Exploring the Far Side Part II.

12 Aug

I.

Alol decided that he had to take the risk of himself making a detailed survey of government forces in Siopia City. What were the numbers and the strength of the army and the police in the capital? That would be a central question when the Shepherds’ League started the armed rebellion that its members spoke and dreamed of.

The leader of the secret organization found shelter in the outlying precinct called the Shepherds’ quarter, one of the oldest sectors of the expanded urban complex where the Voevod’s government had its center.

A neighborhood called a “dump” by the respectable inhabitants of the city was where Alol found a place to stay and rest, in a kind of shanty town of decrepit cabins, huts, cots, sheds, and hutches. Who would ever suspect that a dangerous rebel chieftain was hidden here?

Litter and debris filled the miserable streets and alleys of the forgotten outskirts where Alol occupied a small room in a poor, neglected old shack among the dwellings and shelters of fellow shepherds.

At night, he roamed about the streets of Siopia City, taking the measurement of all sections of the capital. The strength and positions of police offices was of interest to him.

Late one night after midnight, the insurgent ended up in a beer garden near the municipal park where trees had been planted generations before.

The place was crowded with patrons, mostly factory workers from the metal plants nearby that operated all day and night. Boisterous noises rose from the drinkers present.

Alol searched for a spot where he might sit alone, but the large room was too filled up for that. As a result, he had to take a seat at a tiny table across from a young man with curly blond hair and hazelnut eyes with a foreign look about his clothing.

It took a while before a waiter arrived to take his order. In the meantime, a conversation began between Alol and the strange-looking person opposite him.

“I take it that you are not a native of Siopia City,” slowly declared Alol, smiling warmly at the stranger facing him.

“That is correct,” replied Xexun. “To tell the truth, I was not even born in the land of Siopia.”

“Then that makes you a foreign visitor, my good man. I find that very interesting. But I have to tell you this: I was not born here in this city either. I come from the open grassland to the north, where I was employed as a kikaia, and before that as a simple choban, a shepherd to you.”

The waiter appeared, setting a mug of yellow alegar in front of Xexun, who picked it up at once and drew a full, long drink for himself.

Alol watched him with burgeoning interest. When the other put down his mug, the rebel asked him a question.

“We do not see too many people from outside here. May I ask you where you came from, as well as what it is that brings you to our country?”

The traveler gave Alol a friendly smile. “It is a simple matter for me to explain. Out of overpowering curiosity, I came here to see, hear, and experience as much as I can.

“I am hungry for knowledge. My aim is to come to know as much as I can, all that is possible for me to absorb into my mind and memory. This is a sort of instinctive drive for me. It has possessed my every waking minute, every instant and second of my existence. I am unable to escape from this personal obsession that controls and rules over me. It has overwhelming force to it.

“I want to find out and learn everything available out beyond myself. There can be no limit to what I crave to find out. This drive consumes me.

“That is why I came to this country of yours,” concluded Xexun with energetic enthusiasm in his words and in his facial expression.

Alol could feel a deep, powerful impression on himself by what the foreign stranger had just said to him. He had to find out more. It occurred to him that this individual could be of possible use to the movement that he was head of. He had to create ties with such a person.

“I need to tell you what my name is. You are probably curious to know that,” said the Siopian. “My name is Alol. We shepherds do not give ourselves more than one name to go by.”

“Xexun Kuom, that is what I myself go by.”

“We must meet again, that would be interesting to me, and I am certain to you as well. Can you be here, in this beer hall, tomorrow evening? I intend to come earlier than I did this evening.

“Are you free to meet with me and have a longer conversation?”

“Indeed,” replied Xexun with emphasis and enthusiasm.

In a few seconds, Alol finished his drink, excused himself, and left.

II.

Muco, sitting at his small laboratory desk, looked up to see who had walked into his work area.

It was the tall, gaunt body of the Preceptor, Gono Mlov, that stood beside him.

“I have a serious matter to inform you of,” began the one making the visit. “You are suspended from your employment for our research institution. Your services will no longer be needed. You will surrender all your keys and take your personal property out of here. Do not return here, or else the police will be summoned in order to evict you from the building. You are out for good and will not be accepted back.

“Do you understand what I am saying to you? Is the matter that has been decided clear to you?”

Gono glared at the research director with burning fire in his gray eyes.

Muco, for several seconds, appeared to be choking and was incapable of immediate speech. After a short spell, he began to utter words out of his throat.

“How can this be done to me? It is not right. It is unjust. I have always been a dutiful scientist who follows the rules of good research. How can I ever accept such ridiculous ousting from my work? What possible reason can there be for is being done to me.”

Gono Mlov was by now red in the face. “You have been disobedient, not giving your full time and energy to the important titanium project. This lack of faithful duty has grown ever more serious. It harms the entire metals program we are following. I call it shameful.

“Your dismissal is aimed at correcting the slowness you have brought to what has become primary in our laboratory, the development of a useable 2-D titanium which our country needs as soon as possible.”

Unable to continue due to the ire he felt, the Preceptor turned around and stalked away at a fast clip.

Troe sensed immediately that Muco was in a worried mood over some unidentified problem or trouble. The pair had come together in their accustomed meeting location, the tree garden near the Voevod’s residence in the center of the city.

“What is it, my love?” she asked him at once. “What is it bothering you so much? I can see it in your face and in your eyes.”

He hesitated, realizing how severely the news of his firing was going to affect her thoughts and feelings.

“I lost my position. I no longer work at the research laboratory. There was no reasonable cause given, except that I was expected to use all my time and energy while at work on the nano-titanium project, and nothing else.

“The Preceptor told me I was acting with too much personal independence.”

“That is terrible!” she said with a terrible gasp.

“The Preceptor came and told me that I was no more to work on anything at all having to do with 2-D, nano-technological work. I have lost his trust and he has thrown me out as a participant in any activity currently in progress.”

She started to shake a little as the news sank in. “That makes no sense, there is no reason for such drastic reaction.”

Muco made a sour face. “What future do I have? No one anywhere is going to hire me for any skilled kind of work. My name will be a poisoned one in every sense.

“What am I expected to do under these circumstances?” I ask myself and ponder. But there exists no practical alternatives for me. I have for a number of years devoted myself to 2-D inventions and nano-technological engineering of new substances and alloyed materials. Has all my work been for naught? Did I deceive myself into thinking that I would make an important contribution to Siopia’s industrial economy? Was I foolishly stupid?

“I wish I had an answer to this awful situation I have fallen into.”

The two lovers stared at each other for a considerable time. Finally, Troe spoke to him in a subdued, distant voice.

“You will find a way forward, out of the trap you have fallen into. I am deeply convinced of that, Muco. Everything is not yet lost.”

Xexun found his new acquaintance an intelligent, informed person who knew a lot about many different subjects.

“You must travel north into the hill country,” advised the older man. “You will find it a region with many amazing attractions and high spots. There are features there unlike any found elsewhere. You will be surprised by what you see and learn.”

The outlander unconsciously grinned as he formulated what he was about to say.

“Yes, I would like to see the different regions of your country and how people live in each one of them. And because sheep herding is so important in the economic existence and survival of so many of the inhabitants, it would be an enormous benefit to me to witness for myself how your shepherds nurture, raise, and use the flocks of sheep that they watch over. Whatever land one happens to visit for the first time, to observe what people do and accomplish in their everyday occupations is a great help in understanding them in general.

“Don’t you agree with that sentiment, Alol?”

The latter nodded his head with vigor, giving his pleased agreement with what the other had said.

“Indeed, you are a very perceptive traveler, my friend. Yes, you are correct about the enormous value there would be in understanding the life and culture of Siopia from a familiarity with our shepherds and their everyday work.

“I make a promise to you this evening: if you wish to acquaint yourself with our shepherds and what they do, I am the person best able to arrange for you to visit and talk with typical shepherds of our grasslands. Yes, as the leader of the national association that represents the interests of all our shepherds, I am placed at a central pivot where I can easily facilitate your quest for knowledge about that portion of our population.

“It would be extremely easy for me to bring you into contact with shepherds who would be able and willing to answer your questions about their work and their life.”

The hazelnut eyes of Xexun appeared to grow larger and brighter.

“I would certainly be indebted to you for providing me such contacts,” the explorer managed to say. “They would certainly be helpful to me.”

“Good!” reacted the shepherd leader. “Right here on the outskirts of this city, there is a neighborhood in which I myself reside that contains a good number of both working and retired shepherds. I will obtain their approval of contact with you and make the necessary arrangements. That will be my responsibility.

“Is that all right with you, then?”

“Of course it is,” replied Xexun with a quiet little laugh. “Quite all right.”

Voevod Dasa Tum looked up from the report he had been busy reading.

Gono Mlov was present in the ruler’s office for a special report on a subject of interest to both of them.

“Is the dismissal done?” asked the superior in authority.

“I completed it today,” reported the Preceptor with a degree of glee. “It was easy to accomplish and went quickly. The fellow has removed all his personal effects from the laboratory building. Good riddance I say. We won’t have him holding back our drive for 2-D titanium. That is now over for good.”

“That is my hope as well,” muttered Dasa in a thoughtful mood. He nodded his head and Gono realized it was time for him to turn around and depart.

Muco had fallen into profound, unending despair. What was he to do? Where was he to go? There were no jobs for him anywhere in Siopia City. Professional prospects were nil for him, he knew. He sensed a feeling of bottomless loss.

Going into a tavern near where he lived, Muco sat down in a far corner, as if trying to keep apart and alone. He ordered a drink of alegar and waited for it to be brought to him. The saddened researcher failed to notice that someone had sat down at his corner table in the crowded drinking chamber.

Muco looked up into the face of the stranger, who happened to be Alol, the leader of the Shepherds’ League.

The two men eyed each other in silence until Alol spoke.

“You look very troubled,” murmured the latter in a quiet tone. “What can be bothering you so deeply?”

“I lost my position,” said Muco in nearly a whisper. “There is no future for me in Siopia City, I am sure.

“But the woman whom I am in love with is here and cannot leave under any circumstances.”

The waiter brought Alol his beer. Before he took his first drink, he told Muco “There is always a way out, there is always some solution, my good man.”

Muco looked across with a desperate smile. “I only wish that what you say is possible.”

“Do not despair,” muttered Alol. “There are always people who can provide you some kind of help. Find them, and you will overcome any difficulty that you face.”

The pair stared silently at each other for a time.

III.

Alol showed Xexun how to find the little cottage where he was living, then arranged for him to visit the place at an evening hour when he could meet and talk with an old, retired shepherd whose name was Ranso.

The latter was a semi-crippled, small figure with pure white hair and large almond-colored eyes. He had pain and difficulty when he walked.

Once the two were seated by themselves on the rear porch extension of the rickety structure, Alol said good-bye and promised to be back from a nearby beer spot in about one hour.

We will have plenty of time to ourselves, Xexun told himself with relief.

He began by asking Ranso a direct, sensitive question.

“What is it that you most dislike about your many years as a grassland shepherd working for owners of herds?”

The old one surprised the young man with a broad smile. “I believe it was my total isolation, out there with so many sheep. It is perhaps bad of me to say, but in time I started to despite and hate the poor, innocent animals.

“I came to blame them for my lack of money, possessions, and resources of any kind. They seemed to be having a happier existence than I ever did. I had no family of my own, no wife or relatives. I was never going to have children of grandchildren, while these stupid beasts bred over and over, without limits of any sort.

“Was I jealous of the creatures who were never alone? Who were always members of something bigger and growing? Perhaps I was.

“I did not receive much support or aid from my fellow-shepherds, for I never became too friendly or intimate with them.

“My life was that of a lonely individual, with very few and extremely weak social ties of any sort. I sensed that the sheep I watched over had more value to owners, overseers, and kekaia than I would ever enjoy.

“I reached a point of not caring whether I lived and survived or died and disappeared for good. It was all the same and indifferent for me. So, I quit working and moved into this shepherds’ precinct to spend the rest of my days on the Secondary. That was what I decided.”

Xexun searched his mind for something comforting to tell the old shepherd, but could not find adequate words to do that. Instead, he excused himself and left the cottage to locate the tavern where Alol happened to be lounging at a back table.

“How did it go between you and Ranso?” asked the movement leader with curiosity.

“I learned only a little,” said the foreign traveler. “And that was not a big help to me in understanding life out in the grasslands of Siopia.”

“You will have another opportunity with someone different,” promised Alol.

Xexun sat down and had a mug of brew with his new friend.

IV.

Was it only a matter of time till their trysts in the tree park were noticed and reported to the highest authorities?

Neither Troe nor Muco were taking the smallest precautions to conceal from view their periodic meetings. Both of them appeared to be growing increasingly careless about what third or fourth parties might pick up upon seeing the two of them together.

The person who happened to notice their conversation one afternoon was a minor bureaucrat in the Street Repair Department. He was able to identify the daughter of the all-powerful Voevod, but had no idea who the tall, skinny young man talking to her might be. He informed his immediate supervisor, who at once realized how important this bit of news might be and how it could be of benefit to his own personal career in street repairing.

The Bureau of Detectives learned what had occurred in the park, and a hunt for more information was on. A special undercover squad was assigned for this important, sensitive operation and at once went into operation. All entrances into the park in question came to be watched by characters who looked like ordinary city inhabitants and were inconspicuous in every conceivable way.

The very first day of surveillance, both Troe and her lover were caught in this net of observers. The unidentified male talking so intimately and so long with the Voevod’s only child was tailed when he left the park. His name appeared on the name plate of his apartment in the center of Siopia City.

The officers in the Department of Police who gathered and consolidated all of the growing amount of information composed one single, general report meant to provide the Voevod with what had been learned. It was purposely phrased in bland, emotionless language without any direct, unproven allegations or accusations in it.

The first piece of paper that the ruler read early the next morning was this revelation about his daughter’s secret links to a newly-fired scientific researcher. It was something that ignited his most primal emotions.

The second shepherd whom Xexun met with in the cottage where Alol lived was a young man named Deto who had an interesting tale to tell the foreign visitor.

“I entered the herding field as merely a boy, because I was an orphan who had three uncles who were veteran shepherds. They helped to fend and look out for me and introduced me to the skills and the lore of the simple guardian of sheep. For one of my age, it was a satisfying life. I took to it at once and was eager to learn all that I could from my close relatives. It was a time of unending joy for me.

“The low level of compensation that I received for my services did not start to bother me until I was chosen by the owner of the enormous herd that we tended to become a novice kikaia. The others of that rank were incensed and angered by their lack of resources and possessions, and I naturally picked this type of feeling of indignation from them. The more I learned of the requirements and responsibilities of my new craft, the more I joined in the emotions and opinions of the more senior kikaias around me.

“The result was that I joined as a member of the Sherpherds’ League as soon as it was organized in our district of Northern Siopia. I did not hesitate at all, for I was young, fearless, and enthusiastic for justice and a better life for me and my comrades.

“I stood in the forefront of all our local activities and was willing to carry out any mission assigned to me. And that was how I fell into serious trouble with our sheep-owner and the police of our grassland district.

“Complaints were made about my activities in mobilizing and inspiring the simple shepherds whom I was able to reach and have an effect on. I fell under great suspicion.

“The police jailed me as a dangerous agitator not just once, but on three different occasions. I became a notorious figure among the owners and the authorities. What was I to do?

“It was the arrival of Alol in our area that provided a solution to my difficulties. Our leader asked me to join him on his circuits about the geasslands as his personal assistant. This was a blessing to me, because I could now escape from my locality and work on a higher level that encompassed the whole of Siopia. I became a part of an extensive network of thought and action. I was able to learn more and more about general conditions and circumstances in a multitude of regions and specific places.

“Because our leader is now here in the capital, surveying the situation of things in this city, I am busy helping him as best I can. My task is to roam about and meet as many persons as I can. My special interest is in lower echelon government employees who carry information of value to our movement.
My aim is to become able to forewarn our local people if they are about to suffer assault or invasion by police, or even the national army of the Voevod.

“The matters that I learn about can in the future become valuable to the success and even the survival of the Shepherds’ League.

“That is the reason I am happy to act as extra ears and eyes for Alol in his campaign to help and elevate the numerous chobani shepherds of this land. I am engaged in something of great future value, of that I am completely certain.”

Xexun began to understand the influence that Alol exercised over thousands and thousands of individuals connected to the herding of sheep in Siopia.

The Voevod realized that he had to take some action to put an end to what was going on, but which side of the romantic relationship should he deal with first?

Should he turn to his daughter or was it better to somehow keep the scientist away from contact with her?

Was it wise to have her lover arrested, or should he only have him watched by undercover agents, probably the police?

Dasa decided that his first step must be to prevent Troe from departing from their building of residence for any purpose at all. The daughter had to be confined and locked up within their spacious public living quarters. That had to be accomplished as rapidly as at all possible.

He would then have the opportunity to think out a plan to take care of the problem posed by the scientist who had taken strong hold of the young woman’s heart. That had to be a secondary subject, yet still important for her future protection and well-being.

The Voevod decided to leave his executive office and hurry home so that he could see and have the matter out with her.

Anger boiled and surged through his mind and every one of his physical organs.

Troe saw her father’s official grand motor-carriage move slowly up to the front entrance of the mansion residence. She happened to be close to the bedroom window looking out in that specific direction.

What did this mean? Why had he left his office duties to return home so early in the day?

She sat down with a romantic novel in her hands, opened it, but found that she was too worried to be able to concentrate on any written work of any sort.

What is going on with my father? she asked herself, almost with a vague suspicion that something fateful was in the process of taking place.

Troe heard her father’s heavy footsteps up the main stairway and along the upstairs central hallway. The sound grew louder and more distinct. Was he going to his own bedroom, or did he wish to see and talk to her? the daughter wondered with rising anxiety.

The footsteps stopped, and she could tell that soon she would have to face him. What was on his mind? She suffered a clouded fear that he may have discovered some facet of her great secret, he may have uncovered the identity of Muco, the person she was in love with.

A single knock on the door was all that he father gave as forewarning before he opened it and made his way in with strength and vigor.

The short, small ruler of Siopia gave no word of greeting, but marched directly over to where she sat with the novel now in her lap.

What was he going to say? His face had an icy aura to it, as if he had exhausted himself with thoughts or emotions.

Troe told herself to expect a terrible event on the verge of occurrence.

“I know,” he said in a low moan. “I know everything. This snake of a scientist. Your rendezvous with him in the park. Talking to him in a shameful manner. I have had all of it reported to me. Nothing can any longer be concealed. I know what you happen to be up to.

“Why did you allow him to do this to you? How did he succeed in seducing you? Are you so naïve, so innocent of what men like him are after, what they want from a young woman like you?

“What has he asked you to do for him? How far have your relations to each other advanced? Tell me the truth, do not attempt any lies, for I will detect and disbelieve all of them.”

He momentarily halted, his breath rapid and heavy, his heart wildly pounding.

“Do not try to go out of the residence. I am ordering all the doors locked. There shall be no way of escaping from our house, none at all.

“For now, that is all. I will have more to tell you later on today. I myself am too troubled and upset to do anything at all. I am going to my room and try to take a nap, if I can. I order you not to leave this upstairs floor. Do not even go downstairs. I am ashamed of what you have done.”

“That is all for now,” he finished, turning about and stalking out of his daughter’s personal room.

V.

Muco sat down on a silicon bench in the park that he and Troe were so familiar with.

He expected a short period of waiting till the woman he loved appeared, but the time passed on further and further without any sign of her.

He started to grow worried. Why was she absent? Was there some obstacle, like interference from her father, the Voevod? The situation was a mysterious puzzle.

There was no explanation that he could place any confidence on, so he continued sitting where he was.

Is there anything else that I can do about this painful surprise? Muco asked himself again and again. But he had no answer to that question.

Troe was aware of her lover’s problem understanding her absence from the park.

She had to do something to inform him about her father’s discovering their romantic connection.

After a long period of speculative consideration, a solution occurred to her.

The house prisoner went to her desk, took a pen and paper, and wrote a note of explanation to Muco. But how was she going to deliver it to him?

As soon as the message was finished, she folded it and placed the paper in an envelope. Then she summoned the house servant who assisted her as a personal maid of sorts.

On the envelope Trois had placed the address of her lover. She was thankful that she was able to remember what it was.

“Take this in your coat pocket and deliver it to the address that I put on it,” she commanded the young girl. “Do not show it to anyone, but keep it well hidden until it is delivered to that address. Do you understand?”

The servant nodded yes, then turned around and left the bedroom.

Troe sat down to rest. Would Muco get the explanation and warning?

The unemployed scientist opened and read the envelope, learning what had happened to Troe.

He felt himself beginning to shake. What was he going to do? What was still possible to save both himself and the daughter of the ruler?

Was there any way to resist the awful power of the Voevod? He racked his mind in his search for an answer.

Was there anyone he knew who could provide him any aid or even advice?

His thoughts came to focus upon a man he had only recently become acquainted with.

What was the shepherd leader, the one called Alol, capable of accomplishing?

Was there anybody else he could talk with at this juncture of events?

Muco decided to go that evening to the tavern where he had met a number of times with the strange underground figure who was organizing the shepherds of Siopia for rebellion of some sort.

Was there any other possible hope for Troe and himself?

Xexun felt that he had lost his way in attempting to understand the shepherds of the Siopian grasslands. Ranso had drawn a picture of pain and misery. But Deto had described his rhapsodic enthusiasm in the daily routines of herding the great flocks of animals. Which interpretation was the accurate one? What should an outsider from the Primary believe?

Can both versions and viewpoints be true? he wondered. Was the reality about life on the Back Side of the Secondary equally realistic? Can truth about foreign countries be manifold and ambiguous? wondered the visiting explorer.

I have to talk with someone with experience and knowledge, Xexun decided.

It was already evening, so it was possible to look around and locate the shepherd leader he knew in one of the taverns that the man liked to frequent.

VI.

The Bureau of Detectives had undercover operatives watching the lover of the Voevod’s daughter all day long.

They kept their eyes on Muco while he waited in the tree park, then followed him home to his apartment. From there, he had headed for a tavern near the edge of Siopia City. A small crew of disguised detectives stood around this establishment but did not send anyone in immediately. They waited for instructions from superiors at headquarters to guide their further steps.

In time, word came by portable phone to send in one of the agents able to blend into the low-ranked clientele of the tavern in order to determine what the object of investigation might be up to inside.

In the meantime, the scientist had found Alol sitting and talking with a stranger he had never seen before.

“Let me introduce you to a visitor to our country,” said the shepherd leader with a smile. “This is Xexun Kuom and he came to Siopia and the Far Side from Antique City on the Near Side. He is a student of both geography and ethnology. His mission among us is to find out and learn as much as he can about what makes our life here different and unique. He is a very bright and knowledgeable young man.

“Sit down with us and have yourself a mug of alegar with us. It is extremely good tonight, let me tell you.

“Xexun is a trusted friend of mine and I have total confidence in him.

“We speak to each other in total candor, and you can do the same if you wish.”

Assured of the one he did not know, Muco sat down opposite the two at the table and began to tell them his tragic tale of how his love affair had been uncovered by others.

“My heart belongs to the daughter and only child of Voevod Dasa Tum. He now holds her against her will inside the official residence that they live in. And I am forbidden to see or meet with her. I live under threat of arrest and imprisonment at any time that such an order is issued by some police authority or the Voevod himself.

“What can I do? It appears to me that there exists no opportunity for the rescue of my beloved from the circumstances she is now in. Our future is a dark and tragic one, I must conclude. There is nothing but tragedy ahead for us.”

Alol reached across the small circular table and placed his hand on the forearm of Muco.

“Do not despair, my friend. There must be a means of liberating this young woman from the clutches of her father.”

“But what can be done after that?” questioned the anxious scientist. “Where can she and I go that her father cannot find and punish us? It is a hopeless situation that she and I both face. There seems to be no way out for us.”

A stubborn expression crossed the face of the rebel. “Not necessarily,” he softly murmured. “There are ways of carrying out things that at first appear to be impossible. We must consider the situation seriously.”

It was Xexun who then asked an important question. “You are thinking of a direct action that may be in great conflict with the authorities and the laws they claim to be enforcing over everyone else?”

Alol turned his head and eyes on the foreigner. He pronounced a single word.

“Precisely.”

He turned back to Muco and presented a question of his own.

“Are you prepared to take a desperate risk for the sake of this woman locked up in the Voevod’s residence?”

Muco nodded and voiced his firm acceptance of a dangerous course of action.

Alol suddenly shot up to his feet. “Stay here until this tavern closes. I am going to make some secret arrangements that I will describe to you later.

“Trust me. I know how to rescue her.”

He turned to Xexun, surprising him with the instructions he now gave.

“Stay with our friend and talk with him till I return,” he whispered.

A strong current of emotion took hold of the visitor from the Primary.

“I beg to be able to help in anything that will have to be done,” he said to the other two, looking from Alol to Muco, then back again at the shepherd chief.

“Thank you,” muttered Alol as he started to walk out of the tavern, paying the surprised waiter at an unusually early hour of the night.

Left alone, Xexun and Muco took sips of their alegar and started to converse about other, unimportant matters.

“What do you think of our Siopian grasslands?” inquired Muco.

“I have seen only a very small part of them,” replied the traveler, “but my hope is to get around and experience much more of your beautiful countryside. My goal is to learn as much as I can about Siopia and its people. I am deeply interested in uncovering as much as is possible while I am here.”

Under regulations created by the Voevod, only the police and the army had permission to use portable magneto-phones. No private citizen had the right to own or use such means of communication, but were limited to wire lines.

The detectives watching the front of the tavern that Muco had entered had one officer with a portable in his suit pocket. He made periodic reports on what the group was up to, directed to a headquarters center of surveillance.

When Alol exited the tavern’s front door, none of the police crew recognized who he was, a shepherd agitator and leader.

But he at once knew who they were and what their mission had to be.

They had somehow tailed the scientist inside the place and where now waiting for their target to walk out.

Alol walked briskly and did not look back at the spot where the detectives were standing.

As soon as he reached the next street he breathed with relief.

His task had become more urgent, for the dangers were much greater than even he had anticipated from what Muco had related to him.

VII.

The pair sitting in the tavern continued drinking into the late hours, waiting for the place to close or for the return of Alol. Muco described what his work had been in the laboratory and the hopes he held for his original direction of inquiry and invention.

“The special secret of science in Siopia has rested in extreme miniaturization. We take natural materials such as metals and make exotic new substances out of them. Our products are reduced to the molecular and even atomic level of thickness, and then laminated and combined into sheets of multiple two-dimensional layers. Properties never possessed before appear in these nano-technological marvels of ours.

“My original theoretical project is to do to wool and other textiles what has up to now been achieved in the area of solid metallic materials. I have tried to process sheeps’ wool into a new kind of fabric. Microscopic-sized fibers of wool are to be woven into what I call an electronic material. It can become the basis of a new system of power transmission, messaging, and data processing. That is my goal, though I realize it is a very distant one.”

“And that plan of yours is what got you into trouble with the Preceptor and the Voevod?” asked Xexun with evident sympathy.

“My dream led to my firing, on the accusation that I was neglecting research into two-dimensional sheets of titanium. But then the authorities uncovered my ties to the Voevod’s one daughter and reported this to him. That was the cause of the trouble that my lover and I are now suffering.

“I have been turned into a fugitive from the police, an outlaw of sorts. It is hard to see any way out of the situation I have fallen into. It is hopeless, I fear.”

Xexun drew a long, deep breath. “You will have to trust that Alol can find a way out for you, Muco,” he quietly said.

The number of patrons in the tavern had declined to only a scattered few when Alol appeared from the rear section where barrels of beverages were stored.

Both Muco and Xexun were surprised by the direction from which their comrade was entering. The shepherd leader made his way over to them with hurried steps and addressed them at once with a commanding voice.

“Follow me out of here through the rear door,” he sharply told them. “I will explain it all later, but this is necessary in order to keep us safe.”

Alol spun around and started to head back the way he had come. The other two did as commanded, following close behind him.

None of the waiters said a word as the trio passed by them and exited from the tavern, into an lightless alley behind the almost empty tavern.

Alol led the way further and further away, until he entered a small neighborhood park area. He stopped, turned about, and whispered to the others.

“Police detectives were watching the front, so we had to leave through the back door. But I believe we are now safe from that crew of watchers.

“I was busy because I made arrangements to obtain a large motorvan for us. Come morning, we will drive it up to the delivery door at the back of the Voevod’s residence mansion and provide a means by which his daughter can flee with us. That is the final and best way to escape a disaster.

“Then we head out of Siopia City into the open grassland. With luck, the escape will turn out successful. I intend this not to be a failure, and neither should either of you.”

Xexun and Muco were silent, overwhelmed by what they had just been told.

VIII.

The Voevod, an early riser, left for his executive office in the central administrative building as dawn was breaking, along with his squad of guards. Troe was alone in the residence with a few of the kitchen staff.

A large wagon-van with no markings on it rolled up the rear alley behind the mansion and parked at the delivery door next to the huge kitchen chamber.

Ranso and Deto, dressed in ordinary work outfits, left the vehicle and knocked at the delivery door. Ranso informed the cook who answered their ringing the door bell that they had supplies to deliver. The two shepherds made their way into the kitchen, where they instantly took complete command.

Within seconds, Alol and Muco entered the building the same way. Followed by the first two who had walked in, they headed up the back utility stairs to the upper floor where the bedrooms were located. It took less that a minute to locate where Troe lay in her bed.

Muco told her the purpose of his presence that surprised and shocked her.

“This is our opportunity to liberate you from this imprisonment you are undergoing, my love. Get dressed and come with me, with us. It will be safe, for we have a good motorvan waiting to take you away from here.

“Come with me and the two of us will find a new life to live in safety. We can make it over the border to where you cannot be hauled back by your parent. You and I will be safe and live a better life once we are out of Siopia.

“Both of us will be free to dwell in peace and harmony. Our lives will become a united life shared in common. But we must not waste time, not a single second, my dear one.”

He looked directly into the face of his lover, at her cloudy gray eyes.

She moved out of bed, onto her feet. “Give me a few seconds to take some clothes that I can carry along with me,” she told him. “I will dress myself once we are some distance away. That will be the best for all of us.”

She rushed over to her wardrobe, opened the door, and grabbed hold of a few of the clothing items that she meant to take with her in this escape.

Muco led his beloved one out of the bedroom once she had hold of what she chose to take away with her.

The motorvan quickly reached the periphery of the capital. Troe went into a shepherd cabin and changed into a day dress, then came back and climbed into the back of the lorry, where Alol, Muco, and Xexun sat on a bench attached to its sides.

Troe sat down next to Muco and asked him a question. “Where are we going to flee to?” she murmured to him.

“We intend to take the main highway northward, making it over the border into Tikvia. That will be our destination.”

Alol continued the explanation. “There are sympathizers there who will provide protection for all of us. The hands of the Siopian government cannot reach us there. I am certain of that. We will have security and safety. Do not doubt that, Miss.”

Troe smiled, turning to Muco. “We will be together there, that is what is most important for me.”

The driver, a member of the Shepherds’ League, headed for the smoothly paved highway that would carry them to another, different country.

Alol ordered that the motorvan make periodic stops at shepherd hamlets along the route leading to the northern border of Siopia.

Food was provided the occupants of the large vehicle by supporters of the Shepherds’ League and its now roving leader.

“I believe that the Voevod has ordered the police to search for his daughter within Siopia City and its immediate vicinity,” opined Alol to the other passengers. “He will not see us as making a flight into neighboring Tikvia.”

“I hope you are correct on that,” sighed Muco. “We still have a considerable distance of highway to pass.”

As their wheels rolled forward away from the capital, Troe often glanced at Xexun, wondering at his presence and the character of his connection with the shepherds’ movement.”

On his own initiative, the traveler from the Primary decided to furnish an explanation of why he was part of their party on the road.

“I am traveling with your group because I have deep sympathy for you and Muco, as well as agreement with the goals and purposes of the organization founded and led by Alol.

“Both of these individuals have become my dear and valued friends. So, I volunteered to join them and become a part of their rescue crew.

“I am not a Siopian, not even a native of the Far Side of the Secondary, but I have been propelled by a type of wanderlust, an unlimited curiosity to see countries I am not familiar with. My goal is to learn what I can from the inhabitants of each one I go to. Since I expect to be alive for a goodly number of years, I dream of learning from direct experience how other people solve the problems of living. It has been very interesting to me, seeing and understanding what motivates the population of this land, especially the friendly, honest shepherds I have found here in Siopia.

“My dream is to develop myself, both inside and socially, to the highest degree that is possible. I find that exploratory travel is more helpful in that than any printed books or studies about distant places.

“I wish to see new locations and methods of survival for myself.

“Does what I say make any sense?”

Troe replied with a warm smile and the statement “Yes, it does.”

The landscape grew hillier as the grand highway neared the border of Tikvia.

Alol spoke to Muco, Troe, and Xexun in a low, solemn voice, announcing the specific plans he had formulated for them and himself.

“I shall not be crossing over the frontier with you, but intend to stay here in Siopia to carry out the duties and responsibilities I have taken on for the cause of our shepherds. But the three of you will be able to move forward with safety, for you do not have to show yourselves to any border officials or police guards whatsoever.

“Arrangements are in place to have a smuggler of long experience escort your group over into the other country. A smaller vehicle, a motor-wagon, will meet us in a designated shepherd village. You shall transfer from this van to that passenger carrier, and it will follow an old, nearly vanished unpaved trail over in Tikvia.

“It is a secure means of getting people like you out of Siopia. No one will interfere with your passage out of our country.”

The motorvan left the highway and made its way to the village of border smugglers. The motor-wagon waited there to take them on, the driver an experienced veteran in illegal traffic and trade.

Alol shook hands with each of the three travelers. All four individuals felt a mixture of sadness at parting but anticipation of good things awaiting them over the boundary line.

The driver turned on the battery-powered motor and the passengers looked ahead to catch their first view of Tikvia.

Part III.

I.

The southern region of Tikvia contained belts of cotton, flax, and silk production in fields full of mulberry trees. Sericulture with silk worms had deep roots here, with farms that for generations had depended upon colonies of species of the Bombyx insect.

Xexun, Troe, and Muco found an inn with room vacancies in the first village they entered beyond the border. All three were determined to rest up after their long motorvan ride from Siopia City. The motor-wagon deposited them and the smuggler-driver departed.

“We will charge our future course tomorrow, once we are fully rested,” said Muco to his two companions once they had rented rooms in the small, old-fashioned rural inn.

Early the following morning, Xexun was the first to arise, going out to walk, exercise, and have a look around the first locality for him to see in this country new to him.

On all four sides of the village lay fields with white, fluffy cotton plants visible. That appeared to be the primary product of this particular area.

Xexun stood looking out and admiring the fine color and high growth of the cotton plants, when he heard a familiar voice address him from behind.

“It appears that the local farms have a very fine crop of cotton this year.”

The man from the Primary whirled about and found himself facing the Siopian scientist, Muco Goe.

“I woke up and decided to have a look around the village and the surrounding fields of cotton,” explained the tall, haggard researcher. “My great passion in nano-technological advancement is in the development of magneto-electronic nano-fibers that can be worn by humans in their garments. Before my dismissal, I was engaged in searching for appropriate varieties of textiles. My testing had taken in cotton, wool, and flax.

“I still have a lot of hope in cotton fabrics, but experienced much difficulty in applications of nano-wool.

“Then I had to halt my work, since I lost my laboratory post.”

Xexun decided to question his companion about his plans.

“What if you succeed in continuing your project here in Tikvia? Which textiles would you concentrate upon?”

Muco grinned with unexpected joy. “I think that I would wish to continue what I have started to do with cotton. But the presence of abundant amounts of silk production here in Tikvia would tempt me to have a look at the possibilities in that particular substance.

“Yes, I think I would want to make tests of what can be done using silk fibers.”

Xexun gave a nod of approval. “You are indeed ambitious and hopeful, my friend. But for now, we have to find a way of taking ourselves further into this country. Perhaps we can hire someone with a vehicle to carry us on.”

Muco laughed. “But first, I am hungry. You may also be so. Let’s go back to the inn and find out if Troe is up. And have some breakfast together with her.”

The innkeeper served the three travelers who had come from Siopia into Tikvia a generous meal of native mekitsi and palachinki. Near the end, as each was growing full and satisfied, Muco asked the owner of the inn an important question.

“It is our goal to reach the main city of this section of your country, and that is Avilia. Can you make contact with some person with a motor-carriage who might be willing to take us there? We are able to pay that individual a good amount for the expense of time and battery energy that would be involved in making such a trip for us.”

Their host laughed and gave a smile. “The one person with a good wagon is our mayor, and he goes to Avilia often. I can make an inquiry to learn when he plans his next journey there. He certainly would be agreeable to taking the three of you to that city. I can go and ask him right now. Please excuse me.”

With that, the innkeeper went to the entrance to his establishment and exited.

Muco and Xexun looked at each other. Then both of them turned to Troe.

“We shall soon be in that major Tikvian center,” she smiled at the two.

_

Fields of white stood on both sides of the narrow farm road. No one could doubt that this was cotton territory. The growing season was the right length, frosts arrived late, there was plenty of solar light, and rainfall was moderate and scattered over several months.

The old battery vehicle, driven by the village mayor, advanced at a slow rate of speed toward the urban skyscape in the distance. The towers of Avilia’s downtown business area became ever higher as they neared ever closer.

Muco related his plans to Troe and Xexun.

“Over the last several years, I have exchanged correspondence with a number of scientists at the Cotton Institute, where research on that textile material and the plant producing it goes on. They know many details of the work I did at the laboratory in Siopia City, and showed much interest in the direction that I was taking in nano-chemistry, that included the future use of cotton in magneto-electronic communications and energy generation.

“I intend to make a personal visit to the Institute in Avilia so I can restore my old ties with these people. And if I offer to work under their supervision, they may agree to sponsor and keep me as one of their employees.

“That is my sincere, heartfelt hope.”

Troe was the one who replied to what he had just confessed to them.

“It would be wonderful if these people supported the research that you were not permitted to continue with back home in Siopia, my dear.”

“Yes, indeed,” added Xexun, sitting in front with the mayor who was driving.

II.

In a hotel on the edge of the city of Avilia, the three travelers rented two apartments, one for Xexun and a larger one shared by the escapee couple.

The next morning, after many hours of resting, Muco announced he was going to visit the offices of the Cotton Institute and present an application to affiliate with them in the area of research he had described for several of their leading scientists over several years.

The Institute occupied a concrete building in the central industrial section of Avilia. The original look of its structure was due to the circular shape and declining space of each rising storey. A security officer at the entrance guided Muco to a lifter that took him to the executive section on the tenth floor. Here, a secretary led him to the personal office of Director Opto Guiuh, the top officer of the organization.

Guiuh was a heavy figure of medium height. He resembled many Tikvians with his whitish yellow hair and dark green eyes.

The Director rose from his lengthy nano-aluminum desk and approached his visitor, extending his hand so that the two of them could greet each other by shaking.

“Welcome to Tikvia, your reputation as a scientist has preceded you here to Avilia. We know who you are and the work that you have carried through for a considerable time. And we are quite aware of the reason that you had to leave Siopia, but I shall not speak of that at all. That is your business and none of ours here at the Cotton Institute.

“Please, let us sit down and discuss what we can do for you and vice,-versa,” said the Director with the hint of a silent laugh.

When they were seated on sofas opposite each other around a polymer table, the pair stared at each other for a short spell, as if sizing up the situation of the other man.

“I brought only very limited monetary resources along with me,” confessed Muco. “There is a pressing need for a job and work on my part, because I am not present here alone. That is why I came first to your Institute. This facility and institution is where I prefer to be engaged, because I am aware of your resources and research programs and believe that I can contribute to your aims and purposes, sir.”

He gave Opto Quiuh a focused, steady gaze, waiting for what reply he would make to his proposal.

The Director broke out in a joyful smile. “Yes, I believe you fit in perfectly with our plans and our programs of research. You are precisely the kind of individual that we need and have been hunting for.

“It will be the good fortune of the Cotton Institute to hire you and avail itself of your talents. Welcome into our organization. We can determine at what rate you will receive payment as soon as you begin working on a specific, defined assignment. That will begin in good time, I assure you.

“This morning, I shall place one of our chief research captains in charge of you, and he will take you on a tour of our laboratories. Most of them are right here in this headquarters building of ours.

“If there are no questions at this time, I shall ring to summon your chosen guide to our research facilities.”

The Director rose to his feet, followed by Muco.

My future as a scientist in this country is assured, the latter told himself with relief.

Xexun and Troe took a walk around the central district of Avilia. Both of them were curious about the flavor and the mood of everyday life in the land called Tikvia.

It was impossible for either of them to ignore one simple fact about what went on here: the inhabitants were obsessed with gambling and risk-taking activities of many sorts. That was the principle interest of many of them.

The two came upon betting parlors dedicated to horse races, field sports, and stock market averages and statistics of all sorts. They passed a crowded bingo hall full of nervous excitement and amateur roulette table chambers. Bright gas lighting from neon, argon, helium, xenon, krypton, and mercury vapor lamps was visible on both sides of the central streets. It was a noisy, colorful atmosphere here.

“I would estimate that every street in the downtown business area contains some form of gaming or gambling action,” marveled Xexun. “And they are packed with eager customers, every single one of them.

“Do the Tikvians spend all their free time in trying to win money through games and risky adventures of many kinds?” he asked, not expecting any answer or explanation from the woman accompanying him.

“We have seen enough and learned something important about life in this land,” muttered Troe. “Let’s go back to our hotel. Muco may have come back by now.”

Muco gave the good news to Troe and Xexun.

“I have been hired, and start work immediately.

“It is amazing how much advanced work is going on at the Cotton Institute, particularly in my own area of textile nano-chemistry. There has been a focus on imbedding various varieties of nanoparticles within cotton fabrics.

“The researchers there have had spectacular successes using molecules of copper, gold, palladium, and aluminum. Zinc oxide has been especially useful in laying tiny electrical circuits with very high conductivity with cotton materials. Layer-by-layer structures are now possible at the molecular level, with the function and the goal of protection from bacteria, water resistance, odor and moisture elimination, plus the greater strength and elasticity of the textile fabric.

“The scientists can even make a cotton composite that protects a person from the ultra-violet rays of the solar.” Muco grinned. “I was told that I will be working on electrospinning of new combinations of nano-particles into cotton fabrics and garments. My assignment is still not decided yet, though.”

Troe gazed at him with curiosity. “I take it, then, that there will be no opportunity for you to work with other textiles, like wool or silk.”

Muco smiled at her. “After all, this is the Cotton Institute and cotton is the main textile grown here in Tikvia, isn’t it?”

That appeared to end any more discussion of his future course of research.

The trio went out to eat that evening, looking for some interesting and inviting restaurant to try out. “Let’s eat at that place down the street that calls itself the Village Inn. It sounds like it might offer us some native Tikvian cuisine,” proposed Troe as they walked along a street with lottery shops and mechanico-electronic machine games.

The three went into the crowded eatery and found a vacant table near the kitchen door. A waiter approached them and distributed menus to each of them.

They took their time studying the unfamiliar choices and items.

Muco gave a sudden laugh. “I see that they have imported lamb from back home in Siopia. It appears that these people like foreign dishes that have a good taste to them. But I imagine we want to try something new to us, a food native to this particular country. But I don’t know which of them I should choose and try. What do you think, Troe?” He turned his head and his eyes toward her.

She laughed a little. “They seem to like to eat their birds here. I think I’ll try the cottontail rabbit roast. That sounds appetizing. Who can say? It may turn out to be quite delicious. And it seems fitting, since we happen to be in a land that basks and thrives on the growing and processing of that material.”

“I guess we are going to be seeing a lot of cotton here, aren’t we, Muco?” said Xexun with a good-humored smile.

“Yes, it certainly looks that way,” murmured the scientist with a quick grimace that instantly disappeared.

III.

Muco experienced an intellectual illumination when he met and became acquainted with Dr. Setem Alta at the Cotton Institute.

The agricultural geneticist was on a visit connected to his professional advice to researchers like Muco. The two were introduced to each other by a supervising researcher and spoke for a time in a conference room not being used at the time.

Alta was an extremely short, small man with a bald head and emerald-like eyes. He described the work he was engaged in that concerned new varieties of cotton.

“I and my crew are involved in complex genetic research that centers on placing transgenic traits into existing species of cotton.

“We have, so far, succeeded in developing strains of cotton that are better suited to upland territory in Tikvia. At the present time, our goal is to find combinations of genetic traits that allow the plant to mature in less than a hundred days, which would be optimum for what are known as the drylands of our northeastern regions.

“There have been notable successes on our part in magnificent increases in yield per acre. Control over insect pests has resulted from much of the work we have done, as well as increased defense against harmful weeds.”

Muco looked with understanding and appreciation at the fellow-scientist.

“Everything you have described for me is encouraging and inspiring, sir. You have today provided me a great amount of good news about the possible results of the research that all of us, including me, are engaged in.”

The two agreed to see each other that evening, after work at the Cotton Institute was finished for the day.

“I want my wife and a friend of ours to meet you, Doctor. Can we have dinner together somewhere, the four of us?”

“Of course,” agreed the brilliant, successful geneticist. “It will make me happy to meet such interesting people. Indeed, it will.”

The meeting with Setem Alta occurred in a restaurant that specialized in prized Tikvian big game from the country’s high hills.

As soon as everyone was nearly finished with the meal, Muco asked the main guest an important question.

“How do you see the future of cotton agriculture here in Tikvia, sir?”

Alta smiled, for he had been asked to discuss his chief professional point of interest.

“I would say that there will occur revolutionary changes, but there is valid reason to be skeptical of predictions that sound too optimistic and rosy. The reason I have such doubt about our future is due to the political situation in this land of mine. There are insuperable forces of colossal influence and power arrayed against changes that might appear dangerous to their leading positions. They are capable of vetoing the application of genetic innovations that threaten too drastic or radical a rearrangement of the traditional method of using cotton.

“Only changes considered safe and congruent with what now exists will ever be allowed to take root in this country. I guarantee that.”

The geneticist gave Muco a saddened, depressed expression.

All of a sudden, Troe asked their guest a question.

“Dare you name for us who or what these negative forces in society might be? What is the nature of their selfish caution about great genetic changes in cotton production?”

Alta turned his face and emerald eyes on Troe.

“As you know and can see for yourself, one of our major activities in Tikvia lies in the area of gambling. It takes a multitude of different forms, but is organized in a single, unified confederation of economic interests know by everyone as the Syndicate.

“A single group of top leaders and managers rules over every particular form, from money-machines to horse racing to lotteries and policy games. Nothing is left out. Even brokers who deal in the stock market can be included as parts of the overall structure of the Syndicate.

“The bosses who own and dominate gambling have greater influence over the banks and the financial system than the latter interests have over them. No doubt about that. Anyone who knows anything recognizes the truth of what I am telling you.

“And the Syndicate happens to be the most important and powerful opponent of overall genetic innovation of our main agricultural product, raw cotton.

“They want textiles to remain controllable by themselves, so their ideas about cotton tend to be conservative and traditional ones.”

“That can be tragic for your country’s future economy,” opined Xexun, silent until then.

Setem Alta turned to him. “Yes, that is the awful truth we have to face here in Tikvia.”

The four seen departed, the geneticist going his own way. Muco, Troe, and Xexun walked to their hotel in silence, each of them thinking about what they had just been told.

Only back in the rooms of Troe and Muco did the subject brought up by the geneticist become the center of serious discussion.

“What does it mean?” Troe asked her lover. “I now have great fears for your independent search for the new and unknown, my dear.” She stared directly at Muco with her gray eyes. “How is this situation going to affect you in the years to come, when you explore questions and subjects that you have to beg for permission to deal with? Your position may turn out to be uncomfortable, I fear.”

Xexun looked to Muco, curious to find out how he would reply to what she had said.

“I have to think long and deeply about all that we heard this evening from Dr. Alta. Once I check out his statements and assertions, they I can reach some objective and realistic conclusions, dear.”

“This is not a matter to grow emotional about,” suddenly said Xexun. “I intend to ask and look around in order to find out what the true situation and circumstances affecting cotton research may be in this land of Tikvia.

“Let us all be patient until we have a credible basis for judging what the truth may be.”

Xexun then excused himself and headed for his own room.

IV.

The question burdened the explorer of unfamiliar countries all that night and into the following day.

How does one determine what to accept and believe? Was Dr. Alta describing the true situation in Tikvia, or was he the victim of an illusory fantasy about an underworld gambling Syndicate?

Xexun grew increasingly determined to find out what to accept about the obstacles to textile innovation at the Cotton Institute.

Since a library would contain information as well as well-informed librarians, he decided to make a visit to the Main General Library of Avilia and make some inquiries with the reference staff there.

The building holding the reels of film and nano-books was an enormous cube-like structure that resembled a multipurpose warehouse with storage as its chief function. The beton sides were painted a shining, pure yellow color.

Xexun walked through the narrow entrance and asked a guard where the reference section was. The uniformed employee directed him to a hallway that led into the central interior of the Main General Library. Looking around once in the study and reading chamber, the visitor approached the work desk of an older man in a cotton suit who seemed not to be immediately occupied with any task or activity.

“Yes, how can I assist you, sir?” asked the librarian once Xexun was standing directly in front of him.

In a low, guarded tone the man from the Primary presented the topic that had brought him to this source of knowledge and data.

“I am in the middle of a research study of mine, and a question has arisen about the cotton industry and, specifically, the Cotton Institute and its numerous research programs and projects.

“It has come to me that rumors and suspicions exist among some that the gambling interests and chieftains of Tikvia exercise enormous amounts of influence over the decisions made on what kinds of scientific work to support and promote. I want to know whether there is any basis in reality for such accusations that circulate about the veto power over research that the group known as the Syndicate enjoys. Can it give approval or disapproval to innovations and the directions taken? Does it have the secret authority to support and encourage, or does it have the position to kill whatever appears to be contrary to its own selfish interest in all matters connected to cotton and its use and production?”

The librarian appeared overwhelmed by the long inquiry presented by the stranger who had just walked up to his desk. He searched for some reasonable-sounding reply to Xexun.

“That is a difficult and complicated matter that you ask me about.

“I must not mislead you in any way, because that would not at all be acceptable. We in the reference section of this institution know and recognize that we have serious, important responsibilities to the public that we are here to serve. Our answers to all questions posed to us must be firmly based and completely verifiable one. No guess work is permitted to us. If we do not know something with absolute certainty, then we must not give it out to any patron at all.” The reference man lowered his voice to a soft whisper. “All I can tell you, sir, that I am fully aware of such rumors, for I myself have also heard such suspicions voiced.

“But I do not know for sure, one way or the other. I am in the very same position as you are. All that I can give you is a few words of advice.

“Take care in what you are attempting to find out for yourself.”

The librarian gave Xexun a focused, concentrated look of alarm and warning.

“You may find the truth, but be careful, very careful. The subject that you brought up is a risky, dangerous one to be dealing with openly.

“There exist certain secrets it is best to leave alone.

“Do you understand what it is I am saying to you, sir?”

Confused and flabbergasted, Xexun replied with a nod of his head. He then turned around quickly and hurried out of the reference section of the gigantic library.

Muco did not share the same indecision about the charges that Dr. Alta had made before them, for he had accepted them instantly as credible truth.

His work at the Cotton Institute lay open now as totally questionable and problematic. How could he stand to continue and go on with it? His scientific activities lay under a threat of intervention and interference, he researcher from Siopia realized.

I am no better off in terms of open opportunity for discovery and innovation than I was back there in my homeland, he realized with alarm and anxiety.

The only person who might grant him some practical, useful advice at the Cotton Institute appeared to be the Director, Opto Quiuh.

Muco decided to ask for an appointment to talk with him. He did not give the man’s secretary any specific subject that might be discussed with the busy executive who supervised all the research being carried out and supported by the Institute.

Once he was sitting in the Director’s office, the researcher went at once to what was weighing upon him and causing his discomfort.

“Sir, I have recently heard disturbing talk about what is permissible and what is impermissible in the projects accepted and paid for by our institution. This has caused me to feel uneasy and highly confused.

“If I should propose or submit plans for a new set of experiments or tests, whatever they should be, are there any outside, external organizations or groups of interests whose viewpoints or opinions have to be taken into consideration?

“In other words, do any other institutions, establishments, or even individuals have to be consulted for their approval or unfavorable judgment?

“Is there anyone anywhere who can put a halt to what we, as a group, consider to be necessary? Can any exterior decision override what you, I, or all of us at the Cotton Institute consider to be our best course of activity?

“My questioning is quite blunt and awkward, I realize that.

“But I am in a state of mind where I feel I have to know, one way or the other.”

Muco stared at his superior, realizing he was looking at an increasingly angry person whose face was flushed with rushing blood.

What is he going to tell me? pondered the troubled scientist. Should I have attempted to question him on this subject? Have I already gone too far to pull back or correct anything?

But instead of exploding in ire, Opto Quiuh made a strange facial grimace and started to cool himself down.

“Yes, there have for many years been such rumors about the Cotton Institute. That our research plans are controlled by the manufacturers, the cotton mills, the clothing industry, or some great, invisible financial empire hidden behind the scenes that the public is ignorant of.

“How should I deal with rumors, Muco. How should you handle them when you hear them spoken by outsiders not part of our Institute?

“I have learned to ignore them entirely, and you must school yourself to do likewise, my boy.

“There is a great deal of paranoia abroad here in Avilia, and one coming from another country must learn to recognize it for what it is.

“Do not become a slave to other people’s imaginations, or let your own run away from logic and reason.

“Do not forget that you are a scientist, my good man.

“Act and think like one.”

The Director astounded Muco by rising to his feet and heading toward the closed door of his executive office.

The visitor did the same, so that Opto Quiuh was in position to usher the disoriented scientist out.

V.

Xexun, Muco, and Troe had no alternative to seeking solid, unquestionable information about the power of the Syndicate on what the Cotton Institute was allowed to set as its objectives.

Muco discovered the home address of the geneticist and asked the others to join him as a trio that was to find and question Dr. Alta.

It was easy to obtain what was needed from the list of employees, assistants, partners, and allies in the Institute’s memory central. Muco took this home to use with Troe and Xexun.

“He lives by himself in a flat part of a high-rise complex on the periphery of the central business district of Avilia. We can hire a motor-jitney to take us there early this evening.”

As the solar was setting in a brilliant pinkish twilight, the group of three arrived at their destination. Troe volunteered to ring the announcer-bell.

Setem Acta was somewhat shaken when he saw who his unexpected visitors happened to be. “Come right in. I am so happy and surprised to see the three of you here. Come in and sit down.”

Once they were all comfortably settled in the geneticist’s parlor section, he began to probe for an explanation of why they had come at such an unusual time.

It was Troe who volunteered to clear up the matter.

“We are disturbed by what you told us when we all ate out together. It bothers Muco that he works under invisible restrictions and potential interference from something external, such as the Syndicate.

“Should he continue? Or is it best to resign and quit the Institute? None of us knows enough to give a definitive reply to that question.

“That is why we came to you this evening. To ask for your aid and advice. What is the best course to take? How is Muco going to deal with the dilemma that he will face in time? Is he to become a subservient agent of the gambling Syndicate of Tikvia?

“Can you help us find a way forward, Dr. Alta?”

All at once, the latter surprised his visitors with a jovial smile.

“I believe that our friend, Muco, is ready for a surprisingly adventurous offer from me. He must join with me in an entirely new project that holds great opportunity and promise for all of us here this evening.”

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