Part VI.

22 Feb

Meeting in the mansion library, the trio discovered that the greatest objections to the plan to become involved in politics came from Katina Meun.

Her father sat behind a huge tectonic desk. The other two occupied a capeskin couch opposite him. The daughter voiced her opposition to the scheme at once.

“Such political involvement is dangerous for our family. What if it should be uncovered? The results could be horrible for our standing and our reputation. It is too much of a risk for you to take, father. Let the politicians sort out their own business. This election of a mayor does not concern us at all.”

Kimon looked at her with confusion and amazement. This was an unusual display of assertiveness by his daughter, he realized.

“How can you say that, my dear? Shall we wait passively while the Terion interest takes over control of our city government? What might we Gefirs suffer should our enemy come to absolute political power?”

The daughter argued back. “But can money alone insure the defeat of Junior and his cousin? Or will it be wasted in a futile effort?” she countered.

Phot felt it necessary to intervene at this point.

“I believe there is a way to give the contribution without any traces leading back. It is a rarely used legal entity called a blind syndetic trust. The structure of this is highly complicated. I will have to carry out some detailed research in order to set up such a syndetic for this purpose. But it has worked as a tool of secrecy in the past.

“The main feature is its ability to distribute large amounts of wealth without the contributing member being cognizant or legally responsible. It is syndetic in that neither giver nor receiver knows the other or has any direct contact with the other. It shields both of them from the law, in a theoretical sense.”

Kimon appeared excited by what he heard. “Can such a trust be used for political purposes?”

“I can’t truthfully say,” replied the son-in-law. “A lot of study will have to be done in order to find out for certain.”

Katina broke in with a prediction and warning. “I foresee a lot of trouble that will make everyone sorry they became involved in such a scheme.”

Her father glared at her with unconcealed ire.

“The Phryxians don’t break laws? I see it every day in their business dealings. They have their pooling of interests when it should not be allowed. People like the Terions believe they own the law and the government and can use it however they wish.

“Look at how Junior applies his army of lawyers against us at every turn. No, we have to fight their illegalities with similar means of our own. We cannot passively accept all that they dream up to do to us. If we do not fight back, we can be destroyed and lose everything. That is why we must guarantee the defeat of this man Jilolo by Mayor Tisane.”

“What if he still wins, though?” persisted Katina with spirit.

Kimon suddenly grinned. “I aim to double, then triple, what the Alfaquin recommended that we give. We can afford it. To me, it is like an investment sure to pay off.”

“But there can be bad investments, father!”

I will see to it that this election comes out the way we want,” said Kimon with steel in his voice. He turned to Phot, startling him with his question.

“Can you begin to set up the mechanism at once, Phot?”

“Tomorrow, sir,” said the attorney, driven by two opposing loyalties. One was to his father-in-law, and the other to the daughter who was his spouse.

The solution to the ballooning problem was within grasp, according to Junior Terion and his aviation specialists. It was the ballonet, the smaller gas bag. A structure made up of a great number of them could produce both buoyancy and a non-rigid shape. A giant balloon made up of many of these smaller separate bags had numerous advantages over earlier models without such compartments.

“This will be an enormous step toward convenient, economical travel,” said Junior to the news reporters and the interested public at the first test flight of the non-rigid balloon. The crowd had come early that morning to the Terion test field out on Triplet Road. They watched as the new-style balloon was brought out of the large blimp hangar, dozens of workers holding the guide ropes that kept the aeroship under control.

The sky was a cloudless azure, cool and refreshing, calm and windless. A better day for this launch could not have been chosen.

Junior climbed up on a temporary platform and addressed the hundreds who were present. He spoke with audible confidence and pride.

“Today we shall prove the practicality of movement through the air by this ship named the Ballonet. The series of individual hydrogen-filled bags replace the original single balloon, increasing pilot control and raising the safety of this new flying craft. A crew of three shall today take this invention on its maiden trip over Rubber City. Everyone who looks upward will see for themselves how controllable and practical this combination is.

“I therefore give the order that the initial test of the Ballonet now begin.”

From the gondola, the mooring ropes were disengaged and dropped to the ground. A resounding cheer went up as the balloon started to rise into the air. All eyes focused on it with intense attention.

The oil-saturated silk skin of the outer surface, a brilliant orange color, had painted in bright golden letters the two letters “Terion Rubber”. No one could doubt the ownership of what was traversing the sky over the city. The name of the builder was impressed upon the eyes and the minds of all viewers.

With slow majesty the globus-shaped craft moved past the peripheral outskirts of the city, toward the central industrial district where caucho tires were turned out.

Workers stopped laboring in order to look up at the spectacular circle in the sky. Employees of Meun Rubber gazed up in disgust at the advertisement for their rival. A few muffled grunting noises expressed their inner displeasure. The sign with the name of their rival seemed provocative and insulting. Will our enemies soon be gloating over what they consider their triumph and superiority? wondered those on the side of the Meuns.

In the main administrative building, Phot Aiton entered the office of his father-in-law, Kimon Meun. He always came in at this time in the morning to consult on production matters with the company’s president.

The latter was standing by the large open window behind his desk, looking outward and upward, at the orange object floating slowly through the sky.

“Come in, Phot,” said Kimon, not looking away from the fascinating sight that was enthralling the entire city this morning.

The younger man approached till he was next to his father-in-law. He decided to proceed directly to the topic that had been holding his attention for a number of days.

“It has been a difficult task, creating the kind of syndetic trust we want to use. My research has taken me into the arcana of the civil law and its history. The technical minutiae are incredibly complicated. But if we are to do this in the proper manner, there is no alternative to taking every detail into close consideration.”

“Yes, of course,” said Kimon, his eyes still following the Balonet in the nearby sky. The size of the test ship was imposingly large at the moment, as it moved over the city at a low attitude.

“I think we can set up everything needed and make the money transfer in a few days,” predicted the attorney, also following the slow progress of the aeroship traversing the air above the industrial city.

Their two sets of eyes concentrated on the orange skin up above them. They caught sight of the blazing flames the instant they broke forth. Because of their startled reactions, it took several moments for them to realize the meaning of what was happening. Kimon was first to say anything.

“The gas has been ignited,” he gulped. “The hydrogen is now burning.”

“Perhaps the balonet will contain and limit its spread,” said Phot hopefully. “Let’s hope those aboard have patagia that will allow them to jump out and slowly descend to the ground with safety. That can serve as their salvation.”

“Yes,” pointed Kimon with his right arm. “Here comes one of them down. And there goes another. The passengers are escaping on silken sheets, the so-called parachutes. But their inaugural flight is a complete failure. Their hopeful ambitions will now be dashed to pieces.”

“Junior will be very angry,” commented Phot.

“Indeed, he will,” mused the older man, suppressing what was the starting of a smile.

It soon became plain to all observers that the flames were widening to the entire group of balonets. This sky ship of Junior Terion was doomed to destruction by fire. Falling to the ground, it would never fly again. The system was not reparable. This was a complete fiasco that the city was witnessing.

The pair watched in silence as the fiery balloon crashed downward and broke apart into innumerable pieces.

It was fortunate that most of the wreckage hit a junk yard with no one present at the moment of impact.

Kimon and Phot turned and looked at each other.

“I would like to see how Junior is going to take his,” admitted the son-in-law.

There was more rage than sorrow in the mind of the president of Terion Rubber.

After witnessing the crash from the distant test field, he headed for the site where the balloon and its gondola still smoldered in ashes.

His speeding limousine was followed by automotives of the press media.

“All the passengers jumped out and are safe,” a uniformed policeman told him as he examined the debris of the fire and the fall out of the sky.

Junior made no reply but continued looking through the remains.

All at once, the familiar voice of cousin Jilolo sounded from somewhere behind him.

“How did this happen? I am afraid it is going to damage our company and my election campaign,” said the frustrated candidate for mayor of Rubber City.

Junior spun around and addressed the stout figure with thinning yellow hair and sapphire eyes.

“I am not as worried as you are, my dear cousin. This was a disaster, but if we play it right the event could rebound to our advantage in time.”

“Advantage?” burst out the other. “What sort of advantage could there be in this?”

Junior made a face that anticipated some future satisfaction.

“Think of what caused this loss of the Balonet. Was it accidental? Of course not. How could it possibly have just happened? I believe that what we saw today confirms suspicions I have had in mind for a long time. We Phyrxians are too trusting, easy-going, and naïve. Who stands behind this calamity? Who stands to gain from our loss? What grouping in the city gloats every time something like this happens to any of our people?

“Isn’t it clear that Gefirs are behind this act of sabotage? There is no one else. Without mentioning individual names, we can point the attention of all Phryxians in that particular direction. We know who our eternal foes are. When our children are born, they have an intuition within them of whom they must fear.

“The Gefirs are responsible for what we witnessed here this morning. They are the ones who found some secret means of blocking this program to conquer the air.”

“But what can any of us do about them?” sputtered Jilolo.

Junior lifted his right hand, placing it about the arm of his alarmed cousin.

“Without making specific charges, you must orient your campaign speeches toward finding fault with the vexatious minority we live with in Rubber City. You have to place your entire focus on their vileness and treachery. It will not be necessary to use explicit language or name any individuals. No, the general charge will accomplish our goal. Every Phyxian will know at once what you are talking about, Jilolo.”

The latter’s eyes brightened as if with sudden illumination.

“You think it will work in getting me elected?”

“What else can mobilize our voters as effectively, I ask you?”

No reply came from the desperate candidate who perceived the logic of what he had heard from his cousin.

Rumors circulated in all Pryxian circles, both the high and the low.

Favored reporters and commentators considered trustworthy had related to the public the secret information supposed to point to the guilty minority behind the gruesome event. An insistent campaign of direct and indirect accusations arose, growing in angry virulence.

Euphemistic language began to appear in the daily press. Treason was termed “recreance”. Illegality became “apostasy”. Sabotage was “malicious mischief”. But no one could misunderstand the object of all this calumny. The target was clear and plain to everyone.

Kimon Meun sensed at once what was happening and was anxious to combat it in the area of politics through immediate aid and support for Mayor Tisane.

At last, the syndetic trust was assembled and recorded at the city registry office. It was a charitable, non-profit entity to operate for the benefit of public betterment. The goals were described as humanitarian and philanthropic. The active administrator was identified as Attorney Phot Aiton.

When the day came for filling the bank account of the trust, Kimon dumbfounded his family with the gigantic amount he was going to contribute.

“Ninety thousand!” gasped the lawyer. “Isn’t that an extravagant sum to be sending to a political campaign?”

“If it can guarantee the defeat of this rascal Jilolo Terion then it will be worth every single centismal. Why not attempt it? The benefits of victory would fall not only to you and me, but to all Gefirs. The entire population, in fact. This has become a fight against narrow-minded prejudice as well. For me and many others, it is a matter of ethical principle.”

“Let us pray to Kexato, then, for the victory of Tisane.”

“It will be an expensive loss for us if he doesn’t come out on top in the voting,” ominously sighed Kimon.

Stilio Lavron was making an astounding fortune from the new jetton machines that took a flood of coins from gamblers who inserted their money and watched as the wheels rotated and came to a stop. The gangster had kept the same relationship with Junior Terion he had once enjoyed with the latter’s father.

From the start of the campaign for making Jilolo the mayor of Rubber City, this link to the underworld had been its invisible ingredient. It was a kind of unseen weapon of one side in the contest for power and influence.

Junior had a sport interest in common with the Phryxian racketeer: the dog racing at a special track on the east end of the city. Eager crowds flocked to watch the speeding levriers and galgos. This was a site where the two could easily meet in secret in one of the private viewers’ boxes. All eyes would be on the running greyhounds, not on them.

Stilio came to a weekend racing festival with important news for his younger friend. He described a recent discovery as the two talked between greyhound runs. The gangster’s almond eyes possessed an ominous cast as he spoke to his secret ally.

“There is evidence that this blind man is in receipt of enormous funds from a hidden source. This intrigued me so much that I had a break-in occur at the Oppidan Bank in order to examine the source of this money. Nothing was taken, it was all done to satisfy my personal curiosity, nothing more. And what did we find there?”

Junior, sitting at his side, grew visibly excited. “Tell me,” he demanded.

“A dummy organization was the conduit to pass along the large amounts of cash. But the original source was there in the bank records. It was nobody else but Kimon Meun. Think of what that means if made public!”

The industrial magnate placed his right hand on the arm of his confederate.

“You are certain of what you say?”

“Absolutely,” said the gambling czar of Rubber City, his voice solid and certain.

Junior appeared to fall into some kind of trance for a short while. He watched as a group of greyhounds were brought forward and placed into the starting boxes for the next race on the schedule.

“What do you intend to do about this situation?” asked Lavron, tightly pursing his mouth.

Terion turned his face to him and grimaced freakishly.

“This is valuable information. It could be made available to the news sheets, or some secret use might be found. I have to consider my moves most carefully. All the options have to be thoughtfully compared. We cannot be careless in such an important matter.”

The starting bell rang and the dogs were released for competitive dashing and bounding. Excitement rose to a feverish pitch.

Phot stared at the magnetogram received from Dr. Nuss Ostra, who was eight hundred miles away in the Hoz Desert. He read the terse announcement of the physicist over several times with exacting care.

“I have uncovered a productive plant here that holds promise. This may be what I am looking for. How should I proceed in order to bring home an adequate sample for testing?”

Phot decided to take the hopeful communication to Kimon Meun for his consideration. As he entered his father-in-law’s private office, the president could see that there was a matter of sudden importance the attorney was carrying with him. “What is it?” he immediately asked him.

Handing over the magnetogram, the lawyer attempted to give a short explanation.

“The Professor has found something, but he is mum about the details of it. What should we do about this? What step comes next?”

Kimon stared down at the succinct message, reading it and making calculations swiftly.

“This cannot be fully explained except there on the spot. What would you say, Phot, to going to the southwest to find out what this scientist is talking about?”

The younger man gave a start, but then realized the logic of such a course of action.

“I can leave at once, late today. If I rush home and pack a valise, it will be possible to catch a night ferrotrain into the desert.”

“Fine,” nodded Kimon. “Take the brougham back home and tell Katina where you are headed and why. I want you to send me a magnetogram on what you decide to do once you learn what it is that Ostra is talking about down there.”

His wife was reluctant to see him make such a journey.

“I will return as soon as possible,” promised Phot. “There is so much work waiting here that I will have to bring Dr. Ostra back without delay. But first I have to find out what it is that he has uncovered out on the desert.”

The pair embraced and kissed good-bye.

Phot hurried out to the taxi waiting for him. “To the ferrorail central depot,” he told the driver. “I have to catch a train that leaves in less than an hour.”

The telephone of Stilio Lavron began to sound on his desk. The gang leader picked it up on the third chime.

“I am calling from the Ferrotrain Central,” said a deep bass voice. “The son-in-law of Meun has just purchased a ticket for the city of Hoz. He is going to travel into the desert.”

Lavron looked down on his desk top, where there lay a copy of the magnetogram received earlier that day at Meum Rubber. His eyes scanned the message to the Gefir manufacturer of tires. The meaning of it now seemed perfectly clear to him.

He gave an order to the numbers runner who was acting as his spy.

“Follow the man to Hoz and learn what that gang is so excited about. Do not let the one you are following stray out of your sight. Understand?”

“Yes, boss,” answered the intelligence agent of the rackets kingpin.

The central rail depot was a steel, glass, and ceramic brick palace capable of handling dozens of ferrotrains simultaneously on its multiple tracks. Within its great walls there was a hotel, theater, offices, and a bank. Magneto-electric engines powered the long series of cars and carriers that transported passengers and goods in and out of Rubber City. This was one of the busiest locations in the city, like a community all to its self with a native population of people on the move.

Phot boarded early, occupying an end seat on the last of the wagon cars of the desert train. Placing a pillow behind his head, he prepared to take as much rest as possible during the period of this night trip. There seemed to be only a few fellow-passengers on board. It should be quiet here, he said to himself. There will be time and opportunity for thoughtful considerations about what might lay ahead. I will have the chance to have myself a needed rest, he said to himself.

The wheels under him started to turn. The ferrotrain accelerated until it was hurling forward at a fast clip. The streets and structures of southside Rubber City sped by as Phot’s eyes took in the moving scenery. He was on his way. For a few seconds, the factory of Meun Rubber was visible, but then disappeared. The featureless countryside stretched out on all sides, field after field of cultivated crop.

What did Ostra think he had found? wondered the suddenly summoned passenger. It had to be something of importance to affect the scientist so profoundly. Did he believe he had discovered a new source of raw material for the rubber industry? Something outside and beyond the guayule already being grown on desert plantations? What could that new resource be? he wondered.

Phot, abstracted and self-absorbed, did not realize that a pair of distant eyes, at the far end of the car, were glued to him.

Whatever he might learn out on the desert was not to remain a secret, if the syndicate spy from Rubber City could prevent it.

The lawyer fell asleep in fits and starts as the ferrotrain entered the cool, arid night of the southwestern desert.

He looked forward to his rendezvous with Dr. Ostra and what he might learn from that curious, brilliant man of science.

Phot awoke from his on-and-off naps as the sky outside brightened up with dawn light. He looked about the car, spotting a sandwich-butcher selling breakfast food at the opposite end. There was no means for him to know that the numbers runner from Rubber City who had followed him was sitting there, within his field of vision. The man might as well have been invisible.

Turning his eyes outside, Phot saw the flat surface of the infinite sands. All at once, streets with stucco structures appeared. This is Hoz, the passenger told himself. Soon I will learn what it is that has electrified Ostra so emotionally and dramatically. Our meeting with each other is nearing.

As the city outside became denser, the magnetotrain slowed. Phot had sent a magnetogram to the physicist informing him when he expected to arrive. His hope was that the man would be waiting for him at the rail station.

What is the important discovery that will change the present so drastically? he pondered. Exactly what was the nature of this startling breakthrough? Guessing at this moment would be pointless and useless.

Down the wagon aisle, a pair of eyes focused on him every few seconds. The racketeer was eager to find out the purpose of this emergency journey by the lawyer who was a top officer of the Meun corporation.

As Phot climbed down from the wagon steps, a familiar figure came up to him.

The lantern-jawed giant was the first to speak.

“Welcome to Hoz, Mr. Aiton,” said Professor Ostra, a joyful grin on his face. “It was necessary for someone to come out here at once to help me handle this development. I assure you that your trip to the desert will not have been in vain. Once you realize what I have found, this will all become clear to you.”

Phot stepped down onto the betonic platform and shook the hand offered him by the researcher who had called for his help.

“Fine,” he said. “Where can the two of us talk in private?”

Ostra ceased smiling. “There is a grillroom adjacent to this station. We can have some breakfast eggs while I tell you what has happened to me.”

“Good, because I am hungry myself,” returned Phot.

The two of them walked away, passing through the ferrotrain station. Ostra led the way into the busy, crowded Teapot eatery.

Another person entered the grill seconds after the pair went in. This anonymous spy had hopes of sitting near them and overhearing what they said to each other.

Over poached ovules, Phot Aiton listened to the story of what the physicist had uncovered in the burning desert.

“As you know, from its inception the production of caucho has depended upon guayule, a plant native to this dry climate. Whole vast plantations are devoted to growing that strong-rooted shrub that provides the rubbery latex. This has meant that all our tires and secondary products consist of parthenium rubber, as it is called. It is this parthenic species called guayule that is the sole source of the material used in our industry back in Rubber City. As a result, the cost of producing rubber has always been a high one. Many have searched for a cheaper, more common plant. It was never found, despite all the efforts. The search has been a fruitless one.”

“That is the truth,” agreed the lawyer. “Our hope has been that you would be the first to accomplish what others have failed at.”

Ostra leaned forward over the table and his voice fell to a whisper.

“As we all know, the desert was the last region of our country to be settled. It was empty and unpopulated until forty years ago. The pioneers who migrated here brought with them familiar flowers, shrubs, and herbs that were completely new to this territory. These were species that had to adapt themselves to this arid, sandy zone.

“An idea came to me one night: what if one of these transplanted varieties could provide a latex from which rubber could be made? It might point to some widespread plant not confined to desert climate. One that could be a source of a useable form of latex and grown in different climates from this one.

“So, I started to carry out field experiments on plants in household gardens that had been brought out here by the pioneers. Many tests proved that most of the candidates were useless for my purpose. But then I found some promise in the plant family of the Compositae. These are popular out here with housewives and gardeners. I tested asters, dahlias, and chrysanthemums. The results appeared promising, but not perfect enough for practical application in industry. I recognized that my search was close to its target, but not finished. My efforts increased. My scope grew ever wider.

I reached the conclusion that the roots of the dandelion, what is called taraxacum in folk medicine, gave excellent results. I continued searching and testing, and then stumbled on the miracle of solidago.”

“Solidago?”

Ostra beamed with joy. “It is commonly called the goldenrod. I was able to extract a solidago latex superior to the guayule our factories use. Think of it! What is more common in the fields everywhere than the goldenrod? It could be combined with dandelion taraxacum to make a cheap substance of outstanding rubbery quality.”

“No one has ever experimented with flowers like that before?” inquired an incredulous Phot.

“As far as I know, never. I had to come out to the desert before the idea of looking at such plants occurred to me. Once I conceived the idea, I had a sense of what I was specifically looking for.”

Phot stared into his eyes. “You are certain about the goldenrod’s potential? It has the properties that we are after?”

Ostra raised his heavy chin. “As sure as I have ever been about anything in my whole life. I am certain that I have solved the problem of an optimum source of latex.”

“What should we do right now, though?”

“I have ordered a crate of goldenrods from a florist shop in Hoz. My plan is to ship them back to Rubber City by rail freight so that more tests can be done there. Then, practical application will be on the agenda.”

“Tell me,” said Phot,”where is this crate with the load of solidago?”

“The florist shop is right down Trazo Street, on which this grill is located. We can reach it on foot in less than a minute.”

“Let’s head there, then,” said the attorney, springing to his feet.

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