Along the Endless Wheel of Time

Far above the Emperor Leto Atreides II darkest night covered Arrakeen and the Imperial Palace, but down here in the heart of his Citadel, glowglobes ringing the great hemispherical chamber bathed his redoubt in its perpetual orange glow. At its center was a smooth raised stone, a meter in height, whereupon he sat in silent anticipatory contemplation, as was typical when he wished to be alone. Hauled in pristine from the last remnant of the great southern deserts, it was once rough and jagged, but decades of wear against Leto's rock-like skin had worn it down to an improbable smoothness.

It was times like this when the fullness of Leto's Foresight blossomed into its full and awesome completeness. Before him the universe moved through spacetime, lightsecond by lightsecond, as all possible pasts presents and futures surrounded him in their chaotic stillness. He was a thread—the thread—and the multitudes of humanity were fine strands emanating to and from him, stretching into Infinity. Secher Nbiw—The Golden Path. Such pitifully empty words to describe the prison of Truth!

Presciently Leto perceived countless strands unwinding from him, even as new strands threaded in from the void. Death and birth, the two sides of existence, spinning forever, each creating the other. It was a challenge to see those strands of humanity as unique notes; for him, it was all about the Thread itself.

After a duration that might have been eternal, but in reality was but minutes, Time and Space, Past and Present converged on the Now. Everything was as it would be; he felt the foretremors from Now Future ring through his senses, waves of past regret and longing, disquieting devotion and desperate shock radiating from then to Now Present. But still Leto wondered—would there be any surprises?

Leto rose to his feet, his wormskin creaking in response. As soon as he did so, a soft gong echoed in the chamber. He closed his mind, feeling a tiny thrill of liberation as he was now 'off mike.' "Enter," he called out.

Clad in a simple black Atreides uniform, Duncan Idaho, the third ghola he had resurrected to his service, strode in. Only a few years older than his flesh at the time of his original death, he moved with absolute purpose, approaching until he stood a meter away. Lowering himself onto one knee, bowing deeply, he said: "My Lord, the shuttle has landed and your special visitor is here."

"Bring her to me." Idaho rose, bowed again, and left. Minutes later four Fremen Guards entered the chamber, each of them flanking a large blackstone-encrusted shipping container: three meters long by a meter-and-half wide and polished mirror-smooth, it floated silently above the ground on repulsorlifts. When they were before him, all four women saluted in unison, then with clockwork precision turned heel and left.

Leto came up to the container and placed his hand on a dull red panel at its edge. The sides of the container lowered themselves, revealing an ornate sleeping chamber within. The bed was made from scarlet-red Ecazian whalefur of the rarest kind, with silver-gray silkfish sheets. And tucked beneath those sheets, clad in a simple white Bene Gesserit robe, lay the Princess Irulan Corrino-Atreides, daughter of Emperor Shaddam IV and the erstwhile wife of his father, Paul Atreides. Though she was ninety nine years of age, Time had been good to her; her pale skin was only slightly wrinkled, her blond hair now a vigorous silver-white. She was in deepsleep, her arms cross-folded across her chest.

Leto removed a small glass vial that had been packed inside the container. Crushing its tip, he held it to her nose as a faint purple mist arose. Immediately Irulan gasped and her eyes flew open. Beholding him, it took a second for recognition to come.

"Leto," she said softly, her voice a whisper otherwise inaudible, but loud as a bell to his exquisite hearing.

"Welcome back to Dune, Princess."

Before Irulan could respond her body suddenly contracted; closing her eyes, she grimaced and gritted her teeth, clutching at her sheets. As the pain temporarily subsided, she beheld him again, panting.

"The last thing I remembered was being brought to the Fremen Guard base on Wallach IX. No one said anything—"

"—No words were necessary. The sand in the air drifts down to the ground."

Her eyes grew misty, lost in distant memory. Leto remembered perfectly:

May I ask my Lord why he is punishing me so?" a trembling Irulan asked as she lay prostrate before Leto, the two of them alone in his private reception antechamber.

"It is not punishment. You will by my exemplar to the Sisterhood," Leto replied. "By returning you to the fold, they will know your life and works. Through you, I reach out to bring them into compliance with my design."

Irulan could barely contain her agitation, but calmness eventually came to her. "The Bene Gesserit prefer by far to give lessons than receive them," she said warningly.

"Yours is the most gentle tool of persuasion I have." Leto smiled. "It will be better for everyone if I do not have to reach further into my toolbag."

Although she was barely middle age by normal standards, Irulan suddenly looked much older. Suddenly she could not hold back the tears. Quivering, she stammered: "But Letoforgive me, my LordGhani's grandchildren—"

"—will be well-cared for regardless," Leto said sharply, causing her to cower further. More reassuringly, he continued: "You have been a faithful servant of House Atreides, Irulan. Be assured your return will illuminate the Golden Path."

Irulan finally broke down and wept uncontrollably. It took all of Leto's control of his wild wormflesh not to jump back—or strike her down—at the sudden unwelcome appearance of water.

Finally she muttered: "If you truly cared for me, Lord Leto, killing me would have been far less cruel than this bloodless exile."

Leto narrowed his eyes. Speaking in the voice of Maud'Dib, he said: "Irulan, it's for the best." Her eyes snapped up in shock, but she remained silent. "Your life of selfless devotion to us, even though we often did not deserve it, is a better means of persuasion than all of Leto's Fremen legions or his mélange hoards. If the Sisterhood is to be saved, it must learn to do what came so naturally by your example."

Irulan pondered the import of their words. Nodding, she then came to her feet. "My Emperor commands, and I obey you in all things, my Lord," Irulan said formally, but without any bitterness or sadness.

"Good-bye, Irulan," Leto said softly. Irulan turned to leave, then stopped in midstride. Very slowly she turned about and lowered herself to one knee. "May I make one final request, my Lord?"

"You may."

Silent for a very long time, she finally said: "I humbly ask the Lord Leto, that I be blessed to be in your presence when the time of my passing is at hand." Irulan raised her head and stared expectantly at him.

He did not answer for half a minute. Then: "The Heighliner taking you back to Wallach IX is in orbit. You shall leave within the hour."

Irulan stared back at him; Leto's face was completely blank, betraying no emotion or lack of emotion. She then said quietly: "As my Lord commands."

They were silent for the longest time; Leto was determined to let her initiate the conversation. Finally she said quietly: "So you've decided to grant me my very last wish."

"I have."

Irulan nodded. "After I asked, I wondered whether you would strike me down on the spot for my impertinence," she said with the barest trace of humor.

"I am a merciful and compassionate ruler."

The shy uptick of a smile on her face quickly faded. "No, you are an all-powerful god. Gods are well-known for their capriciousness."

"Because gods are but men writ large, with their strengths exaggerated and their faults minimized. Know well that I am not God."

"You say you aren't God. You didn't say you weren't a god," Irulan said with the politest sneer Leto had ever heard, repeating what he knew was a confidential but common Bene Gesserit aspersion on his reign. Obviously she listened to her fellow Sisters even in exile.

"Quite true. Time and illness have not dulled the knife that is your mind."

Irulan was silent, as the significance of her situation began to seep into her. "Thirteen years of exile with the Bene Gesserit." She frowned. "With all due respect, my Lord, they were ill-disposed to heed my example."

"The Bene Gesserit never act in haste, largely to their benefit, sometimes to their cost. At least they didn't kill you," Leto remarked bemusedly.

"No, but they were quite open in their hatred and rejection of me." Her eyes quickly narrowed. "Because they had no other recourse. I suppose I have you to thank for that."

Leto spoke truthfully: "The ancient Terran term for their actions is 'letting off steam.' After all, the Sisterhood would have suffered dearly had any harm befallen you." He reached down and broke off a piece of the rock, crumbling hard quartz into dust with his hands.

Irulan's eyes widened, suddenly bright with moisture. "But why exile, if you knew they would reject me?" She could not hide the tone of pleading from her voice.

Leto continued to be forthright: "To protect your historical legacy." Meeting her questioning gaze, he said: "By forbidding you to be a chronicler of my time, and restricting you to a domestic role, your virtue will be unquestioned in the distant future, untainted by association with my tyrannical rule."

A profound sense of confusion was apparent on Irulan's face. "But Leto, you know I would care nothing for such things! Why would you be so cruel as to cut me off from your household for no good reason at all?"

"There is good reason to everything I do," Leto said crossly. He gestured at the empty space around them. "Thousands of years from now, after all this has crumbled to dust, all that will remain of you and me will be the words we spoke and that describe our lives. The words about me will be inscrutable and terrifying, ultimately beyond ultimate interpretation. In contrast, your words will be clear and reassuring, a light to countless generations beyond." Leto paused. "I allowed you to stay in our household as long as was compatible with this design, and though it is of no comfort to you now, I am truly sorry I made things the way they were."

Crushed under the unimaginable weight of his speech, Irulan could only nod meekly. "Apologies aren't necessary, Leto. I never stopped trying to convince my fellow Sisters of your goodness, futile though it was. And though it tore my soul to be parted from the children, long ago I devoted my entire life to yours and Ghani's. If serving you meant you had to send me away, I am glad to have been sent." She stared intently at him. "Had they killed me, I would have died praising your name with my very last breath."

Such devotion! It both fascinated and repulsed Leto, but sadly it did not surprise him anymore. He remained silent, which prompted Irulan to resume speaking. "One question answered, one more than I had reason to hope for." She looked curiously at him. "Will this night be the end of my story as well?"

"Not exactly. History will record you died without incident on Wallach IX. There will be no record of your final presence here, not even in my Journals."

Irulan gasped. "So the rumors were true—you have a secret means of recording your every waking thoughts!"

"I apologize for writing you out of history this way, but it is better for the pristine image I am creating of you for the future. And too many examples of personal indulgence and irrational gestures of kindness would unnecessarily confuse the picture of myself. Tonight we are, to use a phrase, 'off the record.'"

She sighed deeply. "So I'm actually going to die tonight."

"Everyone dies, even me. I hope that reassures you."

She shook her head. "You agreed to do this… brought me… across the depths of space to Arrakis… to be with you when I die." One need not have been Leto Atreides II to detect the sheer awe in her voice.

Leto nodded somberly. "Far too many humans have had the dishonor of spending their last moments in my presence."

Irulan's eyes suddenly shined with all-too-familiar conviction. "It would be an honor and a blessing for me to die at your hands, my Lord."

Such worshipful words, whether they came from the past, present, or future, always angered Leto. "I am too familiar with death to be amused by jokes about it," he said coldly.

"I meant no offense." She grimaced. "But better that than to be consumed by this damnable vascular cancer." More pain crossed her features. Through gritted teeth, she asked: "A Fremen would never deny the request to end the suffering of another Fremen. Surely you are still Fremen enough to do me this small favor?"

Leto Foresaw where her suggested course of action would lead. Finding no profit there, he said: "Leto shall always be Fremen, long after even the Fremen are gone. But Emperor Leto Atreides II suggests you will find greater comfort by declining the favor." She stared at him, sweating profusely, her eyes lost in thought, then nodded curtly.

Leto asked: "Do you wish for a salve?"

Irulan responded: "Will it reduce the amount of time I will have with you?"

"Yes." She then shook her head. Leto waited for the pain to subside before speaking. "I will be exceedingly generous and be your Oracle tonight, until the end. You wondered why I sent you away. I'm sure you also wonder: why did I bring you back?"

"To do me a kindness?"

"Why else?"

"I don't know."

Leto began walking around her chamber as Irulan followed his every move. He Foresaw himself as Irulan was seeing him: a full-grown man, about nine centimeters taller than his father but slenderer, encrusted from head to toe with sandtrout, giving him a dusty grey appearance. On his back was a slowly-lengthening hump along his spine, which he knew in millennia to come would grow into a sizable wormlike-form that would largely absorb his human frame. From Other Memory he saw a startlingly similar analogy to himself: a black-and-white projection in a darkened crowded hall proclaiming, 'It's The Creature from the Black Lagoon!' But he still possessed his human face, with his smooth olive skin and blue-on-blue eyes.

"It's been only forty odd years since my transformation. Sometimes it feels like forty millennia. The people closest to me I will always share within, but there are countless others who will enter into and pass out of my life as they live theirs."

Irulan nodded sympathetically. "The Lady Jessica, Stilgar, Harah—"

"I still live," Leto chided her in his grandmother's voice. To her credit Irulan did not flinch. In his own voice he asked: "Why would I view your incipient passing differently?"

Irulan said: "Because we once knew you as you were before… that." She gestured weakly with her arm, pointing at him. "We grow fewer in number every year. In a few generations, the only humans alive will be those who were born into your empire, into your reign. Who will live their lives in it, have children, die, as their children shall be born, live in it, and die."

"For countless generations to come, trillions upon trillions trapped in a destiny of my creation." He paused for emphasis. "A disturbing, horrifying, truth."

"I'm surprised it bothers you so." Leto glared at her. "That the people of your youth, we tiny few, should have such disproportionate weight on your thoughts."

Leto chuckled, pleased that he could still mimic such a human gesture. "Perhaps it is all just the immature desires of a nine-year old, giving it to sentimentality."

Irulan looked at him with curiosity. "So is there a unique Leto II… in there?"

"A question historians will be pondering for the next ten thousand years. The short answer is no."

Her voice was atypically confident: "I don't believe you!"

Leto loved challenges almost as much as surprises. "Defend your thesis, Historian." Leto had not tested her such in over thirty years.

Now a soft look came over Irulan's face—almost motherly. "When they freed me from prison after Paul walked into the desert, they let me watch you and Ghani, being cradled in Harah's arms, nursing at her bosoms. How I longed to be there, be Harah, nourishing you with my body the way only a mother can feed her children." She stifled a tear. "But they would never trust me, not until you were older."

"By the time we were three years old, both Ghani and I could have safely outfought you if the need arose," Leto helpfully explained.

"You were both very strange, very disturbing children—"

"—You have no idea how much so."

"—But I always knew, I always believed, despite what the Sisterhood taught about Abomination, despite your Other Memories, that the persons of Leto II and Ghanima, unique and precious, lived within your tiny bodies. I loved and cherished you both, and even though all the others feared you, I never did."

Leto nodded in reluctant admiration. "Many loved us, but of all who had an understanding of what we could be, it is accurate to say you feared us least of all. A high human achievement."

"The only thing I feared was that the demands of your future roles as rulers of the Imperium would pressure you into doing things that you did not want to do."

Leto attempted a sigh, and could only manage a pathetically weak puff of air, a limitation on his humanity due to the rigidity of his exoskin. "That was never a concern. Just Abomination."

"As poor Alia showed. But that is not what I meant. Answer me directly, my Lord—am I speaking with a unique untainted individual named Leto II? Or does some darker shade rule our affairs?"

An explosion of past personas clamored within to answer on Leto's behalf. It's me! No, it's me! It's us! You! Them! Leto blinked, and in that moment silenced the voices with difficulty. "I am uniquely shaped by my environment to be the person who stands before you. A true statement, from a certain point of view."

For the first time Irulan appeared irritated at him. "Any human would answer as such. What forces shaped you?"

"All of them." Leto smiled impishly; he would (or could) say no more on the subject.

Irulan shook her head with familiar exasperation. "That wry sardonic tone is very much you, Leto. Your father, despite being a young man himself, was a much more measured, cautious personality."

"Not always," Leto said in Muad'Dib's voice. "Not in private." Irulan bit her lip, accepting the unspoken rebuke that despite formally being Paul Atreides' wife, she had never shared his love, physically or emotionally.

As the totality of his ancestral memories became increasingly aware of Irulan before them, a small storm of conflicting reactions raged within: hatred, anger, disdain, even sympathy. "Will you indulge my curiosity?" Leto asked.

"What could I know that you don't?"

"I ask more for my father than myself," Leto answered. "What made you our Ruth?"

"I'm sorry?"

"Your profession of love for Muad'Dib after he died has always raised questions among us. Just as I try to put you at ease as your passing comes near, so too would we wish you clarify this one small remaining mystery: what drove your devotion to House Atreides?"

Irulan took a deep breath, and winced with the pain. "I had no illusions when I offered myself to Paul; I did what was necessary, played the role I had to play. I would have endured any hardship, bore any humiliation. As long as I could have born the royal heir, it would have been worth it."

'That's not a role you were chosen for', Leto remembered his father saying to her. "You know, better than anyone, what I did when I was denied, and the consequences." He did. "I fully expected to be executed, but then you—sorry, your father, Paul—came to me, in secret like you do now, and told me that I had somehow prolonged Chani's life, and that he would be grateful forever." Irulan shuddered at the memory; Muad'Dib's words to her also shook Leto's many selves.

Finally Irulan found the breath to continue: "I knew he was the Kwisatz Haderach, that he was prescient, but I never understood the implications. What… what he said about Chani, when he said he was grateful for me, despite the terrible things I did… I understood, and believed! You and Ghani, your father, you did what you did to save us, save all of us. You would not have done what you did if there had been any other way to avoid it! Muad'Dib was right! And so are you! And when he was gone—I felt grief, worse than anything I had ever experienced, and I knew, I knew, even though I wasn't your mother, I would do anything to protect you and Ghani, because you are our only hope, our only chance for survival, even salvation!" She took a deep breath. "If there is a God, I know He or She is acting through you!"

Leto fiercely fought the urge to lash out in violence and rage. Of all the horrible things my father and the Sisterhood condemned me to suffer for due to their lack of courage, accepting the mantle of divinity may be the worst of all!

Suddenly Irulan's blood felt like it was boiling again; she clenched tightly, her nails digging into her skin, but only clear liquid streamed out of her wounds. "Is it time?" she gasped.

"Not yet," Leto said distantly.

Irulan nodded tightly. "How are Ghani's children and grandchildren?"

"Doing well."

"Are they…?"

"Like me? Unfortunately yes."


Leto decided the time was right to move to the next lesson. "Some parents want their children to be just like them. Other parents want their children to exceed what they were, what they achieved in life."

"And you?"

Leto grinned. "I want my children to surprise me."

Irulan pursed her lips—a gesture indicating she did not understand his response. "I imagine that's difficult to do."

"It's impossible… for now. When the Golden Path has been achieved... perhaps then."

Irulan looked at him searchingly. "Whether on Arrakis or Wallach IX, I have often debated, discussed, and wondered what the Golden Path was. I always had faith that you were doing the right thing, but naturally I wondered about the how." Her eyes widened, asking a wordless question. Leto's nod was his wordless answer. "You and Ghani have never explained what it was, to any of us, in much detail. Why are you willing to do it now? Surely not just because I'm going to die?"

Leto stared off into the distance. "A long time ago, on a planet far far away, authors of children's literature writing multivolume stories, would get requests from dying children who were readers of their works. These children would ask the author to know how the story would end, before their illness killed them. Sometimes, these authors would do so, not just because it was the compassionate and generous thing to do, but because they would be assured that the endings of their stories would not be spoiled, thus reducing the audience for their works."

Irulan recoiled in horror. "That's so—cynical!"

Leto's grin was feral. "Surely a historian of Muad'Dib would understand the mixed motives that attach to any historian's works?"

Irulan appeared badly shaken for some reason. Her faith waivers—and now she doesn't think she'll like the answer. "I… I'm not sure I want to know anymore."

With difficulty, Leto shrugged. "You may not, but I will tell you anyway." Before Irulan could protest, he said: "Like any good story, it all ends well: I die, and humanity will be free and live forever."

It took a second for Irulan to process his words; immediately she then laughed in disbelief. "Clever, my Lord. But if you don't die for another million years, and humanity exists in torment for countless aeons to come, that isn't such a happy ending!"

"The happiness of the ending is that there is no ending, to understand the Golden Path you must understand that if nothing else."

A look of deep despair crossed Irulan's face. "But I don't understand!"

Leto wondered where to start. Knowing the state of her tenuous hold on life, he decided to lay it out as directly as he could: "Let's just say that at the time my father was born, humanity was very close to being locked into an irrevocable path to extinction."

Her mouth fell open in shock. "At whose hands?"

"The Sisterhood's, of course." Ignoring the look of blank horror on Irulan's face, he continued to explain: "Although the Bene Gesserit fears most of all the possibility of any individual Reverend Mother being possessed by malicious past memories—Abomination—the true evil, the real ultimate calamity, is that of being enslaved by a vision of the past that does not fit the realities of the present. It is a sickness that afflicts the whole of the Sisterhood, not just the individually possessed, and the wiser the Reverend Mother, the deeper the affliction."

He came closer to Irulan's bedside, until he was but inches from her face. "The Sisterhood's design for the past ten thousand years has been designed, nurtured, and encouraged by the voice of countless Reverend Mothers in the past. The Reverend Mothers who lead the Bene Gesserit today have been shaped by the reassuring voices of knowledge and wisdom that preceded them. Those voices, when they were alive, in turn were shaped and encouraged by their past ancestors. There's an ancient saying, 'the path to hell is paved with good intentions.' The Bene Gesserit are the living embodiment of it."

Irulan listened attentively. "No matter my disagreements with the Sisterhood, I know their deepest aspiration has always been promoting humanity's survival. They always have considered the long-term implications of every action and contingency. How could their designs lead to the exact opposite result they wanted?"

"Because it is the inherent nature of such a plan, the conceit to control the shape of humanity's future, that leads to the singular end—that end being extinction. Just as their Other Memories have hemmed the Sisterhood into a vision fatally constricted by the past, a Kwisatz Haderach under their control would have trapped the Bene Gesserit in a future created by his prescient vision. But it would not only trap the Sisterhood, it would trap all of humanity as well."

Irulan recoiled in understanding. "But… but then, aren't we now all trapped in your vision, Leto? If you know all our destinies, how could your Golden Path not lead us to the same terrible fate?"

"Humanity is now interwoven into my thread, that is true," Leto conceded. "But the Golden Path is the only path through the pit the Sisterhood has unwittingly thrown us all into."

"And why should I believe that?" Her skeptical tone reassured Leto that all was not lost.

"Because whatever I am, neither I nor my father am an instrument of the Sisterhood's design. By seizing Arrakis and taking over the Imperium, Muad'Dib freed us from the immediate danger of a Sisterhood using the power of the Kwisatz Haderach to bend humanity's future to their will." Leto grinned. "Of course, the real reason is, you have to trust me."

"I do trust you, though I know that displeases you." Just so. Then Irulan shook her head. "But that wasn't enough, was it?" Still smiling, Leto shook his head. "Paul—Muad'Dib—abandoned his rule as soon as you were born. He must have known there was more to do. Why did he leave us all?"

Leto allowed his father-persona to speak truly for itself: "Because I was selfish and afraid, Irulan. Even though I knew what had to be done, and eventually did everything but the last essential step, I really only wanted what most men want: to be with the woman I loved, raise a family, and run away from the necessary but awful things I had done in my past." His face took on a sad visage, which was extraordinarily rare. "Imagine how much more tempting such desires are when you can already see what they will be like! But I already saw that because of my actions I could never have what I truly wanted. So when I lost what I was always destined to lose, instead of doing what I was always fated to do, at the moment of decision... I ran away. Fleeing as soon as I saw it would be remotely safe to do so: when Leto and Ghanima were born."

Irulan was transfixed by the specter of Leto II, clad in wormskin, yet speaking and emoting precisely as Paul Atreides did, as if he were still alive. Muad'Dib continued: "It was a cowardly thing to do, I admit, and it immediately put the Imperium back on the path towards prescient self-annihilation. The only thing that would have redeemed my act was to have truly walked into the desert and never returned, thus finally killing the legacy of Muad'Dib. But I was too afraid to do even that, so instead I allowed myself to be found by the Cast Out and lived on, long enough to be able to see (in a sense) the moment when Leto would do what I would not." Another pause. "I saw my death through Leto's eyes; you may think I got off easy, compared to what you and everyone else endured. I hope you can forgive me, Irulan, but if you can't, know I justly suffered unbearable punishment for all my crimes, long before dying, before I even committed them." Paul strained to finish his thoughts: "There is no greater horror than seeing the full consequences of your mistakes in life. The greatest miracle of Leto is that he will save you all from my mistakes."

Leto held a hand to keep Irulan from responding; time was short. He spoke in his voice: "Either Ghani or I had to take up the mantle by taking the sandtrout and seizing control of the Imperium, because there is nothing more dangerous than an idea made concrete. Once my grandmother made the Kwisatz Haderach a reality, many began trying to duplicate the Sisterhood's achievements. With Muad'Dib gone, eventually one would have succeeded, and put us back on the path to extinction."

Irulan tried to take all this in. "Surely the Sisterhood was aware of the dangers of the Kwisatz Haderach. If the Golden Path is the way out of the trap of prescience, why could they not implement it as well?"

"A good question. The short answer is they do know it, but don't act on it—that is the true tragedy of the Bene Gesserit. To know the future is to become trapped by it. Anyone who came to possess the power of the Kwisatz Haederach, most of all the Sisterhood, would have used that power to create a future of their design. They believe that solving the problems of our human civilization require prescience. But as I said, all attempts to use such power will ultimately lead to the same stagnant end: extinction." He paused. "Except mine. The Golden Path is not a path to a particular future, it's a path away from any chosen future. Only by walking the path that is not preset, only through an unplanned evolutionary future, can humanity's indefinite survival be assured." He let his voice become hard. "It is their failure to act on what is so clearly in front them that perpetually tempts me to wipe the slate clean and eliminate the Sisterhood in its entirety."

His threat against the Bene Gesserit did not seem to concern Irulan in the slightest. "So we are all living on this Golden Path of yours, and if it succeeds, we will be free of the trap of prescience, of your power. But what could possibly free us from your prescient powers?"

Leto smiled. "Ah, now that's the long and difficult part, which is why I had to choose this option, it is the only way to ensure there is enough time for me to find the solution." He raised his hands. "The means are but details, but I will say this: when the time is right, and humanity finally is able to escape the imprisoning view of the Oracle, that is when I will meet my end, to leave the path to the future for the rest of you clear."

She was silent for awhile. Then suddenly tears came to Irulan's eyes. "I'm so sorry, Leto!"

For the very first time, Leto was surprised by what Irulan had said—and it was not nearly as pleasing as he had hoped. Be careful what you wish for, the voices taunted, you just might get it! "Why are you sorry?"

"That whether by intent or by accident we forced you to make this choice." She sniffed. "For you to be trapped in that horrible wormskin, for thousands of years, to never to know the joys of being a man, it breaks my heart."

"I know every joy and sadness possible to humanity," he said dismissively.

Irulan spoke with sad sympathy: "But they are all someone else's memories, someone else's triumph and tragedy. Real experiences may not mean much to someone like you, but as a simple human who has always loved you, I only wish you could have had your authentic share."

Her wishes stoked human desires within him; Leto found them painful to bear. "Ghani will enjoy them at my expense," he said curtly. "What's done is done."

"Was there truly no other way?"

"It was either me or Ghani. If…" No! the voices cried. Do not fall prey to the Everettian Heresy! 'What-might-have-beens' is the worst siren song of all! Indulge it and you will be smashed on the rocks of regret! But it's not my regrets to assuage, it's Irulan's… I have been too comforting with tame truth… Better to steel her passage on with stronger, harsher ones…

"If what?"

"If we had decided that Ghanima would have become the Empress instead of me, well… things would have been a lot different." Suddenly Leto laughed uproariously, which totally unnerved Irulan.

Nervously she began: "Leto, there's no point in regretting our choices—"

Oh my dear Irulan, I'm going to make you eat those words! Stopping her, he said: "—If Ghanima had taken the sandtrout, instead of her and Harq al'Ada giving birth to the Atreides future, it would have fallen to me to bear the descendants of House Atreides, to succeed where the Sisterhood failed." He resumed laughing.

Irulan worked up the courage to ask: "And may I ask who would have been your mate in such a scenario?"

Leto stopped laughing long enough to answer: "Why, you of course!" He immediately resumed laughing. Irulan was frozen still with shock. As Leto II laughed, deep within his ancestral personas declared war with each other.

"You mock me." Instinctively Irulan reached down and buttoned up her gown, which had fallen open and partially revealed her modest cleavage.

Finally Leto stopped laughing. "Dearest Princess, I do not! From the beginning Ghani and I planned to engineer a union between Houses Atreides and Corrino. The minor reason was to clean up the mess Alia had created, but the real reason was to reboot the Sisterhood's misguided breeding program to birth the Golden Path. Had Ghani taken the sandtrout skin, the only difference would have been who bedded who." He cast a provocatively lascivious look towards Irulan. "In that world-that-never-was, would you have had me mate with your younger sister Wensicia? Become Farad'n's stepfather?" Leto laughed again. "Oh no, my precious darling Irulan, I would have chosen you—and as soon I was physically able to, you would have become the mother of the Golden Path, and of all future Atreides. At least, as long as you were fertile."

Irulan was silent again, her body rigidly immobile. Leto spoke conversationally. "The Oedipal Temptation has always been part of mankind, but in our case indulging it would have had minor consequences, seeing as you were—still are—virginally pristine." He chuckled mildly, this time more mindful of Irulan's feelings. "As you might imagine, my ancestors are of mixed opinions about such a hypothetical union. Paul Atreides would have been reluctant to partake of you, but he would have understood—and might even be secretly intrigued, as he never denied your physical attractiveness. My mother Chani, of course, recoils in utter horror at the thought, and would have done everything in her power to possess me, so that she could strangle you, before we ever consummated the marriage. Or perhaps even while doing so!" His hands flexed. "Even now, she attempts to do so to rid the universe of you, Princess." Leto paused, intrigued. "Lo! The Lady Jessica is so shocked at the notion that she has disappeared within her shell—amazing, I can't even see her—"

"—Stop it!" Irulan cried. At last Leto fell silent. With vehement bitterness Irulan said: "I knew you had to make cruel decisions as part of your rule, but I never thought you a sadist!"

In a booming baritone voice Leto retorted: "I'm not a sadist, but being that my great-grandfather was the Baron Harkonnen, I am well versed—"

"Enough!" Irulan covered her face with her hands and wept openly.

At last the cacophony within died down, and Leto II was himself again. "That was very cruel of me, Irulan, I apologize."

"No, Leto, thank you again." She sniffed and cleared her nose. "If there's any time to put one's regrets in the clear, it's at the end. I could have been your mother, but it did not work out that way. And now I know I could have been your wife and mother of your children, but it was not to be." She became eerily calm. "You and your father have held my life in your hands, and I am forever grateful that my life could be used by you both for your good purposes."

That God-dependency again. Leto said softly, "The Golden Path is meant to break humanity's susceptibility to power-figures who wield authority on the basis of purported truth. It would be most reassuring to me if you could demonstrate progress along these lines."

Irulan shook her head violently. "But I can't! Leto, you and your father, I loved you both as if you were my own—" She coughed and clutched her chest. "And not only did I love you, I believe! I know you'll save us, Leto, you won't let any harm fall to the people of the future—for you, all humanity is your family, we are all your children!" Irulan jerked; convulsions swept over her.

Sweating profusely, Irulan strained: "It's nothing, the pain—pain is nothing for a human." Irulan gagged, trying to clear her throat. "Leto, no matter how long you live…please—don't lose your humanity!" Her arms trembled uncontrollably; Leto came up and took her right hand with his. "Find someone to love, at all times." She screamed at the pain; Irulan bit down, and bloodless blood dripped from her mouth. "We love you, I love you! I believe in the Golden Path, Leto, I trust you, your vision!" Mucus clogged her throat, and Irulan struggled to voice her final words. "I, I… know you don't think of yourself as God, but you're god enough. Be good to your people… and be good to yourself... Please, just try to love—Leto!"

Eyes tightly closed, Irulan grimaced again, jerked once, twice, then suddenly fell limp and was still. Her eyes fluttered half-open, and stared dully outwards to a place even the Lord Leto could not see.

As the last remnants of cellular activity within flickered and died, Leto released her hand. Consulting with a chronometer, Irulan had died less than a hundredth of a millisecond after Leto Foresaw the time and place of her death thirteen years ago; she was slumped over in death exactly as he presciently perceived at the time. Sigh. No surprises after all.

It disturbed Leto greatly that he was more disquieted by the lack of surprise at how Irulan died, than the death itself. But the only way to change that is for the Golden Path to succeed. Tonight was a sobering demonstration of how far off his goal appeared to be.

When the fog of grief, concern, joy and puzzlement within finally dissipated, Leto signaled for Idaho. Upon entering, he was taken aback at who was inside the container he had escorted to Leto. "Princess Irulan," he said.

Leto declared: "No one is to know of her presence here—she died a week ago on Wallach IX."

"As you command, my Lord." He looked down at her body. "May I ask why you brought her here?"

"A whimsy. Prompted by a dwindling remnant of my humanity I can only indulge with increasing rarity."

Idaho properly took Leto's words to mean: Don't ask. "Yes, my Lord," he said diplomatically. "How shall we dispose of her body?"

Leto always knew the answer: "Take her to the deathstill in Sietch Tabur, by yourself, let no one know of your coming or going. Irulan's water and ashes are to be taken up in a 'thopter and spread across the surface of Arrakis. She will be made a part of Dune forever."

"As you command, my Lord." Idaho closed the container and gestured it out of his presence.

When Idaho was gone Leto stood silently alone. He took two small comforts from the experience: that Irulan had received reassurance that her devotion had not been in vain; and that unlike so much of his ephemeral legacies and relics, the substance of Irulan herself would now forever be a part of Dune, the information-essence that was her water written into the fabric of the planet, preserved forever despite all that would transpire here in the aeons to come.

And having acknowledged those comforts, they presently sank and disappeared into the sink that was himself—just another Memory. Once again alone in Time, Leto was painfully aware he struck a faintly absurd, even pathetic, figure. A little more alone now than I was before.

Of course, that wasn't actually true; Leto could clearly Forsee than in a few months Trebor's son would be born, the first of the third generation of new Atreides. But as Irulan had said, those who had lived before his time, were passing out of his time. In less than a century, the universe would be populated only with people born into his age. It made him feel much older than he was. Then Leto corrected himself—more precisely, it made him feel how much older he was going to be.

"Enough of this," Leto said to himself. It was time to let Time resume itself. Thinking in that way, his mind reconnected to the Ixian machine recording his thoughts. He clambered over to his rock pedestal and sat upon it, pensive like Rodin's The Thinker. Leto II then opened his inner eyes to Forsee—once more the threads wound their way in and out of himself. Frozen into the future he was creating, Leto watched the rest of the universe as it rolled along the endless wheel of time, back on the Golden Path to Eternity.

The End