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"I don't understand. Is this group of yours, ah, illegal?"

She shrugged impatiently. "Oh, of course not. Don't be silly. We gather to hear various speakers, to discuss world affairs. That sort of thing. Oh, of course, theoretically it's illegal, but for that matter even the head of the Skoda plant attended last week. It's only for the more advanced intellectuals, of course. Very advanced. But, for that matter, I know a dozen or so Party members, both Czech and Russian, who attend."

"But an American journalist? What's he doing in the country? Is he accredited?"

"No, no. You misunderstand. He entered as a tourist, came across some Prague newspapermen and as an upshot he's to give a talk on freedom of the press."

"I see," Simonov said.

She was impatient with him. "You don't understand at all. See here, why don't you come along tonight? I'm sure I can get you in."

"It sounds like a good idea," Ilya Simonov said. He was completely sober now.

He made a written report to Kliment Blagonravov before turning in. He mentioned the rather free discussion of matters political in the Czech capital, using the man he'd met in the beer hall as an example. He reported--although, undoubtedly, Blagonravov would already have the information--hearing of a Polish Tri-D film which had defended the Old Bolsheviks purged in the 1930s. He mentioned the literary magazine, with its caricature of Frol Zverev, and, last of all, and then after hesitation, he reported party member Catherina Panova, who evidently belonged to a group of intellectuals who were not above listening to a talk given by a foreign journalist who was not speaking under the auspices of the Czech Party nor the government.

At the office, later, Catherina grinned at him and made a face. She ticked it off on her fingers. "Riesling, barack, smoked black beer, and borovika gin--we should have know better."

He went along with her, putting one hand to his forehead. "We should have stuck to vodka."

"Well," she said, "tonight we can be virtuous. An intellectual evening, rather than a carouse."

Actually, she didn't look at all the worse for wear. Evidently, Catherina Panova was still young enough that she could pub crawl all night, and still look fresh and alert in the morning. His own mouth felt lined with improperly tanned suede.

He was quickly fitting into the routine of the office. Actually, it worked smoothly enough that little effort was demanded of him. The Czech employees handled almost all the details. Evidently, the word of his evening on the town had somehow spread, and the fact that he was prone to a good time had relieved their fears of a martinet sent down from the central offices. They were beginning to relax in his presence.

In fact, they relaxed to the point where one of the girls didn't even bother to hide the book she was reading during a period where there was a lull in activity. It was Pasternak's "Doctor Zhivago."

He frowned remembering vaguely the controversy over the book a couple of decades earlier. Ilya Simonov said, "Pasternak. Do they print his works here in Czechoslovakia?"

The girl shrugged and looked at the back of the cover. "German publisher," she said idly. "Printed in Frankfurt."

He kept his voice from registering either surprise or disapproval. "You mean such books are imported? By whom?"

"Oh, not imported by an official agency, but we Czechs are doing a good deal more travel than we used to. Business trips, tourist trips, vacations. And, of course, we bring back books you can't get here." She shrugged again. "Very common."

Simonov said blankly. "But the customs. The border police--"

She smiled in a manner that suggested he lacked sophistication. "They never bother any more. They're human, too."

Ilya Simonov wandered off. He was astonished at the extent to which controls were slipping in a satellite country. There seemed practically no discipline, in the old sense, at all. He began to see one reason why his superior had sent him here to Prague. For years, most of his work had been either in Moscow or in the newly opened industrial areas in Siberia. He had lost touch with developments in this part of the Soviet Complex.

It came to him that this sort of thing could work like a geometric progression. Give a man a bit of rope one day, and he expects, and takes, twice as much the next, and twice that the next. And as with individuals, so with whole populations.

This was going to have to be stopped soon, or Party control would disappear. Ilya Simonov felt an edge of uncertainty. Nikita Khrushchev should never have made those first motions of liberalization following Stalin's death. Not if they eventually culminated in this sort of thing.

He and Catherina drove to her meeting place that evening after dinner.

She explained as they went that the group was quite informal, usually meeting at the homes of group members who had fairly large places in the country. She didn't seem to know how it had originally begun. The meetings had been going on for a year of more before she arrived in Prague. A Czech friend had taken her along one night, and she'd been attending ever since. There were other, similar groups, in town.

"But what's the purpose of the organization?" Simonov asked her.

She was driving her little aircushion Moskvich. They crossed over the Vltava River by the Cechuv Bridge and turned right. On the hill above them loomed the fantastically large statue of Stalin which had been raised immediately following the Second War. She grimaced at it, muttered, "I wonder if he was insane from the first."

He hadn't understood her change of subject. "How do you mean?" he said.

"Stalin. I wonder how early it was in his career that he went insane."

This was the second time in the past few days that Ilya Simonov had run into this matter of the former dictator's mental condition. He said now, "I've heard the opinion before. Where did you pick it up?"

"Oh, it's quite commonly believed in the Western countries."

"But, have you ever been, ah, West?"

"Oh, from time to time! Berlin, Vienna, Geneva. Even Paris twice, on vacation, you know, and to various conferences. But that's not what I mean. In the western magazines and newspapers. You can get them here in Prague now. But to get back to your question. There is no particular purpose of the organization."

She turned the car left on Budenska and sped up into the Holesovice section of town.

The nonchalance of it all was what stopped Ilya Simonov. Here was a Party member calmly discussing whether or not the greatest Russian of them all, after Lenin, had been mad. The implications were, of course, that many of the purges, certainly the latter ones, were the result of the whims of a mental case, that the Soviet Complex had for long years been ruled by a man as unbalanced as Czar Peter the Great.

They pulled up before a rather large house that would have been called a dacha back in Moscow. Evidently, Ilya Simonov decided, whoever was sponsoring this night's get together, was a man of prominence. He grimaced inwardly. A lot of high placed heads were going to roll before he was through.

It turned out that the host was Leos Dvorak, the internationally famed cinema director and quite an idol of Ilya Simonov in his earlier days when he'd found more time for entertainment. It was a shock to meet the man under these circumstances.

Catherina Panova was obviously quite popular among this gathering. Their host gave her an affectionate squeeze in way of greeting, then shook hands with Simonov when Catherina introduced him.

"Newly from Moscow, eh?" the film director said, squinting at the security agent. He had a sharp glance, almost, it seemed to Simonov, as though he detected the real nature of the newcomer. "It's been several years since I've been to Moscow. Are things loosening up there?"

"Loosening up?" Simonov said.

Leos Dvorak laughed and said to Catherina, "Probably not. I've always been of the opinion that the Party's influence would shrivel away first at its extremities. Membership would fall off abroad, in the neutral countries and in Common Europe and the Americas. Then in the so-called satellite countries. Last of all in Russia herself. But, very last, Moscow--the dullest, stodgiest, most backward intellectually, capital city in the world." The director laughed again and turned away to greet a new guest.

This was open treason. Ilya Simonov had been lucky. Within the first few days of being in the Czech capital he'd contacted one of the groups which he'd been sent to unmask.

Now he said mildly to Catherina Panova, "He seems rather outspoken."

She chuckled. "Leos is quite strongly opinionated. His theory is that the more successful the Party is in attaining the goals it set half a century ago, the less necessary it becomes. He's of the opinion that it will eventually atrophy, shrivel away to the point that all that will be needed will be the slightest of pushes to end its domination."

Ilya Simonov said, "And the rest of the group here, do they agree?"

Catherina shrugged. "Some do, some don't. Some of them are of the opinion that it will take another blood bath. That the party will attempt to hang onto its power and will have to be destroyed."

Simonov said evenly, "And you? What do you think?"

She frowned, prettily. "I'm not sure. I suppose I'm still in the process of forming an opinion."

Their host was calling them together and leading the way to the garden where chairs had been set up. There seemed to be about twenty-five persons present in all. Ilya Simonov had been introduced to no more than half of them. His memory was good and already he was composing a report to Kliment Blagonravov, listing those names he recalled. Some were Czechs, some citizens of other satellite countries, several, including Catherina, were actually Russians.

The American, a newspaperman named Dickson, had an open-faced freshness, hardly plausible in an agent from the West trying to subvert Party leadership. Ilya Simonov couldn't quite figure him out.

Dickson was introduced by Leos Dvorak who informed his guests that the American had been reluctant but had finally agreed to give them his opinion on the press on both sides of what had once been called the Iron Curtain.

Dickson grinned boyishly and said, "I'm not a public speaker, and, for that matter, I haven't had time to put together a talk for you. I think what I'll do is read a little clipping I've got here--sort of a text--and then, well, throw the meeting open to questions. I'll try to answer anything you have to ask."

He brought forth a piece of paper. "This is from the British writer, Huxley. I think it's pretty good." He cleared his voice and began to read.

Mass communication ... is simply a force and like any other force, it can be used either well or ill. Used one way, the press, the radio and the cinema are indispensible to the survival of democracy. Used in another way, they are among the most powerful weapons in the dictator's armory. In the field of mass communications as in almost every other field of enterprise, technological progress has hurt the Little Man and helped the Big Man. As lately as fifty years ago, every democratic country could boast of a great number of small journals and local newspapers. Thousands of country editors expressed thousands of independent opinions. Somewhere or other almost anybody could get almost anything printed. Today the press is still legally free; but most of the little papers have disappeared. The cost of wood pulp, of modern printing machinery and of syndicated news is too high for the Little Man. In the totalitarian East there is political censorship, and the media of mass communications are controlled by the State. In the democratic West there is economic censorship and the media of mass communication are controlled by members of the Power Elite. Censorship by rising costs and the concentration of communication-power in the hands of a few big concerns is less objectionable than State Ownership and government propaganda; but certainly it is not something to which a Jeffersonian democrat could approve.

Ilya Simonov looked blankly at Catherina and whispered, "Why, what he's reading is as much an attack on the West as it is on us."

She looked at him and whispered back, "Well, why not? This gathering is to discuss freedom of the press."

He said blankly, "But as an agent of the West--"

She frowned at him. "Mr. Dickson isn't an agent of the West. He's an American journalist."

"Surely you can't believe he has no connections with the imperialist governments."

"Certainly, he hasn't. What sort of meeting do you think this is? We're not interested in Western propaganda. We're a group of intellectuals searching for freedom of ideas."

Ilya Simonov was taken back once again.

Colonel Ilya Simonov dismissed his cab in front of the Ministry and walked toward the gate. Down the street the same plainclothes man, who had been lounging there the last time he'd reported, once again took him in, then looked away. The two guards snapped to attention, and the security agent strode by them unnoticing.

At the lieutenant's desk, before the offices of Kliment Blagonravov, he stopped and said, "Colonel Simonov. I have no appointment but I think the Minister will see me."

"Yes, Comrade Colonel," the lieutenant said. He spoke into an inter-office communicator, then looked up. "Minister Blagonravov will be able to see you in a few minutes, sir."

Ilya Simonov stared nervously and unseeingly out a window while he waited. Gorki Park lay across the way. It, like Moscow in general, had changed a good deal in Simonov's memory. Everything in Russia had changed a good deal, he realized. And was changing. And what was the end to be? Or was there ever an end? Of course not. There is no end, ever. Only new changes to come.

The lieutenant said, "The Minister is free now, Comrade Colonel."

Ilya Simonov muttered something to him and pushed his way through the heavy door.

Blagonravov looked up from his desk and rumbled affectionately, "Ilya! It's good to see you. Have a drink! You've lost weight, Ilya!"

His top field man sank into the same chair he'd occupied nine months before, and accepted the ice-cold vodka.

Blagonravov poured another drink for himself, then scowled at the other. "Where have you been? When you first went off to Prague, I got reports from you almost every day. These last few months I've hardly heard from you." He rumbled his version of a chuckle. "If I didn't know you better, I'd think there was a woman."

Ilya Simonov looked at him wanly. "That too, Kliment."

"You are jesting!"

"No. Not really. I had hoped to become engaged--soon."

"A party member? I never thought of you as the marrying type, Ilya."

Simonov said slowly, "Yes, a Party member. Catherina Panova, my assistant in the automobile agency in Prague."

Blagonravov scowled heavily at him, put forth his fat lips in a thoughtful pout. He came to his feet, approached a file cabinet, fishing from his pocket a key ring. He unlocked the cabinet, brought forth a sheaf of papers with which he returned to his desk. He fumbled though them for a moment, found the paper he wanted and read it. He scowled again and looked up at his agent.

"Your first report," he said. "Catherina Panova. From what you say here, a dangerous reactionary. Certainly she has no place in Party ranks."

Ilya Simonov said, "Is that the complete file of my assignment?"

"Yes. I've kept it here in my own office. I've wanted this to be ultra-undercover. No one except you and me. I had hopes of you working your way up into the enemy's organization, and I wanted no possible chance of you being betrayed. You don't seem to have been too successful."

"I was as successful as it's possible to be."

The security minister leaned forward. "Ah ha! I knew I could trust you to bring back results, Ilya. This will take Frol Zverev's pressure off me. Number One has been riding me hard." Blagonravov poured them both another drink. "You were able to insert yourself into their higher circles?"

Simonov said, "Kliment, there are no higher circles."

His chief glared at him. "Nonsense!" He tapped the file with a pudgy finger. "In your early reports you described several groups, small organizations, illegal meetings. There must be an upper organization, some movement supported from the West most likely."

Ilya Simonov was shaking his head. "No. They're all spontaneous."

His chief growled, "I tell you there are literally thousands of these little groups. That hardly sounds like a spontaneous phenomenon."

"Nevertheless, that is what my investigations have led me to believe."

Blagonravov glowered at him, uncertainly. Finally, he said, "Well, confound it, you've spent the better part of a year among them. What's it all about? What do they want?"

Ilya Simonov said flatly, "They want freedom, Kliment."

"Freedom! What do you mean, freedom? The Soviet Complex is the most highly industrialized area of the world. Our people have the highest standard of living anywhere. Don't they understand? We've met all the promises we ever made. We've reached far and beyond the point ever dreamed of by Utopians. The people, all of the people, have it made as the Americans say."

"Except for freedom," Simonov said doggedly. "These groups are springing up everywhere, spontaneously. Thus far, perhaps, our ministry has been able to suppress some of them. But the pace is accelerating. They aren't inter-organized now. But how soon they'll start to be, I don't know. Sooner or later, someone is going to come up with a unifying idea. A new socio-political system to advocate a way of guaranteeing the basic liberties. Then, of course, the fat will be in the fire."

"Ilya! You've been working too hard. I've pushed you too much, relied on you too much. You need a good lengthy vacation."

Simonov shrugged. "Perhaps. But what I've just said is the truth."

His chief snorted heavily. "You half sound as though you agree with them."

"I do, Kliment."

"I am in no mood for gags, as the Yankees say."

Ilya Simonov looked at him wearily. He said slowly, "You sent me to investigate an epidemic, a spreading disease. Very well, I report that it's highly contagious."

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