Viroids Part III.

18 Mar

I.

Dari looked away from the fire that her brother was feeding papexboard into.

The Reader approaching the two with a tray of food saw at once what the prisoners were up to. Smoke from the controlled blaze could be smelled by him at once, impelling the little man to drop the tray and reach into his pocket for his tiny micropulser.

“Stand where you are and don’t move,” commanded the guard in gray pants and jacket.

The Totmaxes looked at him in terrified surprise, then turned their eyes on each other. What were they to do under these circumstances? Were they going to suffer irremediable harm?

All of a sudden, Mlem took action, picking up a plastex rod and crying out to his sister “Behind the fire! Quickly, on the other side!”

Instantly, Dari dove in back of the red, orange, and yellow flames. At the same time, her brother rushed forward toward the open doorway, surprising and almost for several seconds paralyzing the Reader who was holding a weapon.

“Stop!” screamed the man in gray. “Don’t come any closer.”

Mlem heard these words, but it was too late to do anything else but proceed with his desperate attack. Onward he threw himself, threatening to collide with the Reader and knock him over. Even though he heard the shouted warning, he pressed on. It was impossible to cease and halt.

Dari watched from behind the dancing flames as her brother leaped upward toward the shaking hand that held the little pulser.

A rippling sound, lasting less than a second, occurred just before a loud thud.

The Reader stepped forward and kicked the plastex rod out of the hands of the inert body sprawled on the floor of the tunnel supply room.

Dari, her heart palpitating wildly, saw the guard approach his now receding foe.

“Come out from back there,” barked the armed one. He waved his pulser about as if at random. “Don’t do anything foolish, or you’ll get the same as he did.”

Dark purplish clouds filled the late afternoon sky over the lonely cabin in the slatestone gorge. Captain Bukk had assembled and stationed his forces. The police officer from Kalender insisted on being in the command sled with him.

“I have a small arm that I can shoot, if necessary,” explained Skopo. “But the alpinists, of course, will make up the first line of assault. That is understood by me.”

His seat was in the extreme rear of Bukk’s vehicle. He was to be primarily a witness, but not necessarily an active participant in what was soon to happen.

The Captain carefully checked his personal timer, then spoke to the driver of the motor-sled.

“Only a few more seconds to go. All eight of the snow-sleds are in position and ready to move,” said Bukk. “One of the scouts up on top of the ridge will fire flares in the air for a while. That will signal the start of our charge toward the objective.” He paused and drew his breath. “Speed will be most decisive in this. The time has arrived for action.”

Concentrated silence reigned within the command sled. Scopo had direct view of the entire valley that was about to be crossed by the invasion force.

The faces of the crewmen in yellow coats were focused upward toward the rim of the ridge above the caves. Patient, concentrated waiting abruptly ended. White flares rose into the air.

Captain Bukk ordered his driver to gun the sled’s motor. From eight different positions, the dash for the hermit’s shack started. The attack was meant to be strong and relentless.

Skopo had never realized that a snow vehicle was capable of such lightning-fast motion. He watched as the dilapidated building came closer and closer.

The decisive confrontation had now arrived.

II.

Dari glared with scorn at the grandson of the self-styled inventor of viroid ribbons as he was given a sketch of what had transpired below in the tunnel.

The Reader guard had hurried her into the lifter, up to the cabin aboveground cabin. Mlem lay below, wounded and bleeding where he had fought.

“You have caused me a great deal of inconvenience and trouble,” grumbled Zado Atat. “The time has come to put an end to your interference.”

At that moment, the walls of the building suffered a great quaking shock.

Zado and the three Readers in this command center looked about in stunned wonder. What was happening? they silently thought as they gazed at each other.

Outdoors, the attacking sleds had the cabin in a tight noose.

Alpinists were tumbling out of hatches, setting up a perimeter line around their target.

Groups of arms experts placed plastex-powder charges onto the bluepine walls of the structure, then stepped away.

One by one, holes were blasted on each side of the cabin.

Through clouds of debris, dust, and powder, men and women armed with pulse weapons entered the interior of the ruin. Only one of the Readers had the presence of mind to raise a pulse-shooter in opposition. He was instantly hit and felled by a particle shot.

“Up with your hands!” commanded the first alpinist to reach the cabin office.

Behind the first and second lines, Skopo caught sight of Dari rushing forward toward her rescuers. She held her right arm high in the air.

But another figure, Zado Atat, was also running toward the blasted front door opening.

In a split second, Zado seized her around the waist, attempting to make the woman into his shield against the rescuers.

Dari screamed with all her vocal power, then struck Atat with a clenched fist before he succeeded in pushing down her arm and grabbing hold of it.

Captain Bukk, running up fast, raised his pulser and fired it once.

Fortunately, he was an experienced, expert marksman. He knew how to hit a moving target with accuracy.

By the time Zado was sprawled on the floor, Dari had made it through the doorway and out into the open.

In seconds, the detective from Kalender had the librarian nestled in his arms. He assured her that she was now safe.

All at once, she thought of her brother down below. “Mlem…he was shot down in the tunnel where we were held. Let me show you where the lifter is.”

Skopo and the Captain followed her into the corner where she pointed out the mechanism that would take them to where her brother lay wounded and injured.

Seriously injured, but still breathing, Mlem lay on the tunnel floor.

Dari and Skopo watched in silence as the wounded brother received emergency treatment supervised by Captain Bukk.

A crew member came forward and whispered to the Captain. The latter turned to the detective. “The leader of the vandals just died. We will have no more trouble from him.”

In five minutes, it was possible to move the patient up to ground level. Bukk made the decision to transport Mlem to the district hospital by motor-sled.

Dari asked to go with him. “I can’t leave him alone at this moment,” she insisted.

“I wish to make an immediate search of this place for documents and evidence about what the Readers were up to,” decided Skopo. “Their organization may still exist in other localities and areas. Dangers could persist elsewhere.”

Once the speeding sled had departed with the Totmaxes, Skopo and Bukk started a search of the communications center of the cabin. There were records of messages from Plazh and messages to Plazh. Going through the drawers of a desk, the investigator from Kalender began to reach conclusions.

“I believe that the center of Reader attention and activity is now in the city of Plazh,” he told the Captain.

Examining the contents of a filing case, Skopo discovered evidence of the targeting of libraries, banks, stores, and factories on the sea coast.

All of a sudden, he came upon commands issued to a person on Mount Meteor.

The name of the recipient was in coded form, but Skopo quickly deciphered its meaning. Again and again, the word “Pornet” appeared in orders and documents.

Pornet will accomplish this in time. Pornet has completed instructions sent to him. Pornet carried out a successful raid on poetry memory. Or collected writings of a certain poet.

All at once, the investigator realized what fascinated his thinking about what he was reading in the Reader file.

If the name “Pornet” was reversed from front to back, it spelled “Tenrop”.

Skopo was stunned by the implication of that fact.

In the conference room of the Poets’ Lodge, a large crowd of writers had assembled for the election of a new president. Every member had received a secret ballot on which to record a choice. Dioto Gerak sat in one rear corner. His opponent, the publisher who already held the top office, was in the front row among his supporters.

Uraf Selint had agreed to preside over the meeting while the ballots were collected and counted.

The members impatiently twisted and shuffled. Suspense mounted, for this was known to be a very close contest this time. Nervous energy filled the air.

All of a sudden, all eyes turned to the back of the large hall where something unexpected was occurring.

A number of alpine officers, led by Captain Bukk, had entered and were watching what was going on in front.

Skopo Kitanin entered, boldly marching up the central aisle to the rostrum where Ural stood, waiting for the results of the vote tally.

The detective nodded to her, motioning that he wished to tell her something.

All eyes in the room centered upon the two of them.

Perplexed and confused, the presiding poet stepped forward to where the intruder stood.

Whispers occurred between Skopo and Uraf. The latter flushed with astonishment. She suddenly pointed to the first row, specifically to Perek Tenrop. The latter sat there surrounded by his supporters.

The president of the writers’ Union leaped to his feet.

Seeing this, Bukk and his team rushed forward along the two side aisles and up the middle one. Perek, spinning around, caught sight of the group closing in on him. He lurched toward the door in back of the rostrum where Ulaf stood.

In an instant, Skopo ran up beside the cornered publisher. His right hand grabbed hold of Tenrop by the forearm. His left bent around the man’s neck.

He kept hold of the viroid vandal till the alpinists reached there and arrested the publisher.

The Writers’ Union had never before witnessed such a scene as this.

A motor-sled came up to the Lodge in the darkness. Skopo, waiting in the lobby, rose from his chair and rushed to the door to open it for Dari.

She looked the detective directly in the eye.

“Mlem is recovering,” she announced. “His prognosis is very good.”

“I’m so happy to hear that, Dari. Come over and sit down. A lot has happened that you will want to hear about.”

Once they were both seated, he swiftly described the arrest of Perek Tenrop.

“The members decided to make Uraf the new president by acclamation,” smiled Skopo. “The other candidate, Dioto Gerak, had withdrawn his name.”

“I am so happy for her,” remarked Dari. “But what will happen to Perek now?”

“I foresee many years of imprisonment in the sea islands for him.”

“But he seemed so trustworthy!” she burst out. “It was Dioto Gerak who appeared evil and suspicious to Mlem and me. The publisher seemed to be poetry’s best friend. There appeared to be nothing shadowy or suspicious about the man.”

Skopo sighed. “My work has taught me to ignore initial impressions and external appearance. What we see or think we see is only an assumed mask. It could be that Perek had an envious mind that the Readers managed to exploit. The Atats knew how to bring twisted personalities into their web of influence. Consciously or unconsciously, he aided poets. But deep within his mind, he was a destructive devil, mad with jealousy of others with creative attributes and characters.”

“Zado Atat can do no more harm to anyone,” solemnly said the librarian.

“That’s right, Dari. But his brother remains at large and still operates. I plan to leave tomorrow morning for Plazh. There is a rising wave of viroid raids there, centered on the fliko industry.”

“Be careful, Skopo,” she warned. “The Readers remain still dangerous.”

“Yes, I realize that.”

“I wrote a short poem about our adventure on Mount Meteor,” she told him with a pensive smile.

“I’d like to hear it, Dari.”

She recited it from memory for him.

“The evil I feared to see,

Is now detected and uncovered,

By one who dives and delves deeply,

Into mountain caves and tunnels,

And finds smoke signals,

From the invisible sources.”

III.

Skopo surveyed the giant studios of Plazh from the porch of his hotel room. They were famous for drawing the young and ambitious to the city on the Azure Sea. He reminded himself why he had traveled here by train. What lay behind the vandal attacks upon the viroid entertainment industry? I have to talk with the most important producer of dramatic ribbons in this city, the investigator said to himself.

The main office of Gax Productions was a donut-shaped high rise of ivory white silicon. Skopo made an appointment to see the head of the fliko conglomerate, Tandem Gax.

The latter was a long, stocky giant with a square head that resembled a slatestone rock. His hair was straight, short, smooth, and black.

“Sit down, Mr. Kitanin,” his bass voice rang out. “There is a lot I would like to tell you.”

The viroid mogul sat back in his gigantic, throne-like metallic chair.

“I have been receiving anonymous warnings over viroidfon for some time. They tell me to stop all ribbon production, or there will be destructive consequences. Because I ignored such threats, vandals have struck with erasures. Their targets have been the prompters used by our performers. Are you familiar with how these operate?”

“The prompters are viroid projectors that feed actors their lines. A script appears in legible form, beamed into the eyes of the performer.”

Gax frowned. “Already, entire viroid plays have been wiped out. Studio production is increasingly impossible. The losses are unimaginable.”

“This has all the earmarks of the Readers,” asserted the detective. “Their motive is vengeance upon our modern viroid technology. The claim is that all of our developments have been illegal and unjust, the results of fraudulent theft. These fanatics convince themselves that they are victims of a conspiracy that stole the field of viroid application from its original creator.”

“Other fliko companies have received similar threats and destructive damage. Our entire industry is in peril. But the police are unable to uncover the culprits. The vandals are as clever as they are evil.”

“I would like to look about one of your studios, sir,” proposed Skopo. “My experience fighting these vandals can provide me hints of what to look for.”

The producer grew excited. “My daughter is in the cast of a drama currently being recorded. She plays the main female romantic role.”

“It would aid me a lot to witness how a dramatic program is put on ribbon,” said the visitor.

“I shall make the arrangements for you, then,” promised the head of the studios.

The romantic drama scene being recorded was in a thick tropical forest.

Tall plantain trees rose among papayas, boniatos, and kaboches.

Only one actor stood in front of the viroid camera. Skopo was beside it, listening to the soliloquy of the short, slim brunette with eyes of hypnotic green. Her voice was slow and dreamy. She spoke as if in a sleepy spell.

All that once, her green eyes appeared to turn dark, becoming almost black.

Her mouth widened and remained open. Nothing came out of it as she stared into the viroid recorder.

Skopo turned to the producer standing beside him. Gax was moving quickly toward the small group congregating around the camera.

Something had gone wrong. The tall, skinny director had risen from his chair and advanced into the jungle set. He spoke to the confused, lost actress.

“What is it, Teba? What made you stop that way?”

Out of her gaping mouth flowed a fearful stuttering. “My lines were gone. I didn’t know what came next. It was chaotic for me. I fell into total confusion.”

Tandem, walking onto the set, came up to the pair.

“Did the prompter go blank?” he anxiously asked his daughter. “Is that what stopped you?”

“That’s it,” she whined. “Nothing came forth on the viroid ribbon.”

Her father took her hand in his.

“There will be no more recording today,” he announced loudly. “I’ll have you taken home at once.” He turned to the lanky director. “Let’s go to your office, Mizo. I want you to meet someone.” His right hand pointed at Skopo.

The detective tried to size up the director as they were introduced.

Seeing him out on the street, it would have been impossible to guess his profession. A director was supposed to be potent and commanding. Not this Mizo Harn. A boney scarecrow, there was nothing artistic or creative about him.

Something invisible told Skopo not to underestimate this viroid director.

“My operators believe the entire script was vandalized,” groaned Harn. “My writers will have to make an entirely new ribbon, starting from scratch.”

“We will lose at least a week,” said Gax. He turned to Skopo. “You think you know who is doing this to us?”

“It has all the marks of a cult of vengeance-seekers called the Readers.”

“I have read press reports about them,” muttered Mizo. “I don’t understand what their motives might be.”

Skopo made a grimace. “Once such a form of madness is born, it evolves onward on its own and becomes ever more vicious and criminal. The Readers are far ahead of our conventional viral memory technology. That is why there is almost no defense against their attacks. We have to capture them in order to stop their destructive erasures. They will never put an end to the madness that has taken hold of them.”

The detective studied the face of Mizo as he turned to Gax and addressed him.

“I hope that Taba is well enough to attend the reception for my father tonight. His jetboat arrives this afternoon and I will be picking him up at the harbor later today. Why don’t you bring Inspector Kitanin along with you?”
He turned his head and looked at Skopo.

Gax smiled. “Yes, I’m sure Taba will be well enough to be there.” He turned to the detective. “Mizo’s father is coming from the Peculiar Islands. He is head of the famous Mesmeric Drama School there. I expect to see a lot of the luminaries from the entertainment industry at the reception. Would you like to get to meet them?”

“Yes,” smiled Skopo. “It sounds like an interesting evening. There is much about the drama recording industry I could learn that will be helpful in my investigation.”

“I can take you in my cruiser,” said the mogul. “Mizo has a nice villa on the coast, a short distance from Plazh.”

IV.

On the luxury boat cruise along the coast, Tandem Gax told Skopo what he knew and thought about his star director.

“Mizo has always fascinated me. He came to our company as an assistant writer. I was on the lookout for raw talent and he gave me some of what he had put together out on the Peculiars. The material was very good, so I hired the promising young dramatist to work for me.

“His great grandfather ran a traveling comedy group. And his father was founder of the Mesmeric Drama School. Some of our best actors have been trained there under classical hypnotic control. That is a method that originated in the Peculiars and is still alive there. Long before the invention of the viroid prompter, direction of actors was occurring under trance control of the memory. But today that system has been replaced by viroid ribbons and projection techniques.

“When Mizo informed me that his father, Kanm Harn, was going to visit Plazh, I asked to meet that authority on acting methods. There may be a lot he can tell me from his years of experience.”

The cruiser slowed and approached the dock of the luxury villa.

Kanm Harn had the stage presence of a seasoned performer from the age before memory ribbons. He bowed before Taba and kissed the hand she extended to him.

“I have enjoyed your work,” he beamed. “We try to keep up with the latest in viroid drama on Eerie Island where I live. You are a beloved star there.”

As his son introduced him to Skopo Kitanin, Kanm gave him a fixed stare.

“You are with the police in Kalender?” he said with surprise.

“I am helping deal with certain crimes affecting the studios in Plazh,” grinned Skopo.

The face of Kanm turned frigid. “Yes, my son told me about what is happening. It is tragic. But such crimes become possible when complex technology is applied to dramatic production. Things used to be easier and safer in our field. There was less complexity, and therefore less confusion. Problems tended to be much fewer.”

Tandem spoke up. “You must visit our studios, Mr. Harn. I want you to see how we produce so much of what I call quality entertainment.”

The white-haired Kanm gave a sorrowful look. “Only by limiting how many pieces are staged can the highest quality be maintained. Too many dramas in too short a time are a recipe for problems.”

No one made any comment on what the veteran of the stage had just said to them.

Tandem Gax introduced Skopo to production executives, distributors, technicians, and writers from his company’s studios.

Taba took over the guidance of the detective. “Come with me into the library,” she said to him. “I have invited all of our acting crew in there for an informal get-together.”

Skopo entered with her, noticing that Kanm Harn was the hub of a group forming about him. All of a sudden, the man from Eerie Island broke away and walked over to speak to Taba.

“I wish to tell you about a project I have outlined to my son, Mizo. It is my main reason for having come to Plazh. He pleads that he is too busy, being tied up at your studio. What I want him to do is bring his viroid unit to our island.

“There would be no need for artificial sets. We have a diverse, colorful natural setting all over. I want him to record all of our traditional dramas there. Costs will be much less expensive back there on any of the Peculiar Islands.

“We do not use viroid prompters, so production will be free of these reported erasure attacks. My staff will quickly train the studio actors how to apply the hypnotic method in their stage work.”

Taba gazed at him with a stunned, glassy look. “My father will be the one who decides on such a revolutionary matter. Has he heard of this plan of yours?”

“Not yet. That is why I tell you first, Miss. My hope is that you convince him that it makes sense in view of the present situation in Plazh.”

Unexpectantly, Kanm turned to Skopo. “Perhaps you can help make Tandem Gax see the wisdom of moving drama production to the safety of the islands,” he softly said.

With that, the main guest returned to the circle of actors who were his fans.

Taba and Skopo exchanged inquiring looks in silence.

V.

As the cruiser carried them back to Plazh, Taba told her father about how Kanm Harn had described his project for drama production in the islands.

“He wants to win the agreement of his son, Mizo, as well,” she concluded. “He has not won that yet.”

Tandem turned to Skopo. “What do you think, Mr. Kitanin? “Would we be free of sabotage if viroid prompters were replaced by hypnotism?”

The investigator grinned. “I know almost nothing about dramas and acting. It is a decision that those in your industry must make for themselves.”

“More news of erasures came in during the reception,” moaned the producer, turning to his daughter. “Would you be afraid of entering mesmeric trance, Taba?”

“Not at all,” she smiled. “It would be a totally new experience that would take me into new areas of acting. I believe that it would be highly interesting and exciting.

“I want to talk this over with Mizo, then reach a decision,” announced her father.

Taba and Mizo each talked to Tandem Gax until he agreed to have their unit move from the Plazh studio to the Eerie Island. His only demand was that Skopo Kitanin accompany them for the sake of safety and security.

“There will still be viroid cameras with ribbon in them there,” he insisted. “The mesmeric method of prompting is only a partial protection of the dramatic enterprise.”

The sea trip by motor launch took most of one morning. From the harbor, it was only a short walk to where they would be staying, the old and ornate Colonial Hotel. Down the same street was the Mesmeric Drama School, as well as the personal cottage of Kanm Harn.

After settling into his room, Skopo went down to the gigantic lobby with lush tropical furniture and decoration. The Harns were going to take him and Taba to see the drama school, then to dinner at a famous local restaurant.

A viroid screen flashed news from Plazh near where he sat down.

Several important studios had to be closed because of erasures. Vandalism was causing enormous financial losses in the ribbon entertainment industry. The city was terrified for its future.

Skopo failed to see Mizo approaching him from behind.

“It looks bad on the mainland,” groaned the director. “Let’s hope we can escape this plague here on Eerie Island.”

The detective spun around. “Taba should be down soon. I’ve been waiting for her. She told me she is anxious to begin acting once more.”

Mizo grimaced. “The erasures in Plazh have greatly disturbed her. Perhaps her nerves will calm down here. I sincerely hope that she can pull herself together out here on this island.”

At that moment, the actress appeared at the bottom of the stairs from above.

Skopo ate a passion fruit salad, dryrice soup, and a jungleyam casserole with his companions. As the group finished its fruitgel desert, Kanm turned to Taba with a question.

“Have you ever intentionally, consciously been placed into a trance, my dear?”

She gave a slight start, but collected herself and tried to make a reply.

“No, I have no memory of anything like an hypnotic state. Never in my life.”

She attempted to avoid the fixed, unmoving gaze of the old man.

All at once, from the other end of the table, Mizo spoke up in a ringing voice.

“The mesmeric methods have advanced quite a bit since I started out at the school,” he asserted. “Remember, father, at that time even you relied on the traditional talking form of entrancing. Today, all of that has been transcended.”

Kanm nodded yes, his eyes still on Taba. “That was a slow, simple method back in the past. There was no need for technical apparatus of any sort. It all depended on the skills of the mesmerizer as an individual.”

“What was the old way like?” inquired Taba.

“Complete silence and semi-darkness,” murmured Kanm. “You asked the subject to do some deep breathing for a while, to attain a quiet body. A shining globe could concentrate the mind. A ticking metronome was useful. Attention had to be totally captured and fixed. That was the first step.

“Muscle relaxation and the sensation of monotony had to be induced, with the final result being drowsiness. Calm security replaced all signs of stress.

“Then, I would talk as gently and sympathetically as possible. I asked the actor to unburden his or her mind to me. Forget your body, make all your senses quiescent. Let your eyelids do as they want. Do not tell them what to do. The goal was to limit the field of consciousness, producing a state of abstraction, of absentmindedness. Passive receptivity developed. I often made passes with my hands or stroked the forehead. Once the trance existed, I began to teach the lines of the drama part. At that point, it became quite easy to accomplish. The actor absorbed the drama like a sponge. It occurred efficiently, without any difficulties at all.”

Kanm focused on Taba, with Skopo and Mizo following every word of his.

“I now have an effective instrument to facilitate this method. My name for it is the viroid mask. It can be placed on the face of a subject preparing to play a role. A deep trance captures control of the mind within a few minutes. Then the mask itself teaches the part to the actor. In less than an hour, all the lines and moves are completely mastered. This is far ahead of the older system that was used in the past.”

Taba asked a question. “It’s safe?”

Kanm chuckled. “Yes, my dear. We have lost no one using the mask. It contains primarily memory ribbons with viroid material.”

“The viroid mask must be a new device, because I am certain it is unknown elsewhere,” suddenly interjected Skopo.

“Yes,” nodded the head of the school. “Mainlanders have never had much interest in mesmeric science. But it is part of our historic culture here in the Peculiar Islands.”

“I am extremely interested,” announced Taba, “and can foresee myself trying to make use of such an aid to actors in mastering their lines.”

VI.

Skopo walked to the Drama School the next morning with Mizo and Taba.

“You shall be a pioneer,” the director told his star actress. “No one else in the studios of Plazh has ever used this viroid mask of my father’s. The first one shall be you.”

In the school’s practice chamber, Knom introduced the three of them to his mesmeric technician, Tuko Tara. This was a tall, bald, and dangerously obese islander who seemed drastically distant, abstracted, and preoccupied. He gave quick, perfunctory greetings to the visitors from the mainland.

“Shall we begin?” proposed Knom with a grin. “Let’s show Miss Gax how the mask works.”

The mask lay on the top of a silicon table. It had a brilliant white facial surface.

“As you see, it has the appearance of a traditional Eerie Island ritual mask. That makes it easier to recruit local actors into using it.

“Why don’t you try it out, Taba? We can then go on to your first experiment in using it.

“You will learn, through the viroid mask, the role of Royal Princess Bota. The drama to be staged deals with the conflict of islanders with spiritworkers from the mainland. The local inhabitants considered them to be witches.

“The princess you play tries to learn the methods of the outsiders who come to live on Eerie. The results are tragic. Bora loses everything: her lover, her parents, the island throne. But she applies the secrets of the spiritworkers in order to drive them into the Azure Sea.

“It is a long, convoluted drama of thirty acts and eighty separate scenes. The public has always loved it, but it exhausts and overpowers the entire cast.

“The viroid mask solves all these problems. Each actor comes to have perfect mastery of her or his part. Confidence rises high on stage. All the lines are spoken smoothly, fluidly, without self-doubt or fear.”

“Everything is ready, sir,” ammounced Tuko. “The actress can take the seat and I will place the mask upon her.”

The technician picked up the white mask and carefully fitted it onto Taba.

Skopo noticed the gossamer viral strings that connected the mask to a small terminal placed on the table beside the actress.

The body of Taba relaxed and she gradually fell into semi-coma. The line learning in a trance began, taking only several minutes to complete.

Skopo did not enter the Colonial Hotel, but continued walking past it.

This was his opportunity to look about the harbor. He sensed that there might be things of interest to him there. This was more intuition than logical analysis.

Small pleasure boats and fishing skiffs were lined up on the pier. Workers were making repairs on several of them.

A sign over the door of an old building drew his attention. “Morphic Dormitory” was what it offered to the passersby.

A long, dark room with garishly violet lighting presented itself. It took the detective several seconds to adjust his eyes to the strange redness.

A sound that reminded him of sawing reached his ears. It had to be snoring men.

Out of nowhere, a voice came. “What do you want? All my bunks are taken by these daytimers. There’s no more space in here. You came too late.”

“I’m only looking around,” muttered Skopo. “I don’t want any space.”

A hideously disfigured face approached through the reddish light.

“Then why did you come in?” growled a deep bass. “You look like a mainlander to me. What are you after?”

“I’m a visitor on Eerie. But I want to leave as soon as possible.”

“Take a ship or a skyboat, pal. Don’t look for your fare in here.”

“You don’t understand. No public means of transport will do. Only a hired rafter can get me where I want to go.”

“Is that what you’re after? A boat available for hire?”

“Exactly,” replied Skopo with an enigmatic grin.

“Come back tonight. I know someone who might be willing to help you. Be here about eleven and be alone.”

“Right,” said the intruder, turning and hurrying out of the dormitory.

VII.

Taba was tired and went to bed early that evening. The two Harns were busy with scenery at the school. Skopo slipped away from the hotel and headed for the Morphic Dormitory. He had his appointment with an unknown transporter by small boat.

Can an investigator operate by means of hunches?

He wondered how it was that the Readers struck and disappeared with such speed. They seemed to be invisible and ghostlike. Their coming and going seemed wrapped in mystery.

What if they arrived from over the Azure Sea, on fast craft? Where might they have a hidden base during daytime? The Peculiar Islands, such as Eerie? wondered the detective from Kalender.

The underclass around the docks could possess some valuable secret information that would lead him further, Skopo told himself as he walked down the rockstone pathway to the docks. Only a few strollers were out, mostly men on the prowl. The smell of cheap herbal beer flowed out of dusty bars. Drinking songs played on local instruments floated through the evening air.

He reached his destination and opened the door. Snoring rose from the sleeping bunks. The same lurid red lighting fell from ceiling tubes. The smell of unwashed male bodies reached the nose of the visitor.

All of a sudden, a female shape jumped out from between two beds and stood in front of the newly arrived Skopo.

“You were here this afternoon and asked about hiring a boat?” screeched her high, rasping voice.

She was a short woman with a large, honey-colored wig. Her sensuous red dress had a provocative flavor. Who was she, and what was her business here? Skopo attempted to guess.

“I would like to have a serious talk about how to reach the mainland without using public transport of any kind,” he calmly whispered. “Can you help me, or take me to someone who is able to do that?”

Large, almond eyes stared through the red glow. “Follow me,” said the shapely female in blazing red. “The dulser is waiting in the back.”

The Dulser? pondered Skopo as he walked behind the red dress. Who is the person she calls the Dulser? It took a small time to adjust to bright white light. His guide disappeared once the two men faced each other.

The little man studied Skopo with his bright hazel eyes.

Within less than a minute, he learned this person was a kelper who dealt in seafood and owned his own small vessel.

“There is nothing unusual for me to take passengers to the mainland. I have transported persons I know, but never a stranger. That would be something entirely new for me,” muttered the short stranger in a seaman’s clothing.

“Are there boaters who regularly take unknown travelers over the sea?” inquired the detective, eager to find out more on the subject.

“Indeed, there are,” admitted the Dulcer. “I have a friend who does it all the time. In fact, he collects very little kelp. Transporting is his main business.

“I am busy with sea harvesting at this season, but I could talk with my friend about what you are seeking. What do you say to that?”

“It would be good for me to meet with your friend,” proposed the investigator with a warm, sweet smile.

“He can meet you right here tomorrow morning,” grinned the Dulcer. “His name is the Hiziker.”

Skopo shook the hand that the latter offered, then turned about and left.

VIII.

The transporter was waiting in the back room of the Morphic Dormitory.

Small and light of weight, he was not at all what the detective expected.

“You are the one looking for a rafter to take you across?” The Hiziker looked Kitanin over from head to shoes.

“Let’s take a little stroll down by the docks,” suggested the boatman.

The pair left the flop-house and headed for the old wharf on the other side of the harbor. Neither said a word till they reached a quiet, deserted spot and sat down on an isolated bench.

“You are a mainlander, I take it,” began the Hiziker. “Why are you so interested in hiring a boat to Plazh?”

Scopo improvised an answer. “Let me say I have reasons to be on the continent without being seen on any big ship.”

The Hiziker smiled broadly. “I think you know quite a lot about what goes on down here on Eerie Island. There is a regular traffic that goes on during the late night hours. People go across, then return before dawn. I know the boats involved with such traffic. Nothing concerning it is hidden from my eyes.”

“How many passengers can such a vessel hold?” eagerly inquired Scopo.

“Up to half a dozen, though the boat becomes a little crowded. But most people doing that don’t mind being uncomfortable. Not at all.”

“How many can your boat hold?”

The Hiziker made a grimace. “You want to take others with you? That is possible, but it would cost a lot more.”

“The price means nothing to me. What I want to do is bring others with me when and if I decide to do so.”

The boater scratched the stubble on his chin. “It will not be cheap. At least five hundred porizi.”

“I can afford that amount,” admitted Skopo. “Where and when can I pay you the fare?”

“Be here on this wharf at midnight, you and your companions. My boat will be docked nearby. I shall be able to fully accommodate you and anyone who accompanies you, my good man.”

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