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  • Home > Frank Herbert > Dune Series > Dune Messiah (Chapter Nine)     
  • Dune Messiah(Dune Series #2)(9) by Frank Herbert
  • Alia followed with the tip of the long blade, thinking as she often did that the thing could almost be alive. But it was only servomotors and complex reflector circuits designed to lure the eyes away from danger, to confuse and teach. It was an instrument geared to react as she reacted, an anti-self which moved as she moved, balancing light on its prisms, shifting its target, offering its counter-blade.

    Many blades appeared to lunge at her from the prisms, but only one was real. She countered the real one, slipped the sword past shield resistance to tap the target. A marker light came alive: red and glistening among the prisms... more distraction.

    Again the thing attacked, moving at one-marker speed now, just a bit faster than it had at the beginning.

    She parried and, against all caution, moved into the danger zone, scored with the crysknife.

    Two lights glowed from the prisms.

    Again, the thing increased speed, moving out on its rollers, drawn like a magnet to the motions of her body and the tip of her sword.

    Attack - parry - counter.

    Attack - parry - counter...

    She had four lights alive in there now, and the thing was becoming more dangerous, moving faster with each light, offering more areas of confusion.

    Five lights.

    Sweat glistened on her naked skin. She existed now in a universe whose dimensions were outlined by the threatening blade, the target, bare feet against the practice floor, senses / nerves / muscles - motion against motion.

    Attack - parry - counter.

    Six lights... seven...

    Eight!

    She had never before risked eight.

    In a recess of her mind there grew a sense of urgency, a crying out against such wildness as this. The instrument of prisms and target could not think, feel caution or remorse. And it carried a real blade. To go against less defeated the purpose of such training. That attacking blade could maim and it could kill. But the finest swordsmen in the Imperium never went against more than seven lights.

    Nine!

    Alia experienced a sense of supreme exaltation. Attacking blade and target became blurs among blurs. She felt that the sword in her hand had come alive. She was an anti-target. She did not move the blade; it moved her.

    Ten!

    Eleven!

    Something flashed past her shoulder, slowed at the shield aura around the target, slid through and tripped the deactivating stud. The lights darkened. Prisms and target twisted their way to stillness.

    Alia whirled, angered by the intrusion, but her reaction was thrown into tension by awareness of the supreme ability which had hurled that knife. It had been a throw timed to exquisite nicety - just fast enough to get through the shield zone and not too fast to be deflected.

    And it had touched a one-millimeter spot within an eleven-light target.

    Alia found her own emotions and tensions running down in a manner not unlike that of the target dummy. She was not at all surprised to see who had thrown the knife.

    Paul stood just inside the training room doorway, Stilgar three steps behind him. Her brother's eyes were squinted in anger.

    Alia, growing conscious of her nudity, thought to cover herself, found the idea amusing. What the eyes had seen could not be erased. Slowly, she replaced the crysknife in its sheath at her neck.

    "I might've known," she said.

    "I presume you know how dangerous that was," Paul said. He took his time reading the reactions on her face and body: the flush of her exertions coloring her skin, the wet fullness of her lips. There was a disquieting femaleness about her that he had never considered in his sister. He found it odd that he could look at a person who was this close to him and no longer recognize her in the identity framework which had seemed so fixed and familiar.

    "That was madness," Stilgar rasped, coming up to stand beside Paul.

    The words were angry, but Alia heard awe in his voice, saw it in his eyes.

    "Eleven lights," Paul said, shaking his head.

    "I'd have made it twelve if you hadn't interfered," she said. She began, to pale under his close regard, added: "And why do the damned things have that many lights if we're not supposed to try for them?"

    "A Bene Gesserit should ask the reasoning behind an open-ended system?" Paul asked.

    "I suppose you never tried for more than seven!" she said, anger returning. His attentive posture began to annoy her.

    "Just once," Paul said. "Gurney Halleck caught me on ten. My punishment was sufficiently embarrassing that I won't tell you what he did. And speaking of embarrassment... "

    "Next time, perhaps you'll have yourselves announced," she said. She brushed past Paul into the bedroom, found a loose gray robe, slipped into it, began brushing her hair before a wall mirror. She felt sweaty, sad, a post-coitus kind of sadness that left her with a desire to bathe once more... and to sleep. "Why're you here?" she asked.

    "My Lord," Stilgar said. There was an odd inflection in his voice that brought Alia around to stare at him.

    "We're here at Irulan's suggestion," Paul said, "as strange as that may seem. She believes, and information in Stil's possession appears to confirm it, that our enemies are about to make a major try for - "

    "My Lord!" Stilgar said, his voice sharper.

    As her brother turned, questioning, Alia continued to look at the old Fremen Naib. Something about him now made her intensely aware that he was one of the primitives. Stilgar believed in a supernatural world very near him. It spoke to him in a simple pagan tongue dispelling all doubts. The natural universe in which he stood was fierce, unstoppable, and it lacked the common morality of the Imperium.

    "Yes, Stil," Paul said. "Do you want to tell her why we came?"

    "This isn't the time to talk of why we came," Stilgar said.

    "What's wrong, Stil?"

    Stilgar continued to stare at Alia. "Sire, are you blind?"

    Paul turned back to his sister, a feeling of unease beginning to fill him. Of all his aides, only Stilgar dared speak to him in that tone, but even Stilgar measured the occasion by its need.

    "This one must have a mate!" Stilgar blurted. "There'll be trouble if she's not wed, and that soon."

    Alia whirled away, her face suddenly hot. How did he touch me? she wondered. Bene Gesserit self-control had been powerless to prevent her reaction. How had Stilgar done that? He hadn't the power of the Voice. She felt dismayed and angry.

    "Listen to the great Stilgar!" Alia said, keeping her back to them, aware of a shrewish quality in her voice and unable to hide it. "Advice to maidens from Stilgar, the Fremen!"

    "As I love you both, I must speak," Stilgar said, a profound dignity in his tone. "I did not become a chieftain among the Fremen by being blind to what moves men and women together. One needs no mysterious powers for this."

    Paul weighed Stilgar's meaning, reviewed what they had seen here and his own undeniable male reaction to his own sister. Yes - there'd been a ruttish air about Alia, something wildly wanton. What had made her enter the practice floor in the nude? And risking her life in that foolhardy way! Eleven lights in the fencing prisms! That brainless automaton loomed in his mind with all the aspects of an ancient horror creature. Its possession was the shibboleth of this age, but it carried also the taint of old immorality. Once, they'd been guided by an artificial intelligence, computer brains. The Butlerian Jihad had ended that, but it hadn't ended the aura of aristocratic vice which enclosed such things.

    Stilgar was right, of course. They must find a mate for Alia.

    "I will see to it," Paul said. "Alia and I will discuss this later - privately."

    Alia turned around, focused on Paul. Knowing how his mind worked, she realized she'd been the subject of a mentat decision, uncounted bits falling together in that human-computer analysis. There was an inexorable quality to this realization - a movement like the movement of planets. It carried something of the order of the universe in it, inevitable and terrifying.

    "Sire," Stilgar said, "perhaps we'd - "

    "Not now!" Paul snapped. "We've other problems at the moment."

    Aware that she dared not try to match logic with her brother, Alia put the past few moments aside, Bene Gesserit fashion, said: "Irulan sent you?" She found herself experiencing menace in that thought.

    "Indirectly," Paul said. "The information she gives us confirms our suspicion that the Guild is about to try for a sandworm."

    "They'll try to capture a small one and attempt to start the spice cycle on some other world," Stilgar said. "It means they've found a world they consider suitable."

    "It means they have Fremen accomplices!" Alia argued. "No offworlder could capture a worm!"

    "That goes without saying," Stilgar said.

    "No, it doesn't," Alia said. She was outraged by such obtuseness. "Paul, certainly you..."

    "The rot is setting in," Paul said. "We've known that for quite some time. "I've never seen this other world, though, and that bothers me. If they - "

    "That bothers you?" Alia demanded. "It means only that they've clouded its location with Steersmen the way they hide their sanctuaries."

    Stilgar opened his mouth, closed it without speaking. He had the overwhelming sensation that his idols had admitted blasphemous weakness.

    Paul, sensing Stilgar's disquiet, said: "We've an immediate problem! I want your opinion, Alia. Stilgar suggests we expand our patrols in the open bled and reinforce the sietch watch. It's just possible we could spot a landing party and prevent the - "

    "With a Steersman guiding them?" Alia asked.

    "They are desperate, aren't they?" Paul agreed. "That is why I'm here."

    "What've they seen that we haven't?" Alia asked.

    "Precisely."

    Alia nodded, remembering her thoughts about the new Dune Tarot. Quickly, she recounted her fears.

    "Throwing a blanket over us," Paul said.

    "With adequate patrols," Stilgar ventured, "we might prevent the - "

    "We prevent nothing... forever," Alia said. She didn't like the feel of the way Stilgar's mind was working now. He had narrowed his scope, eliminated obvious essentials. This was not the Stilgar she remembered.

    "We must count on their getting a worm," Paul said. "Whether they can start the melange cycle on another planet is a different question. They'll need more than a worm."

    Stilgar looked from brother to sister. Out of ecological thinking that had been ground into him by sietch life, he grasped their meaning. A captive worm couldn't live except within a bit of Arrakis - sand plankton, Little Makers and all. The Guild's problem was large, but not impossible. His own growing uncertainty lay in a different area.

    "Then your visions do not detect the Guild at its work?" he asked.

    "Damnation!" Paul exploded.

    Alia studied Stilgar, sensing the savage sideshow of ideas taking place in his mind. He was hung on a rack of enchantment. Magic! Magic! To glimpse the future was to steal terrifying fire from a sacred flame. It held the attraction of ultimate peril, souls ventured and lost. One brought back from the formless, dangerous distances something with form and power. But Stilgar was beginning to sense other forces, perhaps greater powers beyond that unknown horizon. His Queen Witch and Sorcerer Friend betrayed dangerous weaknesses.

    "Stilgar," Alia said, fighting to hold him, "you stand in a valley between dunes. I stand on the crest. I see where you do not see. And, among other things, I see mountains which conceal the distances."

    "There are things hidden from you," Stilgar said. "This you've always said."

    "All power is limited," Alia said.

    "And danger may come from behind the mountains," Stilgar said.

    "It's something on that order," Alia said.

    Stilgar nodded, his gaze fastened on Paul's face. "But whatever comes from behind the mountains must cross the dunes."

    = = = = = =

    The most dangerous game in the universe is to govern from an oracular base. We do not consider ourselves wise enough or brave enough to play that game. The measures detailed here for regulation in lesser matters are as near as we dare venture to the brink of government. For our purposes, we borrow a definition from the Bene Gesserit and we consider the various worlds as gene pools, sources of teachings and teachers, sources of the possible. Our goal is not to rule, but to tap these gene pools, to learn, and to free ourselves from all restraints imposed by dependency and government. -"The Orgy as a Tool of Statecraft," Chapter Three of The Steersman's Guild

    "Is that where your father died?" Edric asked, sending a beam pointer from his tank to a jeweled marker on one of the relief maps adorning a wall of Paul's reception salon.

    "That's the shrine of his skull," Paul said. "My father died a prisoner on a Harkonnen frigate in the sink below us."

    "Oh, yes: I recall the story now," Edric said. "Something about killing the old Baron Harkonnen, his mortal enemy." Hoping he didn't betray too much of the terror which small enclosures such as this room imposed upon him, Edric rolled over in the orange gas, directed his gaze at Paul, who sat alone on a long divan of striped gray and black.

    "My sister killed the Baron," Paul said, voice and manner dry, "just before the battle of Arrakeen."

    And why, he wondered, did the Guild man-fish reopen old wounds in this place and at this time?

    The Steersman appeared to be fighting a losing battle to contain his nervous energies. Gone were the languid fish motions of their earlier encounter. Edric's tiny eyes jerked here... there, questing and measuring. The one attendant who had accompanied him in here stood apart near the line of houseguards ranging the end wall at Paul's left. The attendant worried Paul - hulking, thick-necked, blunt and vacant face. The man had entered the salon, nudging Edric's tank along on its supporting field, walking with a strangler's gait, arms akimbo.

    Scytale, Edric had called him. Scytale, an aide.

    The aide's surface shouted stupidity, but the eyes betrayed him. They laughed at everything they saw.

    "Your concubine appeared to enjoy the performance of the Face Dancers," Edric said. "It pleases me that I could provide that small entertainment. I particularly enjoyed her reaction to seeing her own features simultaneously repeated by the whole troupe."

    "Isn't there a warning against Guildsmen bearing gifts?" Paul asked.

    And he thought of the performance out there in the Great Hall. The dancers had entered in the costumes and guise of the Dune Tarot, flinging themselves about in seemingly random patterns that devolved into fire eddies and ancient prognostic designs. Then had come the rulers - a parade of kings and emperors like faces on coins, formal and stiff in outline, but curiously fluid. And the jokes: a copy of Paul's own face and body, Chani repeated across the floor of the Hall, even Stilgar, who had grunted and shuddered while others laughed.

    "But our gifts have the kindest intent," Edric protested.

    "How kindly can you be?" Paul asked. "The ghola you gave us believes he was designed to destroy us."

    "Destroy you, Sire?" Edric asked, all bland attention. "Can one destroy a god?"

    Stilgar, entering on the last words, stopped, glared at the guards. They were much farther from Paul than he liked. Angrily he motioned them closer.

    "It's all right, Stil," Paul said, lifting a hand. "Just a friendly discussion. Why don't you move the Ambassador's tank over by the end of my divan?"

    Stilgar, weighing the order, saw that it would put the Steersman's tank between Paul and the hulking aide, much too close to Paul, but...

    "It's all right, Stil," Paul repeated, and he gave the private hand-signal which made the order an imperative.

    Moving with obvious reluctance, Stilgar pushed the tank closer to Paul. He didn't like the feel of the container or the heavily perfumed smell of melange around it. He took up a position at the corner of the tank beneath the orbiting device through which the Steersman spoke.

    "To kill a god," Paul said. "That's very interesting. But who says I'm a god?"

    "Those who worship you," Edric said, glancing pointedly at Stilgar.

    "Is this what you believe?" Paul asked.

    "What I believe is of no moment, Sire," Edric said. "It seems to most observers, however, that you conspire to make a god of yourself. And one might ask if that is something any mortal can do... safely?"

    Paul studied the Guildsman. Repellent creature, but perceptive. It was a question Paul had asked himself time and again. But he had seen enough alternate Timelines to know of worse possibilities than accepting godhead for himself. Much worse. These were not, however, the normal avenues for a Steersman to probe. Curious. Why had that question been asked? What could Edric hope to gain by such effrontery? Paul's thoughts went flick (the association of Tleilaxu would be behind this move) - flick (the Jihad's recent Sembou victory would bear on Edric's action) - flick (various Bene Gesserit credos showed themselves here) flick...

    A process involving thousands of information bits poured flickering through his computational awareness. It required perhaps three seconds.

    "Does a Steersman question the guidelines of prescience?" Paul asked, putting Edric on the weakest ground.

    This disturbed the Steersman, but he covered well, coming up with what sounded like a long aphorism: "No man of intelligence questions the fact of prescience, Sire. Oracular vision has been known to men since most ancient times. It has a way of entangling us when we least suspect. Luckily, there are other forces in our universe."

    "Greater than prescience?" Paul asked, pressing him.

    "If prescience alone existed and did everything, Sire, it would annihilate itself. Nothing but prescience? Where could it be applied except to its own degenerating movements?"

    "There's always the human situation," Paul agreed.

    "A precarious thing at best," Edric said, "without confusing it by hallucinations."

    "Are my visions no more than hallucinations?" Paul asked, mock sadness in his voice. "Or do you imply that my worshippers hallucinate?"

    Stilgar, sensing the mounting tensions, moved a step nearer Paul, fixed his attention on the Guildsman reclining in the tank.

    "You twist my words, Sire," Edric protested. An odd sense of violence lay suspended in the words.

    Violence here? Paul wondered. They wouldn't dare! Unless (and he glanced at his guards) the forces which protected him were to be used in replacing him.

    "But you accuse me of conspiring to make a god of myself," Paul said, pitching his voice that only Edric and Stilgar might hear. "Conspire?"

    "A poor choice of words, perhaps, my Lord," Edric said.

    "But significant," Paul said. "It says you expect the worst of me."
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