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Jerrold presented himself before a Green of about forty, a man with a thin, tired face and colorless eyes, who codified the information given him, looking up at the prisoner with no apparent interest. Quite abruptly, he emerged from his cubicle, signalling another Green to take his place.

"You," he said to Aram; "come with me."

Jerrold followed the Green out of the reception building and out into the rain. For a wild moment, Aram had the impulse to try an escape, but the thought died stillborn. Escape was plainly impossible. There was simply no place to go—even if he could shake free of his guard and the others stationed about the enclosure. The prison ship was being refuelled a short distance from the reception pen, but the valves were closed and guarded.

Presently Jerrold and his guide reached a shaft imbedded in the side of the crag, atop which sat the grim Fortress. Aram turned his eyes upward. The great, bastioned stronghold seemed to crouch on the crest of the cliff. On the highest turret, a green banner emblazoned with a golden Spaceship and Sun hung sodden and limp in the falling rain.

With no hesitation, the Green stationed at the guard-post by the shaft entrance signalled Aram and his guide through. There was a short walk up a spiralling ramp and then they stood before what appeared to be simply a blank wall. Jerrold stared in perplexity as his guard took a bit of metal from his tunic and held it to the wall.

"Isotope," said the guard shortly, "It acts as a key to the scanner ... below."

Before Aram could question him, the section of wall slid back soundlessly and they stepped into a tubecar. Quickly, the Green set up a complicated series of stops on the tubecar controls and the vehicle started downward with a rush.

Aram clutched at the man for support. Something was not as it should be. Then, quite suddenly, he realized what it was. The tubecar was travelling down ... and the Fortress lay above!

"Where are we going?" he asked cautiously.

The Green shook his head.

"Aren't the condemned cells above in the Fortress?"

"Be quiet. Talk is dangerous!"


"Be quiet," the Green said again. "You'll understand soon enough. We have to be careful. Not all of us here are of the Group." He turned his back on Jerrold.

Aram's head was spinning. What was there on Atmion that a Green need fear? And what was this ... Group?

With a wisdom born of his long imprisonment, Aram Jerrold decided to hold his peace. What would be would be, and it was becoming increasingly plain that he was about to learn of things that he had not dreamed existed.

After what seemed to be an interminable period, the tubecar began to slow. The hum of atomics died and the car came to a stop. They must be well below the level of the Fortress now, reflected Jerrold, and very likely under the sea. The panels slid away and in front of them stretched a long white corridor lighted by dim bulbs set in the curved ceiling.

"There are miles of tubeways down here," said the guard, "and only the isotope key gives entrance. The central pattern on the tubecar has been altered, too ... for the safety of the Group. Follow me."

At the end of the corridor, a steelite door barred further progress. The Green produced his isotope key again and touched it to the metal.

"A word of advice," he said to Jerrold coolly. "Listen and believe. A great many risks have been taken and a vast amount of work done to bring you this far."

He leaned forward and shoved the metal door open. Within lay a brightly lit chamber. The glare of it hurt Jerrold's eyes and he stood a moment, blinking on the threshold. Slowly, as his eyes accustomed themselves to the light, Aram became aware of a group of men and women who watched him impassively. There were a few in Fleet uniform. One or two of them casual acquaintances he had thought lost in space or imprisoned by the Greens. There were others in prison garb, and here and there he could see the dread color of the Security Police. His heart began to pound. Another trap? But why?

One slight figure in green stood a little apart, watching him through shadowed eyes. Jerrold felt the breath catch in his throat.

It was Deve Jennet!

With a cry Deve ran to him. Jerrold felt a surge of mixed fury and desire. Almost defensively, he lifted his hand and struck Deve across the face.

She gasped and stepped back, eyes suddenly bright with tears, a thin streak of blood marking her pale face. The gathered strangers muttered angrily. Aram turned to stare at them; his face set and grim. Anger was pulsing within him, a deep, consuming anger born of the tortures he had suffered—he looked at the stunned girl—because of her.

"Oh, Aram ... what have they done to you?" whispered Deve.

"What have they done to me?" he asked thickly. "They? Now tell me you had no part in it!" He was hemmed in, lost in a sea of treachery and formless dangers. For a few moments he had dared to let himself hope...! And this was the end of it. Deve again. And another trap! "What more do you want from me? Is this just entertainment for you? To raise my hopes and then step on them again? Maybe you'd like to open my veins and have a drink of my blood?"

"Aram ... stop it!"

"You lying, cheating wench! Was it you that brought me to the Fortress? Was it you that spilled all my stupid dreams to those black ghouls who tried me?" he asked bitterly.

"Yes! Yes, it was me!" sobbed Deve, "but can you listen to me? Aram, I beg you! Listen to me!"

Aram felt some of the rage draining out of him. He stared at Deve in confusion. There were tears streaking her face. There was no reason for her to cry now, he thought heavily. Her job was done. Done well.

"I had to do it that way, Aram. You can't know how I've suffered for you ... every minute of the time. But it had to be done, I swear it! There was no other way I could get you here to the Group! If I had let you go your own way, you'd have been killed, Aram. I'd have died with you gladly, but there are other things that must be done. And we can live, Aram! Do you understand me? We can live!"

Jerrold looked about him. The group had gathered around him. Someone said: "Listen to Deve Jennet, Jerrold!"

Dave stepped close to him again, her face upturned. He felt again the old desire for her, even here—now. Did it matter that she had betrayed him? Did anything matter any more to him? The last ebb of fury flowed out of him, leaving him silent and relaxed at last. If this was a trap ... what did it matter? He had nothing to lose now.

He realized quite suddenly then that he wanted very much to believe what Deve said. He wanted it so badly that he reacted defensively, not daring to let himself be hurt by her again. Very cautiously, he let down the barriers that he had erected against her since the very first day of the trial when he had known for the first time that she had been his betrayer.

Deve sensed the change in him and laid a hand on his arm. "You ... you will listen now?" she asked quietly.

Aram nodded, his eyes fixed on her face. The bruise on her lips was dark and painful looking.

"I heard of your arrest the day it happened, Aram," she said. "I knew what the end of it would be if they could find no real evidence against you—you'd have been subjected to an extensive mental probing that would have left you ... an ... an idiot. That's true. You know it is."

Aram nodded agreement.

"You would have been lost to us," Deve said, "and Aram, we need you! Need you desperately!"

Aram looked about him in confusion. Still weak from his bout with the drugs, he was having difficulty marshalling his thoughts.

"Who are you people?" he demanded. "What are you?"

A grizzled naval officer stepped forward. Aram recognized him as Kant Mikal, recorded in the headquarters of the Thirty Suns Navy as having been lost in space two years earlier while on a routine exploration into the Thirtieth Decant.

"We have no name, other than 'the Group,'" he said simply. "We have as our purpose the prevention of a disastrous war ... possibly even the destruction of civilization as we have known it."

"You don't make any sense," Jerrold said confusedly. "What is there in the galaxy that can threaten the Tetrarchy with a war such as you describe?"

"There is a very real and present danger, Aram Jerrold," Mikal said flatly. "Santane...."

Aram felt a chilling premonition. Santane again. He remembered the testy words of the black judge who had condemned him: "One would think Santane were building a fleet...."

Mikal seemed to read his thoughts. "Yes," he said, "Provincial Governor Santane."

"I don't ask you to join us for the sake of the Tetrarchy, Aram," pleaded Deve Jennet earnestly, "or because of any personal relationship between you and me. If the Thirty Suns Government knew of the Group, and of the manipulations we've performed to get equipment and personnel for our mission, not one of us would be left alive by the Greens. We've penetrated the highest circles, we've subverted loyal people. We've used every trick and subterfuge to get the men and women we need out here without giving away our secret." She smiled ruefully. "We've even had men arrested and condemned so that we could gather them here on Atmion IV...."

Aram felt a terrible load being lifted from his shoulders. No matter what happened next, it was good to know that Deve had not betrayed him as he had thought.

"The Tetrarchy would not allow the existence of such a unit as the Group for a moment. Every hour that passes increases our danger. But we must finish our mission, Aram; we can do nothing else!" Deve said fervently.

"If Santane overthrows the Tetrarchy," said Kant Mikal bleakly, "the dark ages will descend. The man is mad for power, cruel and intelligent enough to hold it."

Aram thought swiftly. Santane was a relative unknown back on Terminus, was merely one of the thirty civil servants that held the Governorships of the Thirty star-systems making up the Tetrarchy. The Tetrarchy was a tyrannous bureaucracy ... but at least it was not a one-man government. As bad as it was, Santane's iron hand would be infinitely worse.

"But how," protested Jerrold. "With what? How can Santane hope to withstand the whole of the Tetrarchy's power?"

"As you have guessed," Mikal said, "he is building a fleet; new construction and better than anything in the Thirty Suns Navy. However, if it were only that, there would be no real need for us to interfere. The Fleet is antiquated, as you know, but able to muster a force of more than ten thousand first line battlecraft. No matter how good Santane's ships might be, they could not handle an attack by that kind of numbers. The Kaidor system would take a terrible beating, and most probably Kaidor V would be bombed to rubble. That would be the end of it. The destruction would be strictly localized in the Thirtieth Decant. But there is, unfortunately more ... much more."

"Aram," exclaimed Deve, "it's horrible!"

"Santane has developed interstellar guided missiles, Jerrold," said Kant Mikal. "Faster than any Fleet vessel and impossible to intercept. But that isn't the worst of it. It's the stuff he has developed for these missiles to carry...."

"Biological weapon?" asked Aram with a sinking feeling in his heart.

Mikal nodded. "Follow me," he said.

Aram Jerrold followed the grizzled naval officer into an antechamber. With Deve Jennet at his side he let Mikal lead him down a narrow, zig-zagging ramp into a stone room below the meeting hall. The place was dimly lit and there was a smell in the air that reminded Aram of a zoological garden. A strong wire mesh had been stretched across the room to divide it roughly into two sections. In the corner of the interior division, a figure squatted, gnawing on a piece of bone. The sound of its teeth scraping the bits of flesh off the shank made Aram shudder.

Mikal led him up to the wire.

"That," he said, "was a man. Santane's weapon did what you see there."

Jerrold's stomach muscles knotted. The figure in the cage was roughly human, but it squatted on greatly foreshortened hams and waved long, hairy arms at them angrily. The forehead sloped back from a face completely bestial, and as Aram stood there, sickened and fascinated, the hirsute apparition flung the chewed bone at him and bared its fangs in a blood-chilling howl.

Aram turned away, white-faced. "Is ... is there no cure for this thing?" he asked.

Mikal shook his head. "We have been able to develop none. This was an agent of ours who was taken on Kaidor IV by Santane's raiders. We tried to establish a surveillance point there and failed—the planet is hardly livable—and Santane has been able to maintain a very complete coverage of the two planets nearest his capital. The inoculation was made on Kaidor V, and Santane sent him back here, thinking him an agent of the Greens. He is laying the foundations of his psychological attack, you see. A few cases like this, and then the shocker—the announcement that every planet in the Thirty Suns can expect an attack by guided missiles loaded with that virus unless his demands are acceded to."

"But surely there must be a specific for this thing," pursued Aram. "It would be valueless as a weapon unless there is."

"The virus attacks the higher cerebral centers first," explained Mikal. "Then the endocrine balance. First memory goes. Our medical people believe that Santane has an antidote for this thing, but in very limited amounts. They tell me that if caught soon enough, it can be stopped. But within hours after infection permanent damage to the higher nervous system is done. They suspect that even if a very small amount of serum is introduced into the body after infection, physical damage can be completely avoided. What the effect on the mind might be, they do not care to say. Complete loss of memory certainly. A lessening of the ability to relearn the forgotten is also probable."

The creature behind the wire howled again, plaintively now.

"Let's get out of here," breathed Deve faintly.

"You see what Santane will use to seize the Tetrarchy," Mikal went on when they were once again in the meeting hall. "He imagines that the mere threat of it will subdue the Supreme Council."

"But that's wrong!" exclaimed Aram: "The Tetrarchy will fight! There has never been a bureaucracy in the history of mankind that didn't imagine itself invincible!"

"Yes, the Tetrarchy will fight," agreed Mikal. "And a war of absolute destruction will engulf the Thirty Suns. Unless...."

"Unless what?" demanded Jerrold.

"Unless Santane can be convinced of that. Unless he can be prevailed upon to give up his ambition and content himself with being a balance for the rest of the Tetrarchy's power. Where there's one power only, tyranny results invariably. But if there are two, co-equal and autonomous, then they must compete for the favor of the people. Only in such a way can the civilization of the Thirty Suns survive, and the slavish lot of the people of the inhabited worlds be improved.

"That, then, is the purpose of the Group. We are pledged to stop—if we can—the impending struggle for power between Santane and the Tetrarchy. Savagery is the price we will pay for failure!"



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