Part IV.

19 Feb

With the coming of spring, the devastation caused by the grippe microbium came to a sudden end. But the injured and grieving had a sad inheritance to pass on into future days.

The economy of the city and the caucho industry remained depressed for over a year following the historic pandemic. Recovery came slowly.

The most prominent casualty of the grippe was Nestro Terion, the titan of tires, as he had been called behind his back. Who was his successor to be? There was no question on that: his only son, Nestro the Second, or as he was forever to be tagged, Junior.

The same small stature as that of his dynamic father, but the blond hair and almond eyes of his mother. A son of the devil, many Gefirs claimed. More evil than any devil, others replied. More sophisticated than the first Nestro. Clever and devious, less emotionally explosive. Educated in coastal colleges, with a background in both law and finance. More dangerous and merciless than any other Phryxian in Rubber City. That was the popular opinion on him in the Gefir community. But the social event of the year for the elite of the latter was to be the spectacular wedding of Kimon Meun’s daughter to the young lawyer who was an officer of his rubber company.

The leading lights of the Gefir minority attended the exchange of marriage vows at the centrum temple. Katina wore a crimson gown of soft velure, while Phot appeared in a brilliantly white cutaway. What a beautiful couple they made, many people remarked.

The Gefir priest, in yellow surplice, with his hands over those of the betrothed, led them three times around the periphery of the interior of the completely filled temple.

Kexato looked down on them from the ceiling above the guests, where his image witnessed their wedding.

The guests then made their way to the reception hall of the Gefir Community Center on Forge Street. Eating, drinking, and dancing continued far into the night. The highest joy in the hall was that of the just married couple. They seemed to be drunk with ecstasy.

Only one thing cast a small shadow over the nuptial festivities.

Junior Terion, on that very day, had announced to the press that he planned to build an automotive racing center on the eastern edge of the city. Speed cars would now be in fierce competition with each other. The major makers of rubber tires would fight out their conflicts at this new site.

As soon as Phot returned to work, Kimon informed him of what he had learned about the plans and intentions of their enemy across the city.

“This young operator has greater appetite than even his father had. Rumor says he has already gone through three different mistresses, beside two wives. He eats like an octopus and his portly figure shows it.

“The bastard has no memory of what we did for his family on the matter of sharing our patent. And now he dreams of reaching the skies. Literally, the skies. This race track of his is so extensive that there will be a lot of land left over for experiments with air travel by balloon. His dream is to control and profit from any successes in that exotic area. He sees himself as an explorer of the atmospheric frontier.”

Phot sighed. “So, our warfare with that family will go on.”

“I never doubted that for a second, my boy,” said the father-in-law.

“There are some hard, serious battles ahead. No question about that. This family of enemies will never leave the Gefirs in peace.”

Motor racing had a complicated history in Rubber City.

It began on public country roads closed off for speed competition. Early private autocars ran on standard clincher tires. Dust-laying compounds were put on the roadbeds, but the police stationed along the way were not always able to keep pedestrians and stray vehicles away. To pass an opponent, a driver had to steer through blinding dust clouds. Curves provided the dangers of collisions and overturnings to these pioneers. It was a hazardous sport, everyone in Rubber City recognized.

In time, triangular routes were set up, palisaded on both sides, with guards stationed along the route. Individuals began to form relay teams and sponsors were found, among the most important being caucho firms that provided special racing tires. Each team of speedstars had to develop tactics and strategy of competition to defeat its rivals. Their conflicts were tough ones, no concessions shown to anyone.

Special road surfaces were created to increase safety and velocity. Stripped car bodies solely for racing were constructed. Records were set and new ones made each year. The general public became fascinated by this new, mechanized sport. Fame came to champion drivers out of these road tournaments. Racing autocars were categorized by engine size into divisions. Hardening processes produced ever better racing tracks. Stock car contests made opportunity available for independents to make their own private arrangements. Yet everyone would know what brand of tires were used on each competing vehicle. That became a central interest of everyone in Rubber City.

Junior Terion named his advanced track the Terion Velodrome. It was completely covered, with a hardened roadway to run on. Races of infinite length were possible on its oval circuit of two and a half miles. Everywhere one looked, there were to be advertisements for Terion tires. They could not be ignored.

The opening day race had speedcars sponsored by vehicle and caucho companies. The Meun contestant was an older driver given little chance for victory. Betting odds against this entry were extremely long. The car was an old, much-used machine from the past. It was truly a long shot.

Kimon decided not to attend, but told Phot and Katina they might represent him at this sporting spectacle. The couple agreed to go and watch what the family rival had put together for this important day.

The grandstand glimmered with many colors in the bright light of summer. Men had on straw hats of imported jipijapa and bambusa. The women beside them wore capotes and chapeaus of all possible colors and hues. A festive air captured hold of the overflow crowd. Junior had ordered that anyone who appeared be sold a ticket, regardless of the capacity limit. The stands were packed until they overflowed with an energized public. A mania of joy suffused the open air.

Phot had on a black-and-white checkerboard jacket, yellow tie and sportshirt, and a boatman’s skimmer. Katina was all in grayish tan.

An usher led them to their reserved stall bordering the track’s starting line.

Phot glanced at the chronometer on his wrist. Only three minutes to go before the racing began. His ears picked up rustling noises behind their seats. Looking around, he saw what was happening. A small man in lavender redingote, with a gold-colored opera hat on his round head, was shaking hands on both sides of the aisle he was attempting to descend.

“Who is that?” whispered Katina to her husband.

“That happens to be Mr. Junior Terion himself,” he informed her. “I have seen him at a distance downtown many a time, but never close. We have never spoken to each other.”

The two looked away, both staring at the racecars lining up to start.

All at once, a sonant baritone sounded from just behind them.

“Mr. and Mrs. Aiton, so happy that you could make it to the inauguration of our Velodrone. I hope that both of you will be satisfied with today’s racing event. We shall have more and more of these as things become organized. I see that there is a contestant that you are sponsoring. Good luck to him. Good luck to you, too.

“Before I forget, I should invite you to the special guest reception I am giving this evening up the road, at the Village Inn.

“Excuse me, but I must get to my box before the cars begin.”

Phot and Katina exchanged looks of unsettling astonishment.

“So that is the fellow that father says wants to eat us alive,” muttered the wife. “He doesn’t appear that formidable to me. Nothing there but idle bluster. I am sure that we can handle such a blowhard.”

“What do you mean, dear?”

“I want you to take me to the party he is giving tonight. Just to show the bully that Gefirs like us are not afraid of him.”

“I’ll think about it,” he chuckled. “I’ll consider the idea.”

Katina looked out at the careening racers. Circuit followed circuit, on and on toward the final thousandth, far off in future hours. From time to time, she asked her husband the same question again.

“Why don’t you want to go and see what they are up to?”

“We should not be afraid to go among them, should we?”

“I do think we must accept the invitation, Phot. Why don’t we?”

As the afternoon neared its end, the excitement in the audience peaked.

It was clear that the Meun Rubber entry was going to finish far behind, among the obvious losers. But, all at once, the car began to accelerate and pass competitor after competitor. It became the center of attention for the viewers in the stands. Was there going to be an unanticipated surprise, a complete upset at the last moment? Was victory to fall to Meun?

Many rose to their feet to get a good view of the end.

Yes, the Meun racecar was the come-from-behind winner.

Phot and Katina both rose, joining the hysterical crowd cheering the unexpected result. A rapture of surprise and astonishment arose.

“We won, Phot, we won. What are we going to do now?” she asked as the crowd continued to roar, many jumping up and down in delirium.

“Let’s go to Junior’s reception and rub what has happened in his face, then,” said her spouse, an ecstatic grin of triumph about his mouth.

The Village Inn was a large restaurant famed for the fowl and poultry it served. One could choose simple chicken, duck, or goose. But there was also a menu of turkey, chanticleer, cobb, squab, drake, gander, dove, swan, pen, and dickey bird.

Nowhere in or about Rubber City was there a place to compete with it.

Bunting and festoons celebrating the opening of the Velodrome decorated the outside and inside of the establishment already crowded with invited guests. The atmosphere was wildly joyful and exuberant.

Katina and Phot climbed out of their brougham and walked to the entrance, neither able to foresee what might happen when they met Junior Terion.

Were the newcomers, both Gefirs, going to be congratulated upon the miraculous victory of their single racer? Or was some rough insult coming?

Entering the packed eatery, the pair looked around, as if looking for the host who was footing the bill for the evening of celebration.

A waiter in black cutaway came up and led them to a table in the far corner of the establishment. Katina decided at once to present him a question.

“Has Mr. Terion arrived yet?” she said with a pleasant smile that glowed.

“No, I haven’t seen him,” muttered the server, handing a menu to Katina, then Phot. “But I can take your orders as soon as you wish.”

Both chose roasted capon, something they were familiar with at home.

As they waited for their food, a string trio began to play some vagabond tunes and melodies. The mood in the Village Inn picked up. But then a recognizable figure came in, the man who was paying all the bills, the young tire-magnate himself.

Junior spotted the Aitons at once and swiftly turned in their direction. His flinty face reflected the fact that he had lost the inaugural race to his arch-foe, the enemy of his late father. But the young man knew how to mask his failure and disgrace under a false face of conviviality.

“Mr. and Mrs. Aiton,” he said in greeting. “I am happy that both of you are here. Everything has gone well. This day has been a memorable one, hasn’t it? Yes, we shall never, never forget it. Have you two ordered? Can I get you anything?”

Katina spoke while Phot stayed mum.

“The Velodrome is so beautiful and spacious, Mr. Terion. I imagine that it was a very costly project to complete.”

“It will be worth the money, dear lady. Every penig will be returned many times over. The covered track will stand there for many decades. It will draw racing fans for generations to come. I am certain of our bright future here.”

The industrialist put one giant fist on the top of their table.

“You appear to be a great optimist,” said Katina, forcing a smile.

“Indeed, I am that. Today you saw only one of my pet ideas. There are several others in the offing, as well. I work on them in all my free time.”

Phot now spoke for the first time.

“Your experiments with air travel?” he inquired, not expecting an answer.

Junior turned shadowy almond eyes on him.

“That is where the future lies for Rubber City,” he enigmatically asserted. “When flying aeroships are perfected, their bodies will be made of some caucho compound we don’t yet have. Gas balloons must be developed so that the air becomes a safe ocean over which to journey. It is coming and cannot be stopped. I see aeroships as inevitable. They belong in our future.”

“You wish to become the pioneer, then?” challenged Phot. “The head of the firm that will hold the leadership position?”

Junior grinned broadly. “That is why I have purchased all these acres out this way, to have room in which to try things out.” He leaned forward. “I doubt that any other company can come in and compete against me.”

He looked provocatively at Phot for a moment, then turned and spoke to Katina.

“Enjoy yourself tonight, Mrs. Aiton. Later, there will be a team of tumblers and contortionists to entertain us. Excuse me, I think your waiter is coming this way with your orders. Please enjoy yourselves.”

The host turned around and left, moving across to where his closest associates and staff were congregated together.

The waiter set down their plates, then speedily departed.

Phot leaned over and softly whispered to his wife.

“Perhaps I’d better look into flying mechanisms and see whether there is anything in it for Meum Rubber.”

The next morning, over the breakfast table, Katina told her father about their experiences of the previous day at the race and later at the Village Inn.

Kimon evinced deep interest in what she said about Junior’s boasting about what he intended to achieve in the air. He turned to his son-in-law with a question.

“There is a professor at Rubber City University who knows a lot about the art of ballooning. I wonder whether Junior has consulted him.”

“What’s his name?” said Phot with sudden curiosity.

“Dr. Ostra, I believe. He is new to the city, only here a short time. His experimentation in the air was done down in the tropical zone. The man is said to be neither a Gefir nor a Phryxian.”

“That is interesting. I wonder if…”

“He might be interested in some arrangement about advising us?”

“Precisely,” smiled the company vice-president. “One can never tell what might turn out to have important implications for the future.”

“I am sure he would be willing to see you, Phot.”

The latter rose from the table. “I’ll call him this morning and try to make an appointment with the man.”

The tiny office was in the red brick sciences building on Howard Street. The University of Rubber City was a placid isle of quiet among the business of the metropolis, especially its crowded downtown.

Nuss Ostra proved to be a rangy, bull-necked, lantern-jawed giant, dark-skinned with crew cut brunette hair and pale chrome eyes.

As Phot shook his hand he felt the iron of his strong, solid grip. Serious and unsmiling, the professor of physics asked him to sit down.

There was barely space for the two of them in the tight closet chamber.

“You are involved in the manufacture of caucho tires, Mr. Aiton?”

“THat is right. But our company produces materials for a variety of uses. And we are always interested in expanding our range of offerings.”

“Into the atmosphere, for instance?” laughed the scientist with a tiny twinkle in his left eye. “For vehicles of the future?”

Phot had a grin on his face. “You have a quick mind, professor. As you know, Terion Rubber has bought a lot of open land south of the city. It is pretty evident what their aim is. As a business competitor, my firm cannot afford to ignore this entrance into a completely new field. My hope is that you yourself have not committed to assisting or working with these people in any way.”

“Rest assured,” interjected the other,” that I have not spoken with them or anyone else.”

Phot nodded that he understood.

“I can tell you with confidence that my company, Meum Rubber, is seeking goals beyond immediate profit. This may sound like rhetoric, but we are truly interested in the good of society and all the people of this country. Our aim is to increase mastery over all the resources that nature has provided us. To that end, we are willing to invest the bulk of what our company possesses in the equipment and personnel needed to carry out scientific research.”

“Even the construction of great balloons and new aeroships?”

Phot hesitated a second, but then gave a positive answer to the question.

“Yes. Our president is willing to go all the way into new areas. I can vouch for his character as one who has an honest interest in expanding all frontiers.”

Had he overpromised? Phot did not think so, then or afterwards.

All at once, Ostra looked away to one side. He spoke as if to himself.

“I have for years predicted that safe, efficient aeroships will some day be built. They will be large, carrying freight or many passengers, and traveling long distances. Exotic gases will fill the many balloon chambers. But of what will the superstructure of the vessel be made? Any sort of metal must be excluded. And the use of cloth is too dangerous.

“So I ask myself: is there some caucho compound that can provide the rigid bones of a great aeroship? Is there any material that can be the source of a stable superstructure to an air vehicle?

“This is not at all idle speculation. I see these questions as practical problems that must be solved before sky travel can be a feasible activity.”

Aiton, too, grew excited now.

“There is so much to consider, sir. I would like you to meet the president of my company, Mr. Kimon Meun. Would you allow me to arrange that?”

“Of course.”

Thus began a relationship of historical importance for Rubber City.

Katina was first to notice something in the morning “Pilot” and showed it at once to her husband. He read it rapidly, then turned to her.

“So what? Junior Terion inherited a lot of property and cash. If he wants to sink a goodly fraction of it in what the newspaper calls a Northern Provincial Mansion containing forty-five rooms, who is there to prevent him? It’s his business alone, isn’t it?”

She made a sour face. “I just wanted to see your reaction. How can the man afford it? He must possess boundless financial resources.”

“He is enjoying the patents that we allowed his father to use gratis. It is a big help in making money when you can grab something for free.”

“I guess it is, my dear. But the mayor pleaded that otherwise the foundation of Rubber City would be shaken and collapse. Your father, wisely or not, refused to take the moral burden of having contributed indirectly to the ruin of the city and its primary employer.” He wrinkled his brow in thought.

“But the Terion Rubber Company still remains much bigger than ours, despite all our growth and development,” she continued. “We build new facilities all the time, but so does Junior. And now he dreams of taking to the air, too.”

“There are many obstacles for him to overcome before there are any results in that area,” explained Phot, putting on his coat jacket of dark wool. “I arranged for your father to meet for luncheon at a restaurant on College Street at noon today with this Professor Ostra. We are also going to explore the possibilities in this new field.”

“How can this scientist be of help to us?” she asked him.

“There must be some form of caucho in aeroships of the future, Katina.”

The Cookstove was an old-fashioned Gefir eating place, the type that Kimon Muen never tired of. In fact, this particular one was his number one favorite.

Nuss Ostra, not too familiar with such cuisine, was eager for a new culinary adventure. Besides, he was to have the opportunity to talk with one of the leading factors in the rubber industry of the city.

The owner of the Cookstove seated the professor, the first to arrive, at a small table in the back specially set aside for the multimillionaire and his guest.

Kimon arrived shortly and introduced himself.

Aubergine stuffed with ground lamb was the choice ordered by the manufacturer. Ostra said that he would try the same.

The two studied each other for a moment or so.

“What do you think of our city, sir?” began Kimon.

“I find the spirit here interesting and inspiring. These people are always looking to new horizons. I like that. You do not have the lethargy and insecurity of the tropics here. That is good for scientists like me. I greatly appreciate the opportunity I have to study and carry out research in my field.”

“What do you happen to be studying, may I ask?”

The scientist grinned enigmatically.

“Leaders are not afraid to try out new ideas,” he suddenly opined. “Some may work, some may fail. But those who run things in this town must be willing to take gambles.”

“You make me think of the aeroships that my competitor, Terion Rubber, is planning to build and test,” said Kimon, his eyes shining. “I am told that your knowledge in that area is unsurpassed. You are the number one authority in that field of science.”

“I don’t deserve such a build-up, sir. But yes, my special personal interest lies in airborne vehicles. So little has been achieved thus far, yet we know that the eventual possibilities are unimaginable today. As I understand it, you wish to discuss this particular subject with me tonight.”

“Yes, I do,” said Meun with positive emphasis.

At this point, the owner of the restaurant arrived with their aubergine. A waiter in shirtsleeves helped him serve the pair of customers.

Taking his first forkful, Ostra burst with delight.

“This is wonderful. This is marvelous. We have nothing anywhere like this down in the tropics. Such delightful and delicious food is worth moving to Rubber City for.”

“I’m glad you like it,” smiled Kimon. “It is a Gefir masterpiece.”

“We have none of your people where I was born, sir, none at all.”

“Then, that happens to be a loss for the tropics,” laughed Meun.

With a serious poker face, the professor then got down to business.

“There is one so-far insurmountable problem for balloons. That is the skin of the globus that holds the gas. The best one I know of is called goldbeaters’ skin. Do you know how that is made?”

“From the intestines of oxen, I believe.”

“Right. It is expensive and apt to puncture from strong winds.”

“We have had few balloonists ever come to our city,” noted Kimon. “They only fly over us as an amusement and give the public short pleasure flights.”

The scientist spoke up at once. “There has been flight in globus balloons filled with hydrogen for over eighty years, yet the difficulties of controlling the structure makes them useless for any practical economic purposes. This situation has long troubled me. There must be a way of creating a fast, efficient aeroship.”

The industrialist looked sharply at his guest. “What if a better surface skin could be produced in our caucho facilities?”

“At the beginning, hot air and smoke from a fire lifted large cloth bags. But as adventurers decided to travel in them, the balloons moved ever higher and farther. New methods had to be found and used. Hydrogen gas came to be the most popular and practical lighter-than-air gas. Both deuterium and tritium were also used at times. Many substances were tested as possible skins. Thin layers of silk were coated with elastic gum in these early years of balloon flight. The size of the globuses grew larger and new records were set.

“Platforms with their own heating braziers attached to them lifted up what were called fire-balloons. These were not as safe as hydrogen ones, which came to replace the hazardous ones with fire. A gas valve was placed at the top of the chamber. The car was then suspended from the balloon by a hoop and rope netting. There were instances when a gas chamber was placed over a fire-balloon to try to take advantage of both methods of ascension together. In time, eight to twelve persons could be taken on trips as passengers. Wings and rudders were attached to the undercars as direction and elevation controls. The vehicles grew ever more complicated. A compensator was put under the main chamber of gas, a small balloon to prevent loss or leakage of hydrogen. These complex gas-ships were called aerosacs and aerostatics.

“Two story ships were built, with their own lavatories, eating rooms, and photographic sections. Stores and provisions were carried for flights of hundreds of miles. Advanced fire-balloons held large furnaces weighing a thousand pounds or more.

“With all these improvement, though, the main obstacle to widespread use of balloons for commercial and transportation purposes remains the problem of the skin material. Silk and cotton weaves remain even today the main fabric used. Oil coatings have not succeeded in preventing tears and ruptures. Until there is a superior solution to this problem, aeroships of any kind will remain a sporting toy and little more than that.”

Both men were silent for a time.

“I make no promises,” finally said Kimon Meun. “Let me think about all you have said to me here today. I want to consider all the possibilities of what I can do with my resources. That may take me considerable time.”

The two finished eating, then departed with their minds on the problem they had discussed and considered. This was a matter that would probably determine the future of the local caucho rubber industry and that of Rubber City.

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