Authors: Brian Herbert,Kevin J. Anderson
Roderick gave a peremptory bow. “If you command it.”
Salvador raised his eyebrows. “Do I need to?”
“No.” The two made their way to the parlor.
During the Jihad, Rossak was defended by the psychic powers of the Sorceresses. They were powerful living weapons who could annihilate the mind of a cymek, though at the cost of their own lives. Alas, those days are gone! Today, fewer than a hundred pureblood Sorceresses remain, and those do not have the powers of their predecessors.
The Mysteries of Rossak,
While the many acolytes and Sisters continued their instruction inside the cliff city, and youth proctors taught the children in the nursery chambers, Valya descended into the thick jungles for her daily assignment. An important assignment.
The creaking, wooden lift-car dropped through the thick canopy into the murky, twilight world. As she emerged from the wooden cage and stepped onto the moist ground, Valya inhaled the mixture of rich odors from the soil, plants, and animal life. She followed a path into the dense, silvery-purple foliage. Giant ferns curled and uncurled around her, as if flexing their muscles. From far overhead, thin shafts of filtered sunlight changed from moment to moment as the branches stirred. The leaves rustled, and something skittered through the underbrush; a predatory vine thrashed like a cracked whip, stunning a hairy rodent, then encircling it. Down here, she knew always to be alert.
She arrived at a black metal door mounted in an immense tree. As she had done every day for many months, Valya used a passkey to slide open the entrance, revealing a dim passageway beyond, lit only by yellowish glowglobe lamps. She descended a curving staircase that went beneath the tree’s root system, and presently the passage opened into a series of rooms that had been hewn from the bedrock. In the largest chamber, the old Sorceress Karee Marques performed pharmaceutical experiments with electroscopes, jars of powder, tubes of fluids, centrifuges.
The chambers reminded Valya of the mysterious laboratories of a hermit alchemist, with beakers of bubbling liquids and distillations from obscure jungle fauna, fungi, plants, and roots. Sister Karee was unfathomably ancient, almost as old as Reverend Mother Raquella, but she did not have the same precise control over her body’s biochemistry, so the years hung on her small bony frame like a heavy garment. Karee’s large eyes, however, were a strikingly beautiful green that seemed undiminished by age. She had white hair and high cheekbones.
The old woman acknowledged Valya’s arrival without turning from the chemical studies. Excitement tinged her voice. “I’ve had an idea this morning—a breakthrough, I think. We can use a distillation from the mucus secreted by burrowing slugs. It has deadly paralytic qualities, but if we can mitigate the effects, this compound might be the correct balance to send a Sister to the brink of death, freezing her body’s systems, while still allowing her mind to remain active and focused until the last moment.”
Valya had seen the plump, segmented slugs burrowing through the rotting forest detritus—yet another dangerous creature from Rossak. “An interesting possibility. It might have the correct qualities.” Valya, though, did not feel unrealistic confidence.
Haven’t we tried everything else over the decades?
She was not eager to die in another hopeless test.
Bins held harvested leaves and mushrooms, lichen scraped from rocks, venom milked from large arachnids, squashed pupae of jungle moths. “How soon do you think we’ll be ready to test another volunteer?” Valya asked. Sister Tiana had died, and most unpleasantly, only a week earlier.
The old Sorceress raised her eyebrows, misinterpreting her question. “Are you stepping forward yourself? Do you finally believe you are ready, Sister Valya? I agree that you are more prepared than most of the previous volunteers. If anyone were to have a chance—”
“No, that’s not what I meant,” Valya said quickly. “I merely wanted to point out that we should proceed with the greatest care, or the Sisters will lose hope, given the number of deaths … the failures over the years.”
“Any true Sister will always believe there is hope in human potential,” Karee said, moving a beaker off a warming plate.
Valya had undergone instruction here on Rossak for five years, seeing the Rossak School of the Sisterhood as a way to emerge from the trap of her exiled family, and over the course of her training she had attracted the attention of the Reverend Mother. Valya was always looking for ways to advance herself in the order of women, and now that the Reverend Mother had let her into the inner circle, revealing the tremendous and terrifying secret of the breeding-record computers, she believed that many more doorways were opening for her.
How she wished she could tell Griffin!
Secretly, Valya was also keeping alert for opportunities throughout the Imperium. Normally, her disgraced family name would have slammed those doors shut in her face, but maybe, through the Sisterhood, she would be viewed differently. In the meantime, focusing on her studies here on Rossak, she continued her intensive mental and physical training.
The Reverend Mother hoped Valya would remain on the homeworld of the Sisterhood and devote herself to the order, but the young woman had no intention of remaining trapped here. That would not help House Harkonnen. One option she was considering would be to become one of the missionary Sisters like Sister Arlett, who had recruited her. Perhaps Valya could find a place in a nobleman’s household, or even at the Imperial Court on Salusa Secundus, just like Sister Dorotea—Sister Karee’s previous assistant here.
In the labs, Valya had watched volunteer after volunteer go into the medical beds with clenched jaws and determined gazes, as well as the hubris to believe that they could achieve the impossible and become Reverend Mothers like Raquella, when all others had failed before them. Most died in the ordeal, and those who survived fell into comas, lost memories wholesale, or suffered other forms of brain damage. No, Valya would not volunteer for that.
“We already have more candidates than we need,” Karee Marques said, “but there will be a delay until I am satisfied that a potential drug has a good chance of success.”
Fortunately, the Sorceresses of Rossak had kept the detailed pharmaceutical studies compiled by Aurelius Venport. Back in the days before the Jihad, Venport had amassed a fortune selling unique drugs and chemicals derived from the exotic flora and fauna on Rossak. Because the only apparent way for a Sister to cross the barrier and become a Reverend Mother required a direct mental confrontation at the farthest boundaries of mortality, Karee Marques had diligently set about testing the deadliest drugs that were found in the pharmacopeia.
Valya kept her expression blank, unreadable.
And I do not intend to be one of the volunteers.
She moved to the laboratory equipment, stood beside Karee. “I will do anything to help, you know that,” she said, but she didn’t mean it.
“Somewhere here is the secret,” Karee said. “We just need to keep testing.”
* * *
BY NOW, REVEREND
Mother Raquella no longer felt quite so awkward when the head of the Suk Medical School visited. Even though Dr. Ori Zhoma had been dismissed from the Sisterhood in disgrace, the stern woman had certainly proved her worth in the forty years since, graduating with honors from Suk training and working her way up through the hierarchy of Suk doctors.
Though she was a skilled medical practitioner, Zhoma’s true abilities lay in administration, hard decisions based on emotionless assessments. Since the strange suicide of her predecessor years before, Dr. Zhoma had run the old flagship school in the Imperial capital city, and now she oversaw the expansion of the school’s primary independent campus and headquarters on Parmentier.
Raquella went to meet the Suk administrator personally as her shuttle landed on the polymerized forest canopy. As a young woman, Zhoma had trained on Rossak for two years, and Reverend Mother Raquella had seen great talent and ambition in her. At the time, Zhoma had been interested in the potential of various Rossak drugs to increase strength, speed, endurance, mental acuity. But—a fact that was not discovered until much later—Zhoma also saw the profit potential, and she had started supplying black-market merchants with rare extracts and intensely potent drugs, selling them at exorbitant prices … until she was caught.
When facing the Reverend Mother, Zhoma had tried to rationalize the extracurricular activities by asserting that her actions benefited the Sisterhood. But the voices in Raquella’s head had been skeptical. Zhoma claimed that she had added all the profits to the school’s coffers (and indeed she had), but even that did not excuse her primary transgression: performing an illegal activity in the name of the Sisterhood without Raquella’s knowledge. That could not be tolerated.
Thus, the Reverend Mother had had no choice but to send Zhoma away, though as a courtesy she had not made the reasons public. Because the woman had such potential, Raquella had allowed her to keep her reputation, and Zhoma’s career had not been affected. She had applied to the Suk School, excelled there, and made herself an important and influential person. However, even after all these years, Zhoma craved the acceptance and forgiveness of the Reverend Mother whom she had so disappointed.
The shuttle disembarkation door opened, and a gruff, compact woman in her early sixties emerged. Representing the Suk doctors, Ori Zhoma was humorless, all business; she took care of her body like a factory owner maintained a valuable piece of machinery. She had never been vain and did not see any purpose in making herself attractive; Raquella knew the woman had trouble making friends and doubted she had any romantic ambitions. If not for her indiscretion, Zhoma would have made a talented Sister, in large part because of her control over her emotions.
Zhoma regularly came to Rossak to treat (but more likely, to
) the damaged Sister volunteers who had survived unsuccessful attempts to become Reverend Mothers. Raquella refused to let the comatose or brain-damaged women be sent away to Parmentier, where Suk researchers could prod and analyze them as test subjects, but as a concession, she allowed Zhoma to come here personally. The doctor took samples and ran her tests, but so far she had not been able to cure any of the failed Reverend Mother candidates.
Raquella greeted her in a cordial voice, “Welcome again to Rossak, Dr. Zhoma. The condition of the damaged Sisters remains unchanged, but we appreciate the attention you give them.”
Stepping down the ramp, the doctor hesitated, as if all the rehearsed words had flowed out of her mind. Finally, she said, “The Suk doctors and the Sisterhood have much in common.” Zhoma stepped forward and extended a hand to clasp Raquella’s with brusque formality. “We all work toward the betterment of humanity.”
“The alliance makes sense. I am always open to suggestions as to how the Sisterhood and your doctors can achieve our common goals,” Raquella said. “My connection to Mohandas Suk dates back to before our schools were formed.”
Raquella led the doctor up the path to the cliff city. Inside a special section of caves used as the Sisterhood’s infirmary, she guided Dr. Zhoma to a private ward where four young women lay in vegetative states; in adjacent rooms, five more mentally afflicted women lived in varying states of awareness and normalcy. Two of them spoke in languages that no one could understand, not even Raquella with the countless generations of past memories inside her mind. Two were haunted by terrible nightmares. One, Sister Lila, lived in stony, affectless silence most of the time, but became perfectly lucid for no more than ten minutes each day, during which time she excitedly tried to explain what she had seen and experienced. As soon as her memories began to crystallize, however, Lila fell back into her blank state.
Now, Dr. Zhoma knelt by the four comatose patients, studied their eyes, their pulses, their skin tones. She was competent, efficient, but had no bedside manner; the victims’ vegetative state allowed her to work without distractions. Zhoma took blood samples and moved about as if going through a detailed checklist in her mind.
This section of the caves had been used to care for the Misborn, the children of Rossak Sorceresses who had suffered severe birth defects—which were once common because of the planet’s pervasive mutagens and environmental contaminants. Thinking of the Misborn, Raquella felt a pang for the young deformed Jimmak Tero, a child of Sorceress Ticia Cenva. A long time ago, when Raquella had suffered from the plague, Jimmak took her out to the jungle, tended her, and kept her alive by a miracle. He was dead now—most of the people Raquella had known in those days were long gone, as were so many Sister volunteers who tried to find the same uncharted path that she had traveled.
So many dead … and so little hope of achieving the goal.
As she looked at these victims, she spoke her thoughts to Zhoma, “Could it be I am just an anomaly? What if it’s not possible for anyone else to repeat my transformation? Such an agonizing process, so much death and injury.” She sighed. “Is it worth the risk? Maybe I should stop.”
Zhoma’s cool expression hardened, showing true determination. “Reaching our human potential is always worth the risk, Reverend Mother. Now that our race is free of machine domination, we must improve ourselves, stretching our abilities of mind and body in every possible direction. That is what the Suk doctors believe. That is what your Sisterhood believes, and also the Mentats on Lampadas, and the Swordmasters. And even—if I understand correctly—the mutated Navigators used by the VenHold Spacing Fleet. We can’t back away now. We can’t let our resolve fail. It is our common destiny.”
Raquella’s heart warmed as she heard this, and she smiled at the stocky woman. “Ah, Ori, maybe you should have stayed in the Sisterhood after all.”
It is a trivial thing to say you agree with certain beliefs, but a far greater challenge to have the conviction to act on them.