Authors: Brian Herbert,Marie Landis
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Thrillers, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Adventure
Brian Herbert & Marie Landis
tells the story of an ancient race of beings called the Ch’Var, who live among humans. They look like humans, act like humans, talk like humans. Their appetites, though, are anything but human.
First of two collaborations between Brian Herbert and his cousin Marie Landis.
Copyright 1991 DreamStar & Marie Landis
First published by Roc 1991
Digital Edition 2011
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the express written permission of the copyright holder, except where permitted by law. This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination, or, if real, used fictitiously.
This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
Electronic Version by Baen Ebooks
For Jan and Si, with appreciation for their patience and love.
Near the end of the last Ice Age
Two muscular young men, members of the Ch’Var race, scaled the smooth sides of the ice cave, pulling themselves up on a sturdy ladder of corded mammoth hair. They carried minimal supplies—fat for the fire, dried fox meat to sustain them, and the most essential items, their killing weapons. One of them had a live, squirming animal strapped to his back.
The movements of both men were hurried, as though the pooled darkness below was about to overtake them.
“Faster . . . faster. Before the others waken,” the man in the lead called to his companion-brother. I’ll have made my first kill before you reach the top of the ladder.”
“I can’t move any faster, fornicator of the dead,” complained his brother, I’m carrying the hound on my back. Or did you forget?”
The taller man forgave the insult. He could smell the slight fear his brother gave off, and he held a few lingering doubts of his own. Lordmother’s Shaman would be angry if he discovered they were gone, and even more angry if he ever found out the reason for their departure. They planned to hunt Gweens by themselves and for the wrong reasons . . . reasons not approved by the tribe. There was another worry. The cold outside the warm cave swallowed life forces like a cruel enemy in battle. Still, he and his brother had agreed that too much time inside the cave during the long winter dark could soften a man and destroy his virility.
The taller man reached the outer rim of the cave, turned and hoisted his brother and the hound through the opening into a freezing blast of cold air. “The Ice Gods attack us,” he said, “but at least we’ve left the stench of the tribe behind.”
They hurried forward into the darkness and released the hound, one of the ferocious weasel-canines specially bred by Ch’Vars. The animal followed at their heels, his gait an undulating lope.
“He looks forward to the hunt,” said the taller man and patted the creature’s long snout. “Fresh Gweenmeat is what he needs. And so do we. The fox meat we carry is fit only for females and children. If we’re lucky, our hound will find one of the ice nests Gweens build to protect themselves, and we’ll dig them out and have a good meal.”
“Gweens!” spat the other man. “No better than the scum on a pot of boiling fat.”
“But good eating,” reminded his brother. “Lordmother doesn’t know everything. We gain the strength of our enemies when we eat them.”
Despite the heavy fur and leather garments they wore, the Ch’Vars walked swiftly along the ice plains, their eyes glowing luminous red in the semi-darkness. Eyes that could penetrate the darkness almost as well as the hound’s.
“We won’t need the stars to guide us home,” said the taller man and handed his brother a small, flat object. “The stone-that-gives direction,” he explained. “I stole it from the Shaman. He calls it magic and told me that Lordmother brought it with her from the stars. Ha! It’s a tool, no different from other tools. He tries to deceive us but wastes his time. He ought to spray his foolish words on Gweens.”
“Bad luck if we run into too many Gweens at one time,” said his brother. He rubbed his hand vigorously across his eyebrows and dislodged a shower of ice crystals. “We could outwit them with words . . . they are a stupid race of people with a simple language. Gweens have ceremonies for their dead, don’t eat them in the practical way as we do. And they take but one mate at a time.”
The hound stopped moving, lifted his head and sniffed the wind.
“He smells them,” whispered the taller man and gave the animal a silent signal. Immediately it ran ahead, snuffling and snorting as it went. It stopped suddenly . . . on point.
The brothers followed the hound’s line of sight. In the distance, across an endless sea of white, a small band of Gweenpeople trailed slowly toward the hunters.
“Three old men,” the taller hunter said. “The rest are children.” He knew the glow of his eyes could not be seen by the prey, for only Ch’Vars could see the tiny dancing lights within the eyes of their own kind. And he knew that Gweens could not pick up his scent. They lacked a fine sense of smell. With a fluid, practiced motion he removed his arrow gun from its sheath, loaded a projectile into the cradle of the weapon and cocked it.
His brother did the same and whispered, “The flesh of Gweenchildren is sweet. All the sweeter because Lordmother forbids it.”
They exchanged smiles.
Ch’Vars and Gweens, these are the true races of mankind. But only we know there are two, and only we can distinguish one race from the other—for Ch’Vars know the secret of the Nebulons.
—From the Oral Tradition
It was the 14,312th anno of the Ch’Var calendar, and for most other humans on Earth the middle of the twenty-second century . . .
“Our race is waning, waning, dying!” Director Jabu shouted. “What must we do? What?” The Director, a gargantuan dark-skinned man with a wild black beard, was a flat image on the wallscreen of Malcolm Squick’s small second office.
Squick thought, and as he thought this, the words were chanted from a thousand unseen voices.
Squick’s second office lay beneath a first, reached via a stealth-hidden passageway between the two. He used this electronic corridor with only a cursory understanding of its mysterious workings, but this did not disturb him. He had more substantive matters to consider.
In the first office Squick was James Malcolm, building manager for the Smith Corporation’s branch office in this locale, a branch that administered children’s amusement parks. In the second office, Squick was a Ch’Var fieldman, one of thousands around the world networked to the Director on the confidential radio-optic line over which the Director spoke at the moment.
Squick was a fieldman in a most unusual enterprise.
“The usual drivel,” Squick muttered to himself. “Always another reason to increase our workload. Push, push, push . . .”
He heard sounds from the miniature lunchroom across the corridor—snapping, popping and slurping. He poked his head through the half-open doorway and saw his only non-robotic assistant, Peenchay, head bent over a gruesome meal.
“It’s not noon yet,” Squick said. “What are you doing in there? What are you eating?”
His assistant, a short, jowly man in a shiny yellow onesuit, looked up from the bloody flesh before him and grinned. “My snack,” came the answer, a slow, menacing tone. Something pink-gray and wormy dribbled from his thick lips.
“Lordmother!” said Squick, and he forced his voice down to a whispered rasp. “You’re at it again. How many times do you have to be told, forbidden? Can’t you understand? One of these days the Director himself will pop in here and raise holy hell!”
Peenchay stared back blankly, and with a stubby finger he stuffed the wormy thing into his mouth and chewed.
“At least keep the damn door shut!” Squick howled, slamming it shut.
Squick returned to his office, but his thoughts remained elsewhere. A Ch’Var Inferior, Peenchay refused to take the powerful herbal drug prescribed for his kind to curb instinctual, atavistic cravings. Peenchay claimed he didn’t feel well under the medication, that it slowed him down, didn’t allow him to perform his tasks properly. A lie, Squick believed, but he had a genuine fear of his assistant and didn’t want to press the issue.
This course of action exposed Squick to other dangers.
None of the fieldmen knew the location of Homaal, the Director’s fortress, and he had an annoying habit of appearing unannounced to make spot checks. Jabu could appear in his full-dimensional self outside the lunchroom, by either of Squick’s offices or out in the field that very day, or it might not happen for months, even years. It was a mode of travel Mother Ch’Var had used thousands of years earlier and passed on to her Directors, a mystical mode said to have nothing to do with the Inventing Corps. The unpredictability of travel was hard on Squick’s nerves, and as he thought about it he wiped beads of sweat from his forehead.
Squick had his own transgressions to worry about, acts less messy than his assistant’s but equally forbidden, equally punishable. He abhorred the behavior of his assistant but permitted it nonetheless, for reasons Squick didn’t fully understand. This in effect made him an accomplice. And there was something more, a troublesome itch in his brain, a recurring thought that disgusted and frightened him.
Hurry up and eat, Peenchay,
and get the hell out of the lunchroom!
Squick was miserable about the situation and saw himself as a captive, a victim of his own weaknesses and those of his assistant. He wished things could be different, and longed for happiness, for serenity. He lived in fear of discovery by authorities, Ch’Var or Gween. Authorities were nearly everywhere, it seemed, almost breathing upon him. . . forcing him into narrow, shadowy confines.
It could get worse, horribly worse, if he acted upon his disgusting thoughts, if he became more than a silent accomplice to Peenchay.
Squick felt a terrible corrosion growing within, an urging he had thus far kept in check. Or was it less than an urging? Might it be only a thought, a nagging, not so abnormal fear? Whatever it was didn’t like to be examined, didn’t make itself easily available to scrutiny. He was suspicious of it and envisioned himself slipping, slipping away, inevitably becoming worse than Peenchay. Squick vowed he would commit shittah first—that ritual suicide of his people, set in motion by the mind.
Shittah, shittah, shittah. I am born, I live, I die.
The fieldman saw himself in a downward spiral, with nothing breaking his fall except the safety net of conscience.
He wished Peenchay could at least learn to close the lunchroom door without a reminder. All Inferiors were stupid, but this one might be the dumbest of the dumb. “Every fieldman must have at least one Inferior as an assistant,” the edict went . . . and edicts could not be questioned. Still, at least Squick understood Peenchay, could predict his behavior. The Director was another matter altogether.
Director Jabu’s edicts came like mysterious comets from deep space. Paradigm: the one concerning his name. He had the full name of Jabu Karuthers-Smith, but despite his position (and his penchant for formality in other matters), he insisted upon being referred to as Director Jabu. It didn’t fit, and constituted one of those frustrating bits of information that could not be researched. Every Director, it was said, had a mystical tendency, a tendency away from the hard edges of technology and toward things of flesh, of softness. The Directors were like Lordmother herself in that regard, and surrounding that vulnerable softness, that yolk and albumin jelly of living organism, was a thick, hard shell of gadgetry, of science—the Inventing Corps.
Squick’s surroundings were dominated by the Inventing Corps, with stealth-encapsulations, wallscreens, radio-optics, and much more. There seemed no limit to the inventiveness of the Corps, and this suggested electronic surveillance of all field facilities, even of the lunchroom where Peenchay . . .
But Squick sensed other forces at work, powerful forces more akin to the Lordmother and her lineage of Directorships. These were the forces that prevented Ch’Vars from revealing the secrets of their race to non-Ch’Vars, and they were not of a technical nature. When all things were considered, Squick usually did not believe he was under surveillance, although at times this seemed like wishful thinking.
Hurry up in that lunchroom, dammit!
There must be so much money involved, Squick realized, though no more than personal compensation passed through his fingers, from Homaal. All the devices, the structures and the systems cost money. Lots of it. People needing the Service paid for it. But in the beginning there had been no money, only the filling of orders for people in need.
The Service had to do with mental health, Squick knew, primarily the mental health of Ch’Vars because of their fatal racial flaw—that high-strung propensity toward mental breakdown under the tiniest bit of stress. A mental breakdown that always triggered shittah.
Jabu’s words hung in the background: “. . . waning, waning, dying . . .”
Mother Ch’Var had recognized the fatal flaw of her race early, and had identified the solution as well: extract happy, youthful memories (known as “embidiums”) from Gween children and implant them in Ch’Vars. The Gweens were a happier, more carefree race, she had observed, and in any event the memories of happy Ch’Var children could not be used, since each extraction left a donor comatose, often near death. Only the strongest survived, and those few who returned to consciousness were mental infants, with no memories whatsoever.
Happy Ch’Var children could not be risked. There weren’t enough of them.
The Lordmother lived in the time of no calendars. Money did not exist in those days, so in the beginning the Service was free. And even when money appeared, Directors succeeding Her did not charge for the Service but recognized it as a necessity, a right.
Maxim of the Lordmother: “Every Ch’Var has a right to life higher in priority than the right of Gweens, for Ch’Vars are the chosen breed. The best must survive.”
Director Jabu held silence on the screen, and his expression of extreme displeasure seemed to indicate he knew the thoughts of some fieldmen had wandered. He expected undivided attention, and his wide eyes appeared to stare exclusively at Squick, boring right through him. As though he knew.
Director Jabu stood at a podium in a great ice-floored auditorium, gazing upon a throng of seated trainee fieldmen, all in variable-temperature white insulcoats like the cardinal red one he wore himself—those lightweight garments developed by the Inventing Corps that kept wearers comfortable in all temperatures.
He thought of Malcolm Squick, and in his mind’s eye he saw the fieldman’s personality, without a face, without physical features of any kind. Such a rebellious strain in Squick, like the untamed strain once in Jabu . . . but if that rebelliousness could be harnessed, could be channeled, Squick would make a remarkable Director.
It almost seemed incongruous, a rebel leading the race, adhering to age-old principles to continue Ch’Var institutions . . . but it had always been so with Directors. They did not take orders easily. It was a balancing act, race leadership. Thus it had always been.
. . .
. . .
will stand here in my stead, gazing out into eternity, speaking the words that have always been spoken, thinking the thoughts that have always been thought.
The balancing act of personality. Walking the narrow line in new ways suitable to modern society. So many decisions that must be absolutely correct.
But this brain that I am, this linkage of thought and ideal to Lordmother Herself, this brain is not strongly logical. It is not supposed to be. A Director goes on instinct, following the path that seems appropriate.
It was a frightening task, an eternal quicksand of challenges that couldn’t be considered in too much detail, for detail could interfere, could obscure. He walked an edge that wasn’t an edge, on a line so fragile that it was forever crumbling away beneath his feet, forever forcing him to redirect, to re-attack.
am the right side of our racial brain,
The left side, linked inextricably with the right, was the Inventing Corps.
The Corps had always been. It was Lordmother’s defensive and offensive mechanism, developing ways of communication, of security, of efficiency. It emphasized logic, where Lordmother emphasized mysticism. It was the perfect complement to her strengths and weaknesses.
She was inspiration, the catalyst; the Inventing Corps was practicality, the application of her dreams, of her visions, the tempering of enthusiasm, the refining of it.
The enforced marriage of Lordmother and her Directors with the Inventing Corps was good because Lordmother said it was good. But Jabu was irritated by this. At times he wished he didn’t have to work within the constraints of the Corps, but this thought seemed peculiar to him, almost ungraspable. For what constraints had the Corps imposed? Hadn’t they provided this marvelous insulcoat that now kept him warm, broadened his security, even . . .
He sighed. His feelings boiled down to this: the very existence of the Inventing Corps was a constraint. Their existence limited his power, restricted his elbow room. Sometimes he wished he could begin from the Plateau of Now, from this place that Mother Ch’Var, her Directors and the Inventing Corps had brought the Ch’Var race. He wished he could go on without the Corps, but knew he could not.
Malcolm Squick, are you watching me now? Are you there? Or will it be someone else?
Jabu’s monologue resumed, a fuzzy drone in Squick’s ears. The fieldman squirmed in his chair, and out of the corner of his eye he saw Peenchay amble out of the lunchroom and head down the corridor.
Peenchay made dragging, scuffling sounds, and these were punctuated by the machinery noises of ceiling-mounted robot arms in the lunchroom, cleaning up where he had been.
“Hey, Peenchay!” Squick yelled, “whattaya think of the motto our Beloved Director came up with? What about it? “Security, Efficiency, Lordmother’s Way.” Kinda catchy, eh?”
Asking an Inferior for his opinion?
He noticed a lull in the dragging and scuffling, and then it resumed, became louder.
Squick thought of the unprecedented mental health problems of his race, and blamed them on the complexities of modern life. Ch’Vars were inundating Lordmother’s Way with embidium orders, and the frenzy to fill them was resulting in security problems. . . Gween police were sniffing around asking questions, forcing alternate methods of filling orders.
So much for the security part of the motto,
His gaze washed into the whiteness of the wall to one side of the wallscreen, and he heard only the drag-scuffle, drag-scuffle . . .
A shadow crossed Squick’s teak desk, and he focused on the doorway. Peenchay stood there, a vacuous expression on his face. The Inferior’s tongue slid across his lips.
“You called me, sir?” Peenchay’s words were heavy, as if spoken through molasses. He was wet but clean, from a dousing by lunchroom cleanup equipment.
“Gweens are sensitive about their children,” Squick said, “and when things happen to those children, they don’t understand. Do you suppose this has something to do with their particular nature, with their overwhelming desire to keep their children happy?”