Nouns of Dune
Dark. It was always dark. In space.
Leaving the atmosphere of Caladan behind, newly-Duke Leto Atreides watched cool blue sky fade to black. Already the great heighliner loomed in the void, carelessly rotating. The Duke's pilot exchanged a few words with the carrier's control, obtained permission to berth. Leto suppressed a sigh as the last traces of cerulean sky disappeared, blasted away by metal bulk.
A hand on his shoulder. He turned to find Dorothy smiling up at him with worried concern. For a moment he thought to embrace his precious seventh wife, remembered protocol and stayed his hand. The role of a duke called for some behaviours. Even his wife was not immune from them.
"Concerned, love?" Dorothy was sympathetic. Of course Leto was concerned. A diplomatic foray into ground untouched for centuries, but for spilt blood, and he walked into it near alone on the word of two men. His cousin, the Emperor, who assured him of his host's good intentions, and his host himself: the Baron Harkonnen.
Vendetta of generations, abruptly broken by a missive from the Baron offering parley. It was almost too good to be true. Gurney Halleck certainly thought so, had said as much before Leto departed. Gurney's fears rang in Leto's mind, but he couldn't turn back now. He had to try. To say he had tried.
"The Baron wouldn't be so brazen as to have us assassinated at his own party." Dorothy assured him "If he's up to something-"
"He's up to something." Leto replied firmly. "But better to find out what it is and evade it than cower on Caladan, which could very well be what he expected me to do." The aperture of the heighliner passed overhead.
"Incoming transmission, my lord." The pilot failed to hide his shock. "It's from Baron Harkonnen."
Leto stiffened, felt Dorothy's grip press the tension out of his shoulders.
"Send it through." He coughed, the order coming out a croak. The pilot nodded mutely.
"Duke Leto! So glad you decided to come." The Baron's voice was unmistakable.
"Baron Harkonnen." Leto replied formally. "I didn't realise you would accompany us to Giedi Prime."
"I wasn't sure you would come." The Baron's voice smirked. "I assure you, if you hadn't accepted I would have been quite inclined to leave the heighliner and persuade you myself!"
"Your dedication is impressive." Leto replied, quietly imagining Gurney's reaction if the Baron were to set foot on Caladan.
"Psh, think nothing of it." The Baron replied jovially. "Listen, I've taken the liberty of requesting adjacent berths, I'd like to arrange a short meeting prior to our arrival."
Completely inside Guild neutrality... what can he be up to?
"My delight is equalled only by my surprise." Leto replied stiffly.
"I expected nothing less." The Baron's voice was a study in amused sincerity. "I hear we will be leaving soon, so I shall see you after the first jump, which I believe is to the home of your lovely wife."
"Ecaz." Leto managed.
"Quite right. Good day, dear Duke."
The transmission ended as the shuttle slotted into place next to the Harkonnen gryphon. Dorothy shivered, prompting Leto to put an arm around her shoulders. "What are we walking into?" She asked unhappily.
"We can trust the Guild to keep order." He replied without conviction.
The heighliner's internal lights powered down. Somewhere in the vast body of the carrier, the navigator flexed his mind, reached out...
The jump was smooth. Leto exited the shuttle above Ecaz, taking only his bodyguard into the heighliner, leaving Dorothy with the pilot.
The passages were crowded with travellers and traders. A Wayku merchant approached, was pushed back by the bodyguard.
Leto met the Baron in a small social room off the main thoroughfare. Surprisingly, he was alone.
"Leto! A pleasure." The Baron rose, shook hands. "Will you join me for a drink?" He indicated a bottle directly beneath the snooper.
"I... would be honoured." Leto forced the words out. The Baron hummed softly as he poured.
"You didn't bring your wife." He commented, handing Leto the glass. "A shame, but I understand. My condolences, by the way, on the tragic loss of your last wife. What was she, the fourth...?"
"Sixth." Leto corrected. The loss of Gertrude had seen all of Caladan in mourning, barely three weeks after the last period of mourning for Alice. Leto simply thanked providence that nobody had yet figured out that his third marriage had been a spice-fuelled weekend of insanity with a drunken Duncan Idaho. What happened on Grumman stayed on Grumman.
"Of course." The Baron raised his glass. "To your many, many beautiful wives." Leto raised his glass, subtly bringing it closer to the snooper, before drinking.
"And... might I congratulate you, Baron, on your successful operation." Leto said in an attempt to be equally cordial. "Why, nobody would ever guess that you were born a woman."
"You are too kind." The Baron smiled. "The Tleilaxu, they can work wonders, you know. And I never liked the name Vladmira."
The next two hours passed in polite, meaningless conversation. As the heighliner prepared to jump once more, Leto noticed a faint undercurrent, a rattling, hissing noise in the hum of the engines. Before he could comment, the heighliner lurched as the Holtzmann engines came online.
"All passengers please prepare for foldspace jump." The guildsman's voice was flat, even allowing for the deadening transmission. Leto sat down, watched the Baron sip his spice wine. He seemed about to say something, was cut off by a sudden lurch, sending the snooper flailing.
"What-" Leto was interrupted by a terrible tearing, snapping noise. He looked out the viewport, watched the heighliner seem almost to bend. Someone outside screamed as the engines reached full power.
"Have we jumped?" Leto wondered. The Baron checked a device on the wall.
"Seems so." He noted. "Unusual though."
Before Leto could enquire further, a deafening screeching noise sounded through the hull of the carrier. On the other side of the heighliner, seven berths were torn outward as the craft split open. Leto watched incredulously as the tear continued, ripping apart the heighliner and peeling its shell into space.
"Sir!" Leto's bodyguard rushed into the room, found his master at the viewport.
"Sir, Lady Atreides has left the shuttle in search of you."
"I must find her." Leto turned for the door.
"I will find out what's going on." The Baron slammed down his glass. They left in separate directions, Leto heading back towards the passenger berths. The way was flooded with distressed travellers and nonplussed merchants. He spotted Dorothy in the crowd, rushed to her side.
"But... the Great Convention!" Dorothy wailed. "They can't!"
"Someone is." Leto replied grimly, awestruck at the ease with which the great heighliner had been crippled. Hurrying back to the shuttle, he had just sealed the doors when another sight caught his eye. Something tiny and silver against the black of space and the twinkle of stars. It moved quickly, darting towards the nearest stricken shuttle, disappearing behind it. Already there were more. Three sleek silver craft apparently coming from outside the heighliner. Leto recognised nothing about them. Surely they can't have more than the most rudimentary life support in craft that small...
"People of Heighliner X52A." This voice was, if anything, even more devoid of humanity than the guildsman's. Leto's pilot gestured, indicating that it was being broadcast to the entire population of the heighliner. "Please do not panic. Your craft has been diverted as part of an experiment. If you cooperate, you will not suffer any pain. We ask that you not obstruct us in our activities. Obstruction will lead to termination. That is all." Leto tried not to show his concern, but in the event he needn't have bothered. Dorothy was practically fainting with fear. His second wife, he recalled, had been made of sterner stuff. Until the tragic accident that had claimed her life.
A sudden burst of communication, urgent and frantic. "Mayday! Machines! Thinking mach-" the speaker was already cut off by another.
"-one help me! They're taking the children, the ch-" this voice too was cut off in a burst of static. On the other side of the heighliner, a shuttle exploded.
"Sweet merciful Buddhammed." Dorothy gasped, a single tear running down one dumpy cheek. Hundreds of the tiny vessels now swarmed through the rent heighliner, seeking out shuttles with mechanical precision.
"Machines that think." The pilot stared at the unfolding devastation. An imperial shuttle fired upon the silver raiders, was immediately destroyed.
"Shields up." Leto ordered. The pilot looked stricken.
"Can't, sir. The controls won't respond to anything, they've locked us out." Leto frowned.
"Can you open the rear hatch?"
"Fine." Leto turned, strode from the bridge. Retrieving a lasgun, he marched for the aft of the shuttle. Dorothy followed him, catching up just as he reached the sealed hatch.
"What are you doing?" She asked plaintively.
"I need to reach the navigation chamber." Leto announced firmly. "If the engines can be brought online, the navigator must take us away from here."
"I'm coming with you."
Leto paused. While he was loathe to leave his wife, the idea of abandoning her to the clutches of the machines was more than he could bare. "Alright."
He aimed the lasgun at the hatch and fired.
Burning through the plasteel took surprisingly little time, opening the way back into the heighliner's public space. Leto jumped through, helped Dorothy after him. He set off for the private areas of the heighliner, barging aside anyone in his way. Speakers crackled as he reached a door that would normally be guarded by guildsmen. A woman shouted something in broken Galach before being cut off in lasgun fire. Leto grit his teeth and opened the door.
Familiar with the layout of heighliners, Leto led Dorothy quickly through the body of the ship. Pockets of guildsmen ignored them, rushing past with weapons drawn. They didn't even question Leto's lasgun. By the time he reached the control room, however, they had become more organised. One stepped forward to halt Leto outside the navigator's chamber.
"What is your purpose here?" A bald man asked tersely.
"We need to get out of here," Leto replied. "Is the navigator able to travel?"
"The navigator is... unmolested." The guildsman replied. "The engines, however, have been completely disabled." We have teams in ever auxiliary station, they have all been compromised."
Leto reached into his pocket, withdrew the emergency heighliner restarter given to him by his old friend Rhombur. Because you never know when you might need one he had said. How right he was.
"A Vernian Device?" The guildsman recoiled. "What is it?"
"It will restart the engines." Leto replied.
"Will it?" The guildsman's spirits lifted.
"Will it?" The Baron, who had been arguing with a nearby guildsman, raised a sceptical eyebrow.
"It will." Leto promised, remembering the fateful day when Rhombur had given him the precious Vernian Device which he had made himself before destroying the blueprints and killing himself.
"Well alright then." The guildsman stood aside. "I warn you though, what you see in there-"
"Yes yes, ultimate secret of spice gas, blah blah blah." Leto pushed the man aside.
Entering the control room disturbed a couple of morose pilots who stood before the great control panel. At a signal from the guildsman at the door, they parted to allow Leto access to the controls.
"What is this?" The navigator's voice buzzed from her large chamber in the middle of the room.
"I'm reactivating the engines." Leto opened the secret panel in the controls which Rhombur had told him about. Placing the Vernian Device inside caused the entire control panel to light up in a pleasing shade of mauve.
"The engines can be brought online!" One of the pilots exclaimed. His elation was short lived, however, as the air above the panel began to bend.
"What-" Dorothy started, but was cut off as the air opened above them.
"A hole in the universe. Don't see those every day." The navigator wobbled with concern. All at once a woman fell through the rip in spacetime.
"A tear in reality that delivers women?" Leto asked as a second woman tumbled through. "I could have used one of those before my fourth wedding."
"I wonder if there's a different one." The Baron mused. He was forced to step back as the hole was filled by the bulk of a large creature, which tumbled through thereafter, followed by a massive jangle of twisted metal struts and supports.
Wobbling at the edges, the wormhole closed.
One of the women was already on her feet and examining Leto critically.
"And who are you?" She asked.
"I am Duke Leto Kavin Brianna Atreides." Leto replied. "And you are?"
"Mother Superior Murbella." The woman answered as the other one stood up behind her.
"I am Norma Cenva." She announced in a clear, crystalline voice. Her eyes flitted across the company. "Oh dear."
"I AM," the massive creature rumbled, rolling over to reveal a disproportionately small human face, "Emperor Leto Atreid-" he paused upon seeing the group. "Oh. I knew this was gong to already have happened." His gaze lingered on Leto. "Hello grandfather."
"Grandfather?" Dorothy gaped. "But I only just became pregnant!"
"You're pregnant?!" Leto exclaimed.
"Nevermind that, we have machines to deal with!" The Baron snapped.
"Machines?" The voice was new, similar to that of the navigator. "MACHINES?" What Leto had taken for a heap of scrap metal shuddered violently, producing an arm twice the size of a man. It was followed by a fearsome face, a frowning man wrought in steel. The mask pulled together four huge metal legs, folded like a spider's. "Machines attack us? Then we shall smash them!" The face's eyes glowed blue, immobile and emotionless. The four legs unfolded, lifting the mask and its huge metal body to tower above the amassed men and woman. "Where are they?"
"Ajax." Norma approached the metal monster, her white robes billowing slightly.
"Aye. AJAX." The monster bellowed, causing the pilots to cringe away. "Subduer of enemies, battler of hrothgir, Titan CHAMPION."
"Loudmouthed prat." This came from behind the titan. A golden woman stepped into view, twice the height of a normal person and with an exquisite head of gold, shaped to resemble a dragon.
"I am the Titan Hecate." She bowed a greeting. As she stood, a shot from the door took off her head, exposing the steaming remains of half a human brain. The jewelled body crumpled to the floor as all eyes turned to the entrance and the figure standing there.
"Well this is a surprise." He stepped forward, sounding completely unsurprised. "Old friends and, I presume, new ones."
"What are you doing here, Erasmus?" Norma stepped forward, shielding Dorothy.
"Why, conducting an experiment." Erasmus' face moulded itself into an unsettlingly friendly smile. "I once killed a child, you see. Well, I've killed many children, but this one was... different. It sparked the 'jihad' that has since become so all-pervading. Just one child. I want to see what happens if I kill every child on this ship. Do people get more upset, or is it a binary thing?"
"Manion Butler." Dorothy breathed. "Just how old are you?"
"Too old." Ajax snapped, lumbering forward.
"Ajax!" Erasmus' smile widened. "You've been dead for so long, it's good to see you looking so well."
"You just killed my wife!" Ajax snarled.
"So I did. Ah well." Erasmus shrugged unconvincingly. "I'm sure Omnius will be pleased, at least. Well, perhaps not pleased. Gratified? Satisfied. Oh, I should have given up anthropomorphising him eons ago." Silver eyes rolled. "Anyway, I believe I heard someone mention a pregnancy?" His gaze fixed upon Dorothy.
"You will not harm my wife." Leto stepped forward, weapon ready.
"It- it's barely a few days old." Dorothy pled, falling to her knees beside Murbella.
"Excellent, it will make a fine test case." Erasmus advanced. Around his metal face he wore a crown. "How old need a child be before its progenitors become psychologically deranged by its loss?" One hand opened, became a blade. "Of course at this stage, surgery really is the only option."
"Stay away from my wife!" Leto fired the lasgun through several of the sensory fibres floating above Erasmus' head. If the robot felt any pain, it did not register on its 'face,' which maintained a personable smile.
"Interesting." Was his only response as he advanced. Leto made to fire again, but Erasmus was already activating a shield. "One of your better creations, Norma."
"We aren't on first name terms, thing." Norma replied flatly. Erasmus shrugged, poorly, and advanced on Dorothy.
A blur of black robes and Murbella was upon the robot, lashing out in kicks and stabbing, slashing punches too fast for Leto's eyes to follow. Her limbs slowed just enough to penetrate the shield, but once inside her hands wrought terrible damage, tearing metal before the robot turned up the shield to repel her.
"My turn." Leto, the other Leto, reared up along his great length.
"Interesting." Erasmus commented as the worm crashed down atop him. The floor shook.
"What a strange creature." The navigator observed. "Hard to believe it could cripple us so effectively."
"Never underestimate the thinking machines." Leto quoted the Orange Catholic Bible.
"Quite." To the horror of all, Erasmus' voice sounded from the control panel of the heighliner. "I will not be denied, human. Every true scientist knows that something must be destroyed in order that it be understood. What are your feeble lives compared to the knowledge that might be gained by their cessation?" Leto II rolled over, revealing the crushed shell of the robot.
"They can control their bodies from remote locations." Norma said. "Somewhere there will be a control ship with the central spheres of Erasmus and Omnius. In order to escape we will have to destroy it."
"Finally, someone speaks my language." Ajax pounded two of his legs on the floor.
"Ajax." Erasmus sounded resigned. "You do realise that these humans killed Agamemnon, don't you?"
Ajax paused. "Did they?"
"Would I lie to you?"
"Ajax, I am a machine. I can't tell lies. If I could, I'd be lying right now, wouldn't I? But I'm obviously not, or I wouldn't have pointed that out."
"You talk too much." Ajax grumbled.
"He also killed your wife." The Baron pointed out.
"She talked even more than I do." Erasmus replied.
"She DID!" Ajax roared, surging forward. "Die, peons!"
"What." The Baron deadpanned.
"Just a machine that used to be something better." Leto II said darkly as he rose to meet the charging titan. The two clashed in a way that would look awesome when it's directed by Peter Jackson. Leto pulled Dorothy out of their path while Murbella and Norma levitated out of the way. Both of the pilots were tragically crushed by the fighting creatures, causing the navigator to sigh deeply and blow spice bubbles of mourning, as was their custom.
Ajax grappled, trying to bring his large weapons into play, but his efforts were thwarted by Leto's smothering bulk and spice lasers.
"We need to find that control ship." Murbella said, hovering by the door.
"It will be behind the main fleet somewhere." Norma nodded, closing her eyes.
"Yes, the side of the breach."
"How do we get there? All of our vessels are crippled." The Baron said, watching the fighting.
Leto II can take us. But not if he's dead." Norma answered. A dramatic pause.
"You mean we need to kill Ajax." Leto surmised.
"No, Ajax and I must survive." Norma shook her head. "Our deaths would trigger a paradox and possibly destroy the universe."
"What about Hecate?" The navigator asked curiously.
"Who?" Norma frowned. "Anyway, what we need is-"
"Someone to keep Ajax busy, but not kill him." That Baron finished. "I volunteer."
"Baron?" Leto asked.
"You have so much more to live for than I, friend." The Baron continued. "You have a wife, a beautiful child on the way. I will distract the creature. Promise me though, promise me that you will live well. Live long, for your family."
"I promise." Leto swore, grasping hands. To his shock, the hand squashed in his grasp. He looked up in amazement to see the Baron's visage melting away in favour of a slim, waifish figure.
"One more thing." He said, and his grip was surprisingly strong. "Don't trust Vladimir Harkonnen. I was to kill you before reaching Giedi Prime. Perhaps this is for the best." So saying, he turned away, shedding the large robes to stand in a simple shirt before the battling behemoths. He held a simple sword.
"Wait!" Leto cried. "What's your name?"
The figure turned, smiled. "Waff. Tylwyth Waff." He drew a simple pistol in his other hand and leaped forward, vaulting from Leto II onto Ajax, thrusting the sword into one eye of the mask.
"Come on, Letos!" Norma shouted from the open door. "Don't let his sacrifice be in vain!" She waited as the others hurried forth, sealed the door behind them with her mind.
"He was a facedancer all along." Leto said in disbelief. "I just don't believe it."
"He was acting completely unlike the man you knew, yet you trusted him?" Leto II sighed. "That will become habit forming, you know."
"Paradox." Norma snapped.
"I won't make the same mistake again." Leto vowed. Norma glared at Leto II, who shrugged.
"We must always remember this day." Leto went on. "The day that the Bene Tleilax stepped up and showed their worth. Any time anyone claims that the Tleilaxu are a greater threat to the known universe than thinking machines," he scoffed, "will be told of the events of this day, which decisively show that the thinking machines are a far more credible threat than a couple of face dancers could ever be."
"Yes yes, very good." Murbella muttered. "Now can we get going?"
Running back through the heighliner proved more difficult, with machines and geth all over the place. Murbella, Norma and Leto II took care of all of these threats until the group arrived at an airlock near the breach.
"How do we get there?" Leto asked.
"I can carry you in the folds of my skin." Leto II answered. "In space."
"Of course." Murbella nodded. "You know, you're not so bad for a tyrant."
"I've always thought so."
"My baby's baby grows up to be a tyrant?" Dorothy looked close to tears. Leto II regarded her for a moment.
"No." He said at last.
"Well that requires no further explanation." Leto nodded. "Should we get inside you now?"
"...Yes." Leto II nodded, opening a fold in his flank. "Shame the Baron wasn't here to hear that one."
"What?" Leto asked as he climbed inside.
"Nothing." Leto II released the flap, sealing Leto inside his grandson.
One by one the others entered him, at which point the God Emperor blasted a hold in the airlock with a great spice fart. Launching himself into space, he spotted the sleek silver vessel with ease. Firing thrusters, he let the spice propulsion hurl him forward. The silver guard ships, programmed to react to entirely different life signs, ignored him.
Breaching the ship was only as difficult as a swift right hook. Sealing the airlock, Leto noticed that the ship was devoid of human life support. At that moment part of his flank began to glow. Norma stepped out, carrying a wave of oxygen and gravity.
"Atomic rearrangement isn't so hard, once you know the trick." She observed as Leto and Murbella extricated themselves. Dorothy flopped out, motionless.
"Beloved!" Leto knelt at her side. "What happened? Didn't you suckle?"
"I'm just expediting the inevitable." Leto II said in reply to Norma's glare, just as
Dorothy took a gasp of breath. "Well great, she's alive. Great, she's alive!" He added, more sincerely.
"I hear something." Murbella said with a shhing motion. As she spoke a machine entered the room.
"Shep-" it was cut off as Leto sliced it in half with his lasgun.
Apparently unprepared for the possibility that they might be boarded, the command ship was only lightly guarded. The control room's defenders were easily overwhelmed, so that the group broke in quite easily. Before them stood Erasmus, next to a large sphere of silvery metal. There then proceeded to be an epic fight scene that lasted for at least two chapters longer than necessary, until the robot was finally pushed back against a bulkhead.
"I must know the secrets of the universe!" He gasped through a partially broken voice synthesiser.
"You and every other moron." Leto growled, beheading the robot with his lasgun.
The group surrounded Omnius in the centre of the room.
"This craft is surrounded." The evermind pointed out, "You will never leave alive."
"That's nice." Norma commented, and put a magnet on him.
"NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO..." The robot's voice faded as the sphere collapsed.
"If only I'd known it was that easy." Norma sighed. "Welp, time to put everything back together." And then they were in the heighliner.
"Wait, how did you do that?" Leto asked.
"Nevermind." Norma said, fixing the heighliner and reassembling all of the destroyed ships. "I'm putting everything back together, as though it never happened."
"What about everyone who died? What about Waff?" Leto asked.
"Some things I will arbitrarily change." Norma replied. "Wait, did I say that out loud? I mean... something something fate destiny. I'll bring everyone else back to life."
"Wait, if you can do that, why didn't you just rearrange the universe at the beginning?" Dorothy asked. Norma frowned, and Dorothy's head exploded.
"Well, that just about wraps up any loose ends." She smiled brightly. "All I have to do is wipe your memory of this ever happening." She disappeared, teleporting each of the others back to their own time. Leto knelt beside the body of Dorothy, feeling like he should say something, when everything went black.
The next day he woke up and married Sophia of Kaitan.