Authors: Brian Herbert
Tags: #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #Space Opera
Book 1 of the Timeweb Chronicles
Digital Edition 2011
eBook ISBN 978-1-61475-100-7
First publication 2006 in conjunction with Tekno Books and Ed Gorman
Copyright © 2006 DreamStar, Inc.
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.
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Of all the books I have written, I owe the most to Jan for this one. You are the love of my life and my daily inspiration. Thank you for being so understanding while I spend much of my life in my study, taking fantastic journeys through space and time. You are a blessing beyond words.
We are but one of many galaxies, wheels moving the cart of the universe.
—Ancient Tulyan Legend
He stood profiled against the blood-red sunset as bulbous ships took off, a swarm of mechanical insects transporting contaminated materials to dump zones. It had been another long day. Normally the muscular, freckled man liked the buzz of activity in the air, the sense that he was restoring a planet that had been severely damaged by the industrial operations of the merchant princes. At the moment, however, he had something else on his mind, a surprising turn of events.
Noah Watanabe glanced again at a brief telebeam message, a black-on-white holo letter that floated in the air beside him. He had been estranged from his father, Prince Saito Watanabe, for so long that he had never expected to hear from the old tycoon again. Touching a signet ring on his right hand, Noah closed the message. In a wisp of smoke, it disappeared into the ring.
Brushing a hand through his reddish, curly hair, Noah considered the unexpected offer of a meeting between them. His initial thought had been to send a scathing response, or to simply ignore his father altogether. But other possibilities occurred to him.
In the din of aircraft, soil-processing machines, and the shouts of workers, he became aware of an oval-shaped hoverjet landing nearby, raising a cloud of dust. Moments later, the craft settled to the ground, and an underbelly hatch swung open, followed by a ramp that slid to the ground. Men wearing the green-and-brown uniforms of the Guardians—his ecological recovery force—hurried down the ramp, dragging with them a disheveled young woman, a prisoner. A trickle of blood ran down the side of her face. Her eyes were feral, and she kicked at her captors, without much success.
“Caught her trying to rig explosives to our biggest skyminer,” one of the Guardians said, a rotund man with a purple birthmark on one cheek and chestnut hair combed straight back. In his early forties, Subi Danvar was Noah’s trusted but sometimes outspoken adjutant. “She and two men—we killed both of them—stole one of our fast recon ships and locked onto the miner. They were about to set the whole rig off when we caught them and defused the charges.”
“Who sent you?” Noah demanded, stepping close and looking down at her.
Sneering, the woman said, “I don’t do anything for free. What will you give me if I answer your questions?”
“You’re a mercenary, aren’t you?”
“You haven’t paid for my answer yet.”
“Talk and we’ll let you live,” Subi snarled. “That’s our offer.” With a round belly and a puffy face he looked soft, but in reality he had the strength of three men.
Having never mistreated prisoners, Noah scowled at his adjutant, who should know better. The man was bluffing, but was doing so without Noah’s authorization.
“Maybe the princes sent her,” another Guardian suggested, a large man who held the woman’s arms and danced away whenever she tried to kick him.
“Do you think it was your own father, Master Noah?” Danvar asked.
“I’m not sure,” Noah said, recalling the telebeam message. Remarkably, old Prince Saito had offered an apology for their failed relationship, and had expressed the hope that they might be close again. But warning signals went off in Noah’s mind; this could be a trick, even from his own father.
Noah and his Guardians had to be on constant alert against sabotage. In the past year, attacks had come from his business competitors and from enemies of the powerful Watanabe family, people who didn’t believe the stories about the estrangement between the business mogul and his son, and thought they must be working together in some clandestine way.
“Take her away for interrogation,” Noah said, with a dismissive gesture toward the young woman. “And treat her well, with respect.”
The woman looked at him in astonishment. “No torture?”
“Of course not. We don’t do things that way.”
“I am very pleased to hear that.” With a sudden movement, the woman writhed free of her captors and lunged toward Noah, brandishing a long dagger that she seemed to have produced from thin air. She moved with surprising speed.
Displaying athletic grace, Noah sidestepped the thrust and grabbed her weapon hand. But in his grip, her hand seemed to melt away, and the dagger, too.
“Mutati!” Danvar shouted.
It was a shapeshifter. For centuries Mutatis like this one had warred against the Merchant Prince Alliance. In a matter of seconds, her entire body metamorphosed into a long, serpentine form. She coiled, and struck out at Noah with deadly fangs.
But he whirled to one side and rolled away. His men fired a volley of ion-pistol shots at the creature, bursts of energy that flashed and sparkled in the air. Purple blood oozed from the Mutati, and the wounded creature began to change form again, this time to a startlingly large and ferocious beast with sharp barbs all over its body and face. But it only half metamorphosed, with its rear—more injured than the rest of the body—still a writhing snake. Using its front legs to propel itself forward, the monstrosity lunged at the Guardians, but they kept firing, and the Mutati finally fell, spurting gouts of blood.
On his feet, Noah drew his own sidearm and pointed it. Holding his fire, he took a step backward, watching the Mutati in fascination. His men stopped shooting.
Once more, the creature shapeshifted on its front, and the barbs on the face dissolved into torn and jagged flesh. A tiger-like beast began to take form, with desperate, wild eyes. But when it was only half formed, it abruptly shuddered and twitched, and then stopped moving entirely.
“Are you all right?” Subi Danvar asked, running to Noah’s side.
“I’m not hurt. Doesn’t look like any of you are, either.”
“My fault, sir. I thought sure our prisoner was Human, but the red blood on the side of her face was obviously faked, something she wiped on her skin.”
“They used a new trick on us,” Noah said, “but that’s no excuse. From now on, stick all the prisoners in the finger to see if they bleed purple. It’s the one thing about their bodies they can’t change.”
“I’ll check them myself,” Danvar said, referring to half a dozen men and women saboteurs that they had captured here on the planet Jaggem in recent weeks.
“Guess this lets my father off the hook,” Noah said, staring at the motionless blotch of purple flesh on the ground.
One of the men used a knife to dig a small white object out of the body. “Implanted allergy protector,” he said, holding it up. Mutatis were strongly allergic to Humans, so the shapeshifters often wore medical devices that encased the cells of their bodies in a prophylactic film.
After a worried, guilt-ridden nod toward his superior, Danvar departed with his men.
Shaking his head as he watched them go, Noah realized that he should have taken precautions earlier to prevent Mutati incursions. Especially here, on a planet that could have future significance to the Merchant Prince Alliance as a military outpost, by virtue of its strategic location. With all the planets that he had restored so far, Noah had never experienced even a hint of trouble from the shapeshifters, and for years he had relied on local police security operations to detect them if they ever tried to get through. The possibility of Mutati incursions had been in the back of his mind all that time, but from now on he needed to move such concerns to the forefront. He would have Subi Danvar work up new security measures in coordination with the MPA.
Noah’s thoughts returned to the communication he had just received from his crusty, septuagenarian father. How odd to hear from him after all this time, after all the bad feelings and bitterness between the two of them. Their last encounter—more than fifteen years ago—had been a shouting match that had become physical when the prince struck his son in the face with a closed fist. The blow from the big man had been considerable, and Noah had reeled backward in surprise and shock. Out of a sense of honor, the younger man had not even considered striking back, not even for a moment. As a result of the altercation, he had not expected to ever see his father again, except on newsreels that documented the businessman’s comings and goings.
Now he watched Danvar’s hoverjet take off and thread its way through the crowded airspace, flying toward the Guardians’ base of operations on a nearby plateau. The sky was deep purple, almost a foreboding Mutati shade, and Jaggem’s small, silvery moon was just rising above a distant escarpment. He wished his father was here to see how successful he had become in his own right.
Noah had not needed any inheritance from Prince Saito. The younger Watanabe had become wealthy beyond anything he could ever hope to spend, from the ecological recovery operations he conducted on numerous planets around the Merchant Prince Alliance. Before embarking on that career, Noah had considered becoming the industrialist that his father wanted him to be.
But, after long consideration, Noah had come up with a better line of work, one that did not conflict with his own strongly held environmental beliefs. His ambitious, conniving sister Francella was more suited to following in their father’s footsteps anyway, so by default Noah gave her what she wanted, his own spot as the heir apparent of the family’s huge commercial operations, spanning countless star systems.
After making his momentous, life-changing decision, Noah had proceeded to carve out a business niche of his own, bringing efficiency to what had previously been a fledgling, loosely run industry. His timing had been exquisite, and now he ran the largest ecological recovery operation in the galaxy, with skilled teams working on blighted worlds, restoring them to habitability after their resources had been stripped by merchant prince industrialists.
It was a career path in which Noah restored many of the planets that his own father’s operations had nearly destroyed. But he had not selected this particular business just to irritate the old man—at least not consciously. Noah had only done what he thought was right, and as a Watanabe he felt he had an obligation to make up for the environmental wrongs committed by his family.
In memory, he reread his father’s short telebeam message. Then he activated his ring and transmitted a polite but reserved response, agreeing to the meeting.
Lorenzo the Magnificent … Should he be described as Machiavellian, or as a Renaissance man? Perhaps he is both: a leader who will do anything necessary to advance the business and scientific ideas that he holds dear.
—Succession: a Concise History of the Doges,
one of the underground press books
Of all the worlds in the Merchant Prince Alliance, none came close to rivaling the elegant capital world of Timian One, a domain of fabulous palazzos, villas, and country estates, with ambassadors and nobles coming and going on important business. The planet was guarded from space attack by orbital military platforms and by extensive installations on the surface.
And yet, in all of this opulence and grandeur, there existed on the homeworld of humankind a high and sprawling prison known as the Gaol of Brimrock, filled with bloodstained walls and floors, musty rooms, and filthy corridors … a structure that reeked of bodily decay and the most excruciating, horrendous deaths. At any hour of the day and night, victims could be heard screaming as they were tortured and killed.
In the largest chamber of the gaol, a vaulted room with barbed straps hanging from the ceiling and hideous machines arrayed along the walls, the aged but still-spry Doge Lorenzo del Velli sat at the Judgment Table between a pair of princes. At one time the Doge had been a classically handsome man with a prominent chin, strong nose, and dark, penetrating eyes, but now the skin sagged on his cheeks and under his chin, and his gaze had lost its luster. The leathery face was etched with the concerns of high command and the depravities of endless nocturnal liaisons. He rarely ever smiled, and when he did, it had a steely edge to it. Lorenzo and his companions wore cloaks, brocaded surcoats, silkine shirts with dagged collars, and golden medallions. Their liripipe hats, in the varying colors of their noble houses, rested on the table in front of them.
The trio of noblemen watched dispassionately as their top military officer used a nerve induction rack to torture a flesh-fat Mutati. The air around the rack sparked and flashed with green light, from the strong threads of a jade laser held by the inflictor, a delicate little man in a baggy red uniform with gold braids and an oversized officer’s cap. Supreme General Mah Sajak, despite his high rank, enjoyed coming here on occasion to perform tasks that were normally reserved for men in black hoods.
The high-intensity device, a golden staff that shot threads of green fire from the tip, had been manufactured by the Hibbil race, specialists in computers and high-performance machines. The electronic wand inhibited the movements of the Mutati, and was used in lieu of physical cords or other restraints.
An expert in the application of the laser, Sajak intentionally left small segments of the victim’s flesh only lightly secured, thus providing apparent escape opportunities. Every few seconds, the Mutati would shapeshift and try to squirm through one of the “openings,” but each time the General would quickly close it up, while leaving another space free.
It was all a game, and the Doge noted a cruel smile twitching at the edges of Sajak’s scarred mouth. After each escape attempt, the officer adjusted controls on the nerve induction rack as punishment, to intensify the pain.
Looking puffy and red-faced, the victim coughed and sneezed, and emitted the foul odor of Mutati fear. In order to intensify the suffering, General Sajak had removed the creature’s implanted allergy protector.
The agonized, high-pitched shrieks of the Mutati gave the Doge a warm, toasty feeling because he hated the shapeshifters so much and always had. From a young age he, like billions of people, had learned to loathe the arch enemies of humanity. He looked forward to these sessions as much as Sajak did, the way children looked forward to sugary treats.
On the wall behind Lorenzo hung a stylized painting of the Madonna holding technological devices. A composite artwork, it depicted a synthesis of the leading religious and scientific disciplines of humankind … tenets that dated back to the origins of Human life on Earth eons ago, and to the subsequent migrations to Timian One, Siriki, Canopa, and other planets.
The ruler of all Humans, the stocky, wrinkled Doge Lorenzo was the ninety-fourth person to occupy the Palazzo Magnifico and sit upon the legendary Aquastar Throne. He held strong theoscientific beliefs himself, and employed them to keep his citizens in line. The officially sanctioned text of the Merchant Prince Alliance was the Scienscroll, whose origins lay in the murky, legendary past. An electronic copy lay open in front of the Doge, and he read a passage from it aloud while the Mutati screamed in agony. A wager box also sat on the table, a black mechanism that the three noblemen used to keep track of their bets concerning how long the victim would survive. Lorenzo loved games of chance.
This notorious prison was linked to the Palazzo Magnifico by a covered walking bridge over a narrow waterway, a man-made tributary of the Royal Canal that ran through the heart of Elysoo, the capital city. Named after a mythical economist of millennia past who led the first corporate migrations from Earth, Elysoo became the most beautiful of all cities created by the affluent princes, one of the Wonders of the Galaxy. Even Mutatis (those foolish but brave ones who ventured here in disguise) said so; everyone admired the magnificent municipal designs, and especially the intricate dancing lights on the canals and the illuminated, lambent waterfalls that made the metropolis such a magical wonderland at night.
To prevent the features of his beloved city from being duplicated elsewhere, the doges always blinded the architects and engineers after they had completed their work. But the biggest threat to the Merchant Prince Alliance was not the theft of urban designs, or even of industrial secrets. It came from the Mutati Kingdom. Lorenzo wanted to annihilate the entire race of shapeshifters and make them suffer as much physical pain and humiliation as possible in the process. In his view they were the lowest form of life imaginable, the biological dregs of creation. He could not understand why the Supreme Being had contrived such organisms, unless it was to test Humans, to see how they would respond to such a dreadful enemy. The Mutatis were not just a military threat; they were a supreme challenge to all that any decent person held sacred.…
This hapless torture victim (captured in a space skirmish between Humans and Mutatis) was still trying to metamorphose his flesh in order to escape, but Sajak handled him deftly with the strong green threads of high-intensity light. As the Mutati assumed different physiques, the laser threads still held onto him, tightening their grip on his cellular structure and causing him to howl in agony and frustration. Exhausted, he reverted to his original fat, fleshy form.
With a sardonic laugh, the General turned up the pain amplification mechanism to its maximum setting, causing the Mutati to squirm even more frantically. The creature reached the highest note of a blood-curdling scream, and then babbled everything he knew about the military operations of his people. In a cracking voice, he said he was a mid-level officer, a sevencap who had been the adjutant for one of their top admirals.
“He has told all he knows,” General Sajak announced triumphantly, as the victim slumped on the rack, bleeding purple fluid from his ears and giving off fitful gasps. The small officer stood over him, smiling.…
One of the noblemen sitting in judgment with Lorenzo was the chisel-featured Jacopo Nehr, inventor of the “nehrcom,” the instantaneous, cross-galactic communication system. Fabulously wealthy, he also manufactured efficient, low-cost robots in leased facilities on the Hibbil Cluster Worlds, and engaged in precious gem mining and distribution.
The other noble at the Judgment Table was Saito Watanabe of CorpOne, a tall, obese man with jowls that hung loosely on each side of his face. He and Nehr, both born commoners, had been promoted by the Doge to “Princes of the Realm,” in honor of their business successes. Now their companies were affiliated with the all-pervasive Doge Corporation, which received a share of all merchant prince profits.
Prince Saito did not like these sessions, but attended them out of necessity, in order to maintain the favorable economic position of his own business empire. When the interrogation of a prisoner became most intense, he tried to tune it out discreetly and think of other matters. At the moment, he was remembering back a decade, to a time when his estranged son Noah had been in his late twenties and had worked for him. Once they had been close, though it had developed into a strained relationship, filled with disagreements over environmental issues.
He wondered if the young man had been right after all.
Sadness filled the Prince as he recalled their emotion-charged final argument. As the details came back, he felt tears forming in his eyes. With sudden resolve, he fought the emotion and pushed it deep inside, where it would not be noticed by his companions.
Only hours ago, Prince Saito had sent his son a letter suggesting a meeting. A telebeam response had arrived moments before this interrogation session, as indicated by a change in the color of Saito’s signet ring, from ruby to emerald. He had not been able to look at it yet.
At long last the victim issued a horrendous, shuddering scream and died. As he did so, the wager box metamorphosed from black to gold, and cast a bright beam of light on the face of the victorious contestant. It was Lorenzo the Magnificent, as usual. He loved to win, and set the machines to make certain that he always did.
Presently, the Doge and Nehr went out the door, bantering back and forth over the results of the bet, while Saito remained at the table. Men in black hoods swung a hoist mechanism over the corpse of the prisoner. They grunted with exertion as they moved the heavy body onto a sling.
Prince Watanabe took a deep breath, anticipating a negative response from his proud, willful son. To activate the telebeam projector, he touched the stone of the signet ring. The mechanism identified him from DNA in the oil of his skin and flashed a black-on-white message in front of his eyes, floating in the air.
He read it, and allowed a tear of joy to fall down his cheek. Given a fresh opportunity, he would listen to his son this time, would do everything humanly possible to bring them back together again.