Oppressive silence shrouded the lean figure sitting still as if sculpted of stone. His face a mask of glacial calm despite the profound mental turmoil afflicting him, Dexter ignored a powerful urge to slump into the hard seat, and hold his throbbing head in his hands. On trial for high treason, the Commander of the First Columbian Military Corps debated blackly whether or not the pounding of his heart might be audible to the two Third Corpsmen standing rigidly at attention on either side of the chair he occupied. I’m a dead man, the professional soldier well able to predict the outcome of this proceeding acknowledged grimly, as fear contended in his overwrought mind with virulent hatred.
Jarring impulses coursed along nerves strung to their limit. Beyond the walls of this antechamber, a military tribunal sat in judgment upon the prisoner exquisitely aware of his guilt. On the screen of Dexter’s inner vision, those walls dissolved. Once again, the high-ranking officer driven by a consuming lust for power faced the Commander-in-Chief in the presence of his four peers. Once more, he heard Arlen’s compelling voice, cold as frozen methane, pose a series of loaded questions. Three of those queries Dexter fielded with admirable adroitness. The fourth, he fumbled abysmally.
Rage seared the conspirator’s soul as he recalled plunging into that lethal verbal trap. I see now-too late!-that a fiendishly clever manipulator set me up for a fall long before that day! he railed inwardly. The knuckles of the hands tightening their grip on the arms of the chair whitened. I’m a dead man.
The door slid open. "Time to go," the Captain in charge of the guard barked in a tone that blistered the prisoner’s nerve-endings. Rising to his imposing height, the sinewy athlete consciously straightened his shoulders. A desperate resolve not to give his enemies the least opportunity to sneer enabled him to compose his seamed, arrogant face.
Striding between the guards with all of his former hauteur, he advanced to the table where sat the three-member panel of judges. Hard gray eyes riveted themselves to the sword reposing upon the polished surface in front of Galt. Certainty as to the outcome failed to mitigate the agony ripping through the culprit on trial for his life, as he saw that the point lay toward him. That symbolic placing of the weapon belonging to the accused revealed what the spokesman now confirmed in a voice devoid of pity.
"Dexter, we find you guilty of high treason committed during wartime," Galt intoned. "We hereby sentence you to die spaced." Fulke and Orloff, flanking the speaker, each maintained a thin-lipped impassivity.
Preserving an icy calm equaling that of the judges, the military dictator exulted inwardly as he heard the verdict convicting the former Commander of First Corps. No hint of the ironic amusement accompanying the keen satisfaction suffusing him showed on Arlen’s mobile face.
Galt voted as did Fulke and Orloff, he congratulated himself, just as if the backstabber engaged in no subtle campaign of his own to unseat me! The Commander of Second Corps behaved exactly as I gambled he would when I appointed him to the tribunal. He rid himself of a rival, thereby accommodating me as well. The thrice-damned power-seeker confidently assumes that his attempt at staging a treasonous coup, when he launches it, won’t fail.
Well, he’s by far the more sinister adversary of the two. Devious. Talented. Cold-blooded. Ruthless. Likeable, when he permits that attribute of his complex personality to show. Able to command the fanatical devotion of his Second Corpsmen. A born leader, Galt. What a pity he’s so thoroughly lacking in principle. Not that many men discern that lack, but it exists. So! I can now devote more of my mental energy to the task of trapping the most dangerous enemy intriguing against me.
Galt’s motive registered with equally telling force on the condemned man. Mastering incipient faintness by the sheer power of an unyielding will, Dexter rasped venomously, "I regret only that I failed in that endeavor." Chin out-thrust, eyes snapping, the offender raked the broad shouldered blonde spokesman with a withering glance. Whirling in a swift about-face, he glared into the merciless eyes of the expert manipulator who had so astutely engineered his downfall. "Bastard," he grated.
Arlen’s expressionless face changed no whit as the guards gripped the traitor’s upper arms, and hustled him away.
Power comes at a price. Intellectually aware of that sobering reality when he seized power boldly and wielded it imperiously, Arlen underestimated the toll paying that price would exact on the psyche of a man who routinely accepted full personal responsibility for his actions. The warrior-statesman whose meteoric rise to his present eminence stemmed as much from intellectual brilliance as from cool daring failed to foresee that in return for granting autocratic dominance, an exacting fate might claim the lives of his nearest and dearest.