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The Ascension Factor, Page 3

Frank Herbert

  Suddenly there were shouts from all around them at once. He and his mother were knocked down and they curled together for protection under the lip of the conveyer belt. Heavy doors slid down to close the opening over each belt and the larger gates that they’d come through clanged shut. A mob had rushed the warehouse and the security was battling them off.

  A dozen or more burst through before the gate was shut. “We’re hungry now!” one of them shouted. “We’re hungry now!”

  They fought with the guards and Kalan saw blood puddle the deck beside him. The men from the mob carried strange-looking weapons—sharpened pieces of metal with tape wrapped for a handle, sharpened pieces of wire. People furiously slashed and poked and clubbed each other. The Line people like Kalan and his mother curled up wherever they could.

  One of the looters grabbed Kalan’s pack but the boy held on tight. The man swung the pack up and snapped it like a whip, but Kalan still held on. The man’s sunken-eyed face was spattered with blood from a cut over his nose, his gasping breath reeked of rotten teeth.

  “Let go, boy, or I’ll cut you.” Kalan had a good grip with both hands, and he kept it. A guard struck the looter on the back of his neck with a stunstick set on high. Kalan felt the tiniest tingle of it transmitted down the man’s hand to the bag to Kalan. The man dropped with an “oof,” then he didn’t move any more than the bag of rice.

  Kalan’s mother grabbed him and hugged him as the guards clubbed the rest of the looters unconscious. He tried not to look at the pulpy faces and splatterings of blood, but it seemed they were everywhere. As he burrowed his face deep between his mother’s breasts, he felt her weeping.

  She stroked his head and wept quietly, and he heard the security dragging off the bodies, beating some of them who were coming around.

  “Oh, babe,” his mother cried and whispered, “this is no place for you. This is no place for anybody.”

  Kalan ignored the barking of guards around them and concentrated on his mother’s softness, and on the tight grip he kept on their rice.

  Chapter 4

  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, 155th edition

  The Director, Raja Flattery, woke once again with a scream in his throat. The nightmare tonight was typical. A tenaculous mass had snatched his head and wrenched it off his shoulders. It dismembered his body but it held his head in its own slithering members so that he could watch the action. The tentacles became fingers, a woman’s fingers, and when they pulled the meat from his body’s bones there was only a sound like a match flaring in a stairwell. He woke up trying to gather his flesh and reassemble it onto the bone.

  Nightmares like this one had dogged him throughout the twenty-five years since the hybernation ordeal. He had not wanted to admit it, but it was true that they were worse since the incident with his shipmate, Alyssa Marsh. There was that pattern, too. … Night after night he felt the raw pain in each muscle anew as something pulled his veins and fibers apart. His early training as a Chaplain/Psychiatrist on Moonbase had been little help this time. The physician had given up trying to heal himself.

  Get used to it, he told himself. Looks like it’s going to be here for a while.

  Even in its after-fright reflection, his face in the cubbyside mirror oozed disdain. His upraked black eyebrows raked upward even further, adding to the appearance of disdain. He felt he wore that look well, he would remember to use it.

  What color were her eyes?

  He couldn’t remember. Brown, he guessed. Everything about Alyssa Marsh was becoming indistinct as sun-bleached newsprint. He’d thought she would become unimportant, as well.

  Flattery’s brown eyes stared down their own reflection. His attention was caught by faint flickerings of colored lights through the plaz from a kelp bed beyond his cubby. It was a much more mature stand than he’d suspected. Early studies debated whether the kelp communicated by such lights.

  If so, to whom?

  At the Director’s orders, all kelp stands linked to Current Control were pruned back at the first sign of the lights. A safety precaution.

  After the lights, that’s when the trouble starts.

  He was sure that that patch had been pruned just a week ago at his directive. Both Marsh and MacIntosh had harped on the kelp so much that Flattery had stopped listening to them. The one thing that both of them said that pricked his ears was their common reference to the kelp’s recent growth: “Explosive.” They had both showed him the exponential function at work on the graphs, but he had not appreciated their alarm until now. Flattery dispatched a memo to have this stand of kelp pruned today.

  Beyond the kelp bed sprawled the greater lights of Kalaloch where bleary-eyed commuters already lined up for the Project ferry, and The Line was stirring at midtown. If he were outside now he might hear the thankless clank of mill machinery or the occasional blast of an explosive weld.

  Crista Galli, he thought, and glanced at the time. Only an hour since he’d fallen asleep. Wherever she was, she and that Ozette, they wouldn’t dare move until curfew lifted. Now is when it would be easy for them. Now when the roadways fill with people for the day, they will be bodies in a throng, anonymous.…

  A steady stream of dirtbaggers found their way to Kalaloch every day. He would order the press to quit calling them “refugees” so that he could deal more directly with them. Now that he had HoloVision under control, he could focus on wiping out this maverick broadcast that called itself “Shadowbox.” He knew in his gut that Ozette was the prong of this most annoying thorn, a prong that Flattery was going to enjoy blunting.

  Through the plaz the Director could make out the dull glow of a ring of fires from one of the dirtbag camps a little farther down-coast. The Refugee Committee’s report was due this morning. He would use whatever was in it to have the camp moved farther from the settlement perimeter. Maybe downcoast a few klicks. If they want protection, they can pay for it.

  The dirtbagger presence as a potential labor crop kept the factory workers and excavation crews sharp. Dirtbaggers attracted predators—human and otherwise. Flattery’s real objection was to their numbers, and how they were beginning to surround him.

  He keyed a note to change the name of the Refugee Committee to “Reserve Committee.”

  Raja Flattery, long before he became known as “the Director,” was always at work before dawn. Rumors had come back to him that he went months without sleep, and there were months when he thought that was true. His personal cubby resembled a cockpit in its wraparound array of formidable electronics. He liked the feeling of control it gave him here, putting on the world like a glove. Nestled there at his console, shawl across his bare shoulders, Flattery flew the business of the world.

  He woke every night sweating and in stark terror after only a few hours’ sleep. He dreamed himself both executioner and condemned, dying at his own hand while screaming at himself to stop. It was all mindful of Alyssa Marsh, and how he had separated her magnificent brain from the rest of her. This was a subconscious display of vulnerability he could not allow to show. It made him reclusive in many respects, as did the distrust for open spaces that had been deeply instilled in him at Moonbase.

  Flattery had not yet slept with a Pandoran woman. He’d had a brief fling with Alyssa back on Moonbase just before their departure for the void. An attempt to continue the liaison on Pandora had failed. She had preferred her excursions into the kelp to bedding the Director and had suffered the consequences. Now it appeared that he suffered them, too.

  With Pandoran women there were trysts in the cushions, yes, and lively sex as often as he liked, particularly at first. But each time when it was finished he had the woman sent to the guest suite, and Flattery slept what little he could before the dreams had at him.

  Power—the great aphrodisiac. He didn’t sneer, it ha
d served him well.

  He supposed he should take more advantage of favors offered, but sex didn’t impassion him as it used to. Not since he’d been flying the world. As miserable a little world as it was, it was his world and it would stay his until he left it.

  “Six months,” he muttered. “After twenty-five years, only six months to go.”

  Nearly three thousand humans had orbited Pandora in the hybernation tanks for a half-dozen centuries. Of the original crew, only Flattery and Dwarf MacIntosh still survived. There were the three Organic Mental Cores, of course, but they weren’t exactly human anymore, just brains with some fancy wiring. Only one of them, Alyssa Marsh, had received OMC backup training. The other two had been infants selected personally by Flattery for their high intelligence and early demonstration of emotional stability.

  Smaller than Earth, but bigger than the moon, he had thought after being wrenched out of hybernation. Pandora is an adequate little world.

  It became inadequate soon enough.

  The native stock who preceded him to Pandora, descendants of the original crew of the Voidship Earthling and the Earthling’s bioexperiments, were humans of a sort. Flattery found them repulsive and decided early on that if one Voidship had found Pandora, another might find something better. Even if it didn’t, Flattery fancied Voidship life to be a sight more comfortable than this.

  They can all rot in this pest-hole, he thought. It smells as if they already have.

  On clear evenings Flattery derived great pleasure from watching the near-finished bulk of his Voidship in glittering position overhead. He’d pinned a magnificent jewel to the shirt of the sky, and he was proud of that.

  Some of these Pandorans are barely recognizable as living creatures, much less human beings! he thought. Even their genetics has been contaminated by that … kelp.

  All the more reason to get off this planet. His life at Moonbase had taught him well—space was a medium, not a barrier. A Voidship was home, not a prison. Despite great hardship, these Mermen had developed rocketry and their undersea launch site sophisticated enough to bring Flattery and the hyb tanks out of a centuries-old orbit. If they could do that, he knew from the start he could build a Voidship like the Earthling. And now he had.

  If you control the world, you don’t worry about cost, he thought. His only unrestrained enemy was time.

  His only trusted associate groundside was a Pandoran, Spider Nevi. Nevi hesitated at nothing to see that the Director’s special assignments, his most sensitive assignments, were carried out. Flattery had thought Dwarf MacIntosh, shipside commander on the Orbiter, to be such a man but lately Flattery wasn’t quite so sure. The squad he was sending up today would find out soon enough.

  The more fascinating man, to Flattery, was Spider Nevi, but he never seemed to get Nevi to open up to him though he had presented ample opportunity.

  How do you entertain an assassin?

  Most of Flattery’s fellow humans died immediately with the opening of the hybernation tanks. Their original Voidship had been outfitted to bring them out properly, safely. When the time came the ship was long-gone over the horizon, leaving the Pandoran natives in pursuit of the hyb tanks and firm as ever in their belief that the Ship itself was God.

  Died immediately!

  He snorted at the euphemism that his mind dealt him. In that moment that the medtechs called “immediately,” he and his shipmates had experienced enough nerve-searing pain to last twelve lifetimes. Most of his people who survived the opening of the tanks, who had known no illness during their sterile lives at Moonbase, died in the first few months of exposure to Pandora’s creatures—microscopic and otherwise.

  Among the otherwise that Flattery learned to respect were the catlike hooded dashers, venomous flatwings, spinarettes, nerve runners and, deadliest of all in Flattery’s mind, this sea full of the kelp that the locals called “Avata.” The first far-thinking Chaplain/Psychiatrist to encounter the kelp had had the good sense to wipe it out. Flattery diverted more than half of his resources to pruning programs. Killing it off was out of the question, so far.

  He had spent his recovery studying Pandoran history and the horrors that the planet had in store for him. He and his shipmates had splashed down in the middle of Pandora’s greatest geological and social upheaval. The planet was coming apart and certain civil disputes were flaring. It was a propitious time to be construed as a gift from the gods, and Flattery took swift advantage of it.

  He used his title as Chaplain/Psychiatrist, a position that still carried weight among Pandorans, to lead the reorganization of Pandoran mores and economics. They chose him because they had never been without a Chaplain/Psychiatrist and because, as he was swift to remind them, he was a gift from the Ship that was God. He waited a good while to tell them he was building another one.

  Flattery had been perceptive, shrewd, and because he noted some distracting murmurings among their religious leaders, he changed his title to, simply, “the Director.” This freed him for some important economic moves, and the Ship-worshipers stayed out of his way during the crucial formative years.

  “I will not be your god,” he had told them. “I will not be your prophet to the gods. But I will direct you in your efforts to build a good life.”

  They didn’t know what Flattery knew of the special training of Voidship Chaplain/Psychiatrists. Pandoran histories revealed that Flattery’s clone sibling, Raja Flattery number five of the original crew, was the failsafe device and appointed executioner of the very Voidship that had brought them all to Pandora.

  It is forbidden to release an artificial consciousness on the universe. The directive was clear, though it was generally believed that any deep-space travel would require an artificial consciousness. The Organic Mental Cores, “brain boxes” as the techs called them, failed with meticulous regularity. The Flattery number five model had failed to press the destruct trigger in time. This Ship that he had allowed to survive was the being that many Pandorans worshiped as a god.

  Raja Flattery, “the Nickel.” Now why didn’t he blow us all up as planned?

  Flattery wondered, as he often did, whether the trigger that was cocked in his own subconscious still had its safety on. It was a risk that kept him from developing an artificial consciousness to navigate the Voidship.

  There was only Flattery left to wonder why he had been the only duplicate crew member in hybernation.

  “They wanted to be damned sure that whatever consciousness we manufactured got snuffed before it took over the universe,” he muttered.

  Flattery calculated that any one of his three OMCs would get him to the nearest star system with no trouble. By then they’d have a fix and a centripetal whip to a first-rate, habitable system. The necessary adjustments in the individual psychologies of each Organic Mental Core had been made before their removal from their bodies for hardware implant. It was Flattery’s theory that behavioral rather than chemical adjustment would help them maintain some sense of embodiment, something to prevent the rogue insanity that plagued the whole line of OMCs from Moon-base.

  Flattery rubbed his eyes and yawned. These nightmares wore him out. Questions nagged at the Director as well, taking their yammering toll, waking him again and again, exhausted, soaked in sweat, crying out. The one that worried at him the most worried him now.

  What secret program have they planted in me?

  Flattery’s training as Chaplain/Psychiatrist had taught him the Moonbase love for games within games, games with human life at stake.

  “The Big Game,” was the game he chose to play—the one with all human life at stake. The only humans in the universe were these specimens on Pandora, of this Flattery was thoroughly convinced. He would do his best with them.

  He avoided touching the kelp, for fear of what ammunition it might find should it probe his mind. Sometimes it could do that, he had seen incontrovertible evidence. Fascinating as it was, he couldn’t risk it.

  He had never touched Crista Galli, either, be
cause of her connection with the kelp. He harbored a kind of lust for her that his daydreams told him was seated in the thrill of danger. He himself had provided the danger. His labtechs gave her a chemistry appropriate to the fictions he released about her. Without Flattery’s special concoction, the people that touched her would suffer some grave neurological surprises, perhaps death. It would just take a little time …

  What if the kelp probes me, finds this switch? If I am the trigger, who is the finger? Crista Galli?

  He had wanted Crista Galli more than once because she was beautiful, yes, but something more. It was the death in her touch, the ultimate dare. He feared she, like the kelp, might invade his privacy with a touch.

  A wretched dream of tentacles prying his skull open at the sutures kept coming back. Flattery heard that the kelp could get on track inside his head, travel the DNA highway all the way to genetic memory. The search itself might set off the program, put the squeeze on a trigger in his head, a trigger set to destroy them all. He needed to know what it was himself, and how to defuse it, before risking it with the kelp.

  Flattery’s greatest fear was of the kelp using him to destroy himself and this last sorry remnant of humanity that populated Pandora. This Raja Flattery did not want to die in the squalor of some third-rate world. This Raja Flattery wanted to play the Director game among the stars for the rest of his days, and he planned for a good many of them.

  Should I be god to them today? he wondered, or devil? Do I have a choice? His training dictated that he did. His gut told him otherwise.

  “Chance brought me here,” he muttered to his reflection in the cubbyside plaz, “and chance will see me through.” Or not.

  His eyes glanced to the large console screen flickering beside his bed. The top of the screen, in bright amber letters, read “Crista Galli.” He pressed his “update” key and watched the wretched news unfold—they hadn’t found her. Twelve hours, on foot, and they hadn’t found her!