Brian Herbert creates a universe of wondrous possibilities that is populated by sentient spaceships, shapeshifters, intriguing robots, and miniature aliens with mysterious powers. Humanity has become a mercantile society that has spread throughout the galaxy, ruled by wealthy merchant princes who live in decadent splendor—entirely unaware of another realm just beneath the fabric of the universe.
When galactic ecologist Noah Watanabe discovers the cause of a strange, cosmic disintegration, he embarks on an epic journey to restore the ancient balance to the crumbling galaxy. Noah must work with warring, alien races to unlock the secrets to a vast celestial puzzle.
Brian Herbert and I have written fourteen massive DUNE books together as well as our epic SF "Hellhole" trilogy. In between those collaborative projects, I spent a lot of time working on my "Saga of Seven Suns" space opera series, and Brian wrote his own ambitious space opera trilogy, The Timeweb Chronicles. As a very special bonus for the Adventure SF storybundle, we're including a sneak-preview excerpt of our forthcoming NAVIGATORS OF DUNE (the end of the Great Schools of Dune trilogy) as well as ETERNITY'S MIND, the final book in the Saga of Shadows trilogy. Since everyone gets those sneak previews, I decided to include Brian's TIMEWEB in the bundle, as well as our collection, TALES OF DUNE, which gathers the previously uncollected original Dune short fiction we've written over the years. – Kevin J. Anderson
"I found this novel an excellent example of science fiction combined with a warm human story that brings adventure interwoven with romance and presented with well developed characters."– Amazon Review
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.