More Than a Pet
The lecturer paused and looked at the faces watching him, noting the different expressions. Most were expectant; one or two looked a little less convinced by what he was saying. He nodded to himself; the percentages were about average, and if he were to ask he would undoubtedly find that those who looked less convinced were from families that had never had a pet of any kind, and when they were children had never wanted a pet and had never known anyone who had a pet.
Because in the past he had asked, and that had always been the response. And it did not auger well for a good sentinel-guide relationship. Because, of course, master-devoted pet was the basis of a good working relationship.
He pressed a small button on his desk.
The door behind him opened and a man, three or four years younger than the lecturer, ran in. He went straight to the lecturer, and the students were aware that his body was quivering with excitement. The lecturer raised his hand and the newcomer pushed his head against it, clearly begging to have it stroked.
The lecturer obliged, then said quietly, "Sit."
The man obeyed, sitting on a stool beside the desk. He had not at any point shown any interest in the class; his attention was wholly on the lecturer, who continued with his lesson.
"As you can see, guides are totally devoted to their sentinels. They are like pets - especially dogs - that have known only kind homes since puppyhood. However, unlike dogs that find their new homes when they are perhaps six to eight weeks old and are trained by their masters, guides are raised - and trained - in what you might call orphanages. They have been socialized and interact well with people in general, but they all want that one sentinel who is their master, and for whom they will do anything. Think of it as the relationship between someone deaf and a hearing dog; someone blind and a seeing-eye dog. The dog has been trained to alert its owner to things the owner can't hear or see. A sentinel has certain weaknesses; the guide has been trained to respond to those.
"However, a sentinel must remember that he - she - has a responsibility to his or her guide, just as a good master has a responsibility to a pet or a working dog. Firm kindness is the key. Guides are not stupid, but while they have been trained, they have been given no education. They can speak - obviously - and mostly have a wide vocabulary, but do not expect them to initiate any kind of meaningful conversation. They will have no difficulty in understanding what you say to them, however.
"I repeat what you have been told more than once during your time here. A guide's presence keeps a sentinel's senses balanced but the only time a guide is psychologically capable of independent action is if his sentinel zones out on anything... "
The lecturer droned on for a few more minutes, before saying, "And now, what you've all been waiting for. Guides. Just remember - they are all fully trained, but they are all two to five years younger than you."
The door opened again, and a group of - well, children, sixteen-year-old developing sentinel Jim Ellison decided. Thirteen, maybe fourteen, years old. There were some girls, some boys, mostly quivering with anticipation and somehow he knew that this was something they had been trained to consider their sole purpose in life - being chosen by a sentinel.
But there was one... unlike the others, he was hanging back, clearly quite surprisingly nervous. Odd, if they had all been raised and trained together. Why was this one different?
His fellow students were moving forward, interacting with the main group; Jim headed for the nervous one. "Hello," he said softly. "What's your name?"
There was fear in the blue eyes that gazed at him. "Whatever you... whatever you choose to call me."
"Weren't you given a name?"
"Y-yes - b-b-but we were t-t-told our new m-m-masters would change it."
Oh, yes, Jim remembered. Part of the bonding process was giving their new guide a name.
"Jim." It was the lecturer. "This isn't the best guide for you."
Jim looked at the man, at the expression of near-pity on his face. "Why not?" he asked.
Clearly forgetting what he had said, just minutes earlier, about guides having 'a wide vocabulary' and would therefore understand what was said about him, the lecturer said quietly, "You know guides are normally identified young, at about a year old, and are taken straight into guide care. This one's mother hid him; he wasn't identified as a guide until he was six. So he came late into training. The only reason he's here is because although he came late into training he did catch up, and the class is ready to be claimed by sentinels. There are twenty-three of you; there are thirty guides in this group. One or two of you might not find their guide in this batch and have to wait till the next lot of trainees is ready. We know, though, that at least seven of these guides, possibly more, will not be chosen this time, and we understand that Boy will automatically be one of them. He has the empathy and the training; he does not have the temperament to be a good guide. He will be offered - as will the other ones not chosen this time - to the next class to qualify, but we think his eventual purpose will be to calm baby sentinels who are having problems but are too young to respond to teaching."
"Is that what happens to any guides who aren't chosen?"
"Yes. There are always one or two more guides than are needed to work with sentinels, and it's the weakest ones who are always left unchosen. It gives them something to do that satisfies their training to help a sentinel."
Jim looked at the lecturer, aware - and somehow resenting - the use of the word 'teaching' for a sentinel, while 'training' was used for the guide.
"If you don't go and mix with the others, you might miss your chance of a good responsive guide," the lecturer added, aware that at least half of the class had already chosen their guides – and those would have been the ones with most potential. Jim – already strong despite his youth – had already lost out on the best guides of this group, by concentrating on this most unpromising one.
Jim turned his attention back to the nervous guide. "I want this one," he said.
"I would be failing in my duty as your teacher - " the lecturer began.
"This guide or no-one," Jim interrupted. "No-one else from this group - or any other. This is the guide who calls to me." He carefully did not add that once a nervous dog learned to trust its master, it would be the most devoted pet possible. If he could teach this guide to trust him, he would have a guide second to none.
The lecturer sighed, and acquiesced. Returning to the pet comparison, there was, after all, no way of knowing what drew anyone to any particular pet, be it dog or cat or even goldfish. "All right. Take him with you to your seat." He walked back to his desk to watch those of his class who had not yet made a choice.
Jim smiled encouragingly at his clearly terrified guide. "Come on," he said softly. "I'm not going to bite you. And... if you weren't identified as a guide until you were six... I still want to know what you were called before that." He took the young man's hand and led him over to his desk, and indicated the slightly lower seat to the right of the one he used. He noted that the other young sentinels who had claimed a guide were leaning over them, apparently petting them. Gods! That was so not what he wanted his relationship with his guide to be! He wanted...
For the first time since he went into sentinel training Jim actively remembered the confidence of the well-trained hunting dog his father had owned a few years previously. Chief had walked beside William Ellison as a respected and trusted companion, and William had been devastated when the dog died. His subsequent dog, also a working one, was trusted but not respected in the way Chief had been; and Jim knew that what he wanted was to be able to respect and trust his guide as William had respected and trusted Chief. He would, he knew, have to work at winning his new guide's trust but, once given, it would be worth so much more than the 'Stroke me, master! Stroke me!' reaction of the lecturer's guide when he ran into the room.
Thinking over what he had been taught, Jim realized that although he had somehow avoided being brainwashed into wanting his guide to react as a devoted dog, most, if not all, of his fellow students probably did consider such a reaction a boost to their egos. But what he wanted was a companion. And - not for the first time - he wondered what basic insecurity made sentinels - well, most sentinels - need their guides to behave in a way that boosted their egos.
He bent towards his guide. "What was your name?" he murmured again.
"My mom called me Blair," the guide whispered. "When they caught us and took me from her, they called me 'Boy'."
"Blair. I like it."
"They... they won't like it if you call me that - they know that was my... my own name. They'll expect you to give me a different name."
"All right... Chief. But I won't forget your real name." He was still holding Blair's hand, his thumb stroking gently over the guide's knuckles.
Blair licked his lips nervously. "Won't they think 'Chief' is too... dominant a name?"
Jim grinned. His guide might have a nervous disposition, but this comment showed real courage. "Not once I tell them that it was the name of my father's favorite hunting dog. They'll believe then that I'm thinking of you as the pet they clearly expect me to. But I don't see you as a pet, or a tool," he added very quietly. "Chief walked beside my father as - well, as an equal, although he obeyed my father's directions when they were in the field; and that's what I want of my guide."
He was aware that Blair was relaxing ever so slightly.
"We'll have to pretend, in public... "
Blair nodded, and Jim could see hope - hope for some kind of dignity in his life - in his eyes. And he prayed that nothing he ever did would destroy that hope, and that he would always be able to give Blair the dignity, and the knowledge of his own self-worth, that the system was denying to anyone who was identified as a guide.
And, perhaps, one day, he would have the position - and the money - to try to change the system, so that all guides would be able to see themselves as more than useful pets.