Even in his dreams, he could still hear the long-ago cheering and feel the energy and heartfelt dedication of the crowd. It roared around him, making his sleep restless. Young Manford Torondo could see the beatific face of Rayna Butler, his inspiration, his beloved mentor—whose vision had brought healing and faith to the human race after the bloody generations-long Jihad.
He could see Rayna’s lips moving, but Manford could no longer remember the words she was speaking, because at that moment he had seen the bomb, had known it would explode. He rushed the stage, trying to save her, trying to throw himself upon the destructive device.
But it was too late.
The explosion was like a sun ripping open, right next to Rayna. He saw the shock wave, felt the flames, the energy that ripped bodies apart, destroyed the stage, sent fire and smoke and debris in all directions. Manford didn’t feel his own pain, even though he had been close to the blast, much too close. He saw the mangled remnants of Rayna Butler, her clothing splashed red, her skin torn and lacerated. Frantic, he tried to run to her, tried to reach her, but for some reason he could barely move. He had nothing left but to crawl, and so he crawled.
It was only later that he realized he no longer had his legs. The blast had torn away the lower half of his body, leaving only gruesome shreds below his hips. But his own wounds were utterly unimportant. He had to get to Rayna, had to save her, to hold her somehow. Though his ruined body was only moments from catatonic shock, he used his bloody elbows to haul himself forward. He got to Rayna, touched her, looked into her eyes, and he imagined he saw the light still there, but fading. Finally, he summoned the energy to scream. . . .
He screamed now as firm hands shook him by the shoulders, and he woke in his narrow bed, his truncated body covered by a rough woolen blanket.
“Manford, you had that nightmare again,” said Anari Idaho, his tall and muscular Swordmaster, his guardian, his most devoted companion. She loomed over him, her face filled with concern. “Rayna still haunts you, doesn’t she?”
Manford swallowed in a dry throat and let her help him into a sitting position. “Rayna still blesses me with her memories. Even the most horrific vision of her is still her. Rayna was better than us all.” He sighed. “Yet the burden falls to me to do the best I can to carry on her work. I must save the soul of humanity from its own temptation.”
“The people of Walgis are dying, Directeur, and they are crying out for help.”
The black-garbed Mentat, Draigo Roget, issued his report in the offices of Josef Venport on the industrialist’s capital world of Kolhar. The plight of that primitive planet sparked little sympathy in Venport’s mind. He stroked his thick, cinnamon-colored mustache and frowned, sitting straight at his desk in the headquarters tower. He was the Directeur of Venport Holdings, a huge commercial empire that was now under siege and outlawed by the new Emperor Roderick Corrino. Venport was more concerned with his own dire situation than a few sick zealots.
“Let them cry,” he said. “Let them plead.” He allowed himself a small smile. “Let them reconsider their decision to follow the Butlerian nonsense and turn their backs on reason and civilization. One should expect plagues and diseases on a world that shuns even the most basic tenets of medicine.”
Sighing, Venport sat back at his desk. His company was in turmoil, his commercial space fleet made technically illegal by Imperial decree, yet still functioning because the Imperium needed their trade, needed their precious materials. They needed Josef Venport.
“The people of Walgis made their own decision when they chose to side with the barbarian half-Manford,” he said. “I made my terms clear to them. Why should I help them now?”
The lean Mentat stood motionless, like a statue. His expression was blank. “Because one might wish to consider the bigger picture, Directeur. This is our chance to cause serious
psychological damage to the Butlerian movement.”
Draigo’s gaze was intense. His thoughts were well-ordered, the way he’d been trained in the now-overthrown Mentat School on Lampadas. He stood by, waiting for his words to sink in. Venport knew that Draigo gave good and well-considered advice, even though he was reluctant to hear it.