Authors: Brian Herbert,Kevin J. Anderson
After verifying that he was alone, Gilbertus locked the door behind him and drew down each of the wood-and-fabric blinds. Removing a key from his waistcoat pocket, he unlocked a solid wood cabinet built into one set of shelves. He reached inside and touched a panel in a precise place, causing the shelves to rearrange, spin around, and then open like the petals of a flower.
On a shelf rested a shimmering memory core, and he said to it, “I am here, Erasmus. Are you ready to continue our conversation?”
His pulse quickened, partly due to the emotions he felt, partly because of the risk. Erasmus was the most notorious of all independent robots, a thinking machine as hated as the evermind Omnius itself. Gilbertus smiled.
Before the catastrophic fall of Corrin, he had removed the core from the doomed robot and smuggled it away as he mingled with countless human refugees. In the intervening years, Gilbertus had created an entirely new life for himself, a false past. He had used his talents to develop this Mentat School—with the clandestine assistance of Erasmus, who provided him with ongoing advice.
The gelcircuitry sphere throbbed with activity, and the independent robot spoke in a familiar erudite voice through small amplifiers. “Thank you—I was beginning to feel claustrophobic, even with the hidden spyeyes you’ve allowed me.”
“You saved me from a life of ignorance and squalor, and I saved you from destruction. A fair exchange. But I apologize that I can’t do more—not yet, anyway. We have to be very cautious.”
Years ago, Erasmus had selected one child from the miserable slave pens on the machine world, an experiment to see if it was possible to civilize one of the feral creatures through careful training. Over the years, the independent robot became a father figure and mentor who taught Gilbertus how to organize his thoughts, and how to enhance his brain so that he could think with an efficiency formerly reserved for computers. How ironic, Gilbertus thought, that his school for maximizing human potential had its roots in the world of thinking machines.
Erasmus was a hard but excellent teacher. The robot would likely have had success with any young human he tried to train, but Gilbertus was deeply grateful that fate had chosen him.…
The two spoke in low tones, always apprehensive about being discovered. “I know the risks you are already taking, but I grow restless. I need a new framework, a functional body that allows me to be mobile again. I am constantly thinking of innumerable test scenarios that would yield interesting results with your cadre of students. I am certain that humans continue to do fascinating, irrational things.”
As always, Gilbertus sidestepped the issue of creating the new body that the robot desired. “They do, Father—and unpredictable, violent things. That’s why I must keep you concealed. Of all the secrets in the Imperium, your existence is perhaps the greatest.”
“I long to interact with humans again … but I know you are doing your best.” The machine voice paused, and Gilbertus could imagine the shifting expression on the robot’s old flowmetal face, on the body left behind on Corrin. “Take me for a walk around the room. Open one of the shades a bit so that I might peek out with my sensors. I need input.”
Always alert, Gilbertus lifted out the lightweight core and cradled it in his hands, taking great care not to drop or otherwise damage it. He brought the sphere to one of the windows that faced the broad, shallow lake—a direction from which observers were unlikely to be watching—and lifted the blinds. He could not deny Erasmus this small favor; he owed the independent robot too much.
The memory core chuckled, a gentle cachinnation that reminded Gilbertus of peaceful, idyllic times on Corrin. “The universe has changed much,” Erasmus mused. “But you’ve adapted. You’ve done what you needed to do to survive.”
“And to protect you.” Gilbertus held the memory core close. “It’s difficult, but I will keep up the masquerade. You’ll be safe while I’m gone, Father.”
Soon, Gilbertus was due to depart from Lampadas with Manford Torondo, both of them going to Salusa Secundus to address the Landsraad Council and Emperor Salvador Corrino. It was a delicate, dangerous balancing act on Gilbertus’s part … a form of acrobatics that always made him uneasy.
Life is complicated, regardless of the circumstances into which we are born.
, letter to her husband, Prince Roderick
Pulled by four golden lions, the royal carriage led a procession through the Salusan capital city of Zimia. It was a city of monuments, honoring the numerous heroes of the long Jihad. Everywhere, Emperor Salvador Corrino saw images of Serena Butler, her martyred baby, Manion, and the Grand Patriarch Iblis Ginjo—on fluttering banners, on the sides of buildings, on statues, on storefronts. Ahead, the great golden dome of the Hall of Parliament was a reassuring presence, itself a site of epic, historical events.
Under cloudy skies, they rolled past a towering cymek walker on display, a dented and rusting monument as high as the tallest buildings. The fearsome machine had once been guided by a human brain, part of an enemy attack force during the first Battle of Zimia. Now, the immense form was lifeless, a relic standing as a reminder of those dark days. After more than a century of Serena Butler’s Jihad, the thinking-machine forces had been entirely defeated at Corrin, and humans were no longer slaves.
Zimia had been severely damaged twice by machine attacks in the Jihad, and on both occasions the city had been rebuilt—a testimonial to the unrelenting spirit of humanity. Out of the carnage and rubble of the Battle of Corrin, the Butler family changed their name to Corrino and rose to lead the new Imperium. The first Emperor was Salvador’s grandfather, Faykan, and then his son, Jules. The two men had ruled for a combined total of seventy-one years, after which Salvador assumed the throne.
Inside the royal carriage, the Emperor felt irritated at the interruption to his morning schedule, but he’d received word of a grim discovery that he needed to see for himself. He had hurried from the Palace along with his entourage of royal guards, assistants, advisers, and full security (because the restless people always found something to protest). A Suk School doctor rode in the carriage behind his, just in case something went wrong. Salvador worried about a lot of things and wore his apprehension like an ill-fitting garment.
As the procession continued, the Emperor did not particularly want to see the gruesome discovery to which they were escorting him, but it was his obligation. The lion carriages made their way toward the center of the city, past other carriages, groundcars, and trucks that pulled over to let the royal party pass.
His ornate carriage stopped smoothly in the large central plaza, and liveried attendants hurried to open the enameled door. As they helped the Emperor out, he could already smell the stench of burned flesh in the air.
A tall, muscular man approached in a scarlet tunic and gold trousers, the colors of House Corrino. Roderick was the Emperor’s demi-brother, sharing the same father but a different mother; the two also had a troubled half-sister, Anna, by yet another mother. (Emperor Jules had been very busy, although he’d never sired a child from his actual wife.)
“Over here,” Roderick said in a quiet voice. He had a full head of thick, blond hair, unlike Salvador, who—two years older at forty-seven—had only a patch of wispy brown hair on top. Both men wore activated shield belts as casual items of clothing, enveloping them in a barely discernible field. The men hardly gave the ubiquitous technology any thought.
Roderick pointed toward a statue of Iblis Ginjo, the charismatic but complex religious leader of the Jihad who had inspired billions to fight against the machine oppressors. Salvador was horrified to see a burned, mutilated body dangling from the statue. A placard was attached to the roasted, unrecognizable corpse, identifying him as “Toure Bomoko—Traitor to God and Faith.”
Salvador knew the name very well. Twenty years ago, during his father’s reign, the Commission of Ecumenical Translators had caused a horrendous uproar with their release of a new holy book that was ostensibly for all religions, the
Orange Catholic Bible.
Toure Bomoko had been chairman of the CET delegates who spent seven years in isolation in a domed compound on the radioactive wasteland of Old Earth. The CET had compiled a compromise summation of the basic tenets of religion, then presented their masterpiece with giddy triumph. The cobbled-together holy text was intended to solve all of humanity’s religious differences, but actually accomplished the opposite.
Rather than being celebrated as a triumph of unification and the cornerstone of wider understanding, the book and the hubris behind it inspired a violent backlash across the Imperium. Bomoko and his fellow delegates fled from the mobs; many delegates were lynched, while others vehemently recanted to save their skins. Some of them committed suicide, often under suspicious circumstances, while others, like Bomoko, went into hiding.
Later, after being granted sanctuary in the Imperial Palace by the grace of Emperor Jules, Chairman Bomoko admitted in public that his commission had erred in trying to create new religious symbols, which only served to “introduce uncertainties into accepted belief ” and to “stir up controversy about God.” After a scandal at the palace involving the chairman and the wife of the Emperor, Bomoko had escaped—the second time he was forced to flee. He had never been found.
Now Roderick stood at his brother’s side, studying the charred, faceless corpse strung up on the statue. “Do you think they really found him this time?”
Unimpressed with the mutilated body, Salvador rolled his eyes. “I doubt it. This is the seventh supposed ‘Bomoko’ they’ve killed. But run the genetic tests anyway, just to make sure.”
“I’ll take care of everything.”
Salvador knew he didn’t have to worry. Roderick had always been the cooler, calmer brother. The Emperor let out a slow sigh. “If I knew where Bomoko was, I’d hand him over myself, just to keep the mobs happy.”
Roderick’s lips pulled together in a frown. He looked seriously at his brother. “I assume you’d talk it over with me first.”
“You’re right, I wouldn’t do anything that serious without your advice.”
Over the years, protests had ebbed and flowed, though no major riots had occurred in more than a decade, not since Salvador took the Corrino throne. Soon, he would announce a revised (and somewhat sanitized) edition of the
was bound to incense some people, as well. The new edition would bear Salvador’s own name, and at first that had seemed like a good idea. Through his religious scholars, Salvador had tried to solve some of the problematic text, but extremists wanted the consolidated holy book burned, not modified. He could not be too careful around religious zealots.
Roderick gave crisp orders to two officers of the palace guard. “Remove the body and clean up the scene.”
As the burned corpse was taken down, some of the reddened meat on the shoulders and torso slipped off the bone, and the guards recoiled with exclamations of disgust. One of the men brought Salvador the placard, and he squinted to read the small print on the back. The lynch mob felt they needed to explain that the victim’s body had been mutilated in precisely the same way that the thinking machines had done to Serena Butler—their justification for a horrendous act.
As he walked back to the royal carriage with his brother, the Emperor grumbled, “After a thousand years of machine enslavement, and more than a century of the bloody Jihad, you’d think people would be tired of it all by now.”
Roderick gave a quiet, knowing nod. “They do seem addicted to the clash and frenzy. The mood of the people is still raw.”
“Humanity is so damned impatient.” The Emperor stepped into the carriage. “After Omnius fell, did they really expect all problems would be solved in an instant? Eighty years after the Battle of Corrin, things should not still be in turmoil! I wish you could just fix it, Roderick.”
His brother gave him a thin smile. “I’ll do what I can.”
“Yes, I know you will.” Salvador pulled shut the door to the carriage, and the driver urged the lions to a fast pace as the rest of the entourage scrambled to follow.
* * *
THAT EVENING, RODERICK
delivered the genetic results to his brother at his country estate. Salvador and the Empress Tabrina were in the midst of one of their loud arguments, this time over her desire to take a minor role in the government, rather than her customary ceremonial duties.
Salvador adamantly opposed the request. “It is not traditional, and the Imperium needs stability more than anything else.” The royal couple was in the trophy room, where a frozen menagerie of mounted fish and wild animals adorned the walls.
Fortunately, having heard the argument before, Prince Roderick marched into the trophy room, oblivious to their shouts. “Brother, I’ve brought the results. I thought you’d like to see them yourself.”
Salvador grabbed the paper from Roderick’s hands, pretending to be annoyed by the interruption, but he secretly gave his brother a grateful smile. While Tabrina seethed, sitting by the fireplace and drinking wine—too polite to keep quarreling in front of a guest—Salvador read the one-page report. Satisfied, he rolled it into a ball and tossed it in the fire. “Not the real Bomoko—just as I thought. The mobs string up anyone who arouses their suspicions.”
“I wish they’d string you up,” the Empress muttered under her breath. She was a strikingly beautiful woman with dark, almond-shaped eyes, high cheekbones, and a lithe body wrapped in a long, formfitting dress. Her auburn hair was arranged in elaborate coiffure.
Salvador considered snapping back that he’d let them do it, just to get away from her, but he was in no mood to be funny. He turned his back on her and sauntered out of the room. “Come, Roderick. There’s a popular new card game I’d like to teach you. I learned it from my newest concubine.”
At the mention of the concubine, Tabrina let out an annoyed snort, which Salvador pretended not to hear.