Sisterhood of Dune (Excerpt)

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Enjoy this excerpt from the next novel in the Dune saga, Sisterhood of Dune, by Kevin J. Anderson and Brian Herbert (out on January 3rd):

It has been eighty-three years since the last thinking machines were destroyed in the Battle of Corrin, after which Faykan Butler took the name of Corrino and established himself as the first Emperor of a new Imperium. The great war hero Vorian Atreides turned his back on politics and flew off to parts unknown, aging only imperceptibly because of the life-extension treatment given to him by his notorious father, the late cymek general Agamemnon. Vorian’s one-time adjutant, Abulurd Harkonnen, was convicted of cowardice during the Battle of Corrin and exiled to the gloomy planet Lankiveil, where he died twenty years later. His descendants continue to blame Vorian Atreides for the downfall of their fortunes, although the man has not been seen for eight decades.

On the jungle planet Rossak, Raquella Berto-Anirul, who survived a malicious poisoning that transformed her into the first Reverend Mother, has adapted methods from the near-extinct Sorceresses to form her own Sisterhood, featuring a school that trains women to enhance their minds and bodies.

Gilbertus Albans, once the ward of the independent robot Erasmus, has established a different sort of school on the bucolic planet of Lampadas, where he teaches humans to order their minds like computers, making them into Mentats.

The descendants of Aurelius Venport and Norma Cenva (who remains alive, although in a highly evolved state) have built a powerful commercial empire, Venport Holdings; their spacing fleet uses Holtzman engines to fold space and mutated, spice-saturated Navigators to guide the vessels.

Despite the time that has passed since the defeat of the thinking machines, antitechnology fervor continues to sweep across the human-settled planets, with powerful, fanatical groups imposing violent purges. . . .

***

After being enslaved for a thousand years, we finally overwhelmed the forces of the computer evermind Omnius, yet our struggle is far from ended. Serena Butler’s Jihad may be over, but now we must continue the fight against a more insidious and challenging enemy—human weakness for technology and the temptation to repeat the mistakes of the past.

MANFORD TORONDO, The Only Path

 

Manford Torondo had lost count of his many missions. Some he wanted to forget, like the horrific day that the explosion tore him apart and cost him the lower half of his body. This mission, though, would be easier, and eminently satisfying—eradicating more remnants of mankind’s greatest enemy.

Bristling with cold weapons, the machine warships hung outside the solar system, where only the faintest mist of dwindled starlight glinted off their hulls. As a result of the annihilation of the scattered Omnius everminds, this robot attack group had never reached its destination, and the population of the nearby League star system never even realized they had been a target. Now Manford’s scouts had found the fleet again.

Those dangerous enemy vessels, still intact, armed, and functional, hung dead in space, long after the Battle of Corrin. Mere derelicts, ghost ships—but abominations, nonetheless. They had to be dealt with accordingly.

As his six small vessels approached the mechanical monstrosities, Manford experienced a primal shudder. The dedicated followers of his Butlerian movement were sworn to destroy all vestiges of forbidden computer technology. Now, without hesitation, they closed in on the derelict robot fleet, like gulls on the carcass of a beached whale.

The voice of Swordmaster Ellus crackled over the comm from an adjacent ship. For this operation, the Swordmaster flew point, guiding the Butlerian hunters to these insidious robot vessels that had drifted unnoticed for decades. “It’s an attack squadron of twenty-five ships, Manford—exactly where the Mentat predicted we’d find them.”

Propped in a seat that had been specially modified to accommodate his legless body, Manford nodded to himself. Gilbertus Albans continued to impress him with his mental prowess. “Once again, his Mentat School proves that human brains are superior to thinking machines.”

“The mind of man is holy,” Ellus said.

“The mind of man is holy.” It was a benediction that had come to Manford in a vision from God, and the saying was very popular now with the Butlerians. Manford signed off and continued to watch the unfolding operation from his own compact ship.

Seated next to him in the cockpit, Swordmaster Anari Idaho noted the position of the robot battleships on the screen and announced her assessment. She wore a black-and-gray uniform with the emblem of the movement on her lapel, a stylized sigil that featured a blood-red fist clenching a symbolic machine gear.

“We have enough weaponry to destroy them from a distance,” she said, “if we use the explosives wisely. No need to risk boarding the ships. They’ll be guarded by combat meks and linked fighting drones.”

Looking up at his female attendant and friend, Manford maintained a stony demeanor, though she always warmed his heart. “There is no risk—the evermind is dead. And I want to gaze at these machine demons before we eliminate them.”

Dedicated to Manford’s cause, and to him personally, Anari accepted the decision. “As you wish. I will keep you safe.” The look on her wide, innocent face convinced Manford that he could do no wrong in her eyes, make no mistakes— and as a result of her devotion, Anari protected him with ferocity.

Manford issued brisk orders. “Divide my followers into groups. No need to hurry—I prefer perfection to haste. Have Swordmaster Ellus coordinate the scuttling charges across the machine ships. Not a scrap can remain once we’re finished.”

Because of his physical limitations, watching the destruction was one of the few things that gave him pleasure. Thinking machines had overrun his ancestral planet of Moroko, captured the populace, and unleashed their plagues, murdering everyone. If his great-great-grandparents had not been away from home, conducting business on Salusa Secundus, they would have been trapped as well, and killed. And Manford would never have been born.

Though the events affecting his ancestors had occurred generations ago, he still hated the machines, and vowed to continue the mission.

Accompanying the Butlerian followers were five trained Swordmasters, the Paladins of Humanity, who had fought hand-to-hand against thinking machines during Serena Butler’s Jihad. In the decades after the great victory on Corrin, Swordmasters had busied themselves with cleanup operations, tracking down and wrecking any remnants of the robotic empire they found scattered through out the solar systems. Thanks to their success, such remnants were getting more and more difficult to locate.

As the Butlerian ships arrived among the machine vessels, Anari watched the images on her screen. In a soft voice, which she used only with him, she mused, “How many more fleets like this do you think we’ll find, Manford?”

The answer was clear. “I want all of them.”

These dead robotic battle fleets were easy targets that served as symbolic victories, when properly filmed and broadcast. Lately, though, Manford had also become worried about the rot, corruption, and temptation he observed within the new Corrino Imperium. How could people forget the dangers so quickly? Soon enough, he might need to channel his followers’ fervor in a different direction and have them perform another necessary cleansing among the populations. . . .

Swordmaster Ellus took care of the administrative details, sorting the robotic ships onto a grid and assigning teams to specific targets. The five other ships settled in among the derelict machines and attached to individual hulls. Then the respective teams blasted their way aboard.

Manford’s team suited up and prepared to board the largest robotic vessel, and he insisted on going along to see the evil with his own eyes, despite the effort it entailed. He would never be content to stay behind and watch; he was accustomed to using Anari as his legs, as well as his sword. The sturdy leather harness was always close by in case Manford needed to go into battle. She pulled the harness onto her shoulders, adjusted the seat behind her neck, then attached the straps under her arms and across her chest and waist.

Anari was a tall and physically fit woman and, in addition to being faultlessly loyal to Manford, she also loved him—he could see that every time he looked into her eyes. But all of his followers loved him; Anari’s affection was just more innocent, and more pure than most.

She hefted his legless body easily, as she had done countless times before, and settled his torso onto the seat behind her head. He didn’t feel like a child when he rode on her shoulders; he felt as if Anari were part of him. His legs had been blown off by a deluded technology-lover’s bomb that had killed Rayna Butler, the saintly leader of the anti-machine movement. Manford had been blessed by Rayna herself, in the moments before she died of her injuries.

The Suk doctors called it a miracle that he’d survived at all, and it was that: a miracle. He’d been meant to live on after the horrifying day. Despite the physical loss, Manford had seized the helm of the Butlerian movement, and led them with great fervor. Half a man, twice the leader. He had a few fragments of pelvis left, but very little remained below his hips; nevertheless, he still had his mind and heart, and did not need anything else. Just his followers.

His curtailed body fit neatly into the socket of Anari’s harness, and he rode high on her shoulders. With subtle shifts of his weight, he guided her like part of his own body, an extension below his waist. “Take me to the hatch, so we can be the first to board.”

Even so, he was at the mercy of her movements and decisions. “No. I’m sending the other three ahead.” Anari meant no challenge in her refusal. “Only after they verify there is no danger will I take you aboard. My mission to protect you outweighs your impatience. We go when I have been advised that it is safe, and not a moment sooner.”

Manford ground his teeth together. He knew she meant well, but her overprotectiveness could be frustrating. “I expect no one to take risks in my stead.”

Anari looked up and over her shoulder to gaze at his face, with an endearing smile. “Of course we take risks in your stead. We would all lay down our lives for you.”

While Manford’s team boarded the dead robotic ship, searching the metal corridors and looking for places to plant charges, he waited aboard his own vessel, fidgeting in his harness. “What have they found?”

She did not budge. “They’ll report when they have something to report.”

Finally, the team checked in. “There are a dozen combat meks aboard, sir— all of them cold and deactivated. Temperature is frigid, but we’ve restarted the life-support systems so you can come aboard in comfort.”

“I’m not interested in comfort.”

“But you need to breathe. They will tell us when they’re ready.”

Though robots did not require life-support systems, many of the machine vessels had been equipped to haul human captives in the cargo bays. In the final years of the Jihad, Omnius had dedicated all functional vessels to the battle fleet, while also building huge automated shipyards to churn out new war vessels by the thousands.

And still the humans had won, sacrificing everything for the only victory that mattered. . . .

Half an hour later, the atmosphere in the machine ship reached a level where Manford could survive without an environment suit. “Ready for you to come aboard, sir. We’ve located several good places to plant explosive charges. And human skeletons, sir. A cargo hold, at least fifty captives.”

Manford perked up. “Captives?”

“Long dead, sir.”

“We’re coming.” Satisfied, Anari descended to the connecting hatch, and he rode high on her back, feeling like a conquering king. Aboard the large vessel, the air was still razor-thin and cold. Manford shuddered, then grasped Anari’s shoulders to steady himself.

She gave him a concerned glance. “Should we have waited another fifteen minutes for the air to warm up?”

“It’s not the cold, Anari—it’s the evil in the air. How can I forget all the human blood these monsters spilled?”

Aboard the dim and austere ship, Anari took him to the chamber where the Butlerians had pried open the sealed door to reveal a jumble of human skeletons, dozens of people who had been left to starve or suffocate, likely because the thinking machines didn’t care.

The Swordmaster wore a deeply troubled and hurt expression. For all her hardened fighting experience, Anari Idaho remained astonished by the offhand cruelty of the thinking machines. Manford both admired and loved her for her innocence. “They must have been hauling captives,” Anari said.

“Or experimental subjects for the evil robot Erasmus,” Manford said. “When the ships received new orders to attack this system, they paid no further attention to the humans aboard.” He muttered a silent prayer and blessing, hoping to speed the lost souls off to heaven.

As Anari led him away from the human-cargo chamber, they passed an angular, deactivated combat mek that stood like a statue in the corridor. The arms sported cutting blades and projectile weapons; its blunt head and optic threads were a mockery of a human face. Looking at the machine in disgust, Manford suppressed another shudder. This must never be allowed to happen again.

Anari drew her long, blunt pulse-sword. “We’re going to blow up these ships anyway, sir . . . but would you indulge me?”

He smiled. “Without hesitation.”

Like a released spring, the Swordmaster attacked the motionless robot; one blow obliterated the mek’s optic threads, more blows severed the limbs, others smashed the body core. Deactivated for decades, the mek didn’t even spurt a stream of sparks or lubricant fluid when she dismembered it.

Looking down, breathing heavily, she said, “Back at the Swordmaster School on Ginaz, I slew hundreds of these things. The school still has a standing order for functional combat meks, so trainees can practice destroying them.”

The very thought soured Manford’s mood. “Ginaz has too many functional meks, in my opinion—it makes me uneasy. Thinking machines should not be kept as pets. There is no useful purpose for any sophisticated machine.”

Anari was hurt that he had criticized her fond recollection. Her voice was small. “It’s how we learned to fight them, sir.”

“Humans should train against humans.”

“It’s not the same.” Anari took out her frustration on the already battered combat mek. She bludgeoned it one last time, then stalked toward the bridge. They found several other meks along the way, and she dispatched each one, with all the ferocity that Manford felt in his heart.

On the robotic control deck, he and Anari met up with the other team members. The Butlerians had knocked over a pair of deactivated robots at the ship’s controls. “All the engines function, sir,” one gangly man reported. “We could add explosives to the fuel tanks just for good measure, or we can overload the reactors from here.”

Manford nodded. “The explosions need to be big enough to eradicate all the nearby ships. These vessels are still operational, but I don’t want to use even the scrap metal. It’s . . . contaminated.”

He knew that others did not have such qualms. Beyond his control, groups of corruptible humans were scouring the space shipping lanes to find intact fleets like this for salvage and repair. Scavengers without principles! The VenHold Spacing Fleet was notorious for this; more than half of their ships were refurbished thinking-machine vessels. Manford had argued with Directeur Josef Venport several times over the issue, but the greedy businessman refused to see reason. Manford took some consolation in the knowledge that at least these twenty-five enemy warships would never be used.

Butlerians understood that technology was seductive, fraught with latent danger. Humanity had grown soft and lazy since the overthrow of Omnius. People tried to make exceptions, seeking convenience and comfort, pushing the boundaries to their perceived advantage. They wheedled and made excuses: that machine might be bad, but this slightly different technology was acceptable.

Manford refused to draw artificial lines. It was a slippery slope. One small thing could lead to another, and another, and soon the downgrade would become a cliff. The human race must never be enslaved by machines again!

Now he swiveled his head to address the three Butlerians on the bridge. “Go. My Swordmaster and I have one last thing to do here. Send a message to Ellus—we should be away within fifteen minutes.”

Anari knew exactly what Manford had in mind; she had, in fact, prepared for it. As soon as the other followers returned to their ship, the Swordmaster removed a small gilded icon from a pouch in her harness, one of many such icons that Manford had commissioned. He held the icon reverently, looked at the benevolent face of Rayna Butler. For seventeen years now, he had followed in that visionary woman’s footsteps.

Manford kissed the icon, then handed it back to Anari, who placed it on the robotic control panel. He whispered, “May Rayna bless our work today and make us successful in our critically important mission. The mind of man is holy.”

“The mind of man is holy.” At a brisk trot, breathing out warm steam in the frigid air, Anari hurried to their ship, where the team sealed the hatch and disengaged from the dock. Their vessel drifted away from the rigged battle group.

Within the hour, all the Butlerian strike vessels rendezvoused above the dark robot ships. “One minute left on the timers, sir,” Swordmaster Ellus transmitted. Manford nodded, his gaze intent on the screen, but he spoke no words aloud. None were necessary.

One of the robot ships blossomed into flame and shrapnel. In rapid succession, the other ships detonated, their engine compartments overloading or their fuel ignited by timed explosions. The shock waves combined, swirling the debris into a soup of metal vapor and expanding gases. For a few moments, the sight was as bright as a new sun, reminding him of Rayna’s radiant smile . . . then it gradually dissipated and faded.

Across the calm, Manford spoke to his devout followers. “Our work here is done.”


We are barometers of the human condition.

—REVEREND MOTHER RAQUELLA BERTO-ANIRUL,
remarks to third graduating class

 

Out of necessity, Reverend Mother Raquella Berto-Anirul took a long view of history. Because of the wealth of unique ancestral memories in her mind— history personified—the old woman had a perspective of the past that was not available to anyone else . . . not yet.

With so many generations to draw from in her thoughts, Raquella was well equipped to see the future of the human race. And the other Sisters in her school looked to their sole Reverend Mother to be their guide. She had to teach that perspective to others, expanding the knowledge and objectivity of her order, the physical and mental skills that set members of the Sisterhood apart from average women.

Raquella felt a drizzle of rain on her face as she stood with other Sisters on a cliff balcony of the Rossak School, the formal training facility of the Sisterhood. Dressed in a black robe with a high collar, she gazed solemnly down from the edge of the cliff at the purplish jungle below. Though the air was warm and humid for the somber ceremony, the weather was hardly ever uncomfortable at this time of year, because of breezes that blew regularly along the cliff faces. The air had a faint sour smell, a brimstone aftertaste from distant volcanoes mixed with the stew of environmental chemicals.

Today they were enduring another funeral for a dead Sister, one more tragic death from poison . . . another failure to create the second Reverend Mother.

More than eight decades ago, the dying and bitter Sorceress Ticia Cenva had given Raquella a lethal dose of the most potent poison available. Raquella should have died, but deep in her mind, in her cells, she had manipulated her biochemistry, shifting the molecular structure of the poison itself. Miraculously she survived, but the ordeal had changed something fundamental inside her, initiating a crisis-induced transformation at the farthest boundaries of her mortality. She had emerged whole but different, with a library of past lives in her mind and a new ability to see herself on a genetic level, possessing an intimate understanding of every interconnected fiber of her own body.

Crisis. Survival. Advancement.

But in all the years afterward, despite many attempts, no one else had achieved the same result, and Raquella didn’t know how many more lives she could justify losing in order to reach the elusive goal. She knew only one way to push a Sister over the brink: driving her to the edge of death where—possibly—she could find the strength to evolve. . . .

Optimistic and determined, her best trainees continued to believe in her. And they died.

Raquella looked on sadly as a black-robed Sister and three green-robed acolytes took positions on top of the canopy of trees and lowered the corpse down into the humid depths of the silvery-purple jungle. The body would be left there for predators as part of the eternal circle of life and death, recycling human remains back into the soil.

The valiant young woman’s name had been Sister Tiana, but now her body was wrapped in pale fabric, anonymous. The jungle creatures stirred deep below, as the thick canopy swallowed up the platform.

Raquella herself had lived for more than 130 years. She had witnessed the end of Serena Butler’s Jihad, the Battle of Corrin two decades later, and the years of turmoil afterward. Despite her age, the old woman was spry and mentally alert, controlling the worst effects of aging through moderate use of melange imported from Arrakis and by manipulating her own biochemistry.

Her ever-growing school was comprised of outside candidates recruited from the best young women in the Imperium, including the special last descendants of the Sorceresses who had dominated this planet in the years before and during the Jihad; only a scant eighty-one of them remained. In total, eleven hundred Sisters trained here, two-thirds of them students; some were children from the nurseries, daughters from Raquella’s missionaries who became pregnant by acceptable fathers. Recruiters sent hopeful new candidates here, and the training continued. . . .

For years the voices in her memory had urged her to test and enhance more Reverend Mothers like herself. She and her fellow proctors devoted their lives to showing other women how to master their thoughts, their bodies, their own future. Now that the thinking machines were gone, human destiny demanded that people become more than they had ever been before. Raquella would show them the way. She knew that a skilled woman could transform herself into a superior person, under the proper conditions.

Crisis. Survival. Advancement.

Many of Raquella’s Sisterhood graduates had already proved their worth, going offworld to serve as advisers to noble planetary rulers and even at the Imperial Court; some attended the Mentat School on Lampadas, or became talented Suk doctors. She could feel their quiet influence spreading across the Imperium. Six of the women were now fully trained Mentats. One of them, Dorotea, served as a trusted adviser to Emperor Salvador Corrino back on Salusa Secundus.

But she desperately wanted more of her followers to have the same understanding, the same universal view of the Sisterhood and its future, and the same mental and physical powers as she did.

Somehow, though, her candidates could not make the leap. And another promising young woman had died. . . .

Now, while the women continued the oddly businesslike disposal of the dead Sister’s remains, Raquella worried about the future. Despite her long life span, she harbored no illusions of personal immortality, and if she died before anyone else learned to survive the transformation, her skills could be forever lost. . . .

The fate of the Sisterhood, and their extensive works, was much more important than her own mortal fate. Humanity’s long-term future depended on careful advancement, improvement. The Sisterhood could no longer afford to wait. She had to groom her successors.

As the funeral ended with the disposal of the body, the rest of the women turned back to the cliff school, where they would continue their classroom exercises. Raquella had chosen a fresh new candidate, a young woman from a disgraced family with little future, but someone who deserved this opportunity.

Sister Valya Harkonnen.

Raquella watched Valya leave the other Sisters and proceed toward her along the cliff-side path. Sister Valya was a whiplike young woman with an oval face and hazel eyes. The Reverend Mother observed her fluid movements, the confident tilt of her head, the carriage of her body—small but significant details adding up to the whole of the individual. Raquella did not doubt her choice; few other Sisters were as dedicated.

Sister Valya had joined the Sisterhood at the end of her sixteenth year, leaving her backwater planet of Lankiveil to go in search of a better life. Her greatgrandfather, Abulurd Harkonnen, had been banished for cowardice after the Battle of Corrin. During her five years on Rossak, Valya had excelled in her training and proved to be one of Raquella’s most faithful and talented Sisters; she worked closely with Sister Karee Marques, one of the last Sorceresses, studying new drugs and poisons to be used in the testing process.

When Valya presented herself to the old woman, she did not seem overly upset by the funeral. “You asked to see me, Reverend Mother?”

“Follow me, please.”

Valya was clearly curious, but she kept her questions to herself. The two walked past the administration caves and domicile warrens. In its heyday in past centuries, this cliff city had supported thousands of men and women, Sorceresses, pharmaceutical merchants, explorers of the deep jungles. But so many had died during the plagues that the city was mostly empty, housing only members of the Sisterhood.

One entire section of caves had been used for the treatment of the Misborn, children who suffered birth defects as a result of toxins in the Rossak environment. Thanks to careful study of the breeding records, such children were born only rarely, and those who survived were cared for in one of the cities to the north, beyond the volcanoes. Raquella did not permit any men to live in her school community, although they occasionally came here to deliver supplies or perform repairs or other services.

Raquella guided Valya past barricaded cliff-side entrances that had once led to large sections of the hivelike cave city, but were now abandoned and blocked off. They were ominous places, devoid of all life, the bodies having been removed years ago and laid to rest in the jungle. She pointed to the treacherous path that led steeply along the cliff face to the top of the plateau. “That is where we’re going.”

The young woman hesitated for a flicker of an instant, then followed the Reverend Mother past a barricade and signs that restricted access. Valya was both excited and nervous. “The breeding records are up there.”

“Yes, they are.”

During the years of horrific plagues spread by Omnius, while entire populations were dying, the Sorceresses of Rossak—who had always kept genetic records to determine the best breeding matches—began a far more ambitious program to keep a library of human bloodlines, a far-reaching genetic catalog. Now, tending that wealth of information fell to Raquella and her chosen Sisters.

The path rose in sharp switchbacks along the rock face, a solid cliff wall on one side of them, a sheer drop-off to the dense jungle on the other. The drizzle had stopped, but the rocks remained slick underfoot.

The two women reached a lookout point where wisps of fog encircled them. Raquella looked out at the jungle and smoldering volcanoes in the distance— little had changed in that landscape since she’d first arrived decades ago, a nurse accompanying Dr. Mohandas Suk to treat victims of the Omnius plague.

“Only a few of us ever go up here anymore—but you and I are going farther.” Raquella was not one for small talk, and kept her emotions tightly controlled, but she did feel an excitement and optimism to be introducing another person to the Sisterhood’s greatest secret. A new ally. It was the only way the Sisterhood could survive.

They stopped at a cave opening set amid blocky boulders near the top of the plateau, high above the fertile, teeming jungles. A pair of Sorceresses stood guard at the entrance. They nodded to the Reverend Mother, allowed them to pass.

“The compilation of the breeding records is perhaps the Sisterhood’s greatest work,” Raquella said. “With such an enormous database of human genetics, we can map and extrapolate the future of our race . . . perhaps even guide it.”

Valya nodded solemnly. “I’ve heard other Sisters say it’s one of the largest data archives ever compiled, but I never understood how we could possibly manage so much information. How do we digest it all and make projections?”

Raquella decided to be cryptic, for now. “We are the Sisterhood.”

Inside the high caves, they entered two large chambers filled with wooden tables and writing desks; women bustled about, organizing reams of permanent paper, compiling and stacking immense DNA maps, then filing documents that were reduced and stored in dense near-microscopic text.

“Four of our Sisters have completed Mentat training under Gilbertus Albans,” Raquella said. “But even with their advanced mental abilities, the project is overwhelming.”

Valya struggled to control her awe. “Such an immensity of data here . . .” Her bright eyes drank in the new information with fascination. She felt great honor and pride to be allowed into the Reverend Mother’s inner circle. “I know more women of our order are training on Lampadas, but this project would require an army of Sister Mentats. The DNA records from millions and millions of people on thousands of planets.”

As they passed deeper into the restricted tunnels, an elderly Sister emerged from a file room wearing the white robe of a Sorceress. She greeted the two visitors. “Reverend Mother, is this the new recruit you have decided to bring to me?”

Raquella nodded. “Sister Valya has excelled in her studies and has proved her dedication in aiding Karee Marques in her pharmaceutical research.” She nudged the young woman forward. “Valya, Sister Sabra Hublein was one of the original architects of the expanded breeding database during the plagues, long before I ever came to Rossak.”

“The breeding records must be maintained,” the other old woman said. “And watched.”

“But . . . I’m not a Mentat,” Valya said.

Sabra led them into an empty tunnel and looked over her shoulder, making certain they were not seen. “There are other ways to help us, Sister Valya.”

They stopped near a curve in the passageway, and Raquella faced a blank stone wall. She glanced at the younger woman. “Are you afraid of the unknown?”

Valya managed a small smile. “People always fear the unknown, if they are truthful about it. But I can face my fears.”

“Good. Now come with me and tread on territory that is largely unexplored.”

Valya looked uneasy. “Do you want me to be the next volunteer to try a new transformative drug? Reverend Mother, I don’t think I’m ready for—”

“No, this is something else entirely, though no less important. I am old, child. It makes me more cynical, but I have learned to trust my instincts. I’ve watched you carefully, seen your work with Karee Marques—I want to bring you into this plan.”

Valya did not look fearful, and she kept her questions to herself. Good, Raquella thought.

“Take a deep breath and calm yourself, girl. You are about to learn the Sisterhood’s most closely guarded secret. Very few in the order have ever seen this.”

Taking the young woman’s hand, Raquella pulled her toward the seemingly solid wall. Sabra stepped forward beside Valya, and they passed entirely through the rock—a hologram—and entered a new chamber.

The three of them stood in a small anteroom. Blinking in the bright light, Valya struggled to hide her surprise, using her training to maintain her composure.

“This way.” The Reverend Mother led them into a large, brightly lit grotto, and Valya’s eyes widened as they encompassed the sight.

The chamber was filled with humming and clicking machines, constellations of electronic lights—banks and banks of forbidden computers on levels that rose high along the curving stone walls. Spiral stairways and wooden ramps connected them all. A small number of white-robed Sorceresses bustled back and forth, and machine noises throbbed in the air.

Valya stammered, “Is this . . . Is this . . . ?” She couldn’t seem to phrase the question, then exclaimed, “Thinking machines!”

“As you suggested yourself,” Raquella explained, “no human, not even a trained Mentat, can store all the data the women of Rossak have compiled over the generations. The Sorceresses used these machines secretly for many generations, and some of our most trusted women are trained to maintain and service them.”

“But . . . why?”

“The only way we can keep such vast amounts of data, and make the necessary genetic projections over successive descendants, is with the aid of computers— which are strictly forbidden. Now you see why we need to keep these machines secret.”

Raquella studied Valya carefully, noted the calculating expression as her gaze moved around the chamber. She seemed overwhelmed, but intrigued, not horrified.

“There is much for you to learn,” Sabra said. “For years we have studied the breeding records, and we fear that the true Sorceresses are going to die out. Few enough of us remain, so there is little time left. This may be the only way we can understand what’s happening.”

“And find alternatives,” Raquella said. “Such as the creation of new Reverend Mothers.” She was careful not to let her desperation, or her hope, creep into her voice.

One of the Sorceress workers spoke briefly to Sister Sabra about a breeding matter, then returned to her work after giving Valya a brief curious glance. “Sister Esther-Cano is our youngest pureblood Sorceress,” Raquella said, “barely thirty years of age. The next youngest, however, is more than ten years older. The telepathic characteristic of Sorceresses occurs only rarely in native daughters now.”

Sabra continued, “The school’s breeding records include information from people on thousands of planets. Our database is vast, and the goal—as you already know—is to optimize humankind through personal improvement and selective breeding. With the computers, we can model DNA interactions and project breeding possibilities from a near-infinite number of bloodline pairings.”

Valya’s brief, automatic terror had been replaced by a more intense interest. She looked around the chamber and said in a practical tone, “If the Butlerians ever find out about this, they will raze the school and kill every last Sister.”

“Yes, they will,” Raquella said. “And now you understand the amount of trust we have placed in you.”

Sisterhood of Dune © Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson 2012

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