Viroids: Part II.

14 Mar

I.

Dari invited Skopo to dinner with her and Mlem that evening.

After an afternoon nap, he walked to their apartment. His strength and stamina felt completely restored. Street screens showed vidoid reels that told of police success in snashing the Reader conspiracy in Kalender. Communications and memory had recovered with incredible swiftness. The city was returned to normal.

Once the detective was seated at the Totmax table, Dari related a bit of news to him.

“The Central Library opens to the public tomorrow,” she smiled with joy. “Mlem and I will be returning to our post and duties.”

Her brother then spoke. “It was terrible, Skopo, how they tried to scramble your mind and make you one of them in the gyrosphere. There could have been permanent, profound damage to you, if it had gone on much longer.”

“The police medicos did a quick scan on me at headquarters,” revealed the investigator. “According to them, I show no signs of viroid toxicity. My body chemistry has returned to a normal stage.”

“You were heroic in the sphere,” sighed the librarian.

Skopo grinned. “All that I did was break out of the plastex bonds they tied me up in. Once my hands were free, it was plain what I had to do. I tampered with every dial, tab, filament, and gizmo inside the imprisoning glove.”

“You never revealed your true identity or purpose to them,” proudly said Dari.

“Dr. Predo Atat grew so outraged that he asked his brother to break my will by force. He had to know who I was and what I was up to. The more stubbornly I resisted, the more obsessed the hydrophysician became to crack me open. So, they brought me to the language school in an emergency cab, then put me into a sphere with a viroid ribbon that was meant to alter my mind completely.”

“Meant to make you compliant and controllable, as weak as a sponge,” muttered Mlem. “It was your fighting resistance that drew attention to your globe.”

Skopo suddenly changed the subject. “What are we eating here tonight? I hope to return to standard vegetarian fare, now that I won’t have to go to the Carnavan to eat any more.”

“Ground bean salad, for a start,” beamed Dari with a twinkle in her eye. “Then, some rice-filled bluepeppers. How does that strike you, Skopo?”

“I can hardly wait,” he lightheartedly replied.

About the time that dinner was finishing, the apartment hummer sounded.

Mlem rose to see who was at the door. In seconds, he returned with Chief of Detectives Yato Pmom. The latter nodded in greeting to Dari, then spoke directly to Skopo.

“I have terrible news to give you: the Readers sent a battery of attorneys to headquarters with a court writ freeing the language school director, Zado Atat. His release has allowed him to disappear from sight, as his brother the physician has. We have no knowledge of the whereabouts of either one of them.”

For a time, a sad silence filled the room as this was absorbed by those who heard it.

“And something else has come up,” continued Yato. “Vnem Lenad has taken a turn for the worse. I have our agents watching and listening in the Hydroclinic. The man remembers you, Skopo, and says that he wishes to tell you something directly and personally. It may be important.”

Kitanin sprang out of his chair. “I’ll go there with you at once, sir.” He turned to the Totmaxes and excused himself.

Two police agents accompanied the visitors to the flotation cell where the viroid engineer lay motionless, nearly expired.

A nurse in orange pants and coat hovered over the blue-faced patient.

Vrem looked up with an expression of futility. Not much time left to tell anything to anyone, seemed to be his mood and expression.

Slowly, words came out of the dying one’s parched, swollen lips.

“…wands…meteoric…cave…”

Three words emerged, then a fatal blank.

Breathing stopped, eyes glazed, and stillness set in.

Vnem was no more alive. He would never again tell anyone anything.

Leaving him to the nurses to dispose of, Skopo and Yato departed.

“I now have a notion of where the Atat brothers may have fled to,” grimly announced the Chief of Detectives.

Like a caterpillar attached to a string, the cars of the funicular train sped up the mountain side. The highest range of elevation on Farmer was that of the Meteoric Mountains. Of these, the tallest was Mount Meteor itself, a tower rising three miles into the purple sky. Only by special speed-train were the upper reaches in the heights reached. Tourists and vacationists came from all parts of the big planet for rest, relaxation, and inspiration in the yellowish snows of this unique mountain.

The train rose to an ever steeper angle, each individual car adjusting to the changes through appropriate compensating movement of the gyroscopic valves from which it hung suspended. The effect was maintenance of horizontal stability for the separate units making up the train. Like a crawling caterpillar, the series of cars climbed the vertical face of rock. The passengers inside suffered no pain or discomfort, but remained in nearly perfect equilibrium.

From a horizontal train, to a slightly inclined one, to a sharply-angled chain, to verticality. Each change was imperceptible to those riding inside.

Would this caterpillar become a butterfly when it attained the top? wondered Dari Totmax as she gazed out of the cablecar window, first downward and then up at the bright yellow snow.

Her brother, across from her, kept looking down into the valley they had ascended from. The long, fertile plain that stretched as far as Kalender served as the garden and breadbasket of the giant city. He and his sister were descendants of lowlanders, tillers of the flat farming soil down below.

All their lives, they had looked at the distant yellow snow of Meteor on the horizon. Now, for the very first time, they were to be in the highland itself.

Mlem sensed a breathless exhilaration inside his lungs.

The train began to slowly level out of its sharp ascent up the mountain side.

Increasingly, the rocks and stones became horizontal. Skyslate cottages appeared, indicating mountain dwellers. Small hamlets flew past, surrounded by bluepine forests. The train straightened out, leveling itself.

All at once, the trees disappeared. Mustard yellow snow covered the barren ground. The heater in the train car began to clang, adjusting to the frigid coldness outside. Dari shivered a moment before the sharp chill vanished.

Train speed slowed. Passengers rose and stood in the aisles. Brother and sister eyed each other. Their destination had to be near, but the Totmaxes stayed seated.

“The snow is so beautiful!” marveled Dari. “No colorprint can do it justice. Notice how clean a blanket it makes.”

The cabletrain came to a slow halt at a small, skyslate station.

Doors slid open and the passengers began climbing out into the perpetual winter of Mount Meteor. The librarian and her brother were among the last to leave.

Their baggage, by prearrangement, was on its way to the lodging house where reservations had been made for them. Mlem asked a conductor for directions to the Poets’ Lodge. Once he had a sense of direction in the village, the pair started off past the foot-high yellow banks along the recently shoveled street.

Weather experts attributed the peculiar color of snow here to winds, altitude, and extremely low atmospheric pressure. Dari felt a strange excitement inside herself. Was it their high elevation or the mission that lay ahead for them? She was on Mount Meteor under false pretenses, as an amateur poet on vacation. Her aim was to improve her writing craft, she would claim.

Stopping in his tracks, Mlem pointed at a large chalet with steep roofs.

“That’s the lodge,” he calmly stated. “Let’s go on and introduce ourselves.”

The brother opened the silicon door for Dari, then followed her into a dimly-lit lobby that appeared empty. The two new arrivals surveyed the place a moment. There was nothing expensive or elegant here. Everything was old and used.

All of a sudden, a young woman of uncommon beauty appeared at the reception counter at the far end of the lobby. Bright yellow hair that resembled the snow outside framed a tanned, browned face. Mlem stared at her with awe. A devotee of the mountain sun, he had to conclude. A golden goddess of Mount Meteor. Her eyes were blazing sapphire, coldly indifferent to all going on in outside reality.

Dari told the receptionist who thus appeared who they were and asked her if their rooms were ready for them.

“Indeed,” smiled the mountain beauty. “We have been expecting you, Miss Totmax. May I welcome you and your brother to the Poets’ Lodge. Our hope is that your stay is happy and productive. I myself can hardly wait to have a look at your verse.”

The librarian gulped hard. “Unfortunately, I didn’t think to bring any of my writings along with me,” apologized Dari. “My present aim is to write in a completely new vein, if possible. That is my purpose in traveling all the way to Mount Meteor. To start all over again. I mean to forget all my past scribblings.”

The sapphire eyes grew absent and distant.

“That is the reason that I, too, came to the Lodge,” whispered the woman behind the counter. For a moment, she was awkwardly silent.

“My name is Uraf Salint. I help manage the Lodge, as well as write. Perhaps I can be your guide up here on the mountain.” She looked at Mlem, her eyes sparkling with purple light. “Are you, too, a writer?” she inquired.

“Not yet, but I am trying,” he blushed. “I am only a beginner.”

“Don’t worry about that,” chuckled Uraf. “Mount Meteor inspires creativity in everyone who visits here.”

“I deeply hope so,” uneasily remarked Mlem.

“Let me get your keys. I can show you your rooms,” said the jewel-eyed poetess, moving from behind the reception counter.

Brother and sister exchanged glances while they awaited Uraf.

II.

Their rooms were small, spare, and comfortable.

Uraf took the two on a short tour of the lodge, showing them the laundry, kitchen, dining room, and memory library.

In the last chamber, she pointed out the dozen writing consoles on large silicon tables, turning on one of the display screens for them to see.

“If you wish, both of you can compose your work right here.” She sat down at a keyboard. “Would you like to see me receive a verse of my own from the library’s memory?”

“Yes,” said Mlem with sharp interest.

“If it isn’t any trouble,” followed his sister.

“No trouble at all.” Uraf typed in her personal code and brought up what she wanted to show. Immediately, a short stanza appeared on the viroid screen.

Dari and Mlem bent forward to read what it said.

“I came out of a dream,

Where everyone was dancing,

Where my dearest friend was death,

And time had no sides showing.”

For a little while, neither reader dared to speak, or even look away.

Mlem went over the poem several times, as did his sister. Both of them seemed in a spell. What does this verse mean?

At last, Uraf herself broke the trance of the guests.

“Don’t ask me what it means,” she advised. “Please don’t.”

Dari gave a bewildered smile. “Why not, my dear?”

“Because I have no idea what to tell you.”

Uraf pushed a side tab that erased what was on the viroid screen.

“You two are from Kalinder, I understand,” she noted. “That is a city I have never seen. They say it is enormous in size.”

“Yes, it is,” confirmed Dari. “My brother and I work in a large library there. So far, our writing has been a leisure time activity. Do you come from the Meteor region, Uraf?”

The latter looked surprised. “No. It was only five years ago I arrived here from Plazh in the tropical zone. I grew up there, coming here to write.”

“You were a visitor, then?” said the librarian with curiosity.

“I decided never to return home. Instead, I begged for a job and won one here. This is now the only place for me. My life and my work are tied to Mount Meteor. I doubt that I will ever leave.”

“You have your friends here, then,” purred Dari warmly.

Uraf’s eyes gave off an unnatural purple glow.

“My viroid publisher will be here at the lodge for dinner together with all of our writers. That will give me a good opportunity to introduce you to him.”

Both Totmaxes had the same question in mind at once. How does this publisher operate with poets?

As if psychic, Uraf answered that exact unspoken query.

“He has a system of instant publication over viroid cable. As soon as a poem is finished, Perek receives it in his memory bank. This makes it available to any reader on Mount Meteor who may wish to have a look at it. Anyone can read all of my work, even the most recent. And, in return, I have total access to everything that Perek publishes on viroid screens at all his other posts.”

Mlem had a question. “Who is this person you call Perek?”

Urak turned her beacon eyes upon him. “Perek Tenrop inherited a fortune of incredible size from his family in the lowlands. But his preference is to work and live up here in the yellow snow of Meteor.”

“He sounds interesting,” remarked Dari with a grin.

Deciding to explore the lodge on his own, Mlem slipped into the hallway and headed toward the memory library. As he neared the door of that room, he picked up a strange, sobbing sound. Was it crying? Stopping and looking in, he saw Uraf sitting at a viroid screen that appeared to be foggily blank.

The poet looked up at him as her new acquaintance approached.

“Is something wrong?” he asked her.

Her eyes had been dulled by copious tears.

“Two of my early verses are gone from the published memory ribbon. Completely wiped away. And those were my only recorded copies that exist.” She gaped for breath, then sighed. “How can I recreate what was written years ago? So much has passed through my mind since then. I’ve written thousands of lines of poetry. How can a writer draw an exact version out of pure thought? Impossible to do.”

Mlem focused on her sapphire eyes. “Can I do anything to help you?”

She suddenly smiled at him. “Thank you. But there is nothing that anyone can do for me at the moment.”

The two studied each other a short time.

“I’ll see you at dinner, Ulaf,” he told her, quickly departing from the memory library.

He had news to report to his sister. Viroid erasure was present here in the yellow snow zone of Mount Meteor.

III.

Perek Tenrop scanned the dining room, then approached the table in one corner where Uraf sat with a group of writers that included the Totmaxes.

Tall, dark, and unusually tanned, the publisher carried himself with grace and assurance. His eyes were a gray that resembled mountain slate. Uraf introduced him to the new pair at the lodge. Tenrop shook hands with first Dari, then Mlem.

“Why don’t we get in line so we can start eating?” proposed Uraf. “Most of you are probably as hungry as me.”

The three at the table rose, following the lanky publisher into the cafeteria next to the dining room. The two females found places at the end of the fast-moving line. Mlem and Perek brought up the rear. Once they had their trays filled, the group returned to the table and began eating.

Uraf was first to finish. She looked across at her viroid publisher with painful emotion on her golden face. “I lost some of my poems today,” she informed him, proceeding to provide details about the memory erasure.

Perek sent her a look of sympathy. “In the last week, there have been half a dozen cases like yours. I assure you, everything possible is being done to get to the bottom of these crimes.”

Dari decided to pose a question. “Have the police been notified?” she said to the publisher.

Tenrop nodded yes. “But there are few officers up here in the yellow zone.”

“There has never been such trouble on Mount Meteor before,” added Uraf.

The publisher turned to Dari. “You must let me read some of your verses, Miss Totmax,” he said with a smile. “I hope that I can be of assistance while you are here at the lodge.”

“Neither of them has a publisher yet, Perek,” revealed Uraf with a sly grin. “Perhaps you can do something about changing that situation.”

Dari laughed. “I imagine you handle the works of an army of writers. Is your profession a very difficult one?”

Tenrop chuckled. “I enjoy dealing with my poets, but not the critics who depress and discourage them with their acidic attacks.”

“Speaking of critics,” interceded Uraf, “the worst one just entered the room.”

For a moment, silence reigned around the table. The face of Perek Tenrop became bleak and expressionless. Dari noted how thoughtfully preoccupied the dark brown eyes of the publisher appeared for a time.

A short, fat figure who had just entered the dining room ambled slowly past their table, turning his large head toward the four as he neared them.

“Good evening, Uraf,” the man called out in a high, tinny voice. “How are you?”

Everyone except the viroid publisher turned and stared at him. The poet took a second before responding. “I’m fine, Dioto,” she coldly answered, not asking him how he was.

Both Totmaxes sensed the frigid hostility in her tone. This was a side of herself that Uraf had not revealed to the newcomers yet.

The round little man stared at the back of Perek’s dark hairy head for a moment, then renewed his crossing of the dining room again, disappearing into the cafeteria.

Mlem looked at Uraf, while Dari stared across at Perek.

“That was Dioto Gerak,” moaned the publisher at last. “He is a notorious scoundrel who claims to be a noteworthy literary critic. His reviews appear on several viroid tube channels, catering to the most intellectual part of the population. In my opinion, every line he has ever written on viroid ribbon has been worthless garbage. The imposter deserves to be driven out of this creative colony.”

Dari and Mlem exchanged looks of unease. What were they getting themselves into?

Uraf began to speak to them in a hushed, secretive voice.

“Dioto is contesting Perek’s re-election to the post of president of the Writers’ Union of Mount Meteor. He is attempting to polarize the organization between the poets and the novelists. His only support, so far, has been among the short-story writers. In any way possible, the rascal has tried to sow bad feelings between the poets and the narrative writers. He has used his criticism to divide us into two opposing camps.”

Dari thought of an idea that could put her and Mlem in good standing with the pair at their table. “If only my brother and I were voting members! We would certainly know whom to support for president of your Writers’ Union.”

Uraf beamed a smile while Perek seemed to flush red in the face.

“We would appreciate two extra votes for our side,” said the poet. “If enough new writers joined us in time, we could defeat Dioto and his supporters.”

The publisher frowned at Dari. “As soon as you have written something new, bring it to my office on the village square,” he proposed. “I’ll publish it on viroid ribbon at once.”

“It may not have sufficient quality,” objected Dari, all at once feeling beyond her depth.

“Let me be the judge of that.” Perek then turned to Mlem. “And when you have something to show me, like several chapters of a novel, I would be more than happy to look it over.”

“Perek desperately wants to get the two of you into the Writers’ Union,” muttered Uraf with a slight giggle. “He is eager for your support and votes.”

The publisher glanced at the large timer hanging from the ceiling.

“It’s almost eight,” he announced abruptly. “The evening viroid dramas will soon be starting on screens. If we have all finished, we can join the crowd in the assembly room for big-screen watching.”

“That sounds delightful,” said Dari, looking at her brother.

The four rose from the table and Uraf led the way out of the dining room, into the main corridor, across the lobby, to the opposite end of the first floor.

The viroid screen was a gigantic one, covering a quarter of the outside wall of the room. Almost as soon as the group was seated, the images began to appear.

Multicolored figures suddenly drew the attention of the thirty present in the assembly room. All eyes centered on the enlarged face of a faraway announcer.

“Stay tuned to the Arts Channel for the premier of a new viroid drama never before seen on ribbons. It is a romantic comedy set two hundred years ago, with authentic period costumes and a musical score.

“But first, a report of late breaking news.

“Kalender police report a renewal of erasures of viroid memory banks in companies and agencies. These have been attributed to the group that calls itself the Readers…”

Neither Totmax dared look at the other. Both sat beside each other, pondering with inner excitement and fear. The vandalism they were familiar with in Kalender had not disappeared, but was arising there once more.

Dari and Mlem were unable to pay close attention to the historical romance on the screen as it progressed onward toward its end.

IV.

Dari, having promised the publisher a poem, rose after a few hours of sleep, took papex and pen from her luggage, and composed a short verse to present to Perek the following morning.

“I searched for a cave,” ran the first line that she wrote down. She read over and over what she had. It was an idea that had captured hold of her mind’s imagination. Where could the Atat brothers be, but hidden away under the ground?

The viroid vandals and their Reader followers remained as a constant obsession for her.

A poem about a cave might provoke or inspire someone to speak to her about the caves on Mount Meteor, Dari hoped.

Before dawn, she had completed the poem about what might be concealed in the caves of this mighty mountain.

A triumphant glow lit up the face of the poet as she and her brother finished their breakfast in the cafeteria the next morning.

Mlem was unable to conceal his inner qualms of concern as Dari recited from memory what she had created.

“I hope that it does the trick,” he whispered to her under his breath.

Seconds later, Unaf walked into the room and made her way to where the Totmaxes were sitting.

“Good morning, friends,” she smiled. “How was your first night with us?”

Dari answered. “Mine was wonderful, because I managed to finish off my first poem written on Mount Meteor.”

“Congratulations!” exclaimed Uraf. “Perek will be happy to see the result. We can go to his office as soon as we are finished here. That will be better than reading the poem to him by viroidline. He will want to talk with you about the publication and the terms of payment.”

“Payment?” said Dari with surprise. “I have to pay, then?”

Ural stifled the laugh rising up her throat. “Not at all. It’s the other way around.”

“I receive the payment?” asked the still puzzled librarian.

“Remember, Perek possesses a fabulous amount of wealth. His family left him a fortune impossible for him to exhaust. It grows as fast as the fellow spends his viroid credits. Yes, he pays each of his poets according to the quantity and quality of their writings. Usually, the two are in inverse ratio. The more verse someone produces, the less value each line has. Some of the best creators here on Mount Meteor have turned out only a limited number of ribbon pages, yet their work is prized and acclaimed beyond that of the ordinary rank of writers of poetry. One can never tell which way a newcomer will go, small quantity but sublime quality, or the other way around.”

“I see,” said Dari with a sigh. “It will be interesting to see what Mr. Tenrop thinks of my work,” she added.

Uraf excused herself in order to go through the short cafeteria line.

The brother and the sister exchanged silent but meaningful looks.

Mlem agreed to stay at the Poets’ Lodge while Uraf took Dari to the office of the viroid publisher. It was best he nosed around there, finding out what he could in conversation with the other residents.

The two women put on snowboots and went out into the slushy yellow-tinted street. A weak wind was blowing down from the slatestone cliff above. Neither poet spoke as they passed forward. No one else was out or about in the cold.

Uraf steered her walking companion toward the entrance of a brickstone building of a dull coppery brown hue. She opened and held the door as Dari stepped into a warm lobby, then went in behind her.

A secretary working at a small desk rose and started toward a door further inside.

“Mr. Tenrop told me to show you right in,” she chirped in a high soprano.

As the three females reached the metallic door, it opened from within.

Perek, in a magenta leisure suit, stood tall at the opening.

“So glad to see you two,” he called out to them. “Please come right in. I hope you have something ready to be published, Miss Totmax.”

The secretary returned to her desk as Perek closed the office door behind his visitors. He pointed to two plastex easychairs. As the poets sat down, the publisher went back to his own chair, behind a long, low dark desk made of silicon.

“Where shall we start?” he sang out soothingly.

This fellow seems in a very good mood, Dari told herself in private.

Uraf explained that her companion had a verse to present to him.

Perek eyed Dari with intense curiosity. “So soon? Would you like to recite it aloud for me?”

“That’s the way it will have to be given,” murmured the librarian. “I do not even have it committed to paper in final form yet.”

“Proceed, then,” he directed. “I am listening.”

For a moment, Dari was unsure how to go on. She decided to use a formal but subdued style of vocalization.

“I searched for a cave,

Beneath the banks of yellow snow,

Where I might bury my merciless memory.

But each time I seemed to find one,

The cave was full of the markings,

That other minds had abandoned there.”

Dari waited for reaction from one of her listeners. Surprisingly, the first comment came from Uraf.

“I like the way you maintain your momentum,” she smiled, looking directly at the author of the verse. “It moves along well, keeping the form concise.”

“Thank you,” replied Dari, her eyes focused on the viroid publisher. He remained mum, his brown eyes vague and abstracted.

At last, he moved his lips. “Let’s get it down at once. I want to send this poem out to our subscribers today.”

Dari had a choking sensation about her vocal organ. “Thank you,” she managed to say.

“First of all, a contract will be necessary,” declared the publisher as he rose from his chair. “I will get a copy of the standard agreement for you to sign.” He went to the door and exited from the office.

The two visitors exchanged broad grins. “I’m so happy,” gushed Dari. “I didn’t know whether the poem would be any good.”

“It was outstanding,” whispered the other. “Never lose your originality, but nurture and preserve it.”

When Perek returned with the papex contract, Uraf rose from her seat.

“I must return at once to my post at the lodge. You should have no problem getting back there, Dari. Just remember the route we took coming here.”

The publisher suddenly made a proposal. “I’ll follow my newest writer back there later. That will allow me to have lunch with both of you.”

“Fine,” noted Uraf, moving to the door and departing.

Perek handed the contract to the librarian to look over before signing.

“It appears satisfactory,” she said as she quickly scanned the document.

When their legal business was ended, Perek Tenrop all of a sudden became introspective, leaning back in his chair and staring at his new client poet.

“People often wonder why I came to Mount Meteor and set up this publishing enterprise. It’s quite simple. I truly enjoy helping in developing and encouraging original talent. It became clear to me long ago that I was never going to be a creative artist of any kind. My disappointment depressed me, until this substitute activity presented itself. Although I myself would never write anything of value, it was possible to become a sort of midwife for the outstanding talents and gifts of others. Fortunately, the material means left me by my family were more than adequate for this life mission of mine.”

“So, you made yourself the patron of a series of creative writers,” grinned the newest poet. “That, I believe, is something to be highly proud of.”

The face of Perek seemed to pale and stiffen. “But I am not on the same level as individuals like you and Uraf. Your work has the greater intrinsic worth.” His brown eyes looked beyond her, to the panorama window revealing the yellow snows of Mount Meteor.

The viroid publisher changed the subject abruptly to a matter important for Dari and her brother.

“Your poem focuses upon caves and what may be hidden in them,” he told her in a low, subdued tone of voice. “Were you thinking of the famous ones on Mount Meteor? They present a big attraction for the visitors at our tourist centers in the yellow snow zone. You must have been quite aware of them when you were composing this poem of yours.”

“I’ve often read about them,” she explained. “They have become a sort of symbolic image in the interior of my mind.”

“There are motor-sleds that take passengers out on tours that include many of the caves. Perhaps you would enjoy entering some of them with a group.”

“It sounds interesting,” she said with enthusiasm.

Perek stared past her, at the snowy scene outdoors. “You should be starting for the lodge,” he suddenly recommended. “A heavy snowfall appears to be beginning.”

Dari turned about and gazed out through the panoramic window.

Flakes of incredible size of a brilliant, chrome-like hue fell and swirled through the frigid air, making any walking difficult. The mountain was a place of visual fantasy as the librarian trudged toward the Poets’ Lodge.

If it were not for the cold, she might have stopped to enjoy the eerily fascinating yellow scenery. Billions of pieces of frozen water floated down with reluctant slowness, inducing an almost crazed distraction in her thought.

Downward wafted an endless amount of precipitation, covering the street cobbles leading to the lodge now buried in yellow. Dari thought of curtains, infinite veils of an unnatural fabric, hiding some secret of an evil nature.

She remembered how Uraf’s sapphire eyes had looked when describing the destruction of her archive of poetry. A crime against creativity by the wands of the Readers, that is what has broken out on Mount Meteor. A bitter taste came up into the mouth of Dari.

Sooner than expected, she reached the entrance door to the Poets’ Lodge.

As she extended her right arm to open it, someone pushed it open from inside.
It turned out to be her brother, who had seen her approaching through the snow from his bedroom window. He had hurried there to help her come in. His face was red with excitement, she noticed at once. Had something happened while she was gone?

“A disaster…” he stuttered once she was inside the hallway. “Complete erasure of all the published poems of all the writers staying here at the lodge.”

Dari, still covered with yellow snow, opened her mouth with astonishment. In seconds, she realized what had to be done at once.

“We have to find the critic, Dioto Gerak,” she asserted with all her power of will. “He is the one everyone here will be holding responsible for this.”

V.

Mlem found a directory of viroidfon numbers at the reception counter. The address they were after was listed under the name of the literary critic.

“It’s at the opposite end of the village from the lodge,” he sighed with vexation. “The storm is still in progress outside. Should we make a call to him?”

“No,” advised his sister. “The best course is to visit him there as soon as conditions clear up outdoors.”

Writers saddened by their tragic loss of past works had congregated in the dining room. A few were weeping. Others were making arrangements to leave the lodge and the mountain as soon as they could.

Putting on his snowcoat, Mlem stepped out into the now clearing air. The yellow snow had ceased descending. The wind was quiescent. He returned inside and related the conditions to his sister. The two decided to make the trek that they thought was urgent.

The Totmaxes tramped with energy through the narrow street, past the village square, to the farthest section of the writers’ colony. By the time they reached the small cabin where Dioto Gerak made his home, the last sign of the storm was gone. The mountain appeared placid and still once again.

The pair hastened to the front door of the bluepine structure. Mlem, finding no hummer or ringer, knocked on the wooden door with his fist. No response came for a considerable length of time, until a voice from inside sounded sharply.

“I’m coming! I’m coming! Be patient a little while, till I get there.”

Mlem instantly quit rapping on the hard pinewood surface of the door.

The wait for the door to open proved a short one. Dari sensed the growing impatience of her brother. All at once, a red-haired head extended outward out of the cabin.

Dioto Gerak glared in anger at Mlem. Then, catching sight of the sister, his fierceness softened and subsided. Self-control suddenly prevailed in him.

“Don’t stay out there,” his metallic voice commanded. “Step inside my house.”

Dari led the way in. The critic closed the door behind the pair.

Gerak studied her face minutely, as if confirming a judgment made originally at the moment he had first seen her outside at the entrance.

“I know who you are,” the fat little man confessed. “You’ve read my review of your verse, then?”

For a moment, the poet was confused, until she realized what he was referring to.

“No, I had no idea that you have already evaluated the poem that Mr. Tenrop said he was going to publish on viroid ribbon. It was this morning that I presented it to him, a very short time ago.”

Dioto made a nasty sneer. “It took me only one simple reading to see how derivative your little piece of work is. I broadcast my judgment on the Writers’ Union viroid net within a few seconds of my judgment.”

“I haven’t had the opportunity to see your criticism, sir. That is not the reason my brother and I came here. Are you aware of what has happened to the memory banks at the Writers’ Lodge?”

Dioto’s baby blue eyes squinted. “No, tell me.”

Mlem answered him. “Every line these writers have ever published is now erased. There are no papex or celluloid copies. Thousands of poems are gone forever.”

The critic made a sour, mocking face. “It’s no great loss to the literary treasury of Farmer, my boy. Most of their work is weak and meaningless. My opinion of what gets published by merchants like Tenrop is negative. He has the money with which to make himself popular with the untalented hacks he publishes on viroid ribbon.”

“This happened even earlier with Uraf Selint and her poetry,” protested Dari. “All her verses are now destroyed and gone. She was the first victim, perhaps a test run. But now all the lodge residents have suffered total erasure.”

Dioto gave her a haughty look of scorn. “This Uraf is a wholly bad writer. Her poems were without merit of any sort. I fail to see any reason to regret what happened to them.”

A fist of the brother rose into the air and in a second or so would have smashed into the pie-shaped face of the literary critic. In time, Dari lifted a hand and grabbed the wrist of outraged Mlem. She succeeded in avoiding collision and harm.

“We must leave at once,” she mumbled in a crackling voice. The two visitors exchanged looks as the cabin-owner took a step backwards.

Seeing sense in what she said, Mlem turned about and followed her to the door. Without a word to Dioto, the two exited out into the yellow-covered street.

As they headed back to the Writers’ Lodge, Dioto Gerak watched them from behind the plastex curtain of the front window of his bluepine cabin.

The wind still howled from time to time, but without the earlier blizzard force. Not until they approached the chalet where they were staying did the sister dare to speak.

“We must not let anything divert us from our objective, Mlem,” she reminded him. “Our mission is to locate and destroy the source of all the viroid erasures.”

Mlem’s silence signified his acquiescence in this opinion of hers.

They took off their boots and snowcoats in the lobby. As they made for their rooms, a familiar face appeared at the end of the long corridor.

Perek Tenrop raised his right hand in greeting and to attract their attention.

“Where have the two of you been?” he asked as he stepped closer. “Uraf is resting in her room, but she suffered a close call out in the snowstorm. The wind brought her down in a deep drift.”

The two Totmaxes rushed briskly to where the publisher stood outside the door of the lodge manager, Uraf.

Dari provided him a concise explanation of their absence and the visit they had made to confront Dioto Gerak at his cabin. “We saw no sign of Uraf anywhere. What has occurred with her?”

Perek pursed his lips. “Listen while I tell you what happened. Several residents reported to me that she planned to go and express what she felt to Dioto. But it appears that the poor soul didn’t reach there. That could have been due to the fury of the snowstorm.

“Uraf fell into a culvert and was found there when the blizzard ended. A passing pedestrian caught sight of her bright orange coat and went to the rescue. Her hands and feet nearly suffered frostbite.

“A police snow sled was sent to bring Uraf back here to the lodge. I was summoned and hurried here at once.”

“How is she?” anxiously asked Mlem.

“Resting in a coma,” solemnly announced Perek. “The village medic just left. He thinks that sleep is the best thing for her now. The sedation given to Uraf should only last till dinner time this evening.”

“Any injuries suffered?” inquired Dari.

“Nothing that can’t be quickly repaired. But tell me this: how did Dioto Gerak receive you when he learned who you were?”

“He was insulting and supercilious,” frowned the new poet. “He has already reviewed my poem and stamped me as an untalented, imitative clod.”

“That is outrageous,” muttered Perek.

“The erasure of Unaf’s life work meant nothing to that beast,” she shivered. “Her poetry seems to have no value at all to him.”

“Damn him!” cursed the publisher, his face flushed with red. “Damn the bore!”

Mlem had an idea of how to calm down the emotional fires. “Why don’t we go to the cafeteria and have some bush tea,” he suggested. “We can discuss these matters there.”

There were only a few writers eating when the trio entered. The latter group obtained cups of mountain herbal liquid, then sat down at a corner table.

“Whoever is behind the memory destruction may have a very simple purpose in mind,” darkly began the publisher.

“What could that be?” asked Dari from across the table.

“Bankrupting me and putting an end to my publishing business.”

Mlem leaned forward. “You are losing a lot of money, then?”

Perek nodded yes. “Subscriptions to our ribbons are already down, and much more loss can be expected. People no longer wish to read what I publish.”

“Your operations may fold, then?”

“My firm, the Poet’s Lodge, and this entire creative colony may eventually be gone.”

“If Dioto Gerak is behind what is going on, what could his ultimate goal be?” said Mlem as if to himself. “Is he some sort of madman bent on decimating and ruining the writers gathered here on Mount Meteor? His motives may be too twisted for any normal mind to comprehend.”

The viroid publisher took a sip of bush tea before sharing what he thought.

“All I know is that wild ambition reigns within this critic. He craves to become the great man of literature on our planet. The presidency of the Writers’ Union is only one steppingstone on his upward trajectory. There is no limit to the heights he dreams of, believe me. Ambition has made him wild and unscrupulous. I doubt that Mr. Dioto Gerak has any trace of a conscience within him.”

“The election of president will take place soon, won’t it?” quietly murmured Mlem.

“The day after tomorrow, in the evening,” said Perek. “The voting will take place by secret ballot here in the lodge, in the dining hall.”

“Do you think that you could win the election?” whispered Dari, staring at him.

The publisher hesitated. “I don’t know for certain,” he admitted. “I just cannot say, one way or the other.”

Only in Dari’s room could the Totmaxes speak in secret.

“What next?” asked the brother in a lowered tone.

His sister thought a while, her eyes turned away from Mlem. When her decision was made, she revealed it to him.

“We must find out when a snow sled will leave for the main caves and reserve places on it for ourselves.”

The pair gazed directly into each other’s eyes, communicating in silence.

“Shouldn’t we send a message to Skopo in Kalender?” soberly inquired Mlem. “He has heard nothing from us, so far.”

“No, it is best that we wait till we have definite, concrete evidence to offer him.”

The brother thought for a few moments. “Very well,” he concluded. “I’ll go around and find out what transportation is available for us.”

VI.

Uraf opened her sleep-filled sapphire eyes, attempting to orient herself. She was in her room at the lodge, lying in her bed. Who were those people watching her so intently? She studied the faces and identified who each person was.

Dari, Mlem, and Perek were the individuals present near her. They were observing her awakening. She made a strenuous effort to remember what had recently occurred. Why did she have a feeling that something very terrible had happened to her? Uraf asked herself. Why were her thoughts and emotions in such turmoil?

Outdoors she had gone into a terrible yellow snow blizzard. Slipping, she had fallen to the icy ground. Wind blasts had tortured her with sharp pains. A long, blank period of sleep had followed. When and how had her consciousness revived? she wondered.

“Don’t say a thing,” whispered the publisher of her poetry. “Just try to rest and gather strength. You are still weakened and injured from your horrible experience. Just stay still and continue to rest.”

All at once, Uraf remembered the viroid tragedy that destroyed her life work. Her eyes darted about in different directions, finally settling upon Mlem.

“Bring me some pieces of papex and a handpen from the lodge office,” she begged with humility. “I need to put something down right now.”

The Totmaxes exchanged questioning looks. At the same time, Perek moved forward to the side of the bed. “What are you going to do?” he asked her.

“I remember now why I wanted to see and talk to you,” groaned the poet in bed.

“You wish to write something down?”

Uraf nodded. “My memory of recently written poems is still alive in me. I want to get them down as soon as is possible. I should never have become dependent on viroid ribbons and storage memories, with no records in reserve. But the mind that composed the many poems that were lost can perhaps restore some of them.”

Mlem moved toward the door of the bedroom. “I’ll get you what you need,” he said as he stepped away.

Dari moved nearer the bed. “We will help you recreate all that your mind can recover,” she told the one in the bed.

After Mlem returned with the writing supplies, Perek excused himself and headed home. The Totmaxes found chairs and sat down as Uraf began to write something.

Within a minute, the latter had rewritten one of her favorite poetic creations.

She gave it to Mlem to read, a victorious smile on her pale face.

His eyes slowly perused the spare, loose six lines.

“Never repeat, always go forward,

Do not linger when you can leap

Over the boundaries, into what some

Might wish to label terra incognita,

But which I know to be

My one true native land.”

Mlem, staring at the writer, handed the sheet of papex to his sister.

“It is phenomenal!” he gasped with unconcealed excitement.

Uraf gave him a smile, then returned to the work that now engrossed her mind.

By next morning, there were over thirty verses down on papex.

Dari and Mlem had gone to their rooms after midnight, thoroughly exhausted. They agreed that Uraf was on the way to recovery, both physically and mentally. But their own special, secret assignment on Mount Meteor remained unfulfilled.

Rising early the next morning, Dari went to the Poets’ Lodge office and used the viroidfon to call Mountain Tours at a nearby tourist village. Yes, there was a motor-sled going through the region that morning. Yes, it could stop at the Poets’ Lodge to pick up two extra passengers. This was the slow season, and there was plenty of room on the vehicle. Be there waiting at the entrance to the chalet at eight o’clock. Yes, the tour included a number of the major caves on Mount Meteor.

Dari checked on Uraf, who was placidly asleep and would in all probability remain so for the rest of the day. This was their opportunity to move about the caverns till evening. What might they discover in them?

The motor-sled was a ten-seater, low and streamlined, with a transparent silicon canopy that permitted total viewing of the yellow snow landscape.

Behind the lethargic driver at the controls, there were only two others aboard beside the Totmaxes. There would be plenty of chances to wander about on their own. No one was going to herd them about like gawking children, both Dari and Mlem agreed. They would enjoy a great degree of independence.

The two strong, sharp polymetallic skates of the sled glided over the fields of yellowish snow as if they were on polished ice. Upward toward the peak of the mountain climbed the sleek winter carrier. The sky was a brilliant light gray color. All indications were that the day was to be free of storms.

Mlem looked rightward, his sister to the left as they sped over the snowscape. Each of them was trying to foresee what might lie along this journey they were on. Both were surprised when the driver abruptly cut the speed and announced that the main cave area was immediately ahead. They had arrived at this important destination earlier than they expected.

The two other passengers, young newly-weds on their honeymoon, were first to climb out of the motor-sled. As the Totmaxes passed by the driver who was standing by the open hatch, Dari spoke to him in a gentle voice.

“I was told that it would be quite alright if we explored about on our own,” she cooed. “Any objections to that?”

The driver shook his head. “No,” he replied with a sweet smile.

As soon as they were standing on the packed snow, the Totmaxes surveyed their surroundings. A high ridge above, a deep gorge below. The path to the nearest cave had a white polymetal fence guarding it on both sides.

Dari noticed something down at the bottom of the mountain gorge and pointed at it. Mlem looked below, then at his sister.

“What is it?” he whispered to her.

She spun around and walked back to the motor-sled. The driver inside opened the hatch for her.

“We can see a little building down in the valley. Does someone live there?”

“That old shed?” laughed the man sitting at the controls. “Only an old recluse hides out there. I’ve only seen him a couple of times, at a distance. The spot is protected from winds, but it is a terrible way to live, if you ask me.”

“Thank you,” said Dari with a grin. “We were just curious.”

She made her way back to Mlem and the two proceeded along the fenced trail. Since the newly-weds had already entered the nearest cave, they went on to the second one. Its mouth was narrower and not as high as that of the first. A small plastex sign hung to the side, a few feet from the entrance. It read “Light Tubes”.

Mlem stepped forward and pulled several of the tabs on a leverboard. Whitish illumination filled the interior of an enormous cavern beyond the entrance. The roof spiraled upward like a temple dome. Mottled walls extended into the distant end of the cave.

“Let’s go in and look about,” said Dari in a hollow voice.

The caves were gigantic, but empty of what they were hunting for.

Each of them contained light tubes, but no sign of human activity there.

Cave followed cave, each like the previous one. Their search appeared futile to the pair after the seventh cavern was inspected.

“Either there is nothing here, Mlem, or else we are making some terrible mistake.”

“What are you thinking, then?” said her brother.

Dari pondered a moment. “Perhaps Vnem Lepad meant something different from what we understood him to be telling us. What if he intended to say that the location was under the caves rather than what we took his directions to be?”

Mlem became both confused and excited. “Under the caves, beneath the caves, or in the caves? What was he trying to say with his last breath?”

The sister stopped and peered down into the gorge.

“Let’s have a look at this hermit’s shed before going on into more caves,” she told him.

They zigzagged on, past rocks and snow banks, their view of the destination growing clearer and more defined. There was much more here than a simple shed. A mountain cabin of chiseled slate walls and a bluepine roof. This was a larger structure than it had appeared to be from a distance. Why had the driver called it merely a shed?

The building seemed still and empty. But there were marks in the yellow snow that indicated some kind of movement or traffic. A sled? wondered both explorers.

As they drew ever closer, signs of occupation became visible.

Boot prints on the packed yellow snow around the place. Narrow skate tracks.

No, there was more than a lonely recluse who used this location.

In complete silence, the snoopers approached the door facing the nearest of the caves. Should they knock or try to open it and enter at once on their own?

What if there was someone inside who might present a danger to them?

Without hesitation, the pair proceeded to the threshold of the cabin. Each step forward was slower than the one before. Since they had come this far, there was nothing left but to risk everything. Mlem glanced at Dari, who gave him a single nod of the head. Go on, she signaled him. Open the door so that we can have a look inside.

Faster than it could be thought through, the deed was done.

A front room with confortable plastex furniture, warm, neat, and up-to-date. Walls covered with pink-colored papex. Not at all the expected den of a mountain hermit.

From somewhere inside, a voice they had recently heard now spoke to them.

“Come in, come in. If you are so curious as to travel here, you deserve to have a good look around.”

From a corner chair, rose the familiar figure of the driver of the motor-sled. The burley older man moved toward them. “Please close the door behind you,” he added.

Sheepishly, the intruders filed into the parlor of the structure. Only then did they see the viroid micropulser in the man’s right hand.

“Tell me what you two are looking for. There is no cave in here.”

The driver moved closer and closer.

Neither the brother or sister showed any sign of fear or alarm.

“I’d like to know what you thought was hidden in here,” growled the holder of the tiny weapon.

The next sound was that of a door in the rear of the room opening.

A tall male in a green sleep suit emerged. His eyes were a sleepy yellow.

In an instant, Dari and Mlem identified him as someone they had met in Kalender.

It was Zado Atat.

VII.

Skopo Kitanin had both good and bad news to report to his chief.

As he entered the latter’s office, he could sense that this was going to be a crucial, decisive meeting where the future course of his investigation would have to be settled.

Yato Pmom motioned to him to sit down. “What is the current status of the case?” he began.

“Here in Kalender, all but a small handful of Readers have been captured and are now held in custody. But reports of spreading viroid vandalism continue to come in from other directions, especially the coastal area. Something entirely new is starting in the city of Plazh. The viroid ribbons of cable entertainment and fliko-films are the most recent targets of the terrorists. This has never happened before. It is an escalation on the part of the Atat brothers, from printed material to drama presentations. So far, neither the fliko industry nor the Plazh police have been able to cope with the growth in criminal destruction by the Readers that remain.”

“I see,” mumbled the Chief of Detectives. “What about this trip that your friends from the Central Library took to Mount Meteor? Anything from that quarter?”

“No,” frowned the investigator. “So far, not a word from them.”

Yato, deep in thought, said nothing for a considerable length of time.

“Things are now under better control in Kalender,” he finally decided. “It is possible, I believe, to send you to Plazh to help the police there with your experience handling the Readers.”

Skopo’s face brightened. Something like a smile crossed his mouth.

“One thing more, sir,” he gently said. “Could I go to the coast by way of Mount Meteor? I would like to see for myself how the two Totmaxes are doing there. From the beginning, I’ve had questions about sending amateurs up there.”

“They volunteered. In fact, the pair threatened that they were going to travel on their own, privately, to look into the last words spoken by Lenad, the viroid engineer.”

“I know,” nodded the detective. “They pressured me into allowing them to go.”

“Very well, then, take an extra day on the journey to Plazh and stop to see how they are doing up on the mountain.”

“I’ll leave within a couple of hours, sir,” said Skopo, rising to his feet and hurrying swiftly out of his superior’s office.

The vertical caterpillar ride held little interest in itself for one of the passengers aboard. Skopo’s mind was on what he intended to say and do once he reached the Poets’ Lodge.

From the funicular station he followed directions to the chalet where his associates were staying. His heartbeat quickened as he approached, then entered the Poets’ Lodge. Seeing the reception desk, the detective marched boldly up to it. From here, he could see through an open door into the office where a woman sat at a table with a viroid screen upon it. Her head turned and a pair of unusual eyes focused on him.

The sapphire color of her pupils was the foremost and most noticeable thing about the female rising up and walking toward him. Then, the pale gold of her face. She moved to the edge of the reception desk and looked directly at him.

“Yes, can I help you?”

“I am looking for two friends of mine who are staying here at your lodge. Their name is Totmax. They are brother and sister, called Mlem and Dari. I know that they will be eager to see me.”

Her hands clasped the edge of the desk as Uraf braced herself.

“I am sorry to have to tell you that they have been missing persons since yesterday. Please come into my office so I can describe what is known about their disappearance.”

An excursion to the mountain caves. Wandering off on their own, without informing the driver-guide where they intended to go. Not showing up for the journey back, even though the motor-sled waited an extra hour for them to appear.

Once it was concluded by evening that the pair were lost in the yellow zone, the Alpine Corps was summoned to mount a hunt for them. Because of darkness, the search was delayed until daybreak. Rescue sleds began patrols in the cave region. All available snow vehicles not in use were mobilized and covered numerous ridges and valleys on Mount Meteor.

Uraf went on to describe Dari’s success as a poet who had been published over viroid ribbon.

Skopo gave her his name, but not his profession or official employment in Kalender.

His mind whirled like a spindle. He had to take action, he realized. Perhaps more aid had to be called in from outside. The situation here was threatening and dangerous for his two partners, he said to himself with dread.

Could the cover of the Totmaxes have been somehow destroyed and their purpose here exposed to view?

Had they found something of interest in the zone of caves?

The investigator rose to his feet. “I would like to talk to the person in charge of the Alpine Corps in this district, Miss Selint,” he announced in a firm tone of voice.

“That is Captain Bukk. He has many years of rescue experience in the yellow zone. His diligence in search expeditions is legendary, and he is sending out all the motor-sleds possible. The local police are cooperating with their glidecopters as well.”

“When may I see this officer?” pressed the detective.

“The president of our Writers’ Union, Perek Tenrop, is in constant viroidfon contact with him. We will be having an election meeting this evening in the lodge assembly room. All the writers of this community should be present because our presidency is at stake.

“So that Perek can keep fully abreast of the situation, Captain Bukk called here a little while ago to say he was coming to our cafeteria for lunch today.” She glanced at the wall-timer above Skopo for a moment. “That will be in about half an hour.”

“I’d like to talk with both your president and the captain,” requested Skopo. “Perhaps I can be of some assistance, since I know both of the missing ones.”

Caves for tourists and vacationers to visit, with deep under them especially constructed mining tunnels that were unused, abandoned, and nearly forgotten existed in the yellow snow zone.

Early settlers on Farmer had included prospectors for ores of value on other planets. Much was too little or too difficult to extract. Fortunes had been made by a few speculators sinking tunnels on Mount Meteor. But most mining ventures had lost everything and proved unprofitable.

Concealed mines and tunnels were available for secret purposes. This had drawn the Atats and their Readers to the cave region. Not the open caves, but what was hidden beneath them.

Viroid light tubes illuminated the rock walls of certain special tunnels. Lifters rose and descended chosen shafts used for criminal purposes. A small city of vandals occupied an area under the mountain caves.

The two Totaxes found themselves locked by their captors in a tunnel where Reader supplies were stored.

There was plenty of time for Mlem and Dari to put together what they had so far seen and heard.

Zado Atat was in league with the motor-sled owner who had driven them here. How many other snow-vehicle operators were providing criminal transport for the organized vandals?

They had glimpsed what appeared to be a workshop. Artisan hands were busy with the construction of viroid-equipped wands. This was a stronghold of the criminal nihilists, where they operated what resembled a factory.

The brother and sister communicated in cautious whispers, sharing ideas and emotions. They were able to perceive the colossal enmity of their enemies, their profound drive to destroy the world of the viroid.

Revenge without logic or limits was the threat coming from these tunnels. Retaliation had run amuck. Destruction had become an end in itself, not a means to vengeance or some form of justice.

“We are dealing with obsessed people!” opined Dari, shaken completely.

“Their very insanity may be what makes them so devilishly clever,” muttered Mlem. “The outlandish nature of their ideas gives them a strange, powerful vision. The Atat brothers are not stupid or ignorant, not at all.”

Hopeless desperation seized hold of both of them.

VIII.

Captain Bukk proved to be small and slight.

His only source of authority was the power of his stentorian voice. He wore a simple snowsuit under his heavy siliconweave coat.

Uraf introduced the friend of the Totmaxes to the district director of the Alpine Corps as he came to their table in the cafeteria. Behind him was a tall, thin man with dark brown eyes. The publisher of Dari’s first verse, president of all the writers of the lodge.

Skopo shook hands with the Captain, then Perek Tenrop.

All four took seats around the small, square table.

“So, you happen to know Dari and Mlem very well,” began the publisher. “They did not mention family, relatives, or anyone else.”

“I have been close to them for years,” lied the investigator. “They told me by viroidfon to stop and see them on my way to the sea coast. I have business waiting for me in Plazh.”

Uraf addressed a question to Bukk. “I take it no sign of them has been found. Is that correct?”

“Sadly, you are right,” said the alpinist. “I will be returning to the cave region immediately after leaving here.”

The detective saw his opportunity and reached for it.

“Could I go the area with you, sir?” he requested. “The frustration of inactivity drives me to distraction. I would lose my mind if I had to sit still and wait for news to filter in on its own.”

The sincerity of such a statement seemed to impress Bukk, a good judge of character.

“If you wish, there is an extra seat in my motor-sled.”

“Perek and I have to stay here at the lodge and prepare things for tonight’s meeting and election,” said Uraf with regret on her face and in her voice.

“You shall be kept informed of any developments,” promised the Captain.

He then turned to Skopo. “If you are ready, we can leave at once.”

The two took leave of the poet and the publisher. They walked out of the cafeteria, down the corridor and across the lobby, and out of the chalet.

“I have never seen a disappearance so complete and traceless,” remarked Bukk as they seated themselves in the Alpine Corps motor-sled. “It’s as if these two individuals had been snatched off the surface of Farmer.”

Frowning with apprehension, the detective made no comment at all.

The prisoners had just finished eating the meal brought them by their Reader guard and then given back to him their food trays. They were both surprised by the unexpected appearance of Zado Atat in the tunnel in which they were held.

“What do you think of our facility”, cynically inquired their captor. “This is a perfect base from which to carry out our operations. Although visitors come to the caves above us every day, no one ever suspects that the Readers have a workshop and storage warehouse down below in these forgotten, abandoned mines. We enjoy cover from any prying officials or policemen.”

Dari decided to take a daring tack. “What villainy are you planning for us?” she demanded. “What awaits us in your calculations?”

Zado grinned slyly. “My brother and I are fully aware of your maneuvers, such as the pretense that you are creative poets. You came to Mount Meteor as imposters, but our organization quickly unmasked what your true purposes have been from the start. We have our people where we learn such things.”

He glared at both of the Totmaxes in turn with bitter hatred on his face. Then he spun around and moved toward the lifter that had brought him down to this particular tunnel.

Dari and Mlem looked at each other questioningly.

“What now?” asked the brother.

“I would guess that Predo Atat is not at present in the immediate vicinity, so that Zado does not wish to decide our fate on his own. But that situation may not last much longer.”

“Is there anything we can do before then?” pleaded Mlem. “Some way of signaling to the outside? I’m sure that there are people searching for us. The Poets’ Lodge has certainly informed the yellow zone police of our absence.”

The two of them were silent, listening to a faint, distant humming sound. Each was aware that the other heard it, since it had been audible, on and off, for hours.

“A ventilating device of some kind,” muttered Mlem.

His sister furrowed her brow. “Where there is an air pump, there must be a vertical pipe or shaft for inflow and outflow.”

“I doubt we can scale it from this far below.”

“Perhaps,” mused Dari. “But what if enough smoke could be generated to fill it up? Enough to send a distress signal out into visible air above ground?”

Mlem raised his eyes and scanned the tubs, barrels, crates, and boxes that filled most of the tunnel they were imprisoned in.

“Yes, I believe we could start quite a fire with what is available about us,” he declared, rubbing his chin with his right palm.

From high on a yellow ridge, Scopo and Captain Bukk peered down at the strange building in the gorge below them.

“Someone is living in that?” said the detective from Kalender, pointing out the old, decrepit cabin.

“I myself inquired and found a reclusive loner inside. The man wouldn’t allow me to enter, only speaking at the door. He reported that he saw nothing and no one because he sleeps most of the day. An unfriendly, uncooperative character he was. We have quite a few such antisocial individuals on the mountain. They move here to be free of external control. Anyone knocking at their doors will be considered to be disturbing their peace and solitude.”

You have lived on Mount Meteor all your life, then?” asked the investigator.

“Indeed. I joined the Alpine Corps when I was only sixteen and had already seen hundreds of rescues from the snow. But nothing like this situation near the caves. The brother and the sister must have wandered off in this direction. But I can’t understand or figure out why they did.”

Skopo considered his options a moment. “These caverns have been thoroughly searched by your alpine patrols?”

“Yes, in the first hour of effort on our part.”

“Do you have any objection if I take a walk about on my own, Chief?”

“Not at all,” murmured Bukk. “You might pick up something that others have missed.”

The first three caves that were entered by the detective proved disappointments.

It was the fourth one that had something noteworthy about it. At first, Skopo was unable to put his finger on what produced a strange sensation within a part of his mind.

There was a faint smell of acidity. An odor of something burning. He sniffed again and again. That’s what it is, he told himself.

Skopo moved swiftly toward the dark area in the rear of the cavern.

The single light tube overhead ended in solid shadows ahead of him.

He took a tiny penluxer out of his pocket, pushed the cell tab, then proceeded with its brilliant rays guiding him.

Deeper and deeper he penetrated, avoiding sharp rocks and stalactites.

The smoke that he had previously smelled was now visible. He raised, then lowered his penluxer, searching for its point of origin. Black plumes were rising a little way before him, as if out of the floor of the stone-faced cavern.

Several times the terrible stink made Skopo cough and retch. Still, he continued advancing toward the source. His steps slowed as he reached what appeared to be an opening with a fine metallic wire grating over it. His throat choked as he knelled on his knees to examine what he had discovered.

There was a shaft below the floor of the cave. Where did it come from? What was burning with such speed inside the interior of the mountain?

It was obvious to him that this was a human artifice, the result of someone’s conscious plan. What was its function and where did it originate?

A voice buried within his mind instructed Skopo to call loudly into the smoke-filled opening.

The words he yelled into the black shaft came out of his throat with primal emotion.

“Dari, Dari. Where are you? Is this smoke a signal from you?”

From far below, the sound of a male voice reached his ears. This was followed by one within the female range. The words were not understandable for a brief time. Only gradually did he make out what the voices were trying to communicate.

Help. Danger. We are in an old mine tunnel. Readers. Zado. Danger.

Inside the mind and thoughts of the knelling inspector from Kalender, the connecting synapses sparked to life with nearly explosive electrical energy.

As each word came to be deciphered, his intelligence came to life.

Skopo cried out one word to the pair who had caused the smoke and fire: “Coming”.

Surprised and stunned, Captain Bukk saw the needs of the situation in a flash. He gave the detective a searching look.

“Why didn’t you tell me that you are a policeman from Kalender?”

“In order to maintain the cover I took when I decided to travel here. It was necessary to conceal my purpose on Mount Meteor so as not to frighten off the Readers.”

Bukk nodded that he perceived the need for the silence. “I can muster patrol teams at once,” he said, pursing his lips.

“The only way into the tunnel that is known to us is inside the cabin,” went on Skopo. “Do you believe it can be quickly captured by your people?”

The Captain bit his lip. “I can foresee a frontal attack at full speed at the cabin, simultaneously from all directions. Coordinaion of our movements will be a vital necessity.”

“The safety of the pair being held must be given top priority,” argued Skopo with nervous force. “That is so, even if it means escape for some of the Readers.”

“We shall attempt both the rescue of the captives and the capture of the criminals,” promised the alpine commander. “My hope is to possess a general measure of success through the advantage of surprise. We must take the risks involved in what lies ahead.”

“There exists a net of mine shafts and tunnels beneath many of the caves, then?” inquired the detective.

“That is what our land charts indicate,” frowned Bukk. “Until now, none of us in the Alpine Corps took these conditions seriously.” He glanced at the timer on his right wrist. “In a few minutes, the snow teams will be in position for the assault on the Readers.”

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