What do all our accomplishments matter, if they do not last beyond our lifetimes?
—HEADMASTER GILBERTUS ALBANS, Mentat School Archives
The great Mentat School was his
—from the initial concept seven decades ago, to choosing this location in the remote marshes on Lampadas, to the many graduates he had trained over the years. With quiet efficiency and determination, Gilbertus Albans was changing the course of human civilization.
And he would not let Emperor Salvador Corrino or the fanatical antitechnology Butlerians take it away from him.
In the nearly two centuries of his artificially extended life, Gilbertus had learned how to survive. Realizing that controversial and charismatic figures tended not to remain alive for long, he played his public role with great care—remaining quiet and unobtrusive, even consenting to distasteful alliances that, according to his projections, helped the overall goals of his Mentat School.Mentats:
humans with minds so organized they could function as computers in a reactionary society that reviled any hint of thinking machines. Not even his own trainees knew that Gilbertus secretly drew upon the unique background, wisdom, and experiences of his mentor, the notorious robot Erasmus. He feared that even his most supportive students would balk at that. Nevertheless, after years of consistently reliable performance, his Mentat graduates were becoming indispensable to the noble houses of the Imperium.
In such dangerous times, though, any question or mere suspicion could bring down the school. He knew what had happened to the Sisterhood on Rossak. If he made the slightest mistake and revealed his true identity …
Inside his office in the main academy building, he glanced at the chronometer. The Emperor’s brother, Roderick Corrino, was due to arrive on a sanctioned military transport, to confirm that their sister was safe in the care of the Mentat School. Some time ago, Gilbertus had promised the Corrinos that his rigorous teaching methods could help the mentally damaged girl to improve, if not thrive. But the human mind was a tricky thing, and the damage done to her brain by the Rossak poison was not quantifiable, nor could the young woman be cured in any obvious way. Gilbertus hoped Roderick Corrino understood that.
Before emerging into the school commons, he donned his distinguished carmine-red Headmaster robe. He had already attended to his makeup for the day—dusting false gray into his hair, roughening his skin—in order to hide his youthful appearance. Now he hurried, knowing that the Imperial military shuttle would arrive on time. He had to make sure Anna was ready to put on a good show for her brother.
Gilbertus left the academy building and shaded his eyes. The bright air was sopping with humidity; each suspended droplet seemed to hang in front of his eyes like a magnifying glass. Wooden walkways connected the school structures that floated on the edge of a murky marsh lake. Originally the school had been anchored farther out in the water, but after problems with aggressive aquatic creatures, the entire complex had been moved to a more protected position on the shore.
Now the school included a mixture of the original structures and new ones that looked more elegant, with domes and elevated observation decks. Bridges at varying levels linked the dormitories, study halls, laboratories, meditation buildings, and libraries. High defensive walls surrounded the entire complex, augmented by a hidden shield grid, sophisticated underwater electronics, and watchtowers.
While portions of Lampadas were bucolic and pleasant, this lake and the bordering swamps were the planet’s razor edge, fraught with hazards and predators. As the Headmaster made his way to the observatory, swamp sounds burbled into the air, and a hum of biting flies swirled around him. This was no serene environment where students could develop their mental skills through hours of uninterrupted meditation. Gilbertus had chosen this inhospitable area with a specific purpose in mind. He believed the danger and isolation would help focus the minds of his elite candidates.
Even with the school’s defenses against natural hazards, Gilbertus was actually more concerned about what the increasingly unpredictable Butlerians might do. A sophisticated military force could easily destroy the school with an aerial or space bombardment, but the antitechnology fanatics would use no high-tech weaponry; nevertheless, their overwhelming numbers could cause great havoc, as they had already proved with mob uprisings on several worlds in the Imperium. Gilbertus had to walk a fine line.
At face value, the Butlerians applauded the basic underpinnings of Mentat training—that humans could do anything that thinking machines could, and more. Their leader, legless Manford Torondo, often made use of Mentat calculations or strategies to achieve his ends, but he was also suspicious of any open exchange of ideas during lively discussions among the students. In an earlier semester, Gilbertus had exposed the school to great danger when he suggested during a hypothetical intellectual debate that thinking machines might not be as terrible as Butlerian propaganda made them out to be. The school, and Gilbertus himself, had barely survived their backlash. He had learned his lesson. Since then he’d remained quiet and conciliatory to avoid inflaming anyone again.
As he walked toward the outbuildings, one of the minor administrators transmitted an alert that the Imperial shuttle was on descent. Gilbertus touched his earadio. “Thank you. I will bring Anna Corrino to the landing zone.” He hoped she was having one of her lucid days, so she could interact with her brother, rather than remaining lost in a mental maze.
The school’s tallest building served as a naked-eye observatory, where Mentat students could study the universe, count the stars at night, and memorize the infinite patterns as a recall exercise. During the day, the high open deck would be empty—except for Anna Corrino, staring at her surroundings.
The young woman was fixated on the local landscape, where a labyrinth of sangrove trees created an impassable barrier to the east, and soupy marshes, quicksand, and tangled stagnant waterways made travel difficult to the south; the large, shallow marsh lake bounded the school to the north and west.
Gilbertus stepped up next to Anna. “Your brother is coming. He will be glad to see you.”
She did not acknowledge the Headmaster, but a small twitch in her cheek and a flicker of her eyelids told him she was aware of his presence. She turned to stare at a drained section of swamp that served as a landing field for shuttles and local flyers. Dangerous lake beasts had damaged the previous raft airfield, making it impractical to keep under repair.
His primary aide, Zendur, and a crew of Mentat trainees used blunt-nozzle devices to spray fire streams across the marsh grasses, clearing an area for Roderick Corrino’s shuttle. Because vegetation grew so rapidly here, the landing zone had to be groomed for each expected arrival; Gilbertus did not have trainees maintain the site otherwise, since he didn’t want to encourage unexpected visitors—Manford Torondo in particular.
Anna did not take her eyes from the clearing crew as she spoke. “How many flies do you think they’re killing?”
“Or how many blades of grass?” Gilbertus said, knowing it was a game for her.
Anna considered the problem. “If I knew the acreage of swampland for the landing field, I could calculate a probable distribution of grass blades. Given a certain amount of swamp grass, I could estimate how many flies are likely to inhabit it.”
“And how many spiders to eat...