Bear man, Goat man, Bull man, Wolf.
Eagle woman, Deer woman, Fox woman, Wolf.
The Elder Genesmith wrote those lines on the board in front of his class, and settled himself carefully on the edge of his desk, a beneficent smile on his face as he looked out on the twenty acolytes in this new class. Their faces shone with polite incomprehension as he asked, “What can you tell me about these lines?”
This wasn't what they were expecting but then, that's why he was doing this. That's why he started here every year.
Finally a brave young woman in the front row said, “Sir? They're...they're a hopscotch song. They don't really mean anything...do they?”
He did the smile again and feigned ignorance. “A hopscotch song, you say? So if I were to erase these words, would you be able to recite them? Class, who in here would be able to recite this list?”
Several hesitant hands went up. The Elder stood and started walking across the front of the lecture hall.
“It has always amused me how well this list has survived, and the forms it has taken. When I was young 'eagle' and 'goat' were switched, but the list was effectively the same. And this list, this hopscotch song, has everything to do with your new chosen profession. Oh, the genders don't matter, those were assigned by kids to give the song some symmetry. But the core list, the animals in this list, are the species that the Genesmiths have learned must not be Awakened.
“There are several reasons why a species isn't fit for Awakening. In the case of the fox it is because they find sentience unpalatable, every Awakened fox has fallen by their own hand, while every Awakened deer has died of hypertension. In some cases the species simply doesn't fit in sentient society; bears and goats specifically have intrinsic characteristics that make them harmful around others.”
The elder stopped pacing. “But what of the wolves? What earned them a place on this list?”
His pacing continued. “The species that do best with Awakening are those who are most human-like to begin with, those that have been with us the longest. Cats, rats, ravens, dogs, they have all contributed greatly to society. We follow the law of C'Mell; we have always accorded each Awakened individual full rights of citizenship, and have allowed them to find their own life desires. It seems that the domestic animals have desires that not only mesh with, but extend humanity's aims. Indeed, we have two Awakened members of this class, and we are grateful for your presence.”
Again the elder paused. This was his favorite lecture, and he was good at it. Every eye was on him now, every mind straining to read his meaning.
“But what of the wolf? They are closely related to dogs, are they not? They have so many qualities that we admire; loyalty, bravery, the ability to work as a team and also operate alone if needed. So why are wolves included in the list not once but twice?”
He sat on his desk, hands on the desk beside him, looking down at the ground, every inch of him conveying the sense of a great weight. When he looked back up at the class his face was smiling but without mirth. His expression—well practiced yet sincere—was one of gratitude for a valuable lesson hard learned. “Wolves are on the list to remind us of our hubris.
“Wolves cannot be Awakened, my students. They are already more awake than are we.
“We tried. Not long after the first dogs and cats were brought to full sentience we sought out wolves to join us. The procedure, you'll find, is not complex. The individual is sedated, and a retrovirus introduced with the modified genetic material. Over a few months the body is changed, updated to the new genetic model. Sometimes we introduce structural changes, as with cats and dogs, who do so well in humanoid forms. Sometimes we simply add the mental framework for sentience. This, we thought, was all we did with the first wolf we tried to Awaken.”
That first wolf (the Elder Genesmith said, starting to pace once again.) awakened slowly. He looked up at the Genesmiths standing around his bed. They had put a communications box on a harness around his chest, and were fairly confident that it would be good enough for them to understand him.
Instead those Genesmiths heard a voice in their heads. The voice was patient, wise, but displeased.
“What have you done, humans? What have you done to my cellular essence? Who gave you this right to thus maim one of the Free Ones?”
And in this moment they realized that wolves were telepathic. In vain the Genesmiths asked the wolf the first questions they ask all Awakened individuals, but after a couple of minutes his only answer was “I ask you for my freedom, humans.”
What else could they do? The law of C'Mell must be inviolate; any sentient being must be given their freedom. They released him.
A few weeks later we found him outside the lab, sitting quietly, waiting as they arrived to work.
“Humans,” he called out to their minds. “To my regret and shame, it seems that the changes you have made to me are permanent. We have discussed this situation, and it is our conclusion that, if I can bear this change and use my condition to warn humans away from further experiments, the price is justified. Thus I have come back. There is something we would show you. Please, one or two of you follow me.”
Two were selected, and they followed the wolf into the woods. He led them to a small clearing, one that was full of wolves. “sit,” the wolf said to the Genesmiths, and they found themselves compelled to obey. They sat on the grass and the wolf dropped to his haunches, facing them.
“Many centuries ago wolves and men met. We found you curious. You were weak, but violent. Awkward hunters, but relentless. Quick to anger, yet astonishingly gentle. It was decided that you could be of use to the Free Ones, and we sent our least gifted in the Free Language to guide you. All down the years they have been with you.”
The wolf shifted.
“We understand now, having spoken to some of the canines you have 'Awakened', that you meant to give me a gift. You thought that speaking with wolves would advance the cause of humankind. And for this brief moment, here in this clearing, you are right. You sought to give me a gift, though I want it not. Very well, I shall repay you in kind. For a moment, through me, I will give you a gift: sight into the mind of the pack.”
The Genesmiths were never able to convey what they saw in those moments when the wolves' shared concept of the world was open to them. Their minds simply couldn't keep up; what human could see itself looking at itself while also running through the woods and playing as a puppy and remembering the minds of every wolf from the pack all down the centuries, and to realize that, though the earlier wolves' bodies were no longer, those wolves were still active and fully aware.
The wolf did not expose them to the pack's thoughts long. The last thought they heard in their minds, before they sunk into unconsciousness under that weight was “You think modify us, to gain what you can from us. The question, then, is this: what can the wolves gain from you?”
The Elder Genesmith sat back down on his desk, his legs stretched out before him. “And so the Genesmiths added wolves to the list, twice, to remind us that we are to leave them alone, and hope that some day, when we're advanced enough, the wolves will awaken us.”
In homage to the late, great Cordwainer Smith.