A Muse of Fire by Sean O’Brien
At the Terran base on the conquered planet of the Mnemosyneans, Tyr Yllen is unique. The ultramodern techniques Earth teachers used are of no use with someone like Tyr. As an “Uneducated” he is considered little better than the village idiot.
But when Educator Horace Mann arrives all the way from Earth, everything changes.
Never in his wildest dreams could Tyr have imagined that Mann’s teaching would lead him to battle for the survival of a psychic race of beings and the people who had conquered them…
GENRE: Science Fiction Page Count: 87, 401
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4.0 out of 5 stars
a strange and rare gem lost in the mine
This a good read and should not be neglected or overlooked. There are shades and echos of the movie Avatar (2009) in this tale well told on an intriguing premise. Faithful lines to expectation follow through, true, but then just when you think you’ve figured out the form of it all, it breaks off into another facet. There are a few rough edges here and there (an editor’s eye would pick them out) but there are some good deliberations and musings (yes, there you go) on the nature of information, knowledge, and wisdom tied up into the hidden forces of human longing for relationship and meaning. Wondering if there is a sequel yet?
Tyr had learned one lesson very well: he was essentially an errand boy. He had the uniform insignia to prove he was an officer, albeit a Sub-Lieutenant/Specialist Third Class Liaison Officer, but no one ever saluted him or called him “sir”. He tried, without success, to convince himself that he didn’t want the little honors that came with rank and respect, but he could not think of any other reason to be respected other than those little honors. So here he was, on the landing field, doing a job any enlisted man or woman could have done, if it even needed doing at all. There had been no hiding the derision in the printed order he had received from the Argus computer; his living, breathing C.O. hadn’t even deigned to contact him personally to issue the command.
But the worst element of all was the identity of the man he was to escort to the barracks. An Educator. Tyr’s pride still stung from that added indignity. He was sure that he had been given this assignment on purpose, his superiors sniggering at the irony of it all. It was not the first time they had pointedly brought attention to his handicap, and Tyr knew it would not be the last. He had lived for his entire adult life, and most of his childhood, enduring the taunts of others. He was sure he would suffer more.
Tyr shielded his eyes and scanned the sky for the shuttle. There would be no close fighter escort, no stealth field around the shuttle, no protective measures of any kind. The skies above the occupied Mnemosynean cities had been clear of enemies for many years. The last air/space battle had ended before Tyr had been out of training on Earth: this much he had learned slowly and painfully from his special classes. Unconsciously, Tyr pulled his cap down, hiding his smooth, unadorned, and therefore shameful, forehead.
A faint noise directed his eyes to a portion of the pale blue sky. The shuttle was a squat, bulbous affair, contrasting sharply with the graceful curves and arcs of the remaining Mnemosynean spires it flew through. It approached the landing field, hovered briefly over the huge white “X” as the human pilot within checked the computer’s calculations, and then settled down precisely on the mark.
Tyr heaved a great sigh. Horace Mann, he recalled vividly from his assignment tape, was an Educator in the true sense: not merely a trainer or instructor. Trained as a Sixth-level, Mann would no doubt have as colorful a brow as Tyr had ever seen.
The shuttle unfolded its rose-petal hull and sat naked on the tarmac. Two people un-strapped and climbed out. The pilot, in her flight grays, assisted the other person extricate himself from his straps.
Tyr did not approach the shuttle. Let the Educator walk to him, he thought. It would be a slight repayment of the debt he felt he was owed. Tyr was aware of how petty he was being but, just then, he didn’t care. He had earned his petulance through years of fruitless testing, dashed hopes, and broken promises from a system that couldn’t find a place for him.
Mann climbed gracelessly out of the shuttle and smoothed his drab brown clothes. The pilot handed him a case as he looked around the landing field, then the two of them walked across the field toward Tyr.
“Liaison Officer Yllen?” the pilot said in her best pro forma voice. “This is educator Horace Mann.” She paused a beat, and then strode off, her duty discharged.
Tyr looked Mann over, making no effort to hide the disdain that rode in his eyes. Mann was whiter than most Terrans, with thinning, ash-brown hair and a slightly stoop-shouldered stance. He gave the distinct impression of age, although Tyr knew from his dossier that Mann was only twenty-nine years old.
“Good day, Mister Yllen,” Mann said stiffly, extending his hand. Tyr toyed briefly with the idea of ignoring him, but decided it would serve no purpose. He shook Mann’s hand perfunctorily and snapped, “Come with me.” Tyr had been avoiding looking at the other’s forehead, but his curiosity took his eyes there for the briefest of moments.
He hadn’t prepared himself for what he saw. There was a crisscrossing of lines of all colors on Mann’s head, some blending into the already-worn creases of thought on the Educator’s forehead. Tyr could identify only some of the lines. The black First-degree baseline over the left eye had faded to a muted gray, and the red Second line paralleling it was more of a pinkish hue. Even the green Third line near Mann’s hairline had faded to a lime color, indicating it too had been earned some time ago.
Tyr could not tear his eyes away as he scanned Mann’s record of education. There was a bright blue Fourth line arcing proudly high over the bridge of Mann’s nose, just between the eye ridges, and a sharp rod of gold over Mann’s right eye. Tyr had only seen a Fifth on station on one other person–the Regional Governor-General–whom he had met upon his arrival years ago. And there was something else: a subtle, thin white line that ran perpendicular to the rest down Mann’s right temple. Tyr had never seen that before, but he knew what it had to be: the Sixth degree mark of Evaluation–bade of the elite Educative class.
Tyr’s gaze slid down Mann’s face to find the Educator staring back at him. The young liaison officer coughed in embarrassment, whirled, and started to march back to the buildings of the squat barracks, never checking to see if Mann was following or not.
Mann gawked at the stark contrasts between the native architecture and the imposing Terran buildings. The fragile, cream-colored Mnemosynean buildings he had flown over, as beautiful and as purposeless as sand castles, stood in mute subservience to the functional Terran prefab barracks and housing units, their squat grayness aggressively bland and artless. It was as if the Terrans had purposely removed any architectural design that wasn’t immediately practical while the Mnemosyneans had little use for practicality in their buildings.
Then there was this Tyr Yllen who had come to meet him at the landing field. The cap he wore did not quite hide his forehead–Mann had grown accustomed to scanning the education records of all he met, and he saw immediately that Yllen did not have even a baseline First degree mark. Mann had read about such people, but in his short tenure on Earth, he had never run across one. “The Unrecognized,” Mann had called such people in a paper he had done one semester. Typically, those people existed off the largesse of the government, unable or unwilling to work in any but the most brutal and degrading of jobs–jobs that robot labor should rightfully do. Yet, here was this Yllen fellow–an officer in the Terran military. It would certainly be useful to get to know this young man if Mann harbored any hopes of getting off this frontier world and back to Earth where he could do some real good. Yes, maybe this Tyr Yllen would prove to be Mann’s path back to academic acceptance. Mann studied the officer’s broad back. Yllen was easily two meters tall, and filled out his uniform impressively. Even among the near-physical perfection of the military, Yllen was remarkable.
Mann sighed as he turned his thoughts to his assignment. With the hostilities over, military personnel had been sending for their families to come live with them on the conquered planet. Families meant children, and children meant school. Mann knew his charge, though he doubted anyone else was aware of the massive difficulties he faced. This would not be some carefully ordered group of students, all tracked neatly together in ability and temperament: no, this was to be an eclectic hodge-podge of ages, intelligences, and traits that he alone was expected to teach. No, he corrected himself, not teach: Educate. There was a world of difference. Training could be done by any competent adult with skills or knowledge–it required only time and the will of the student. The children were trained, and were no doubt enjoying a break from studies as their parents waited eagerly for him, the miracle worker, to transform their children into geniuses, or at least, potential geniuses. Everyone is above average, Mann thought bitterly.
He snapped himself out of his reverie as Yllen reached the outer door of a large gray building. The young officer bent down a little to present his face to the door for recognition.
“We’ll key all the doors to you once we get done with your processing,” Yllen growled, not bothering to turn around. The door slid open, and the two men went inside.
The inside lay in stark contrast to the outside. Harsh, aggressive light shone from lumen panels and seemed to cast no shadows. Mann could see his own twisted reflection in the gleaming hallway floor. Yllen strode purposefully down the corridor, his heels clack-clacking on the polished surface. Mann couldn’t tell which was colder: the Terran architecture or Yllen’s manner.
Mann kept up as Yllen strode down the hallway, occasionally twisting his bulky body sideways to allow a fellow officer to pass by but otherwise never slackening his pace. Mann caught glimpses through half-open doorways of smartly uniformed men and women engaged in what appeared to be routine clerical tasks. No doubt more sensitive activities were being conducted in a more secure area. Mann had no illusions as to the true purpose of this facility and the hundreds of similar ones scattered around the planet: the Terrans were the new masters of this world; the native population had to be kept in check. But that aspect of the Terran military was not on display here, only the day-to-day drudgery that seemed to attach itself to any complex human undertaking.
And so it continued–Mann followed silently behind the hulking officer, occasionally passing another person in the hallway. Mann did not try to extend greetings, thinking mistakenly that all the personnel at the barracks shared Yllen’s attitude toward him. All those he passed were physically sound men and women–strong, healthy-looking specimens of humanity. They were, of course, all roughly the same shade of brown. Mann saw none his own lighter, tan color, and certainly saw none of Yllen’s dark complexion. This was not in itself uncommon–Mann had always stood apart just a little because of his fair complexion (though he knew that even one hundred years ago he would have seemed normal to certain segments of the population) and he suspected that Yllen did as well. There were others as fair as Mann on Earth, but they were rare–there were others as dark as Yllen, but Mann had never met anyone. It was not a cause of great or even slight concern to anyone–but Mann noticed it and felt a slight kinship to the silent officer, even if that kinship was not, for the moment, being reciprocated.
It occurred to Mann that since his arrival on this planet he had never seen anyone carrying a weapon–all of those whom he had passed in the corridor or seen in rooms as he walked by were unarmed. They seemed more like clerks than soldiers–only their physical stature revealed their true vocations.
“Here’s your room,” Yllen said, abruptly stopping before a nondescript door. He opened it with a touch and stepped back wordlessly. Mann peered inside. It was small and spartan, but it would serve his purposes. He noticed a faint rectangular discoloration on the door as he squeezed past Yllen’s bulk to enter. His eye lingered on it, and he turned quizzically to Yllen.
“We’ll get your name up there soon,” Yllen snapped. Mann did not need to use his Educator training to see the man was anxious to discharge his final duty and leave.
Mann placed his luggage on the narrow cot and turned back to Yllen. “If you wouldn’t mind, Officer, I would like to see the rest of the facility. May I arrange for a tour?”
“Argus will tell you anything you need to know. You can take a vee through the computer,” Yllen said, pointing vaguely in the direction of the dark computer workstation in Mann’s room.
Mann glanced at the station, then looked back at Yllen with a slight smile. “I’d rather have a live tour guide. I’m not terribly adept at computer relations,” Mann lied.
Yllen’s eyes bored into Mann’s. The Educator could almost feel enmity radiating out of them: had he somehow insulted this young soldier? Had Yllen had interpreted his good humor for condescension? Before he could speak to try and smooth things over, Yllen cleared his throat.
“I have things to do,” Yllen said slowly and deliberately, poorly masking his real message, “so I can’t. I’ll get someone else,” he said, and turned to go.
“Officer,” Mann said. Yllen turned again, slowly, to face the educator once again, his dark face a tight mask. Mann cocked his head slightly and asked softly, “What do you want from me?”
Yllen narrowed his eyes. “What?”
“You heard the question,” Mann said even more softly.
“I don’t want anything,” Yllen said angrily, his jaw rigid.
Mann looked pointedly at Yllen’s forehead, saying nothing. Yllen’s face started to flush. The moment stretched on, neither man speaking, while the tension grew until Yllen could no longer contain himself.
“What is it?” Yllen demanded. His shame and rage had evidently built to a boiling point. Mann’s gaze held him paralyzed, like some ancient basilisk’s.
“You know what you want,” Mann said softly, taking his eyes from Yllen’s partially concealed forehead.
For a fraction of a moment, Yllen looked uncertain, hope riding in his eyes.
Then the indecision was gone as quickly as it came. The hope in his eyes was exiled to be replaced by despair and rage.
“I don’t want anything. Except to get out of here,” Yllen spat. “Don’t ask me for anything. If you want something, ask Argus or someone else. If I see you in the hall and you try to talk to me, I’ll…”
Mann nodded gently. “I understand. My door is open, Tyr Yllen,” he said, then turned to his luggage. He did not need to look to see that Yllen stood meekly for a moment before slinking out, defeated.
Mann fussed with his clothes for a few moments after Yllen had left, then looked thoughtfully at the gray rectangle of the door. An unusual man, this Yllen. Mann felt the first twinges of excitement at the prospect of a difficult assignment. It did not matter that Yllen was far outside his ordinary responsibility; indeed, that fact added to the allure of the man. He was angry, resentful, and would no doubt be resistant. In addition, he was obviously as deficient in basic Education as anyone Mann had ever seen. All of these facts together made Yllen the perfect subject.
Mann was an idealist, but he was not totally ignorant of his own motives–no truly great educator could ignore their own desires in their art. There would be something gratifying, even perversely vengeful, in Educating Tyr Yllen. Those on Earth who had sent Mann here would react–he would be a name in Education circles. He knew this formed part of his desire to Educate Yllen. But overriding all was the basic, inherent drive to make someone else better than they were, to mold them and make them more. Again, there was an ego-building aspect to this. Mann had long ago understood the godlike powers his kind possessed and knew the dangers he must avoid. He wielded great power to shape and control–he must use it for the benefit of his pupils. Any benefit he reaped for himself must be secondary. It was foolish in the extreme to think he could be completely altruistic–he was no saint. But he was a good man, and he knew it.
Therefore, he was a great Educator. But no one else knew that. That was what Yllen would be for. Mann would be doing the man a good turn, to be sure: he would Educate him. But more important, Yllen would serve as the test subject for Mann’s triumphant return to Education circles on Earth.
Feeling more satisfied than he had felt since arriving on the planet, Mann started to unpack.
Yllen strode aimlessly through the corridor, his gait at once commanding and confused. Who was this man? Yllen felt a trickle of sweat explode on his forehead, although it was climate controlled in the barracks. He was used to the taunts, the insults-he had weathered the storm of derision and scorn to the point that he almost welcomed it. At least with that, he was in familiar territory. Like most people, Yllen preferred the comfort of the known and expected, even when it was painful, to the uncertainty and possible chaos of the unknown, no matter how alluring it seemed.
He was not really angry at Mann-he knew that. It was just the first reaction to the situation; a reaction he had felt all too often. Attack after attack on his ego had sharpened his bitterness to a weapon’s edge, and he wielded it well.
He couldn’t help wondering, though, if he had struck out at the one man who could help him. Again, unbidden and uncontrolled, wild thoughts of hope and an end to misery fluttered in his brain. Despite seventeen years of anguish and remorseless pain, he still felt hope. Hope that one man, with his strange techniques and almost mystic ways, could catapult him into acceptance and finally grant him the wish he had longed for. Not Education, Tyr realized, but acceptance. It did not matter what the process brought him as long as it brought him into the brotherhood of his peers.
Certainly, it would be desirable to be Educated: this was certain. Tyr longed to understand what the Educated mind felt, how it worked, how effortlessly it accepted new concepts and thought processes. He had had to struggle with his own limited mind for every concept he had learned, and had learned much wasted material in the process. Somehow, he couldn’t keep his mind focused on any one task or topic to the exclusion of all others. Tyr raged at his own cluttered mind and the useless data it had accumulated. Why had he spent all those hours studying languages, for example? Here he was, a Liaison officer, with a fair grasp of linguistics. He was nowhere near as well trained as the certified Fourth-level linguists on the staff here, nor was he blissfully ignorant of the complexities as most everyone else. He knew just enough to know that the concept was beyond him. Multiply this feeling for dozens of subjects Tyr had sampled but never swallowed. It was a maddening existence.
And now this Mann. Coming from Earth with his Educator’s manner, his vocabulary and slightly arrogant demeanor, he proposed to Educate him?
It occurred to Tyr that Mann had never actually stated what it was he knew. Perhaps the man didn’t understand anything. Maybe he thought Yllen just was bucking for promotion or something.
But as soon as the thought formed in his mind, Yllen knew somehow he was wrong, and Mann knew everything. It wasn’t undisciplined hope that said this–it simply was. Yllen sighed at his own intuition. Maybe that’s what Educated people were like: constantly understanding things on intuition. Yllen had flashes of it, but suspected that others had it all the time and therefore they never spoke of it.
Mann knew what Yllen lacked; he could see it on his forehead and feel it in his mind. Somewhere in Yllen’s brain, he knew the future too–he would go and see Mann and throw himself at the Educator’s mercy, begging again for one more chance to be human. It was just a matter of time.
Some days later, Horace Mann sighed to himself, alone in his quarters. He had quickly found after the flurry of activity at his arrival – setting up appointments with his students and their parents, arranging for a classroom, getting computer access time – that there was not much to occupy his time. He would eventually get more students, but now, his caseload of thirteen did not place a great demand on him.
His door chime sounded, interrupting his thoughts. Mann got up from his desk and greeted the student.
“Hello again, Giskane,” Mann said, smiling genially at the eleven-year old girl.
“Hi, Mr. Mann,” Giskane said, slinking into the room unhappily. Mann winced a little at the simple honorific; he should properly be addressed as Educator. But he let it go.
“So what are we doing today?” Giskane mumbled.
“We’ll be continuing our work on your general intensification. Did you have any headaches yesterday?” Mann said, closing the door and sitting down opposite Giskane.
“Uh, yeah. A little one. Does that mean I can’t learn today?” she asked, hopefully.
“No, not at all.” Mann gently took her chin in his hands and stared deep into her eyes. She looked back at him calmly. There was no sign of unusual psychic distress that he could see, but he still set up his scanner. “What about nightmares?” he asked, checking the wave functions of Giskane’s brain from his computer screen.
“You mean bad dreams? I didn’t have any. Do you think I will later on?”
Mann clucked his tongue. “Could be,” he said, distracted by the scan. He heard the girl rustling uncertainly next to him. He cursed himself and looked at her. She was afraid, obviously: her earlier attempts to get out of the session had not been laziness. Now she was worried about bad dreams to come.
“Listen, dear,” Mann said stiffly, “I can’t do my work unless you relax. You’ve got to try and think only what I tell you to for our session. Okay?” He smiled unconvincingly.
“I’ll try,” Giskane said, her voice tiny.
Mann sighed almost inaudibly and repositioned his chair so he was facing her. He locked eyes with the little girl, putting aside her fear for the moment. This was a delicate moment: if she turned away, giggled, or even coughed, the mood he was trying to establish would be broken and it would take many minutes to regain it. Mann’s eyes bored into hers. There was no magic involved, no flimflam hypnotist’s act. He merely locked eyes and kept hers on his by force of will. That skill alone represented perhaps six weeks of intensive training back on Earth many years ago.
Slowly, inexorably, Mann advanced on the girl, his eyes straining to keep focus. He was only a dozen or so centimeters from her face. He could feel her breath on his face as he moved in closer, closer. Slowly, to model how he wanted it done, he closed his eyes and knew that she had closed hers. The slight flutter of her eyelids made faint waves in the air that he could feel with his heightened awareness.
Their heads touched, gently, the smooth skin of his forehead gently kissing hers. Mann moved in a trifle more, solidifying the connection, then stopped. Too much pressure on her head would interfere with what was to come.
Mann entered her brain. He had been there once before, in his preliminary session, mentally marking points of interest or concern. That had been a diagnostic, a fact-finding venture. This was his first real step in Giskane’s Education: her preliminary Intensification.
Mann slid gently across the shifting potentialities of her consciousness. He couldn’t read her thoughts: those were far beyond earth science. His training was essentially scientific: he could detect and interpret certain electromagnetic impulses in her brain that indicated patterns of thought, rather than the thoughts themselves.
“Giskane,” he subvocalized. They were close enough where she could “understand” basic thought-impulses, as long as he put them in the forefront of his brain. He felt her brain “answer” with a change in the pattern of her thoughts. “Flowers,” he said in the same voice. He had found her affinity for flowers last session and now he was prepared to use it.
Instantly, her mind changed again. A new thought pattern formed and Mann took careful note of it, feeling out its sound, measuring its texture. There were no real words to describe how he perceived her thoughts. The official term was “derived associative patterns,” but that was no better than “felt.”
And so Mann felt the patterns of her thoughts when she heard “flowers.” He recorded them on his scanner with a simple thought impulse to the computer. He knew he would not be able to remember the exact pattern on his own; his consciousness and memory, while incredible, were no match for the tremendous complexity of even a child’s thought patterns.
Mann saw the thought pattern already begin to mutate into something else as Giskane lost her focus. Now, his work began.
“Flowers,” he said again, and watched as the pattern reformed, though slightly differently. No two thought patterns were ever the same. Mann carefully reached out and grabbed the gossamer thought-pattern and held it tightly but gently, careful not to break it. He was grasping a spiderweb with gauntleted hands–but it was the best Earthly Education could provide.
The thought pattern began to mutate, but Mann tightened his grip. The pattern began to try to shift out of his grip, but Mann held firm. In some part of his brain, he knew he was sweating with the mental exertion, but he could not let go yet. The girl had to learn.
He saw the thought pattern start to fray at the ends–it was beginning to go psychotic. Mann slowly, slowly let go of the thought, letting it gently repair itself and change into whatever it wanted. Now, came the test.
“Flowers,” he said again. The thought pattern almost instantly reformed into the exact pattern Mann had held it in. He waited, pleased but expectant. There was still one more test. He waited and watched.
The thought-pattern held its shape for longer than it had earlier before beginning to mutate. When it changed, it changed more slowly, and less dramatically, than it had before. Computer analysis would tell him specifics later, but his trained mind could see the gross change without any electronic aids.
Mann allowed himself a moment of pleasure. This was a good student. The thought patterns were receptive to shaping. Mann made a mental note that would be picked up on psychotranscription later: “The student is above average in concentration. Little or no maintenance needed after initial battery of lessons.”
He continued to make his way through her mind, testing and probing more, but always coming with the same result–the chaos of her mind was easily molded into useful patterns of thought that were, once formed, easily recaptured. Mann spent perhaps another ninety minutes in Giskane’s brain before he began the delicate process of withdrawal.
When they separated, Mann opened his eyes first to see Giskane in that peculiar state of longing–almost sexual–that made him wonder: was she longing for continued contact with him, or was it longing for something that had been lost? Was it regret?
He had had these feelings before, and remembered how he had incautiously voiced them in what was supposed to be a frank and confidential talk with his mentor. Mann smiled ruefully as he remembered just how “confidential” that talk had proved to be. Here he was, on an outpost world, because he had dared to ask of himself and other Educators, “Are we doing right?”
Giskane slowly opened her eyes and focused them on Mann. She grimaced and said, “My head hurts a little.”
“That’s normal,” Mann said carelessly. “Now, I want you to do something for me,” he added, glancing at the computer readout, which was spewing data on his trip through her brain. “I want you to think of flowers,” he said, never taking his eyes off the computer.
Mann saw the instant spike on the computer and registered its amplitude. “Yes. Just think of them. Any shape, any color, whatever you like. Just flowers.” He continued to watch the screen, pressing a few virtual keys to access the brainwave he had constructed before. These machines were an invaluable aid to his job. He wasn’t even sure he could work at all without them. Not for the first time, deep in his mind, he wondered if it was meant to be this way. Shouldn’t he be able to teach with just a rock to perch on and a student to listen?
The computer image demanded his attention, so he pushed his heretical thoughts aside and concentrated on the task at hand.
The brain-patterns matched, or “converged” as the official term went, indicating that Giskane was thinking in as close a fashion as she could to what Mann had done to her. There was no possible way she could think exactly the way she had even a few short minutes ago–the brain changed constantly–but she was so close it made no difference.
“Good, Giskane. Now, I want you to think of flowers for a little while longer, but this time, I am going to try to distract you. It is very important that you keep thinking of flowers, even though I will try to stop you. Okay?”
“Okay,” Giskane said uncertainly. Mann couldn’t see her expression, and had he glanced over to her, he might have been tempted to soothe her fears, but he was concentrating on the screen. “It’s not going to hurt, is it?”
Mann sighed softly as Giskane’s brain-pattern began to mutate. “No, of course not,” he said tersely. She was not helping him. “Just think of flowers, okay?” he said with as much bonhomie as he could muster. He relaxed a little as her brain-pattern returned to the original flower pattern.
Mann called up another screen in mid-air and from the menu selected “sounds/sights level 1.” He sat back as the virtual screen conjured up randomly scintillating images, like a kaleidoscope, all the while playing atonal music that was difficult to focus upon. Under normal circumstances, a person could perhaps keep a thought pattern fixed for ten, maybe twelve seconds before some serious degradation mutated the pattern. It was impossible for the Uneducated brain to hold a thought in the face of distraction. Invariably, mutations multiplied upon themselves and soon, perhaps after ninety seconds, the original brain pattern was merely the linguistic shadow of its former thought.
Giskane was doing well. Seventeen seconds into the experiment, the computer silently registered on Mann’s subscreen a first-order deviation. Eighty-eighth percentile rank. Not bad, Mann thought. The rest of the experiment followed suit; almost exactly two minutes went by before the pattern was so disorganized as to be another thought entirely.
Mann shut off the screen. Giskane blinked and shook her head slightly. “What was all that for?” she asked eagerly.
Mann, studying the computer, mumbled “just technical,” and continued to analyze the data for a few more seconds before he was satisfied. “Good. Good job. You scored well there.”
“But what was it for?” Giskane asked again, more urgently.
Mann seemed to hear her question for the first time. He took his eyes off the computer screen to look at the young girl. He saw her apprehension, and felt a wave of guilt as he realized he had done nothing to relieve it. He smiled warmly at her.
“It was to see if what I did helped you or not. You see, your Education will help you concentrate on things.”
“On flowers?” Giskane asked sceptically.
Mann laughed good-naturedly. “No, not just on flowers. On anything you want. You’ll be able to learn faster and learn more stuff than you could have before, because you will be able to hold on to one thought for much longer.”
“Is that why you played those funny sounds at me? To help me concentrate?”
“Not quite. I did that to try to distract you and see if you could concentrate better.”
“Did I?” Her eyes sparkled.
Mann felt an inexplicable sense of loss before he answered. She had indeed done well, and his sense of loss was somehow tied up with that. He summoned up a smile. “You did very well. Tomorrow, I’ll show you how you can start to do these exercises on your own. Pretty soon, we’ll be done, and you’ll be…” he hesitated. He knew what would happen, and not for the first time, wondered at the rightness of it.
Giskane took his hesitation for a prompt. “Smarter?” she said, smiling shyly.
Mann coaxed a smile out of his worry. “Yes. Smarter.”
“Will I get some of those marks on my head, too?’ Giskane’s voice was eager, almost frighteningly so. She stared at Mann’s brow, tracing the lines with her eyes.
“In time,” Mann said uneasily. “You can go now.”
Giskane got up quickly and smoothed out her outfit. “Bye, Mr. Mann. I’ll see you tomorrow.” She walked through her doorway and threw a belated “thank you” over her shoulder.
Mann watched her go, then turned his eyes back to the computer, where her brain pattern recording had long since run out and where now was displayed an single flat line.
Tyr steeled himself as he always did before entering his superior’s office. He was well aware that Clerk/Lieutenant Ober did not like him, his post, or even himself. Ober was one of those men who are destined for middle management: Yllen had often wondered if the Obers of the past had been minor functionaries in local governments, ranging from undersecretaries of unimportant but grudgingly accepted departments to assistant lay priests or granary clerks. Such men and women were all too common. None of this changed the lamentable fact that Ober was Yllen’s superior, and the stout, rotund little bald man never let Tyr forget it.
Tyr knocked, opened the door to Ober’s office, then stood in front of his desk waiting to be acknowledged. Ober was dictating to Argus through a subvocal uplink and glanced at Yllen as he entered. Without losing his train of thought, he motioned for Yllen to close the door behind him.
Tyr did so and when he turned back, Ober had finished his work and was looking up at Yllen with ill-hidden contempt. “You took long enough, Sublieutenant,” he growled.
Yllen looked at a point on the wall. “As the Clerk/Lieutenant says,” he said, making sure to emphasize the word “clerk.”
Ober’s scowl increased, but he did not pursue the matter. “You are the Liaison Officer for this base, and I have noticed a distinct lack of new assignments for you. Aside from Mr. Mann’s arrival a few days ago, we have had no need of your services. Tell me, Mister Yllen, why do we need you here?”
Yllen had heard this before, but that didn’t mean it didn’t hurt just a bit, like a burr, whenever Ober or anyone else asked him the same kind of question. He had his standard answers. “When a new arrival needs orientation, I provide the necessary information and–”
“But Argus can do that, Yllen. Christ, we feed you, clothe you, and even pay you a goddamn serviceun’s salary! And for what? To do something a tiny fraction of the computer’s brain could do?” Ober stopped, glaring at Yllen.
“Is that a question, sir?” Yllen asked. His patience, although considerable, was starting to go.
“No. Yes, dammit. I asked you: why shouldn’t I send you back to the Personnel Depot so I can fill up your job slot with a real worker?”
Ober knew the answer well enough: Yllen’s wasn’t a job that could be done away with. Ober’s superior, the base commander, had quite a bit of leeway on who she hired or let go, but some jobs were assigned from Division. Liaison Officer was one of them. The job was really a sinecure–Ober had that right. But that wasn’t Yllen’s fault. The name of the office sounded a lot more grand, as if he was going to somehow be an ambassador to the Mnemosyneans. But all such work was carried out under the secretive auspices of Intelligence. Yllen had nothing to do with it.
“You may certainly try, sir, but Personnel would simply send me back. My position here is guaranteed.” He tried to say it without a sneer, and was almost successful.
Ober leaned forward in his chair and lowered his voice dangerously. “Listen to me, Yllen. You are here, on this planet, because some backwoods Earthworm decided to make you a test case. To show the few percent of uneducated folks back home that they could still serve a useful function in life. Well, they are not here. This is a military base. If I sent you back to Personnel and they sent you back to Earth, no one here would suffer for it.”
Yllen hesitated before replying. Ober could just be bluffing, trying to anger him, or there could be an element of truth in what he was saying. There was no way to tell. Yllen decided on a different approach.
“Is this really what you called me in here for, sir?”
Ober blinked, then sat back in his chair again. “No, not entirely. I just wanted to be sure you understood where you stand.”
“I understand, sir.”
“Good. Then understand this. The only thing keeping you here is that civilian, what’s-his-name–the Educator.”
Mann? Yllen recoiled in surprise. Why would Mann want to keep him here? “Horace Mann?”
“Yeah. He wants you to report to him daily. Three guesses why,” he said, and a broad, wolfish smile spread across Ober’s face as he looked pointedly at Yllen’s forehead. “Looks like you’re going back to school, Sublieutenant,” Ober said, suppressing a chortle. “For all the fuckin’ good it will do you.”
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