir?”

“That is precisely why you were summoned here, my son.”

In the following minute, Urias Asaph learned of the Nature Secretary’s secret night walk from the raptorium to the Observatory Station. He heard of his supper with Dr. Azael Talmon and his daughter, along with two unidentified guests.

“The Secretary’s activities were highly suspicious, Glorious Dux.”

The latter gave the young agent an inquiring stare. “Anything else?”

Next the Dux heard about the aide sent to Dr. Talmon carrying a message.

“It seemed to be urgent, Sir,” gulped the undercover watcher.

“But we don’t have the contents of it, do we?”

“Unfortunately, that could not be obtained without causing alarm among the subjects under surveillance.”

“Yes, I can understand that. Anything else beyond what you have described for me?”

“For now, that is all, Your Greatness.”

“Very well, then. You are dismissed for now. You can return to your field duties. Report whatever you can find out about this man’s treachery.”

The room turned dead still when the young man in gray was gone. For a few seconds, the dictator appeared uncertain what to do next.

How totally loyal Cetab Daisan had seemed from the beginning. Nothing in his personal history indicated what might happen as he rose to high cabinet office.

Of all the many government executives, he turned out to be the major scheming traitor.

As soon as he decided on the fate of this important bureaucrat, the Dux pressed a tab that signaled the chief of the eradicator squad of the Auspex to report to him at once.

The dictator had decided what to do with the Secretary of Nature.

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