The verdict, thought Aram Jerrold wearily, would be death. The Supreme Council itself would demand it. He had rebelled against the Tetrarchy—rebelled senselessly, desperately, without hope of success or escape—and the reckoning had come. The Government of the Thirty Suns would demand his life ... more, if the science of the Security Police were up to it. Aram repressed a shudder. He knew that science well. No one rose to a position of command in the Thirty Suns Navy or to membership in the Executive Committee of the Tetrarchy without respect for the methods of the dread Greens.
The courtroom was dark, a pattern of sombre hues calculated to impress a prisoner with the futility of hope. It had been weeks since Jerrold had seen the sun. Weeks of endless interrogation and repeated narcosynthesis. He had been shunted from Bureau to Bureau, from Department to Department, each set of cogs in the vast governmental machinery of the Terminus probing him for evidence of sabotage or rebellion within its own structure. He had been badgered, beaten, drugged and threatened. Now, at last, the end of the ordeal seemed near. There remained only the sentence of death to be passed—the method and place decided upon—and it would be done with. The ponderous bureaucracy of the Tetrarchy had wrung him dry, and now it prepared to cast him aside, satisfied that his rebellion was a purely personal aberration and not part of a widespread plot against the stability of galactic tyranny.
The drugs had clouded his vision, giving a nightmare mistiness to the shadowy courtroom. Jerrold could see that the room was empty but for the guards and clerks and the black-masked tribunes. It would not do, of course, to let the people know that one of the chosen masters—a member of the Executive Committee—had suddenly become an insubordinate rebel and traitor.
Behind him a door opened, splitting the gloom with a fleeting wedge of light. The wedge vanished and Aram Jerrold heard again the light, crisp footsteps. He knew without looking that it was Deve Jennet. She had been in the courtroom every day, giving testimony, slamming doors in his face. Doors that might possibly have led to freedom. Every day she had driven another rivet into the chains of evidence that bound him, methodically, deliberately.
She passed by him without turning her head and took a seat near the tribune's dais. Jerrold stared at her through the mist that swam sickeningly before his eyes. Dimly, the memory of her as she had been before this nightmare came to him. He remembered her, soft and yielding in his arms through the long nights of Terminus. Nights filled with tenderness and longing talk of freedom for the two of them somewhere beyond the stars.
This was the same woman, but changed. The lustrous dark eyes were the same, and the full lips. The same pale hair and slim body. But it sat encased in a severely cut uniform, all femininity gone from it. The uniform was green. The hated color of the Security Police....
Jerrold had heard again all the words that he had spoken to her through those nights. Only this time the words had been retold to three masked judges and their clerk. This time, the words had had a ring of doom.
At first Aram had suffered the tortures of the damned wondering why Deve had betrayed him. He had known well enough her high connections in the Supreme Council and he had known that she served as a member of the Greens. But he had imagined that she loved him, and he had been stupid enough to trust her. Now, after weeks of ordeal, it seemed to matter no longer. Jerrold wanted only to rest.
On the dais, one of the black-masked figures was speaking. Aram leaned forward painfully to catch what was being said.
"This court wishes to go on record as favoring a severe reprimand for the Bureau of Psychometrics personnel involved in the testing of Aram Jerrold. His inherent instability should have been uncovered long before he was appointed to the Executive Committee. Only the chance use of a mental probe on him—at the request of the Security Police—" he nodded toward Deve Jennet, "—prevented serious inconvenience to the Government of the Thirty Suns. Such negligence cannot be tolerated in so vital a Bureau."
He paused while the clerk recorded his remarks, then continued: "Aram Jerrold, you have been convicted of treason against the Government of the Thirty Suns. You have been proved guilty of attempting to use your position as an officer of the Thirty Suns Navy to steal a spacecraft and escape from the dominance of your government. You have disgraced your uniform and your high office as a member of the Executive Committee of the Supreme Council of the Government of the Thirty Suns—" The hooded man rolled the sonorous phrases off his tongue with obvious relish. "Have you anything to say before the sentence of the court is passed?"
Jerrold looked at Deve Jennet. She sat motionless, her body tense in the green Police uniform. It was hard for Jerrold to speak. The druggings and violent interrogations had left him weak. Yet a spark of rebellion remained. Enough to lash out against his tormentors for one last time.
"I ... I want only to say," he began thickly, "that ... what I have done ... I would do again, gladly. I was sick of oppression ... tired of not ... daring even to think a thought of my own. Sick of pompous bureaucratic tyranny...." Jerrold drew a shuddering breath. "The Tetrarchy rules thirty star-systems ... but thirty star systems are not the Universe. Somewhere, I thought ... there must be freedom. My crime ... was failure ... nothing more!"
"Enough!" The tribune's voice shook with sudden anger. "This court is not convened to listen to treasonous tirades! The clerk will strike the prisoner's remarks from the record!"
Darkness flickered momentarily at the edges of Jerrold's field of vision. He felt spent by his effort at defiance. He forced himself to stand erect.
"The sentencing will proceed!"
"The prisoner will face the Standard!" intoned the clerk.
Aram raised his eyes to the hated symbol on the wall behind the judges' dais. Long habit made him square his shoulders under the tattered remains of his blue uniform. He stared up at the Standard of the Tetrarchy's Spaceship and Sun, despising everything it stood for.
"Aram Jerrold, traitor and rebel: you are sentenced by this court to death by slow disintegration! For the safety of the Tetrarchy!"
The words fell like stones from the lips of the masked tribune into the fragile silence of the vaulted chamber.
In spite of himself, Jerrold flinched. Sometimes men survived weeks of torment under the cancerous rays of the disintegrators....
One of the judges spoke in low tones to his colleagues.
"We have received a request from Kaidor V, gentlemen. Provincial Governor Santane asks that this sentence be commuted to life imprisonment on Kaidor V so that the prisoner may be used in some experimental work now in progress there."
Aram could feel his stomach muscles tightening and the weakness seeping into his knees. The disintegrators would be preferable to becoming an experimental animal on Kaidor V. The Kaidor province was the farthest of the Thirty Suns, and the arsenal of the Tetrarchy. The ghastliest of the Tetrarchy's weapons came from Kaidor, and they had to be tested there ... on living men.
"It seems," muttered one of the tribunes pettishly, "that every time a naval officer is convicted of anything a request comes through from Kaidor that he be turned over to Santane. One would imagine Governor Santane is building a navy!" He shuffled the papers before him while the others waited. "Still," he continued thoughtfully, "it would be politically unwise to execute this prisoner here on Terminus. The spacemen of his command are based here and there is no point in stirring up trouble in the Fleet... I am inclined to recommend acceptance of this offer to take him off our hands."
"Objection, sirs!" Jerrold looked about to see that Deve Jennet was on her feet, addressing the members of the tribunal.
"As you know, sirs," she was saying crisply, "I have the good fortune to be one of the lesser members of the Executive Committee in my office as liaison officer from Security. I feel it only fair to warn you that the Supreme Council would be extremely displeased if this prisoner should escape with his life. It is felt that an example must be made of him. If it is unwise to carry out the sentence here on Terminus, I will be happy to arrange a transfer to Atmion IV. On the Green planet there will be no possibility of trouble by Fleet members. I must insist that you accede to the wishes of the Council. Aram Jerrold must die in the disintegrators. No other course of action will be acceptable to the Supreme Council!"
The three judges conferred among themselves and then the senior spoke again. The tone of his voice indicated all too well the awe in which the Supreme Council and all its appendages was held by members of the Judicial Department of the Thirty Suns Government.
"This court was not aware that the Supreme Council had any special desires concerning the disposition of this case. Had it been known to us earlier, we would not have considered even for a moment the request of Provincial Governor Santane."
"The Supreme Council, gentlemen," returned Deve Jennet stiffly, "has an interest in this case, as I have indicated to you. It has been communicated to you in the proper time and form. I await your action on it."
"Of course, Leader Jennet, of course. It was not our intention to question the policies of the Council!" The judge signalled the guards.
"Aram Jerrold is hereby remanded to the custody of the Security Police, to be transported by first available spaceship to Atmion IV, there to be put to death in the manner prescribed by Directive 25-A-38 governing Execution of Convicted Persons Above the Rank of Commander. Remove the prisoner!"
Aram passed near Deve Jennet as she replied: "It will be so reported, gentlemen." And then looking somberly at Jerrold she added, "I myself will go to Atmion IV to see to it that this prisoner is accorded the treatment he deserves."
Aram stumbled out of the courtroom under guard. Deve's final words rang strangely in his ears, a perplexing threnody of the dreams they had shared in the hazy past. He had the odd feeling that in spite of the things that had passed, the end was not yet....
Of the flight out to Atmion, Jerrold remembered almost nothing. The iron determination that had kept him on his feet during the last days of his trial failed him at last and the reaction of the druggings he had suffered hit him ... hard. He writhed in the agonies of addiction for the duration of the trip out from Terminus. He knew vaguely that he lay in the prison ship's infirmary, strapped to a bunk. The discomforts of acceleration and the shift into second-stage flight above light speed added themselves to his tortures and filled his nightmares with nauseating spectres. For two weeks Jerrold went through sheer hell as his drug-saturated system screamed for more narcotics. None were given.
By the time the huge prison ship touched down on the dread world of the Greens, Aram Jerrold was on his way back. Spent, weak and emaciated, he heard the landing alarms and knew that he would live to face the disintegrators.
Atmion IV, the only habitable planet of a star-system bizarre and hateful! Three suns in the smoky sky, air that tasted of brimstone and ashes. Heavy, deadening gravity. A world of hot rain that fell daily out of the hazy cloud canopy, a desert at periaston and quagmire at apastron. Barren ground and a turbulent, sulphuric sea.
The three suns blazed through the overcast as the prison ship settled into the steaming mud that was the spaceport. Scalding rain sluiced down the long flanks of the vessel, corrosive and fetid.
Aram Jerrold knew of Atmion IV. No officer in the Fleet did not. It was a foul planet, a world unwanted by any of the many Bureaus, and as such the perfect prison world. The planet of the Greens. On all its vast hulk there was only one settlement. The Green Fortress. Political exiles and condemned prisoners from all over the Tetrarchy of the Thirty Suns were brought to the Fortress on Atmion IV. None ever returned.
Aram remembered that Atmion lay in the Twenty Ninth Decant, only four light years from Kaidor on the very periphery of the Tetrarchy. These were the outpost systems, the suns far from mighty Terminus and the center of the teeming life of the galaxy. These were the hinterlands of empire, sullen, unknown, unwanted.
The Green Fortress proper stood on a high crag, etched against the smoky grey of Atmion IV's eternal overcast. Standing in the open port of the prison ship, Jerrold could see the black bulk of the turreted stronghold through the curtain of driving rain. The spaceport was a sea of mud that still boiled in places from the heat of the great starship's landing jets.
Chained in a long line, the human cargo of the vessel was herded through the rain and mud toward an electrified wire enclosure. Aram smiled wryly at that evidence of "Security." What need was there for it on this world? Where could a prisoner go if he should find himself on the other side of the wire barrier? It was likely, Jerrold thought, that there was a Directive on it from Terminus, and that accounted for the electrified wire.
He estimated that there were perhaps nine hundred men and women in the human chain that stretched from the starship to the long reception buildings within the enclosure. The chaff of heterodoxy—cast off by the single-track machinery of galactic bureaucracy.
The Greens drove the sodden prisoners through the gates without rancor or interest. It was as though the prisoners had ceased to be human once they crossed the line that excluded them from the society of free men.
Inside the long, draughty shelters, the prisoners were stripped naked, men and women alike, run through cleansing water jets, dried, clothed and photographed. Then they were broken into groups and registered by Greens sitting in armored cubicles within the walls. There was a machine-like efficiency to the bureaucratic procedure on this level. Aram Jerrold had the impression that the operation would continue to run by sheer momentum should higher authority suddenly try to halt it....