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The man at the end of the table wore his attitude like a mask. In another place and time the intensity of his speech and gestures might have seemed unnatural, but they were perfectly appropriate for his present surroundings. He was a roly-poly sort of fellow topped by a short brush of inspired hair that crawled down to his shirt collar. Unlike his diatribe, his attire was simple and neat. With his mouth shut he looked quite ordinary. So did his five companions, save one. With that single exception, none was especially tall or muscular. They differed in coloring, though there was nothing unusual about that. They were of different ages. They came from different backgrounds and different worlds.
What had brought them together in this small room at this particular time was a burning fanaticism, a bond stronger than epoxene or duralloy cable—a cause each was willing to die for. They were true believers, and they knew without a shadow of a doubt that their cause was just.
When discussing it they were transformed. At such times they sloughed off their daily personas and lives as easily as a lizard sheds old skin. They sat before one another fresh and gleaming, like the holy crusaders they knew they were. Each brought something different to the cause. The man who was speaking contributed money. Another brought strength and physical skills. The man seated beside her was naturally cunning. The six complemented one another even as they shared the same passion.
They were the leaders of a growing band, having been chosen by their associates to make the hard decisions, to determine targets and courses of action.
The man who was speaking was known to his compatriots as Spider. It was an accurate description of his mind, not of his physique. When he spoke of the Cause, he no longer looked so genial. His eyes seemed to bulge from his face, and his mouth contorted in a humorless grimace.
None of them knew each other’s real names. It was safer that way. The others had adopted names such as Flora and Lizard and Ormega—identification borrowed from the natural world that they were dedicated to preserving. Ecology was their creed, worshiped without question or hesitation. They had created unnatural relationships in order to better maintain the natural ones between species. Relationships that the civilization of the Commonwealth was dedicated to destroying. Such was their perception.
They were not alone in these beliefs, but they were alone in their methods. They had moved beyond reason into the realm of religion, a place where nonbelievers were heretics to be stopped by whatever means necessary. For years they had been biding time, gathering strength, testing the limits of their organization with subtle probes here, tiny strikes elsewhere. A chemical plant sabotaged, construction of a shuttleport abruptly delayed, a few crucial votes influenced by money, persuasion, or occasional blackmail: all in the name of the Cause. With each new success, each achievement, their confidence blossomed and new recruits were gleaned.
Until recently. The organization had grown beyond being a nuisance. It was now officially classified as a Problem, albeit still a minor one. Higher visibility meant more scrutiny by the authorities, more difficulty in soliciting adherents. They were no longer preaching to the already converted. The organization had reached a plateau. They could collapse in upon themselves, stagnate, or take the great leap forward. It was time to metamorphose from a cause into a movement.
Making that transition meant announcing themselves to the Commonwealth at large. It meant making a statement that could not be ignored, showing how far they were willing to go to support their beliefs. It was time at last for a major effort, for a spectacular display that would bring them the kind of universal recognition they had heretofore shunned but now demanded. Time for a demonstration on a scale sufficient to bring double, triple the usual number of doubters flocking to their banner.
Time to show the forces of destruction that they were a power to be reckoned with.
So it was that the six had gathered in this cramped and stuffy chamber, under the assumed names that they had come to regard as their only important ones, to decide the where and when and how of the announcement they were going to make. Though they had no official leader, Spider spoke first and longest because he was the most articulate among them.
When burning with the Cause, Spider could be spellbinding. His body was a mistake of familial genetics. Within that rotund, jovial shape dwelt the soul of a tall, sepulchral figure whose spiritual ancestors had once stalked the torture chambers of earlier inquisitions. He never hesitated, never second-guessed himself. Because he knew. Knew what was right, what was just, what had to be done. His companions listened with respect. All felt as he did but could not put their emotions into words as facilely.
It was dangerous for them to gather together in one place these days. As a result of recent activities, the organization had suffered injuries, though no deaths. But those activities had sparked more than the usual casual interest on the part of the authorities, enough interest so that the six had had to take circuitous paths to reach this meeting place in safety. Each was certain he or she had made it unobserved. Extreme caution was their shield, anonymity their protection. No one knew which worlds the organization had cells upon. The government was persistent but clumsy, easy to fool.
Soon it would not matter. In one blinding strike for Mother Nature they would voluntarily cast off their cloak of secrecy and announce themselves to a dazed Commonwealth. Every newsfax, every tridee would declare their name and purpose. Their purifying gesture would beget an avalanche of support that would shake the foul industrialists to their knees, and a new era of respect and love would dawn across this portion of the galaxy.
It would not be a random act, of course. They were as intelligent as they were dedicated. Even an act mounted for publicity must have behind it a legitimate purpose.
Given the extent of the cancer, they had no lack of targets to choose from. There was so much to be done and so little time in which to do it. Now, at last, after so many years of planning and building and laboring in secret, they could begin the real work. From now on the government and big corporations and ravening exploiters would have to deal with the avenging angel of the emergent organization.
And if some of them should die in the process? All had agreed long ago that the righteousness of their cause was well worth dying for. What mattered an individual life here and there when the sanctity of whole worlds was at stake?
Spider concluded his presentation with a brief recapitulation of the current situation before nodding to the woman seated to his right. She called herself Flora. Her eyes were blue, and her hair was the hue of spun gold. She was taller than any of the men except Stick, who sat quietly on the opposite side of the table. Her body was like desert heat. Gazing at it caused men to hallucinate. Stardom and fame could have been hers via the tridee networks, but such superficialities did not interest her. She had much more in common with Spider and Stick and the others seated at the table. The Cause excited her in a way no man ever had.
She was a biologist, not a starlet. When she spoke, the natural seductiveness of her voice masked the intensity of her devotion to the Cause. Her dedication and early military training had overcome the organization’s initial resistance to her beauty. Now she was looked upon as merely another soldier. By herself she had induced two governments to alter their positions on issues important to her colleagues: one by persuasion, one by blackmail.
Now she held up what looked like a fragment of fabric half a meter square and five centimeters thick.
“Do you all know what this is? It’s a new product and currently only available in limited quantities on the luxury market.” The perfect slash of her mouth twisted, accomplishing the seemingly impossible by muting her beauty. “I’ll tell you what it is: the latest and greatest perversion of the natural order for profit.”
“Verdidion Weave, isn’t it?” Ormega opted as she leaned forward for a better look.
Flora nodded brusquely. “A previously untouched organism from a previously unspoiled world. It’s been genetically altered to enhance the comfort of a wealthy few, though there are plans afoot to lower the cost by increasing production.” She made it sound like an oath framed in flaming quotation marks. “In other words, the bastards responsible for this plan on expanding their operation throughout the planet of origin.”
Spider folded his hands in front of his belly. “A perfect world for our first major public operation. There are no mitigating circumstances involved. It’s not as if these slime are altering grains to feed additional mouths. This is a deliberate attempt to manipulate a natural environment purely for profit. We’re going to stamp it out, shut it down so thoroughly that every other company in the business will think three times before trying anything similar on any other virgin world.