A bell chimes.
The room was large. High ceilings. Narrow vaulted windows. Glow-globes suspended in mid-air cast a low amber light across the stone walls.
Hooded figures in brown robes began to arrive, sitting here and there on tiered steps that emanated from a lower central platform. The figures sat patiently, waiting. They began to whisper in soft tones to one-another.
Around the dimly lit amphitheatre stood various displays... human skeletons, fetuses submerged in tall slender tubes, unfurled papyrus diagrams of the human anatomy. As more robed figures continued to arrive, the whispering din increased. Some pulled back their hoods, revealing smooth, shorn scalps.
None had hair. None had eyebrows.
All were women.
The whispering ended abruptly as a stooped ancient figure entered. She surveyed her class. The students stopped their fidgeting, their postures rigid with attention. The old woman at the door stood motionless, her gaze slowly sweeping the somber room. The students sat still, avoiding the old krōn's eyes, those of a predator bird.
After a moment, her authority established, she descended the stairs to the centre of the classroom.
"Good Evening Sisters."
In unison, "Your Reverence."
Her descent was slow, her age apparent. Her voice however, carried power.
"Today's class is a special one. Today you learn about mankind's oldest enemy, and how to defeat it."
Settling behind the podium at the base of the room, she turned her attention on the students, her heavy lids unable to quench the sharpness of her gaze.
"This begs the question; what is mankind's oldest enemy?"
The class looked at one another, confused by the teacher's simple yet opaque question. A hand went up.
"Thinking Machines, your Reverence?"
"Wrong, Presilla. Wrong, but pertinent. A truly terrifying time that was! Never before or since has humanity come so close to species extinction..."
She paused. Then...
"What word occurs to you when I use the term 'Technology'?"
The class stirred uncomfortably at the word...
A hand went up. "Forbidden."
Another hand. "Evil."
"Such simplifications..." grunted the teacher, gauging the class. "Mmph! The truth is simpler still... Mankind existed thousands of centuries before the Machine Holocausts... No, the enemy I speak of is older still... as old as mankind itself."
She turned to the chalkboard behind her and wrote a single word.
"Fear is mankind's oldest enemy. It existed long before any machine. Fear has plagued mankind since the dawn of time! It lived with our ancestors in their ancient caves of stone... It survived all mankind's civilizations as each grew, then collapsed. It has chased us across time and space, our cursed companion millennia to millennia."
In the dim light from the narrow abbey windows, a sea of glittering eyes shone.
She had their attention.
"Fear in Extremis, Fear Ordinaire. The stages of fear are well known: What starts as simple anxiety can, within heartbeats, become full-fledged panic. Waves of adrenalin explode throughout the bloodstream. The chest tightens. Oxygen is reduced, cutting the brain off from its vital food source. In the face of danger, the Mind shuts down, overcome by waves of anxiety. One is reduced to an animal state. Instinct is all that remains, fight or flight, its only solutions. Fear tells us to bite with fangs we no longer have. Fear tells us to strike with claws we do not possess."
She wrote again on the board.
'FEAR is the MIND-KILLER.'
The Litany. Repeated untold times since childhood, its words had long ago burned into the student's psyches. Yet the Reverend Mother's emphasis began to force a new awareness on them, new meanings to unquestioned principles.
"The Mind..." began the teacher, "... is where you think. The Mind is where you remember. The Mind is where you retain all your teachings, all your skills. In short, your Mind is you, your inner-consciousness. Fear, is the Mind-killer. The little death of that inner-self. Without the Mind, paralysis ensues... All is lost."
She started to write on the chalkboard again.
"There will be times ahead when some of you will find yourselves in grave peril...", the chalk still moving...
'... THE LITTLE-DEATH ...'
"... The momentary death of the Mind from uncontrolled panic, could well-mean the death of the whole....", the sharp scrape of the chalk as she finished writing...
'... THAT BRINGS TOTAL OBLITERATION.'
"If you let Fear destroy your Mind, then you too will be destroyed, Mind and Body." At this, she underlined TOTAL.
She paused to assess the class' reactions. Her words were taking effect.
"Fear is a powerful force... until you realize its secret..."
She gazed round the room. Their young minds were at complete attention. They were ready for truth's banal kiss...
"Fear exists only in the Mind. Once you can control your Mind, you can control your Fear. Fear will pass over you and through you, like the temporary illusion that it is. And once it is gone..."
"... Only I will remain..." under their breath, the students murmured the end of the Litany, caught in the Reverend Mothers spell, hearing the words anew.
The teacher smiled briefly, then it was gone.
"The Litany against Fear, once truly understood, is a mantra like no other. Where others lose themselves to panic and frenzy, a Bene Gesserit remains calm. Rational. Focused. We of the Sisterhood can ignore pain and injury, can overcome debilitating fears, even in the face of certain death. To prove its efficacy, I have for you an object lesson..."
From beneath her robe, the teacher produced a small silver disc.
She held it high.
"This, sisters, is the Omega Fragment... an extremely precious artifact! A recording that pre-dates the Butlerian Jihad!"
Gasps from around the room.
Human history from before the Thinking Machines was almost unknown anymore, so utter was the destruction they wrought. Such a device would be beyond price!
"The events transcribed onto this ancient metal disc are of supreme importance. In it is a report from a sister alive in those terrible times.... Neither she, nor any of the events she describes exist anywhere in the Sisterhoods Other Memories.... Her genetic line is lost to history.... As is the entire Bene Gesserit Chapter she belonged to."
This provoked a deep silence throughout the room... Such loss to the Bene Gesserit was unheard of except to the oldest tomes in Chapter House Archives... This disc was one such recording...
From behind her podium, Teacher produced a small object, not much bigger than the disc itself. As she placed it on the table beside her for all to see, she commented... "Do not be alarmed... as archaic as this ancient technology looks, it shows that ancient civilizations, in some ways, were more advanced than our own... Glow-globes down!"
The room dimmed. She put the disc on top of the small object. With a click and a hum, the disc began to spin with ever-increasing speed. The hum became a whine, until light began to twinkle above... What started as an ember of slowly swirling blue sparks, quickly became a sin-wave of activity hovering three feet above the spinning disc. Growing in complexity, the blue shimmer suddenly took three-dimensional form... All of a sudden, a woman's torso materialized, her image breaking apart in static spasms, then re-stabilizing again...
The students inhaled sharply, disquiet erupting around the room... Dimensional holograms spoke of a sophisticated computerized past unknown to modern humans, tabooed now for thousands of years... The teacher watched her students, their unguarded body language told her everything... such technology was akin to witchcraft.
The teacher smiled inwardly at her Acolytes... Bene Gesserit 'Witches' afraid of witchcraft!
Though resembling the sisters in the classroom, the female projection looked subtly different... she was several years older than the students, between 20 and 30 summers. Tubes protruded from her flesh, obvious signs of medieval medical attention. But it was not these... it was the face. Faint indicators of an older genotype, long ago passed into history.
The projection seemed to speak, but no sound came, this portion of the disc damaged. The teacher observed her students; some moved closer, awed by this marvel of the past... others recoiled, retreating... Names duly noted.
"Control yourselves children!" she barked. "It is merely a holographic display, be still!"
Chastened, the class recovered themselves obediently. Nevertheless, all betrayed agitation and fascination in equal measure.
Audio crackled to life, the projection spoke...
".... total disarray... The planetary government is gone. All computer networks have been compromised, as have all higher order technologies.
It... it's as though everything has gone crazy... all our tools rebelling against us... "
The flickering blue light illuminated the class, it's hypnotic glow reflected in the wide eyes of the captivated students.
"No one knows what's going on... the dead are everywhere....
Her quick speech abruptly stopped... she seemed to gather herself... mouthing something to herself... when she looked up again, she was more composed, but by no means calm...
"I must gather myself... try to make sense of the data.... I am Sister Syllica, one of the last survivors of Chapter House on Senhauser IV....
The year is 12535 A.D.... Our situation is hopeless..."
Syllica slowly disrobed, like the rest of her Sisters. First the clumsy Aba robe... the uniform of the Sisterhood... then the bulkier under-garments. She could not run in such things...
In the pit of her stomach she a felt dread like none she'd ever known... the mission was suicide of course... and the banal reality of it seeped into every fibre of her being till nothing else remained. Even despair seemed a storybook conceit...
She looked around at the other Acolytes. As they removed their layers, each recited the Litany under her breath. Syllica could hear the quivering in their voices, could see the trembling in their hands... and for some reason found comfort in this...
Her training returned to her. She began to recite the Litany... it was all that remained to her...
"I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain."
Screams tore the air around them. All were fleeing the on-coming Machines, civilians and military alike. What was left of the planetary population swarmed like cockroaches vying for position on the nearest escape shuttle. Not many were left...
Against this tide of retreating humanity, the six Bene Gesserit Sisters continued, chanting under their breath as they rid themselves of all that was not essential, slowly making their way toward the danger...
As Syllica repeated the mantra, resolve returned. The words refocused her.
She re-assessed the situation.
Planetary defenses had fallen like a house of cards. Whether it had started on Senhauser IV or not was unknown. Atomix had ripped apart all Military and ComTel installations, as well as all major population hubs. Smoke plumes dotted the horizon, each an enormous black pillar standing like tomb stones for the millions that died there. Radiation levels were growing by the hour...
"Sister, are you ready?"
Priscilla's voice snapped Syllica back to the mission at hand.
"Yes Sister... thank you..." Priscilla was always one of the kinder Sisters... "Who has Reverend Mother's orders?"
"I have been told." Said Sister Corrida. She still had hair... most likely from the Mothering Stables. She had dark skin and a strong, mannish quality about her. Her build was powerful. Her demeanor, determined.
"Our mission, Sisters, is to protect the escape of those last shuttles..." she pointed to the air-field with its seething mass of desperate humanity. "None of the Planetary Command structure remain... Any weapon or vehicle with computer circuitry or Artificial Intelligence now belongs to the Machines. The spaceport's only defenses are the minefields that surround the compound. But the Machines are quickly carving a hole through.... Soon there will be nothing to stop them. We are their only hope...."
As if in mockery of her last statement, explosions erupted a few hundred meters away. Orange light blinded the Sisters as a new wave of vehicles usurped by the Machines began to throw themselves at the mined defenses. Through the smoke and the fires, Syllica could make something out... something larger than the military vehicles... something with legs...
"What is that?" she asked, fearing the answer...
"That is the problem. The military men call them Spider-tanks. Machine designed bio-mimics. Extremely fast. Extremely smart. They are armed with Laz-cannons... with those they can shoot down the shuttles at vast distances."
Syllica couldn't take her eyes off the monstrosity. It was 20 feet tall, thick articulated limbs below an armored carapace, a single blue eye glowing in the centre of its cannon array.
Sister Corrida continued, her voice flat, "We are ordered to stop..." she hesitated, the absurdity of the word apparent to all, "... to delay that thing as long as possible...