Colin MacIntyre tossed his jacket into a chair, and his green eyes laughed as a robot butler clucked audibly and scooped it up again. ’Tanni was as neat as the cat she so resembled, and she’d programmed the household robots to condemn his sloppiness for her when she was busy elsewhere.
He glanced into the library in passing and saw two heads of sable hair bent over a hologram. It looked like the primary converter of a gravitonic conveyor’s main propulsion unit, and the twins were busily manipulating the display through their neural feeds to turn it into an exploded schematic while they argued some abstruse point.
Their father shook his head and continued on his way. It was hard to remember they were only twelve—when they were studying, anyway—but he knew that was only because he’d grown up without implant educations.
With neural interfacing, there was no inherent limit to the data any individual could be given, but raw data wasn’t the same as knowledge, and that required a whole new set of educational parameters. For the first time in human history, the only thing that mattered was what the best educators had always insisted was the true goal of education: the exploration of knowledge. It was no longer necessary for students to spend endless hours acquiring data, but only a matter of making them aware of what they already “knew” and teaching them to use it—teaching them to think, really—and that was a good teacher’s delight. Unfortunately, it also invalidated the traditional groundwork and performance criteria. Too many teachers were lost without the old rules—and even more of them, led by the West’s unions, had waged a bitter scorched earth campaign against accepting the new. The human race in general seemed to think the Emperor possessed some sort of magic wand, and, in a way, they were right. Colin could do just about anything he decided needed doing … as long as he was prepared to use heavy enough artillery and convinced the battle was worth the cost.
It had taken him over three years to reach that conclusion where Earth’s teaching establishment was concerned. For forty-three months, he’d listened to reason after reason why the changeover could not be made. Too few Earth schoolchildren had neural feeds. Too little hardware was available. Too many new concepts in too short a time would confuse children already in the system and damage them beyond repair. The list had gone on and on and on, until, finally, he’d had enough and announced the dissolution of all teachers’ unions and the firing of every teacher employed by any publicly funded educational department or system anywhere on the planet.
The people he’d fired had tried to fight the decree in the courts only to discover that the Great Charter gave Colin the authority to do just what he’d done, and when they came up against the cold steel his homely, usually cheerful face normally hid so well, their grave concern for the well-being of their students had undergone a radical change. Suddenly the only thing they wanted to do was make the transition as quick and painless as possible, and if the Emperor would only let them have their jobs back, they would get down to it immediately.
They had. Still not without a certain amount of foot dragging when they thought no one was looking, but they had gotten down to it. Of course, every one of their earlier objections had had its own grain of truth, which made the introduction of an entirely new educational system difficult and often frustratingly slow, but once they accepted that Colin was serious, they’d really buckled down and pushed. And, along the way, the ones who had the makings of true teachers rather than petty bureaucrats had rediscovered the joy of teaching. The ones who didn’t make that rediscovery tended to disappear from the profession in ever greater numbers, but their earlier opposition and lingering guerrilla warfare had delayed the full-scale implementation of modern education on Earth by at least ten years.
Which meant, of course, that children on Birhat had a measurable advantage over those educated on Earth. Dahak spent most of his time in Birhat orbit, and while Earth’s teaching establishment grappled with Imperial education theories, Dahak had already mastered them. More, he, unlike they, had no institutional or personal objections to adopting them, and it required only a tithe of his vast capacity to institute what amounted to a planet-wide system of small-group studies. His students responded with an insatiable hunger to learn, and, to Colin’s knowledge the twins had never played hooky, which was almost scary.
He walked into the study, and Jiltanith smiled at him from her desk. He took the time to kiss her properly, then flopped into his chair and sighed contentedly as it adjusted to his body’s contours.
“Thou soundest well content to leave thine office behind thee, my love,” Jiltanith observed, putting her own computer on hold, and he nodded.
“You oughta try it sometime,” he said pointedly, and she laughed.
“Nay, my Colin. ’Twould drive me to bedlam’s brink did I have naught to which to set my hands, and this—” she gestured at the hardcopy and data chips strewn over her desk “—is a study most interesting.”
“Aye. Amanda hath begun to think how best we may use Tao-ling’s Mark Twenty hyper gun in small unit tactics.”
Colin shook his head wryly. Jiltanith didn’t love combat—she knew too much of what it cost—yet there were dark and dangerous places in her soul. He suspected that no one, not even he, would ever be admitted into some of them, but a lifetime of bitter guerrilla warfare had left its mark, and, unlike him, she saw war not as a last response but as a practical option that worked. She wasn’t merciless, but she was far more capable of slaughter—and less inclined to give quarter—than he. That was why he’d made her Minister of War. As Warlord, Colin was the Imperium’s commander-in-chief, but it was ’Tanni who ran their growing military establishment on a day-to-day basis.
“Well, if you can tear yourself away, we’re about to have visitors.”
“Ah?” She cocked her head at him.
“Isis, Cohanna, and Cohanna’s … project,” he said less cheerfully. “I’m afraid Jefferson may be right about the logic of ordering them destroyed, but I can’t say I’m looking forward to making that decision.”
“Nor shouldst thou.” His wife stood and walked around her desk. “Logic, as thou hast said time without number, my love, may be naught but a way to err wi’ confidence.”
“You got that right, babe,” he sighed, snaking an arm around her as she passed. She paused to ruffle his sandy hair, then sank into her own chair. “The thing is, I think I’m trying to psych myself up to decide against them ‘cause I think I ought to, and that makes me feel sort of ashamed.”
“The day thy self-doubt ceaseth will be the day thou becomest less than thy best self, Colin,” she said gently.
He smiled, changed the subject to something more comfortable, and let ’Tanni’s voice flow over him. He treasured the moments when they could forget the Imperium, forget their duties, forget the need to finish the Achuultani threat once and for all, and ’Tanni’s soft, archaic speech wove a spell that helped him hold those things at bay, be it ever so briefly. She’d learned her English during the Wars of the Roses and flatly refused to abandon it. Besides, as she’d pointed out upon occasion, she spoke true English, not the debased dialect he’d learned.
“Excuse me, Colin,” a mellow voice injected into a break in their conversation, “but Cohanna and Isis have arrived.”
“Thanks.” Colin sighed and set the moment aside, feeling the universe intruding upon them once more but revitalized by the temporary escape. “Tell them we’re in the study.”
“I have already done so. They will arrive momentarily.”
“Fine. And hang around yourself. We may need your input.”
“Of course,” Dahak agreed. Colin knew a tiny bit of the computer’s attention always followed him about, ready to respond to questions or advise him of new developments, but Dahak had designed a special subroutine to monitor his Emperor’s whereabouts and needs without bringing them to the front of his attention unless certain critical parameters were crossed. It was his way of assuring Colin’s privacy, a concept he didn’t entirely understand but whose importance to his human friends he recognized.
The study door opened, and Cohanna marched in like a grenadier with a delicate, white-haired woman whose aged eyes were remarkably like Jiltanith’s. Isis Tudor was over ninety, and there’d been no bio-enhancement for the Terra-born in her girlhood. By the time it became available, her body was too old and fragile for full enhancement, and age pared away more of her strength with every year. Yet there was nothing wrong with her mind, and the enhancement she could tolerate gave her an energy at odds with her growing frailty.
Jiltanith stood to embrace her while Cohanna met Colin’s gaze with an edge of challenge and four black-and-tan dogs followed her through the door. They moved in formation, with a most undoglike precision, and arranged themselves in a neat line as they sat on the rug.
They looked, Colin thought, like fireplugs on legs. Tinker Bell’s pups had been sired by a pedigreed rottweiler, and the lab side of their heritage was scarcely noticeable. They had a solid, squared-off appearance, with powerful muzzles, and the biggest must have massed almost sixty kilos.
He studied them for signs of the changes Cohanna had wrought. There weren’t many. The massive rottweiler head was perhaps a little broader, with a more pronounced cranial bulge, though he doubted he would have noticed without looking for it, yet there was something. And then he realized. The eyes fixed upon him with unwavering attention betrayed the intelligence behind them.
“All right, Colin.” Cohanna’s voice wrenched his attention from the dogs. “You wanted to see them. Here they are.”
He looked up quickly, but her expression gave him pause. He was accustomed to her testiness, but her dark eyes were fierce. This, he realized with a sinking sensation, was no bloodless project for her.
“Sit down, ’Hanna,” he said quietly, and knelt before the dogs as she sank into an empty chair. Heads cocked to look at him, and he ran a hand down the biggest’s broad back. His sensory boosters were on high, and he felt the usual bunchy muscle of the breed … and something more. He looked at Cohanna, and she shrugged.
“ ’Hanna,” he sighed, “I have to tell you I’m less worried, in a way, about the genetic stuff than the rest of it. Do you have any idea how the anti-techies will react to fully enhanced dogs? The idea of a dog with that kind of strength and toughness is going to terrify them.”
“Then they’re idiots!” Cohanna glared at him, then sighed herself, and something very like guilt diluted her fierceness. A knot of tension inside him relaxed slightly as he saw it and realized how much of her anger at him came from an awareness that perhaps she had gone too far.
“All right,” she said finally, her voice low. “Maybe I was an idiot. I still maintain—” her eyes flashed “—that they’re superstitious savages, but, damn it, Colin, I can’t understand how their minds work! These dogs represent no more danger to them than another enhanced human would!”
“I know you think they don’t, ’Hanna, but—”
“I don’t ‘think’ anything, Colin—I know! And so will you if you take the time to get to know them.”
“That,” he admitted, “is what I’m more than half afraid of.” He turned back to the dogs, and the big male he’d touched returned his gaze levelly. “This is Galahad?” he asked Cohanna … but someone else answered.
“Yes,” a mechanically produced voice said, and Colin’s eyes widened as he saw the small vocoder on the dog’s collar. A shiver ran down his spine as a “dumb animal” spoke, but it vanished in an instant. Wonder replaced it, and a strange delight he tried hard to suppress, and he drew a deep breath.
“Well, Galahad,” he said quietly, “has Cohanna explained why I wanted to meet you?”
“Yes,” the dog replied. His ears moved, and Colin realized it was a deliberate gesture—an expression intended to convey meaning. “But we do not understand why others fear us.” The words came slowly but without hesitation.
“Excuse me a moment, Galahad,” Colin said, feeling only a slight sense of unreality at extending human-style courtesies to a dog. He looked back up at Cohanna. “How much of that was computer enhanced?”
“There’s some enhancement,” the doctor admitted. “They tend to forget definite articles, and their sentence structure’s very simple. They never use the past tense, either, but the software is limited to ‘filling in the holes.’ It doesn’t provide any expansion of their meaning.”
“Galahad,” Colin turned back to the dog, “you don’t frighten me—or anyone else in this room—but some people will find you … unnatural, and humans are afraid of things they don’t understand.”
“Why?” Galahad asked.
“I wish I could explain why,” Colin sighed.
“Danger is cause for fear,” the dog said, “but we are no danger. We wish only to be. We are not evil.”
Colin blinked. A word like “evil” implied an ability to manipulate concepts light-years in advance of anything Tinker Bell had ever managed.
“Galahad,” he asked carefully, “what do you think ‘evil’ is?”
“Evil,” the mechanically-generated voice replied, “is danger. Evil is hurting when not hurt or when hurting is not needed.”
Colin winced, for Galahad had cut to the heart of his own definition of evil. And whether he’d meant to or not, he’d thrown Colin’s decision about his own fate into stark focus.
Colin MacIntyre stared into his own soul and disliked what he saw. How could he explain that much of humanity was incapable of understanding what Galahad saw so clearly, or why he felt so ashamed that it was so?
“Colin-human,” Colin looked up as Galahad spoke again, “I try to understand, for understanding is good, but I cannot. We know—” a toss of a massive canine head indicated his litter-mates “—you may end us. We do not want to end. You do not want to end us. If we must end we cannot stop you. But it is not right, Colin-human.” Canine eyes held his with heart-tearing dignity. “It is not right,” Galahad repeated, “and this is something you know.”
Colin bit his lip. He turned to Jiltanith, and when her eyes—the black, subtly alien eyes of a full Imperial—met his, they, too, shone with tears.
“He hath the right of it, my Colin,” she said quietly. “Should we decree their deaths, ’twill be fear that moveth us—fear that maketh us do what we know full well is wrong. Nay, more than wrong.” She knelt beside him, touching a slender hand to Galahad’s heavy head. “E’en as Galahad hath said, ’twould evil be to hurt where hurting need not be.”
“I know.” His voice was equally quiet, and then he shook himself. “Isis?”
” ’Tanni’s right. If I’d known what ’Hanna was planning I’d’ve pitched a fit right alongside you, but look at them. They’re magnificent. People, Colin—good people who happen to have four feet and no hands.”
“Yes.” Colin looked down at his hands—the hands Galahad didn’t have—and felt the decision make itself. He rose and tugged on his nose, thinking hard. “How many are we talking about here, ’Hanna?”
“Ten. These four and two smaller litters.”
“Okay.” He turned back to Galahad and his siblings. “Listen to me, all of you. I know you don’t understand why humans should be afraid of you, but do all of you accept that they might be?” Four canine heads nodded in unmistakable assent, and he chuckled despite his solemnity. “Good, because the only way we could keep you really safe would be for us to keep the humans you might scare from finding out you exist, and we can’t do that forever.
“So here’s what I’m going to do. From now on, you four will live with us—with ’Tanni and me—and except for when you’re alone with us, you have to pretend to be just like other dogs. Can you do that?”
“Yes, Colin-human.” It wasn’t Galahad, but a smaller female who spoke, and her dignified mien vanished abruptly. She leapt up on him, wagging her tail and slurping his face enthusiastically, then tore around the room barking madly. She skidded to a halt, tongue lolling, dumped herself untidily on the carpet, rolled on her back, and waved all four feet in the air. Then she rolled back over and sat upright once more, eyes laughing at him.
“All right!” He wiped his face and grinned, then sobered again. “I don’t know if you’ll understand this, but we’re going to take you lots of places and show you to lots of people, and I want you to behave like ordinary dogs. The news people’ll get a lot of footage of you, and that’s good. When the truth about you gets out, I want the rest of humanity to be used to seeing you. I want them used to the idea that you’re not a threat. That you’ve been around a long time and never hurt anyone. Do you understand?”
“If we prove we are not evil, people will not fear us?” Galahad asked.
“Exactly. It’s not fair—you shouldn’t have to prove it any more than they should—but that’s how it has to be. Can you do that?”
“We can, Colin-human,” Galahad said softly.