The room seemed to get smaller and more intimate. I reached for the chair and had it scoot me up to the very edge of the desk.
“How would you govern a very large area, Thomas?” Mother asked.
I put the brain cells to work. I had taken current affairs classes all throughout school, but the stars knew how little of it seemed to apply to my life, so I dismissed much of it. I did recall stories of the ancient empires of humanity that I had seen in videos.
“Well, you know, make laws that legislate common behavior for the benefit of the greatest number possible. Provide infrastructure for trade and protection for the citizenry. Put wise minds in places of authority, with checks and balances on them,” I added, though I’d never quite been certain as to what “checks and balances” denoted.
“And how would you enforce those laws?”
“Well, some kind of patrol. Centralized, so that everything is dispensed in an evenhanded manner.”
“Well, in the capital,” I said. Police and emergency response teams were based in Taino. Each city on Keinolt has several precincts, and each small town had an office as well. I had fallen afoul of many of them over my life, as well my mother knew it.
“And when your domain stretches out over the distance of several planets? How do you keep lawlessness from spreading once your central government is far away? Once your capital city is removed not just kilometers, but possibly light years away? What is to keep them following your laws?”
“Internal sense of right and wrong?” I offered, but it was a feeble suggestion. “I am not the person to ask, I am afraid. I’ve been known to go off the straight and narrow many times in my life, though in minor ways, I assure you. I would never harm the Imperium.”
“But human nature being what it is, others would,” Mother said. “As soon as all this useful infrastructure is in place, what would stop a planet from breaking away from the Imperium and declaring itself its own sovereign entity?”
“Loyalty?” I asked, though it sounded as weak as my last suggestion. But a broad smile spread across Mother’s face, and even Parsons looked a trifle less disapproving.
“Precisely,” Parsons replied. “Internalized obedience to authority.”
I scoffed. “People don’t just blindly follow orders.”
“They do, my lord. Particularly in crowds. There is a body of work that is found in distant pre-Imperium history showing a direct correlation. Before any modification is introduced, approximately two-thirds of the population can be persuaded to obey to extremes by mere verbal prodding alone, no coercion involved. Even independent-minded persons can be persuaded to follow the orders of someone they feel has the right to give those orders.”
“The right to rule, or the appearance?” I asked.
“In this case, the latter suggests the former.”
“Because someone looks as if he or she can command, the people will follow?”
“A base simplification,” Parsons said. “Humanity naturally separates itself into leaders and followers. Your ancestors took advantage of this proclivity, observing the demarcation between the ‘sheep’ and the ‘goats,’ as it were. Leadership fell to those who had a predilection for it, and genetic selection was made to breed for those traits most acceptable to the greater population.”
I frowned. “What about the Culver-Rho Experiment?” One of the things I did recall from our history was a disastrous period in which genetic modification was seen as the be-all and end-all of adapting to survive in the harsh reality of space. Unrestricted tinkering produced so many freakish beings that humanity very nearly did not survive, as few of the modified humans could breed. Catastrophe, illness, war and famine took shocking toll on nearly every settlement. Our population was reduced to a few millions across forty systems. Only the dedication and doggedness of the leaders, my imperial ancestors among them, brought together enough of the surviving “normals” to restore humankind. It was then that reproductive restriction was brought into law; it had been with us ever since, a relic of those bad old days. It was intended to make certain that those who tested positive for unwanted genetic characteristics did not pollute the gene pool. I had seen images in files on the Infogrid that still gave me nightmares.
“An unreserved fiasco,” Parsons agreed. “Humanity has learned its lesson since then. The maneuvering that has taken place since then is much more subtle and direct. Geneticists identified physical traits that the majority of the population found to represent trustworthiness and wisdom. Among them were perfect left-right symmetry and certain proportions among the features. Those physical characteristics involved include a broad forehead, defined, straight brows, large, clear eyes, vertical temples, cheekbones that do not protrude beyond them outwardly but are well defined, strong chin that protrudes slightly beyond the vertical plane of the face behind it. The mouth must be strong, with lips neither outsize nor undersize for the face. Noses are a matter of cultural taste. As it happens, you have a ‘command’ nose, though neither of your siblings do.”
I touched that feature, proud of being considered a superior human, if only by a nose.
“Attraction to that ratio of proportions,” Parsons continued, “has held remarkably consistent among the races of Old Earth. Those among the leader demographic with those traits were also selected for intelligence and courage, wisdom, dignity, charisma, shrewdness and twenty other characteristics. Where all of those appeared, a strong, natural tendency toward command was identifiable in their genetic code. Call it ‘C.’ The offspring of those carefully selected unions were to be humanity’s leaders.”
“Clever,” I said. “Though I wouldn’t follow someone no matter what based upon how pretty she was.”
“No, my lord,” Parsons said. “But that is only half the equation. As a transmitter requires a receptor, so do leaders require those who are inclined to be led. Such a gene, small ‘c,’ was introduced into the general population, the ‘inclined,’ that connects certain images with the pleasure centers of the brain. When they think of obeying their designated leaders, they are rewarded with surges of serotonin and dopamine. To give them that comforting leader figure, whether or not he has much contact with the people, is to satisfy the gene’s chemical need. When they see images of the Emperor, they regard him with affection. It has been remarkably effective.”
“Gosh, all this reminds me of a genetics lecture I didn’t sleep through once,” I said. “Old professor Shrewsburg. He said that love’s all chemical. Pheremones, maturity level, hormones out the whatever—and so on.”
“In that respect, it is not unlike falling in love. They cannot help but love him and honor him with their service.”
“But isn’t that unethical? To take away free will?”
Parsons raised an eyebrow. “Is it? For the survival of humanity?”
“But they seem to survive well in the Trade Union without genetic modification.”
“The Trade Union, like several of the other galactic consortia, has suffered many more upheavals than the Imperium, my lord. I can show you documentation of how frequently the Uctu Autocracy has been threatened by overthrow by its population at one time or another. Disturbances within the Imperium are few. There have been none during this Emperor’s reign.”
I thought about it. “But once one is alone, what is to stop one fomenting treason, given your thesis of an isolated population?”
“The gene does not stop working because there is no leader nearby, my lord, but if one was to be reintroduced, the effect would be as if one had always been there. An inbred response to the sight of one whom they will automatically adore.”
The enormous implications of what Parsons had been saying filled me with awe for the scientists of yore, and not a little dread. “Everyone in the Imperium is genetically modified?”
He looked at me squarely. “The modification was introduced thousands of years ago, my lord. Since then it is a normal part of the DNA of all citizens. The occasional sport arises with the command gene within it. Those family lines are taken into the Imperial house. But, otherwise, yes.”
I frowned, trying to make all the facts connect. “But we’re not all humans. Many other beings are citizens of the Imperium.”
“A similar gene has been introduced into each species now resident within its environs. Those were much more difficult creations, as they needed to place a predilection for ideal human facial characteristics in their alien genetic structure, but it has been largely successful. They are loyal to the Emperor and to the Imperial house.”
I looked from one to the other, my brain registering all the information that they had given me. The response welled up in my breast and spilled out. I began to laugh uncontrollably.
“Aha,” I said, wagging a finger at my maternal unit. “This is paying me back for being an annoyance to your admiral! You and Parsons are putting me on. This is better than a novel or a video! What a tale! You had me going for a while, but I am on to you now. Oh, Mother, I never expected it of you. I did not think you were capable of producing such a fantastic flight of fantasy! And Parsons! How even you could keep a straight face?” I flopped back in my chair and howled at the ceiling.
Parsons regarded me with a cold mien. “My lord, control yourself!”
“How? This is the best bit of fiction I’ve heard in years!” I clutched my belly and kicked my feet for pure joy.
Mother looked shocked. “We are not lying to you, Thomas. This information is deeply secret, but Parsons can provide you with documentation.”
“Never!” I declared.
“Sit up, Thomas!” Mother barked. I obeyed. Gene or no gene, she was still my maternal unit, and I was tasked to follow her instructions. “Commander, if you would not mind?”
“It would be my pleasure, my lady.”
Parsons reached for his own pocket secretary, a much less gaudy example than mine, and brought up files with the Imperium’s “classified” logo plastered across them. To read them I must touch the holograms so they would register my fingerprint. The cynical smile stayed plastered upon my face as I reached for one of the oldest files, dated over four thousand years ago, and activated it. I was prepared to give it one of my patented derisive laughs, but as I began to listen to it, doubt grew as to whether such a reaction was appropriate.
The file contained a report from a behavioral scientist named Ziu assigned to the latest modification to the receptor genes. “I am pleased by the results of our fifteen-year assignment,” he said, leaning close to the video pickup. “As you will see by these charts, the response has been over forty percent better than our original estimate.” He threw graph after chart after table up for the reader, myself, to see. The test had involved over nine million subjects in sixty systems. A good deal of what Ziu spouted was impenetrable jargon, but enough of the report was aimed at the layperson that I could comprehend his gist. The adjustment to the genetic material had been found overwhelmingly successful. Few subjects of the experiment displayed disloyal tendencies when the correct stimulus was applied. Obedience could be imposed at the molecular level.
Upon completion of the report, the file vanished, leaving the final admonition to extreme security burned upon my retinas.
I registered my own sense of shock. Mother and Parsons, even if I knew them capable of constructing, though generally not of executing, an elaborate practical joke, to produce these documents for me on the spur of the moment suggested that they were extant not to dupe me, but as a record of an actual process that must have been put into operation. I was taken aback so far I might have been in another city. I certainly felt as if I was in a different nation than I knew. It was a marvel of science that had taken the task of maintaining order over vast distances and succeeded in such a subtle fashion that no one outside the inner circles realized that it was happening. The new knowledge swirled around in my overtaxed brain, and coalesced into a woeful realization.
“Then I didn’t make any friends at all?” I asked, feeling sorry for myself. “All my shipmates were programmed to like me! I can’t go to the reunion binge in the inn on Fritsday. I’m not rejoining the Navy after all.”
“No, dear,” Mother said gently. “A facet of basic training for the military is to receive resistance training against the inclination toward obedience, so that the command structure can be maintained. Those of your shipmates with whom you made friends do like you for yourself.”
I searched her face, hoping that she was not trying to appease me, but in her eyes was honest concern. “Oh. Oh! Even Nesbitt? He rather resisted liking me, but the barriers crumbled at last. Or seemed to,” I added, skeptically.
“Mr. Nesbitt was a genuine conquest on your part,” Parsons assured me. “He is honored to consider himself your friend.”
I felt better. “But, Chan and the others? Do they like me for me? Is that why they went along with my plan?”
“You’re very likable, my dragonlet,” Mother said, “but yes, and no. They do like you, but they followed you so readily into danger because you are what you are. It was that fact that made me consider Parsons’s suggestion of having him accompany you to the Castaway Cluster. You are capable of Imperial command. That knowledge may save your life, depending upon what situation exists there. I wish we had more information as to the situation. You may see why we swore you to secrecy before we told you any of this.”
I sat back in the chair, which inflated cushions to support me. The events of the night I had returned to Taino flooded my memory.
“Xan,” I said.
“I beg your pardon, sir?” Parsons asked.
“Xan,” I repeated, looking up at him. “He knows, doesn’t he?” I waved a hand before me, as if casting spells. “He does that. He charms people. I saw him do it only the other day. He says he has always known how to do it.”
Parsons shook his head a millimeter to either side, for him a broad negative. “For Lord Xanson, it’s a matter of instinct, sir. He does not know the extent of his capability. Among your circle, you are unique in having had this briefing. It is unlikely any others will ever have reason to be given this information. It is a dangerous revelation.”
Parsons captured my eyes with his most serious gaze. “Consider the uses. It is why the gene must be limited in its spread, and has for a long time. You, too, made instinctive use of your ability on Smithereen—to lead others. Humans who are born with the recipient gene are vulnerable to exploitation. Hence the emphasis on responsibility and adherence to the rules of the noble house. It is one of the reasons why you and your noble relations are made a sizable allowance from the public purse, to provide an impetus to follow the rules that you might not be inclined otherwise to obey. The restriction on breeding from the Imperial line is necessary to prevent a phoenix from being born into a dove’s nest, to employ a metaphor.”
I was struck suddenly by shock, fear and guilt, none of them on my own behalf. In my mind’s ear, I could hear my cousin Scotlin pleading with me to keep his secret and my own voice promising that I would. I needed Parsons’s advice. I opened my mouth to ask for it.
“Are you willing to assist us, dear?”
At the sound of a musical, feminine voice, I suddenly became aware again that Mother was in the room. “Are you, dragonlet? It is dangerous.”
I regained my wits, and with them the reason I had come seeking her that morning. I reached out to take her hand. “Danger does not worry me as much as the long stretch of life I saw before me with nothing worthwhile in it, Mother. I’ll do it.”
She gave me a warm smile. “I thought a taste of service would be good for him,” she said to Parsons. “I hoped it would be for my Navy—I would love to have seen you follow in my footsteps, my love, but I see that you work much better within a smaller group.”
“I am sorry,” I said, hanging my head.
“Don’t be!” she said. I essayed a peek up at her through my eyelashes, and saw that she was laughing. I straightened up and basked in the joy on her face. “A mother’s wishes are nothing more than that: wishes. I am glad that you do want to serve. That pleases me, and it relieves me. I had no idea what we would do with you elsewise. You have such an . . . active intelligence.” I reddened. That was her favorite term for the curiosity that had led me by the nose as a child.
“Well, Mother, I do have my enthusiasms. I could become a noted photographer.” I patted the pocket where reposed the Optique and the Chey Snap 8.
She favored me with an indulgent look. “And in six months your cameras will be collecting dust in a case. You’ll be on to some other passion. Don’t tell me otherwise. But this could be a lifetime’s work. Go,” she said, coming around the desk and standing up on tiptoe to kiss me. “Enjoy your reunion. Be assured, these young people really are your friends.”
I embraced her. “I want to make you proud. You and Father.”
“We were already proud of you. Off you go, now. I’ve spent more time with you than I have to spare.” She patted my cheek. Parsons departed in my wake.
When we left my mother’s office, two admirals resplendent in dress uniform stood up, impatient for their appointment. They strode past us, the harrumph in their gaze apparent. The door wafted shut behind them.
My conscience continued to trouble me. The moment we were alone, I drew Parsons aside.
“Parsons, may I speak to you privately?”
That worthy inclined his head. “Always, my lord.” He deployed that small gray device again. I trusted that it disabled the listening devices being monitored by Admiral Draco in the front office. “How may I serve?”
I was uncertain how to begin. “I have been asked to keep a confidence, Parsons. It is a large one, and after this briefing, I don’t know if I can hold it by myself.”
“Is it a matter of official secret information?” Parsons inquired. I shook my head. “Could it harm the Emperor?” I opened my mouth automatically to say no, but snapped it shut again. I thought of Scot’s face, transformed from its ordinariness to godlike beauty because of his love for Jerna, whose features in my memory seemed now more awry than they had been before. Perhaps the children would grow up to resemble her, not him. Perhaps the symmetry and proportions and ability to command would not carry on through the generations.
And perhaps they would.
My words came out slowly as I considered each one. “I could not say for certain at this time, Parsons. I would say that I can trust the owner of the secret to protect the Emperor’s interests above his or her own at all times, but he or she has put into motion actions that he—or she—will not be able to control after a certain amount of time has passed.” I did not want to say that that term was the remainder of Scot’s life, but I felt as if the entire text of my conversation with my cousin was printed upon my face in a very readable typeface with boldface, exclamation points and illustrations.
Parsons looked at me impassively, but I could tell that his superior brain was taking in every element of my demeanor.
“Is there a solution to this dilemma that you can discern, my lord?”
“If there is one, I believe you will be involved in that answer, Parsons,” I said. “You will be the key to it—when I . . . when I can talk about it. You are the man I have always trusted to bridge those dilemmatic horns.”
“Is it necessary to reveal the confidence now?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I am troubled, but my sense of honor is stretched between loyalty and necessity.”
Parsons regarded me kindly. “Both are facets that the Emperor finds useful in you, sir.”
I sighed. “I am grateful to hear that, Parsons, but it troubles me, too. That trust is a burden as well as a compliment.”
“As it should be, my lord.” Parsons offered me a slight bow. “We depart nine days from now. I suggest you make preparations for a lengthy absence. We may be gone for some time.”