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The Ascension Factor w-4

Frank Herbert

  The Ascension Factor

  ( WorShip - 4 )

  Frank Herbert

  Bill Ransom

  The Ascension Factor

  Frank Herbert

  Bill Ransom


  When Frank and I began The Jesus Incident series in 1978 we made only one agreement: that our work together would be fun, that at no time would the story interfere with friendship. We shook on that, as fellow natives of the Puyallup valley are accustomed to do. We had been friends for a long time, and intended to keep the friendship. Writing a book together, like buying a car together, was something we approached with due caution.

  It was a little like getting married, this coauthor business. As it turns out, each book in the series was marked by a personal tragedy for one or the other of us, but our stories saved us. Over fifteen years I never laughed so hard or so often with anyone as I did working with Frank. The Ascension Factor, a book that we had planned to enjoy together, weathered the greatest tragedy of them all. The book goes on. I guess that's the way it is with writers.

  Frank worked through the plotting and character development of The Ascension Factor, but circumstance left the last writing chore to me. After all these years it was easy to keep him here looking over my shoulder, muttering one-liners as I wrote up the last of what we'd started. My greatest fear was that I would lose that sense of presence, of good companionship, when this book ended. With Frank, of all people, I should have known better.

  Bill Ransom

  Port Townsend



  The quality of mercy is not strain'd,

  It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

  Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;

  It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:

  'Tis mightiest in the mightiest...

  - William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Vashon Literature Repository

  Jephtha Twain suffered the most exquisite pain for three days, and that was the point. The Warrior's Union thugs were professionals, if he passed out he simply wasted their time. In his three days at their hands he had never passed out. They knew that he was no good to them right from the start. The rest of his agony had been the penalty he paid for wasting their time. When they were through tormenting him at last they hooked him up, as he knew they would, to the obsidian cliff below the high reaches. Subversives were often hooked up to die in full view of the settlement as a lesson - the exact meaning of the lesson was never clear.

  The three from the Warrior's Union hooked him up there in the dark, as they'd taken him in the dark, and Jephtha thought them cowards for this. His left eyelid was less swollen than the right, and he managed to work it open. A pale hint of dawn pried the starry sky away from the black cheek of the sea. Predawn lights of a commuter ferry wallowed at the dark dockside down below him in the settlement. Like the rest, it loaded up the shift changes of workers at Project Voidship.

  Running lights from the submersible ferries flickered the night sea's blackness all the way from the settlement at Kalaloch out to the project's launch tower complex. A maze of organic dikes and rock jetties fanned out both up- and downcoast of Kalaloch, supporting the new aquaculture projects of Merman Mercantile, none of which had hired Jephtha after his fishing gear had been seized and his license revoked. His partner had kept a couple of fish for himself instead of registering them dockside. The Director's "new economy" prohibited this, and the Director's henchmen made a lesson of the both of them.

  Under the opening sky of morning Jephtha felt himself lighten, then separate from his body. He peeled the pain from himself, his self wriggling free of its wounded skin like a molted skreet, and watched the sagging wretch of his flesh from atop a boulder a couple of meters away. This far south, Pandora's days lasted nearly fourteen hours. He wondered how many more breaths he had left in his sack of cracked ribs and pain.

  Marica, he thought, my Marica and our three little wots. The Warrior's Union said they'd hunt them down, too...

  They would think maybe she had something to tell. They would claim that his woman and their three little ones were dangerous, subversive. They would start on the children to make her talk and she could say nothing, she knew nothing. Jephtha squeezed his good eye closed against his blood and shame.

  The Director's "special squad" of the Warrior's Union had pierced Jephtha's chest and back with maki hooks, steel fishhooks with a cruel incurve the size of his thumb. They caught the glimmer of fresh daylight like armor across his chest. The steel snaffles and cable leaders hung to his knees like a kilt. The glitter of the hooks, as well as the smell of his blood, would attract the dasher that would kill him.

  Jephtha had caught thousands of maki on hooks like these, set tens of thousands of these ganions on hundreds of longlines. Most of them hung free now, clinking with his movements or the rare morning breeze. His weight hung from two dozen of them - twelve puncturing the skin of his chest, and twelve through his back. He thought this had a significance, too, but they had not told him what it was. But they had told him what he'd wanted to know for years.

  The Shadows are real! Jephtha played the thought over and over. The Shadows are real!

  Everyone had heard about these Shadows, but no one he knew had ever met one. Now in the last few months had come the mysterious broadcasts that came on the holo or the telly or the radio made by "Shadowbox." Everybody said those were the work of the Shadows. There were stories in every village about their fight to depose the Director, Raja Flattery, and hamstring his hired muscle. The Nightly News reported daily on Shadow activities: detoured supplies, food theft, sabotage. Anything unpopular or harmful to the Director's cause was laid at the Shadows' hatch, including natural disasters. "Shadowbox," using pirated air space and great expertise, reported on the Director.

  Jephtha had whispered around many a hatchway trying to join up with the Shadows, but no word came forward. "Shadowbox" had given him enough hope that he had set out to strike his own blow. He understood, now, that this was how the Shadows worked.

  He'd wanted to destroy the seat of power itself - the main electrical station between the Director's private compound and the sprawling manufacturing settlement adjacent to it, Kalaloch.

  The power station that Jephtha chose was a hydrogen retrieval plant that supplied hydrogen, oxygen and electricity to all of the subcontractors in the Director's space program. Blowing the plant would set Flattery's precious Project Voidship and his orbiting factory on its heels for a while. The poor of the town were used to doing without, Jephtha reasoned. Thousands didn't even have electricity. It would be this new Voidship project and Flattery who would be most crippled. He should have known that the Director's security had already thought of that.

  The interrogation had been very old-fashioned, as most of them were. He'd been caught easily and forced to stand naked under a hood for three days while being tortured for nothing. Now a host of steel snaffles clinked against hooks whenever any of his muscles moved. His wounds, for the most part, had stopped bleeding. That just made the flies sting him more. Two poisonous flatwings crawled his left leg, fluttering their wings in some ritual dance, but neither bit.

  Dashers, he prayed. If it's anything, let it be dashers and quick. That was what they'd hung him out there for - dasher bait. The hooded dasher would strike him hard, as is their habit, then it would get hung up on the maki hooks and snare itself. The hide would bring a pretty price in the village market. It was an amusement to the security guards, and he'd heard them planning to split the change they'd get for the hide. He didn't want to be nibbled to death, a dasher would accommodate him nicely. His mouth was so dry from thirst that hi
s lips split every time he coughed.

  In this hungry downslide of his life Jephtha had dared to hope for two things: to join up with the Shadows, and to glimpse Her Holiness, Crista Galli. He had tried his best with the Shadows. Here, chained to the rocks overlooking the Director's compound, Jephtha watched the stirrings of the great household through his darkening vision.

  One of them might be her, he thought. He was lightheaded, and he puffed his chest against the hooks and thought, If I were a Shadow, I'd get her out of there.

  Crista Galli was the holy innocent, a mysterious young woman born deep in the wild kelp beds twenty-four years ago. When Flattery's people blew up a rogue kelp bed five years back, Crista Galli surfaced with the debris. How she'd been raised by the kelp underwater and delivered back to humankind was one of those mysteries that Jephtha and his family accepted simply as "miracle."

  It was rumored that Crista Galli held the hope for Pandora's salvation. People claimed that she would feed the hungry, heal the sick, comfort the dying. The Director, a Chaplain/Psychiatrist, kept her locked away.

  "She needs protection," Flattery had said. "She grew up with the kelp, she needs to know what it is to be human."

  How ironic that Flattery would set out to teach her how to be human. Jephtha knew now, with the clarity of his pain-transcendence, that she was the Director's prisoner down there as much as all Pandorans were his slaves. Except for now, at the base of the high reaches, Jephtha's chains had been invisible: hunger chains, propaganda chains, the chain of fear that rattled in his head like cold teeth.

  He prayed that the security would not find Marica and the wots. The settlement sprawled, people hid people like fish among fish.


  He shook his head, clink-clinking the terrible hooks and snaffles. He felt nothing except the cool breeze that wafted up from morning low tide. It brought the familiar iodine scent of kelp decomposing on the beach.

  There! At that port high in the main buildin...

  The glimpse was gone, but Jephtha's heart raced. His good eye was not focusing and a new darkness was upon him, but he was sure that the form he'd seen had been the pale Crista Galli.

  She can't know of this, he thought. If she knew what a monster Raja Flattery is, and she could do it, she would destroy him. Surely if she knew, she would save us all.

  His thoughts again turned to Marica and the wots. The thoughts were not so much thoughts as dreams. He saw her with the children, hand in hand, traversing an upcoast field in the sunlight. The single sun was bright but not scorching, there were no bugs. Their bare feet were cushioned by the fleshy blossoms of a thousand kinds of flower...

  A dasher shriek from somewhere below jerked him out of his dream. He knew there was no field without bugs, nowhere on Pandora to stroll barefoot through blossoms. He knew that Vashon security and the Warrior's Union were known for their persistence, their efficiency, their ruthlessness. They were after his wife and their children, and they would find them. His last hope was that the dasher would find him before they hooked what was left of Marica up here by his side.


  Again we have let another Chaplain/Psychiatrist kill tens of thousands of us - Islander and Merman alike. This new C/P, Raja Flattery, calls himself "the Director," but he will see. We have kissed the ring and bared the throat for the last time.

  - First Shadowbox broadcast, 5 Bunratti 493

  First light through the single plasma-glass pane stroked a plain white pillow with its rosy fingers. It outlined the sparse but colorful furnishings of this cubby in shades of gray. The cubby itself, though squarely on land and squarely gridded to a continent, reflected traditions of a culture freely afloat for nearly five centuries on Pandora's seas.

  These Islanders, the biowizards of Pandora, grew everything. They grew their cups and bowls, the famous chairdogs, insulation, bondable organics, rugs, shelves and the islands themselves. This cubby was organically furnished, and under the old law warranted a heft of supply chits that converted easily to food coupons. Black-market coupons were a cheap enough price for the Director to pay to assimilate the Islander culture that had been dashed to the rocks the day he splashed down on the sea.

  As the grip of dawn strengthened into morning it further brightened the single wall-hanging of clasped hands that enriched this small cubby. Red and blue fishes swam the border, their delicate fins interlacing broad green leaves of kelp. Orange fin and blue leaf joined at the foot of the hanging to form a stylized Oracle. The tight stitch of the pattern and its crisp colors all rippled with the progress of dawn. A sleeper's chest rose and fell gently on the bed beneath them.

  The night and its shadows shrank back from the plasma-glass window at the head of the bed. Islanders had always enjoyed the light and in building their islands they let it in wherever they could. They persisted in light, even though most of them were now solidly marooned on land. In their undersea dwellings Mermen put pictures on their walls of the things they wall out - Islanders preferred the light, the breezes, the smells of life and the living. This cubby was small and spare, but light.

  This was a legal cubby, regularly inspected, a part of the shopkeeper's quarters. It was a second-floor street room above the new Ace of Cups coffee shop at Kalaloch harbor. A huge white coffee cup swung from a steel rod beneath the window.

  Almost synchronous with the sleeper's breathing came the slup slup of waves against the bulkhead below. Respirations caught, then resumed at the occasional splashings of a waking squawk and the wind-chime effect of sail riggings that clapped against a host of masts.

  Dawn brightened the room enough to reveal a seated figure beside the bed. The posture was one of alert stillness. This stillness was broken by an occasional move of cup to mouth, then back to the knee. The figure sat, back to the wall, beside the plaz and facing the hatch. First light glinted from a shining, intricately inlaid Islander cup of hardwood and mother-of-pearl. The hand that held the cup was male, neither delicate nor calloused.

  The figure leaned forward once, noting the depth of the sleeper's odd, open-eyed slumber. The progress of light across the bay outside their room was reflected in the hardening of shadows inside, and their relentless crawl.

  The watcher, Ben Ozette, pulled the cover higher over the sleeper's bare shoulder to ward off morning dampness. The pupils in her green irises stayed wide with the onset of dawn. He closed her eyes for her with his thumb. She didn't seem to mind. The shudder that passed over him uncontrollably was not due to the morning chill.

  She was a picture of white - white hair, eyelashes, eyebrows and a very fair porcelain skin. Her shaggy white hair was cropped around her face, falling nearly to her shoulders in the back. It was a perfect frame to those green, bright eyes. His hand strayed to the pillow, then back.

  His profile in the light revealed the high cheekbones, aquiline nose and high eyebrows of his Merman ancestry. In his years as a reporter for Holovision, Ben Ozette had become famous, his face as familiar planetwide as that of a brother or a husband. Listeners worldwide recognized his voice immediately. On their Shadowbox broadcasts, however, he became writer and cameramaster and Rico got out in the lights - in disguise, of course. Now their family, friends, coworkers would feel the snap of Flattery's wrath.

  They hadn't exactly had time to plan. During their weekly interviews, they both noticed how everyone, including compound security, stayed well out of microphone range as they taped. The next time they walked the grounds as they taped, interviewing with gusto. Then last night they simply walked out. Rico did the rest. The prospect of being hunted by Flattery's goons dried Ben's mouth a little. He sipped a little more water.

  Maybe it's true, maybe she's a construction, he thought. She's too perfectly beautiful to be an accident.

  If the Director's memos were right, she was a construction, something grown by the kelp, not someone born of a human. When dredged up at sea she was judged by the examining physician to be "a green-eyed albino female, about twenty, in respirator
y distress secondary to ingestion of sea water; agitated, recent memory excellent, remote memory judged to be poor, possibly absent..."

  It had been five years since she washed out of the sea and into the news, and in that five years Flattery had allowed no one but his lab people near her. Ben has asked to do the story out of curiosity, and wound up pursuing more than he'd bargained for. He'd learned to hate the Director, and as he watched Crista's fitful sleep, he wasn't the least bit sorry.

  He had to admit that, yes, he knew from the first that it had always been a matter of time. He'd fought Flattery and Holovision too openly and too long.

  A recent Shadowbox accused Holovision of being a monopoly of misinformation, Flattery's propaganda agent that would not regain credibility until it became worker-owned. Ben had leveled the same attack at the production assistant the previous day.

  Ben found himself being preempted by propagandistic little specials that Flattery's technicians were grinding out. Ben and Rico had bought or built their own cameras and laserbases to minimize the company's intimidation and Flattery's interference. Now they had full-time, nonpaying jobs as air pirates with Shadowbox.

  And fugitives, he thought.

  Ben Ozette eased back into the old chairdog and let the sleeper lie. Of all the deadliness on Pandora, this sleeper could be the most deadly. It was rumored that people had died at her touch, and this was not just the Director's professional rumor mill. Ben had dared touch her, and he was not yet one of the dead. It was rumored she was very, very bright.

  He whispered her name under his breath.

  Crista Galli.

  Her breathing skipped, she sniffed once, twice and settled down.

  Crista Galli had green eyes. Even now they opened ever so slightly, turning toward the sun, visible but not waking.