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The Ascension Factor, Page 2

Frank Herbert

  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 respiratory 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 had 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. 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.


  Ben’s last love, his longest love, had brown eyes. She had also been his only love, practically speaking. That was Beatriz. Her coffee-colored eyes became vivid to him now against the shadows. Yes, Beatriz. They were still good friends, and she would take this hard. Ben’s heart jumped a beat whenever their wakes crossed, and they crossed often at HoloVision.

  Beatriz took on her series about Flattery’s space program, she was away for weeks at a time. Ben freelanced docudramas on earthquake survivors, Islander relocation camps and an in-depth series on the kelp. His latest project featured Crista Galli and her life since her rescue in the kelp.

  Flattery agreed to the series and Ben agreed to confine the material to her rescue and subsequent rehabilitation. This project led him into Raja Flattery’s most sacred closets, and further away from Beatriz. The HoloVision rumor mill claimed that she and the Orbiter Commander, Dwarf MacIntosh, were seeing each other lately. Through his own choice Ben and Beatriz had been separated for nearly a year. He knew she’d find someone else eventually. Now that it was real he decided he’d better get used to it.

  Beatriz Tatoosh was the most stunning correspondent on HoloVision, and one of the toughest. Like Ben, she did field work for HoloVision Nightly News. She also hosted a weekly feature on the Director’s “Project Voidship,” a project of great religious and economic controversy. Beatriz championed the project, Ben remained a vocal opponent. He was glad he’d kept her away from the Shadowbox plan. At least she didn’t have to be on the run.

  Those dark eyes of hers.…

  Ben snapped himself alert and shook off the vision of Beatriz. Her wide eyes and broad smile dissolved in the sunrise.

  The woman who slept, Crista Galli, put quite a stutter into his heartbeat the first time he saw her. Though she was young, she had more encyclopedic knowledge than anyone he’d ever met. Facts were her thing. About her own life, her nearly twenty years down under, she apparently knew very little. Ben’s agreement with Flattery prohibited much probing of this while they were inside the Preserve.

  She had dreams of value and so he let her dream. He would ask about them when she woke, keep them with his notes, and the two of them would make a plan.

  This, he realized, was something of a dream in itself. There was already a plan, and he would follow the rest of it as soon as he was told what it was.

  Today for the first time she would see what the people had made of the myth that was Crista Galli, the holy being that had been kept away from them for so long. She could not know, closed away from humans as she’d been for all of her twenty-four years, what it meant that she had become the people’s god. He hoped that, when the crunch came, she would be a merciful god.

  Someone entered the building below and Ben tensed, setting his cup aside. He patted his jacket pocket where the weight of his familiar recorder had been replaced by Rico’s old lasgun. There was the rush of water and the chatter of a grinder downstairs. A rich coffee fragrance wafted up to him, set his stomach growling. He sipped more water from the cup and half-relaxed.

  Ben felt his memories pale with the light, but the light did not still his unease. Things were out of control in the world, that had made him uneasy for years. He had a chance to change the world, and he wasn’t letting go of it.

  Flattery’s totalitarian fist was something that Beatriz had refused to see. Her dreams lay out among the stars and she would believe almost anything if it would take her there. Ben’s dreams lay at his feet. He believed that Pandorans could make this the best of all worlds, once the Director moved aside. Now that things were out of control in his personal life it made him, for the first time, a little bit afraid.

  Ben was glad for the light. He reminisced in the dark but he always felt he thought best in the light. The fortune, the future of millions of lives lay sleeping in this cubby. Crista could be either the savior of humanity or its destroying angel.

  Or neither.

  Shadowbox would do its best to give her the chance at savior. Ben and Crista Galli stood at the vortex of the two conflicts dividing Pandora: Flattery’s handhold on their throats, and the Avata/Human standoff that kept it there.

  Crista Galli had been born in Avata, the kelp. She represented a true Avata/Human mix, reputed to be the sole survivor of a long line of poets, prophets and genetic tinkering.

  She had been educated by the kelp’s store of genetic memories, human and otherwise. She knew without being taught. She’d heard echoes of the best and the worst of humanity fed to her mind for nearly twenty years. There were some other echoes, too.

  The Others, the thoughts of Avata itself, those were the echoes that the Director feared.

  “The kelp’s sent her to spy on us,” Flattery was heard to have said early on. “No telling what it’s done to her subconscious.”

  Crista Galli was one of the great mysteries of genetics. The faithful claimed she was a miracle made flesh.

  “I did it myself,” she told him during their first interview, “as we all do.”

  Or, as she put it in their last interview: “I made good selections from the DNA buffet.”

  Flattery’s fear had kept Crista under what he called “protective custody” for the past five years while the people clamored worldwide for a glimpse. The Director’s Vashon Security Force provided the protection. It was the Vashon Security Force that hunted them now.

  She could be a monster, Ben thought. Some kind of time bomb
set by Avata to go off … when? Why?

  The great body of kelp that some called “Avata” directed the flow of all currents and, therefore, all shipping planetwide. It calmed the ravages of Pandora’s two-sun system, making land and the planet itself possible. Ben, and many others, believed that Avata had a mind of its own.

  Crista Galli stirred, tucked herself farther under the quilt and resumed her even breathing. Ben knew that killing her now while she slept might possibly save the world and himself. He had heard that argument among the rabid right, among those accustomed to working with Flattery.


  But Ozette believed now that she could save the world for Avata and human alike, and for this he vowed to guard her every breath—for this, and for the stirrings of love that strained in old traces.

  Spider Nevi and his thugs hunted the both of them now. Ben had wooed her away from the Director’s very short leash, but Crista did the rest. Crista and Rico. Ben knew well that the leash would become a lash, a noose for himself and possibly for her next time and he had better see to it that there was no next time. Flattery had made it clear that there was nothing in the world more deadly, more valuable than Crista Galli. The man who’d made off with her wouldn’t be lightly spared.

  Ben was forty now. At fifteen he’d been plunged into war with the sinking of Guemes Island. Many thousands died that day, brutally slashed, burned, drowned at the attack of a huge Merman submersible, a kelp-trimmer that burst through the center of the old man-made island, lacerating everything in its path. Ben had been rimside when the sudden lurch and collapse sent him tumbling into the pink-frothed sea.

  The years since and the horrors he had seen gave him a wisdom of sorts, an instinct for trouble and the escape hatch. This wisdom was only wisdom as long as he kept alive, and he remembered how easily he had thrown instinct out the porthole the time he fell in love with Beatriz. He had not thought that could happen again until the day he met Crista Galli, a meeting that had been half- motivated at the possibility of seeing Beatriz somewhere inside Flattery’s compound. Crista had whispered, “Help me,” that day, and while swimming in her green-eyed gaze he’d said, simply, “Yes.”

  In her head sleeps the Great Wisdom, he thought. If she can unlock it without destroying herself, she can help us all.

  Even if it wasn’t true, Ben knew that Flattery thought it was true, and that was good enough. She rolled over, still asleep, and turned her face up at the prospect of the dim light.

  Keep you away from light, they say, he thought. Keep you away from kelp, keep you away from the sea. Don’t touch you. In his back pocket he carried the precautionary instructions in case he accidentally touched her bare skin.

  And what would Operations think if they knew I’d kissed her? He chuckled, and marveled at the power beside him in that room.

  The Director had already seen to it that no interview of Crista Galli would ever be aired. Now, at Flattery’s direction, HoloVision had lured Beatriz with an extra hour of air time a week glorifying Flattery’s “Project Voidship.”

  Beatriz is running blind, he thought. She loves the idea of exploring the void so much that she’s ignored the price that Flattery’s exacting.

  Flattery’s fear of Crista’s relationship with the kelp had kept her under guard. The Director sequestered her “for her own protection, for study, for the safety of all humankind.” Despite weekly access to Flattery’s private compound, Beatriz showed no interest in Crista Galli. She lobbied his support, however, when Ben had requested the interviews.

  Maybe she hoped to see more of me, too.

  Beatriz was wedded to her career, just as Ben was, and something as nebulous as a career made pretty intangible competition. Ben couldn’t understand how Beatriz let the Crista Galli story slip through her fingers. Today he was very happy that she had.

  Chapter 3

  Fire smolders in a soul more surely than it does under ashes.

  —Gaston Bachelard, The Psychoanalysis of Fire

  Kalan woke up from his nestling spot between his mother’s large breasts to loud curses and a scuffle a few meters down The Line. The chime overhead tolled five, the same as his fingers, same as his years. He did not look in the direction of the scuffle because his mother told him it was bad luck to look at people having bad luck. A pair of line patrolmen appeared with their clubs. There were the thudding noises again and the morning quieted down.

  He and his warm mother stayed wrapped in her drape, the same one that had shaded them the day before. This morning, at the chime of five, they had been in The Line for seventeen hours. His mother warned him how long it would be. At noon the previous day Kalan had looked forward to seeing the inside of the food place but after everything he’d seen in The Line he just wanted to go home.

  They had slept the last few hours at the very gates of the food place. Now he heard footsteps behind the gates, the metallic unclick of locks.

  His mother brushed off their clothes and gathered all of their containers. He already wore the pack she’d made him, he hadn’t taken it off since they turned in their scrap. Kalan wanted to be ready when she negotiated rice, because carrying the rice back home was his job. They had made it right up to the warehouse door at midnight, then had it locked in their faces. His mother helped him read the sign at the door: “Closed for cleaning and restocking 12–5.” He wanted to start his job carrying the rice now so he could be going home.

  “Not yet.” His mother tugged his shirttail to restrain him. “They’re not ready. They’d just beat us back.”

  An older woman behind Kalan clucked her tongue and collected a breath on an inward hiss.

  “Look there,” she whispered, and lifted a bony finger to point at the figure of a man trotting down the street. He looked backward toward the docks more than forward, so he stumbled a lot, and he ran with his hands over his ears. As he ran by he crouched, wild-eyed, as though everyone in The Line would eat him. As two of the security moved to cross the street, the short young man skittered away down the street uttering frightened, out-of-breath cries that Kalan didn’t understand.

  “Driftninny,” the old woman said. “One of those family islands must’ve grounded. It’s hardest for them.” She raised her reedy voice to lecture pitch: “The unfathomable wrath of Ship will strike the infidel Flattery …”

  “Shaddup!” a security barked, and she muttered herself to silence.

  Then there arose in The Line a grumbled discussion of the difficulties of adjustment, the same kind of talk that Kalan had heard muttered around the home fire when they first settled here from the sea. He didn’t remember the sea at all, but his mother told him stories about how beautiful their little island was, and she named all the generations that had drifted their island before Kalan was born.

  The Line woke up and stretched and passed the word back in a serpentine ripple: “Keys up.” “Hey, keys are up!” “Keys, sister. Keys up.”

  His mother stood, and leaned against the wall to balance herself as she strapped on her pack. “Hey, sister!”

  A scar-faced security reached between Kalan and his mother and tapped the side of her leg with his stick.

  “Off the warehouse. C’mon, you know better …”

  She stepped right up to his nose as she shouldered her carryall, but she didn’t speak. He did not back down. Kalan had never seen anyone who didn’t back down to his mother.

  “First tickets up, alphabetical order, left to right,” he said. This time he tapped his stick against her bottom. “Get moving.”

  Then they were inside a press of bodies and through the gates, into a long narrow room. Where Kalan had expected to see the food place, he saw instead a wall with a line of stalls. An attendant and a security armed with stunstick flanked each stall, and out of each one jutted what he thought must be the nose or tongue of some great demon.

  His mother hurried him and their things to the farthest stall.

  “Those are conveyer belts,” she explained. “They go way ba
ck into the building and bring out our order to us and they drop it here. We give our order and our coupons to this woman and someone inside fetches it for us.”

  “But I thought we could go inside.”

  “I can’t take you inside,” she said. “Some things we can get on the way home when the market opens. I’ll take you around to see all the booths and vendors …”


  His mother handed the list to the guard, who handed it to the attendant. The attendant had only one eye, and she had to hold the list close to her face to read it. Slowly, she crossed off certain items. Kalan couldn’t see which ones. He couldn’t read everything on the list, but his mother had read it to him and he knew everything by where it was. He could see that about half of what they wanted was crossed out. The attendant typed the remainder of the list onto a board. It hummed and clicked and then they waited for their food to come down the great belt out of the wall.

  Kalan could stand at the very end of the belt and look along its length, but it didn’t give him a very good view of the insides of the food place. He saw lots of people and lots of stacks of food, most of it packaged.

  His mother told him they would get their fish from a vendor outside. He thought it funny, his father was a fisherman but they couldn’t eat his fish, they had to buy it from vendors like everyone else. One man who had fished with his father for two years disappeared. Kalan heard his parents talking, and they said it was because he smuggled a few fish home instead of turning them all in at the docks.

  The first package off the belt was his rice, wrapped in a package of pretty green paper from the Islanders. It was heavier than he thought five kilos would be. His mother helped him slip the package inside his backpack, a perfect fit.