“As a geneticist I cannot help admiring the programme you’ve announced and Professor Dr. Sugaiguntung’s reputation is not the least significant warranty for its future success.”
Donald hoped that equivocal reply did not betray the fury which Keteng’s contemptuous tone had inspired in him.
“It is clear that you, like all Americans, do not approve of the existence of people who can do better than you at anything,” Keteng grunted. “However, since your people have finally deigned to pay attention to this major breakthrough, it behoves me to facilitate your conveyance of the facts to them. I shall give you now a card of authorisation entitling you to the rights legally accorded to foreign reporters, a letter for the surgeons at Dedication University so that you may have your sterilisation operation conducted without charge, and a schedule of the press conferences arranged for the coming week. Is there anything else you wish to inquire about before you leave?”
“I was instructed to seek a personal interview with Sugaiguntung at the earliest opportunity,” Donald said.
“The Professor Doctor is far too busy to spend time chatting with foreigners,” Keteng snapped. “If you look at the programme I’m giving you, however, you’ll see he is scheduled to make a public appearance at the press conference the day after tomorrow. You will have a chance to question him then along with other correspondents.”
Donald’s temper, fraying steadily under Keteng’s purposeful gibes, now threatened to give way entirely.
“What keeps Sugaiguntung so busy?” he demanded. “No reasonable scientist would have allowed his programme to be made public until all the preliminary work was finished. This kind of thing makes people suspect that the work isn’t finished—that the announcement is exaggerated, if not worse.”
“No doubt,” Keteng said with heavy irony, “that is the report you have been instructed to send back for the edification of your compatriots. You Americans lack subtlety. Go up to the university clinic and you’ll see what keeps all of us ‘so busy’ in Yatakang! We haven’t subsided into decadence of the sort that allows you to think in terms of finishing a job and then relaxing. We have plans that will occupy us for the next generation, because we don’t accept the idea of ‘good enough’. We aim at perfection. And the Professor Doctor shares that view. Is that all?”
No, it’s not even the beginning. But Donald swallowed the words unuttered and rose obediently to his feet.
For the time being, in fact, it would make sense to treat all official suggestions as orders. Keteng had told him to go to the university and look it over for himself while he was there for the compulsory operation. He hailed a rixa immediately he left the building and told the driver that was where he wanted to go.
It was an uphill pull for the slim and wiry pedaller, but the journey would have had to be slow even down a one-in-three incline. All the approach streets in the vicinity of the university were cramfull of people. With a student body of over sixty thousand, Dedication University was an academic foundation of respectable size, but these people, Donald noted with interest, were not all students. They were of assorted ages from teens to borderline senility; one could tell where there was a particularly ancient member in the crowd because those surrounding him or her formed an ad-hoc bodyguard to keep away the press. Honouring old age was still a live tradition here.
After a while, as the rixa crept through the throng, he began to wonder whether any of these people were students. What few remarks he caught clearly—he did not want to lean out from the rixa and show himself off, drawing attention for his Caucasion features—made him think that they were visitors from other islands. If that was true, since at a rough guess there were ten or twelve thousands of them in the mile and a half he had traversed, there was a good solid basis for the official claims about a public welcome for the genetic programme.
For, dotted about here and there, he saw tired and dispirited youths and girls carrying slogan-boards, and all of them made reference to Sugaiguntung.
Hmmm … Going to the university in the hope of catching a glimpse of the great man?
Ahead loomed the wall enclosing the university precincts: a seven-foot barrier of pure white ornamented with the stylized whorls and strokes of Yatakangi calligraphy—widely employed, like Arabic script in Egypt, as a frieze-motif on all public buildings. In weatherproof enamels of red, blue, green and black, durable testaments to the greatness of Yatakang and the wisdom of Solukarta shut out the crowd of intending sightseers.
At the only gate he could see, there were not merely police on duty, their buff uniforms patched with sweat and the holster-flaps turned back from the butts of their bolt-guns, but also a number of young people wearing armbands of the national colours, red, blue and green, who seemed to be trying to address the surging visitors ranged all along the wall, pushing and exhorting. Straining his ears over the hubbub, he thought he distinguished a few comprehensible phrases: “You must be patient—the doctor in your village will be told what to do—work hard and eat well or your children won’t be healthy whatever we do…”
Donald gave a nod. This must be the kind of evidence on which Deirdre Kwa-Loop had based her statement about the consequences of disappointing the people of Yatakang.
The rixa-driver finally managed to deposit him close to the gate. To the policeman who came to investigate he showed his passport and the letter from Keteng authorising him to attend the university clinic without charge. The policeman read the document slowly and summoned two of the brassarded youths who passed nearby. With their aid, the eager crowd was kept back from the gate while it was briefly opened to pass Donald inside the wall.
A shareng-clad girl carrying a folded umbrella greeted him as he stepped out across a tiled platform. He was in a court with a fountain and a sand-garden in the middle, and cloisters all around it under pagodaed roofs. The cloisters were ramped so that on this, the entrance side of the court, their continuation was on a level below the street he had left; from under the platform he could hear a jabber of voices and many walking feet. Standing, or shoving a way through, there were at least a hundred students in his field of view.
“Good afternoon, sir,” the girl said, using a stock Yatakangi honorific from the root meaning “senior”.
“Good afternoon,” Donald replied, looking her over and noting that she also wore a brassard. “I am to go to the clinic here.” He held out Keteng’s letter.
“I will escort you, sir,” the girl said. “I am on stranger guidance duty today. If at any time you need information ask someone wearing a band like this.” She recited the words with a bright, forced smile, but her tone suggested tiredness. “Please come along.”
She led him down a short steep flight of stairs to the cloisters passing beneath the platform, opening her umbrella as she did so. It served, apparently, as a gangway warning; Donald saw several students tap their companions on the shoulder and move them aside.
The walk was a long one. He had arrived on the wrong side of the precinct. Without a guide he could have got hopelessly lost five or six times. Their route took them past more than a score of separate buildings, which the girl identified for him.
“Asiatic languages section—history section—oceanography section—geography and geology section…”
Donald paid little attention. He was far more interested in the young people he encountered. Keteng was right, he admitted reluctantly. There was an air of almost frantic busyness unlike the atmosphere at any American university he had ever visited. Even the few students he saw who were just standing about were talking—he heard them—about their studies, not about shiggies or what to do at the weekend.