Viroids: Part I.

2 Mar

I.

What sort of assignment was this going to be? worried and wondered Investigative Inspector Skopo Kitanin.

First of all, he had to locate the office of the Chief Librarian.

It was years since as a student at Police College he had been in this high, enormous hall with its rows of reading viewers mounted on polymetal tables. Only a few scattered users were seated about the place this early in the morning. The most dedicated ones, decided the police officer. As quiet as a sleeping chamber, he told himself. A multitude of minds were focused and concentrated upon ribbons of memory data written on microscopic organisms.

Skopo caught sight of what he was searching for at the far end of the great reading room. A closed black door, with a thin young man sitting at a desk beside it, like an unarmed guard. He raised his eyes from the small reader device in front of him and stared at the stranger in a dark business suit for a moment.

“Can I help you?” he murmured in a sweet, pleasant tenor voice.

The detective, a tall, husky figure with dark brown eyes and hair, leaned forward to whisper to the secretary. “I have an appointment to see the director.”

The woman’s name was Totmax, Skopo had learned back at headquarters. She had only recently become head of the Central Library of Kalender. And the trouble there had begun at once, as if she had brought it there with her. The holding institution had started to suffer erasure of written and printed books and documents at once. Valuable parts of the library’s collections had vanished as if they had never been there or even existed.

“Follow me,” said the wiry aide to Skopo, rising from his secretarial desk and stepping to the black door, opening it for the visitor.

The investigator made his way slowly into the old-fashioned, spacious office. The gatekeeper entered behind him, closing the polymetal door behind them.

At a long working table sat a middle-aged woman with a concerned, serious face. She was the first to speak.

“Sit down, Investigative Inspector Kitanin.” Her right arm indicated a wire chair in front of her.

“I want you here too, Mlem,” she told her assistant.

The two males took chairs across from Dari Totmax, whose penetrating dark eyes were already examining the impassive face of the detective.

Years of experience had taught Skopo to keep a mask of stone while on the job.

“Shall we get down to business, sir?” proposed the director.

“That would be best,” replied Kitanin.

“My brother, Mlem, will describe for you how this business began.”

She nodded in the direction of the young man who worked as her secretary.

THe latter pivoted toward Skopo. “I was first to discover this erasure damage. One evening, about three weeks ago, I noticed a reading viewer that was still on. The screen was blank, although a viroid ribbon was still being projected onto the surface from the memory depository downstairs. It was surprising and disturbed me.”

Skopo stared fixedly at the slight, scholarly-looking brother who served as his sister’s aide.

“Did you try to find out who had used the reading device last?”

“Of course, I did,” frowned Mlem Totmax. “But that trail led nowhere.”

At this point, the director interrupted.

“Unfortunately, there is no way we can identify the user of that particular viewer. Our machines are available for free to the general reading public. This is not a library from the distant past, where one can withdraw cellulose or paper books. There is nothing here for a thief to steal. All of our records, archives, documents, and collections are recorded on virus in our memory banks below this building. Our central storehouse is open to all who wish to use it. How can we deal with a form of vandalism that has never occurred before and is impossible to explain?”

“Can something be secretly brought in to wipe out particular viroid memories? Some sort of new, unknown instrument that is able to cause this damage?” As Skopo spoke, he studied the eyes of Dari Totmax, as impenetrable as a black diamond. Her face seemed to give off a soft, golden glow. She was a unique, peculiar individual, he realized.

“I know of no technology that can accomplish such viral erasure, Mr. Kitanin,” murmured the director. “There has been nothing like this since viral recording and memory was first developed and placed in use.”

“You did not call for police assistance till now,” declared Skopo. “This vandalism has gone on for over a fortnight already. Am I correct?”

“Yes,” admitted Dari with evident regret. “We should not have hesitated that long. I recognize that fact. Our hope was that the damage would end on its own. That was our idea, but it proved an empty one. The erasures continue to the present day.”

“The number of viroid ribbons ruined has risen higher and higher,” added her brother in a pensive tone. “This can grow into an unprecedented disaster for the Library. The cost to our archives and collections will be irreparable.”

The detective looked sharply at him, then turned to his sister.

“Is there any pattern in what is being attacked and destroyed?” he inquired. “What sort of material is the target of erasures?”

“Nothing specific is destroyed,” groaned the director. “Erasure can occur to any viroid ribbon, of any character. There is nothing specially selected, nothing excluded.”

“That is an interesting point to consider,” thoughtfully mumbled the detective.

Dari stared at him with apprehension. “Our entire library is at risk if this continues to spread and widen.”

For a few moments, there was silence.

“It’s best I get to work on the case at once,” said Skopo as he rose to his feet. “My plan is to pose as a user of one of your public viewers. The purpose will be to keep an eye on what the others are up to inside the reading hall.”

The director turned her head toward her brother and addressed him.

“Find a vacant position for Inspector Kitanin and show him how to operate the viewer, Mlem. Be sure that there are no signs indicating anything special is going on with him. Make him as inconspicuous as possible.”

The aide nodded that he understood what was required of him.

“Thank you both,” muttered Skopo as he headed for the black polymetal door of the director’s office.

II.

The detective occasionally scanned the huge hall for suspicious activity.

His viewer was on a table close to the entrance, at the opposite end from the director’s office and the secretary’s desk. It was possible for Kitanin to see anyone who entered or exited. Since every other reader was facing away from him, his eyes took in all the other positions while he himself remained unseen.

Since he had to appear to be a legitimate patron of the viral library, Skopo punched in the index number of a popular volume he had heard of and was aware of, “The Historical Development of Viral Technology”.

From time to time, he took limited glances at the first page of the text on the green silver screen in front of him. He found some items that drew his interest.

“Much smaller than any virus, viroids differ from them by lacking a protein coat as their covering. They are short, highly structured strands of circular ribonucleic acid (RNA). They are molecular fossils of the RNA-dominated world that preceded our present world dominated by protein and DNA.

“Viroids replicate and continue their existence through a rolling circle mechanism with RNA intermediation and either enzyme or ribozyme processing continually going on.

“Many viroids are ribozymes with catalyptic properties and control over guanine and cytosine production.

“The origins of viroid ribbon and memory lie in a jungle of legal dispute and argument. Perhaps the whole truth will never be established with finality.

“The laboratory of the Virtek Company is the actual birthplace, according to the partisans of that corporation. Half a dozen of its research scientists have claimed the honor of having been the first. Counterclaims to Virtek by the independent pioneer Zado Atat were rejected in the courts. Technical patents went to Virtek for the work of its sextet of researchers. Atat died in abject poverty, an ambitious recluse, forgotten in the new world of advanced viral science. His grandiose claims were never proven or substantiated by any legal or scientific institution.”

Skopo looked up and made a quick survey of the other reading tables. His eyes stopped at one lone figure next to the left wall of the big hall. It took him a moment to realize what it was that riveted his attention there.

A short, shabby man with a long wand in his hand was silently rubbing it against his viewer screen.

This had to be the vandal erasing viral memory, Skopo told himself with rising excitement.

Would it be wise to make an arrest at once? No. The best strategy at this point was to wait and tail this suspect. A wider net might capture possible confederates along with this particular criminal.

The detective switched off his viewer and rose from the table.

Silently, he made his way out of the reading hall, out through the entrance, then down the front steps into Library Square.

Skopo sat down on a rubber street bench and patiently waited.

After about five minutes, the round little man he was interested in came out of the building. It will be easy to follow a person wearing such a reddish orange suit, decided the detective. It seemed best to give him a head start, then follow at the maximum possible distance. Experience had made Kitanin an excellent stalker through the winding, narrow streets of Kalender. Here in the ancient central district of the city, motor vehicles were prohibited. The narrow walkways belonged to pedestrians alone. Following someone here was easy under such circumstances.

The investigator knew well the streets, alleys, and lanes of the old quarter. Large vehicles were not permitted here.

Few people were about at this time, it appeared. The suspect’s pace was a brisk one. Where had he hidden his wand-like stick? wondered Skopo.

On both sides of the narrow street were small specialty shops huddled together on the ground floors of large blocks of apartments. Shoes, carpets, jewelry, luggage, furniture suits and dresses, and viral tapes and equipment were for sale in different stores. The noon hour was obviously a slow one hereabouts in terms of business activity. Most individuals had to be resting or eating.

While he ambled along with energy, the pursuer kept his eyes fixed on the red-orange cloth far ahead of him. The target appeared in a hurry to get somewhere. He did not look back once to see if anyone were shadowing him. Why was he rushing so swiftly to a destination? What was the reason for such haste?

Suddenly, there was no one ahead of Skopo.

The quarry must have lurched into a side street or lane. The detective started to accelerate until he was moving at nearly a run. Had he lost the trail of the culprit? That would mean having to start over again, trying to find the vandal at the library at a future time. This particular hunt had turned into failure, it appeared.

As he made a turn into the side lane, the policeman smiled ruefully.

Might as well stop, for the subject he was following had vanished from sight.

Skopo did not panic, for past experiences had taught him not to despair when something like this happened. He knew that such defeats were possible in his difficult profession.

He looked up and down the shadow-filled lane.

How far could the suspect have gone? What was the most likely business or building he could have entered?

The stalker’s attention focused on a transmetal door to a small restaurant.

“Carnivan” proclaimed the gas sign on the red brick outside wall of the place. This was a carnivorous eatery with an attached meat market behind it.

Kitanin walked up and looked in one of the wide front windows.

Patrons sat at circular tables, eating and conversing. A long lunch-counter took up the left wall of the restaurant. In the rear were displays of meats for sale. Shelves with milk, butter, and eggs were available.

As his eyes returned to where people were sitting and eating, Skopo fixed his eyes upon one of the waiters coming out of the kitchen in the back with a tray of non-vegetarian foods. The small, tubby man wore an immaculate white apron, yet the detective instantly recognized him. The vandal he had trailed worked here, serving the radical minority of carnivores in Kalender.

Perhaps the criminal is a flesh-eater, frowned the investigator, himself a vegetarian in a society and culture that frowned upon and avoided all forms of meat.

This case was becoming strange, Skopo said to himself.

III.

Mlem Totmax was watching the green lines of letters on the screen in front of him and only looked away when Skopo was inches away from him.

“Where have you been?” whispered the secretary. “It was over an hour ago that you walked out of the reading hall.”

The investigator leaned forward. “I must talk with your sister. You too, should hear what I have to report.”

Mlem sprang to his feet and stepped to the black door, opening it for the police officer, then entering the office behind him. Dari, working at reports on her viewer, gave a start upon seeing Kitanin. “Has anything happened?” she said with alarm in her voice.

Then, thinking again, she invited the visitor to take a seat across from her.

“There has been a major development,” announced Skopo. “Only time will tell if it will bring this whole affair to a conclusion.” He went on to describe his pursuit of the man with the wand-stick. When this was finished, Dari turned and spoke to Mlem.

“Will you find out if there has been any memory destruction today?”

Without a word, the brother rose and slipped out of the office.

Skopo stared intently at the library director. Finally, he asked her a question.

“Have you ever had any trouble with carnivores in this institution?”

Dari shook her head. “No. I can’t think of any reason for problems with meat-eaters at the Central Library. We take no position on dietary rules or customs. That is not a matter that we have any interest in.”

“I see,” muttered the other.

“The erasures have been completely random,” she added. “No particular subject matter has been picked out for special attention or treatment by the vandal or vandals involved.”

“Yes,” nodded Skopo. “There may be others in this beyond the waiter whom I tailed out of here today. The man is employed in a place that serves flesh to meat-eaters.”

A short silence followed.

“What do you plan to do next?” inquired Dari.

“I will return to the Carnivan restaurant for dinner, although I have never tasted animal food in any form at all.”

“It will be a new experience for you?” she grinned with sympathy.

“Indeed. It is best to move slowly in this area. I will easily reveal myself a neophyte, one with no experience beyond a vegetarian diet. My order must be for something simple and easy to digest. I do not wish to make myself ill or arouse any kind of suspicion.”

“You mean to find out the identity of this waiter?”

“Yes. If he is the one who serves me dinner, it will give me an opening to talk with the man and hopefully learn more about him.”

A sudden idea struck Dari. “I want to go with you to this restaurant,” she proposed with determination and spirit. “It would appear much more natural, a pair rather than a single patron. Perhaps as we talk back and forth between ourselves, we can entice the waiter to reveal things about himself.”

For a moment, Skopo considered the proposal.

“It might help put him off his guard,” he said, overcoming his initial reluctance and relenting.

“Very well, then. We will visit the Carnavan together. Are you familiar with this type of food, Miss Totmax?”

“No,” she replied. “Like you, I grew up a strict vegetarian.”

The two proceeded to make their plans for that evening.

Two persons walked along in the dimming twilight, their pace slow and leisurely. There was nothing about either worthy of notice.

People going home from work or on their way to evening recreation passed them in both directions. Lighting tubes on the outside of high apartments began to turn on. Restaurants began to fill up with hungry customers.

“Don’t be afraid to talk to the waiter,” murmured Skopo under his breath. “He should be off guard working at his job.”

Dari peered down at the weathered cobblestone lane ahead of them.

“What sort of monster would commit an act like today’s?” she asked with an exasperated sigh. “We can never replace the original literary sources that man erased. The loss is a permanent one. It is a tragedy.”

They advanced a short distance, then entered a side street. “This is where the non-vegan restaurant is, Miss Totmax.”

“Please call me Dari,” she softly suggested to him.

As purple dusk gathered outside, they stepped into the brightly lit restaurant section of the Carnavan. Most of the round tables appeared occupied. But since the dinner hour was coming to an end, the place should be less crowded from now on, Skopo calculated. He motioned with his hand to a vacant table near the door to the kitchen. Dari led the way there.

The couple sat down opposite each other. Neither of them spoke.

A silky voice startled them. “I’ll be with you in just a moment.”

Both of the newly arrived glanced at the tray-carrying waiter passing swiftly past their table. Short and lumpy, he wore a large white apron of cotton.

Skopo signaled to Dari with a blink of the eye. Yes, this was the one they were interested in. The librarian pursed her mouth. She understood perfectly.

Shortly, the stubby little waiter approached their table. He handed each of them a small menu. “Do you wish to order immediately or later?” his high tenor asked.

“We are new to carnivorous fare,” explained the detective with exaggerated hesitancy and embarrassment. “Neither of us has eaten in here before. Perhaps you could recommend a good selection for us to start with.” He stared at the waiter, his eyes begging for guidance.

“Yes, of course,” was the fluttering answer. “I would suggest you start with soup. Our most popular one is made with chicken and eggs. Garlic, pepper, and onion are in it for taste. Then, for the main dish, I myself would order the roasted lamb cutlet, covered with special cream sauce. There is a lot of animal protein in all of it. Your mouth will water as soon as you sniff this meat.”

Skopo felt his stomach turn over. “Very well,” he forced himself to agree.

“I will have the same,” added Dari. “It sounds good to me.”

The waiter appeared transported. “And for desert, I recommend our genuine ice cream made of imported cow’s milk. It is high in animal fat, you know.”

“Yes,” agreed Kitanin. “That sounds like just what we came here for. We are only recent adherents of the meat-based diet. There are many animal foods that neither of us have ever tried.”

“It takes time to adjust to a new way of eating,” the waiter explained. “Many beginning carnivores have trouble fully adjusting. Some suffer from sudden lapses into their old ways. I myself once had a severe panic attack, but recovered and returned to eating flesh. For people here on our planet of Farmer, it isn’t easy to break away from the old rules and superstitions of the past. But I try the best that I can, increasing my consumption of meat each day, each week that passes.”

He took their menus and hurried off to the kitchen.

Skopo and his companion exchanged glances, but neither said anything to the other. Their communication was an intangible kind.

By the time the pair finished their desert, the restaurant was only half full. When the waiter brought their bill, both appeared well satisfied.

“I hope that both of you enjoyed the meal,” he told them cheerfully. “Perhaps our expert cooking will convince you that an animal diet is the only true one for humans to follow.”

The detective gave him a sharp, steady look. “As you said earlier, it is easy to backslide from meat consumption when one is new to it. If only we could get together with other carnivores for mutual support and guidance, that might save us from pain and suffering.”

All at once, the waiter seemed to grab the bait offered him by Skopo. He leaned forward so that both customers could hear his whispered words. His face was flushed with excitement.

“My name is Trepo,” he softly muttered. “I am active in a group that helps its members learn more about pure animal nutrition. It encourages the individual not to slide or stray back to vegetarianism. Each of us provides moral support to the others.

“Would you two be interested in attending one of our meetings and lectures?”

“Very much so,” responded Kitanin with enthusiasm.

“That goes for me, too,” added Dari.

“I’ll write down the time and location for you,” grinned Trepo. “If anyone should ask who you are, tell them you know the main speaker for the evening, Trepo Lenad. That is me.”

The waiter took a blank check from the pad he carried and wrote out what he had promised to. “I shall be expecting you at my lecture, then,” he smiled as he left their table.

IV.

The two made their way slowly through the crowded night streets.

Why do so many inhabitants of Kalender prefer the outside to their homes and apartments? wondered Skopo. Was it due to boredom with life indoors? What did people think they would find in the evening streets?

Perhaps the sense of being among so many happy strangers gave an emotional lift to persons who had a humdrum existence during the day. Strangers represented pure potential to each other. You to me, I to you. Even the poor can pose as something they are not. Each one can imagine another life, different from their familiar one. There appeared to be benefits in such pretense.

So mused Skopo as the pair reached Library Square.

“Why don’t you come to our apartment?” proposed Dari out of the blue. “Mlem is waiting for me there. You can tell him yourself what happened. And we can lay down our plans for the carnivore meeting we will be attending together.”

The flat was on the tenth floor of an ordinary-looking old rockstone building in the bohemian quarter of Kalender.

A lifter carried Dari and the detective slowly upward, with a half dozen other passengers who got off before them.

Mlem opened the door and welcomed the two in.

Dari explained that “I invited our friend to stop in so all three of us can discuss what happened tonight and what comes next.”

“Sit down, please,” Mlem invited their visitor.

Skopo took a large velvet sofa chair made of soft rubber. Brother and sister sat down on opposite ends of a long stuffed couch from an earlier time that they had inherited from their parents.

“This couch belonged to our mother and father,” explained Mlem. “At one time, our family owned a farm outside Kalender. But the city expanded and swallowed up their rural area. They had to sell the land and almost everything on it.”

Dari continued the story. “They were amaranth farmers as their ancestors had been since coming to planet Farmer. Vegetarianism was at the foundation of their lives. Like almost all growers, they raised no animals and consumed no meat. Is it this great city that creates carnivores, Skopo?”

“I never thought of it that way,” confessed the latter. “The craving for animal food is a very new development on Farmer, a sort of fad or craze.”

“It seems to be spreading and strengthening,” noted Mlem. “I don’t understand it at all.”

Dari proceeded to describe what happened at the restaurant for her brother. Then, she turned to the detective with a question.

“Do you suppose that carnivorous motives lie behind the vandalism at the Central Library?” she boldly asked him.

“It’s too early to tell,” cautioned Skopo. “We have to find out much more.”

No one said a word for a short while, until Mlem asked a sudden question.

“How much danger is there, Mr. Kitanin, for you and my sister in attending this meeting of meat-eaters?”

Skopo focused his gaze on the brother. “I don’t foresee any trouble,” he answered reassuringly. “There is little chance that our identities will be known by anyone present. Besides, I always enter anywhere prepared for the worst.” He reached into the inside pocket of his purple coat and drew out a small, transparent object. “This is a polyplastic shooter that serves as my final defense.”

The weapon went back into its hiding place over his heart.

Dari was next to speak. “I feel perfectly safe being with Skopo,” she murmured with confidence. “This waiter suspects nothing.” Her eyes turned to the detective. “Isn’t that correct?” she asked him.

“Yes,” he strongly replied. “I am sure that any trouble can be handled by us.”

“Then, if that is the situation, I intend to accompany the two of you,” assrted Mlem with a smile. “There is no reason the three of us should not go there as a group, is there?”

Dari seemed surprised and shaken. “I don’t think you ought to come,” she protested with emotion. “Trepo will be expecting only the two he met at the Carnavan. Your presence would have to be explained by us.”

Her brother decided to appeal to Skopo to arbitrate the matter.

“What is your opinion, Skopo?” he pleaded. “Don’t you think three persons can snoop much better than only two?”

The investigator thought a moment before responding to Mlem.

“The best cover is to tell as much of the truth as possible. That makes people willing to accept what you say, even the untrue parts. So if anyone asks for your name, give it. Admit working at the Central Library. I myself will be the sole liar among us three, claiming to be a new employee there. If pressed, I will admit being involved in fighting the recent vandal attacks. There is no need to be too secretive in my type of work, I have learned from experience.”

It took a while for this stratagem to sink in for the Totmaxes. The detective explained it with calm patience.

“If I appear to be a protector of the library and falling into carnivorism, someone there may try to recruit me to the vandal side.”

It was Mlem who reacted first.

“That is most clever. Make them believe you are a person who could be of great value if connected with their conspiracy.”

Dari appeared lost in a puzzle over motive. “Why would a cult of extreme carnivorousness be committing crimes against our viral memory ribbons?”

“That is what we have to find out,” muttered Skopo, thinking aloud. “Can you have lunch with me tomorrow at the Carnavan, Dari? It would impress Trepo that we are serious about joining his movement.”

“Certainly. But won’t you be watching out for erasures at the Library?”

Kitanin frowned. “No. We have to give Trepo some breathing room. For a time, he must be allowed to destroy memory unhindered. I don’t want him to suspect that anyone is on to what he is doing in the reading hall.”

Dari was still worried. “What if my brother or I make a slip of some sort?”

The detective smiled at her. “I can always extricate us from the situation,” he promised. “Remember, there is a weapon in my coat pocket.”

“I’ll be there, too,” interjected Mlem. “If trouble occurs, there will be the three of us.”

Skopo laughed. “We will keep you in reserve, my friend. I don’t anticipate our unmasking in any way.”

V.

On their way to lunch at the Carnavan, the investigator described to Dari what he had read that morning in the Kalender Morning News.

“They report that there has occurred the unexplained destruction of a financial page that was planned to be published today. The viroid matrix over which it is composed became totally blank. Business and financial circles have lost valuable information necessary for their operations. Viral experts are unable to explain what happened. Fears of greater mischief have arisen.”

“There is a truly evil influence involved, I fear,” said Dari in a whisper. “This is much more than the mad vandalism of a single lunatic.”

Her companion glanced at Dari. “Yes, I agree.”

A premonition of complicated conspiracy had been an early feeling in his mind, recalled the investigator. How far did it reach? he mused as they entered the now familiar side street. How far did the web of conspiracy extend?

The pair remained silent until they were definitely inside the carnivorous restaurant. They stood for a moment, looking about. The lunchtime crowd seemed to have thinned out. A vacant table adjacent to the one they had occupied the previous evening attracted their attention. Dari nodded to Skopo. That was the place for them to be, both of them understood.

After sitting down, they waited patiently for Trepo to appear. Instead, an unfamiliar waiter came to their table.

“Good afternoon,” crooned a lanky, bald-headed man in an apron. He gave each of them a menu. “Do you wish to order something immediately?”

The customers stared at each other a moment. This was unexpected, both of them recognized. Dari decided to take the initiative to straighten matters out.

“We haven’t seen Trepo,” she pleasantly chirped. “Is he still in the kitchen?”

The server grinned. “Are you friends of his?”

“Yes,” interrupted Skopo. “We expected to see him, but it appears he is not here.”

“He isn’t. Trepo asked to have the day off.”

‘The entire day?” said the detective.

“That’s right,” confirmed the tall waiter. “He said that it was impossible for him to be here because of his father’s condition. The old man is extremely ill and needs constant care and attention. At least that is what Trepo claims.”

The waiter’s right eye winked knowingly.

“I’ve never met Trepo’s father,” continued Skopo, hoping to elicit more information. “What is the old fellow like?”

“He is not a carnivore,” grimaced the server with disgust. “Trepo has failed to convert him. I remember hearing that he worked for years as a viral engineer.”

“That is interesting,” murmured the detective, almost to himself. He lowered his eyes to the menu in his hands. “What do you recommend we have for lunch today?” he asked, raising his voice.

“Roast beef casserole,” suggested the waiter with a smile. “It’s one of the biggest favorites we have.”

“I think I’ll try that,” ventured Dari.

“So will I,” seconded her companion.

When the waiter was gone, Skopo whispered to the librarian.

“I’ll run a background check on the Lenads, father and son. There may be something in the records about the one or the other.”

It was Mlem who opened the door to the apartment and let Skopo in.

“I looked through a lot of police sources on the console screen at my office,” announced the investigator, standing in the living room. “There is interesting material available about the father of Trepo. I found out that Vrem Lenad lives with his son and is a viral engineer who specializes in linguistic applications. He is a Master of Technology who graduated from Kalender University and works for a language school as its chief engineer.

“Isn’t that an interesting background?” grinned the visitor.

“Dari will find that useful to know,” remarked the brother. “She will be here momentarily.”

The two males sat down and waited for the appearance of the Library Director.

“There was alarming news on the virion line this morning,” noted Skopo suddenly. “The broadcast that I caught mentioned that crop reports have suffered serious damage and interruptions overnight.

“And once again, stock market price quotations have undergone erasures and general ruination. Viral scientists who were called in proved unable to figure out how such attacks might have occurred.

“There appears to be some sort of unknown advanced but exotic new technology involved, but no one has the least knowledge how the damage could be accomplished.”

“It would seem, then, that the Central Library is not the sole target or victim of these unidentified vandals,” said Mlem with a deep sigh of vexation and frustration. “But yesterday there occurred several focused attacks that destroyed specific kind of content. There was a concentration upon erasing and wiping out specialized areas of advanced viral science.”

At that moment, Dari emerged from her room in the rear of the apartment. She wore a linen dress with pink and yellow stripes on it.

“Good morning, Skopo,” she melodically crooned.

The detective rose to his feet, smiling at her. She motioned him to sit down, then took a place beside her brother.

“I’ve told our friend about yesterday’s library vandalism,” muttered Mlem, a frown covering his brow.

“It grows daily,” said his sister. “I hope we can stop it soon.” Her eyes fixed on Skopo.

“The Central Library is no longer the only target,” added the latter, proceeding to relate the virion line attacks on important broadcasts.

“This plague is spreading, then,” sighed Dari. “Perhaps the Library damage was a sort of experimental dry run. My hope is that Trepo Lenad can open the right door for us. Did you find anything of value in his background or history?”

“Not much. His education ended abruptly at the University. He studied viral science but became a restaurant worker. I find his father much more interesting.”

“Why is that?” exclaimed Dari, growing excited.

‘He works as a viral engineer for an outfit called the Atat Language School. I would like to meet and question this man. His technical knowledge could be a basic, important factor in this erasure campaign we are witnessing. He may be at the very center of it all.”

“The father is supposed to be ill, according to Trepo,” remembered Dari.

Skopo pursed his thin lips. “That may or may not be so. It would be useful if we could convince Trepo to invite us to his flat. I would like to learn what this Vnem Lenad does as viral engineer at a language school.”

“Was this place named for the crackpot crank who claimed he invented the viroid ribbon, the development that inspired much change and progress on our planet of Farmer?” interjected Mlem with curiosity.

All at once, the detective grasped the connection being made.

“You are referring to Zado Atat, I take it. He claimed to having been first to engrave micro-data on viroid tape, but his rivals at Virtek challenged, defeated, and humiliated him. I overlooked the significance of the school’s name, Mlem.”

The latter smiled with pride. “The name just rang a bell for me,” he modestly noted.

“The waiter told us his father is not a practicing carnivore,” recalled Dari. “But the son could be exercising extraordinary influence over him, for all we know.”

“There are varying degrees of animal diet,” explained Skopo. “An adherent may be only a lacto-carnivore who consumes milk, or a ovo-lacto one who eats eggs as well. A pesco-carnivore has a fish diet. The full carnivore diet takes in all forms of meat, milk, and eggs. It is the highest, purest group.”

Mlem turned to his sister. “What do you intend to become. Dari?” he chuckled with a serious face. “Are you planning to go the whole route?”

The librarian gave him a withering look. “This is a dangerous business we are getting involved in,” she chided him. “I think it best if we save our levity for later, when all of this is resolved.”

“We have to be prepared to face problems and questions at the lecture by Trepo tonight,” warned Skopo.

VI.

No more than thirty were present in the rented meeting hall when Skopo entered, Dari on his right, Mlem slightly behind them. The three took planewood chairs in the last row. The detective surveyed the audience without seeming to stare. Ordinary-looking men and women. Were any of them destroyers of public viral ribbon? Appearances could easily deceive in such a forum.

Glad to see you,” said a familiar voice. Skopo leaned to his left, where Trepo Lenad stood in the narrow central aisle. The waiter, wearing a bright banana-colored suit, held a thick paper folder under one arm.

“Good evening,” smiled Kitanin. “You know Dari here. This is her brother, Mlem. He nodded his head in the direction of the young library aide seated on the opposite side of the female. Dari decided to give an explanation of her brother’s presence.

“He and I are eager to improve our health on a carnivorous diet. Already, we see improvement in our body and our stamina. We have become enthusiastic about our new way of eating.”

“I am happy that all of you came,” gushed Trepo with a broad grin. “But please excuse me. It is nearly time for me to start proceedings.” Bowing, he then hastened to the front of the audience and climbed up on a small stage.

All eyes concentrated on Trepo as he stepped behind a silicon rostrum, placing his folder upon it. He peered out at the assembled listeners.

“I am gratified that so many had the time to come here this evening. Hopefully, you shall learn useful guideposts from my words.

“My topic will be the benefits of increasing the freshness of our meat, milk, and eggs. This is denied by our vegetarian enemies, but let me warn you that they have great numbers. Their attacks upon us never cease.

“The majority on Farmer never taste animal food at all, yet they insist on having fresh vegetables. That is always the crying demand of our neighbors. But ask yourself: don’t we deserve to have a fresh animal diet as well?

“Why must our meat be totally imported? Why is the raising of food animals banned on our planet? We want to grow our own supply of flesh for ourselves, but are not permitted to do so.

“That old prohibition is obsolete and must be abolished as soon as possible.”

Many enthusiasts in the audience clapped loudly. This rose in volume, becoming general applause. The group of three pretenders joined in with the others as the sound reached its peak.

Trepo glowed with pride, continuing on.

“Raw and lightly cooked meats are full of amino acids and proteins. Animal enzymes enter our stomachs with potency. We receive needed iron that prevents our hemoglobin from falling low in oxygen and causing anemia. We follow the rule: no iron, no oxygen or energy. Only meat guarantees us sufficient iron for good health. That is especially important for females…”

As Trepo droned on, the eyes of Skopo scanned the audience. These were ordinary-looking men and women, nothing particularly noteworthy about them. Yet he saw the dedicated fanatics of the animal diet gathered together here.

How many of them were involved in viral erasing? he wondered.

The speaker continued in a low tone, dreary and monotonous.

“Meat is rich in the mineral of zinc. Our reproductive and immunity systems are dependent upon an adequate supply. Over two hundred enzymes are activated by the zinc we consume. A vegetarian diet risks too low zinc levels.”

Skopo speculated whether Trepo was exploiting his father’s knowledge of viral science. For what conceivable purpose? Did the carnivore movement have some arcane reason for the senseless destruction of virus memory?

“Are there any questions?” concluded Trepo.

Yes, thought Skopo to himself. Why are you causing harm to the Central Library and our viral communications and memories?

What is the motive for this evil campaign, and who are your associates?

No one asked the lecturer anything. “Let us now go to the non-vegetarian refreshment table, then,” the speaker proposed to all his audience.

Kitanin and Dari stood before Trepo, eating cheese tidbits.

“You weren’t at work today,” grinned the detective. “The tall man who served us said that you had to stay home.”

Lenad’s face blanched white. “My father has been very ill of late,” he explained. “I was with him most of the day.”

“I hope he feels better soon,” smiled Dari with sympathy.

“Thank you,” replied the waiter. “Father is now resting at home.”

“He is there by himself?” said the investigator with curiosity.

“Yes. Father quieted down sufficiently to allow him to fall asleep.”

A bold inquiry then came from Mlem. “What is the nature of his illness?”

Skopo and Dari looked at him with alarm, then turned back to Trepo again.

Had the question unsettled or disturbed their suspect?

“My father worked for years with viral ribbon. His sickness is one of the hazards of constant contact with viruses. He began to suffer toxic infection about two years ago. He has had to quit working ever since becoming bedridden. His condition has become steadily worse. I am greatly worried about him.”

Vengeance, mused Skopo. The son seeking revenge for what happened to his invalid father.

Trepo pointed to the raw meat sandwiches on the table behind them.

“Those are delicious,” said the lecturer. “I think I’ll have another one.”

As he moved away, Dari and Skopo exchanged brief, meaningful looks.

What now? each of them wondered.

The crowd gathered about the refreshment snacks made way for the evening’s speaker. But Trepo suddenly stopped, his eyes catching sight of someone just entering the hall. The waiter turned around and made a dash for the door of the hall.

Skopo, Dari, and Mlem watched, as most of the others did.

Trepo seemed electrified by what he had spied.

A bent, stooped little man with a ghostly bluish face stumbled forward on a polymetal cane. Each step was slow and tentative.

All at once, his legs collapsed before Trepo could reach him. The stricken body fell to the floor helplessly, along with the cane.

Trepo placed his arms around the waist of the desperately panting figure. Several individuals rushed up to help him. Together, they lifted the one who had fainted and carried him to a nearby chair, where they deposited him.

A volunteer went to fetch water. Trepo hovered over the pale-faced oldster.

“Father, what did you come here for?”

The onlookers watched spellbound as the leader lifted the cup for the sick one to drink from.

Skopo, a few feet away, decided to intercede. “Can I see and examine him?” he proposed. “I have had first-aid training and experience.” There flashed through his mind images of emergency classes at Kalender Police Academy.

The crowd made room for the detective to approach and feel the forehead of the invalid. He then checked the wrist for the man’s pulse.

Skopo turned to the son and spoke in a lowered voice.

“I think he is suffering from exhaustion. It must have taken an enormous effort to walk here. His heart is beating fast and he is running a high fever. His face shows the blue color of viral disease.

“Your father needs immediate rest in order to recover his strength. Can we get him quickly to the nearest hospital?”

The waiter nodded in agreement. “Yes, that would be best.”

Mlem spoke up. “I’ll go outside and look for a public carrier or taxi.”

“A good idea,” approved Skopo. “Go at once and find us a motorbox.”

People were leaving the meeting hall, perhaps frightened by the blue palour of the viral victim.

Dari bravely took the father’s right hand and held it tightly.

“You will be all right,” she calmly whispered. “For now, just rest and think of nothing.”

“Let me try a head massage,” said Skopo from behind her. Dari allowed him to take her place in front of Vrem Lenad.

The detective leaned forward, placed his hands on the latter’s head, and slowly applied pressure as he began to make circular motions. In a little while, the viral engineer closed his eyes and fell into slumber.

Meanwhile, Mlem Totmax hailed an empty motorbox. The driver steered the three-wheeled vehicle to the entrance of the meeting hall.

“Stay here till we carry an ailing passenger out of this building,” commanded the young man. “Can you drive him to a hospital?”

“Of course,” replied the driver. “That would be Kalender Hydroclinic. It is less than a mile from where we now are.”

Mlem hurried back into the hall and announced he had found a street carrier to take the fallen one to a medical facility.

Skopo helped Trepo lift his sleeping father and carry him outside to the waiting motorbox.

Since the vehicle had only two empty seats, one in front and one behind the driver, there was a problem of how to accompany the patient.

“We will walk to the Hydroclinic, while you ride with your father,” Skopo said to Trepo. “See that he immediately receives attention from medicos there.”

The motorbox began to roll forward over the smooth cobblestone with father and son inside it.

The three pseudo-carnivores followed on foot.

VII.

Water for every pain or illness. That was the motto of the hydrotherapy that had evolved over many centuries on Farmer. From custom and tradition grew a unique system of treatment and cure. Salt water, alkaloid water, acidic water, ionized water, hydrolyzed water, mineralized water: all had been tried and tested over the generations. All had found their place in the science and art of healing. Physicians used hydraulic immersion in the treatment of most illnesses. It was the central core of medicine on the planet Farmer.

In the forefront of advanced research stood Kalender Hydroclinic. Its tanks and chambers were the best anywhere. Patients came from all sections of Farmer. The reputation of the institution was the highest. Its emergency unit was always busy and packed with people. The population held it in highest esteem.

Skopo led his companions into the crowded central corridor in the rear of the clinic. Scores of gurneys with newly admitted patients lined the walls. Trepo was first to catch sight of his father, lying under a yellow plastic sheet. He ran to where a nurse was reading the dials of a monitoring device attached to the chest of Vrem.

The four congregated alongside the gurney. Moans and groans rose everywhere in the corridor, but not from the father of Trepo. He was still and silent, with his eyes shut. His breathing was hard to notice.

The nurse looked up. “He is under sedation,” she explained, then walked off.

There was less blueness in Vrem’s face, Skopo noticed.

The detective whispered to Trepo. “Has anything like this happened before?”

“Several times, but this is the worst he has ever been,” answered the son.

It was at that point that a gigantic male appeared, towering above all four of them. The giant in a brilliant yellow suit had blazing brown eyes in a dark, square face. He exuded an intense inner energy of brain and nerves as he moved past them to the side of the gurney. His right hand felt the left wrist of Vrem as he studied the dials on the monitor unit.

Trepo whispered to his three companions. “This is Dr. Atat, my father’s physician.”

The latter looked at the group a moment, then spoke to Trepo.

“They paged me by viroidfon as soon as he was brought here. It was a good thing he had his identity band in his wallet, because I was identified there as the medical to call in case of emergency.”

“Thank you for arriving so swiftly, sir,” softly said the son. Remembering he was not alone there, he introduced the new carnivores to the doctor.

“How serious do you believe this attack was for him?” continued Trepo, anxiety in his voice. “Can anything be done for him here in this clinic?”

The physician lowered his voice to a barely audible murmur.

“Virus has spread through the lymphatic system to all parts of the body. I am going to prescribe a helium flush immediately, as soon as possible.”

“Will that save him?” pleaded the son.

“It will take several hours of preparation to have him ready to enter a hydraulic chamber. I think that the pressurized helium can start penetrating through his skin before dawn in the morning.”

“Isn’t it quite risky?” trembled Trepo.

“There is no other way to attain total detoxification,” said the physician. “It will be a highly critical treatment, but it will clean your father of all traces of the virus that is poisoning his body.”

The waiter thought a moment. “If there is no alterative to a helium flush…”

“I myself will supervise his immersion,” promised Dr. Atat with confidence.

At that second, two strong men in green uniform appeared. The group made way so they could wheel away the gurney with Vrem on it.

“I must go with them to oversee what is done,” said Atat to the others.

Once he and the gurney were gone, those left in the corridor waited a moment before heading for the entrance to the emergency unit.

The night air was cool and refreshing to the foursome.

As the new carnivores took leave of Trepo, Skopo made sure to get his viroidfon code number so he could call and ask about the father’s health the next day.

Early next morning, Skopo made a report to his immediate superior, Chief of Detectives Yato Pmom. The latter stared at him with unblinking eyes as the events of the previous night were narrated for him.

When Kitanin had finished, the Chief rose from his chair and started pacing about the office. “The erasures are growing more frequent and serious,” he grumbled. “Late yesterday afternoon, the target became the Tax Department memory center, wiping out important tax records. All the viroid lines used in reporting and collecting information from businesses and industrial factories are in grave peril. No one can foresee what the vandals might accomplish in the period ahead.”

Skopo frowned. “What can we do? Arrest all the carnivores associated with the Lenads? That might not even be enough.”

“Is this doctor somehow involved?” asked Pmom, standing in front of the sitting detective and focusing on him.

“I can’t say for sure, not yet,” replied Skopo.

“Anything on him in our viroid files?”

“Just the basics. This hydrophysician, Predo Atat, is the grandson of the controversial inventor, Zado Atat. He has a brother named for their grandfather. This second Zado Atat operates a language school. The one who practices medicine is an expert in viral poisoning. He has done important research on metallic and mineral toxicity from contact with memory units. His articles have appeared in important medical journals and on viroidline.”

“That is interesting, Skopo, but what does it mean? Is this doctor connected to the erasure attacks?”

“I don’t want to speculate at present, but he seems to have a reason to seek vengeance for what happened to his grandfather years ago.”

“Revenge for insults and attacks two generations ago?” countered the Chief.

“Anything is possible when a family feels that wrong was done to it. Both this doctor and his brother from the language school may be harboring old grudges against viroid makers and users. I intend to investigate both brothers.”

“Be careful,” warned Pmom. “It may be dangerous ground around these two.”

VIII.

The papex sign over the entrance to the Central Library proclaimed its message in stark, large letters. “Closed Until Further Notice”.

Kitanin turned about and headed for the flat occupied by the two Totmaxes.

An excited crowd, watching a huge viral screen mounted over the marquee of a department store, blocked his way forward. It was a news program that mesmerized them. More memory erasures were happening, oftener than ever before.

The vandalism was turning into an unstoppable epidemic. It had spread to a variety of different organizations and institutions.

Within minutes, he was at the apartment building and ascended to where his associates lived.

Mlem opened the door and led him in. “You know about the Library, then?”

“I saw the sign,” said Skopo as Dari stepped in from the kitchen.

“Good morning,” she wearily smiled. “We are home today, until the library building is again safe for operation. The viroid destruction has to end before that can happen.”

“The attacks have spread everywhere. Government, banking, business, industry, schools, theaters. No viroid ribbon is safe anywhere.”

All of a sudden, Mlem made an unexpected, unforeseeable proposal.

“Since last night I have been thinking over how I could go to the Atat Language School and enroll in one of their courses. That might be the way to unravel the riddle of the group we are interested in. If Dr. Predo Atat is involved in erasures, then his brother is also probably in with him. Or, at least, Zado knows the extent of the conspiracy. So far, there is no proof of anything beyond Trepo Lenad and his wand. But if I could explore this school, we might catch hold of what lies behind all this evil destruction.”

Skopo peered at him with skepticism. “Such an attempt requires experience that you have not had, Mlem,” he murmured soothingly. “You would be taking great risk. Do you know what you will be looking for in this school?”

“I will go along with you,” volunteered Dari. “Two agents can do more than just one.”

“I don’t want the two of you to take on such a dangerous assignment on your own,” forcefully asserted the detective. “There is one way of protecting both of you.”

“What is that?” eagerly inquired Dari.

“The two of you must wear warners that can send signals through walls. I will be hovering about outside with a receiver unit.”

“That sounds pretty secure,” said Mlem with enthusiasm. “We can start for the school as soon as we have these warners attached to us. I myself will feel much safer with such a link to the outside.”

Soon Skopo left for police headquarters to obtain the devices they would be carrying in the next stage of investigation of the viroid attacks.

He smiled as he realized that his partners were still ignorant of his official role in what they were involved in. He was more than someone hired by the official board of the Library, but he had not informed anyone of that.

IX.

The building was a blood red silicon structure from the age before the viroid revolution. It was on an undistinguished side street in the artistic quarter of Kalender. Painters, actors, and writers were neighbors of the rundown Atat Language School. Dirty, dusty windows revealed the fallen state of the premises where students studied the many tongues of the planet Farmer.

Less than a quarter mile from the crimson edifice was a small park concealed under the shelter of giant century trees. Here, alone on a polyplastic bench, Skopo sat with a tiny etherwave receiver on his lap. It was tuned to a music frequency, but inside the donut-shaped apparatus was a warner ready to capture any signal sent from the Totmaxes should they fall into an awkward situation. The selections from the classical repertoire of Farmer were sweet and melodic, their rhythms slow and unvarying. Just an ordinary citizen with time on his hands, enjoying the shady centuries and old musical favorites.

Meanwhile, his investigative colleagues were visible to him as they walked along the cobblestone, stopped at the blood red building, and entered its great polymetal door.

Both Dari and Mlem felt inner trepidation as they approached a woman sitting at an old, second-hand desk. Her whitish blond hair was piled up in an outdated, country-style bun.

“Yes?” she asked politely. “Can I be of help to you?”

The sister did the talking for the pair.

“We are both interested in learning other languages,” she announced in a low, confident voice.

“Have you decided which ones?” sympathetically inquired the woman with the bun.

“Indeed,” grinned Dari. “Both of us agree on that. I myself am interested in studying Laftian, while my brother would like to master the Onxsian language. We plan to take a long voyage around Farmer, so it will be necessary for us to begin our studies as soon as possible. There is no time to lose. Could we start our training in these tongues without delay? We want to learn these tongues as quickly as possible.”

The secretary sprang out of her polyfabric chair. “Are you familiar with the flash viroid method of condensed learning?”

“No,” admitted the librarian without embarrassment. “Neither is my brother. But we are both very eager to use whatever system will succeed in cutting to a minimum the time involved in our instruction. Speed is of the essence for us.”

The whitish blond smiled at Dari. “You must meet our director at once, then.” She started to move toward a closed door behind her desk. “If you will wait a moment, I can get Mr. Atat to explain everything for you.”

She stepped over to the door, opened it, and disappeared into the interior of the school.

The Totmaxes silently glanced at each other. THe plan was a success, so far. But what was to happen once they faced the man in charge here?

The secretary returned in less than a minute.

“He can see you at once. Please go through the door there.”

Dari moved forward first, followed by Mlem. In seconds, they were in a spacious, airy office with walls of paneled funguswood. There was a strange aura of time long past about the wide room. Behind a high desk of real wainwood stood a tall, bulky male who had many of the features of the physician they had seen at the Hydroclinic the previous evening. That had been Dr. Predo Atat, the viral disease specialist. This was Zado, the linguistic educator and viroid technician.

The most noticeable difference between the siblings was a greater degree of liveliness in the yellowish eyes of Zado, totally absent in his brother.

“Come, sit down,” invited the director, nodding toward two chairs of natural bundlewood.

Unlike the voice of his brother, Zado possessed a tinny tenor.

As the would-be students sat down, so did the big man they had to convince to admit them into the language school.

“What are the languages that you are specifically interested in?” asked Atat. “We teach all the many tongues spoken today on Farmer. Our range is a total one.”

Dari spoke for both siblings. “Laftian for me, Onxsian for my brother. We must master them as quickly as we can, so that our travel plans can be facilitated. For us, learning to speak and understand these languages is urgent.”

“I understand,” nodded Zado Atat. “Let me assure you, it can be done if both of you have the will and determination to accomplish it. First of all, are you at all familiar with our flash vibroid ribbon technique?”

“Hardly at all,” responded Dari.

“This method is difficult and demanding. It depends on high-speed viroid ribbons that immerse the student in a totally foreign environment. The instruction occurs in a special gyroscopic unit that we call the spinner. This apparatus revolves with incredible velocity, creating an enhanced psychological state favorable to language learning and comprehension. The ears and the eyes of the student are saturated completely and rapidly.”

Mlem then spoke. “How soon can we start? We have no time to lose.”

“A new group will begin this afternoon at two o’clock. I shall be holding an orientation session for them. If you two wish, my secretary can enroll you in this class of beginners.”

“That would be fine,” beamed Dari.

“She can handle the fees for you,” declared Zado. “If any questions whatsoever come up, do not hesitate to ask me at once.”

We will, thought Dari. Indeed, we will.

The detective caught sight of his two confederates leaving the language school. He followed them for a short time, then rushed forward to find out what had happened.

“How did it go?”

“Smoothly,” replied Dari, walking along slowly.

“Zado Atat was friendly and easy to deal with,” added her brother.

“This afternoon at two, we attend an introductory class,” continued Dari. “There was no sign of suspicion at all.” She went on to describe how the spinning chamber was to be used on them.

Skopo thought a second. “The two of you should return to your flat and rest up for what is to come. I myself will go to the Carnavan and see Trepo.”

“You will find out how his father is recovering?” said the librarian.

“Precisely. I can buy some sandwiches for the three of us and then come to your apartment.”

Dari smiled. “Mlem and I will be expecting you, then.”

As Skopo went to the take-out counter at the Carnavan, he sighted Trepo waving at him from a distance. It took him only seconds to order blood-and-tongue sandwiches for himself and the Totmaxes. He picked up the papex sack containing his purchases, then moved across the room to where Trepo was standing, waiting to be summoned by the next customer to enter the place.

“How are you holding up?” asked Skopo. “Did you get any sleep at all?”

“Only a little,” answered the waiter, bags of exhaustion under his eyes.

“How is your father’s condition? Do you know?”

“Dr. Atat was there when they placed him in the hydraulic chamber for heliumization. The plan is to take him out this afternoon, at three.”

“Are you going to be there for that?”

“Yes, I am taking off from work in order to be present there.”

Skopo decided to interpose himself. “If you wish, I can accompany you to the Hydroclinic.”

Trepo nodded yes. “I would appreciate not being by myself there.”

The other said good-bye, leaving with the takeout sack of sandwiches.

As he hurried toward the Totmax flat, his mind reviewed the situation, considering the connections between different parts and aspects.

Dari and Mlem were watching and listening to news on the viroid tube in their living room.

“Let’s go into the kitchen unit and eat,” suggested Dari, rising from her chair and turning off the picture set from the control band on the armrest.

“A lot of bad news,” muttered Mlem as the three went into the back room. “More vandalism reported. All the major banks have been victims. So have many factories. Schools in Kalender are closing. Normal patterns of life have all been ended as long as this continues. There is no end or relief in sight.”

The trio sat down at a small circular table and began to consume the blood-and-tongue sandwiches. Mlem obtained a jug of vegetable juice from the freeze unit.

As they went at the food, Dari chuckled to herself. The other two stared at her.

“I was thinking that if we continue to impersonate animalists, we may end up as used to it that we become habitual, addicted carnivores.”

Skopo laughed, but then spoke seriously. “You two must be careful. I have been thinking over the situation at the language school and now suspect that something similar may be going on there.”

The Totmaxes waited for the inspector to explain.

“Up to now, I supposed that the meat-eaters might be the population from which the vandals might have been recruited. But I observed them at the restaurant, then at the lecture last night. They appeared to be average, everyday people, not too different from everyone else. There were no dangerous signs about them.

“When you told me about the spinner gyroscopes that Zado Atat uses in language teaching, Dari, it made me think hard. Perhaps there is something else going on, a hidden recruitment and indoctrination in progress there.”

“You suspect that the readers who destroy viroid memory come from the Atat Language School?” exclaimed the librarian with excitement.

“That is what they may be concealing there. Think of who is involved. Zado Atat, with a grudge against the entire viroid system. Vnem Lenad, a skilled engineer, whose son has destroyed valuable memory at the Central Library.” The police officer paused a moment. “You must send me a signal with the warners at the first sign that anyone becomes aware of what you are up to at the school.”

X.

The conference room held fifty or more plastic chairs, half of them filled with new language students.

Dari and Mlem sat beside each other in the second row, in the middle of a group of eager would-be linguists. Most looked very young, realized the two probers.

As they waited for the director to enter, no one in the audience spoke to anyone else. Everyone was nervously expectant.

At last, Zado Atat came in wearing a peppermint-striped suit. He stepped behind a polysteel lectern and began to address the new students in his high tenor voice.

“Welcome to the Atat School, dear students.

“Often people believe this institution is named for its present director, who is now addressing you. That, though, is not the case. The person who is thus honored happens to have been my late grandfather, Zado Atat, for whom I was named.

“You may have heard of him in connection with his pioneering work in the development of viroid memory. In actual fact, he was the true inventor of the ribbon that revolutionized communications and data storage on our planet. Nothing would be as it is today were it not for his seminal discoveries. When the history of that era is finally written in accurate detail, all of Farmer will acknowledge his greatness as a scientist. The future, I predict, will rectify the mistaken version of what occurred. The official interpretations will crumble and disappear. Historical justice will occur. The truth will be known and accepted by all.

“Let me assure you that the method of language instruction we use here is an advanced application of the principles created by my grandfather. Our instructional ribbons flash by on a projection sceen at a high speed that is regulated by the individual student. Our specially designed and engineered learning sphere spins about at a rate that induces the optimal reception state in a student. You will all receive training in the operation of the gyroscopic chamber and the projected viroid ribbons. The learning rate of your chosen language will be completely up to you.

“Think of it. The images emitted by the viroid device will take up the entire inside surface of the sphere. You will have control over the speed of the spin, and of the vertical and horizontal positioning of the unit. All of the many parameters are instantly changeable in order to serve the needs of the individual learner. There is nothing pre-set or permanent about the instructional condition achieved by the individual within the sphere.

“The spin chamber places a student into a properly suitable state of mind for efficient mastery of a language. Learning becomes instant and immediate. Within minutes, the person answers questions and can speak in the new tongue. Total immersion in the lingual atmosphere is the result. Within days, mastery is attained. The results are spectacularly rapid.

“Have no fear of the gyrating sphere you will be in. It is perfectly safe. There has never been any accident or injury. Hundreds of people have been trained with our viroid ribbons. The structural matrix and lexical fund of each language system is transferred into the mind through eye, ear, and touch. Your very nerves will learn a new code. The details will fall into place and become clear as you go forward. Vocabulary and grammar will be perfectly learned and mastered.”

Zado Atat stopped, drew a deep breath, then peered out at his spellbound audience.

“Does anyone have any questions about what lies ahead?” he asked in a muffled tone.

For several seconds, the conference room was without sound of any sort. Then, a young man in the last row raised a hand and spoke.

“I was wondering, sir, how long this period of initial adjustment to the full spinning speed will last.”

“It all depends,” replied the director, pleasantly smiling. “For some, the process is short and quick. Others may have to take a longer time in order to become acquainted with the operation of the gyroscopic controls and the motion of the viroid ribbons.”

“Thank you, sir,” meekly said the questioner.

As soon as he sat down, a squat middle-aged matron in front of Mlem leaped up and asked Atat how good a mastery of her chosen language she would enjoy.

The director gazed at her benignly with a warm grin.

“Better than that of the average native,” he informed her. “That is how sharp your ability will be. Everyone will marvel at you. The results will be astonishing.”

Zado scanned across the room. “Any other question?” he muttered, not expecting any more.

Out of the blue, Mlem sprang to his feet.

Dari gave a slight start. What was her brother about to say? Would he compromise their mission here?

“I have heard a lot about viral infection and poisoning,” he unexpectedly said. “Is there any danger of accidental exposure to toxic organisms inside the gyrosphere? Has anyone at this school ever suffered an illness of any kind?”

Zado’s eyes turned into burning coals. His face flooded with blood. For a brief moment, he was at a loss for the right words with which to handle the situation.

“No,” he blurted with finality. “We have always kept within the boundaries of viral safety. Our technical staff takes all necessary precautions to protect our students. We guarantee that no harm can occur here.”

Mlem sat down without thanking him for the answer. He glanced for a second at his sister out of the corner of his eye. Both of them realized that they had just heard a lie from the head of the school.

Zado Atat ended the introductory session with a curt dismissal of the group.

It was late afternoon when the Totmaxes emerged from the blood red building.

Skopo Kitanin shut off his etherwave receiver and rose from the park bench he had been occupying while the others had been within the language school.

Strolling briskly along with the receiver hanging from his pants belt, he caught up with the pair.

Dari began talking as soon as the detective reached them.

“We clamber into two of the gyrospheres and learned how to operate the controls. But we shall not begin to spin until this evening. That’s when the language ribbons will be inserted and run through. Mlem and I will be in the first group scheduled for actual instruction.”

The threesome walked forward at a leisurely pace.

“What was Zado Atat like?” asked Skopo. “How did he treat the students?”

Mlem was the one who answered. “To me, he appeared to be making a phony, exaggerated effort to be warm and hospitable, as if he was trying to convince them they should trust him completely.”

“The director was much more personal toward the two of us later than when we introduced ourselves in his office this morning,” noted Dari.

“Did he ask you what you did for a living?”

“No. He took us at face value as travelers with urgent linguistic needs. But I noticed that he was very interested in the extent of our technical knowledge and experience with viroid ribbons. And the same was true for the other students in the group, as far as I could tell.” Dari suddenly remembered something. “He mentioned the school’s viral engineer in passing, but not by name.”

“What did Zado say about him?” eagerly asked Skopo, his eyes turned toward the librarian.

“Nothing much, except that he was away on sudden, emergency leave.”

The investigator scowled darkly. “Trepo reported that his father is still recovering from his treatment in the helium chamber. He will, in all probability, be returning to some semblance of consciousness this evening. What he reveals in the first flush of awakening could be unusually candid. His guard will be down for a short period of time.”

Dari looked at him from the corner of her eye. “What do you plan to do, Skopo?”

All of a sudden, the latter stopped in his tracks. Dari, then Mlem, did likewise.

“I want both of you to go back to your apartment and wait for me there. We can talk again before you return to the school tonight.”

Dari looked alarmed. “You are going to see the father of Trepo at the Hydroclinic?” she inquired.

“Precisely.” Skopo removed the etherwave receiver from his belt and handed it to Mlem.

Then he took his leave and headed in a different direction, toward the Hydroclinic and the old man recovering from immersion in helium-saturated water.

XI.

Each separate cell of the recovery section contained a flotation bed resting in a tank of specially aerated fluid.

Skopo found it quite easy to enter this area within the Hydroclinic unhindered and undetected. But in which of the cubicles within the complicated hive was he to look for the father of Trepo Lenad?

He stood in the narrow corridor, pondering what to do next, when a nurse in red uniform came up to him from behind. “Can I help you, sir?” she asked.

Without turning about, the intruder answered curtly. “I can’t find a patient whom I came to have a look at. He is Vnem Lenad, the viral poisoning victim.”

Not seeing his face, the woman gave him simple directions. “That person is in the next-to-the-last cell on the left side, close to the end.”

“Thank you.”

Skopo made his way to where she had instructed him to go. A polyplastic curtain covered the entrance to the tiny cubicle enclosed within silicon walls.

The detective parted the two halves and tiptoed into the darkened alcove. He could make out the lower end of the undulating floater upon which rested the body of the one in recovery. The polyfabric bed, resting on a boatlike frame, made continual little movements up-and-down. As his eyes became accustomed to the dimness, Skopo identified the outline of the viroid engineer below at the level of the cell’s floor.

He moved toward the flotation bed slowly and cautiously. Only when a foot away from the lying patient did a sudden realization come to him.

The man on the surface of the liquid was wide awake.

A mumbling sound arose from the center of the cubicle. Vnem Lenad was whispering something in a trancelike state just below awakened consciousness.

“Trepo…Trepo…” sounded from the rasping throat.

The unauthorized visitor moved closer to the edge of the floating bed. He dared not say anything, though it was clear that the patient, even in half-sleep, sensed the presence of another, taking him for the son he was calling to.

“Trepo, tell them there is grave danger in the sphere.”

The words were very low, but audible. A warning about the viral poisoning that had infected him, meant for the son he believed present in the cubicle.

Skopo wished for more, but nothing came from the stricken engineer.

All at once, he heard a slight sound of movement. The polyplastic curtain over the entrance rustled, indicating a new presence.

The investigator swiveled himself about.

A bulky, threatening shape formed at the boundary of the corridor, staring into the cell.

It took Skopo less than an instant to identify the hydraulic physician, Dr. Predo Atat.

A familiar voice sounded, but it did not come from the towering man standing in the entrance to the recovery cubicle.

“It is good of you to have come here”, gradually whispered Trepo Lenad.

Immediately behind the doctor is the waiter, the relieved detective told himself.

Predo Atat stepped a few inches to the side, making visible the presence of the patient’s son. A careful movement occurred as Skopo slipped past the bulking figure, making his exit from the cell where Vnem Lenad still slept.

Atat turned around so that he could see both of the visitors.

“I arrived a moment ago,” explained Skopo. “Your father remains in a sleeping trance, Trepo.”

The latter looked over the investigator’s right shoulder, into the face of the hydrophysician.

“Should he not have awakened by now?” said the troubled son.

“In most cases, yes. But your father has an extreme case of toxicity. I had to keep him in the hydrochamber for several hours beyond the normal treatment period. That is the reason he has not yet reached consciousness. But I expect that his awakening is very near. It won’t occur any later than the next hour or so, I estimate. Consciousness will only return then.”

Skopo made an instant decision to address Trepo with a proposal.

“I could stay here with you so that you wouldn’t be alone,” he told the waiter.

“That will not be necessary,” replied Predo Atat instead of the one being spoken to. “I myself am off-duty at the moment, so that the two of us can be in this cubicle when the awakening comes about.” The gigantic doctor pursed his mouth. “It is best if you return tomorrow morning,” he said to Skopo.

The detective gave a nod to Atat, then another to Trepo before exiting into the corridor.

It was time for him to think about what he had heard the patient mumble in his sleep.

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