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Burn the Fleet

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It is said that those born Harkonnen are born befouled.

It is said, indeed, that the line is a blight, a house of tainted blood that soils its every heir. It is a scourge to its Mentats and its guards; it is a company of slave-drivers, rich and ruthless. This, Kudu supposes, is so. He has watched a twisted Mentat grow more warped year by standard year at the discretion of their shared master. Kudu has even sensed twisting in himself, if it can be called as much.

He was a boy once, like any other, before he was consigned; he was poor and hapless, a Harko urchin, but well-formed enough to be made into a useful soldier. Decades later, he is a man, grown impossibly tall and broad and fearsome. He is a man of rank, privileged by the succor of Harkonnen — for he is a man who asks few questions and flourishes in the confines of brutality. All he must do is play the role of malleable muscle; he lets his mind grow dim, accepting the orders that fall to him: to kill, to maim, to torture, to defend. Always, he must serve the Baron. Now and then, he must escort a boy to the Baron's quarters.

Always, he must serve the Baron.

He does not relish all of his duties, but semuta handily suppresses the last shreds of his decency. His jaw is tense without it, mouth and mind too vacuous without something to overtake his senses and dampen them for a time. The lines around his mouth, obscured by a thicket of black stubble, grow deeper with every heap that he chews, but Kudu is not vain. Were he a vain man, he would bemoan his crooked fingernails and the way his nose leans to the left: broad, chiseled, broken. Beauty cannot serve him the same way as brawn, and so he takes pride only in his rank, his uniform, his scars.

Beauty, that strange concept, is as ill-defined as it is dangerous. If Kudu still knew the feeling of pity, he would feel that ache for the morsels that the Baron demands to take pleasure with. Kudu does not speak of his master's tastes; if he can help it, he prefers not to think of them, takes pains to veil them even from himself. He has never met a boy-child's eye, fearing that the doomed thing would mistake the dearth of feeling in his eyes for some warped mercy.

Years ago, he was unwise. When he could, and when he dared, he would reach out with a heavy hand and snap the neck of a boy he was meant to escort, quickly and effortlessly. Their slender throats crumpled in his grip like frail starched cloth. As their knees gave way in death, he was left holding them by the necks, watching the blood drain from their faces in the corner of his eye. It felt more familiar to carry them thus, less like a pimp and more like a butcher.

(He remembers killing three this way, but his memory starts and stops, fades and fugues. Perhaps it was less, just perhaps. More would have aroused suspicion.)

The corpses would be disposed of, and he would beg pardon from his lord. "My lord Baron, the Gamont boy has been lost," he would announce, and he would wait patiently for the Baron's rancor. "Dead, m’lord,” he would clarify, voice thick with feigned apology, drenched with subservience. “Yes, m'lord," he would agree, again and again. It rarely mattered what old Harkonnen said. Kudu always agreed.

He found that his small and deadly mercies had been useless, soft-hearted, dangerous most of all — and so he rid himself of them. His small compulsion toward charity had been for naught.

The Baron grew furious, and Kudu grew fearful. He feared for himself — for his semuta, for his station, and for his life. He berated himself for his foolishness, knowing that he could do only harm, bred and reared for harm as he was. Boys would still be bought and sold and ferried from Gamont to Giedi Prime; at worst, the old man's attentions would fall to Feyd-Rautha and the heir would be ruined, tainted by too much hatred to fulfill his role. That could not come to pass.

Always, Kudu must defend the Baron. So, too, must he serve the House.

At times, he must defend it from itself.

Kudu must know what occurs in the arena, in the slave pits, in the Baron's quarters. In every atrocity, he must make himself complicit. This is so, and it suits him well, for there are so many he takes pleasure in. As for the rest — he does not care any longer; he does not remember if he ever cared. At night, he packs semuta into his cheek until his servants leave him to the bliss of senselessness. His waking drumbeat-dreams hiss with static until his mind clears. It is an awakening, but whether it is from sleep or from a trance, he knows not.

The Baron issues orders daily. It rarely matters what he asks — Kudu always agrees. He tries not to question, not to talk back; he is not so bold — not like Piter de Vries, who has escaped the chopping block often by virtue of sheer usefulness and blistering charisma.

Kudu is useful, but cannot find in himself a shred of charisma. He will never be caught speaking ill of his masters.

(And so he speaks ill of them quietly, quietly, where he will not be caught. On occasion, he voices his small complaints: dissatisfaction with his schedule or with his men, things worth discipline but not demotion — not death. Piter smiles up at him, nods, promises silently never to tell. "Our little secret," his fathomless eyes whisper. Kudu's mouth is tense and numb; he cannot smile back.)

He does not repeat the stories of madness and vice running through the Harkonnen bloodline. Even if the rumors are so, Kudu will say nothing of the sort. He will not throw away his great privilege idly with such petty treason. He speaks when spoken to, and offers input only in the areas of his expertise, if it cannot be helped. His greatest skill — other than killing — is that he listens well.

It is a virtue as much as a burden. He hears too much foolish talk among citizens and servants alike. He has heard it said that something rots in the center of Giedi Prime — that the planet has no churning molten core, but a reeking mass grave where each felled creature falls at last. A pit of sinew and marrow, they say, a place where the remains of stunted lives are couched.

This, Kudu supposes, cannot be so, for he has killed many men and never glimpsed such a thing. He has wrenched heads from their shoulders and slit throats into wide toothless mouths; he has held a man firm by the arms and ground a knee into his back, made his vertebrae crunch and splinter. He has pressed his thumbs into a man’s eyes until they gave way like squeezing a sickly hen’s egg in one's fist. His hands have torn limbs from their sockets; his jaws have locked upon the hands of assassins and stolen their clever fingers.

Umman Kudu has watched death come loping for new tenants, and he has come to know death well. Crouching in the arena, catching his breath, knowing himself to be the victor, he has found himself transfixed many a time by the slow dimming of life’s light.

But the felled were yet motionless bodies, picturesque and anticlimactic in their rictus. Eventually, someone would drag them off, or the carrion and dogs would shred them — but the ground did not grind open to swallow a new charge. The heavens took no notice.

Those are nothing more than tales, comforting fantasies murmured by the young, sentimental guards. They are only boys — boys who have not yet learned to hide their resentment for the House that has taken everything from them and afforded them so little. Heaven cannot exist even when life is hell.

The guards are faceless but for their jaws: boys with crooked, hollow frowns and chipped teeth, all else concealed by their helmets. These featureless boy-men with their worn casques and raw muscles roam the castle and the streets, speaking as softly as they can manage. They tell their tales, each more vividly ridiculous than the last, and Kudu sneers to hear them. He hasn’t the time for rankling stories and wives’ tales.

Many of them are still children; they hardly know better, but they will learn. Kudu has heard their voices squeak and break; he has watched them struggle in armor too large for them. He has watched them puff up their bony chests with bravado as often as he has heard them cry for their mothers.

They will grow, he knows. He has seen this before. And if they do not, they will die. Or, perhaps, they will grow some and then they will die. He has seen this as well. The Baron prides himself on the efficiency of his guard, and some are more efficient dead.

Shortly after the Baron had advanced his rank, Kudu found himself in charge of a selection of new men. They were not the most efficient he had seen, but he vowed to make them so; for his own benefit only, he would prove that he remained an able commanding officer. One evening, he found them all neatly gathered and dozing in their darkened barracks. Some had lowered their visors in hopes that the Captain wouldn’t see their eyes fall shut; others took no such precautions. Their breaths were uniform and silent, disturbed at last by a soft, wet burst of sound — the sob of a boy crying out for his mother.

Kudu had knelt and taken the boy’s face in his hands.

“Your mother is not here,” he growled. “Any more of this, and you’ll seek her in the slave pits.” His gloved fingers slipped on clammy skin, but still he gripped the boy's jaw cruelly.

The boy fell silent, holding his breath, suffocated by fear and sorrow even after Kudu released him.

“All of you,” Kudu told the boys, rousing them from restless slumber, “will do well to forget your origins. Barony, Lankiveil, whatever it be — scorn it. You are Harkonnen men, and nothing more. Serve the House properly, and you may live well and die well."

He never heard any talk of kin again. Perhaps they still whispered amongst themselves, but never where the Captain would hear, and surely they learned not to weep.

In truth, Kudu has always suspected that the boy’s mother was already dead, his mourning nearly justified, though no less embarrassing. Motherhood is a trying affair, and death walks among the slums of Harko and Barony as if it lives there. Kudu’s own mother did not die a slave, but she did die of fouled blood, ruined from the efforts of birthing his brother (a quiet child, so quiet he seemed stillborn; he was called S—)

Perhaps, then, it is not the Harkonnen blood that is poison. Indeed, it must be the blood that runs their fiefs: the tired blood, the common blood. When Kudu looks down at his own hands, he thinks he can see it, something tainting the copper of his blood where it swirls beneath the copper of his skin. He was born this way, he suspects; if not, he was infected. He doesn’t know which, doesn’t dwell on it.

In moments of great weakness, he recalls his family, and knows that perhaps a small herd of Kudu remains. Perhaps it is true that his younger brother took a wife and had a son, but it is so slim a chance. Perhaps they merely live among the towers of slaves as so many other miserable creatures do. More than likely, they are long dead. Kudu has long since put the thought out of his mind. He lost them long ago; they are nothing to him now, dead or alive.

And owing to their nothingness, he does not — must not — entertain fantasies that perhaps they have stolen away, by some miraculous fortune, offworld. This is not possible. Kudu has heard too much tell of stowaways caught and punished. If some miser bearing his name were to try such a stunt, it would surely come back to him. Rabban would snicker. Even his subordinates would crow and jeer and mock.

It might comfort Kudu to know whether or not his small family is dead and free, rather than alive and suffering — but he has no such luxury. Giedi Prime has become a harsh waste-world. So, too, must Kudu.

The Captain of the Guard dons his armor and forgets them all.