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The Jesus Incident w-2, Page 2

Frank Herbert

  Oakes shook his head to clear it and felt the ripple of his jowls against his neck. Fat. He had never been supple, never selected for breeding.

  Emond Kingston chose me to succeed him, though. First Ceepee in history not selected by the damned ship.

  Was he going to be replaced by this new Ceepee the ship had chosen to send groundside?

  Oakes sighed.

  Lately, he knew he had turned sallow and heavy.

  Too much demand on my head and not enough on my body.

  Never a lack of couch partners, though. He patted the cushions at his side, remembering.

  I'm fifty, fat and fermented, he thought. Where do I go from here?


  The all-pervading, characterless background of the universe - this is the void. It is not object nor senses. It is the region of illusions.

  - Kerro Panille, Buddha and Avata

  WILD VARIETY marked the naked band of people hobbling and trudging across the open plain between bulwarks of black crags. The red-orange light of a single sun beat down on them from the meridian, drawing purple shadows on the coarse sand and pebbles of the plain. Vagrant winds whisked at random dust pockets, and the band gave wary attention to these disturbances. Occasional stubby plants with glistening silver leaves aligned themselves with the sun in the path of the naked band. The band steered a course to avoid the plants.

  The people of the band showed only remote kinship with their human ancestry. Most of them turned to a tall companion as their leader, although this one did not walk at the point. He had ropey gray arms and a narrow head crowned by golden fuzz, the only suggestion of hair on his slender body. The head carried two golden eyes in bony extrusions at the temples, but there was no nose and only a tiny red circle of mouth. There were no visible ears, but brown skin marked the spots where ears might have been. The arms ended in supple hands, each with three six-jointed fingers and opposable thumb. The name Theriex was tattooed in green across his hairless chest.

  Beside the tall Theriex hobbled a pale and squat figure with no neck to support a hairless bulb of head. Tiny red eyes, set close to a moist hole which trembled with each breath, could stare only where the body pointed. The ears were gaping slits low at each side of the head. Fat and corded arms ended in two fingerless fleshy mittens. The legs were kneeless tubes without feet.

  Others in the band showed a similar diversity. There were heads with many eyes and some with none. There were great coned nostrils and horned ears, dancers' legs and some stumps. They numbered forty-one in all and they huddled close as they walked, presenting a tight wall of flesh to the Pandoran wilderness. Some clung to each other as they stumbled and lurched their way across the plain. Others maintained a small moat of open space. There was little conversation - an occasional grunt or moan, sometimes a plaintive question directed at Theriex.

  "Where can we hide, Ther? Who will take us in?"

  "If we can get to the other sea," Theriex said. "The Avat...."

  "The Avata, yes, the Avata."

  They spoke it as a prayer. A deep rumbling voice in the band took it up then: "All-Human one, All-Avata one."

  Another spoke: "Ther, tell us the story of Avata."

  Theriex remained silent until they were all pleading: "Yes, Ther, tell us the stor.... the story, the stor...."

  Theriex raised a ropey hand for silence, then: "When Avata speaks of beginning, Avata speaks of rock and the brotherhood of rock. Before rock there was sea, boiling sea, and the blisters of light that boiled it. With the boiling and the cooling came the ripping of the moons, the teeth of the sea gone mad. By day all things scattered in the boil, and by night they joined in the relief of sediment and they rested."

  Theriex had a thin whistling voice which carried over the shuffling sounds of the band's passage. He spoke to an odd rhythm which fitted itself to their march.

  "The suns slowed their great whirl and the seas cooled. Some few who joined remained joined. Avata knows this because it is so, but the first word of Avata is rock."

  "The rock, the rock," Theriex's companions responded.

  "There is no growth on the run," Theriex said. "Before rock Avata was tired and Avata was many and Avata had seen only the sea."

  "We must find the Avata se...."

  "But to grip a rock," Theriex said, "to coil around it close and lie still, that is a new dream and a new life - untossed by the ravages of moon, untired. It was vine to leaf then, and in the new confidence of rock came the coil of power and the gas, gift of the sea."

  Theriex tipped his head back to look up at the metallic blue of the sky and, for a few paces, remained silent, then: "Coil of power, touch of touches! Avata captured lightning that day, curled tight around its rock, waiting out the silent centuries in darkness and in fear. Then the first spark arced into the horrible night: 'Rock!'"

  Once more, the others responded, "Rock! Rock! Rock!"

  "Coil of power!" Theriex repeated. "Avata knew rock before knowing Self; and the second spark snapped: I! Then the third, greatest of all: I! Not rock!"

  "Not rock, not rock," the others responded.

  "The source is always with us," Theriex said, "as it is with that which we are not. It is in reference that we are. It is through the other that Self is known. And where there is only one, there is nothing else. From the nothing else comes no reflection of Self, nothing returns. But for Avata there was rock, and because there was rock there was something returned and that something was Self. Thus, the finite becomes infinite. One is not. But we are joined in the infinite, in the closeness out of which all matter comes. Let Avata's rock steady you in the sea!"

  For a time after Theriex fell silent, the band trudged and hobbled onward without complaint. There was a smell of acid burning on the whisking breezes, though, and one of the band with a sensitive nose detected this.

  "I smell Nerve Runners!" he said.

  A shudder ran through them and they quickened their pace while those at the edges scanned the plain around them with renewed caution.

  At the point of the band walked a darkly furred figure with a long torso and stumpy legs which ended in round flat pads. The arms were slim and moved with a snakelike writhing. They ended in two-fingered hands, the fingers muscular, long and twining, as though designed to reach into strange places for mysterious reasons. The ears were motile, large and leathery under their thin coat of fur, pointing now one direction and now another. The head sat on a slender neck, presenting a markedly human face, although flattened and covered with that fine gauze of dark fur. The eyes were blue, heavy-lidded and bulging. They were glassy and appeared to focus on nothing.

  The plain around them, out to the crags about ten kilometers distant, was devoid of motion now, marked only by scattered extrusions of black rock and the stiff-leaved plants making their slow phototropic adjustments to the passage of the red-orange sun.

  The ears of the furred figure at the point suddenly stretched out, cupped and aimed at the crags directly ahead of the band.

  Abruptly, a screeching cry echoed across the plain from that direction. The band stopped as a single organism, caught in fearful waiting. The cry had been terrifyingly loud to carry that far across the plain.

  A near-hysterical voice called from within the band: "We have no weapons!"

  "Rocks," Theriex said, waving an arm at the extruded black shapes all around.

  "They're too big to throw," someone complained.

  "The rocks of the Avata," Theriex said, and his voice carried the tone he had used while lulling his band with the story of Avata.

  "Stay away from the plants," someone warned.

  There was no real need for this warning. They all knew about the plants - most poisonous, all capable of slashing soft flesh. Three of the band already had been lost to the plants.

  Again, that cry pierced the air.

  "The rocks," Theriex repeated.

  Slowly, the band separated, singly and in small groups, moving out to the rocks where they huddled up to
the black surfaces, clinging there, most of them with faces pressed against the darkness.

  "I see them," Theriex said. "Hooded Dashers."

  All turned then to look where Theriex looked.

  "Rock, the dream of life," Theriex said. "To grip rock, to coil around it close and lie still."

  As he spoke, he continued to stare across the plain at the nine black shapes hurtling toward him. Hooded Dashers, yes, many-legged, and with enfolding hoods instead of mouths. The hoods retracted to reveal thrashing fangs. They moved with terrifying speed.

  "We should have taken our chances at the Redoubt with the others!" someone wailed.

  "Damn you, Jesus Lewis!" someone shouted. "Damn you!"

  They were the last fully coherent words from the band as the Hooded Dashers charged at blurring speed onto its scattered members. Teeth slashed, claws raked. The speed of the attack was merciless. Hoods retracted, the Dashers darted and whirled. No victim had a second chance. Some tried to run and were cut down on the open plain. Some tried to dodge around the rocks but were cornered by pairs of demons. It was over in blinks, and the nine Dashers set to feeding. Things groped from beneath the rocks to share the feast. Even nearby plants drank red liquid from the ground.

  While the Dashers fed, subtle movements changed the craggy skyline to the north. Great floating orange bags lifted above the rocky bulwarks there and drifted on the upper winds toward the Dashers. The floaters trailed long tendrils which occasionally touched the plain, stirring up dust. The Dashers saw this but showed no fear.

  High wavering crests rippled along the tops of the bags, adjusting to the wind. A piping song could be heard from them now, like wind through sails accompanied by a metallic rattling.

  When the orange bags were still several kilometers distant, one of the Dashers barked a warning. It stared away from the bags at a boil of stringy tendrils disturbing the plain about fifty meters off. A strong smell of burning acid wafted from the boil. As one, the nine Dashers whirled and fled. The one which had fed on Theriex uttered a high scream as it raced across the plain, and then, quite clearly, it called out: "Theriex!"


  A deliberately poor move chosen at random along the line of plan can completely change the theoretical structure of a game.

  - Bickel quote, Shiprecords

  OAKES PACED his cubby, fretting. It had been several nightside hours since he had last tried to contact Lewis on their implanted communicators. Lewis definitely was out of touch.

  Could it be something wrong at the Redoubt?

  Oakes doubted this. The finest materials were going into that base out on Black Dragon. Lewis was sparing nothing in the construction. It would be impenetrable by any force known to Pandora or Shipme.... any force, excep....

  Oakes stopped his pacing, scanned the plasteel walls of his cubby.

  Would the Redoubt down on Pandora really insulate them from the ship?

  The wine he had drunk earlier was beginning to relax him, clearing the bitter taste from his tongue. His room felt stuffy and isolated even from the ship. Let the damned ship send another Ceepee groundside. Whoever it was would be taken care of in due course.

  Oakes let his body sag onto a couch and tried to forget the latest attack on him by the ship. He closed his eyes and drifted in a half-dream back to his beginning.

  Not quite. Not quite the beginning.

  He did not like to admit the gap. There were things he did not remember. Doubts intruded and the carrier wave of the pellet in his neck distracted him. He sent the nerve signal to turn the thing off.

  Let Lewis try to contact me!

  Oakes heaved an even deeper sigh. Not the beginning - no. There were things about his beginnings that the records did not show. This ship with all the powers of a god would not or could not provide a complete background on Morgan Oakes. And the Ceepee was supposed to have access to everything. Everything!

  Everything except that distant origin somewhere earthside...back on far-away Eart.... long-gone Earth.

  He knew he had been six when his first memory images gelled and stayed with him. He even knew the year - 6001 dating from the birth of the Divine Imhotep.

  Spring. Yes, it had been spring and he had been living in the power center, in Aegypt, in the beautiful city of Heliopolis. From the Britone March to the Underlands of Ind, all was Graeco-Roman peace fed by the Nile's bounty and enforced by the hired troopers of Aegypt. Only in the outlands of Chin and the continents of East Chin far across the Nesian Sea were there open conflicts of nations. Ye.... sprin.... and he had been living with his parents in Heliopolis. Both of his parents were on assignment with the military. This he knew from the records. His parents were perhaps the finest geneticists in the Empire. They were training for a project that was to take over young Morgan's life completely. They were preparing a trip to the stars. This, too, he was told. But that had been many years later, and too late for him to object.

  What he remembered was a man, a black man. He liked to imagine him one of the dark priests of Aegypt that he watched every week on the viewer. The man walked past Morgan's quarters every afternoon. Where he went, and why he went only one way, Morgan never knew.

  The fence around his parents' quarters was much higher than the black man's head. It was a mesh of heavy steel curved outwards and down at the top. Every afternoon Morgan watched the man walk by, and tried to imagine how the man came to be black. Morgan did not ask his parents because he wanted to figure it out for himself.

  One morning at early his father said, "The sun's going nova."

  He never forgot those words, those powerful words, even though he did not know their meaning.

  "It's been kept quiet, but even the Roman Empire can't hide this heat. All the chants of all the priests of Ra won't make one damn whit of difference."

  "Heat?" his mother shot back. "Heat is something you can live in, you can deal with. But thi...." she waved her hand at the large window, "this is only a step away from fire."

  So, he thought, it was the sun made that man black.

  He was ten before he realized that the man who walked past was black from birth, from conception. Still, Morgan persisted in telling the other children in his creche that it was the sun's doing. He enjoyed the secret game of persuasion and deception.

  Ah, the power of the game, even then!

  Oakes straightened the cushion at his back. Why did he think of that black man, now? There had been one curious event, a simple thing that caused a commotion and fixed it in his memory.

  He touched me.

  Oakes could not recall being touched by anyone except his parents until that moment. On that very hot day, he sat outside on a step, cooled by the shade of the roof and the ventilator trained on his back from the doorway. The man walked by, as usual, then stopped and turned back. The boy watched him, curious, through the mesh fence, and the man studied him carefully, as though noticing him for the first time.

  Oakes recalled the sudden jump of his heart, that feeling of a slingshot pulled back, back.

  The man looked around, then up at the top of the fence, and the next thing Oakes knew the man was over the top, walking up to him. The black man stopped, reached out a hesitant hand and touched the boy's cheek. Oakes also reached out, equally curious, and touched the black skin of the man's arm.

  "Haven't you ever seen a little boy before?" he asked.

  The black face widened into a smile, and he said, "Yes, but not a little boy like you."

  Then a sentry jumped on the man out of nowhere and took him away. Another sentry pulled the boy inside and called his father. He remembered that his father was angry. But best of all he remembered the look of wide-eyed wonder on the black man's face, the man who never walked by again. Oakes felt special then, powerful, an object of deference. He had always been someone to reckon with.

  Why do I remember that man?

  It seemed as though he spent all of his private hours asking himself questions lately. Questions led to more questions, l
ed ultimately, daily, to the one question that he refused to admit into his consciousness. Until now.

  He voiced the question aloud to himself, tested it on his tongue like the long-awaited wine.

  "What if the damned ship is God?"


  Human hybernation is to animal hibernation as animal hibernation is to constant wakefulness. In its reduction of life processes, hybernation approached absolute stasis. It is nearer death than life.

  - Dictionary of Science, 101st Edition

  RAJA FLATTERY lay quietly in the hybernation cocoon while he fought to overcome his terrors.

  Ship has me.

  Moody waves confused his memories but he knew several things. He could almost project these things onto the ebon blackness which surrounded him.

  I was Chaplain/Psychiatrist on the Voidship Earthling.

  We were supposed to produce an artificial consciousness. Very dangerous, that.

  And they had produce.... something. That something was Ship, a being of seemingly infinite powers.

  God or Satan?

  Flattery did not know. But Ship had created a paradise planet for its cargo of clones and then had introduced a new concept: WorShip. It had demanded that the human clones decide how they would WorShip.

  We failed in that, too.

  Was it because they were clones, every one of them? They had certainly been expendable. They had known this from the first moments of their childhood awareness on Moonbase.

  Again, fear swept through him.

  I must be resolute, Flattery told himself. God or Satan, whatever this power may be, I'm helpless before it unless I remain resolute.