by Rigby Taylor

Chapter 4

Breakfast with the Mages

The shrill vidcom alarm dragged them awake. Ishbel, in a vast tent of shimmering turquoise, demanded their presence immediately.

Cold showers took thirty seconds, then clasping each other tightly they stepped onto an enseemat and a nanosecond later were plunging their feet into the deep-pile of a gruesome red carpet in the huge and hideously decorated apartment belonging to the Chief Mage.

Astonished silence greeted them. They looked around and grinned.

'You didn't believe we could pass through tons of fused granite, did you?' Peteru asked quietly.

'Don't get above yourself!' Ishbel snapped. 'All you've done is your job. And everything else you've promised had better be true or you'll be dead meat!' The Chief Mage obviously wasn't a morning person.

'Yes, you're clever kids,' Justinian added with a disparaging sneer, 'thanks to my breeding strategy and Xanthippe's education syllabus. I suggest you show a little humility and don't forget to whom you owe your present position.'

Peteru and Uretep hung their heads, suddenly nervous at this bizarre turn of events. 'Yes, your worships, thank you,' they said with what they hoped was sufficient humility. 'We will remember your advice.'

'See that you do!' Ishbel sank back into her armchair as if exhausted.

'What surprises me,' a miserable, exhausted looking fellow said waspishly, 'is that each time you appear you both look so irritatingly fresh, fit and healthy—your skins glow! And those erections!'

'Do I detect a hint of jealousy, Job?' jeered Xanthippe. 'I seem to recall your little stick didn't last very long yesterday.'

Embarrassed and worried by the blatant display of animosity, Peteru quickly interrupted. 'Skins seem healthier, Job, because every time you're transported all the old dead skin cells are left behind. And don't forget that hairlessness makes our genitals seem larger.'

'You're just pathetic narcissists!' sneered the pot-bellied, balding young man called Melvyn. 'Strikes me as very suspect that you ogled us in action yesterday, but didn't join in. Think you're too good to have a bit of fun with us?'

Murmurs of angry agreement rumbled around the room.

'Of course not!' Uretep protested. 'The opposite! We thought our positions were far too inferior to even contemplate socialising with you.'

'The fact remains,' Fabien snarled, 'that you've seen us at play and doubtless made judgements about us, but we've not had a chance to judge your performance.'

'I assure you, sir, we were both impressed and even jealous of the uninhibited way you all embraced the effects of transportation. As Ishbel said, you were all perfectly capable of overriding the urges, but you chose not to, and that proved your superiority to us. We are not so psychologically balanced and confident as you Mages. We hope to learn from you.'

'Prove it!' snapped Alice, the outwardly shy woman who'd bragged about sleeping with the Emperor's bodyguards. 'Fuck each other now!'

'Fuck, fuck, fuck…' everyone chanted as if repeating a mantra as they shifted in their seats to get a better view.

'Certainly, your worships,' Uretep said with a deep bow. He turned to Peteru and began softly kissing him on the lips while caressing his nipples.

Hisses of disapproval from their audience.

'They want it rough like they do it,' Peteru whispered urgently, 'Prepare to suffer—or at least act as if you are.' With that he grabbed Uretep's by the throat and hurled him to the ground. After what appeared to be a strenuous struggle, Uretep had Peteru on his knees, right arm up behind his back while he fucked him mercilessly. Peteru broke free and within seconds was forcing his erection into Uretep's mouth. They ended up with Uretep on his back while Peteru, impaled on his manhood, ejaculated over his lover's chest.

'OK,' Ishbel said grumpily, 'A bit wimpish, but at least you're not just voyeurs.'

A Vassal appeared and wiped Uretep clean with a towel before disappearing as silently.

'If you want to cover yourselves, Vassals can bring robes.'

'No thanks, Ishbel, it's warm in here and we're more comfortable like this—it's how we always work; we've found that physical freedom also frees the brain.'

'Well, it's time for breakfast. Hungry?'


'Then follow us.'

Closely followed by her grumbling entourage, Ishbel waddled through an archway and along a short hallway before turning sharp right through a narrow doorway set in metre-thick stone walls. The two young men trailed nervously after them at a respectful distance, only to become transfixed by astonishment and fear as they crossed the threshold—they were outside! In the open air! Curiosity replaced nervousness as they raised their eyes to a pale blue sky dotted with pinkish clouds. A light warm breeze caressed their skin and an instinctive self-protective urge made them back up against the wall from where they gazed in astonished curiosity at the vastness—the emptiness—-the openness! It had to be fake! But intuitively they knew it wasn't. Filling their lungs with the cleanest, freshest air they'd ever breathed, they eventually relaxed enough to look around.

The Mages were watching them with interest, as if they were laboratory specimens.

Peteru's illicit investigations had hinted at the existence of such a vast emptiness, but the reality was not to be imagined by minds trapped since birth in a giant granite cylinder filled with recycled air. So much light! So much space! So much odourless, fresh, clean air that seemed to fill their bodies with vigour.

'The sun's coming into view as the planet turns,' Ishbel announced as if she had personally organised the event. 'Don't be alarmed; there's enough atmosphere between us to diffuse harmful rays. It's safe to look at it now, but in a couple of minutes it'll be a different story. Then it'll make you blind.'

Nervously, they grasped the railing at the edge of the balcony and gazed in awe at the brilliant orange disc effortlessly rising over the horizon, unable to take their eyes away as it turned yellow, then white, causing the previously monochrome landscape to reveal a multitude of green textures separated from the observers by a flat brown plain. Gaining courage they peered over the edge expecting a hundred-metre drop. Instead, reddish soil dotted with low shrubs only a couple of metres below their feet, spread into the distance. They turned and gasped. Their entire field of vision was blocked by the vast, shallow, pale, dusty dome that capped the city. Unable to speak they turned again to the railing and gazed blindly around until their eyes learned to focus on distant objects and they realised that the dense, dark-green wall on the other side of the brown plain was made of plants. But what plants! Accustomed only to herbs and shrubs in small pots, they had never imagined such giants.

'There's plenty of time to gawk!' shouted Ishbel impatiently. 'Come to the table, breakfast's served.'

Reluctantly, they joined the others who were already seated under a large awning at a table laden with food. Food that although looking exactly like their normal fare, tasted entirely different. So delicious was it they ate more than usual until, appetite assuaged, Peteru could no longer contain his curiosity. 'What food is this? Why is the ground so close? How…?'

'The food is natural,' Augur snapped, irritated at the interruption to his gobbling. 'The vegetables are grown by Vassals on balconies like this, and the meat is from animals we breed for the purpose.' He returned to shovelling his food.

'Everything's delicious!' Peteru said between mouthfuls.

'The reason the land is only two metres below us,' Ishbel explained, spraying half-chewed food at her listeners who didn't dare duck, 'is that Oasis is an underground city. As Chief engineer I decided it was easier and safer to excavate down, than to construct above. Only the Mages apartments are above ground because we can appreciate the freedom, having been raised in it.'

'Enough questions!' shouted Melvyn. 'You'll give me indigestion! For goodness sake let us eat in peace!'

Having eaten more than enough the young men were forced to sit and watch the stomach-churning spectacle for another ten minutes; the perfection of their first alfresco morning marred by the slurping and slobbering of thirteen gluttonous Mages. When everyone had finally stuffed themselves to bursting, Vassals appeared, removed the chairs, table and its contents, and replaced them with fifteen armchairs—thirteen in a half circle with two facing them.

While waiting, Uretep and Peteru walked back to the railing and gazed in stupefaction. 'The fact that we're standing here means ambient radiation has dropped to safe levels, so rainwater, air and soil are no longer toxic and solar radiation is no longer lethal.' He said softly before turning to his hosts and stating, 'That means everyone can go outside!'



'You want Aristocrats, Vassals and Freemen to run away?' Fabien sneered, moving to the railing and draping his arm around Uretep's shoulders, drenching him in the stench of sour sweat. Justinian and Elbert also joined them at the rail, looking at the view as if they'd never seen it before.

'Why would they?' Peteru asked innocently.

'Fuck you're stupid.' Fabien shrugged and wandered back to the armchairs.

Uretep turned to Elbert. 'Fabien said that everyone would run away if they knew it was safe to go outside; why would they do that?'

'Theoretically,' Elbert sighed, 'Xanthippe's educational brainwashing prevents all desire for freedom, but no matter what we do, humans always retain a cunning streak. They're devious bastards—you never know what they're thinking. Better to be sure than sorry is our motto, so as far as the rest of the population's concerned, solar radiation is still lethal.'

'But you'll tell the Aristocracy it's safe?'

'Why?' snarled a heavily made up woman through lipstick-smudged teeth. 'Will it make them happy? Will they still be content to let us Mages run things? Of course they won't!' she snorted, answering her own question. 'They'll set out to claim land, grow food as we do, take their Vassals and Freemen with them, breed, build cities and armies and attack us and each other until the world is awash in blood as it was for millennia before Oasis! Is that what you want?'

'No, of course not,' Peteru said hastily. 'But surely…'

'She's absolutely right, Peteru,' Uretep interrupted. This must remain a secret if we are to preserve our way of life and prevent the horrors this wise woman speaks of.' He turned to her. 'Forgive our ignorance and inexperience. We have a great deal to learn.'

'You have indeed, so sit down!' Ishbel bellowed from under the canopy, indicating the chairs facing the rest of the Mages who were returning to sprawl over their armchairs.

Three young women in hooded white shifts appeared and served everyone drinks. As Peteru and Uretep took the crystal goblets they smiled and thanked them.

'They're Vassals!' Ishbel shouted angrily. 'Invisible! We don't acknowledge their existence. Remember that when you're honorary Mages!'

'But they can see and hear everything,' Uretep said, confused.

'They can see so they don't fall over. But their eardrums and tongues have been removed so they can't tell tales. They never leave this apartment and when I'm sick of them they take a ride down the exit chute. Once this ceremony is over you're eligible for a dozen of them—any sex you like, to do with exactly as you please, so learn to treat them properly.'

Peteru and Uretep Learn About Oasis

The Vassal who was filling Ishbel's long-stemmed glass stumbled, knocking the fragile thing to the floor where it shattered. The girl sank to her knees in front of her mistress making apologetic noises.

With a face devoid of expression, Ishbel picked up the stem of the goblet, removed the Vassal's hood, dragged her head towards her by the curly black hair and stabbed the jagged crystal five times into the smooth brown neck. Blood gushed from a severed artery and spilled over Ishbel's lap onto the floor. The dying girl's wail was replaced by soundless shuddering as the other two Vassals attempted to lift her gently away.

Ishbel's swinging fists caught them both on the sides of their heads. They cowered in abject terror as she pointed first to the Vassal's hair and then to the edge of the terrace. They dragged the wretched girl by the hair to the edge, then retreated inside.

A pouting young blonde who looked no more than fifteen, wandered casually over, poked at the twitching body with her sandalled foot, then put two fingers in her mouth and let loose with a shrill whistle. Neither Peteru or Uretep could recall seeing her the previous afternoon, but got to their feet with all the others and joined her at the railing as if waiting for something exciting to happen. A few seconds later two giant, slavering dogs raced around the corner, barking furiously.

Lips twisted in a faint smile, the teenager jammed her foot against the dying girl's hip and pushed her under the railing and over the edge into the razor teeth of the dogs below. Peteru and Uretep found themselves glued to the railing in horror, unable to move. Forever after they could recall the growls, the sound of bones crushed between massive jaws, slabs of bloodied flesh being slammed against the granite below, and worst of all the cruel, dissatisfied smiles of Mages bored to the edge of insanity.

Her authority demonstrated, Ishbel's sour humour mellowed and she turned a sly smile on the young men. 'I've been meaning to say you're an exceptionally handsome and well built pair and certainly look better naked than clothed.' Her laugh was lewd and laced with vitriol. 'You'll need to be careful in public among thousands of sexually aroused citizens emerging from NumbaCruncha. Rape is on the cards, don't you think?'

'I think,' Uretep replied carefully, 'that while violence used in the interest of self preservation is a natural reaction, unprovoked violence like rape, derives from social conditioning, like embarrassment about nudity and sexual activity. That means transit by NumbaCruncha will probably decrease its incidence and make public places safer.'

Ishbel was spared the need to respond by the arrival of a Vassal with new robes. She assisted her mistress to change while someone else cleaned the carpet. When her soiled armchair was replaced, she sat, accepted another crystal chalice of whatever it was they were drinking, sipped, then in a seductively mellow contralto announced that the initiation ceremony of the two temporary Mages would begin. 'Kneel in front of me and look up into my eyes.'

Peteru and Uretep did as bidden. Ishbel picked up the goblet and emptied the contents over their faces. Everyone laughed as if it was the funniest joke ever.

When she finally stopped laughing enough to catch her breath, Ishbel stood and pulled them to their feet. 'Sorry boys, there's no prescribed ceremony as this has never happened before, but it seemed as if there should be so I invented this myself. All that's required is your signature on a document that says you will obey the laws of the Mages. And that's no big deal because we make the laws.'

More laughter that seemed too wild, verging on the hysterical. Perhaps there was intoxicant in the drink. Neither of the young men had taken more than a sip so they forced themselves to laugh, then read the document, which seemed to be exactly as Ishbel had said, so they signed and returned to their seats.

'Back to business,' Ishbel bellowed, clearly on a power-fuelled high.

Augur raised his fist.

'You've got a problem Augur?'

'I still don't understand this NumbaCruncha thing,' Augur said petulantly. 'I can't get my head around the fact that you can transport living things through solid rock. It has to be a trick.'

'Think of it like this,' Peteru explained. 'When you send a fax, the instructions pass wirelessly through walls until they reach a machine that turns intangible waves into an identical copy.'

'Yes, but it's only a copy—the original remains.'

'So are we copies—but identical copies. It's important to remember that humans are made of the same basic stuff as every other thing in the universe. As a poet once wrote, we are but stardust. Everyone in this room has now been transported. That means every tiny particle of which we're made has been analysed digitally, disassembled and converted to a formula that was sent, using neutrinos as the carrier, to a receiver—the enseemats—which assembled an exact copy.'

'Assembled out of what? That's what I don't get.'

'Out of 'stardust.' Out of the energy from which every element in the entire universe is made. Literally out of the air. It's simply a question of how this energy is arranged.'

'What happens to the old body?'

'Nothing. Once disassembled, the energy released is used to transfer the neutrinos and assemble the copy, it's an energy neutral system, which means it's very cost effective.'

Their questioner sat down to digest this indigestible idea in silence.

'And if we do it, everyone will be going around starkers,' Elbert muttered thoughtfully. 'It's lucky we've been selectively breeding for the last few hundred years—at least everyone including Vassals are as physically attractive as it is possible to breed. The secret is symmetry,' he added to no one in particular. 'You see, symmetrical bodies are more economical because they're more powerful, less prone to faults, problems and...'

'Yes, yes, Elbert,' Augur interrupted rudely. 'You've been very clever, but praising you for your clever manipulation of genes is not what we're here for.'

Yes, everyone in Oasis is beautiful and handsome—apart from you disgustingly ugly Mages, Uretep wanted to scream, only preventing himself by biting hard on the inside of his cheek.

'That's true, Augur,' Ishbel said impatiently, 'but it has to be admitted that Elbert's technicians have been especially successful with these two beguiling specimens.' She turned to the young men. 'Have you donated sperm yet?'


'Then you must.' Her smile was prurient. 'I'll take the samples myself.' After a nauseating burp she slurred, 'I'm exhausted. Nell, you take over.'

Nell, the adolescent girl who had shoved the Vassal to the dogs, sat up straighter and yawned. Peteru couldn't remember what she'd looked like naked, but at least she wasn't fat. Her voice matched the face; high pitched, querulous with a slight nasal whine. As if aping the adults she sprawled back in her chair and asked if the young men had any questions before she started outlining the city's problems.

'What's the history of Oasis?' Peteru asked. 'I mean, where do we come from? How long have we been here? What's beyond all those huge plants over there? Is it true that we're shipwrecked aliens on an inhospitable planet, doing very well despite the odds?'

'So many questions, the answers to which are lost in time,' the girl replied indolently. 'The truth, if there is ever any truth, has been modified by myths concocted by the unbroken line of Mages to quell riots and maintain order. However, it is true that we are shipwrecked aliens from a greater planet, but unfortunately all the old records have been destroyed or are in an unrecoverable form. Life in Oasis hasn't been a smooth ride, and the depredations of time and civic unrest over the last thousand years have taken their toll.' She lapsed into silence and closed her eyes as if lost in thought.

A warm breeze caressed their skin and strange small noises filled the air—natural sounds totally different from the mechanical hum that was the constant background to life inside. A mournful cry emitted by a great black creature gliding overhead had the two young men ducking in fear. The others laughed immoderately.

'A crow,' a weak and tired fellow muttered. 'Nasty brutes, they chase away other birds.'

'It's flying!' Peteru exclaimed. 'How? What are birds?'

'Flying rats!' snapped Nell, waking from her trance with an irritated shake of her head. 'Try to concentrate on important things. Now, where were we? Old stories…. Ah yes. There's always some truth in myths,' she stated as if it were a threat. 'It seems that a very, very long time ago, before we arrived, this world was inhabited by an intelligent life form with highly developed technology. Then the seas invaded and drowned just about everything, followed by a catastrophe that caused the air, water and earth to become poisoned with chemicals and radiation. Not long afterwards, that race of whatever they were called, became extinct.

'Then our ancestors arrived and built Oasis, where we now live, far from wild seas and protected from poisons and radiation by burying deep into granite and covering everything with a protective dome. Over time, our numbers slowly increased and Oasis has been enlarged from a relatively insignificant outpost of civilization to its present size. Unfortunately, some of the additions were excavated with less care than others,' she sent a baleful stare to Ishbel before continuing, 'and we are now reaping the problems.' She took a sip of her drink.

The two young men risked a look around. Everyone else seemed to be asleep.

'When we first started this place,' Nell continued, 'we foolishly embraced the notion of individual rights and equality—with the inevitable result.' She paused and shook her head in disbelief.

'What result? Surely that's the right thing to do?' Uretep asked.

'Always, when everyone is permitted to hold and express whatever views they like, conflict ensues. Ideas, you see, are like a disease, they spread and take hold, and the holders of these opinions begin to imagine their ideas are natural laws that everyone should obey. From there it's but a short step to imprisoning, torturing or killing everyone who disagrees with your idea of how things are or ought to be.

'Oasis was almost destroyed by such schisms many centuries ago. Our recovery from the brink of extinction, The Renaissance Miracle, was due to the creation of the myth of Domino and Domina—sibling gods whose copulation created the universe. The worship of these two gods to the exclusion of all others is now compulsory for all citizens—although this is not enforced on Aristocrats. This religion and its holy laws were the creation of Nom Ueid, a wise man who understood that most people need to believe in powerful supernatural beings that take a personal interest in them. The smartest part of the dogma is the gods' promise that if people obey their laws unquestioningly, then they will live forever after death in a perfect land beyond the reach of suffering. Once the religion was fully established, all notions of an individual's right to personal beliefs and thought was abolished and the present caste system implemented to ensure stability.'

She paused as if inviting questions and took another, larger sip of her drink.

'Caste system?' Peteru asked. 'I know everyone has different jobs and responsibilities, and Aristocrats, Freemen and Vassals don't mix socially, but surely everyone has the same rights? When we first worked in a large laboratory with other scientists, they had Vassal and Freemen assistants that I imagined they treated the same as they treat each other. I suppose their apartments aren't as luxurious as ours, but I thought they'd have the chance to work up the ladder, to improve their lot…?'

The amused incredulity on the faces of the listeners who were awake unnerved him. 'I'm ignorant of just about everything outside my work,' he added hastily, 'so I hope you'll forgive my stupidity. I wasn't taught anything about the social structure of Oasis when I was a kid—I started work in the lab when I was four and until today I haven't given anything apart from our research much thought.'

'You're only sixteen now, so it's perfectly natural,' Ishbel interrupted with a patronising smile. 'Don't beat yourself up over it. In theory, you're correct. As someone once wrote, "All people are equal, but some are more equal than others." Oasis society can best be imagined as a wide-based, shallow cone. The lower half of the cone, seventy-five percent of the population, is composed of Vassals. Half the remaining height, twenty percent of the population, are Freemen, and the remaining five percent are Aristocrats. We Mages are not part of the cone—we're outside it—literally.' She laughed at her joke, smugly accepting nods and noises of encouragement before continuing.

'These three groups only meet professionally, never socially. Oasis is headed by a constitutional Emperor and Empress, both of whom are elected by popular ballot every five years. One is always a Freemen, this year the Empress, the other a Vassal, the Emperor. Although they obviously don't know each other before their ascension to the thrones, our popular rulers appear to live as a contented and happy couple, graciously attending functions, opening shows and festivals, and most importantly, informing the people of the wishes of the Mages in day to day matters. They're immensely popular and highly visible and a welcome distraction from the sombre reality of most people's lives. They have no power, of course, but the fact that they were voted in to office encourages the masses to believe that everyone has a say in the running of Oasis. A hopeless, but harmless belief, I'm pleased to say.'

'What happens to the Royal couple after their five years are up?'

Loud laughter greeted this question.

'We could hardly send them back to their miserable cells when they know the workings of the state,' Justinian, the once-only lover of the current Emperor managed to reply between giggles. 'He and his wife are promised a life of luxury and given a sumptuous farewell party before descending the exit chute in great style.'

More laughter.

With great difficulty Peteru and Uretep concealed their disgust behind masks of amusement, while Nell took several large sips of her drink before continuing as if the whole social structure was nothing but a huge joke for the benefit of the Mages.

'The top Aristocrats, called Entrepreneurs, ensure the smooth running of Oasis by organising and managing the multitude of services that, under the supervision of a Mage, keep the place functioning smoothly; things like surveillance and punishment, maintenance of open spaces, buildings, population and breeding, education, water and food supply, waste disposal and energy supply. They are immensely wealthy, of course, and manage their responsibilities with the assistance of Freemen and an army of Vassals that they own and can use or abuse as they see fit.

'Just below the Entrepreneurs are the divisions of social researchers, thinkers, scientists, health professionals, philosophers… people like you who share the wealth, luxury and other benefits of Aristocratic living in this module of Oasis.

'On each side of the Aristocratic module—joined but not interconnecting—are the modules of the Freemen caste. Small businessmen, supervisors, overseers and executive assistants of the various service departments, as well as shopkeepers and private tradesmen. Their quarters are comfortable, although not of the same standard as ours. They have as many Vassals as they need, and may use them as they will. However they must worship the gods and are subject to more personal curbs on their freedom than Aristocrats who are, in practice, considered above the laws.

'All the rest of the people in Oasis, as Ishbel said, exactly seventy-five percent, belong to the Vassal caste. They do all the repetitive, boring, dirty and dangerous work of maintaining the machinery that's required to keep half a million humans alive. Their reward is food, clothes, minimal lodging and a little pocket money to spend on minor luxuries. They are usually too exhausted to cause problems, but if they do they're exterminated immediately and replaced from the pool.' Nell sat back as if exhausted. 'Any questions?'

'What's the pool?'

'That's my department,' Elbert piped up. 'I oversee the Aristocrats who run the breeding program that produces nearly perfect physical specimens, intellectually geared by Xanthippe's education program to their future employment. Thus Freemen are intelligent but not prone to questioning, while Vassals are not much smarter than imbeciles and totally incurious, as you'll see when you meet the Emperor. Sperm and eggs are removed from suitable, healthy candidates, genetically modified, then used to breed a slightly larger number of specimens than projected replacement numbers, in case of accidents such as that stupid slave breaking the goblet. She and the eight Freemen volunteers for NumbaCruncha that we disposed of yesterday, for example, will be replaced tomorrow from the cryonics store.'


'Freezing living specimens and then reviving them when needed. Children are bred and raised in crèches and nurseries until they reach a certain age, depending on their future use, then stored cryogenically until needed. You were revived at the age of four; Vassals required to do heavy manual labour are kept till they're about the age you are now.'

'Interesting,' Peteru muttered then asked. 'I noticed the clumsy Vassal was very dark skinned, almost black, but the Freemen are dark gold. The little I've seen of the bodies of Aristocrats indicates they're sort of cream, and Mages are almost translucent white. Why's that?'

'So no one can pretend they belong to another caste. So the enforcers know who they're dealing with. Oh, lots of reasons, many of which are historical.'

'Uretep and I, on the other hand, are darker than Freemen but not quite as dark as Vassals. Shouldn't we be cream like other Aristocrats?'

'Good question. We'd been trying to breed a sure-fire genius for over a century, but had no certainty of success until someone accidentally included a gene for Vassal skin colour in the mix. The first dozen or so products were pure geniuses every time, like you two, but feelings among the Aristocracy were so opposed to letting them live or even work in the Aristocratic apartments, they were terminated before they could do anything useful. Since then we've been able to persuade the Aristocrats to tolerate you, and the results have been better than expected.'

'So that's why we're ignored, spoken to rudely and avoided. It may sound silly, but that's been a good thing. If they hadn't treated us like that we'd never have been able to create NumbaCruncha.'

'Why not?'

'If we'd had to work with those tunnel-visioned Aristocrat cretins in the general laboratories, we'd have accomplished nothing because of their interference. Being left totally on our own, in our own laboratory for the last five years has allowed us to think creatively.'

'Makes sense,' Elbert mumbled thoughtfully.

'Enough of that, snapped Ishbel. 'Anymore questions before we get down to the main issues?'

'How do you make everyone do as they're told?' Uretep asked.

'That's my concern,' Fabien growled, glaring at them from under heavy eyebrows. 'Aristocrats obey us because it's in their interests to do so, and they'll disappear if they don't. Everyone else does as they're told because they believe we are the voice of the twin gods. It's a benign fraud but I'm sure you'll agree that fear of eternal retribution after death for everyone who doesn't obey while they're alive, is a less messy way of keeping Vassals and Freemen passive than constantly beating the shit out of them. It's also a hell of a lot cheaper.'

The menace in his voice sent a tremor of fear through Uretep who quickly thanked Nell, Fabien and Elbert for their explanations. 'I'm sorry we seem so stupid,' he said as if ashamed of his ignorance. 'But the only people we've had conversations with are the few Aristocrats who are prepared to do more than bark orders at us. There aren't many guys our age and we don't seem to have much in common with those who are.'

'Finding friends you can trust or share interests with is an eternal problem, because humans are naturally selfish and untrustworthy,' Ethel, the neatly coiffed, plucked, painted and slim Chief of Energy explained with the air of disappointed experience. 'It's even more difficult for people belonging to tiny minorities—like us. We continue to hope the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.'

'I can see that, and I'm not complaining, it's just that I think our lack of a social life explains our ignorance.'

'Ha! You're no more ignorant than the usual Aristocratic social butterfly. Don't sell yourselves short.'

'So, if Vassals and Freemen do all the work, I guess they also maintain the algal beds, make the food, supply the kitchens and cook the food.'


'But how do the power, water and other services keep functioning on days when the whole population is in the Arena, sometimes all afternoon and into the evening?

'Everything's automated.'

'That's amazing!' Peteru enthused, eyes wide in admiration. 'That explains why it all runs so smoothly, we've never had to wait even a second for our food, the lights always work, the chutes... you guys really know how to organise.'

Uretep cringed. Surely the Mages could see he was being facetious, laying it on so thick. 'If it's all automated, what does everyone do then?' he asked to defuse suspicion.

'Humans do what the machines can't. Odd repairs and maintenance, replacing parts and checking for unusual malfunctions, wipe up spills... all the dumb jobs.'

'I'm impressed. I never realised Oasis was so automated, that you Mages were so, brilliant!' Peteru was at it again, seeing how many compliments they could absorb before realising he was taking the mickey.

'Why do we enter at different Arena gates and sit in segregated areas?' Uretep asked nervously. 'Would it be wrong to socialise with some of the other castes?'

'What would be the point?' Justinian drawled. Vassals have nothing in common with Freemen, and neither have anything in common with Aristocrats. Mages have nothing in common with any other social group. You two don't count, being freakish mutations.'

'All casts have been mentally conditioned to think only about their work!' snapped Elbert. 'They know nothing, and desire nothing more than what they do. Have you been bored? You've had the best scientific education, the use of pleasure areas, gymnasium and swimming pool; you've been entertained with concerts and healthy activities. Thanks to the brilliance of my breeding program you have Peteru, and could have used Freemen and Vassals to assist with your research and maintain your apartment if you chose—which you didn't. Well? Have you been bored?'

'No, I've had a great life doing exactly what I want, when I want. And yet now I realise there's so much I don't know about Oasis. I've heard of the two gods, of course, but I don't remember being told their laws.'

'You haven't been told the gods' laws, because the gods don't exist!' Ishbel interrupted impatiently. 'As we explained before, we indoctrinate Vassals and Freemen with fear of retribution by the gods, to keep them in order. Like everyone else in Oasis, both you and Peteru are the product of carefully selected genes, but even more importantly, of careful education that inculcated right attitudes to the work to which you were assigned. You have been deliberately designed as a totally compatible and complementary pair for use in scientific research, just as Aristocrat entrepreneurs have been bred by selecting the right genes. Elbert's breeding centre and Xanthippe's educational indoctrination are two of our most successful enterprises, kept extremely busy maintaining the right number of suitable people for each caste.'

'So the skin colour, intellect, appearance and ability of every inhabitant are decided by Elbert, Xanthippe and their teams of geneticists and indoctrinators?'


'Why are the Mages white?'

'We are the only humans on the planet that have not been deliberately designed.'

'That makes the rest of us not quite human.'

'Or super-human, take your pick.'

'Why weren't you designed?'

'We are the sole survivors of the wrecked space ship, and the builders of Oasis. We are the 'progenitors' of every inhabitant—including you. We are, therefore, everyone's parents, the owners of Oasis, and perfectly qualified by experience and descent to rule.'

'You're telling me you're a thousand years old, and every one of the five hundred thousand inhabitants of Oasis are descendants of you thirteen Mages?' Peteru's tone verged on the insolent and Uretep kicked his leg.


'Impossible! You're all too young!' Peteru blurted rudely.

'No more impossible than your NumbaCruncha. We are exact clones of the original survivors. Our identical copies are raised, educated and taught everything they need to know until the age of fifteen, then kept in cryonic storage until we are ready to rest. When that time arrives our brains are connected, our personalities and all our knowledge are transferred to the new version of us, and in the process the old one stops living. I am in every respect, except for my knowledge of intervening centuries, the same person who arrived on this planet so long ago.' Ishbel pointed at the blonde fifteen year-old girl. 'Nell was resurrected overnight. Today a beautiful young girl, yesterday a decrepit old hag in purple.'

'Thanks, Ishbel, I'll return the compliment one day,' Nell snapped.

Ignoring her, Ishbel ploughed on like an exasperated parent tired of her offspring's endless questions. 'Education has always been restricted to things that will be essential for your work, so you were not taught about us, the gods or social history. What people learn is always determined on a strict need-to-know basis.' Her voice had taken on a hectoring tone and she appeared irritated, as did everyone else at so much impertinent questioning. Mages were to be obeyed, not questioned, and the atmosphere had become charged.

Peteru took a breath preparing to argue the stupidity of such a restrictive system, but Uretep placed a warning hand on his arm. 'Thanks, everyone,' he said with great sincerity. 'It's obvious that you've all done a great job and I can't tell you how grateful we are to have had the opportunity of working on what interests us most. I feel much more secure now I know this. You Mages have just so much experience. I'm...I'm humbled.'

Intuitively, he had said exactly the right thing. Faces relaxed, heads nodded and the air lost its tension.

'Thank you, Uretep. It's always a pleasure to be appreciated,' Ishbel said with the slightly prissy sniff of someone who always feels she deserves more gratitude and recognition than she gets.

'Everyone appreciates you, Ishbel,' several Mages muttered, 'it's just that time's running out and…'

'I'm not a fool, Ethel, I realise there's no time to lose,' Ishbel snapped. She turned to the young men. 'Further history lessons will have to wait, because the future of Oasis now sits squarely on your shoulders. We need the considered suggestions and criticism of two intelligent minds unpolluted by politics, to give us a fresh perspective.' She turned to the only person in the room who had not yet spoken, a harassed looking, middle aged woman with hooded eyes, a large nose and short cropped hair that made her look mannish. 'Angie, bring the young men up to date.'

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