Chapter 1: Into the Breach...
At first, being assigned to the the starship Jade Phoenix seemed like the opportunity of a lifetime to young Fish Speaker Lishnara Shenn: the chance to explore the galaxy while escaping the unending turmoil on her own birth-world, Ix. There, the Famine Times hit as hard as anywhere within the Landsraad as the ruling governmental committee struggled to keep that technologically-advanced world from degenerating into absolute anarchy due to the loss of that population's steady supply of melange. Spice. That one commodity that evaded replication--or even reasonable approximation--giver of so many incredible benefits but at the cost of utter dependency. Most of the resources of Ix and many other more medically-pioneering worlds were reassigned to deal with the problem, and attempts to replace, ween off of or cure the addiction led only to failure after heartbreaking failure: their scientific prowess was just not up to the task, and the universe continued to pay an exorbitant price. The death toll from being cut off from spice was beyond the abilities of the Ministry of Spice Allotments own mentats to keep up with! Entire planets became virtual graveyards of unburied dead, those carcasses still wearing their torture on rictus faces. Ix was not spared--the mechanized cremation of the bodies of loyal and good Ixians ran day and night, while those that remained alive--like Shenn--tried to carry on while haunted by such terrible realities. 3 years later, she no longer felt the enthusiasm she had for traveling in space or seeing new worlds, for her hanging onto hope seemed ever tenuous and she grew weary of seeing ruin...
"You look like you're drifting among the debris out there, Shenn. Maybe you should take 10 from the scan panel...walk the decks, visit the chapel-booth, or brush up on your Galach dialects, hmm? Exhaustion does not improve accuracy or ability, so step offline--order given."
Lishnara Shenn looked up at Captain Bethrix G'Leal with tired green-brown eyes, nodded. "I apologize, Captain. I lost track of how many standard hours I've been active without moving away from my station. I will try to be more mindful. Can I get you anything from the nutri-station," she asked both eagerly and earnestly. She stood up and assumed an attentive pose while looking into the stern, square-jawed face of the older woman crisply dressed in her form-fitting black unitard with blue piping and wearing the red Atreides hawk emblem embroidered upon her left breast. Silently, she prayed to the God Emperor for deliverance from the steely gaze that reduced her to a trembling recruit.
"No. I am fine. This patrol of the Denebvin Passage has been without incident thus far and I see no reason why you can't be relieved. Go." The commander casually clasped her hands behind her back and took long strides to her chair, then grasped the armrests and sat down. "Palanka, take Shenn's position at the scanner. Watch for mines and hostiles. Helm, continue forward quarter speed and try not to nick the ship on any of that floating garbage. Girls, I'd love to make it back to base before full cycle, so consider that incentive." Captain G'Leal gave a rare smile then looked at a data-pad offered by an ensign.
Shenn walked across the bridge of the Jade Phoenix and to the lift, painfully conscious of the staccato clopping of her own boot heels. Once inside the elevator, with attentive hands she checked the tight light brown bun of hair at the back of her head for any unruly strands as she looked at herself in the polished surfaces around her. The heart-shaped face that appeared looked a bit drawn, but was still pretty, though she remained bothered by what she perceived to be a large forehead and a too-sharp widow's peak. She liked her straight eyebrows for their medium thickness and her small, slightly-upturned nose but wished that her lips were just a bit more full and her teeth less reminiscent of a Terran rabbit's. She knew at all times that her figure was not nearly as robust as the average Amazonian Fish Speaker--neither a finely-honed muscular build nor one that elicited awe and inflamed desire in all those who saw her, male or female, but it served and she was content. Her mind and abilities as a Sci-Tech more than made up for any shortcomings of the flesh that she imagined. Pleased that she remained presentable as well as competent, Shenn headed towards the chapel-booths to commune with her Lord.
Just as she was about to enjoy her prayer-time, she saw the Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother Clarus Alexi Florian who sometimes flew out on missions with the Fish Speakers in an advisory and observational role. The Reverend Mother was known as a bit of a rebel among her kind and certainly more approachable. Fish Speaker protocol recommended extreme wariness when around the "witches" but Shenn often felt that such defensiveness wasn't always necessary and that some allowances for being cordial and cooperative can be made. Had not even the God Emperor Leto II himself showed a certain respect for the Sisterhood, albeit cool and cautious? Shenn remembered the story of Reverend Mother Chenoeh who was taken into his confidence and to whom prayers requesting intercession are still said. Lishnara Shenn decided that she would again risk some ridicule and suspicion from her peers to connect with her...
"Good midday to you, Reverend Mother! I hope that all is well? I am just about to partake in prayer...care to join me?"
The Bene Gesserit offered a small, warm smile and allowed for a twinkle in her piercing blue-on-blue eyes to escape. "I appreciate your offer of community in prayer, Lishnara Shenn, but I have already given appropriate observance earlier, thank you! Tell me...has there been anything of note during today's patrol at all...anything peculiar or...?" The tall, stately woman leaned forward and down a bit to address Shenn, her hands smoothing down the long, plain black aba robe that seemed to drift about her concealed figure. Sometimes it seemed as if those of the Order had no feet by the way they glided upon the floor, and this Reverend Mother was no exception.
"I am unaware of anything out of the ordinary, Reverend Mother. So far, this has been a routine visit to the outermost route near the Thalim System. As you well know, even with all the post-Famine Time havoc of The Scattering, we are barred from visiting the Tleilaxu home world or any of its related properties short of dire circumstance. We should be turning back soon and en route to base shortly."
"Yes, of course...there's no reason to linger here if there's nothing to see or do. Besides, I'm sure that everyone is more than eager to return to their families at the end of this patrol cycle. Tell me, Lishnara Shenn...do you feel anything in the air, such as an instinctual alertness as if something was amiss?" The witch rubbed her own arms as if trying to warm flesh that should be exquisitely controlled via strict, metabolic discipline learned through the Sisterhood. "I don't recognize the why, but I am bothered by this place...where we are now."
"Reverend Mother, I didn't even KNOW that the Sisters experienced vague impressions like that! Now that you mention it, though, I've been more concerned--yes. I haven't wanted to leave my post unless absolutely necessary, but so far my own feelings have been unfounded. I checked and rechecked the scanners and, besides a few trade freighters and their associated Guild Heighliner, we've been pretty much alone in this sector." Shenn dared to reach out but then stopped herself short of patting the older woman's shoulder reassuringly.
The Reverend Mother again smiled but appeared unable to regain her full composure. "I am behaving like an Initiate! Damn the spice and its cursed side-effects! Being without has affected me shamefully. Who hasn't it affected though?" She tried once more at calm, taking a sighing breath. "My apologies...I must be more fatigued than I normally permit, dear Lishnara Shenn. I was considering joining you and the others on the bridge, but I think that perhaps I will hold off on that. I know your captain will be most pleased at my absence, besides; more than once she expressed her dissatisfaction at having a 'witch' aboard at all!" She grinned and gave a small nod to Lishnara Shenn while keeping eye contact. "Enjoy your prayers, and perhaps later we might chat again awhile..." With that, the oftentimes mysterious Bene Gesserit witch seemed to float away towards her designated cabin.
Lishnara Shenn watched as the willowy lady with the short, platinum hair disappeared around the bend of the corridor before entering the prayer-booth. Inside was a place to kneel, a small prayer tablet and a screen that would provide the faithful with inspiring images of the God Emperor and visions of Arrakis--that holiest of worlds also known as Dune by his chosen people, the Fremen, and the only place that ever produced the spice of spices, melange. Shenn reverently knelt down and cupped her hands before her face while looking deeply at one of the images of Leto II from before he passed from this life and returned to the sands.
"God, who is both man and eternal Old Man of the Desert--Shai-Hulud--your humble servant begs for your strength and your guidance once more. Great Maker, please hear the cries of your children who struggle to keep upon the righteous Golden Path and endure hardships this day! Worm-who-is-God, I beseech your grace...help me to do good and protect your faithful. My water--my LIFE--is yours. Your reign is forever. Bi-La Kaifa!" She gently touched her fingertips to her forehead and bowed three times before parting her hands and separating them before her in the traditional manner before standing up. She touched the unused prayer tablet and looked at the larger screen of inspirational images and saw a comforting scene of the sun setting over infinite sand.
Fish Speaker Shenn went back to her post after looking out at the space before them through the forward main bridge screen and then at her bridge crew-mates. Ensign Palanka welcomed her prompt return and mouthed an appreciative 'thank you' before resuming her regular place at the navigation terminal. Three years they served together on the Jade Phoenix, yet she chided herself on how little she really opened up to any of them. Why are we still not much more than acquaintances? She knew every name of each member of the crew and could, if needed, provide a brief description of their duties and abilities, but she worried that she didn't know them. Sci-Techs among the Fish Speakers were accepted and valued, but it seemed as if there was still something 'other' about them that kept even the closest shipmates uneasy. Do they imagine that I'm untrue to the faith, or might one day betray the tenets of the Butlerian Jihad? Shenn looked at her console and pushed aside such insecurities as unbecoming an officer. More debris. She shook her head and questioned how the Tleilaxu could tolerate--or navigate, for that matter--this much free-floating waste. It was an immense field of all manner of clutter...domestic refuse, mechanical bits, parts of long-destroyed derelict star craft, a high-yield plasma mine...
"PLASMA MINE! It's accelerating and on direct course for our starboard aft!"
Captain G'Leal's knuckles went white as she gripped her command chair but she remained calm but firm in her orders. "Full power to the Holtzman shields! Commander Wheering to helm--assist navigation to plot our path and get us out of this space at earliest opportunity! Communications--contact the Heighliner! We may be in need of immediate evacuation!"
"Outgoing Com-K is not responding in this field," Fresh-faced officer Yanique Osiren cried out across the bridge, her gray eyes wide with realization: No escape!
"Gods below! Time to im--"
The Jade Phoenix's shields took a portion of the blast, but it was not enough to defend against an explosion of that terrible device's magnitude. The ship spun in space, its remaining shields battered by debris that mingled with its own before eventually failing. Flame-haired Commander Wheering frantically worked alongside Navigation Officer Damaris, trying to coax life into unresponsive and arcing control panels. Toxic gases bellowed and intermittently caught fire while blinding smoke made attempts at using breather masks and flame suppressors almost impossible. Fish Speaker medics, oftentimes more dedicated than the renowned Suk doctors in dealing with situations such as this, were overwhelmed. When the ship finally stopped tumbling, and emergency bulkheads engaged, several levels remained exposed to the deadly, airless chill of space and more than half of the crew was lost.
"There is little good news to report, ladies, so I'll give you the breakdown: The ship is severely crippled; we remain within the Tleilax frontier and can expect no assistance from them; main power is offline and hardly anything works with reliability AND whole sections of the ship are uninhabitable until further notice. We have a lot of work to accomplish before we can get back home, lick our wounds and mourn our dead. We, gathered, are alive. Questions?"
Captain G'Leal stood tall and resolute before her fellow female warriors, looking as if she wanted to batter something to smithereens with her own two burned hands while her pain-wracked body cried silently for succor. Lishnara Shenn may have maintained an air of focused detachment at seeing the proud woman speaking so, but internally she empathized and wished desperately to be able to support her more! A hard scowl fixed on the commanding officer's seared face set an impassable barrier to any such display of sympathy or pity from the rest of the crew.
"By Shaitan's beard, do we even have a CHANCE?!" Ensign Palanka paced as like an animal trapped and shook out her hair in frustration. "We need to get in touch with the nearest Fish Speaker outpost...or make contact with the Heighliner...figure out a way to get a distress signal out to anyone friendly and get away from here!" She fought back tears and chose anger instead. A broken boot heel only made walking with a torn meniscus at her left knee all the worse. "We never should have been hit by that mine! Why did that happen? WHY?" She looked from one face to the next for some target for her rage.
"Joa, there was always a danger in Fish Speaker patrol...always," said Commander Wheering soothingly in an attempt to dampen her colleague's fury. "The Tleilaxu are an isolationist people who have historically been inimical to the rest of the Imperium outside of their questionable mercantile activities. We're in 'their' space...mandate or no mandate. The captain is correct--we will have to pull together to try to get through this, first and foremost. Assigning blame will have to wait. Restoring systems for our basic survival and then escape--that should be priority one. Agreed?"
The Bene Gesserit among the crew raised her deceptively delicate-looking hand, a motion that almost seemed a benediction. "I think that's a reasonable course of action. The ship is heavily damaged, but I believe that we can make some use out of debris around us. I propose that we utilize a scout craft with retrofitted grapples and a tow-bin. We can gather what we need, and perhaps even mask ourselves from further detection by appearing as something other than an Imperial vessel. It's worth a try, provided that the scout ship manages to avoid getting into the proximity of any other mines adrift out there." Reverend Mother Florian looked out at the assemblage, seeing a mixture of expressions, some incredulous. "Scavenging may appear to be ignoble, and even risky...but I prefer survival over whatever death hunts us in this space!" The ship then rocked suddenly, violently, as a portion of some wayward deactivated satellite smashed into the hull as if to punctuate her statement with an exclamation. The Reverend Mother braced herself against a plasteel support beam while the others tipped and swayed, a few fell outright.
"I can get to work...the engineers and I can quick-patch the power and life-support systems on the Jade Phoenix and then get to work on modifying a scout ship," said Sci-Tech Lishnara Shenn with some pluck. "It won't be pretty...and even if we manage to gather enough parts to make something that runs, how long such a monstrosity holds together will be anyone's best guess. Chief Engineer...are you and your people well enough to work with me to pull off a major miracle or two?" Shenn looked to the burly Chief Engineer, who stared back with some exasperation and doubt. Perhaps she spoke too soon.
"Fix this ship...right. Lots of good plans you all have. Worth Slig-poo if the Tleilaxu come out here and, seeing a lame ship with a wounded lady crew, open fire and take the last of us for who-knows-what experimentation, eh? Way I see it...we can try...but we better be ready to scuttle the ship in the worst case. Just saying." The boxy woman lowered her head and allowed lifeless jet-black hair tipped with magenta to hide her unease.
Lishnara Shenn remained mostly unfazed by the Chief Engineers' words--she didn't want to indulge in pessimism or entertain the prospect of either death or something far worse. She adjusted her snug uniform, grabbed a data-pad that listed in detail the faulty systems from critical to non-essential from one of the engineering technicians, and then went right to work. The other technically-inclined members of the crew, inspired by her drive, pitched in and they worked around the clock. The Bene Gesserit worked enough magic with the ship's sensors to get them online and starting to pinpoint and plot a path to needed supplies that a scout vessel could conceivably obtain without relying on such notions as luck or divine favor. The rest of the crew, however, were more comfortable in expressing their faith and they prayed to any deity that might take pity. Shenn did not doubt that her seemingly "divided god" Leto II would answer her, at the time that she needed help the most. She feared that that hour was approaching fast.
The Broken Box
The repairs to the Jade Phoenix were grueling, and the maddening continued assault of wreckage slamming into that injured vessel threatened to drive the crew to despair and even open revolt! Captain Bethrix G'Leal slumped in her chair that teetered a bit if she relaxed her feet upon the floor too much, or leaned in any direction besides straight back. Her head felt like it wanted to detonate, and her hands fine motor control was all but lost to her. Commander Wheering, on the other hand, worked throughout the ship while largely ignoring the shrapnel that still remained hot inside her. She put a cap over her scarlet tresses and she tried to smile over her winces. There were no smiles present when the casualty list was drawn and hurriedly read before the good captain stopped the recital: The crew's spirit could not afford to be broken. Some cried out for terrible vengeance; others just cried. The God Emperor's Fish Speakers were dedicated soldiers, capable of great violence and hard decisions when called for, but by design they remained distinctly human, and they lost too many of their own in a pitiless expanse that not even the filthy Tleilaxu seemed to care at all about.
"Shenn...the Chief Engineer, Pasha Bachon, wanted me to let you know that we've almost got partial main power back on. We'll have life support...minimal shields...weapons. She won't tell you herself, but she was impressed by your improvisations and assistance. We all owe some gratitude to you..." Impish Yanique Osiren put an arm around her from the side and gave Shenn a gentle squeeze. Rosy cheeks, freckles and her dirty blonde hair in short twin-tails that emerged behind her pronounced ears, she looked nothing like what a Fish Speaker should, yet those very same qualities made her endearing to Lishnara Shenn.
"I'm just...," she paused to sigh, then said more steadily, "I'm just doing my duty, as I was trained to do. We need to survive this...get back to base...let them know that this happened. We owe it to those we lost and their families." Shenn arose from the towering machine bulk that she was working on, an ungainly thing that seemed more like a mad mechanic's device than anything that could serve a useful purpose. Shenn's face, hands and uniform were sullied with device lubricants and general grime. "I refuse to let this belt of debris be my final resting place, Osiren. We all have lives to return to. By the Maker, I will not give up! You want to thank me?! Keep busy at keeping us all alive! That's it!" Shenn pulled away and went right back to work, setting up what was an emergency generator cobbled together from what was left of several demolished escape pods. "We better find some prime, or at least decent, salvage out in this rubbish expanse, Osiren, or we'll be making this broken down barge our home for a while, anyway."
"I'll check in with the Reverend Mother...she last moved onto prepping the scout ship. Maybe she has some good news! Oh, and before I go...please stop calling me Osiren. I much prefer Yanique when in a fix...OK, Lishnara?" She winked, turned and walked towards the ladder that would lead down to the ship's bay.
"OK...," Fish Speaker Shenn replied softly to Osiren's back. "Yanique is a nice name."
"I was actually hoping that you were to be the one to come along."
Lishnara Shenn felt uneasy again, but after spending so much time on ship repairs without a break, she wanted--needed--to get away. When she was informed that the Reverend Mother was seeking a volunteer, she practically leaped! "Please take me! There's not much more that I can do on the ship without the right parts for the engineers and I to work with. I already cleared it with both the captain and the commander, with no objection raised by the chief engineer..."
"Pasha Bachon, that's her name," the doe-eyed Bene Gesserit added. She ran through some final diagnostic checks on the small vessel before takeoff. She noticed more than once Shenn watching and wondering at the immensity of her knowledge and abilities, for she seemed by all accounts to be quite capable and possessed of diverse talents.
"Yes! They all cleared me! I can go--"
"The Captain...her name is Bethrix G'Leal. Did you know that she's from Poritrin, Lishnara Shenn? That was a major stop for the Zensunni Wanderers...though I believe that she practices Navachristianity..."
"Interesting! I had no idea that--"
"Commander Wheering's first name is Delia...she has 3 children."
"What are you doing," asked Shenn crossly, impatient to leave. She didn't want to waste time, or risk something escaping the range of the scout ship during idle talk. Shenn still felt like something was just outside her grasp, an important something.
"You want to connect with others, yet you insist on not truly doing so. Why would you want to live--and possibly perish--among strangers? There is no good reason for you to be alone, Lishnara Shenn." The tall, striking woman radiated compassion and seemed genuinely concerned, which terrified Shenn to her core.
"OK...enough! This is not the time for getting cozy or close...we have a mission to do. Once we're back in allied space I'd love to get to know everyone and be friends...we can all have a grand party then! I'll bake a double-glazed portygul cake." Lishnara Shenn climbed into the scout ship and regretted her words just as she said them.
"So be it, Lishnara Shenn. Strictly business it is." The Reverend Mother's demeanor became instantly glacial, as if a switch were thrown and she was another person. The ship took off as soon as the bay decompressed and the Holtzman field temporarily powered down.
The scout ship, with its recent modifications, was small enough to dodge a great deal of the dangerous, meandering junk yet large enough to be able to collect some of the most useful pieces on the wish list that could be salvaged, which was more than what was imagined possible under the circumstances. Soon, the tow-bin was nearly full of potentially useful components by the time that the ship was returning to the Jade Phoenix after successfully raiding at least 3 derelict unidentifiable wrecks and scoping up an assortment of parts via spacewalk. The two women worked as a near-silent team, mostly using gestures and avoiding any further protracted talks. Shenn hated the silence, but couldn't yet bring herself to apologize for her manner earlier. She chewed her lower lip a bit in the awkward moments that they looked to one another and stuck to short, essential dialogue when verbal communication was unavoidable. Finally, a series of events would give neither such a luxury...
It started with a barrage of concentrated particle beam fire that strafed the top length of the ship, followed by a similar blast that almost sheared off one of the scout's wings! The instrument panel lit up and various alert sirens wailed their abrupt distress. The ship was being taken apart by precision strikes from a small squad of Tleilaxu Face Dancers piloting advanced mid-range fighter ships! Reverend Mother Clarus Alexi Florian wordlessly worked the controls of the wounded scout ship with superhuman speed, her reflexes saving them and their cargo from destruction at the hands of the cadaverous-looking humanoids again and again. The scout ship wasn't made for intense battle when it was in good condition--to say that this mission was flown in something in far less than optimal condition would be a gross understatement. The Bene Gesserit pushed the vehicle to its limits with evasive rolls and sharp turns that tested the occupants' endurance as well! Just when it seemed as if the ship was destined to spectacularly explode in throes of its mission failure, Shenn succeeded in restoring the scout's forward cannon! It was enough! Reverend Mother Florian went on the attack, unleashing a devastating rain of death upon their inhuman pursuers while telepathically blurring their visual perception of their own controls and quarry. Nine ships in pristine condition and piloted by enhanced beings that originally had the initiative and all the advantages were decimated by the wrathful attack of a single witch and a resourceful technician--a Bene Gesserit lesson that would gall whatever spirits such creatures might possess in Sheol forever more.
"There'll be no victory celebration on Tleilax for them! Damned Face Dancer bastards!" Shenn felt almost giddy! They survived and the ship was still operational enough to get back to the Jade Phoenix with all their interesting found items. At the controls, Reverend Mother Florian's thin eyebrows knit together and her face appeared somber. "Not quite yet, Lishnara Shenn. I sense...someone...a consciousness struggling to awaken from a horrific nightmare...trapped between life and death! An innocent life crying out for help..." Impulsively, the Bene Gesserit fired the engines and went away from safety and took the ship further into the expanse.
"NO! STOP! Turn this ship around! We cannot--will not--go any further and risk running out of fuel or getting lost or even KILLED in this accursed area! We just barely survived a battle and we're in no condition to tempt fate once more! Are you even listening to me, witch?! Turn us AROUND!" Lishnara Shenn grabbed at the controls desperately, but her traveling companion was resolute. The throttle would not budge from the iron grip that held it, no matter the protests, threats, hitting or yanking.
"I WILL NOT ABANDON THAT LIFE OUT THERE! I sense it...alone...in incredible pain and terror! Lishnara Shenn, you can hate me, but I KNOW that you're basically a good person who experienced awful things on Ix before you became a Fish Speaker recruit. You wear your pain like a shroud, and it may one day be all that you have to hold onto if you allow it! What's out there gives a whole new definition to abject misery, child! Can you really abandon it to such a fate...or YOURSELF?!" The Bene Gesserit released the controls. "Choose who you are to be, Lishnara Shenn..."
"Manipulative witch, I'll not be judged by you! By Sheol's flames...you better be right and this better be worth it!! We have lives to save back at the Phoenix..."
"I am well aware of that. I do not intend to let the crew down."
The Reverend Mother guided the scout ship carefully deeper into the cluttered morass, adjusting their heading as she went while she followed the trail of despairing feelings she sensed out there. Barely alive... She thought to herself. How long have you been abandoned, with nothing but pain and silence for company? She looked to her companion Lishnara Shenn and felt a pang of pity for her as well. The cages that surround each may be of different make and materials, but limit the soul no less. A short push with the engines and the scout ship fell under the oppressive shadow of a hulking ellipsoid Tleilaxu wreck that continued to leave a thin, comet-like tail of disintegrating material in its wake. The feelings of unending horror emanating from the vicinity were nearly overwhelming for the psychic shields the Bene Gesserit built over decades of intensive practice and meditation.
"We...we have arrived. Somewhere in here...someHOW...there is a person still alive. You need not come any further, Lishnara Shenn. I do not know what dangers this vessel might hold or what may otherwise be encountered. You may stay with the ship while I investigate."
Fish Speaker Lishnara Shenn looked out at the derelict vessel, then into the strange and compelling eyes of the mysterious Bene Gesserit woman. She sighed and she took on a look of determination. "No. We made it here. You felt something right from the start when we entered this sector and I...I also felt..." She paused, finding difficulty in describing just what she experienced. She wasn't psychic, not according to the tests or anything noted in her breeding index, but she secretly considered herself remarkably intuitive when it could count for something. "I want to go. Let's find the source of our hunch before it's too late and none of us make it out of here. I want to help and I want...I NEED to do this, Reverend Mother. Please!" Lishnara looked out at the wretched colossus and found herself with a stomach churning with icy hunks of apprehension mixed with tremors of curiosity and twinges of hope.
"So be it, Lishnara Shenn. Let's explore together and, if lucky, discover who lies within..."
Chapter 2: Chrysalis Crucible
"Has there been any communication from the scout ship yet," inquired Captain Bethrix G'Leal aloud as she resumed her position on the bridge after a most unsatisfying break. Internally, she cursed at her nagging pains, the state of her once-proud ship, the inadequacy of available medical care and supplies, and especially--most especially--this damnable region of space that contained the loathsome Tleilaxu! She hated all that she knew about them, a feeling well-shared by the rest of the crew: The whole lot comprised of sinister slavers, mad scientists and paranoid racists! And their wicked creations! No one felt better for receiving cold, unfeeling, pitted metal eyes that spied for them with piercing pinpoints of white light while only returning a sense of vision to the otherwise blind bearer, or odd replacement limbs and organs grown or otherwise procured by clandestine means. Who knew?! Everything they produced was degenerate...what little was known about their so-called culture was appalling, and the small-statured, gray-fleshed Masters were the ringleaders of their reveled vileness. Tleilaxu was synonymous with lies, treachery and all manner of evil--this was accepted for unquestionable truth! Why Lord Leto II tolerated their continued miserable existence is a holy mystery, she thought to herself as she stood by her chair, I would have spared no one and nothing here!
The crew of the Jade Phoenix felt the disquiet in their captain like ice water poured on the backs of their necks and struggled to contain their own mounting tempers as time dragged on. Reaching the point where they could do no further repairs without additional, salvaged components, boredom and anger seethed within the ranks like a metastasizing cancer. They held to their training--a testament to their discipline--but the threat of even a tiny argument or mishap sparking a ship-wide conflagration of fury hung in the air like a sickening miasma.
"Still no word from the scout vessel, Captain--though that does not mean that there's been no attempt made. The Tleilaxu continue to maintain tight communication jamming networks around their territories, and the Denebvin Passage has never been kind to either ships or signals. I believe that this is why the Spacing Guild heighliner craft has not responded to any hails or sent any assistance yet," said Commander Delia Wheering as she offered her captain a stim-pill along with a cup of poor broth. The red-haired amazon's set of shoulders and tightness of bow lips just barely hinted at her inner unrest. She peered at the forward view port screen, contained a sigh, and looked at the wearisome faces of the rest of the bridge crew before returning her violet eyes to focus on the captain. "Word from Engineering is that we can get a burst of thrust from the engines without further repairs, but it would be risky--we might not make it very far, more systems may crash, and the threat of Tleilaxu attack remains ever-present. I suggest caution...and patience." That last word hung like a sign around the neck of a condemned prisoner.
"Commander Wheering...we have done nothing but wait. We need progress! This crew needs to get back to base and home! Even if the salvage team returns, there's no guarantee that those parts are compatible or, in the chance that they are, sufficient for our escaping this expanse! Damn it all!" Captain G'Leal snatched the cup and pill from the commander and drank both broth and stimulant down in a hurried gulp. "We'll give them a little more time, but make ready for firing whatever engines this ship has left! Drifting along with gravitational currents has made me sick." The captain painfully landed upon her seat, a snarl passing over her mouth. "I want weapons restored to as best as they can get as well...seems like we've earned more than a right to some surprise payback against the Tleilaxu scum, RIGHT?! For the Imperium!" The captain shouted her words with murderous conviction, and from the bridge and through the ship's halls soon nearly unanimous fists and voices raised in a chant of blood-soaked vengeance.
They want to fight...to vent their anger...but allowing such desires to run unchecked can lead to terrible decisions and dark paths. We may all get consumed by flames... thought Commander Wheering as she resumed her post.
Sci-Tech Lishnara Shenn and her partner for the salvage assignment, Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother Clarus Alexi Florian, both suited up and readied themselves for exploring the strange derelict ship that dwarfed their own scout vessel. Cautious probing scans showed that the monstrosity was almost dead in space yet stubbornly refused to succumb to total power failure, as much of the rest of the floating mechanical material all around had. No, its maneuvering engine still mindlessly spat and wheezed just enough propulsive gas and fluid to maintain some long-forgotten course keyed in by what had to be a Tleilaxu helmsman very dead many years past. To Lishnara--and, perhaps even to the "witch" Florian--the wreck resembled a mechanical larva or a battered turd more than some massive spaceship capable of birthing several frigates and a full complement of other crafts. Indeed, as if to answer that assumption, the devastated ship turned just enough for ghastly light from the Thalim star to brighten exposed decks, corridors, rooms and holds with ruined vehicles crumpled and decaying. The two explorers remained transfixed in disturbed near-silent awe as they approached the behemoth closer and closer...
"This...what could this have been," pondered Lishnara aloud, only partially aware that she said it with some hope for answer. "It is of Tleilaxu design by appearance but...the size of it...tremendous!" Lishnara coaxed the ship to record the readings for later analysis, marveling at the results as they appeared. "Not the Spacing Guild, Ixians, Richese or any of the other technologically-bent peoples that I am aware of had any hand in creating this thing!" She stared in amazement, almost disgusted at the thought that the Tleilaxu could manufacture anything worth more than passing interest and complete disdain.
"Lishnara Shenn...there were rumors of Tleilaxu expeditions following the Famine Times. Without support from the Spacing Guild or the rest of the Imperium, who knows what a desperate people might be driven to develop in an effort to escape? There was some speculation that even space-fold technology was being dabbled at--with great expense and tremendous losses--by the wealthiest worlds. Perhaps this was part of efforts to survive amidst the turmoil...," said the Reverend Mother almost entranced, as wide-eyed as her companion. "It seems large enough to carry a significant population...note the great number of living quarters and room to expand even more. Whatever this was...it was meant for long-term livability..." She detached her safety harness and arose from her seat. "This egg might yet bear its white and yolk, yes?!" She smiled reassuringly and started to make her way toward the portal.
"With all due respect, Reverend Mother, this ship had a full suite of weapons, heavy armor and STILL was destroyed. It's a ghost ship," she said with a hint of as-a-matter-of-fact edge to her voice. "We should at least send out a message buoy so the Jade Phoenix doesn't come to the conclusion that we got lost or died out here." Lishnara jogged down the short length of the scout ship to catch up with her older colleague. On her narrow back was a bundle of assorted, faithful equipment and tools besides her suit's life support.
"While we were in transit, I meditated briefly...thought about how long we might be out here and the chances that a transmission or buoy might have to reach the ship. The probability is woefully low, I'm afraid. I attempted several calls out while you were occupied, actually, to no avail. Like our inability to reach the Guild heighliner by signal, we are without apparent means to connect with the main ship. Shall we proceed?" Her manner was lively, almost maddeningly optimistic to any outside observer, but a Bene Gesserit always possessed layers and a timeless wisdom that defied more common explanation. Few understood the ways of the witches, and fewer outside of the Sisterhood Order could barely comprehend how a Reverend Mother was able to access female ancestral memories stretching back millennia as if conversing with dear friends--their advice and experiences as her own. She is afraid...there are still those instincts that warn of danger...eyes sharp and ears pricked up, seeking unfamiliar sounds while the nose sifts the scents. I hope that my own instincts are accurate, and that this is not merely a den of death for us both. Reverend Mother Florian mouthed the Litany Against Fear as the doors to their scout ship opened and a covered mag-ramp extended and clamped down, temporarily joining the two craft. I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.
The two women entered the alien vessel through a yawning breach and slowly made their way through what was a main passageway, strewn with litter that hadn't floated away. Their suit's lights and the pale radiance that entered via window ports provided little illumination to the sepulchral surroundings. Dust and ice coated the surfaces, and cursive etchings upon all the walls scrawled on unceasingly into the distances followed by what appeared to be numbers...so many strings of text and symbols, barely decipherable to a non-Tleilaxu even in their prime. Then there were the bodies. Thousands. Many were oddly lanky, wolfish in face and clad in various low-ranked attire, if such could be accurately determined. These men were dead at station and all about...signs of terrible wounds and sudden decompression as well as freezing readily evident...sharp-toothed mouths still open in their final, horrified screams that were lost to space. Commoners, enlisted men or perhaps even engineered servants...these were the workers, whom the Tleilaxu elite apparently provided but minimal protections or even thought for their safety: No redundant shields, emergency snap-bolt hatches or access to survival pods in the miserly lower levels. Then there were the Face Dancers--far less of these, some dressed in what may have been supervisory, higher rank uniforms while others seemed to be entertainers, elite soldiers, and even courtesans. No matter the clothes or station, all now looked like broken dolls more than people, weirdly homogeneous, bland...like manikins, their seldom-seen natural black button eyes as glassy and unnerving as ever they were in what lives they had. Those found in their rooms were afforded somewhat better lodging but these, too, were sparsely decorated and contained such a haphazard collection of accumulated trinkets, eclectic clothes and curiosities that Face Dancers seemed to be hoarders. One, bearing the approximation of a lovely female form and lavishly costumed for what might have been a particularly passionate encounter, died as her private communication kiosk exploded--too much shrapnel for even one such as "her" to withstand or artificially heal from. Finally, in fewest number were the Masters--the small, gray elfin lords over the rest of their people, rat-eyed and weasel-toothed. Lab coats, elaborate uniforms and finery marked them as the elite here, but as dead as all the rest. Some small bodies slumped over control panels, and one remained impaled in place by a support beam on the bridge as if an insect stuck fast with a pin...the look of utter shock on the little monster's face priceless. It seemed as if the only thing alive here was emergency power still spiking and shorting at broken circuits and relays. The more that Shenn and Florian explored, the further their hearts sank and any hope of recovering anything useful--or anyone alive--appeared.
"Whatever happened here...it was immediate and merciless...deadly. They were barely able to enact any danger contingencies...it's like a time-capsule of their last moments. I may be able to glean some data from their auxiliary memory core without tripping some defense, Reverend Mother, but there's little else we can do here. I'd recommend setting the ship up for detonation. It's probably more dignity than they deserve, honestly, but this ship just cries for destruction..." Lishnara Shenn started to patch her data-pad to the ship's systems as if the matter was settled. She wanted nothing more to do with the floating tomb, and it was getting late by her best estimation.
"We still haven't found the life-form that I sensed before. I cannot leave here without resolving that mystery, Lishnara Shenn. We can split up, if you prefer...I can make one last sweep of the ship...look for any diagrams or try one last time to open doors that were closed. I still sense something trapped here..." The Bene Gesserit glided across the stained and dusty tiled floor, disturbing hardly a mote, toward a door just beside the captain's quarters. "This door...it remains penta-shielded...keyed only for privileged access. If you please..." Reverend Mother Florian wet her lips behind her helmet and looked to Lishnara Shenn with pleading eyes. "I swear not to dally..."
"We'll look...together...quickly. Then we're leaving here. Don't try to compel me with Voice or any other Bene Gesserit tricks, Reverend Mother, or I'll have to arrest you and drag you off this ship. The Jade Phoenix cannot be left stranded and waiting on us."
"I won't spend more time that needed. Trust me."
"I wish that I could trust you!"
"You COULD...but you don't."
"Damn all you witches and your weirding ways!" Shenn pounded a sequence of commands on her data-pad, using an encryption-breaker that was her personal skeleton key to many secret places in a past she never shared. At first, the Tleilaxu system refused to budge but, as her own curiosity tugged, Lishnara forced an improvised override based upon some rudimentary grasp of the Tleilaxu script and her own gut feelings. The door's five-colored shield buckled, flickered and then shimmered slowly away in defeat. "It WORKED! I...I didn't believe that it would...one wrong syllable and I think we would have been vaporized along with the rest of the bridge." She let out a slow exhale in relief, then an almost crafty smile grew on her face. "Going in?"
The Reverend Mother peered into the low, narrow passage that seemed to snake around a bulkhead, winding downward. Tiny lights started to flick-flick on, just making ceiling and floor easier to follow while more flowing Tleilaxu writing ignited on the walls, bright red. A voice, high-pitched and a bit nasal, spoke in an ancient, unfamiliar tongue that seemed almost like some greeting and invocation. "Like the writing...the words are of a dialect nearly forgotten to any but the Tleilaxu themselves. It was a welcome...and an eternal threat to those who don't share their beliefs. Be cautious here, perhaps more than anywhere else we've been so far on this ship."
"I'll follow your lead, Reverend Mother. Something...something IS down here...I can feel it. I want to turn back but..." Lishnara took a long look up into the faintly glowing all-blue eyes of the witch and said with conviction, "I'm going on! No more cowardice! I am a Fish Speaker for the Divided God, Leto II--he who sacrificed his own humanity, lived among us as God to guide and protect us, and returned to the sacred sands of Arrakis in the likeness of death to one day be reborn to us as Shai-Hulud, restoring the cycle of life and spice! Let us find this poor soul and deliver it from this horror!"
"Lishnara Shenn..." the passionate witch said as tears welled, then fell, "I've waited for this moment from when I first joined your crew and company! You are more than even you know yet still. Come...we'll see this through to the end..."
"To the end, Reverend Mother."
The path seemed as convoluted and meandering as the disturbingly complex written language of the Tleilaxu, with twists and turns, drops and parts barely able to be traveled while kneeling or crawling. That was the point, the intrepid duo surmised: The most trusted Tleilaxu would know their rituals, and such postures would be second nature to them. The air itself seemed heavy in the tube...a combination of cloying incense and...disinfectants?! As they made their way further, the voice that welcomed them seemed to grow more stringent and insisting, almost frantic, assailing the explorers with an almost screamed sermon. Lishnara Shenn wanted to scream back--demand that the terrible cacophony cease--repellent and grossly hypnotic as a drowning downpour. The Reverend Mother seemed resistant to the shouts as she navigated the Tleilaxu passage, but not immune: She'd pause, trying to center herself...seeking composure. Then, they saw it: An ornate octagonal black door covered in red and white script with what appeared to be some sort of luminous numerical spiral at its center. Spokes of code radiated from that spiral to touch the corners of the door. The codes seemed to glow and move as if written in flame, while the glaring numerical spiral appeared to eternally turn! For a moment it was as if only that door existed, and their lives were but tiny things being sucked into a vortex...
"This...is like some sort of temple chamber...incorporated into the ship. The door is closed, but does not appear to be shielded as before. There is no handle, hand-pad or other obvious mechanism, and the seams are incredibly tight all around." The Bene Gesserit squinted a bit as she looked for any betrayal of design...a flaw or a leverage. "Well...that leaves the codes and all the rest, doesn't it?" She traced each mark in the air with her index finger, right one, then felt more confident with the left. "A Tleilaxu Master genetic trait, perhaps? This was written both left-handed and backwards, from center out! Interesting, yes...and quite peculiar. These bands coming off the spiral...gene sequences!? Fascinating!"
"We don't understand the meanings though! This is Tleilaxu gibberish! We'd need a translator matrix much more powerful than any either of us could transport. It's a dead end. Wait! I GOT IT!" Lishnara listened, nodding her head in time with the voice that's been calling all along. "Yes! It's waiting for the prayer to END! For someone to finish it! The "faithful" were supposed to be chanting along...all the way, until now! Reverend Mother...what could it be?" Lishnara could hardly contain herself!
"Among the sacred words used to close prayer from old Terra is Amen." The Bene Gesserit blinked. "Could it be? Pitched to their phonetics, such a word would then be pronounced AAAY-MIN!"
Both women bowed their heads and repeated the word with as high and nasal a voice as they could produce while saying the word! Breath then froze in their chests. Surely, there was some death-trap still undiscovered just waiting for their mistake...
The sound of a vacuum seal breaking was swiftly followed by the door sliding upward into a recess. A chamber, the size of an auditorium, lay before their eyes as harsh, cold white lights started to flicker on. Monitor screens fluttered and smaller lights blinked. The smell here was even more overpowering than the passageway was...Chemical sterility married to burning perfumes in a decrepit funeral parlor. As their eyes adjusted, they could see the forms of Tleilaxu science cultists, strewn about like lab coat-wearing toys abandoned by a giant, petulant toddler. No sign of breach or other outside catastrophe...the sinisterly-brilliant Tleilaxu geneticists and surgeons opted for suicide rather than risk their secrets being discovered once the ship was doomed. The medical machines here were similarly set for self-destruction...data reels smoked and bled as screens popped and fizzled out. Lishnara Shenn and Reverend Mother Florian walked through rows upon rows of plump forms atop metal slabs on wheels, covered by draping silver sheets pierced by tubes, wet-wires and other instrumentation. Mechanical arms dangled above, squid-like, armed with calipers, knives and cutterays. Dread stayed their hands from looking under the sheets...the smell of noxious cleansers and purification, the sight of strange fluids pooling in pans and buckets swirled with blood, then the nullentropy bins--essentially freezers for various harvested body parts. Primal horror, disgust, immeasurable anger and wrenching sadness sent tremors through the two women as they wandered through the arena. The bubbling of flasks and beakers reset by their entrance joined the noises of malfunctioning medical equipment, each sound hammering into the psyches of the Bene Gesserit and the Fish Speaker Sci-tech...so much so, that they could barely perceive the mewling moans of a single body that contorted under a filthy silver sheet, twisting in incredible agony...
"By the Light...," was all that the Reverend Mother could whisper before she slowly pulled the blood and chemical-stained sheet aside, and looked into the open, vacant eyes of who lie underneath.
Lishnara screamed...shrieked for the voiceless victim--for ALL the victims callously hidden underneath a shroud, stuck through with devices without any care, or shred of dignity. Her scream hurt her throat, and the painful throbbing in her head grew exponentially! She wanted to burst from her fury, and take everything along with it! The dead would welcome her righteous indignation, surely!
"They...they didn't finish..." The Reverend Mother gently supported and stroked the feverish, sweat-chilled forehead of the being on the table, her body distended with tubes, meters and all manner of devices intruding her tortured, discolored clammy flesh. Gross wounds and indelicate scars marred her pale, brutally abused, hairless body...from alterations, organ-harvesting and open maliciousness. "I hear you..." said the gentle Bene Gesserit sweetly, as if to a child who'd been frightened by a thunderous storm. A tube stole the drool from the endlessly pregnant, mutated and cybernetically-enhanced female. Mute, unable to resist...here was the Tleilaxu's secret of secrets--the mother of all their genetic prowess and mastery of medical creations: A virtually brain-dead Tleilaxu female, enslaved to be but a living factory--a womb--to provide whatever miraculous life or infernally damned creation their Masters' whims decided. An Axlotl tank.
"We have...ugh...we have to put it out of its misery! There's no other way! Everything--every ONE else is dead here!!! S-She shouldn't have to suffer anymore...not one second more!" Lishnara drew her Maula pistol and set it for explosive rounds, then aimed at the poor creature's center of mass...that domed, cursed and violated belly that sloshed with some peculiar nutrient bath. It...SHE...IT had to die!
"No! Lishnara Shenn...listen, if not to me, then to HER! She called to us! They didn't complete the lobotomy that they use to process their women and those they capture into docile Axlotl tanks! There's still a consciousness here...inside..." She caressed the sullen cheek of the immensely damaged girl, who gasped and trembled at the touch, so desperate for a kind caress, and to awaken from the ceaseless night that was her life. "She's ALIVE...and trying to break free!"
Before Lishnara could rally some protest--defend her choice to end the unnamed existence lying on the table and barely recognizable as even a highly-distorted humanoid female--the Bene Gesserit grasped her wrist and yanked her closer to the being's long-suffering face. Lishnara looked, then stared...seeing suddenly that the girl tried to look back at her! She's barely an adult...and she could have been me! "By the Maker! WHAT DID THEY DO TO YOU?" Lishnara shout echoed above the lab noises and the pounding in her mind. "WHAT DID THEY DO TO YOU!?"
The Reverend Mother Clarus Alexi Florian released her grip on Lishnara Shenn's wrist, then returned to affectionately stroking the unnamed Tleilaxu while looking over her nude body, mind racing with injury assessments and the voices within--Other Memories from generations of maternal healers--clamoring with medical advice! "I intend to rescue you, my dear...yes. I will help you..."
"Captain G'Leal...I think that there's something coming into visible scanner proximity," Ensign Galeene Palanka announced excitedly, letting optimism coat her words like a candy shell. She increased magnification and enhanced the image of the rear approaching object that seemed like a jewel newly sown into the cluttered tapestry of the expanse. "In the God Emperor's name, I...I think that it's a Guild Shuttle! We're SAVED!" Junior officers joined in the sudden jubilation while the more experienced senior officers tried to temper their optimism with learned caution.
"Open communications to that ship as soon as it's in range--tight Theta Red frequency. If it's a friendly Guild ship, they'll know right away that we're on the same side and, if it's a Tleilaxu imposter...well, they likely won't know to even scan at that band. Hopefully. Steady on, people...we're in enemy space. Let's present a professional face, hmm?!" The captain leaned a little forward in her chair while her first mate, Commander Wheering, flanked her on the right.
"This is bold for the Space Guild, is it not? I did not imagine that they cared." She smirked as the other ship, now clearly marked with the Guild Cartouche symbol, carefully approached closer. More cheers spontaneously erupted, and a feeling of deliverance started to blossom through the Jade Phoenix. Commander Delia Wheeling locked her violet eyes onto the prow of the ship, watching for weapon ports to open and fire. Caution! Danger! But where? From the Guild? What?
"Salutations from Guild Shuttle Borantz, captain and crew of the Jade Phoenix! I am Guildsman Thareg No'kedy...an agent of Navigator Ular attached to the Heighliner Vantage Prime which brought you here from Junction 10-B-B. You never returned our hails and the departure time passed...I take it that you require assistance?!" The man was dressed in a crisp burgundy singlesuit with gold trim at the sleeve cuffs and high collar, shock of amber hair combed straight back that revealed small white implanted communication devices for ears attached to a narrow head that boasted shockingly angular features. A grin that almost bisected his jaw shone brightly with polished teeth.
"Guildsman No'kedy, you are a most welcome sight! YES, we would appreciate any assistance that the Guild can offer us. There is one matter, however...we sent a ship out further into the debris field searching for salvageable parts. We're not sure if they're OK or...?" The captain tried to smile disarmingly. "Would it be...impossible...to wait for them...or send someone to retrieve that ship? They're members of our crew--"
"Captain...I assure you that I want to cooperate, truly...," the Guildsman said, looking increasingly uncomfortable as he spoke, "But we have waited. We have other stops...people and goods to transport...obligations to meet. I am here because your Bene Gesserit attaché has paid--in advance and good faith--for insurance which includes additional efforts made to ensure your safe return. Is she available?! Perhaps further terms and payment options can be negotiated?" The Guildsman produced a calc-band from under one of his sleeves and rapidly started to punch in formulae.
"Guildsman No'kedy...the Reverend Mother Florian was on the vessel of which I speak! We want to retrieve her and one of my officers who risked themselves to help restore functionality to our ship. Please, be reasonable!"
"Oh, but I AM being reasonable...contractually so, as well as independently! Rescuing Fish Speakers from a war zone is normally far outside our mandate, but we remember our obligations and the Reverend Mother did pay well for such protections. It is a shame that she is not here to receive the full benefit--pity, really! But, I am certain that she of all people could appreciate our situation and the cost..." The Guildsman took hold of the steering throttle of his immaculate, porcelain ship. "There's refreshments and lovely suites set aside for you all. Shall we depart? I really must insist..." The Guildsman's mouth ticked and he pulled a bit at his choking collar nervously. "Tleilaxu space is dangerous space, after all."
Mixed emotions ran rampant through the Jade Phoenix as they weighed their options. The whole crew--minus their Sci-Tech and Bene Gesserit advisor--could take that attractive shuttle back to the titanic heighliner and potentially be home shortly after the Navigator permitted the space-fold jump! He wouldn't risk all those lives in that transport ship--including his irreplaceable own--to enter the expanse, no...but having an agent ferry Fish Speakers from the brink, that might prove profitable--even ambitious or (heavens forbid) noble! The crew didn't want to leave anyone behind, particularly a somewhat pleasant if unremarkable Science Officer and an invaluable Reverend Mother...but they had few options and who even knew whether the scout ship would ever return? It seemed like the answer was crystal clear.
"Guildsman No'kedy...we ACCEPT your most reasonable and accommodating offer to deliver us from this space. Please dock with us and we'll come aboard with all haste and minimal carry-ons. I'll take responsibility for...the losses. Agreed?" Captain G'Leal suppressed her disgust at the Guildsman...and herself. She wanted to save her crew--what's left of her crew. She was responsible for them. She would mourn all those who didn't make it home.
"Wonderful! I'm so glad that we have an accord! Renegotiating terms can sometimes be so disruptive and upsetting to all parties, don't you know. OK...let's get you ladies back to Junction and from there to your respective homes! Star-1 Suites for you all in the interim! Smiles!" The Guildsman started up his engines and resumed his approach to the Jade Phoenix, whistling a happy tune that only he could hear.
"Forgive me my manner, Guildsman No'kedy...but did you call for additional assistance in this evacuation effort?" Officer Yanique Osiren's nose scrunched just a bit as she posed the question, looking from her sensor panel to the aft view screen and back again. Normally Ensign Palanka was tasked with monitoring the main sensor array for all activity that might affect the ship, and she was, but a ripple in the sub-space communication band caught her eye--a minuscule blip that couldn't be important, but...
"What is your officer there implying? There is no other ship--I came alone and I am to bring you back to the heighliner. Please...do not distract me with further nonsense. I do not want to be here any longer than absolutely necessary! Prepare for my--"
The first hit came from a lasgun mounted on a Tleilaxu patrol ship that masked itself in a sub-space bubble, followed by a barrage from twin charged particle cannons! The shuttle's shields barely absorbed the focused energy attack, then collapsed altogether under the relentless pounding of the particle cannons. Guildsman No'kedy attempted to send an emergency distress signal to his heighliner before jettisoning out in a Guild neutrality life pod...to fire upon one was to forfeit Guild transport privileges and endanger protections under the Imperial Constitution. The patrol ship paused just a moment to align his craft's weaponry, then opened fire! The life--and death--of a Guild agent meant little to the Face Dancer who was monitoring for activity in the Denebvin Passage. Treaties. Contracts. They all burned the same under hot lepton fire. All that was left was more debris...organic and mechanical...to join the rest. Satisfied at the carnage done, the patrol ship turned to go back on its way.
"Unleash Sheol on that ship! Fire!!" The Captain raced over to helm control, and stood beside the weapons officer as she instantly launched a salvo of missiles, then strafed the patrol ship with particle cannons. Again, the enhanced abilities of that pilot proved to be a match for all but the most able combatant--thankfully the Jade Phoenix was populated by warrior-bred women who represented some of the most capable fighters in the Imperium!
"No escape for that ship--if it gets back to Thalim One, we're all dead! Ram the damn thing if you have to, but don't let that Tleilaxu go! Take it down! Destroy that ship!!" The captain pounded on the controls, rabid in her intensity! The commander, 2nd in rank but as anxious to prevent the enemy patrol ship from gathering reinforcements, went straight to the navigation controls and pushed the smaller engines hard before looking to the main thrusters. Engineering said that they were unreliable...a last resort...they may not function after a full burst...might even rupture if pushed to far...
"Commander Wheering! This is my station...I am responsible for the propulsion of the Jade Phoenix...her engines are being tested sorely as it is! Engineering trusts me to manage our acceleration and steering. The Captain herself assigned me to this responsibility!" Ensign Palanka looked up into the towering commander's face, searching for reason in the heat of battle. "We cannot go any faster."
"Commander...the Ensign is endangering our mission and all our lives on the notion that this ship cannot utilize its main thrusters! Relieve Ensign Palanka immediately! Take her station and give me full power to the engines! Shoot her if she hesitates! That's an order, Commander Wheering!" The captain glanced back at the main forward screen, then screamed at her first officer. "IT'S GETTING AWAY! We need full power--NOW!!"
Commander Wheering took aim, then fired right at the ensign, who was more like a daughter to her--and many other members of the crew--than just a crewmate. The commander hurriedly shoved the girl off the chair and onto the floor while the ensign contemplated just what occurred and wondered at the growing bloodstain on her top. Fast hands blurred as new navigational parameters were set, then the engines engaged at full output! The ship lurched forward, then went to full burn--racing after the Tleilaxu patrol ship like an avenging eagle after one who had stolen from its nest. "We're at full ahead and closing, Captain G'Leal! Main engines are hot and I've got flags from Engineering...we cannot maintain this pace! CAPTAIN!"
"Commander...you took your shot and showed your mettle...now it's my turn to make the shot! FIRE! All batteries...FIRE!!"
The attack by the Jade Phoenix was decisive and deadly! The amount of fire was too much for a squadron of fighters to survive, and would have taken out a star cruiser with still ammo enough to dispatch any other. The lone Tleilaxu patrol ship, along with its pilot and anyone else aboard, burst into a beautiful, satisfying flower of glowing space dust.
"I got you...," the captain said, more somber as she started to realize what it took to accomplish her objective. The ship's bridge crew at first cheered in congratulations but, as they saw the prone form of the ensign being examined by one of the remaining medics, elation shortly dissipated. Then the ship just stopped. Emergency power snapped back on, and the whole Jade Phoenix became as dark as anyone's mood. The last thing anyone saw before the screens went to energy-saving mode was a giant derelict floating within a cloud of debris a relatively short distance away...and a Fish Speaker Imperial scout ship attached to it.
"Captain G'Leal. This is Chief Engineer Bachon. I respectfully request that you kindly STOP DESTROYIN' MY GODDAMNED SHIP! That is all." The engineer took a swig of her ever-present brandy and wiped her lips with her wrist. We're never gettin' out of here. We're as good as done. Unbelievable... She took another gulp, put the bottle back into her work pants, shook her head in dismay and miserably went back to trying to patch the engine back together again.
Chapter 3: Awakenings and Nightmares
The idea of liberating a Tleilaxu female from the clutches of barbaric slavery and cruel scientific exploitation seemed like such a straightforward thing, but the reality was far from simple. Hours later, neither Science Technician Fish Speaker Lishnara Shenn nor Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother Clarus Alexi Florian knew anything about even basic Tleilaxu language, and far less about their dark medical arts! The Tleilaxu were scorned throughout the Imperium for defying all ethics and mores save their incomprehensible codes. Easier to sympathize with Shaitan than understand the reclusive, despised race. Yet, there was a life hanging in the balance...one that somehow reached across space to cry for help, and who was still begging to be free.
"Lishnara Shenn...I need to access any medical records and scientific journals that can be retrieved from this vessel. How can we do it?" The Bene Gesserit witch had already scoured the operating arena for anything that she could recognize, both personally and through the help of her Other Memories: the accumulation of the knowledge and experiences of past lifetimes that linked her heritage back, conceivably however improbably, to the farthest human genesis. Diving into such an expansive past was not without its perils, and being able to unlock memories did not always yield appropriate solutions to the NOW. In this case, not even the most daring exobiologist in her vast array of accessible, helpful "ghosts" had ever seen a Tleilaxu female. Truth is, only a very limited number of Tleilaxu themselves--apart from their scientific community and their Face Dancer lab assistants--interacted with the poor things, if only to rob them of even the lowliest of dignities. Cattle on other worlds fared far better on many less developed worlds than Tleilax.
"Reverend Mother...the Tleilaxu were quite thorough with destroying their information stores aboard this ship once they felt threatened...and they killed themselves, too, rather than risk anything about their practices being exposed. This ship still existing is an anomaly! You saw the captain...he most likely died along with the rest of bridge crew just as he was ordering the scuttle command. I'm...I'm glad that he never finished that sentence now..." Lishnara dared to touch the limp, fine-boned hand of the unnamed semi-comatose young woman, then took the hand between hers and gave it an encouraging gentle squeeze. I'm sorry for how I reacted when I saw you, friend. I just...the anger at what they did to you...at what they left you like...it was...you don't deserve to be like this. I'm so sorry!" Lishnara wrestled with her emotions every time she looked at the flaccid, unblinking face of the girl. She wondered who she might be, or become, if only there was some way to revive her...restore her somehow. "I'm going to try to have what's left of the ships' own sensors scan for any other reasonably intact rooms and terminals. Maybe there's a data-pad, some ridullian crystal sheets, or a shingawire spool with a lecture on "Restoring an Atloxol tank to a person" lying around! I feel useless otherwise..." Lishnara, having explored the lab space more thoroughly, discovered a few alternatives to the original passage, including a short quick-rail car that was used to carry the bulk of the scientists from their work to a personal, exclusive level of the ship. It seemed to Lishnara that the only things that Tleilaxu males did in common was pray at their on-board temple, bathe, and eat in a communal cafeteria that smelled almost as bad as a spice-rack crossed with an abattoir. She vowed to starve before consuming anything from that cesspool!
"You are not useless, Lishnara Shenn...you help more than you realize, even when you challenge me. I sense that our 'patient' has taken a liking to you...when you held her hand, she seemed to become less afraid and more...focused. She is aware of us...and she is trying to communicate with us, albeit at a most basic level for now. I'm administering what I believe to be neuro-soothers...they replace feelings of intense pain with something approximating warmth and comfort. It's a start...I am teaching myself the Tleilaxu language and how to use their devices as I go." Reverend Mother Florian changed one of the dressings that she earlier applied, then placed a repurposed seat pad that she slashed and made softer under head of the nameless Tleilaxu. "I think that might feel much better."
"I think she's grateful, Reverend Mother. I can almost feel her saying thank you!"
As Lishnara Shenn walked through the ship alone, her mind started to wander and she felt troubled. First, she wondered at the status of those she left behind on the Jade Phoenix...she'd been so busy exploring the Tleilaxu behemoth, dealing with the Face Dancer patrol squadron alongside Reverend Mother Florian and, of course, the discovery of the surgery arena that she'd almost forgotten her primary mission: To get the necessary parts she and the other engineers needed to repair their ship. Period. She chided herself momentarily for losing focus...but then, wasn't the discoveries that the two women made worth the delay? She then thought about the still-unnamed Tleilaxu in their care...who appeared to be the sole survivor of both a tragedy and a mass suicide. A few things nagged at her subconscious and failed to be reconciled still. What would drive the Tleilaxu males to use their females--and others that they "acquired"--as Axlotl tanks in the first place? What fueled such unwavering, incredible hatred of females? And how could the "patient"--as she was being referred to at the moment--reach out to both Lishnara and the Bene Gesserit shortly after they arrived in this star system? Lishnara was aware that she possessed some minor latent, undeveloped potential for telepathy--the God Emperor's own breeding program improved upon the much older, Bene Gesserit registry and did not shy away from recombining gene-stock from family lines such as the remarkable Atreides or even such ancient sources as the first families of Selusa Secondus, Geidi Prime, Rossak and perhaps even old Terra once known as Earth. Genetic engineering was all but eradicated and outlawed throughout lawful space but selective breeding was a whole other matter, as old as farming! Bene Gesserits...they guarded their secrets, but few doubted that their vaulted abilities were a very direct combination of good breeding and some of the most extensive physical and mental training in the galaxy, perhaps the universe itself. Was the "patient" just some random, genetic lottery winner--her psychically calling out a demonstration of some one-in-a-million, unexplored ability? This then led Lishnara to recall the Ancient Schools that formed in response to the Machine threat that was at the heart of the Butlerian Jihad--as human dependency to computers, robots and other mechanical minds was broken, the Bene Gesserit Order arose to improve human minds and bodies while safeguarding continued human existence; The School of Mentats began to train others exclusively in the ways of supreme logic and to act as living computers; then the Suk School arose from the pioneering doctors and scientists who treated the immense casualties from the great conflict and evolved into the elite medical community whose graduates are entrusted to even care for an Imperial Emperor! The Spacing Guild, while in regular practice not considered by the general public to be a "school", did train select individuals to serve both needs of the Navigators and fill enviable positions within interstellar banking that was the life's blood of CHOAM galactic commerce. Everything connected as part of the Imperium. The Tleilaxu were always separate from the rest. What manner of schools would THEY develop? How did they become so different?
Lishnara's contemplation was cut abruptly short as the Tleilaxu ship suddenly swayed and shook! She braced herself against a wall in the hallway that she was caught crossing, and she instinctively looked quickly toward one of the wide view ports that a strolling elite Tleilaxu might have enjoyed. Debris seemed to be flying in a fit outside, as if caught in some sort of vortex, and space itself seemed charged with churning energies! Her breath caught in her graceful throat as a wreckage at least twice the size of the Jade Phoenix was yanked from the gravitational pull of the Thalim star, through the Denebvin Passage and rocketing past the Tleilaxu super-ship! Other debris raced by--and through--the vessel--leaving no time to react or escape! An alarm wailed, then stuttered and faded out...exhausted from trying to warn a dead crew to danger in an oft-repeated cycle. Then, as quickly as the event began, it ceased. Lishnara made her way to the bridge and, just as she got there, she saw something that resembled a black hole collapsing in upon itself and just disappearing! A broken Tleilaxu voice recording spoke urgently throughout the ship, then she felt a short surge in the engines that almost caused her to lose balance. She looked to the captain, then the rest of the crew, and back to him again. His arms--his hands--still frozen in the last effort made. Lishnara went beside him, to see from his perspective and try to understand what he was doing. Before him was the main viewer and then at his fingers was his own control panel. The crew stayed at their stations. The dead man was reaching for some kind of override. Whatever that was...he saw it and wanted to turn back and get away!
When Lishnara finally made it back to the surgery arena, she was shocked again! The Reverend Mother had begun surgery on the patient, and seemed to have successfully removed the first--and among the largest--of her implants. The thing was a massive combination of monitor and delivery system, which would allow a scientist to better watch as he performed whatever adjustments inside her womb he deemed needed--the thing now lay separated from her at last, bloody and discarded. A pump was working hard to drain spilled blood and artificial fluids from the patient's tortured tummy while the Bene Gesserit delicately worked to close the opening and stem further bleeding.
"Lishnara Shenn...I don't suppose that you were yet successful with finding any medical information on the Tleilaxu?"
"What..? How did you..?
"Our patient remains attached, via implants, to the ship. The ship has maintained her for an indeterminate amount of time, but it is dying...and she is dying along with the ship. While you were away, the ship suffered another power loss, then somewhat recovered but that demonstrated that time was of the essence. I had an internal consultation and, it just so happens, that one of my ancestors was an aide to a Suk doctor. Her name was Blee Hyr. Rather remarkable, really...Blee was quite the apt pupil and had an interest in exobiology. So, while she herself never worked on a Tleilaxu in life, the doctor she worked under was involved in an autopsy of one who died--he secretly scanned the body in 3-D while he worked on it, and he shared it and his findings with her." The Bene Gesserit stepped aside, and the limp octopi-resembling device started up, said something in Tleilaxu, and continued where she left off. "Ingenious! It doesn't 'think', but it has the capability to mechanically perform some sequenced procedures once I stop. Imagine this place much like a factory or an assembly line; the doctors and scientists would do the main procedures while these things would provide a measure of assistance!"
"Let me get this straight...you performed major surgery on her based upon the memories of some dead medical assistant who worked on a holographic approximation of a Tleilaxu male?"
"Yes. That's right. Though I did accept other advisement as well from the memories of others in the applicable sciences."
"Nobody in your memories ever saw a FEMALE Tleilaxu though, right?! The chance you took--"
"It was a calculated risk, Lishnara Shenn. Their biology is basically human with some genetic crossing countless millennia ago and further genetic and cybernetic tweaks. I won't pretend to understand it all, but at least I was able to keep her alive and remove the first--and certainly not the last--of the implants that cause her so much unnecessary discomfort! It's a risk I was willing to take and I intend to do it again...and proceed until she is restored to some degree of a life worth continuing! Besides..." The Reverend Mother paused, in part to catch her breath and to calm herself, then said, "She WANTS me to continue: She touched something within us, and she would rather die than remain trapped in this state, alone."
"We ALL might die here if we don't get off this ship as soon as possible, Reverend Mother. I think I'm starting to understand what happened here...and why this area of space is so much more hazardous than we ever imagined. Fish Speaker training taught us that this Denebvin Passage was a major Tleilaxu route to unallied planets and used by smugglers to escape the reach of the Imperium. This space had an asteroid field, but it also was known to have an unusual current of its own--like a gravitational eddy. Some ships would use that extra push to transverse large distances--not everyone could afford or even convince the Guild to transport them, especially out here. It's not a giant leap to suggest that it could have also been one of the most important means for the Tleilaxu to try to escape during the Famine Times, right? And, how many ships were lost during that herd of migration? How many lives were lost as they tried new routes...experimented with new technologies? They were desperate...and isolated..."
"Get to it, Lishnara Shenn! What is your hypothesis?!"
"Without cooperation from the rest of the Imperium, they turned to alternatives. Twisted Mentats working with Tleilaxu Masters built their own imperfect version of a Guild heighliner--this ship! They had no access to the schematics, the developed technologies or the Navigators...so they approximated. But it was tragically, fatally flawed! I believe that this ship was equipped with imitation Holtzman space-fold engines and, if we look further, either a machine or lab-bred counterfeit Navigator. They took chances...and it may have even worked sometimes...but no machine or other substitute has ever matched the abilities of a Guild Navigator at the helm of a real heighliner. Not yet. Do you understand, Reverend Mother? Their gamble worked for a short while...until it literally blew up in their faces...and continues to go on and on until one day it might consume this system and the next until it finally runs out of energy and collapses forever. Instead of folding space, they created a very voracious--and highly unstable--wormhole. Their naive attempts...their so-desperate attempts...destabilized the already-existing phenomena that they barely understood and transformed this space into--this." Lishnara opened her arms and then let them fall limply at her sides, then sighed. "The continued traffic here...patrols, commerce, exploration...they're all feeding the artificial wormhole and making it worse. I don't know when the next major event might occur, but we're running out of time, just like our dear friend here..."
Closures and Openings
Navigators rarely spoke. This was accepted, as from the moment they begin their barely-human mutant lives in service of the Spacing Guild, their minds think in terms of higher-order mathematics, probabilities and prescience. Supersaturated with the spice, melange, they were able to see enough into the future to navigate their immense heighliners across seemingly impossible distances accurately, safely...see the path, and precisely adjust the incredible Holtzman generators that was theirs to control. Without Navigators, without the Guild, interplanetary travel would come to a creep and interstellar anything would be extinct. Such vast intelligence, bearing such burdens, had difficulty slowing down their thoughts and comprehending more mundane matters such as individual lives or other minutia. So, when a Navigator pauses to speak or ask a question, it is a moment taken of grave import.
"Navigator Ular, my sincerest apologies! We have...ahem...lost contact with Guildsman Agent No'kedy and are still working to reestablish same shortly. The shuttle should have been back some time ago, or he should have informed us of any further delay! Again, all accountable are sorry." The Guildsman bowed and kept his eyes averted, in proper deference. He waited patiently for the Navigator to either speak further or wave an atrophied, webbed limb to indicate his dismissal.
"This expanse before us...near the edge of the Tleilaxu territories...it troubles me." The Navigator refocused his gaze, trying to see the present through the haze of the swirling gases he breathed and swam in. Movements not unlike a whale's allowed the Navigator the freedom to turn and move about his armored tank-home.
The Guildsman snapped straight up, continuing to avert his eyes. "It troubles all of us, Navigator Ular. We remain contractually obligated to periodically transport the Bene Gesserit and Fish Speakers here...part of their way to keep tabs on and maintain containment of the worst of Tleilaxu abuses, I understand. We have a good relationship with the former but have little to do with the filthy--." His small mouth hung as he was cut off.
"Why do we remain here? Explain."
"I...uh...the shuttle never returned. Our clients remain in the expanse. We...didn't want to abandon them."
"There are many places we must be...and for each I must understand all that such travel entails. I must see every world, star, and particle between the now and the next instant. To do otherwise...to be distracted and unmindful...negligent...is to invite chaos and disaster...to all aboard...all of us."
The Guildsman gulped, a gesture made more extreme by a throat pouch that hinted at some amphibian heritage expressed via mutation. Exposure to concentrated spice gas sometimes had unfortunate consequences. "I understand, Navigator Ular. No one wants to disrupt your concentration. We...we can be underway immediately, if that is what you want, Navigator Ular. Our lawyers and accountants can handle the details regarding the...decision."
"This place...it disrupts my prescience...there is a spatial disturbance here that's best to remain avoided. The Bene Gesserit and the Fish Speakers...they are the responsibility of their own, ultimately. Let them know that effort was made to retrieve their comrades but...they must be the ones to investigate any further. I will not risk our existence. I will no longer accept this delay. There are...more places we must go... Do you comprehend? We have other obligations..."
"Consider the matter settled, Navigator Ular. I will see to it all." Another full bow, never eye contact. The Guildsman began to backpedal across the bridge that overlooked the great chasm where the towering enclosure that housed the Navigator rested. Foolish Fish Speakers! It's their own doing...meddling throughout the Imperium, even though their numbers are greatly diminished and their precious God Emperor is long deceased. What is their authority anymore? Why the Bene Gesserit continue to invest so much to maintain a relationship with the waning remnants of the broken establishment, I do not know! The Guild endures...but...I dare not think for how much longer. Not enough spice...Navigators dying...everywhere it's coming apart! Oh!!"
Breaking Through and Falling Out
"There is...that is to say...I have heard..." Commander Wheering struggled to get it out. She admired Captain G'Leal and had a strong working relationship with the woman. If friendship could apply, she was willing to even think that there might be one shared between them! This would not help any such from lasting.
"Out with it, Commander. Your stammering is most annoying and completely unbecoming of an Officer of Fish Speaker caliber. You're my first mate...if you cannot speak freely when I ask it--." Her voice trailed off as she looked at her right wrist, now minus the hand that she came aboard with. It looked like a melted candle. The Fish Speaker medic was no Suk and what was available now was barely battlefield medicine. Her remaining, injured hand trembled more--sometimes spasmodically--and the pain throughout her body was nearly unbearable.
"Sir. The crew has expressed their increasing concern about...our well-being and whether...ah...a change in command is necessary for our future success and survival. Forgive me, but with all due respect...you don't look well at all, Captain. You need to rest and...what happened on the bridge--" Her bow lips stopped moving at the whip-snap motion upward of her Captain's usable hand with a tremulous finger raised. She felt her heart thumping.
"I tried to save us. I TRIED TO SAVE US!" The Captain paced her Spartan quarters, every movement wracked with pain and involuntary shakes. She refused to lay on the cot, sit in the chair or make any attempt at obtaining comfort there. "That girl you shot...she LIVED, yes? Not everyone has in this cursed undertaking, no. I made the call...pursue and destroy the hostile Tleilaxu patrol craft. It was...we had to do it! If it had called reinforcements...had even ONE Face Dancer made it aboard and started to mimic us...total disaster! TOTAL! The engines...we can fix them!"
"No." The finality was galling and horrific. Both women hung on it for moments, dumbstruck. Commander Wheering thought it kinder for the ship to mercifully detonate just then.
"I...I cannot...will NOT accept that answer, Commander! No--what is that?! Admittance of defeat?! We're not defeated! Laziness...lack of creativity/ingenuity...incentive! Is the crew without incentive? Do they need further motivation?! AM I THE ONLY ONE THAT WANTS TO GET OUT OF HERE?!!" With her only hand, she flung her unused chair at Commander Wheering who just barely was able to get out of its way. "Leave my presence, Wheering...now, or I will gut you and toss your empty, useless carcass out the nearest airlock! GO!"
"We're...going to take a vote. You aren't well..." Commander Delia Wheering raced off as far and as fast as she could despite her own untreated injuries, the haunting ranting of her captain not far behind. She hated having to do it...deliver such bad tidings...but it was her responsibility, and she was the one who suggested that the captain was no longer fit to command.
Meanwhile, a meeting of most of the rest of the crew took place in one of the remaining intact storage holds of the Jade Phoenix. Raised voices punctuated mutual concerns and there was no shortage of frustration in the room: the heavily-damaged ship was adrift; power remained spotty; supplies wouldn't last and any hope of receiving the necessary parts to make repairs seemed to grow more remote by the moment. Pointed accusations were hurled like war javelins from bridge officers to crew and back again, and several scuffles erupted. Finally, during one of the longest protracted shouting conflicts, it was the Chief Engineer who arose as conciliator of sorts. She reminded the crew of their duty and that they should be grateful for their lives, despite the dire predicament, and that working together was still the best option available. "We can't go on like this," reasoned Chief Engineer, Pasha Bachon to her diverse shipmates during one of the infrequent lulls in their arguing. "Being at each other's throats is sure to get us killed quick. I think maybe we have another problem here, and I'd kindly ask the medics to confirm...but, listen to us! We're not in our right minds anymore! Somethin's happening..."
"What are you suggesting, Chief Engineer--that we're going mad? Nonsense. We're all tired and under stress. That's it. Now, what's taking Commander Wheering? Shouldn't she be back by now? Let's get this vote done." The soldier who spoke wasn't the most patient or conversational of types aboard, but her speech seemed more edged than normal, and her body visibly shook as if from a surge of fight-or-flight adrenaline. "Can we vote already?!" She turned, then rested her forehead against one of several towering metal crates that occupied the hold.
"You look like you've broken out into a cold sweat, Meina. Try to calm down...relax. We're all tense and upset, but you need to take it easy," the nearest medic said comfortingly. The medic touched the soldiers' arm and it involuntarily flinched dramatically for all to witness. Collective gasps and looks of concern swept through those assembled. The medic then took a step back, withdrew a palm-sized med scanner from one of her uniform's pouches, activated it and watched the readout with grave intensity. "I suspected that you--as most of us--might be suffering from spice withdrawal due to the strict rationing we've had to live with since our becoming 'guests' in this expanse. I believe that I'll have to amend my tentative diagnosis. Each medic here should scan their nearest neighbor and then themselves." The medic's face took on a rueful cast as she faced the crew.
"What are we dealin' with, doc? What's your theory?" The Chief Engineer chewed her bottom lip a bit and felt her stomach knot with ice water.
"This is a preliminary analysis, of course, and more tests have to be run...I could be wrong."
"Out with it!"
"The ship's shield fluctuations and the hull breaches may have left us vulnerable to some sort of radiation exposure," she announced with trepidation. "The mood swings, violent outbursts, trouble focusing and even the rash of ticks and trembling that have been reported may be due to this space." She then sighed and spoke what seemed a final pronouncement. "Even if we escape here, without immediate proper medical attention...soon we may all be irrevocably damaged and left insane if we don't die first."
Chapter 4: Final Departures and Destinations
The broken Tleilaxu spacecraft buckled and shuddered like a dying, gasping beast as if trying to forewarn the living occupants of its impending demise. Bene Gesserit Clarus Alexi Florian recruited Fish Speaker Sci-Tech Lishnara Shenn to assist in quickly identifying and making the necessary alterations needed to key equipment so that they and the as-yet unnamed 'patient' could become mobile and evacuate at their earliest opportunity. Lishnara could hardly believe the progress that the Reverend Mother accomplished in such a short time and with only piecemeal knowledge guiding her: Nearly 80% of the torturous devices were removed and their related injuries patched as best as possible under the circumstances. During a brief moment's pause, Lishnara looked out at the ghost-haunted arena toward the less fortunate multitude...so many with their limbs hewn, wombs at various states of obscene distension and violated by instrumentation, and pleading dead eyes beneath casually draped sheets upon faces that silently cried out into forever for release. She looked back at the woman that they managed to rescue--the only one--and tried to take comfort in doing that much as she made final preparations.
"I can't promise you much, Sasi'a, but the Jade Phoenix has got to be an improvement over being here, right?" Lishnara asked with a playful smirk. She double-checked the connections to the remaining attached devices that she had carefully placed on the side of the examination table and looked more thoughtfully into the now placid-appearing Tleilaxu female. "Soon we'll rejoin the others and try to leave all this behind! No more pain..." Lishnara's attention snapped to her suit's chronometer. "Time's up, Reverend Mother. We only have so much breathable air and this ship is past due for another tug-of-war verses that anomaly outside. We have to go!" Lishnara disengaged locks on the examination table and took hold of handles on one end. "Take the other side and we'll go out the fastest route to the scout ship."
"Sasi'a...you named her after a rare Ixian flower, yes?" The Reverend Mother lifted her end of the table as she inquired, interested. "If memory serves, it is extremely beautiful." She led the way through the main path of the arena and then to the door. She then stopped and drew an arcane sign with her fingers in the air, whispered something, and proceeded with Lishnara and Sasi'a through a corridor.
"It is...," replied Lishnara wistfully, "A flower that's so rare that it's legendary. To see one is considered a blessing." Lishnara's face took on a serious expression. "Reverend Mother...you're not like any of the other Bene Gesserit Sisters that I have ever met. You're more...relaxed...and compassionate. Even just a second ago...you appeared to be openly praying. The others...they practically sneered at the faithful when they saw them. I don't understand what your people believe in."
"They typically believe in the Sisterhood and their own abilities, mostly. Religion and mystique are often tools used by them to an end, but there are yet some of us who ascribe to loftier goals and higher convictions..." The Bene Gesserit led them around a bend and up a ramp, happy that they had discovered more than one way to travel from the lab through to the rest of the ship. "There was a time, long past, that faith played a much greater part in our core system of learning, and in our mission. We learned, at terrible cost, to be more careful about how we express our own beliefs and what abilities we have. So many secrets kept..." Her eyes appeared to sparkle in the dark as the lights flicked. "You have a question..."
Lishnara almost pulled away from her gaze before finally bringing forth her query with a dry mouth. "Why are you here? I mean, what brought you on this mission with us, and don't tell me that you're just another Bene Gesserit overseer and that this was just a routine trip to check up on the Tleilaxu! I've had it. I want to know the truth!"
"The truth can be many things, Lishnara Shenn. Some truths are malleable, and others incredibly hard. Depending on the truth spoken, it can differ between persons and alter over time, so be wary when you ask of truth, my dear...the truth may be the worst of things to pursue."
"Who are you?" Lishnara almost whispered the question. She stopped in her tracks just as the scout ship was within reach. "Why are we really here? Can you at least tell me something so I can know what I'm risking my life over?" Lishnara looked down at Sasi'a, then back up into the all-blue eyes of the Reverend Mother.
"I am...a non-conformist, I suppose. I am here on a mission of conscience--against the directions of the Bene Gesserit Order--to follow up on a suspicion and atone for terrible failures. The Sisterhood owes a terrible debt for what we did, and what we caused..." Reverend Mother Florian looked down and struggled to maintain her emotional control. "This poor creature...indeed, all of the women butchered and mutilated...are due to our unforgivable mistakes. It is a secret...and our eternal shame. No, we deserve nothing short of our damnation...for our foolish meddling...and the creation of the Bene Tleilax."
When Commander Delia Wheering resumed her post on the bridge of the Jade Phoenix, she wasn't expecting to find virtually the rest of the ship's crew gathered there. They stared at her with expressions that spoke of grievous desperation and palpable anxiety. She felt like a trapped animal under their seeking eyes, and wondered if she made a mistake by suggesting the vote.
"What have I walked into here? Has something new occurred? Report."
"A moment please, Commander. I need to scan you now, and it cannot wait." The concerned medic rushed over to the commander's side and began her exam. The small device in her hand chirped and beeped, making a noise all the more sharp by the breath-held silence. She then let out a sigh of some relief. "You're...fine, for now. Your constitution has resisted the brunt of the damage. Better breeding, I'd say. Once I scan the captain, I recommend that we use what's left of our emergency power to get us as far away from here as absolutely possible."
"Medic, you better explain better than that for me to follow any such suggestion." Commander Wheering folded her arms and looked at the medic sternly. "What was that med-scan for? Why is everybody up here when there's work to do?!" She looked around again at the gloomy crew present. Some shifted their weight from foot to foot or seemed to be trying to suppress some nervous energy. All looked as if they'd not slept or ate well in many days, a fact that none wanted to acknowledge openly. Just then, an image of another lost ship and crew sprung to the commander's mind--the Ampoliros, said to sail endlessly in the starry void without hope, all hands forever on deck. She pushed down a shiver and returned her attention to the medic.
"Commander, it is my duty to inform you that more than half of the crew is suffering from a radiation-related condition that threatens their lives and mental stability. I believe that we have all been exposed, and that the damage may become irreversible unless we can obtain sufficient care and prevent further contamination." The medic raised her pointed chin slightly but kept the rest of her posture at as much ease as she possibly could.
"Medic Loris, is it? The Captain and I would be more than happy to provide access to such care and leave this radiation-contaminated part of space at our earliest opportunity...IF we could manage either." The Commander walked to the front of the bridge, scowled as she noticed a chunk of another ship's bridge flying by, turning end over end as it did. She pulled herself from the main screen and addressed the crew and that medic once more. "Unfortunately, we seem to be in a situation that is uncooperative and at odds with such desires." She looked out again, seeing the wreck of the Tleilaxu super-cruiser some distance away. "I suggest that, until we discover a solution to our predicament, what's left of our remaining environmental suits be utilized as a means of shielding ourselves from further irradiation. Stabilizing what's left of power might buy us some time as well. Ration what medicine you can provide, Medic Loris, to counteract the radiation sickness. If I think of anything else, you'll all be informed. Dismissed!" Commander Wheering went back to her seat with a short huff, then gazed back at the main forward view screen almost mesmerized by the movements of the machine fragments outside and the massive vessel in the distance before them.
By the time that the captain resumed her seat next to the commander, the crew were reluctantly back at their stations and dressed in what usable protective gear they could obtain. Without drawing straws or using some other means of determining fate, a few resigned themselves to simply hope that their natural toughness and physical conditioning would forestall their anticipated deterioration. The meager supply of viable medications were similarly distributed, though with far fewer recipients and little possibility of being a cure. The captain herself looked as if she could see every one of their soured lives fading into the ether. She wanted to remain firm, stable and project competence but, after her meeting with the commander, she found only bitterness in her reserves.
"What are our options at this point? Anybody? Is this it, then...we just wait for the axe to fall? Maybe I should spare us the suspense and self-destruct this ship, eh?! I'd rather we go out fighting and on our own terms, but..." she shrugged and then said with brittle humor, "We could just give up and blow up, right? Bang! Instant end and no mess to clean up." The captain glowered as the medic swept in and started scanning her. "What do you think you're doing, damn you! Get that thing away from me before I..." She fidgeted in her seat and almost swung her stump at the younger woman just as the device made a series of bleeping sounds.
"I'm sorry, Captain...but it is as I feared: You, too, have been exposed to the radiation that has affected the rest of the crew to various degrees. We intended to hold a vote, but now the question is pretty much moot: Due to the progression of the radiation poisoning, I have no choice but to have you relieved of duty."
"Well...alright. I guess that it's settled then," she said calmly. She stood up stiffly, and straightened her jacket with her only hand. "You'll all come to regret this decision, I promise you. I will file formal court martial charges once we're back in normal space and we'll certainly see if this mutiny was worth it. Then again...hmmm? I rather not wait!"
Captain Bethrix G'Leal suddenly lunged for the command controls to initiate self-destruct, but was met by the steely presence of Commander Wheering who leveled a pistol at her face. Before the captain could act upon her next impulse, the other bridge crew members subdued her roughly. The captain struggled violently against her crewmates and it was some time before the she finally submitted to a combination of being outnumbered and physically overpowered in addition to tranquilizers administered by two medics in concert. Even after being forcefully restrained and drugged, the woman railed furiously against her being relieved.
"I don't know who's worse--the filthy, damned Tleilaxu or all of you! We'd already be dead without me! You can't do this! Release me, or I'll see you all strung up on death tripods! Argh!!"
"Captain G'Leal...I have no choice but to assume command and place you under supervised arrest in one of the holding cells until you receive treatment and regain your composure. I wish that there was an alternative." Commander Wheering sat in the older woman's chair and, with a waving gesture, ordered security to take the former captain away. Soon the snarling, vicious threats faded down a passage and was replaced by a heavy silence.
"Well..." said Commander Wheering to no one in particular, "That was unpleasant. I regret that it came to that, but I believe that our very survival now hangs in the balance. Let such be officially noted for record. Now...how exactly do we proceed? We've tried to resist the gravitational slipstream of the Denebvin Passage and that has failed. What if we were to follow it through? Navigation, run simulations and give me data...what are our chances to avoid being crushed like all the rest of these ships? Maybe we should dive forward instead of trying to go back! This was once a recognized Tleilaxu and smuggler route to the outlying territories, right?! There might be a friendly unallied world just waiting to render aid! If we can just escape this area, it's possible that we can get a transmission out..."
The crew on the bridge tried to feel optimistic upon hearing the commander's enthusiasm, but couldn't help but notice that her voice sounded just a little frantic then, and her body seemed to twitch slightly.
Truth and Dares
Lishnara Shenn helped bring Sasi'a to the scout ship, though she said little to the Bene Gesserit who capably carried the other end of the examination table that supported the Tleilaxu's supine body. How can I trust her? Bene TLEILAX? I can't believe...won't believe... Lishnara screamed internally and let her anguish be visible upon her face and set of shoulders. "You knew about this ship...and her...all along?! You witch! I should leave you here with your friends and--"
Reverend Mother Florian cut in. "Enough, Lishnara Shenn! You...you know less than nothing about it! By the Great Mother, I tell you that I did not know about the vessel or its' occupants. No...I was to be delivered to the Tleilaxu homeworld in a lifepod as part of my own investigation into what happened there. We knew that the Tleilaxu were secretive, and that no one had seen or heard from the true females of their kind in a terribly long time. It's worse than our most frightening fears...atrocities whose blood stains our entire order! That Sasi'a somehow is a psionic talent--especially in the state that she's in--is incredible and entirely unexpected. I never dared to hope that we would find one as her! I must help her! Please...let's put her aboard and go. I will explain." The Bene Gesserit Sister tried to proceed past the boarding hatch, but her Fish Speaker companion for the mission wouldn't budge.
"Tell me about the Bene Tleilax and how this is all your people's fault! We don't have much time, so I suggest the abridged version!"
"Can't we get off this coffin of a ship first? We've parts that are long overdue and there's Sasi'a to consider. I ask you, for her sake, let's go!" Reverend Mother Florian's countenance was one wracked with guilt and worry. She didn't want to use Voice or resort to violence, though whispers from Other Memory suggested that she toss her self-restrictions and be pragmatic for once! She fought down her own distress and dismissed the voices. "You must give me a chance, Lishnara Shenn. It's all I ask."
"I regret coming on this away mission with you, and I will never trust you! Get aboard, and know that--whatever your reasons or explanations--I will not forgive you. I hope that Sasi'a never does, either." Lishnara took the Tleilaxu female into the ship and plugged the remaining devices attached to her into the ships auxiliary power grid. After making certain that her guest was securely placed onto a med-bed, Lishnara briskly passed by the Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother and slipped into the pilot's chair. She closed all hatches, powered up the scout ship's engines and took off with a detached and serious mien.
"Lishnara Shenn...I do not expect for anyone to forgive me or those of the Sisterhood. We often do...questionable things in the name of preserving ourselves or the furtherance of our oft-hidden goals. That one of those goals is meant to be in the service of humanity--cultivating them--cannot excuse what we routinely rationalize and execute." She sighed, rubbed her face and then looked at the tense young woman who acted as pilot. "The Bene Tleilax was born of a missionary expedition several millennia ago to 'educate and civilize' the developing people we encountered there. They were an extremely patriarchal, superstitious and aggressive race that were nestled on a frontier world that once hosted an ancient, highly evolved and technically-advanced elder species known as the Maudru who left relics of their once-mighty culture throughout known space. Our representatives were to tame the Tleilaxu primitives and discover all that they could about the earlier Maudru civilization there." She paused and stared out at the many stars. "Understand that the native women--said to be gentle, passive and emotive--were treated by their counterparts as broodmares and slaves. It is believed that the missionaries taught some of the more promising Tleilaxu females such things that we take for granted as reading, writing, art...and then governing and the right to self-determination. The Sisterhood wanted to create more sisters...proud, strong, intelligent, and independent, with the will to even lead! The whole process was accelerated...shortcuts to their training was implemented while the customary safeguards to the psyche and ego were minimized if not entirely forgotten. They were encouraged--ENCOURAGED--to challenge the establishment! We blithely dismissed the native culture that was already present and the danger that we were placing those women in. Blinded by supreme arrogance, we rushed them...and the sudden and dramatic changes in the women most assuredly enraged their men to new heights of xenophobia and orthodoxy. They retaliated. Instead of establishing a more egalitarian society, we apparently polarized the populace further and ignited the wholesale slaughter and enslavement of every female on that planet that continues to this day! We...failed them all!"
Lishnara Shenn struggled to maintain her stoic exterior as she listened, and she glanced over at the bed that contained Sasi'a. "You set them up for disaster. You also abandoned them. You let your colony burn to the ground and left the Tleilaxu adrift in their misogynist mania. So, here we are...countless years later...with the Tleilaxu as a threat to everyone that they encounter and the remnants of their defeated female population reduced to brain-dead 'tanks'! Clones, Face Dancers, Gholas--life engineered from previously dead material--all of their genetic 'toys' are delivered via their suffering bodies and corrupted wombs! For all the Bene Gesserit's exalted powers and prowess, you're all just a cabal of manipulative cowards." Lishnara's knuckles went white, unseen beneath her gloves, as she strangled the control throttle of the scout ship. "I won't let you have Sasi'a, witch," she hissed. "I'll take her somewhere safe...anywhere that she might want to go but as far away from Tleilax and any Bene Gesserit influence as I possibly can." Caught up in the moment as she was, Lishnara failed to hear the movement further inside the cabin of the ship, or the shambling steps that drew closer until a shadow passed over her from behind.
The high-pitched voice was almost childlike, unsteady, as vocal cords unaccustomed to speech attempted to grasp a language only before heard amid recent labyrinthine nightmares, echoing in a tattered mind. Large, wet, staring amber eyes blinked slowly from a hairless head that rested upon a swan-like neck. Lungs fought to function on their own, and a pale, almost luminescent body covered with swirling light blue-gray patterns stood shivering upon feet that scarcely recalled their last walk. Her small, fleshy oval lips parted, and Sasi'a took a deep, shuddering breath before attempting another soft-spoken word.
"Pleez...s-stop-p. I...n-need yoo...not t-to fi-fight." Sasi'a reached up and rubbed her brow with a pained expression. "Yoo-or wor-ds h-hurt meeeee!" The woman staggered, then collapsed just as both Lishnara Shenn and Reverend Mother Florian sprang from their chairs and barely caught her.
LIshnara Shenn craddled the fallen Tleilaxu female in her arms and rocked her gently as the Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother Florian crouched beside them and took the beings elongated hand. Suddenly, all three minds were indivisible...linked...deepest memories and spontaneous surface thoughts shared, flowing. They together experienced the concentration-camp like existence that Sasi'a suffered as a child--nameless, treated as some thing that never saw or felt the warmth from the perpetually shining Thalim sun. Spirit broken, deprived of anything but the most rudimentary, brutal education to make her tractable, she shambled daily through darkened, twisting passageways underground that linked endless chambers where she was forced to perform menial labor. They felt the beatings, imprisonment, humiliation and interminable degradation that the hateful Tleilaxu males and their mutable Face Dancer minions subjected her and all the other captive females as their own--until, upon discovery of their burgeoning reproductive capacity at puberty, they were herded into the dreaded lab arenas. Shrieking screams became silent wails as their undernourished, misery-full minds were chemically obliterated in a saturation of caustic toxins, leaving what was left to experience every punishing alteration done and every terrible use found for the nearly conscious-less bodies.
Memories shifted, reorganized and resurfaced. A horrific industrial accident involving a plasma explosion claimed a little Ixian girl's family, leaving her orphaned, frightened and alone--then joyless years treated as an indebted trophy by one foster family after the next until she was old enough to emancipate herself from the uncaring system of revolving parents. Fish Speaker training provided desperately-sought structure, stability and a semblance of a family that Lishnara barely knew.
More memories intersected--a strict, busy life on a backwater, bucolic world. Dreams of making a greater difference than just toil and harvesting on a saber-grass plantation. If only her chores were solely about farming. Serving the mistress there was beyond galling; serving the master of the house was repeated rape and assault...until she fought back. They would never hurt anyone ever again. The courts weren't sympathetic...but a Bene Gesserit Proctor was. Her death sentence was commuted to service to the Sisterhood. She was rebuilt in their image--made into something that was equal parts warrior, courtesan, scholar and spy. Body and mind were honed to exceed the recognized limitations of humankind, and there were secrets. Even in shared memories, nearly impenetrable barriers guarded esoteric knowledge regarding science, politics, religion and mysticism. An incredible sense of duty and loyalty were nearly as paramount as Clarus Alexi Florian's sense of morality, faith and self. She lived to serve but she would not blindly follow anyone's orders or perform an act that was an affront to her beliefs. She was a rebel...a free-spirit...and an innovator. She had many admirers among her fellow Sisters, and sometimes suspected that she had twice as many detractors.
The stampede of Other Memories was like falling headlong into a rapid river that then bled into a churning ocean full of incalculable fellow swimmers grasping for a single, floating ring. The amplified cacophony threatened to overwhelm all three joined consciousnesses, until the more-experienced Reverend Mother Florian just asserted some control over the flow, giving Sasi'a an opening to erect her first ego-defensive shields. Grasping the concept with some excitement, the Tleilaxu female then placed similar psychic dampers within Lishnara Shenn so that her least-practiced and protected psyche could endure. When Sasi'a felt the strain becoming more than the others would survive, it was SHE who broke the link, fully in control.
"I am...aware. I now understand...you both. Thank you for rescuing me and...helping me become more whole than I might ever have...experienced." Sasi'a slowly arose, and then offered her hands to assist the other two women to their feet. She seemed at once disoriented and awe-struck, as if a lifetime of blindness was torn away. Her thin voice seemed almost far away. "I am sorry. I did not... I wanted..."
Shaken, but regaining her composure and footing, the Reverend Mother spoke for all their benefit--herself included. "You ARE a rare flower, Sasi'a...a psionic-empath of extremely high magnitude. Your raw talent for telepathy alone is astounding..." She nearly fell over, but Sasi'a supported her. "What you did just then...it was...communal. I saw--we all saw--"
"It...was almost instinct. Yes. We...we once could share thoughts...and feelings. Some of us. The m-males distrusted...hated. They...resisted. My ancestors...were once...like queens." A slight smile briefly flitted across Sasi'a's face at the thought before becoming increasingly introspective--and angry. "We...all of us...punished. Again and again. Replaced by technology...robbed of our minds...gave birth to..." She shuddered and her huge amber eyes grew darker. "I HATE them!" Her hands formed tightening fists and rage swelled. "Jealous men...cruel...all of them...need to pay! They must PAY!" Sasi'a let out a primal, animalistic scream, and the found herself not alone in her anguish. Not one but three voices--and an internal multitude--shouted their righteous fury to the heavens. Their furious, combined yell was abruptly cut short at the sound of a proximity alarm.
"What?! Ugh...so much pent-up anger...and power! I've felt nothing quite like it...as if every hurt and disappointment were set ablaze!" Frightened and shocked, Reverend Mother Florian pulled quickly away from the strangely captivating Sasi'a. "Stop! You have to...ah, control yourself. You're upset...and projecting it...overwhelming us. Your mind is not fully healed, Sasi'a. Do not use your abilities...not until we understand--"
"I set the ship to go..." Lishnara panted and tried to refocus as her mind still reeled, "...to return to the Jade Phoenix. We can't go back...have to warn them..."
"I can sense them...they've missed you...us." With one outstretched hand Sasi'a pointed at the ill-fated vessel as it enlarged in their field of view while the other enclosed gently around Lishnara's. "I want to make new friends," she said hopefully. "I've been alone for so long...too long..."
Lishnara Shenn first tried to slip her hand away, then pulled. She looked up into the oddly entrancing eyes of the taller Tleilaxu female, and felt her will sapped and her mind muddied. In desperation she barely shook out of it, and then forcibly yanked her hand away. For a moment, Sasi'a appeared confused by such an act...unable to comprehend. Just as Lishnara went to draw her gun, she was swatted like a gnat clear across the cabin of the ship and left in an unconscious heap against one of the walls.
"Sasi'a, please--listen to me! You're letting yourself get swept away by your powers and your whims! You're hurting us!" Reverend Mother Clarus Alexi Florian wanted to flee...wanted to fight...but found herself rooted in place as her muscles were no longer her own to control.
Sasia spoke in a plaintive tone, almost in tears. "I'm sorry! I'm so sorry! I just..." Sasi'a took a slow, deep, calming breath that fell short of restoring her. "She wanted to hurt me...to kill me. She wanted to do that before. Remember, on the other ship? You're now afraid of me..."
"It's all a mistake! I should never..." The Bene Gesserit wrestled out of her psychic thrall using every ounce of willpower, sent low into a fighting stance, then sprang to attack! She launched into what should have been a series of crippling punches, kicks, joint locks and restraining holds, but even in a weakened state, somehow Sasi'a was that much stronger, faster and even better. Worse, much to the Reverend Mother's regret and chagrin, she was improving. Ultimately, a flurry of flawlessly-executed martial techniques coupled with feral instincts defeated the woman. She didn't want to kill me. By the Goddess...she held back! Merciful unconsciousness wrapped its opaque cloak around her just as Sasi'a sat at the controls.
"Well, well...it's about time that we finally see you," jovially remarked Commander Wheering to the two faces that she saw on the visual communications display. "There was some concern that we might have lost you. Signals are spotty here but at this extremely short range we actually can talk by some miracle. How did the search go? Did you manage to find anything worthwhile in this junkyard?" Bridge crew members tried to squeeze into view, quickly joined by others from the Jade Phoenix, eager and elated to see the images of Lishnara Shenn and Reverend Mother Florian looking well and smiling back. The commander tried to regain some measure of decorum on the bridge with an order, but she understood the shared excitement.
"Commander Wheering, the mission was a success in that we found some useful parts that can be installed right away, and some that--with a little imagination--can be pressed to serve our needs. I must also inform you that we've also recovered a survivor--a female Tleilaxu whom we named Sasi'a. She's been through quite a lot, Sir. May we have permission to dock? The sooner we install these modules and such, the sooner we can try to be on our way!" Lishnara seemed appropriately optimistic and focused. Her smile was infectious and her voice perfect--just as they remembered her.
"Reverend Mother...while you were away we encountered a Guild craft but it was lost. There was mention of some set contingencies? A contract between you and they?" Commander Wheering leaned back in the captain's seat with her hands folded on her lap, attempting to stifle their shaking.
After a momentary pause, the projection of the Reverend Mother blinked and then smiled reassuringly. "Oh. Yes. That. It was a protocol set in the event of an emergency--though I failed to anticipate the full gravity of being in this region of space. I am deeply saddened by the fate of the Guild ship and her crew. There remains the possibility that--as I have been away and unable to report in timely with either the Guild or the Mother Superior of the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood--they will send a search party." The image flipped, then steadied. "Even now, our transmissions are strained. Your thoughts?"
"They may eventually send someone out here, but there's no telling when or if they'll be of help, get stranded or even attacked by roving Tleilaxu patrols." Commander Wheering attempted to show confidence. "We have another idea besides waiting! We're going to move forward and attempt to cross the Denebvin Passage before us. I think that it's our best shot to get out of here!" The mood on the bridge seemed much improved, and Commander Wheering hoped that the return of the scout ship and their plan for escape might together save the Jade Phoenix and those aboard. We can't wait...but the reason, for the moment, can. "Permission to come aboard is granted! Welcome back! We have a great deal to discuss..."
What appeared to be Lishnara and Reverend Mother Florian brightened. "Yes...so much to share," said the visage of Lishnara. "I can't wait for you all to meet Sasi'a."
Chapter 5: Last Log of the Jade Phoenix
"I...where?!" Lishnara Shenn, groggy and disoriented, stood up from her bed atop wobbly knees that seemed to have forgotten their purpose. There was a cold, bright glare streaming in from the window just out of reach, and the air tasted thin, like that found at higher elevations. She was in her familiar room aboard the ship, but even the gravity felt different...stronger by degrees.
"Ah, you're finally awake! You had us all quite worried, Lishnara." Yanique Osiren entered the room with a spring to her step and offered a welcoming smile. "We recorded what we could of the wormhole experience but..." She shrugged. "We made it, and with no small help from you, I might add! Welcome to Eden I!"
"What in the crimson blazes of Sheol are you talking about," asked Lishnara crossly. "I didn't do any such thing! I don't remember any of it! Yanique...why are you smiling so dumbly. Stop it." Lishnara stormed past the cheerful girl, looked down either end of the passage just outside of her chambers, then reentered and grabbed her fellow Fish Speaker roughly by the shoulders. Where is everyone?!"
Officer Osiren batted doe-like gray eyes and looked surprised at Lishnara. "Most everybody is already outside. There's still lots to unload, unpack and set up for the colony. All able bodies are pitching in as best as they're able. Seems like this world will work out fine...once we tame it a bit...and pacify any resistance from the other settlements. It's our new home!" There was no guile in her, but a continued left eye blinking tick betrayed that she, too, had suffered some damaging radiation exposure during her time in the debris field. There was also something else...
"Other settlements? Others? Damn you, Yanique...make sense! What's this about pacifying other settlements that you just oh-so-casually mention?!"
"We're at a far corner of the galaxy, but by the blessings of the Maker we're not alone: Other ships that tried for the Denebvin Passage during The Scattering after the Famine Times made it here! So, there's already some infrastructures present, people and ready resources. Isn't Eden I a pretty name? Sasi'a says that in no time at all we'll have a thriving community here...children...and can begin to enact our revenge!" The word revenge was almost spat with venom, a terrible thing from so sweet and doll-like a face.
"Revenge, Lishnara...for what the evil Tleilaxu males did to us." Commander Wheering stood in the doorway, wearing her uniform jacket with a gown she brought with her to change into upon reaching home. While her smile was almost saucy, her eyes shone with intense malice at the thought. "They will learn what it is to be sorry. In time, all who oppose and deny our wrath will. It has already begun."
"Commander Wheering...I don't understand any of this! Where's Captain G'Leal? Is she just going along with this insanity?" Lishnara ran to the window and through the haze saw the busy movements of her comrades as they labored to dismantle and repurpose parts of the ship, including components that she herself found while on that fateful scavenger mission. She then saw the captain in the distance swaying in a strong wind like an absurd human wind chime as she hung from a death tripod.
"Captain G'Leal just refused to cooperate with the rest of us, Lishnara. She may have been too far gone. She shared what was valuable and needed before she expired, if that's of any comfort. Sadly, we lost quite a few good people, as you are aware. We've also made some wonderful gains..."
Lishnara ran past the Commander and then searched the ship for the Reverend Mother. The echoing emptiness of the Jade Phoenix was all-pervasive and made her heart thump hard in her chest. When she got outside, she saw Ensign Palanka and Chief Engineer Bashon among the work crew but they didn't appear to see her. Their movements were too coordinated, and their attention too strict. They're all under some sort of mind control thought Lishnara, not pausing to attempt conversation. Sasi'a took the ship...and infected them all! Lishnara hastened her pace, dodging crewmates and compact work machines while her eyes darted back and forth, seeking. Finally, she caught sight of the Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother, who was just leaving a tent in a clearing at the foot of a broken hill. Lishnara waved and went right up to her, then stopped short as she recognized the surgical smock she wore over her characteristic aba cloak. "Reverend Mother?!"
The Bene Gesserit slowly pulled off long surgical gloves one after the other. Her eyes had lost their sparkle, but held an entirely different intensity. "Lishnara Shenn...it's so good to see you back among the living, as it were. As you can already tell, we successfully made it through the spatial breach and are already well on our way to setting the foundation for a future beginning here on Eden I. Such an...incredible place. We're really quite fortunate. You did want to explore space...with your invaluable aid we rescued Sasi'a and our combined efforts made our arriving here possible! You should be HAPPY, Lishnara Shenn. Don't be gloomy...they will feel your discomfort and grow all the more concerned. First awakenings are a delicate time..."
"No...Reverend Mother, please tell me that you're OK! You can't be one of Sasi'a's minions! Fight it! I can't be the only one...I can't!" Fish Speaker Lishnara Shenn looked for her pistol, but only now realized that she was dressed in civilian garb and without any weapons at hand. She felt naked and immensely alone.
The Reverend Mother attempted to soothe Lishnara's worries by giving her a warm embrace, caressing her back and speaking softly. "Child...it will all be OK! Shhh. Your trepidation will one day be replaced by peace and acceptance if you let it. This world is a chance to start anew, and to set things right! It's not a bad place...in fact, I think that I have found my redemption here." She let the young woman rest her cheek upon her swelling breasts. "Please...trust me."
"I want to..."
Just then, one of Lishnara's sensitive ears caught the distinct sound of medical monitoring devices, pumps and soft murmurs. As she paid greater attention, she felt the unsure telepathic touch of fledgling psionic Tleilaxu females--barely conscious, but burning with unbridled emotions...especially primal fear, desire and hate. Lishnara, being a wild talent herself and having experienced the psychic shielding that Sasi'a shared when she protected her, immediately guarded her mind from their probing and seduction. The Tleilaxu found this distant world far before we did, thought Lishnara Shenn to herself. I may not be able to stop you, Sasi'a, but I can try! By being human...
Fish Speaker Lishnara Shenn walked into the tent, drew a deep breath, and looked at the occupied med-beds with resignation. Where to begin...
The small archeological survey ship was dwarfed and swallowed up by the immensity of the valley that it landed in. There was a stillness to the whole scene...a finality that spoke of tremendous power meeting tremendous power and willful destruction. This was a battlefield...and the whole planet lost. It was said that once there were colonies here and that, after a series of uniting wars, they organized, consolidated their resources, and then became a formidable space-traveling society bent on conquest. Honored Matres. That was the name they subscribed to, though honor and anything one would associate with the nurturing aspect of motherhood would be found in pitiably short supply when one dealt with the vicious, piratical females and their thralls. Now, only scorched bones and the shambles that were their buildings, statues and other great works lie covered in ash. Undone by their own unthinking brutality and unceasing quest for blind vengeance, the ghosts that flit with the stirred up dust kicked up by the ship's ebbing thrusters remain struck silent.
One individual came out of the ship, then 2 others...their clothes and mannerisms subtly hinting at a combination of Bene Gesserit and Honored Matres sensibilities. For, out of the ashes like a proverbial phoenix--after many awful clashes and so many deaths--the two mighty groups of women finally found common cause and were together reborn as one New Sisterhood that defended humanity when heroes were needed most and hope was nearly lost. On this day, the sisters laid perma-beacons like candles and strew flowers, just like they did every year since discovering this world and their shared, tragic history. They prayed true prayers, mourned their dead, then proceeded towards a lonely, broken hill and the remains of an ancient space vessel...