Dune Messiah by Frank Herbert

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The Fremen see her as the Earth Figure, a demigoddess whose special charge is to protect the tribes through her powers of violence. She is Reverend Mother to their Reverend Mothers. To pilgrims who seek her out with demands that she restore virility or make the barren fruitful, she is a form of antimentat. She feeds on that proof that the “analytic” has limits. She represents ultimate tension. She is the virgin-harlot — witty, vulgar, cruel, as destructive in her whims as a coriolis storm. -St. Alia of the Knife as taken from The Irulan Report

Alia stood like a black-robed sentinel figure on the south platform of her temple, the Fane of the Oracle which Paul’s Fremen cohorts had built for her against a wall of his stronghold. She hated this part of her life, but knew no way to evade the temple without bringing down destruction upon them all. The pilgrims (damn them!) grew more numerous every day. The temple’s lower porch was crowded with them. Vendors moved among the pilgrims, and there were minor sorcerers, haruspices, diviners, all working their trade in pitiful imitation of Paul Muad’dib and his sister. Red and green packages containing the new Dune Tarot were prominent among the vendors’ wares, Alia saw. She wondered about the tarot. Who was feeding this device into the Arrakeen market? Why had the tarot sprung to prominence at this particular time and place? Was it to muddy Time? Spice addiction always conveyed some sensitivity to prediction. Fremen were notoriously fey. Was it an accident that so many of them dabbled in portents and omens here and now? She decided to seek an answer at the first opportunity. There was a wind from the southeast, a small leftover wind blunted by the scarp of the Shield Wall which loomed high in these northern reaches. The rim glowed orange through a thin dust haze underlighted by the late afternoon sun. It was a hot wind against her cheeks and it made her homesick for the sand, for the security of open spaces. The last of the day’s mob began descending the broad greenstone steps of the lower porch, singly and in groups, a few pausing to stare at the keepsakes and holy amulets on the street vendors’ racks, some consulting one last minor sorcerer. Pilgrims, supplicants, townfolk, Fremen, vendors closing up for the day — they formed a straggling line that trailed off into the palm-lined avenue which led to the heart of the city. Alia’s eyes picked out the Fremen, marking the frozen looks of superstitious awe on their faces, the half-wild way they kept their distance from the others. They were her strength and her peril. They still captured giant worms for transport, for sport and for sacrifice. They resented the offworld pilgrims, barely tolerated the townfolk of graben and pan, hated the cynicism they saw in the street vendors. One did not jostle a wild Fremen, even in a mob such as the ones which swarmed to Alia’s Fane. There were no knifings in the Sacred Precincts, but bodies had been found . . . later. The departing swarm had stirred up dust. The flinty odor came to Alia’s nostrils, ignited another pang of longing for the open bled. Her sense of the past, she realized, had been sharpened by the coming of the ghola. There’d been much pleasure in those untrammeled days before her brother had mounted the throne — time for joking, time for small things, time to enjoy a cool morning or a sunset, time . . . time . . . time . . . Even danger had been good in those days — clean danger from known sources. No need then to strain the limits of prescience, to peer through murky veils for frustrating glimpses of the future. Wild Fremen said it well: “Four things cannot be hidden — love, smoke, a pillar of fire and a man striding across the open bled.” With an abrupt feeling of revulsion, Alia retreated from the platform into the shadows of the Fane, strode along the balcony which looked down into the glistening opalescence of her Hall of Oracles. Sand on the tiles rasped beneath her feet. Supplicants always tracked sand into the Sacred Chambers! She ignored attendants, guards, postulants, the Qizarate’s omnipresent priest-sycophants, plunged into the spiral passage which twisted upward to her private quarters. There, amidst divans, deep rugs, tent hangings and mementos of the desert, she dismissed the Fremen amazons Stilgar had assigned as her personal guardians. Watchdogs, more likely! When they had gone, muttering and objecting, but more fearful of her than they were of Stilgar, she stripped off her robe, leaving only the sheathed crysknife on its thong around her neck, strewed garments behind as she made for the bath. He was near, she knew — that shadow-figure of a man she could sense in her future, but could not see. It angered her that no power of prescience could put flesh on that figure. He could be sensed only at unexpected moments while she scanned the lives of others. Or she came upon a smoky outline in solitary darkness when innocence lay coupled with desire. He stood just beyond an unfixed horizon, and she felt that if she strained her talents to an unexpected intensity she might see him. He was there — a constant assault on her awareness: fierce, dangerous, immoral. Moist warm air surrounded her in the tub. Here was a habit she had learned from the memory-entities of the uncounted Reverend Mothers who were strung out in her awareness like pearls on a glowing necklace. Water, warm water in a sunken tub, accepted her skin as she slid into it. Green tiles with figures of red fish worked into a sea pattern surrounded the water. Such an abundance of water occupied this space that a Fremen of old would have been outraged to see it used merely for washing human flesh. He was near. It was lust in tension with chastity, she thought. Her flesh desired a mate. Sex held no casual mystery for a Reverend Mother who had presided at the sietch orgies. The tau awareness of her other-selves could supply any detail her curiosity required. This feeling of nearness could be nothing other than flesh reaching for flesh. Need for action fought lethargy in the warm water. Abruptly, Alia climbed dripping from the bath, strode wet and naked into the training chamber which adjoined her bedroom. The chamber, oblong and skylighted, contained the gross and subtle instruments which toned a Bene Gesserit adept into ultimate physical and mental awareness / preparedness. There were mnemonic amplifiers, digit mills from lx to strengthen and sensitize fingers and toes, odor synthesizers, tactility sensitizers, temperature gradient fields, pattern betrayers to prevent her falling into detectable habits, alpha-wave-response trainers, blink-synchronizers to tone abilities in light / dark / spectrum analysis . . . In ten-centimeter letters along one wall, written by her own hand in mnemonic paint, stood the key reminder from the Bene Gesserit Creed: “Before us, all methods of learning were tainted by instinct. We learned how to learn. Before us, instinct-ridden researchers possessed a limited attention span — often no longer than a single lifetime. Projects stretching across fifty or more lifetimes never occurred to them. The concept of total muscle / nerve training had not entered awareness.” As she moved into the training room, Alia caught her own reflection multiplied thousands of times in the crystal prisms of a fencing mirror swinging in the heart of a target dummy. She saw the long sword waiting on its brackets against the target, and she thought: Yes! I’ll work myself to exhaustion — drain the flesh and clear the mind. The sword felt right in her hand. She slipped the crysknife from its sheath at her neck, held it sinister, tapped the activating stud with the sword tip. Resistance came alive as the aura of the target shield built up, pushing her weapon slowly and firmly away. Prisms glittered. The target slipped to her left. 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.”

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Categories: Herbert, Frank