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antiquated requirement added to the curriculum only because of Earl Vernius's
memories of warfare.
Leto and the bristly-haired captain watched stocky Prince Rhombur wield a golden
pike against a sleek and responsive fighting mek. Zhaz didn't train personally
against his students. He felt that if he and his security troops did their
jobs, no member of House Vernius need ever stoop to barbaric hand-to-hand
combat. He did, however, help program the self-learning combat drones.
In its resting position, the man-sized mek was a featureless charcoal ovoid --
no arms, legs, or face. Once the fight began, however, the Ixian unit morphed a
set of crude protrusions and took on varying shapes based upon feedback from its
scanner, telling it how best to defeat an adversary. Steel fists, knives,
flexsteel cables, and other surprises could be thrust from any point on its
body. Its mechanical face could disappear entirely or change expression -- from
a dullness designed to lull an opponent to a ferocious red-eyed glare, or even
fiendish glee. The mek interpreted and reacted, learning with each step.
"Remember, no regular patterns," Zhaz shouted to Rhombur. His beard protruded
like a shovel from his chin. "Don't let it read you."
The Prince ducked as two blunted darts sped past his head. A surprise knife
thrust from the mek drew a trickle of blood on the young man's shoulder. Even
with the injury, Rhombur feinted and attacked, and Leto was proud of his royal
peer for not crying out.
On several occasions Rhombur had asked Leto for advice, even critiques on
sparring style. Answering honestly, Leto kept in mind that he himself was not a
skilled professional instructor -- nor did he want to reveal too much of
Atreides techniques. Rhombur could learn those from Thufir Hawat, the Old
Duke's swordmaster himself.
The tip of the Prince's blade found a soft spot on the mek's charcoal body, and
it fell over "dead."
"Good, Rhombur!" Leto called.
Zhaz nodded. "Much better."
Leto had fought the mek twice that day, defeating it each time on higher
difficulty settings than Prince Rhombur was using. When Zhaz asked how Leto had
acquired such skills, the young Atreides hadn't said much, not wishing to brag.
But now he had firsthand proof that the Atreides method of training was
superior, despite the mek's chilling near intelligence. Leto's background
involved rapiers, knives, slow-pellet stunners, and body-shields -- and Thufir
Hawat was a more dangerous and unpredictable instructor than any automated
device could ever hope to be.
Just as Leto took up his own weapon and prepared for the next round, the lift
doors opened and Kailea entered, sparkling with jewels and a comfortable metal-
fiber outfit whose design seemed calculated to look gorgeous but casual. She
bore a stylus and ridulian recorder pad. Her eyebrows arched in feigned
surprise at finding them there. "Oh! Excuse me. I came to look at the mek
design."
The Vernius daughter usually contented herself with intellectual and cultural
pursuits, studying business and art. Leto couldn't keep himself from watching
her. At times her eyes almost seemed to flirt with him, but more often she
ignored him with such intensity he suspected she shared the same attraction he
felt.
During his time in the Grand Palais, Leto had crossed her path in the dining
hall, on the open observation balconies, in library facilities. He had
responded to her with snatches of awkward conversation. Aside from the inviting
sparkle in her beautiful green eyes, Kailea had given him no special
encouragement, but he couldn't stop thinking about her.
She's only a stripling, Leto reminded himself, playing at being a Lady.
Somehow, though, he couldn't convince his imagination of that. Kailea had
complete confidence that she was destined for a greater future than living
underground on Ix. Her father was a war hero, the head of one of the wealthiest
Great Houses, and her mother had been beautiful enough to be an Imperial
concubine, and the girl herself had an excellent head for business. Kailea
Vernius obviously had a wealth of possibilities.
She focused her complete attention on the motionless gray ovoid. "I've gotten
Father to consider marketing our new-phase fighting meks commercially." She
studied the motionless training machine, but glanced at Leto out of the corner
of her eye, noted his strong profile and regal, high-bridged nose. "Ours are
better than any other combat device -- adaptable, versatile, and self-learning.
The closest thing to a human adversary developed since the Jihad."
He felt a chill, thinking back to all the warnings his mother had given him.
Right now she would be pointing an accusing finger and nodding in satisfaction.
Leto looked over at the charcoal-colored ovoid. "Are you saying that thing has
a brain?"
"By all the saints and sinners, you mean in violation of the strictures after
the Great Revolt?" Captain Zhaz replied in stern surprise. " 'Thou shalt not
make a machine in the likeness of the human mind.'"
"We're, uh, very careful about that, Leto," Rhombur said, using a purple towel
to wipe sweat from the back of his neck. "Nothing to worry about."
Leto didn't back down. "Well, if the mek scans people, if it reads them as you
said, how does it process the information? If not through a computer brain,
then how? This isn't just a reactive device. It learns and tailors its
attack."
Kailea jotted notes down on her crystal pad and adjusted one of the gold combs
in her copper-dark hair. "There are many gray areas, Leto, and if we tread very
carefully House Vernius stands to make a tremendous profit." She ran a
fingertip along her curved lips. "Still, it might be best to test the waters by
offering some unmarked models on the black market first."
"Don't trouble yourself, Leto," Rhombur said, avoiding the uncomfortable
subject. His tousled blond hair still dripped with sweat, and his skin showed a
flush from his exertion. "House Vernius has teams of Mentats and legal advisors
scrutinizing the letter of the law." He looked over at his sister for
reassurance. She nodded absently.
In some of his instruction sessions in the Grand Palais, Leto had learned of
interplanetary patent disputes, minor technicalities, subtle loopholes. Had the
Ixians come up with a substantially different way of using mechanical units to
process data, one that did not raise the spectre of thinking machines like those
that had enslaved mankind for so many centuries? He didn't see how House
Vernius could have created a self-learning, reactive, adaptable fighting mek
without somehow going over the line into Jihad violation.
If his mother ever found out, she would haul him home from Ix, no matter what
his father might say.
"Let's see just how good this product is," Leto said, taking up a weapon and
turning his back on Kailea. He could feel her eyes on his bare shoulders, the
muscles of his neck. Zhaz stood back casually to watch.
Leto shifted his pike from hand to hand and jogged onto the floor. Taking a
classic fighting stance, he called out a degree of difficulty to the charcoal
oval shape. "Seven point two-four!" Eight notches higher than the time before.
The mek refused to move. [ Pobierz całość w formacie PDF ]