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I just did a Hitchcock-style SF thriller for the Kindle Worlds program, an adventure in the universe of Marcus Sakey’s “Abnorm Chronicles,” which begins with the novel BRILLIANCE. Amazon is launching their Kindle Worlds program and they commissioned me to play in Sakey’s sandbox. This is a tangential story to the novel, another adventure with superior-intellect mutations in the human race; you can probably read it without knowing the original novel.
TWIST. A serial killer is murdering Brilliants in Denver…and Agent Nick Cooper believes the killer may also be a Brilliant. The only witness is disabled vet Adam Lee—wounded in a Special Forces mission to Cuba to destroy Fidel Castro’s secret Brilliant academy. Though wheelchair-bound and trapped in his seventh-story apartment, Adam Lee has a special skill, his ability as a Brilliant, that allows him to use hints and reflections to see around corners and through the smallest cracks. If he pushes his ability, he may be able to identify the murderer…but that also makes him a target. $3.99, only available in Kindle version (since it’s for the Kindle Worlds program).
Shadows were opportunities. Places to hide, secret routes for movement, chances for a hunt.
The streets were full of shadows.
The streets were full of opportunities.
Winding down after rush hour, traffic was sporadic around Denver’s Capitol hill. The sun had long since set, though the chill of night was just cutting its way through the air. Bright streetlights and buildings huddled together in an island of illumination, ceding the territory around alleys and side streets to the darkness.
A form flitted between pools of light. Shadow to shadow. Taking advantage of the opportunity.
On the edge of the neighborhood, apartment buildings thinned out to make way for ramshackle old homes that didn’t seem to know about Denver’s much talked-about facelift.
The form stopped, wavering in the darkness in front of a particular rundown house. Flaking paint barely covered the sun-bleached walls. The battered windows were covered with sagging screens.
Not a very impressive home for a supposedly superior Brilliant, someone who’d had a lifetime of undeserved advantages.
Inside, a man wandered around the living room, casting a shadow of his own against thin interior curtains. Decisions. Opportunities.
Stepping across half-dead grass of an untended lawn, the form climbed the porch steps, alert for the creak of wood, sticking to the shadows. But the porch light was too harsh, posing a problem.
A risk, but necessary—the form unscrewed the entryway bulb, ignoring the burn of hot glass on gloved fingertips, and welcome shadows descended like a stage curtain at the end of a play. Porch and door vanished into darkness, creating more opportunities.
Time to move on to the next step.
Throwing a rock onto the warped wood of the porch, the form melted into the deeper shadow between door and window, becoming a part of the grays and tans of the home’s faded paint. The rock bounced and clacked, just loud enough.
The interior curtain twitched aside. A man stared out of the living room, blinded by his own lights, scowling out at the mysterious noise but seeing nothing. Worthless Twist! His face turned, saw that the porch light was out. His lips moved, but the dingy glass pane muffled his curse. The curtain fell back into place. Footsteps moved toward the door.
Coiled and tense in the shadows on the porch, gripping the weapon . . . waiting. A smile.
The front door swung inward with a creak, and the man peered out, annoyed but not afraid. Big mistake. He reached up to check the light bulb in the entryway.
Spinning away from the wall, the form detached from the background as if being born from a womb of shadows. Each step of the attack perfectly planned, like a blueprint of assassination.
In the doorway, the victim was surrounded by a halo of dim light, blinded. Noticing the movement, he grunted in surprise. “Who the hell are you?” Instinct made him draw back into the doorway.
No hesitation, one chance, leverage the opportunity. The form darted forward, tracked the victim’s movement, compensated, and threw a right jab. It was all so fast, carefully coordinated, the victim wouldn’t have a chance.
But the Twist seemed to know the punch was coming and dodged out of the strike zone with astonishing speed.
Unnatural. Yes, another freak.
Another reactive right jab, harder this time, but the victim raised his hands, pivoted to the side, and grabbed the attacker by elbow and shoulder, tried to throw the assailant into the entryway. The scuffle was fast, silent, desperate. Reassess the attack plan, adjust alternatives. The angle and momentum of the move would put the victim in control—and slam the attacker’s head into the wall as a bonus.
Can’t let that happen.
Panic wasn’t an option. Fight or flight was an unevolved response. Finish the job.
The victim could never have guessed beforehand that he would be a target, could not have anticipated this assault, but he defended himself smoothly with reflexes as fast as a cobra’s.
Damned freak born with a DNA silver spoon in his mouth.
Some people called them Brilliants, winners of an unfair genetic lottery, with mental gifts that made them feel oh so superior. A part of this man’s brain had developed abnormally in utero, allowing him to analyze patterns and predictively react. One percent of the population were born with the savant genes turned on. Without paying the price of Asperger’s or autism, he was a genius savant, rather than an idiot savant.
And that one percent thought they could lord it over the rest of the ninety-nine percenters.
The smug confidence showed in his reaction, as if he just assumed he was superior to any mere normal attacker. And that fact alone presented opportunities. So predictable. Time to even out the percentages.
As the Brilliant victim caught the punch and moved with the force of the strike, the attacker rolled in a follow-through, and momentum of defense concealed the real attack—the jagged broken whiskey bottle in the left hand. Jab, thrust, twist. Twist.
Glass parted flesh. The killer floated through the air, everything seemed to slow to half speed. Like shark’s teeth, the bottle’s jagged sawblade ripped into the Brilliant’s throat. He reacted, but even freakish mental powers couldn’t reassemble spurting arteries.
The victim grabbed at his neck, coughing, his words nothing more than a liquid bubbling red. He seemed to be asking Why me? What did I do? Who are you? But a Twist didn’t deserve answers.
The man staggered backward into the house, still bleeding, still thrashing, but he was already dead. Maybe the freak thought it was important to live one percent longer than a normal human.
The killer crouched, recovered, and watched with fascination, careful to avoid the spreading pool of blood. “Worthless, worthless, worthless.”
As the victim took his time dying, blood spurted across the walls. He sagged to his knees.
The killer gave an assessment. “One at a time. One at a time.” Even with his superior mental powers, the victim did not seem able to do the math. He fell forward into his own blood.
Done with the kill, the form dropped the broken bottle and left the house to rejoin the shadows outside. Upping the percentages, a little bit at a time.
What a name, thought Adam.
The elegance of the derogatory word was not lost to him, sitting as he was, trapped and isolated in his chair on the seventh floor, forced to live his life through other people, other actions. As a label, Brilliants sounded better, but Twists seemed more applicable to his own situation.
He stared out the window, letting his one good hand slowly trail against the warm glass, lower and lower until the fingers touched his wheelchair. Watching—that’s all I can do now. Behind him, the main room of his apartment was open, with bookshelves on the walls but no furniture other than a comfy chair and coffee table in the middle of the room, nothing much to impede the movement of the motorized chair.
Colorado sunshine pushed its way through the glass, but the warmth stopped at his skin. Inside, he felt cold. He gazed down the seventy-seven feet to the ground below, watching pedestrians who bustled through their days, ignorant of his gaze. He watched the rippling flutter of leaves on the nearest aspen—sixteen feet from the corner. Based on the movement of the leaves, the wind was moving at 4.5 miles an hour, maybe 4.3. He could also immediately estimate the speed of the traffic, from the silver Prius (17 mph), to the black Ford Expedition (an aggressive 31 mph), to the bicycle messenger (21 mph in short bursts as he wove among pedestrians and cars).
Shaking his head, Adam tried to let go, but it was hard to shake military training. Special Ops had appreciated his gift as a Brilliant, once upon a time. Now that the use of those skills were programmed in, he would always notice the full suite of details, would always factor them into his observations. It was the only way he could force the world to make sense. It was the only thing he could do, trapped here in his apartment.
That was the snapshot of Adam’s life now: observation and inaction. Vicarious living through other realities that were not his own.
Last week his therapist, Ingrid Wolverton, had brought him an article from the New York Times. It was a summation of groundbreaking work from the 1980s, research done by Dr. Eugene Bryce, who had first discovered the phenomenon of Brilliants. Since Ingrid’s last house call, Adam had read the article ninety-four times, though he had memorized it in ten. One particular section had caught his attention, and he couldn’t get those words out of his head:
Historically, the term savant was generally paired with another word, to form an unkind, but not inaccurate phrase; idiot savant. Those rare individuals with superhuman gifts were generally crippled in some way. Broken geniuses, they were able to recreate the lemon skyline after only a moment’s glance, yet unable to order a cup of tea; able to intuit string theory or noncommutative geometry and yet be baffled by their mother’s smile. It was as though evolution was maintaining equilibrium, giving here, taking there.
However, this was not the case with the “brilliance.” Dr. Bryce estimates that as many as one in a hundred children born since 1980 have these advantages, and that these children are otherwise statistically normal. They are smart, or not. Social, or not. Talented, or not. In other words apart from their wondrous gifts they are exactly as children have been since the dawn of man.
In his lap, the fingers of his hand curled into a fist as he repeated the words to himself: “as though evolution was maintaining equilibrium, giving here, taking there.” Evolution may have given Adam a gift of hyper-acute vision and kinesthetic sensitivity, but life itself had evened the scales, taking just as much away from him, if not more. Losing the use of three limbs? That seemed like an overpayment to him.
Staring at his clenched fist, he ground his jaw together. The one available escape from his this hell came through the same gift that had cost him such a high price. “Micro detail analysis and projection,” his therapist—and the military—had called it.
Others might have used the term voyeurism.
But it was so much more than that to him. Adam’s special ability gave him a way out of his nonresponsive physical prison. He placed his one palm against the windowpane again, waiting. It was almost time.
She would be getting off the bus soon. She would be walking down the street. Of all the needs to be filled in his vicarious life, Chloe trumped them all. How could she not?
Adam’s ocular muscles began to twitch with anticipation. Spasming faster than he could voluntarily control, the ciliary muscles responded to his Brilliant subconscious as his brain hunted for details, assembled information, zooming in, zooming out, never giving his conscious mind a chance to catch up. Three dimensional constructs, models of the streets and apartments, formed in his mind’s eye. A reflection off of that window on the ground floor refracting from a man’s sunglasses, then caught in the rear-view mirror of a passing car, which in turn bounced off the store front window around the corner and down the street.
Combined with the optical clues, subtle vibrations against Adam’s palm indicated how the outside world spoke to him through his window. For all the couldn’ts, for all the wouldn’ts, and for all the wasted wishes in Adam’s life, there was one thing he could do. He could see.
Two and a half blocks away, around the corner and up the street from his window, the bus arrived. He smiled.
She was home.
Cooper tried to spread the files across his desk, but there just wasn’t enough room. The sparse offices of Equitable Services were cramped, implying that the task force had not yet attained the importance and visibility it deserved. Even as part of the larger Department of Analysis and Response, Equitable Services was less than a year old and had not yet earned the office space it needed to operate.
For now, the task force assigned to track and monitor potentially dangerous Brilliants had been shoved into the equivalent of a storage closet just off Capitol Hill in DC. If the ES team could crack enough cases and get a few high-profile wins, however, maybe the agents would get a little more elbow room.
Cooper tried to make more desk space by sliding the framed photograph of his wife and three-year-old son to the edge of the desk. Sorry, Natalie and Todd. When that didn’t make enough room, Cooper pushed the lamp in the other direction. Finally, he cleared sufficient real estate to spread out the case files of the killings in Denver.
While others in the DAR hadn’t—yet—paid much attention to the random murders in Colorado, Cooper had spotted an emerging pattern, and that was his specialty.
In his mind, thanks to his own genetic gift, everything from muscle motions to the decisions made by a fleeing suspect interlocked in a gigantic puzzle. The ability to recognize patterns from grand generalities to the subtlest twitch of a suspect’s cheek was what made him so perfect for this job.
Precariously balanced on the edge of the desk, the lamp shed insufficient light on the spread of case paraphernalia, so he adjusted the angle to illuminate the photos. By seeing more detail, he could make more connections. four days ago, in Denver, the third murder of its kind had occurred in as many weeks. Every Thursday night, a new body was found, throat slashed open with a broken bottle, the murder weapon left at the scene, no fingerprints. The Denver PD had found no connection among the victims.
Because of the randomness of the killings—and only three data points so far in a city where hundreds of violent crimes occurred each month, including a murder or two per week—the local police had trouble digging in and finding a pattern to link the murders. And they lacked the resources to give this an appropriate level of urgency.
The crime-scene techs had found no trace evidence, no shoe prints, no surveillance video footage, no prints. Nothing connected the victims other than the fact that each was a military veteran, though of different times and different services.
But Cooper had discovered a link that local police were unable to spot, due to confidential records. All three victims were Brilliants.
But that registry was not available to the public. The killer must have known, somehow.
DAR Crime Watch, a sophisticated software system designed by Brilliants working for the Department, had flagged these killings. Cooper paged through dozens of flags a day, searching for patterns that would let him notice any Brilliant who might be causing trouble. A watchdog. A safety net. That was what Equitable Services was designed to do.
Denver’s throat slasher had caught his eye, though. Each large city had numerous murders, and this string of killings had not raised a particular hue and cry, at least not yet. The victimology was scattershot—male, female, young, old—though it was reasonably obvious that it was the same killer.
When he pointed out the possible pattern, suggesting that the killings warranted further attention, Director Peters was skeptical. “So you think somebody is hunting down and killing Brilliants, specifically?”
“Yes, sir. Rowdies could use broken bottles in a bar fight, but these victims were stalked and attacked. Killed in their homes. It’s statistically impossible—at least highly unlikely—that three random victims of a throat slasher would just happen to be Brilliants. We’re only one percent of the population.”
Peters had folded his hands across the desk in his office, which was much larger than Cooper’s. “Nick, I understand your concern, but the mission of Equitable Services is to make sure Brilliants don’t cause trouble for the rest of society, not to protect them from some human-supremacist vigilante.”
Cooper, though, had continued to study the case, mulling over the details. Victim three, Dennis Bordki, retired Marine, was the one that had caught his eye. DAR databases logged him as a tier three kinesthetic reader. Cooper knew that no one but another Brilliant would be able to take down a kinesthetic reader in combat—especially not one with military training.
And if the murderer was himself a Brilliant, then this case would indeed fit the criteria for an Equitable Services investigation. Cooper wanted to chase this flag, go to Denver so he could have a look around and use his particular skill to spot underlying threads.
So far, however, Director Peters had denied Cooper the funding for the travel and the off-site operation. The man was his mentor, someone who wanted to encourage Cooper, maybe even indulge him. But there were budgetary constraints. Operating on a shoestring and fighting for every nickel, Equitable Services had to choose their cases carefully.
“For the time being, we need to build the department’s track record,” Peters explained. “We need sure wins, not gut feelings. Something that’ll put a spotlight on us—and then we’ll be able to accomplish so much more.”
Through his pattern sense, Cooper already knew this was a sure thing, and relevant to the ES mission, and he could see he was close to convincing the Director. He just needed a little more leverage.
The task force had been created to find Brilliants, then expanded to track them down and stop those who would use their genetic abnormality to harm normals. Cooper believed in his job as a loyal member of Equitable Services with every inch of his being and every ounce of his will.
Find new Brilliants, catalogue them, keep an eye out to spot the ones who meant to do damage. Who better to track down a Brilliant than another Brilliant? None of the advanced humans were registered anywhere other than the DAR, and Cooper was sure the killer didn’t come from inside the DAR.
“Definitely not,” he said to himself now, sliding the photos around. He would keep his eyes and ears open. Thursday was coming up in a few days.
If Cooper was right, another Brilliant would turn up dead. If the body count reached four, all Brilliants, he would have a better shot of convincing Director Peters to let him go to Denver.
A detail in the case photos caught his eye, and he brought out his personal datapad. Someday, if Cooper and his fellow agents did their job well and brought sufficient prominence to the team, then Equitable Services would be able to provide high-end datapads for all agents. Right now, he was one of only six agents left in the field. Without a sufficient budget even for adequate staff, no way could the DAR equip the agents with the technology they needed to do the job. Cooper provided his own datapad.
He tapped the apps, calling up what he needed, while musing about the short-lived history of Equitable Services. It was an inauspicious beginning, with only twelve agents to start. Two had died, four had quit. But Cooper stuck around because he believed in their mission.
The photo-library app finished loading, and he swiped through images of the previous two crime scenes, using the photo processing software to enlarge and enhance the details. Despite the grisly nature of the work, he zoomed in on each of the cut throats, putting the pieces together in analytical mode, studying the angle and depth of the wound, torn skin and blood spatter that could provide the tiniest hint that might shed light on the killer’s height and weight.
He needed every piece of information, every insight, preparing himself. He was sure that after Thursday there would be a fourth victim. Which would mean that—next piece of the puzzle—he would be headed to Denver before the week was out.
You may also be interested in the original novel, BRILLIANCE, by Marcus Sakey
Here it is from Kensington. A picture is worth a thousand tentacles! The book will be released at the end of August, in time for signed copies at DragonCon!
For many years, with each new book release, Brian and I have traveled around the country from bookstore to bookstore to sign copies for fans. With the release of MENTATS OF DUNE (did you get your copy?). we decided to try something different.
Brian and I—either in collaboration or individually—have four major hardcover releases from Tor Books in the next six months. And I have a couple of other newsworthy publications in that timeframe. We wanted to leverage all that excitement and energy. MENTATS OF DUNE is out in March, as is the first issue of CLOCKWORK ANGELS: The Graphic Novel from BOOM! Studios. THE DRAGON BUSINESS is out in April, along with the ECW trade paperback of CLOCKWORK ANGELS: The Novel and their reissue of my first novel RESURRECTION, INC. In June there’s the first book in the Saga of Shadows, THE DARK BETWEEN THE STARS, in July Brian’s ec0-thriller THE LITTLE GREEN BOOK OF CHAIRMAN RAHMA comes out in hardcover, in August HELLHOLE INFERNO is released, and in September is the fourth Dan Shamble novel, SLIMY UNDERBELLY. Yes, plenty of books to show off!
So I will be appearing at a marathon of major pop-culture expos over the next six months, beginning with Emerald City Comic Con in Seattle March 28-30 for the official debut of MENTATS OF DUNE as well as the launch of BOOM!’s Clockwork Angels comic. This will be the only appearance where Brian Herbert and I are together to sign MENTATS. Afterward, he’ll be giving me a suitcase full of signed bookplates to give to fans at all my other shows! At Emerald City, BOOM! will also have a special **Emerald City Only** variant cover for the first issue of Clockwork Angels.
Next up, after several days in Hollywood for the Writers of the Future workshop and awards ceremonies, I’ll be at FanX in Salt Lake City from April 17-19, then Dallas Comic Con May 16–18 and ComicPalooza in Houston May 23-25. I’ll be teaching at a Writer’s Conference in Crested Butte, Colorado (ahhh, my beautiful mountains!), and then the following week I’ll be at Denver Comic Con (June 13–15), RushCon in Toronto August 22-24, DragonCon in Atlanta August 28-September 1, and Salt Lake City Comic Con.
These are some of the books coming out from now until September—
Today is release day for MENTATS OF DUNE, our thirteenth installment in the saga, follow-up to SISTERHOOD OF DUNE and the first new Dune novel in two years. Enjoy another sample chapter—and I hope you’ll get the book from Tor Books (US) and Simon & Schuster (UK)
If we accept advanced technology in any form, we will begin to make excuses and justifications for using it. There are so many ways to take the wrong path and tumble down a slippery slope, down, down, down. Loyal Butlerians, we must be ever-vigilant and strong! The Emperor’s Committee on Orthodoxy does not go far enough. If we let machines do even menial chores for us, they will soon become our masters again.
I call upon all my faithful followers, across all the worlds of the Imperium, to demand that every planetary leader sign my anti-technology pledge. If any refuse, my Butlerians—and God—will know who they are. No one can hide.
—Manford Torondo, citizen’s decree
The idiocy of it all! I cannot decide whether to laugh at Butlerian insanity, or weep for the future of our species. What will those fanatics demand next? The complete absence of medical technology? Would they outlaw fire, and declare the existence of the wheel too dangerous? Are we all to be relegated to huddling in forests and fields?
Enough. This is the decree of Venport Holdings: No VenHold cargo ship or passenger transport shall trade with any planet that signs Manford Torondo’s anti-technology pledge. We will deliver no goods or passengers, share no communications, engage in no commerce with any world that shares his dangerous, barbarian philosophy.
Make your choice: Do you prefer to bask in the glow of civilization, or cower in the shadows of primitive despair? Decide.
—Directeur Josef Venport, formal business announcement
Each time I solve a crisis, another springs forth like a noxious weed. What am I to do, Roderick? Problems come at me from all directions!
I disbanded the Sisterhood school on Rossak because they were suspected of possessing forbidden computers—though I could never prove it, and they made me look like a fool. And after what happened to our dear sister Anna when she was among them. . . . What a terrible shame! Will she ever be the same?
When the treachery of the Suk doctors was exposed, I nearly broke them, too. Despite their purported Imperial Conditioning, and even though I now force them to operate under close scrutiny, I do not trust them. Yet, with my numerous health issues, I have no choice but to let them tend me.
Manford Torondo pressures me to adopt his Butlerian nonsense and follow his every whim, while Josef Venport demands the opposite. They are both madmen, but if I ignore Manford Torondo, he can summon wild and destructive mobs. And if I don’t appease Venport, he holds our entire economy hostage.
I feel like a man chained between two Salusan bulls pulling in opposite directions! I am the third Corrino to sit on the Imperial throne since the defeat of the thinking machines—why is it so difficult to make my own citizens listen to me? Help me decide what to do, dear brother. As always, I value your advice above all others.
—private Corrino correspondence, Emperor Salvador to Prince Roderick
Blind adherence to foolish ideas makes people act in ways that are demonstrably against their own interests. I care only about intelligent, rational human beings.
—Directeur Josef Venport, Internal VenHold Memo
The VenHold cargo ship emerged from foldspace precisely where the Navigator predicted—another example of how advanced his mutated humans were.
From the high navigation deck, Josef Venport watched as his ship approached the planet Baridge. Few crewmembers and no passengers were allowed in the vicinity of the Navigator’s tank, but Josef could go wherever he pleased. He owned the VenHold Spacing Fleet, controlled the creation of Navigators, and dominated most interplanetary commerce.
His great-grandmother Norma Cenva had transformed herself into the first Navigator through super-saturation with melange, and Josef had created hundreds more because his expanded fleet needed them. That effort had triggered a long cascade of requirements: in order to create more Navigators, he needed vast quantities of spice, which necessitated an expansion of operations on Arrakis . . . which forced the VenHold Spacing Fleet to make record-breaking investments, which in turn required him to make immense company profits. One piece after another after another fell together like a beautiful puzzle.
He hated it when some fool disrupted that pattern.
His ship cruised in toward unremarkable Baridge, adjusting position as it entered orbit. Shaking his head, Josef turned to his wife Cioba. “I doubt they even know we’ve arrived. If the barbarians hate technology so much, they must have gotten rid of long-range scanners and communication devices.” He gave a rude snort. “Maybe they wear furs instead of garments.”
Cioba was a beautiful, dark-haired woman trained on Rossak by the Sisterhood before it was disbanded by the Emperor. In a calm, reasonable voice, she said, “Baridge may have taken Manford Torondo’s pledge, but that doesn’t mean they’ve discarded all technology. Even people who pay lip service to Butlerian demands may be reluctant to change their lives entirely.”
Josef’s thick, reddish mustache bristled when he smiled at her. “And that is why we’ll win, my dear. Philosophical objections are well and good, but such extreme faith fades as soon as it becomes inconvenient.”
The planet showed the usual blue of water, a white swirl of clouds, the browns and greens of land masses. Inhabited worlds had a certain sameness, but Josef ground his teeth as he looked at this one, because of what it represented and the foolish decision their leader Deacon Kalifer had made.
Josef did not have patience for short-sighted people, especially when they were in positions of power. “This is a wasted errand. We should not have expended the fuel and time to come here. There’s no profit in gloating.”
Cioba leaned close, touching his arm. “Baridge deserves a second chance, and you need to remind them of what their decision costs. Deacon Kalifer may have reconsidered by now.” She stroked her husband’s thick hair.
He touched her hand, held it, then let go. “People often surprise me, but not usually in a good way.”
Baridge’s turbulent sun was in the upswing of an active starspot cycle. Formerly, the planet had been known for colorful aurora displays, which trapped and deflected much of the solar radiation, but a rain of charged particles still penetrated to the surface. To protect themselves, the people of Baridge wore protective creams, covered their windows with filter films, and sheltered their streets with retractable canopies. Orbiting satellites monitored solar activity and warned citizens when they should stay inside. Advanced medical systems treated the resulting epidemic of skin cancers, and the population used melange heavily, which helped to protect them.
Under normal circumstances, Baridge was well prepared for the dangers of the solar cycle, but Deacon Kalifer and his ruling cabal had recently bowed to pressure from Manford Torondo’s barbarian fanatics. After accepting the Butlerian pledge and condemning Venport Holdings, Kalifer declared that his planet would henceforth be free from all tainted technology.
And so, true to his word, Josef terminated trade with the planet. He’d made it clear to the whole Imperium that his ships would not deliver equipment, luxury goods, melange, or other supplies to any world that embraced the Butlerian pledge. Lesser shipping companies struggled to fill the need, but they ran lackluster and outdated fleets, and none had Navigators to guide their ships safely through foldspace, which resulted in a disastrous lost-vessel rate.
Josef glanced up to the enclosed tank that held this ship’s Navigator. He could barely see the twisted form swimming in the murk of spice gas, but he knew that this one had originally been a spy named Royce Fayed, who’d been caught trying to steal the secret of creating Navigators. Josef had generously revealed those secrets to the man—by forcing him to become a Navigator. Under the direct tutelage of Norma Cenva, however, Fayed had become one of VenHold’s best Navigators. Now that the transformation was complete, he was deeply grateful for the gift he had been given.
The Navigator spoke through the tank speaker, “Arriving at Baridge.”
Josef often had trouble conversing with Navigators, because their minds were so advanced. “Yes, we are at Baridge.” Did Fayed think him unaware of their destination?
“I detect another vessel in orbit. It is not a commercial ship.”
With a shimmer, one of the metal bulkheads became a transmission window. At high magnification, it displayed a warship in close orbit—not a vessel from the current Imperial Armed Forces, but one of the old cruisers from the Army of the Jihad, re-commissioned and used by the barbarians.
Josef gritted his teeth when he saw the watchdog vessel light up as it accelerated toward them. “It’s one of the half-Manford’s ships.” He studied the craft on the transmission screen, saw its bristling guns, but felt no concern. He had no doubt the warship captain would be arrogant, full of faith and unreason.
Cioba’s brow wrinkled. “Does it pose a threat to us?”
“Of course not.”
A raspy-voiced young man sitting at the helm of the Butlerian ship sent a transmission. “VenHold vessel, you are forbidden at Baridge. These people have sworn not to use your accursed technology. Depart or be destroyed.”
“It does no good even to respond, my husband,” Cioba said with a sigh. “You can’t argue with zealots.”
Although he agreed there was little point, Josef couldn’t keep his words inside. He activated the transmitter. “Strange, I thought VenHold placed an embargo on this planet, not the other way around. It’s particularly odd to see such a vehement Butlerian follower flying a complex spaceship. Doesn’t such sophisticated technology make you lose control of your own bladder?”
The Butlerian captain would probably make some kind of rationalization about their technology being “used for the greater good,” or claim that it avoided being unacceptable because it was “in service of holy work.”
When Josef’s image appeared on the screen, the warship captain recoiled. “The demon Venport himself! You have been warned!” Surprisingly, he cut off the transmission.
Cioba nodded toward the transmission window. “He’s powering up his weapons.”
“Manford Torondo has likely placed a bounty on my head.” Josef found the idea as offensive as it was laughable.
Without warning, the aging Jihad warship opened fire, blasting them with old explosive shells. The kinetic bombardment hammered away at the VenHold ship’s advanced shields—another miracle invented by Norma Cenva—but the outdated weapons could inflict no harm. VenHold’s defenses were vastly superior to anything the enemy had.
“Make a log notation,” Josef said into the wall recorders. “We did not fire first. We committed no aggressive or provocative acts. We have been attacked without cause and are forced to defend ourselves.” He called down to the weapons deck, where personnel were already at their stations. “Destroy that ship. It annoys me.”
The weapons officer had been anticipating the command, and a swarm of projectiles ripped forth and cut the Butlerian vessel to ribbons. It was over in seconds, and Josef was glad he didn’t need to waste any more time.
As she watched the fading glow of debris on the screen, Cioba whispered, “I thought you said that ship didn’t pose a threat to us.”
“Not to us, but those Butlerian savages pose a threat to civilization itself. I believe this was a necessary punishment.” He spoke to the Navigator. “Are there other ships in the vicinity? Cargo carriers, rival commercial vessels?”
“None,” Fayed said.
“Good, then the people of Baridge should be more tractable.” He sent a transmission down to the surface, addressing Deacon Kalifer directly. He made certain the conversation was on a public band. Josef guessed that many of the supposedly devout Butlerians there still had illicit listening devices, and he wanted them all to hear his words.
Deacon Kalifer responded as soon as Josef made contact, which implied that the planetary leader had indeed been watching their arrival. He probably also knew that the Butlerian watchdog ship was destroyed. Good—another reason for the deacon not to be difficult.
On the screen, Kalifer’s shoulders drooped and his skin sagged on his frame as if he’d chosen the wrong size from a rack. His speech had a slow and ponderous quality, and his sentences always took longer to complete than Josef could stand. Deacon Kalifer was a man who made every listener want to say Hurry up!
“Ah, VenHold ship, we hoped you would reconsider your embargo. And I’m pleased that you came here in person, Directeur Venport.”
“I came in person, but I’m not pleased with the reception. Be thankful that rabid watchdog ship won’t cause you any more problems.” This might not be a wasted trip after all; at the very least, it gave Josef a chance to twist the knife while the people of Baridge eavesdropped. “I bring pharmaceuticals, specifically cancer drugs, and polymer creams to protect you against the radiation onslaught from the solar cycle. I’ve also brought a team of the top doctors trained at the Suk School. They specialize in treating skin lesions and a variety of cancers, and they can help your people.”
“Thank you, Directeur!” Kalifer was so excited that he spoke quickly for a change.
Cioba caught Josef’s eye and he could tell that she knew exactly what he was doing. Her shrewd business sense and keen ability to observe made her an invaluable asset to him.
Keeping his tone neutral, Josef responded to Kalifer. “We also have a large cargo of melange, which I know is popular here. Baridge used to be an important VenHold customer, and we hate to lose your business. We offer this special shipment at a discounted price, to celebrate our renewed trade.”
When Kalifer grinned with relief, Josef hardened his voice. “First, however, you must disavow your pledge to Manford Torondo. You foreswore all advanced technology, but now you realize how irrational that was. If you wish to restore trade with VenHold and receive these supplies—including our cargo of spice from Arrakis—you must publicly renounce the Butlerians.”
He met Deacon Kalifer’s stare. The planetary leader did not speak for a long moment—a pause even more extensive than his normal ponderous speech. “But that is not possible, Directeur. The population would riot, and Leader Torondo would send vengeance squads against us. I beg you for a little flexibility. We will pay higher prices if you insist.”
“I have no doubt of that,” Josef said. “But increased prices are not what I require. For the good of humanity, this barbarian nonsense has to stop—and it will only stop when planets like Baridge choose civilization and commerce over fanaticism.” He crossed his arms over his chest. “This is not a negotiating ploy, Deacon. It is my only offer.”
Kalifer ‘s skin turned gray, and his expression sickened. “I . . . I cannot accept, Directeur. The citizens of Baridge will stand firm.”
Though furious inside, Josef came up with an indifferent tone. “As you wish, Deacon. I offered you my cargo first, but I can dispose of it at our next planetary stop. I rescind my offer. So long as you remain obstinate, we will make no further deliveries. Good luck surviving the effects of your solar storms.”
Cioba terminated the transmission. Josef flared his nostrils, shaking his head and trying to calm himself.
“They will change their minds soon enough,” she told him. “I could see it in the deacon’s eyes, his slight flinch, the underlying anxiety in his voice. They are already feeling desperate.”
“But how soon will they recant? I’m not inclined to keep giving them chances.” Josef turned to the Navigator’s tank. “Let’s go to the next planet on our list and see what they have to say.”