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To Catch A Mouse

By valeca

Adventure / Scifi

Chapter One

The irony of ironies in Muad’dib’s life lay in the duality that his desires represented: he wanted both anonymity—to live as a Fremen—and notoriety—the respect and eventual fealty of what would become his Imperium. This was especially the case during his two years among the Fremen after his family’s betrayal. To get a first-hand glimpse of his true torture was rare almost to the point of impermissibility, but in the first years of his reign, it was to be the work of Virgil Elger to spread the words of Muad’dib before the ships of the jihad even left port. Virgil the man was something of a foil for Muad’dib, providing a mirror with which he could gauge his ambition; he was that rare voice of impartiality in a world where his friends were quickly becoming sycophants and even his mother began to feel her influence slipping away. Muad’dib’s youth on Arrakis was a delicate time, for it was then when he came to realize his potential, even his destiny. It was a thing that he learned to hate and fear, though all his feelings could not change a future set for him by fate. It was then that he learned of the coming jihad, the terror of terrors that he would bring about merely by virtue of his existence.

- from “The Humanity of Muad’dib” by the Princess Irulan

Traveling by Spacing Guild Heighliner, though very safe and efficient, is by far the most uneventful method of transportation in the galaxy. Loading and unloading can, depending on the cargo manifest, last for hours, while actual travel occurs within the faintest fraction of measurable time. Despite brevity, every voyage brings with it a sudden shock of nausea and the implacable feeling that always accompanies an expanded perspective. It was well beyond Virgil’s comprehension to try and understand the forces which folded space-time itself to bring such an enormous vessel as a Heighliner to its destination instantaneously, so he spent his time instead attempting to subdue his urge to vomit. Thousands of kilometers below him lay Arrakis, the spice planet, with all its mysteries and dangers, yet his task was to avoid them all in order to find one: the one the people called Muad’dib.

The Guild lighter’s flight to down Arrakeen was relatively peaceful, as the larger of the planet’s notoriously destructive storms raged across the uninhabited plains that lay further south. Virgil counted that a blessing, knowing the rest of his time on this world would be considerably less forgiving. After stepping out of the lighter, he stood off to the side of its boarding ramp, bags in hand. He waited for his contact, a man he’d only spoken with a handful of times: a minor noble named Terril Perion.

House Perion was one of the many minor Houses that traded in Arrakeen for either profit or relative seclusion from the rest of the Imperium-usually dealing in stilsuits or spare ornithopter parts-but Perion had a very uncommon specialty that Virgil fully intended to employ: military espionage. If he meant to find Muad’dib, or anyone connected to him, he first had to know exactly what the Harkonnens knew, and more if he could manage it. Perion House kept mostly to itself, or at least hid behind an intricate front of parts and repair, but well-placed questions and a journalist’s instincts had gotten Virgil this far already.

He heard his name called off to the right and turned to find the voice’s source. The man he saw first was tall, well built, with dark hair that looked as if it had been swept back with his hands. Sure enough, the man wore Perion House’s gray panther signet on his chest.

“Terril Perion, I take it?” Virgil set down one of his duffel bags and extended a hand. Terril took it with a charismatic smile.

“It’s good to meet you,” The noble said. “If you’ll follow me to my ground car, I have some questions for you.”

“Well, that must be a coincidence! I have some for you as well. You first.”

“How about we get in the car first, in case there are any unfriendly ears about?”

“Of course,” Virgil replied. Taking up his bag again, he followed Terril through the crowd and over to a waiting ground car. The man indicated for Virgil to seat himself in the back row, then closed the door behind them. Without a word from his master, the driver put them on the path to Perion Manor.

“Right. In your first message from Kaitain, you indicated your desire for coming to Arrakis in the first place.”

“Yes. Why are you asking now?”

“Well, I want to hear it from your own mouth. What are you here for?” Virgil looked Terril straight in the eye.

“I’m here to find Muad’dib.” Terril couldn’t contain a chuckle.

“Right,” he chortled. “Just like everyone else in the known universe. You know what I do for a living: you know that I know how many troops the Harkonnens have spent trying to find him, and if I know anything, it’s that looking for a man like that, if he even exists, is either a grand waste of time or suicide. You want to know the forces you’re dealing with? Our agents in Carthag have tracked steady flights of heavy troop carriers leaving the city for the south—the deep desert—for months now. Guess the ratio of carriers that come back to those that leave. Guess.” Virgil had no idea and told the man so. “Five to one. That’s right. Five carriers leave, one makes it back in one piece. This, my eager friend, is what you’re getting yourself into.” Terril could hardly suppress his worry, but the reporter looked back at him more determined than ever.

“You’ve given me your concerns, and I thank you, but I have to do this. It’s no secret that the Harkonnens have pursued this man at monstrous cost to themselves, and it’s even rumored that the Emperor is assisting with squads of Sardaukar troopers. But the Imperium needs to know who this Muad’dib is, why he’s effective in leading a people commonly viewed as savages, what his endgame is. I believe there is something more to this man, something the Harkonnens and maybe even the Emperor doesn’t want us to know about him. I’m going to find out, and everyone’s going to know about it.” Terril sighed, leaned in close to Virgil.

“I suppose there’s no turning you. I can put you in contact with a Fremen acquaintance of mine who deals stilsuits with some smugglers I know. If anyone can point the way for you, it’s him. I’ll arrange a meeting in one of the Fremen villages on the edge of the deep desert, but I warn you: be careful. If this Muad’dib is as powerful as he’s rumored to be, he’ll be an easy one to cross. Of course, this is good advice with any Fremen. They can be the most loyal men you ever meet, but cross ‘em once and that’ll be your last act. Understand?” Virgil nodded in agreement. “Look, your courage is admirable to say the least, but it’s just about on the line with plain stupidity. What you need first, though, is some rest. And maybe a little spice beer. Couldn’t hurt, right?” The reporter acknowledged that it couldn’t, and the ground car proceeded towards Perion Manor.

Dinner in the Perion family manor was lavish compared to what Virgil was used to, but he still had to consider the burdens placed on this and other Houses Minor here on Arrakis. Under Rabban’s dictatorial fist, nothing escaped the invasion of Harkonnens troopers and intelligence. Rabban may be incompetent on his own, but he knew how to delegate, and the men he set in charge understood their duties and fulfilled them to the letter. Extortion, kidnapping and murder among the Houses Minor of Arrakeen and Carthag was not just common, it was official “unofficial” policy; Terril had believed it at first, but finally knew it after his ten-year-old son, Aaron, was taken in the night and four guards were killed in his defense. It fit perfectly with the tactics employed by the Harkonnens for as long as they had been on Arrakis, or for that matter, since their House began in the first place: they would do anything, as long as it could appear both legal and incredible at the same time.

“You know, Virgil,” Terril said through a mouthful of roast local bird, “that no one can know of our assisting you. Our House is already suspect for its dealings with smugglers and we can’t allow any proof of this to get out.”

“I understand, but if there’s anything I can do to repay you, don’t hesitate to name it. I’m here at the suggestion of my employer, and as such, he is prepared to offer compensation. Trust me, Terril, Rebecca. Just ask.”

“That’s very kind, Virgil,” the Lady Perion replied, “but we can’t risk it. If any money can be tied to us in this way, it would hurt both our family and your employer. You must realize this.” He nodded in acceptance, but resolved to hold himself in this family’s debt, depending on how things went with the Fremen. Still, he trusted that Terril did not intend to play him; if he had, Virgil knew he would not have come this far. The nobleman looked to an old-fashioned clock hanging above the tan dining hall’s tapestries and wiped his mouth with his napkin. He spoke to his wife as he stepped back from the table:

“Excuse me, darling, but I must be going to meet with Jharret now. You remember; the dealer?” It was to Virgil that he spoke next. “I’ll be back from Carthag by tomorrow afternoon, but I’ll have to ask you to stay within our compound for the night. You never know how good security is unless you’ve made it yourself.” He bade the both of them goodbye for the night and called for guards to follow. After a moment, Virgil could hear the thumping flaps of ‘thopter wings outside before they slowly faded into the night sky above.

The rest of the dinner was finished in awkward silence, Virgil not knowing what he could say to Rebecca Perion—other than an expression of his gratitude, of course—without it coming off as intrusive.

He thanked her and wished her goodnight, before heading off to his quarters only to find himself unable to sleep. It must be this foreign place, he determined. I just need to give it some time, that’s all. However, after two hours of fleeting thoughts and tossing in his bed, rest was just as distant as ever. He redressed and left his room, hoping that a walk around the compound would help tire him, if not calm his mind.

It was by one of the large windows overlooking the city and the Shield Wall beyond that he found Rebecca, still awake even at this hour. He acted quickly to shield his nervousness.

“My Lady, I didn’t know you were awake. I hope I haven’t disturbed you...”

“Oh no, not at all,” she said in reassuring tones. “I’m just concerned for my husband. I feel this way often, but increasingly...” Virgil approached her more confidently, looking her in the eyes.

“Your husband is one of the most capable men I’ve ever met. You have no need to be afraid for him; his task is very dangerous, but I have no doubt that he’ll succeed.” She smiled back at him, turning to look out the window at the two moons that hung in the sky above.

“You see them, our moons?” she asked. “The one there, the one with the fist on it: it’s long been the symbol for resistance on this planet, among both the Fremen of the deep desert and city folk like ourselves. I know it seems silly, but it serves as a reminder that we are not alone when we fight oppression. This planet fights with us.”

“And the other moon?”

“The mouse: Muad’dib, so the Fremen call it.” Muad’dib! What other secrets could be hidden so plainly?

“Muad’dib... Why does a resistance leader take his name from such a thing as a mouse? Wouldn’t something like, say, a lion sound more intimidating?”

“The way I understand it, the Fremen hold the desert mouse in great reverence, for it does not just live in the desert, but thrives, in spite of heat, lack of water and of course, the worms. They refer to it as a teacher of boys.” Does this mean that the man Muad’dib is also a teacher? Surely, one among the Fremen would have to do much to live up to a name like that.

“I don’t mean to offend, my Lady,” Virgil asked, “but… Well…”

“Yes?” Rebecca probed.

“Why isn’t your espionage used to bring your House to a more elevated position? You must have something; all that information must bring with it considerable power. Why not use it?” Rebecca did something surprising then: she laughed at him.

“That is a question I’ve asked myself and my husband too many times to count. He has one answer to that, and it is that Perion House does not blackmail, if that’s what you mean. We feel a moral prerogative to help the resistance movement, but to profit personally from our work would be something we’d scarcely be able to repent of. We have no pretensions of wealth; we only wish to make the best of our position to help in what ways we can.”

“Even to use such information against the Harkonnens?” The Lady Perion turned very solemn then.

“We must remember what trump card those swine hold; the trump cards they hold against all the Houses Minor on this world.” Virgil felt pangs of regret for bringing up the subject again, but Rebecca noted this and reached out to hold his hands in hers. “You were absolutely right about my husband, and I’m glad you are his friend. He’ll keep his word to the end of this world or the next. It seems as if he would do so especially if it meant putting his life in jeopardy; he has the mind and hands of a stonecutter with the heart of a Romantic hero.” The reporter had not expected this level of openness at all—nor had he even initially wished it—but what he now understood gave him a respect for these people he had not anticipated. Terril, the hard worker in a social class that prided itself on its ability to avoid work by delegation; Rebecca, the proud but tragic Lady whose very life, it seemed, was both inconsequential and noble.

“Now, friend,” she said as she released his hands, “tomorrow will be very busy, and you’ll need as much rest as you can get for the journey ahead. Goodnight, Virgil. And good luck, for all our sakes.” He returned her well-wishing and began walking back to the dormitories. Once he was out of her sight, he turned again to see her, still gazing up at the moons. Whether she looked to the fist or the mouse, he could not tell.

When he reached his bedroom again, peaceful sleep came instantly.

Terril returned very early the next morning, long before Virgil woke up. The Arrakeen sun had been long in the sky when Virgil left his quarters for breakfast. When the reporter arrived in the dining hall, though, Terril had gone again, presumably into the city to conduct more of his business as usual. When he would return, Virgil could only guess. He had not slept much the night before, but where he should have been tired, he felt refreshed. Perhaps something about his conversation with Rebecca the night before. One thing he was sure of was that there was more to House Perion than he had initially supposed. In a position where most—himself included—would have been inconsolable or even resigned to ostensible fate, they were resilient.

The dilemmas they faced without even betraying the tortuous choices that went along with them! Terril likely had the right information to ruin the Harkonnens and all their toadies, but he restrained himself for his and his associates’ protection, all without even showing the strain. The Perion existence was so complicated in its external simplicity that Virgil almost wanted to scream for them, even cry, despite his better knowledge that such a thing would be futile. They were not even willing to accept compensation for the immense trouble they were already going to for his sake; their fear was not for themselves, but for their son and their anonymous friends in the resistance movement. They’re just too virtuous for their own good, Virgil decided. As if virtue could ever be vice.

Breakfast was local fare: eggs, most likely from the bird he had eaten the previous night, hearty bread and lightly spiced coffee. The spice in his coffee concerned him, but the servant who had brought his meal assured him that there was only enough spice to impart the aroma without any of the side effects. Its faint cinnamon smell perked his mind and senses without even needing the coffee’s caffeine. Melange was a stimulant, among other things; much more dangerous things indeed. He was thankful that there was only a trace here, not enough to bring on addiction. The coffee tasted richer, more exotic than he had anticipated, and in ways that evaded explanation, even for a reporter; too many flavors swirled in his brain for him to pin down a specific taste, a specific emotion. It must be the nature of this whole world, he mused. The side presented is barely a fraction of the whole. The people, the spice… So much is interconnected here, yet all of it is so seemingly random in its coordination!

The afternoon lay ahead of him. Terril would be back for dinner, but the intervening time would be his. He had considered lounging around the manor all day-after all, it was rare for him to have this kind of luxury at his disposal-but decided against it; his duties here were larger than the conveniences in Perion Manor. The market, or souk as he’d heard it called, would be a good place to start, perhaps followed by a pub or two. Calling for a House servant, he arranged a ground car to take him to the market. Even for nobles who could afford to expend the moisture in their breath, going out without a stilsuit was unwise. One could easily come down with heat exhaustion just from walking the streets, and the water sellers were known for inflating their prices when dealing with nobility just as much as with commoners, if not more so with the Houses Minor. Only the Harkonnens had no need to worry about water prices; under Rabban, even the most meager of water peddlers was lucky if they were not paying the Harkonnens for the privilege of giving their goods away.

His ground car was ready. A short ride would take him to the beginning of his investigation, wherever that might lead him.

The afternoon hadn't been as productive as Virgil had hoped, but he'd had worse days. Lips in the stalls of Arrakeen's souk were as tight as the water seals across all their doors. No wonder the Harkonnens' methods are harsh, he thought sardonically. Getting anything from these people is like trying to squeeze water out of sand. Once location after location had proved fruitless, he settled for a pub across from the main cluster of date stalls. Still careful to avoid too much spice intake, a glass of local palm wine would have to do. The taste was unfamiliar and biting, but after hours of rejection, he wasn't so much interested in smoothness as he was potency.

Some shouting could be heard outside. Pushing himself away from the bar, he peeked outside to see a trio of Harkonnen troopers arguing with a hooded man. Across the street, more Harkonnens looked on from a large ground car, jeering the Fremen who huddled in the middle of the road.

"Stand aside unless you want a lasgun beam through your chest!" yelled one from the ground car.

"Yeah, get out of the way!" shouted another. One of the troopers nearest him couldn't wait any longer; lashing out with his right boot, he kicked at the man.

The Fremen wasn't there. Bringing his entire body around in a blinding arc, he plunged a glinting crysknife into the trooper's throat. With hardly a gurgle, the Harkonnen collapsed as the Fremen's blade sought another victim. Within seconds, two men lay the Fremen's whirling feet as the third hurried back to the safety of his fellows.

Virgil was astounded by the Fremen's speed. He had heard stories about their skill with the knives that had become their most well-known symbol, but seeing it here was like witnessing a dance that existed only in dreams. He wondered if even Ginaz could match such a combination of ferocity and precision. In the same moment that he positioned himself to get a better view of the deadly confrontation, a Harkonnen trooper back on the ground car could be seen steadying a lasgun on the Fremen. The man never had a chance to fire.

Turning not to face the soldiers but the fleeing vendors and shoppers of the souk, the Fremen pulled open his robes to reveal a vest sewed full of plastic explosives. Virgil scarcely had time to duck behind a wall before the man let out his final cry:

"Ya hya chouhada!"

The blast was so loud that Virgil felt it more than heard it, as his ears were filled with a high-pitched whine that sounded muffled as if through layers of cloth. Sand whipped past him in the aftermath, knocking him over and blanketing all he could see in rushing drifts of dust that cut at his face. He pushed himself up on an elbow and wiped his eyes, finally getting a chance to survey the scene: wood and adobe littered the souk, mixed with the occasional chunk of flesh. Stumbling through the rubble, he could hear the groans of the dying all around him. An old woman, blue-in-blue eyes dark as pits, clutched at him desperately but he staggered on in a daze. Her pleading words were unintelligible; undoubtedly Fremen by their rapid, guttural tone. The scene of violence in which he found himself washed over him for a moment before a firm hand grabbed his arm from behind. Virgil's blank gaze met that of his driver, and he was pulled away from the shattered stalls and back towards the Perion ground car.

Terrill's face was grave.

"The situation's changed," he said. "The Harkonnens will increase their patrols following the attack and off-worlders like you will be the first under lockdown."

"But it was clearly a Fremen behind it. He wore desert clothing."

"That may be, but it won't save you from the Harkonnens. They knew you're here, perhaps even why. Tying you to the Fremen will not be a hard task. Once they do, it won't matter anymore who sent you or why, only that you were here to find Muad'dib and one of his men happened to blow himself up in front of you. That's why we have to move you ahead of schedule."

"You mean to do it tonight? So you can put me in contact with Muad'dib after all."

"Not me personally, no, but I know one who can. There's only one problem."

"If it's money, my employers can provide."

"Not that. These deep desert Fremen couldn't care for all the money in the Imperium. No, it's a problem of trust."

"The Fremen suspiciousness I've heard so much about. Well, I have others who can vouch for me."

"You don't get it, do you? I trust him and he trusts me; the only problem is whether or not you can trust him. Sending anyone to Muad'dib is not something done lightly, and do not expect him to treat you more carefully just because you're an offworlder. If anything, I should expect worse, Fremen pride being what it is. They can't tolerate an outsider adapting to their ways unless he has proved himself, which you have not. Just remember: they can be either your greatest friend or your worst enemy, and nothing in between. Once I bring you to my friend, you stay alive only at his pleasure."

"And who is your friend?" Virgil grinned. "He sounds absolutely charming."

"Hamzah, and yes, he is charming. After all the favors I've done for him, he'd damn well be charming. Now if we’re to have you out to Chinbar sietch by morning,” Terril said, “we’ll need to leave soon. Even by light ‘thopter, it’s a long flight over the pole.” He excused himself from the table, turning to walk with one of his house servants. The reporter’s meager luggage had already been packed. “Come on; let’s get you fitted with a stilsuit.”

“Oh, but I already have one. It’s in my bag,” he said, retrieving the folded garment from a box in his duffel. Terril turned around sharply.

“Two questions, friend. One, how did you get a suit already? And two, if you do have one, did you expect to only put it on once you got to the outpost?” Virgil held out a gray stilsuit folded into a sand-beige cloak.

“Well, there were vendors in the spaceport on Kaitain. They were selling them to anyone going to Arrakis. I mean, they weren’t cheap, but they looked good enough...” The nobleman grabbed the clothing out of Virgil’s hand to examine it, then tossed it aside dismissively.

“Garbage, that’s what it is. Looking at the poor quality of the stitching, it’s a wonder it held up when you folded it into your bag! If you want to survive for any length of time out in the open desert, you need a Fremen suit, not one of these tourist get-ups they sell in a spaceport.” He called to a servant to bring over several stilsuits of varying sizes for Virgil to try. When they came, they appeared no different than the one Terril had thrown on the ground, but to the nobleman the difference was apparent.

“Looks better, doesn’t it? Tighter stitching? Slicker water tubes? It’s the differences in buying Fremen-made that’ll save your skin when you’re out on the sand. Test this one and I’ll help you adjust it.” The suit indicated was medium-sized, looking no roomier than a sack, but Virgil did as instructed. Now wearing only a pair of tight-fitting shorts, he climbed into the suit and was hit immediately with the noxious stench of a latrine. Terril showed his acknowledgment of Virgil’s reaction with a hearty laugh.

“There’s another good sign when picking a stilsuit: if it smells like it’s been used a lot, you know it’s saved a lot of men. I can’t say you get used to the smell, only that you’ll come to ignore it.” Under Terril’s careful guidance, Virgil cinched the pump over his chest to ensure efficient circulatory pressure, adjusted a number of hoses and catch-pockets and fitted his boots to maximize pumping in his soles. After several minutes of tightening and loosening, he was ready. A House servant led the way to their ornithopter behind the Manor, and within seconds of everything being loaded, the craft began its ascent.

It was dusk when the ‘thopter and its crew started into its wide circle over Arrakeen, readying for the long flight over the pole to opposite side of the Shield Wall. The yellow lights of clustered hovels blended together into a sea as the sun’s final rays splayed over and between the mountains of the Shield Wall like an illuminated flood. Beyond the craggy peaks, Virgil thought he could see burgeoning yellow clouds, though he knew this to be illusion. No clouds on Arrakis, he reminded himself. Only sand. Yet for the lack of moisture and plant life, the place had a beauty to itself that was altogether alien. Despite the many reports on the planet stating that life between the 60th parallels was impossible, Virgil knew that nothing here could be so clear-cut. A place such as Dune must be of some worth, if not for the spice. No place could be so barren, and yet have the same potential for astounding beauty, as Arrakis.

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