Authors: Brian Herbert,Kevin J. Anderson
She was a striking woman, beautiful and intense, with prominent dark eyebrows, pale skin, and very long brunette hair that she kept pinned up under a practical scarf during the business day, but when she loosed the tresses and brushed them in the evening, they fell down below her waist.
Josef was not a romantic man, and he had approached the marriage from a business perspective, knowing that he had to plan for the future of the Venport line. Having one of their graduates marry into VenHold was an obvious boon for the Rossak School, due to Venport’s wealth and political power, and the Sisterhood had offered several candidates for him to consider; Cioba had scored highest when Josef assessed his options. In the twelve years of their marriage, Cioba had been an incomparable partner in running the business.
As the granddaughter of Karee Marques, she also had a hint of Sorceress blood. Josef traced his own lineage back to Rossak as well, through Norma Cenva—whose mother, Zufa Cenva, had been one of the most powerful Sorceresses in history. Cioba’s two young daughters with Josef had enormous potential, according to the Sisterhood bloodline analysis, and both had been sent off to Rossak to be raised and trained there.
He walked forward from the shuttle, giving a formal greeting to his wife and the advisers. He did not kiss her, nor did she expect it; that would come later—they filled different roles now, in public. She had her report ready, and delivered a rapid-fire summary of urgent matters, crises she had already solved, other emergencies that required his intervention. What he appreciated most was that Cioba did not waste his time; she sorted out only the items that genuinely required his attention.
She talked as he set the pace, always moving, and the advisers chimed in, adding necessary details and opinions. Although Josef paid attention to the many VenHold operations and investments, he tried to remain above the nitty-gritty details, not unlike his great-grandmother Norma Cenva, who remained in mental isolation, engrossed in her own concerns and barely able to communicate with mere humans like him. Returning here from Salusa Secundus, he felt secure and stable, knowing that VenHold was in good hands, and he could forget the outside chaos … for a while.
Around him, the landing fields were a blur of movement, shuttles rising and landing, cargo pods dropping into place, refueling tankers racing up to docked vessels. Support workers, engineers, and designers filled cylindrical administrative complexes like drones in a hive.
By the time they reached his office in the giant admin building, Cioba had finished delivering her summaries. Josef turned to the advisers and dismissed them before closing the door so he could be alone with his wife. Both of them took seats, relaxing but still focused on business. “So, which things are time-critical?” he asked. “Exactly what needs my signature, and what can wait until tomorrow?”
“I believe the last thing I mentioned is the most time-critical,” Cioba said. “As we discussed before you left, I stepped up efforts to watch three more exiles from the CET. One of them was exposed by the mobs and killed. The other two renegades are ready to go to ground under the terms we proposed.”
“I have no patience for mobs.” His face took on a pinched expression. “Although the CET delegates caused their own troubles, I’m willing to help protect them from the foolish religious hordes.” The riots over the
Orange Catholic Bible
were only peripherally connected with the Butlerian movement, but they shared a similar basis in superstition and ignorance. Peasants bearing torches.
Cioba said in an even voice, “Remember, the delegates were misguided fools, too—the whole Commission of Ecumenical Translators, in fact. They started with the false premise that they could apply a single rational order to all of humanity’s diverse and contradictory religious beliefs. No wonder people revolted against them.”
Josef had established a hidden refuge on a near-forgotten planet, Tupile, offering it as a sanctuary for anyone who wanted to vanish—including the reviled Toure Bomoko, who had fled there immediately after that unpleasant incident in the Imperial Palace with the wife of Emperor Jules Corrino, and the subsequent bloodbath. Only the spacing fleet Navigators knew how to reach that planet, so its location was completely secure.
“Very well, ship them off to Tupile—no one will find them there. If you agree?”
“I agree that would be best.”
Josef signed the authorization document, then asked his wife to accompany him out to see Norma Cenva in her tank.
* * *
UNDER THE CLOUDY
Kolhar sky, the broad paved field was crowded with sealed tanks. Insulated plaz portholes were designed to allow external inspectors to peer inside rather than for the tanks’ inhabitants to look out. Workers with suspensor-levitated canisters moved from tank to tank, pumping in fresh melange gas. Inside the numerous individual tanks, embryonic Navigators swam in dense brownish-orange clouds, their physical bodies languid while their thoughts stampeded down uncharted paths.
Atop a mound that had been built and ornamented like an acropolis sat the largest and oldest chamber, the tank that held Norma Cenva. Accompanied by Cioba, Josef ascended the marble steps, feeling like a supplicant approaching an idol. His great-grandmother had been immersed in spice gas, never breathing fresh air, never emerging in more than eight decades, while her thoughts traveled through an esoteric tapestry of mathematics and physics. By most measures, she was no longer human.
Norma was freakishly intelligent, with an evolved body and an ever-expanding mind, and her need for spice was insatiable. The Navigators, the VenHold Spacing Fleet—indeed, the whole concept of Holtzman shields and spacefolding engines—would have been impossible without her incredible breakthroughs.
“No one can tell what she’s really thinking about,” Josef said to his wife, “but she’s made it clear to me that she longs to add many more ships to the VenHold Spacing Fleet. I told her that tens of thousands of vessels would be necessary to adequately service all the planets in the Imperium.”
“Maybe she just wants more Navigators,” Cioba said. “More like herself.”
He smiled as he reached the top step. “She’s creating Navigators as quickly as she can, but for that she requires extraordinary quantities of spice. I pointed out to her that the more ships we possess, the more melange we can transport around the Imperium … and thus the more Navigators she can create. Everyone benefits.”
From the hill, they could see the busy spaceport and shipyards. Each hour, a newly refitted vessel lifted off. Launch towers were great spires in the sky, needles pointing toward the heavens. Simply keeping track of all the scheduled spacefaring flights that connected and serviced the Imperium’s thousands of planets was an administrative nightmare, but Josef had thousands of people to work on the task, all of them housed in a single building complex.
Fortunately, not all of his ships required Navigators. Slow-haulers were adequate for transporting noncritical cargo from planet to planet on traditional routes, using old-style pre-Holtzman engines. Even though the trip took months, it was less expensive and perfectly safe.
Spacefolders could make the passage almost instantaneously, but for years they had flown blindly; the pilots had charted their courses and prayed that no hazards lay along the path. Currently, low-budget carriers like Celestial Transport still risked blind travel, usually without informing their hapless passengers of the dangers. Years ago, during Serena Butler’s Jihad, Aurelius Venport had provided spacefolders for the war effort on condition that only his company had the right to use the technology after the thinking machines were defeated. And yet, within two decades of the Battle of Corrin, Emperor Jules had amended the agreement to “allow competition.”
Josef remained incensed that his family’s risk and hard work had been brushed aside, but he had also changed with the new rules. Only VenHold knew the secret of creating and training Navigators, who could actually encompass the cosmos in their minds and envision safe pathways through foldspace.
Saturated with melange gas, floating in suspensor fields, the Navigator-candidates turned their thoughts inward to a landscape of surreal physics and mathematics. As their minds changed and expanded, their need for spice became insatiable. Just as Josef’s need for more Navigators was insatiable.
Although Cioba could occasionally get through to her, talking about their common Rossak connections, Josef was the only one who could regularly communicate with Norma. Originally, her son Adrien Venport—one of the key figures in establishing the Venport commercial empire—had served as Norma’s liaison with the outside world for many years. In his later days, when his body was failing, Adrien had finally let his mother convince him to go into a spice tank himself where he hoped to transform into a similarly evolved creature, but Adrien was too old and his body too inflexible, and he had drowned in the melange gas. Grieving and withdrawn, Norma Cenva hadn’t been close to another human in years … until Josef had gotten through to her.
Now he stood before her tank, addressed the speakerpatch, then waited, knowing that it sometimes took minutes for her attention to shift so that she noticed him. When Norma finally replied from within the tank, her voice was ethereal, drifting, synthesized. He had no idea what her actual vocal cords sounded like now, or even if they still functioned. “Have you brought more ships?” she asked. Sometimes Norma was perfectly articulate and comprehensible, sometimes distant and obtuse. It all depended on how much attention she gave him.
“We’ve had some successes and some setbacks.”
“Need more ships, more Navigators, more spice. The universe is waiting.”
In response, he said, “We don’t have Navigators for all the vessels currently online. We need more Navigators to guide the ships to haul the spice to create more Navigators.”
Norma paused for a moment, pondering. “I see the conundrum.”
“And more volunteers to undergo the transformation,” Cioba added. That was the true bottleneck. “Few are willing to pay the price.”
“The reward is the entire universe,” Norma said.
“If only it were that simple,” Josef said. She truly didn’t understand.
As more and more vessels were added to the Venport fleet, the greatest need was finding enough volunteers to attempt the Navigator transformation—and having enough of them survive—to serve aboard the new ships. Someday, Josef hoped that all of the Navigator-candidates would be
volunteers; as it was, he needed to work with the material he had available.
He and Cioba had discussed the problem at length, and she had even presented the offer to Reverend Mother Raquella, but so far none of the Sisters had volunteered to transform themselves. How did one induce an intelligent candidate to enclose himself in a small prison filled with toxic amounts of spice gas, and undergo an extreme physical and mental transformation? It was a tough sell.
“I’m doing what I can,” he said. “Please be patient.”
“I am patient,” Norma said. “I can wait forever.” She fell silent, pondering, then said, “I am guiding these candidates through their mental exercises. They will be good Navigators.” Her enlarged eyes and flattened features drifted close to the smeared porthole. “For all the technology that drives our spacefolder ships, the fleet still depends upon a human brain.” Her thoughts wandered, and Josef thought he had lost her attention, but then Norma spoke up again. “Need more ships. Need more Navigators. Need more spice. Therefore, we need more ships.”
Although she understood seemingly impossible things, Norma didn’t grasp the sprawling business interests that Josef had established. Not surprisingly, she also no longer cared about the nuances of politics, which was why Josef had to watch over her.
He spoke up. “There are many ships—former machine ships—that VenHold can refit as passenger and cargo vessels. Whole fleets drift abandoned in space, but it’s a race to find the available ships before the Butlerians do. They destroy the robot craft whenever they find them—vandals and terrorists in the name of their cause.” His voice rose with anger.
“Then stop them,” Norma said. “They should not destroy ships we need.”
“Even Emperor Salvador turns a blind eye when the fanatics destroy the ships,” Cioba said. “I think he’s afraid of the Butlerians.”
“The Emperor should stop them.” Norma fell silent, drifting in her tank. Josef sensed she was deeply troubled. Finally, in her alien voice, she said, “I shall ponder this.” Then she drifted back into the thickening cinnamon mist.
Whether you see mankind’s future as light or dark depends upon how you filter the flow of data streaming back to you.
Salvador Corrino was not having a good day; in fact, he could not recall the last day he’d considered even acceptable. Much of that was his own fault, since his phobias were excessive compared to those of an average person, but the ruler of the vast Imperium was not an ordinary person; everything about him was supposed to be larger than life. While the Emperor suffered for his concerns, he wished he could be as calm and even-keeled as his brother, Roderick.
Today, Salvador was plagued by an infernal, unrelenting headache. He desperately needed to find a reliable doctor, one who did not make him suspicious. No one could match the attentive Dr. Elo Bando, former head of the Suk Medical School, who had truly understood the Emperor’s pains and worries, a medical expert who had offered so many beneficial (though expensive) treatments. If only the damned man hadn’t committed suicide.…
Though the famed school had moved its new headquarters to Parmentier, their old school building remained nearby in Zimia. Salvador requested their best doctors to tend him, but they sent someone different for each of his ailments, each time he experienced a twinge or imagined a new dire physical problem. Doctor after doctor, and none of them could find anything wrong with him. Incompetents! Salvador still hadn’t found a new doctor he liked … and this one—he couldn’t even remember the man’s name—seemed no better than the rest.