Machinery does not destroy. It creates, provided always that the controlling hand is strong enough to dominate it.
---Rivego, a muralist of Old Earth
Erasmus found the pecking order among the dying and hopeless humans fascinating, even amusing. Their reaction was all part of the experimental process, and he considered the results to be very worthwhile.
The robot strolled through the corridors of his meticulously organized laboratory facility on Corrin, swirling his plush crimson robe. The garment itself was an affectation he had developed in order to give himself a more lordly appearance. Alas, the victims in their sealed cells paid little heed to his finery, preoccupied instead with their suffering. Nothing could be done about that, since distractible humans had such difficulty focusing on matters that did not directly affect them.
Decades ago, squads of efficient construction robots had built this high-domed facility according to his exact specifications. The numerous well-equipped chambers---each one completely isolated and sterile---contained everything Erasmus required for his experiments.
As he continued his regular inspection rounds, the independent robot passed the glaz windows of sealed chambers in which plague test subjects lay strapped to beds. Some specimens were already paranoid and delirious, displaying the symptoms of the retrovirus, while others were terrified for good and rational reasons.
By now, testing was nearly complete on the engineered disease. The effective direct mortality rate was forty-three percent---not at all perfect, but still the deadliest viral organism in recorded human history. It would serve the necessary purpose, and Omnius could not wait much longer. Something had to be done soon.
The humans' holy crusade against thinking machines had dragged on for almost a full century, with much destruction and distraction. The constant fanatical attacks from the Army of the Jihad had wrought incalculable damage to the Synchronized empire, destroying robot warships as fast as the various evermind incarnations could rebuild them. The progress of Omnius had been inexcusably stalled. Finally, Omnius demanded a solution. Since direct military conflict had not proved sufficiently effective, alternatives were explored. Biological plagues, for instance.
According to simulations, a fast-moving epidemic could be a superior weapon, serving to eradicate human populations---including their military forces---while leaving infrastructures and resources intact for the victorious thinking machines. After the specially designed plague ran its course, Omnius could pick up the pieces and get the systems operating again.
Erasmus had some reservations about the tactic, fearing that a sufficiently terrible disease could wipe out every last human. While Omnius might be satisfied with total extinction, the autonomous robot had no desire for such a final solution. He remained quite interested in these creatures---especially Gilbertus Albans, whom he had raised as a surrogate son after removing him from the squalid slave pens. In a purely scientific sense, Erasmus needed to keep sufficient organic material for his laboratory and field studies of human nature.
They couldn't all be killed. Just most of them.
But the creatures were remarkably resilient. He doubted that even the worst epidemic could completely wipe out the species. Humans had an intriguing ability to adapt to adversity and overcome it by unorthodox means. If only thinking machines could learn to do the same....
Drawing his exquisite robe tight, the platinum-skinned robot entered the central chamber of the facility, where his turncoat Tlulaxa captive had engineered the perfect RNA retrovirus. Thinking machines were efficient and dedicated, but it took a corrupted human imagination to channel Omnius's wrath into a sufficiently destructive course of action. No robot or computer could have conceived such appalling death and destruction: That required the imagination of a vengeful human.
Rekur Van, a biological engineer and geneticist now reviled across the League of Nobles, squirmed in his life-support socket, unable to move more than his head because he had no arms or legs. A retention socket connected the geneticist's body core to nutrient and waste tubes. Shortly after capturing him, Erasmus had seen to the removal of the man's limbs, rendering him much more manageable. He was certainly not trustworthy, in sharp contrast with Gilbertus Albans.
The robot fashioned a cheery smile on his flowmetal face. "Good morning, Stump. We have much work to do today. Perhaps we will even finish our primary test runs."
The Tlulaxa's narrow face was even more pinched than usual; his dark, close-set eyes flitted about like those of a trapped animal. "It's about time you got here. I've been awake for hours, just staring."
"Then you have had plenty of time to develop remarkable new ideas. I look forward to hearing them."
The captive grunted a coarse insult in response. Then: "How are you coming on the reptilian regrowth experiments? What progress?"
The robot leaned close and lifted a biological flap to look at the bare skin on one of Rekur Van's scarred shoulders.
"Anything yet?" the Tlulaxa asked, anxiously. He bent his head at an odd angle, trying to see details of the stump of his arm.
"Not on this side."
Erasmus checked the biological flap on the other shoulder. "We might have something here. A definite growth bump on the skin." Each test site contained different cellular catalysts injected into the skin in an effort to regenerate the severed limbs.
"Extrapolate from your data, robot. How long before my arms and legs grow back?"
"That is difficult to say. It could be several weeks, or possibly much longer." The robot rubbed a metal finger over the bump on the skin. "Conversely, this growth could be something else entirely. It has a reddish coloration; perhaps it is nothing more than an infection."
"I don't feel any soreness."
"Would you like me to scratch it?"
"No. I'll wait until I can do it myself."
"Don't be rude. This is supposed to be a collaborative effort." Though the results did look promising, this work wasn't the robot's priority. He had something more important in mind.
Erasmus made a minor adjustment to an intravenous connection that smoothed away the discontent in the man's narrow face. Undoubtedly, Rekur Van was undergoing one of his periodic mood swings. Erasmus would observe him closely and administer medication to keep him operating efficiently. Perhaps he could prevent the Tlulaxa from having one of his full-fledged tantrums today. Some mornings, anything could set him off. Other times, Erasmus purposely provoked him just to observe the result.
Controlling humans---even such a disgusting example---was a science and an art. This degraded captive was as much a "subject" as any of the humans in the blood-spattered slave pens and chambers. Even when the Tlulaxa was driven to the extreme, when he struggled to rip away his life-support systems using nothing more than his teeth, Erasmus could always get him working on the plagues again. Fortunately, the man despised League humans even more than he hated his machine masters.
Decades ago, during a great political upheaval in the League of Nobles, the dark secret of the Tlulaxa organ farms had been revealed to the horror and disgust of free humanity. On the League Worlds, public opinion had been inflamed against the genetic researchers, and outraged mobs had destroyed the organ farms and driven most of the Tlulaxa into hiding, their reputations irreparably blackened.
On the run, Rekur Van had fled to Synchronized space, bearing what he thought was an irresistible gift---the cellular material to make a perfect clone of Serena Butler. Erasmus had been amazed, remembering his intriguing discussions with the captive woman. The desperate Van had been certain Erasmus would want her---but alas the clone that Van had developed had none of Serena's memories, none of her passion. She was merely a shallow replica.
Despite the clone's blandness, however, Erasmus had found Rekur Van himself very interesting---much to the little man's dismay. The independent robot enjoyed his company. Here at last was someone who spoke his scientific language, a researcher capable of helping him understand more about the countless ramifications and investigative pathways of complex human organisms.
Erasmus found the first few years to be a challenge, even after removing the Tlulaxa's arms and legs. Eventually with careful manipulations, a patiently administered system of rewards and punishments, he had converted Rekur Van into quite a fruitful experimental subject. The limbless man's situation seemed rather like that of Van's own slave subjects in the sham organ farms. Erasmus found it wonderfully ironic.
"Would you like a little treat now, to get us started on our work?" Erasmus suggested. "A flesh cookie, perhaps?"
Van's eyes lit up, for this was one of the few pleasures remaining to him. Made from a variety of laboratory-bred organisms, including human "debris," the flesh cookies were considered delicacies on the Tlulaxa homeworld. "Feed me, or I refuse to continue my work for you."
"You use that threat too often, Stump. You are connected to tanks of nutrient solutions. Even if you refuse to eat, you will not starve."
"You want my cooperation, not just my survival---and you have left me with too few bargaining chips." The Tlulaxa's face contorted in a grimace.
"Very well. Flesh cookies!" Erasmus shouted. "Four-Arms, see to it."
One of the freakish human laboratory assistants walked in, his quartet of grafted arms balancing a platter mounded with sugary organic treats. The Tlulaxa shifted in his life-support socket to look at the gruesome food---and the extra set of arms that had once been his own.
With some knowledge of the grafting procedures used by the Tlulaxa race, Erasmus had transplanted the arms and legs of the former slaver onto two laboratory assistants, adding artificial flesh, sinews, and bone to adjust the limbs to the proper length. Although it was just a test case and a learning experience, it had been remarkably successful. Four-Arms was particularly efficient at carrying things; Erasmus hoped someday to teach him to juggle, which Gilbertus might find amusing. Alternatively, Four-Legs could run like an antelope on an open plain.
Whenever either assistant came into view, the Tlulaxa man was harshly reminded of his hopeless situation.
Since Rekur Van had no hands, Four-Arms used two of his own---the pair formerly belonging to the captive---to cram flesh cookies into the eager, open mouth. Van looked like a hungry chick demanding worms from a mother bird. Brownish yellow crumbs dripped down his chin onto the black smock covering his torso; some fell into the nutrient bath, where the materials would be recycled.
Erasmus raised a hand, making Four-Arms pause. "Enough for now. You will have more, Stump, but first there is work to do. Together, let us review today's mortality statistics from the various test strains."
Interesting, Erasmus thought, that Vorian Atreides---son of the treacherous Titan Agamemnon---had attempted a similar means of wiping out the Omnius everminds, planting a computer virus in the update spheres unwittingly delivered by his robot captain Seurat. But machines weren't the only ones vulnerable to deadly infection....
After pouting for a moment, Rekur Van licked his lips and set to work studying the results. He seemed to enjoy the casualty figures. "How delicious," he muttered. "These plagues are the absolute best way to kill trillions of people."
Copyright © 2005 by Herbert Properties LLC Brian Herbert, the author of numerous novels and short stories, has been critically acclaimed by leading reviewers in the United States and around the world. The eldest son of science fiction superstar Frank Herbert, he, with Kevin J. Anderson, is the author of Hellhole and continues his father’s beloved Dune series with books including The Winds of Dune, House Atreides, Sandworms of Dune, among other bestsellers. He also wrote a biography of his father, Dreamer of Dune. Herbert graduated from high school at age 16, and then attended U.C. Berkeley, where he earned a B.A. in Sociology. Besides an author, Herbert has been an editor, business manager, board game inventor, creative consultant for television and collectible card games, insurance agent, award-winning encyclopedia salesman, waiter, busboy, maid and a printer. He and his wife once owned a double-decker London bus, which they converted into an unusual gift shop. Herbert and his wife, Jan, have three daughters. They live in Washington state.