by Rigby Taylor

Chapter 6

How the Other Half Lives

At ten am on the sixth day Begum ran tired fingers through her hair, nodded and allowed herself a self-satisfied smile. The work had required meticulous attention and skill, and contrary to expectations the design was so complex they'd been pleased to have both inventors constantly hovering over them—checking, testing, thinking.

'The bulk production module is ready to produce the pads,' she informed Peteru proudly. 'These are the first dozen samples. We can start churning them out once you give your approval. Then we'll begin on the computer.'

'Thanks Begum, that's brilliant. We'll take these up to the Mages now to demonstrate their effectiveness. We've no idea how long we'll be so take a break, then after lunch make a start on the computer. We'll be down as soon as possible to assist.'

'Fucken slave driver,' Begum muttered.

Peteru chose not to hear.

The Mages had been summoned to Ishbel's apartment where the wrists of four very nervous Vassals were implanted with the chip. Each stepped onto a mat, whispered into the terminal, touched their wrists and reappeared on the mats twenty metres away looking excited and aroused. Unselfconsciously, they began to touch themselves, stopped, took one look at the glowering Mages and threw themselves onto the floor and grovelled silently.

'Stupid beasts,' Xanthippe snorted. 'They're worried we'll kill them for being naked and feeling sexy.'

'A justifiable fear,' Fabien yawned. 'Those four fellows were making a nuisance of themselves during the religious service last week. I've been waiting for an opportunity to administer justice.' He waved an airy hand and two burly Vassals appeared. A wordless signal was enough for the four cowering men to be led unprotesting from the room, followed by the Mages who laughed and made bets as to which would last the longest. Dumped over the handrail the young men had scarcely time to sprint ten metres before great claws fastened on their necks dragging them to the ground where fangs ripped open their throats. At least a dozen huge dogs arrived to share the feast.

'These wild beasts are excellent security, don't you agree?' Fabien asked a glowering Peteru.

'Excellent,' Peteru replied softly. 'But they're not far below. What's to stop them leaping up here?'

'A laser fence that vaporises anything interrupting the beam,' Fabien replied, casting a sly look at his young questioner. 'So I'd advise against going for a walk.' The menace in his voice was palpable.

The sound of excited yelps, deep growls and crunching bones accompanied them as they traipsed back inside.

'How long before we've enough enseemats and the mainframe that will run everything?' Ethel inquired calmly as she sat down; the spectacle she'd just witnessed having had no more effect than if she'd been watching goldfish nibble on bread.

With commendable self-control, Uretep stilled the tremor in his voice. 'A month at the outside, probably much sooner. Then another week to make all the wireless terminals. Alger and Begum are excellent engineers—their knowledge of electronics is formidable, so if it's OK with you we'll leave them to get the basic work done on the main frame computer while we look around Oasis to check where enseemats have to be positioned, how many we need and so on. We also need to visit the new city for the same reason. As you've probably realised, if the mats are installed as they're produced, people will get used to seeing them and curiosity will make the final 'sell' easier.'

'Do as you think fit, go wherever you please,' was the response, which sent a nervous shudder through both young men. Such easy agreement meant either they had won the confidence of the Mages, or they were nearing the end of their usefulness so it didn't matter what they discovered. The second scenario seemed the most likely, which put them even more on their guard.

For a full week Peteru and Uretep made a meticulous survey of every space in Oasis so they could plan the position of enseemats, calculate how many were needed and foresee all problems. The city was many times vaster than they'd realised. Without the negrav chutes they'd have been old and infirm before completing their task. As it was, the repetitive nature of the construction [they continued to think of it as a construction instead of an excavation] made their task easier. What was needed for one segment would be needed for all.

Three-quarters of the living quarters in the massive circular edifice were reserved for Vassals, but they occupied only a quarter of the available space for dwellings. Three hundred and seventy-five thousand bodies were housed in stone cubes measuring two and a half metres along every edge. Five surfaces were blank; the sixth was open to the corridor. There was no sexual segregation so every floor contained more or less equal numbers of both sexes and all facilities were unisex including toilets and shower rooms. Although each Vassal was allocated a cell, there was nothing personal in them, merely a bed a chair and a hook on which to hang their work overall. Inside the building, which was not a designated public place, no one wore any clothing, which was sensible as the air was very warm and slightly moist.

Vassals worked twelve-hour shifts, so there were always people in the dining rooms, ablution areas, exercise rooms, entertainment halls or other public spaces that were scattered throughout the complex. As there were no doors anywhere in the residential modules reserved for Vassals, Peteru and Uretep were able to see that few people slept alone. Occupied bedrooms usually had at least two men, or women, or mixed couples entwined on the narrow bed—sometimes as many as four. Usually sleeping, never doing anything that could be described as sexual. Despite the crush, the air, although warm and humid, had no perceptible odour, probably because the Vassals' high standard of personal hygiene was well catered for with excellent showers and washing facilities. Plenty of sleep, exercise, food and cleanliness ensured their health, fitness and ability to work long hours. All the Vassals were physically attractive with very dark skins, symmetrical powerful bodies, and open faces.

Although they wore nothing while inside their module, that didn't mean they were prepared to do the same outside or at work. When asked about it, both males and females said that would be a terrible thing to do—a dreadful sin. If pressed on the issue they became suspicious and angry, muttering prayers to Domino and Domina to ward off such evil thinking. Simple questions such as where is the nearest negrav chute? Where do you work? Where is the dining room? When is the next meal? How often do you shower? Have you a special friend? received straightforward responses with no suspicion of ulterior motive.

When reporting on this and the Vassals' universal friendliness, Xanthippe sneered and explained it was due to Peteru and Uretep's dark skins. Had they been light skinned the Vassals would have cringed and fawned and done everything they could to confuse them. She warned them not to imagine the Vassals' simple natures indicated gentleness and an egalitarian desire for peace. 'They're like trained animals, well behaved when the master's around, but some days and nights the place resounds with screams and wails of victims hunted down in pecking order skirmishes.'

'Do Fabien's enforcers do anything about it?'

'Of course not. No one gets seriously hurt. We encourage the letting off of steam because it gets rid of frustrations, and that's of inestimable value in maintaining order.'

'Surely they're more than animals? They seem so... I don't know... so civilized.' Peteru was having a hard time remaining pleasant.

'Ha!' Xanthippe sneered. 'Try asking them what they think about affection, interests, hopes, fears, the future; topics that require thought and the expression of an opinion, and see if you still think they're human.'

The following day Peteru and Uretep gently asked several Vassals such questions, but Xanthippe's education program had taught them from their earliest years that wrong answers would result in painful punishment, so their response was always the same; silence while handsome faces became pinched, and powerful hands bunched into frustrated fists of fear.

Back in their apartment the two young researchers studied plans, calculated how many enseemats were needed and where they should be placed for the greatest efficiency, all the time thinking about the strange dual nature of the Vassals.

'We know we are the products of Elbert's genetic manipulation; a successful attempt to make us inventive and creative' Uretep said as they were shutting down their recording pads.

'Yes, that's why we have dark skin.'

'So Elbert says. But surely the greatest barrier to fresh thinking, creativity and invention would be mind control—brainwashing of infants?'

'You mean?'

'Exactly! What Elbert and Xanthippe deliberately didn't tell us was that we've not been indoctrinated with all the crap that keeps everyone else liking and hating and doing exactly what the Mages want. And that's another reason we can't be allowed to live once we're no longer essential. We don't believe in supernatural gods and monsters. We've no feelings for or against any group of people. We don't care if they're black, brown or white—all we care about is that they're pleasant.'

'You're right. That's why you're the only person I like in this place. Everyone else thinks their caste is perfect and every other caste is expendable. There's something very wrong when every human on the planet except us seems devoid of compassion. The way those Vassals threw the four guys who tested the mats the other day over the rail to the dogs without any change of expression, he shook his head as if to dislodge the memory, 'it really upset me.'

'And the way the victims just accepted it. It was the same with the girl whose throat Ishbel slashed. To everyone except us she was nothing but a piece of meat.'

They sighed in silent frustration.'

But I'm pretty sure the Mages haven't been brainwashed, Peteru. How come they're so heartless and cruel; tossing those brave Freemen who tested the enseemats that first day down the 'exit' chute to their deaths as if they were nothing. Making a joke of it.'

'I guess being a few thousand years old might make the Mages somewhat bored and looking for kicks. If not, then it means...'


'That's what humans are like! Caring only about themselves and their own interests.'

'If it is, then I don't like humans.' He grunted a laugh. 'Except for us of course.'

'But are we human? Are Vassals, Freemen and Aristocrats human? Everyone's had their brains scrambled and genes rearranged in the womb. How much change has to occur before a human stops being human? None of us have been conceived in the normal way. We're from genetically modified sperm cells introduced into genetically modified ova then incubated and educated by a machine.'

'A sobering thought. And the Mages have been cloned so many times who knows how many errors have crept in…'

'There's no point in wondering about things we can never find out. We're here, we've a job to do, and who knows, we've not had any personal contact with Freemen yet, perhaps they're different.'

'Unlikely, considering they're between Aristocrats and Vassals, but let's hope so.'

Plans Progress Apace

The cells of Freemen were relatively large compared to those of the Vassals, but relatively small compared to Aristocrats. Every apartment housed two people, sometimes of the same sex, sometimes opposite sexes, there appeared to be no rule. Privacy for the couple was available with doors to every room and space. Each apartment had a tiny but well-appointed bathroom to maintain personal hygiene, a relaxation area with a Vid Screen and two comfortable chairs, and a tiny eating nook in which meals that had been ordered and delivered from the kitchens could be eaten if they didn't want to go to the public dining rooms. A small bedroom with one double bed and a closet for clothes, which were worn everywhere, completed the accommodation.

The large public dining rooms were similar to those of the Vassals; cavernous spaces where Muzak accompanied noisy eaters and soft golden light made food seem more attractive. The few cells with windows facing the parkland were reserved for those in positions of authority. All other cells were, of course, windowless, bathed in soft golden light during the day and dim at night; usually reasonably well air-conditioned, although recently there had been some serious failures resulting in asphyxiation of both Freemen and their Vassal servants, who seemed to be everywhere.

Obesity wasn't a problem for anyone who wasn't a Mage. Despite clever preparation, colouring, texturing and flavouring, the consumption of food made from algae was not as popular an activity as excreting it. Defecation provided a trip to one of the many attractive Evacuation Centres dotted throughout both the Freemen and Vassal accommodations. These were well-lit, well-ventilated, popular unisex places where friends could meet, enjoy a game of draughts, or simply meditate while evacuating their bowels and bladders. Equally popular were the recreation rooms, libraries, cinemas and small concert halls that were sprinkled throughout the Freemen complex.

During their visit, Uretep and Peteru were treated with cool suspicion and a distinct lack of respect, due, Xanthippe informed them, to their skins being much darker than a Freemen's. All straightforward questions were answered straightforwardly, but as with the Vassals, their otherwise symmetrically handsome features transformed when they were asked for their opinion about life in Oasis. Invariably, eyes narrowed, mouths compressed, and the body tensed as if preparing to fight. Instead of replying, they turned and walked abruptly away.

Several times during both days in the Freemen quarters they heard angry shouts issuing from closed apartments, usually high pitched followed by low growling. Three times in the corridor they saw men being attacked by women hurling abuse, screaming and clawing at them until the men slapped them callously to the ground and walked away in contempt. When one woman got up and hurled herself onto the fellow's back, he ran backwards and slammed her against the wall, winding her. She fell off and several people gathered to watch impassively as her victim kicked her viciously in the head.

They never learned the cause of so much anger and argument, but it was always between males and females. Crowds invariably gathered to watch without interfering, dispersing silently when the battle was over, leaving the cleanup to Vassals who had been waiting patiently. Their efficiency at cleaning blood from the floor and walls was remarkable. As was the businesslike manner in which they disposed of the unlamented body of the woman whose head had been kicked in.

Nowhere in either the Vassal or Freemen apartment modules did they see an enforcer. When they asked Fabien about it, he shrugged and said enforcers only exacerbated problems within the residence modules because both Freemen and Vassals were happier sorting out their own affairs. As for the occasional violent arguments and fights they'd witnessed, he reminded them that sex-depressant chemicals were no longer added to the food and water, so females were coming into heat before the males were interested, and were venting their frustration. He predicted that such episodes were likely to disappear when sex became a religious obligation and travel by NumbaCruncha increased everyone's libido.

Later in their apartment while planning the number and placement of enseemats in the Freemen quarters, Peteru sighed in confusion.

'Would you like to be the rulers of these people?'

'No way! Nothing makes sense. What fun can the Mages have living like this? Their stupid regime ensures they have no social equals apart from the original thirteen.'

'Why don't they breed?'

'They did, and everyone in Oasis is the result, remember?'

'Ah yes. Even us. Makes me ashamed. I guess they don't want to have natural children who might turn out like themselves, because they're worried their progeny will be inferior to that of the other Mages.'

'They'd start a war over that I reckon. And I can't imagine any of them willingly surrendering any of their power to their offspring. If this is what humans were like before whatever it was wiped most of them out, I'm glad I didn't live then!'

'Me too. But what makes me angriest is that they're building more of these places! It has to stop.'

'Shush, Peteru. Not so loud. After what we've seen I'm becoming paranoid. We haven't checked for new bugs today. How do we know the interference signal's still working? Instead of seeing us sitting here quietly, talking about nothing in particular, they might be seeing the reality.'

'You're right. We're getting careless.'

A thorough check revealed nothing new, but in case whoever was watching had become suspicious about their lack of other activity, they turned off the blocker and spent the rest of the evening working and exercising as usual, even giving a commendable demonstration of their physical affection for each other.

During the following three days they made an inventory of public and work spaces and, as before, the more they learned the less they liked the place and the organisation.

The behaviour of Aristocrats to Freemen and Vassals had angered both young men, who reckoned their fellow humans deserved consideration and respect. But somehow it was even more upsetting to witness the vile treatment of Vassals by Freemen. Beatings, verbal abuse, overwork. A Vassal's life was ignominious slavery of the worst kind, as there was no hope of improvement no matter how well they worked.

In the interests of what the Mages cynically called social cohesion, attendance was compulsory for every inhabitant at biweekly events in the vast Arena. There were exactly enough places for the entire population and each individual was allocated a specific seat. Naturally, the best seats were reserved for the Aristocrats, the next best for Freemen, and Vassals made up the remainder of the audience. A quick check was enough to determine if a seat was empty, and as every seat was allocated it was easy to discover the identity of the miscreant. Religious meetings involving breast-beating, chanting and singing, followed by an address from the Emperor, alternated with sporting tournaments and circus-like entertainment.

When the Arena was full, the vast circular city was empty. Every space, including the private quarters of the Aristocrats, was spied on by computer-monitored surveillance cameras that peered into every nook and cranny, twenty-four hours a day. Facial and body recognition software ensured that if an individual did not appear on a camera somewhere for more than fifteen minutes, an alarm sounded and he or she was retrieved, castigated, retrained or disposed of.

Far from objecting to constant surveillance of even intimate activities, most inhabitants welcomed it as a guarantee of their security. Citizens of Oasis appeared to have no concept of privacy.

'If I'd realised we were being watched all these years, I'd have gone mad. And despite our blocking devices I'm getting neurotic about the surveillance.'

'Me too. I guess that's because we haven't been programmed to accept it. But it seems we have no option.'

'At least the facial recognition cameras don't record sound.'

'Never heard of lip reading?'

'When this is over, I'm out of here.'

'And I'm coming with you!'

At regular intervals the pair returned to the Engineering workshops to check progress on the mainframe computer that would coordinate up to five million enseemats. While the attitudes towards the two inventors of both Freemen technicians and Vassal assistants had warmed slightly, that of the Aristocrats had hardened. Thus it was a surprise to be warmly greeted by both Alger and Begum when they arrived to view and test the Mainframe and terminals, and sign acceptance forms relieving the engineers of further responsibility.

Glowing with pride from the lavish compliments, the two engineers offered Peteru and Uretep a drink, which they accepted gratefully.

'This work we've been doing for you is the most interesting and demanding ever,' Alger said.

'That's for sure,' Begum agreed. 'But don't tell me all this fantastic electronic stuff is just a new health diagnostic tool.'

'OK, we wont.'

Smiles dropped.

'We're not being cagey,' Uretep placated, 'we've been threatened with extinction if we tell anyone before Mage Ishbel decides it's time.'

'Come on, guys. We're mates—you can tell us. Don't you trust us?'

Peteru studied them carefully 'We're really sorry, but we can't.'

Both faces clouded, eyes shrank to slits.

'You're exactly what we thought,' Begum sneered. 'Stinking black Vassals whose empty heads have been filled by the Mages with enough stuff to convince anyone else. But I wasn't fooled. I could tell by the foul odour when you arrived you were just dirty stooges without a brain to share between the two of you.' She spat contemptuously on the floor and stalked out, followed by Alger.

'Well, well, well…' Peteru said with a shake of his head. 'And here I was thinking I'd found a couple of humans who were a bit like us.'

'If its any consolation they had me fooled too. Lucky we didn't tell them.'

'Lucky indeed. Will you call Ishbel? This computer cannot be left alone. It has to be moved immediately to its secure spot. It wouldn't surprise me if our charming engineers were considering a little sabotage now we've signed that we received it in perfect working order.'

'Mmm, that would demote us from genius to algal food in no time flat.'

Two hours later, the computer, several hundred enseemats with their wireless terminals, and all the Mages were assembled in the circular Council Chamber in which NumbaCruncha had been first unveiled. Forty floors up, enseemats had been placed in a multitude of locations throughout the Mage apartments. Every mat had been programmed, and a complicated system of moves planned to demonstrate the versatility of the system. As Mage's Vassals were both deaf and mute and never left the apartments, even to attend events in the Arena, they were no security risk and were used to test the system.

It had been agreed [albeit reluctantly by some Mages] not to punish the Vassals for any indications of pleasure or sexual gratification—after all, Uretep reminded them, It would be a nuisance to have to train new vassals at the present when there was so much else to do.

Everything worked faultlessly and the Vassals enjoyed themselves possibly for the first time in their lives. As a result, it was decided to begin setting up the Oasis-wide system immediately, because the automated production system was so efficient there would be a stockpile of mats if they waited any longer.

When all evidence of the trial had been cleared away, Alger and Begum were summoned. Self-satisfied expressions evaporated when on entering they saw Uretep and Peteru sitting as equals among the Mages. Panicked glances were exchanged. Clearly, they assumed their behaviour towards the two inventors had been reported and they were to be disposed of. As one, they threw themselves on their knees and grovelled unintelligibly.

Profoundly irritated, Ishbel boomed, 'Get up on your feet you stupid people! You act as if you've guilty consciences! Have you?'

The two miserable engineers scrambled upright and stared at Peteru and Uretep who gave almost imperceptible shakes of the head. Relief flooded pale faces and they managed to stutter apologies and excuses about being overcome at having an audience with all the Mages at once. It was too great an honour.

As always, flattery did its work and they were congratulated for working so well with Mages Uretep and Peteru, and for accomplishing everything required of them.

When asked about progress on the enseemats, they modestly assured their overlords that work was progressing apace, every mat was automatically logged in wirelessly with the Mainframe as it came off the assembly line, and the entire order would be completed and ready to distribute within four days. The tiny chips too were ready; enough for every inhabitant as well as a thousand implant tools so health workers could start work straight away on implanting them in the entire population.

'What about terminals? Mats and implants aren't any use if there's nothing to give instructions to!'

'There's a wireless computer terminal for every mat, ready to be affixed in a suitable place when the mats are placed in their final positions.' Flushed with pride, Begum bowed deeply. 'The Mages are to be praised for going to such enormous trouble to ensure the health of everyone in Oasis.'

'Thank you—but it is merely our duty,' Ishbel smiled, refusing to be drawn.

Everyone nodded sagely.

'Your work pleases us—for the present,' Augur announced pompously. 'You may go.'

Peteru and Uretep took their chance while the Mages were still in a good mood to ensure they still had permission to visit the new city to check for possible problems installing the next set of mats.

'What's the rush?' Melvyn demanded truculently. 'We've got to re-educate the masses and accustom them to using the things first.'

Profoundly irritated, Justinian, Ruby and Job, shouted that Melvyn was an ignorant inconsiderate fool. Didn't he realise they were desperate to clear Oasis at the earliest opportunity before the whole place collapsed?

'The air conditioning is breaking down and the weather isn't going to hold much longer!' Justinian snapped.

'And so many apartments are in disrepair I can't accommodate everyone!' Ruby shouted.

'Every day there are new emergencies ranging from failing negrav chutes to dimming lights, faulty security cameras, lack of fresh water, putrefying food. If we don't clear everyone out and completely rebuild Oasis very soon, we're done for.'


Ishbel turned a serious face to her two saviours. 'What are your plans?'

'We'll need an escort the first time to avoid being eaten by the dogs.'

'Of course.'

'We'll take fifteen enseemats and terminals, so from then on we can simply NumbaCrunch there and back. You people each have your own mats and terminals now, so you can also pop over if you wish.'


'And I suggest you immediately begin the assembly of another set of mats and terminals for New Oasis. The current Mainframe will be able to handle them with ease.'

'We'll start immediately,' Ishbel agreed.

After receiving the numbers of their personal mats and of the ones Peteru and Uretep would be taking to New Oasis, without even a cursory nod of appreciation all thirteen Mages pressed their wrists and vanished, leaving smelly bundles of bejewelled robes.

'That was a little too easy.'

'Indeed it was, and that reinforces my conviction that they don't care what we do now we're approaching our use-by date. Probably the less time we spend wandering around Oasis with the potential to infect others with our heresies, the happier they'll be.'

'Mmm…you're probably right. I felt sorry for Alger and Begum when they came in. Terrified when they saw we really were the Mages' pets.'

'You're a soft touch. They imagined we'd complained about them. How insulting is that?'

'It's what they'd have done. But forget them, let's get everything ready for tomorrow.'

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