by Rigby Taylor

Chapter 8

Where the Men Live

Men! A land of men, in spite of everything,
The one manly quality, undying, acrid fearlessness.
The eternal challenge of the un-quenched human soul.
Perhaps too acrid and challenging today, when there is nothing left to challenge.
Just men.
The rarest thing left in our sweet Earth

[from Aaron's Rod…by D H Lawrence]

The atmosphere was becoming uncomfortable so Uretep nervously suggested that although they'd love to stay and answer questions, it was getting late and they didn't want to outstay their welcome... so they'd better be getting back.

The six men got purposefully to their feet and encircled the visitors, staring down thoughtfully. 'We need to know a great deal more about these guys,' a tall wiry fellow with a large hooked nose said brusquely, 'but if we stay here any longer we'll be returning in the dark. There's no moon till later.'

'Sash is right. You'll have to come with us. What's the range of your mat?'

'No idea, but we think at least five times as far as we've come.'

'Good, then you'll have no trouble finding your way home.'

'Are you sure we won't be a nuisance—you guys are so fit and strong. We'll hold you back.'

'Not if we give you a swift kick up the bum when you lag behind,' someone laughed.

'Strangers are as common as hens' teeth around here, so you have curiosity value,' a relatively short, stocky fellow remarked sardonically. 'And as we and the others back at the rocks are insatiably curious, we're not letting you get away just yet.'

Nervousness kept Peteru from asking what hen's teeth were.

'Strangers from the underground city could be a threat to us, so we have to be careful,' Seb explained solemnly. 'Fee and Bel are not threatening you—they're protecting us.'

'Everyone needs to hear what you know about the place you call Oasis,' Fee said in a tone that brooked no refusal. 'So you are coming whether you like it or not.' He turned to the swimmer. 'Leo, relieve our guests of excess baggage.'

Leo picked up the enseemat, gold disc and tiny computer, placed them carefully in the backpack and slipped it over his shoulder. What'll I do with this?' he held up the water bottle.

'Take a look at it Sash,' Jar said. 'What do you reckon?'

Sash peered down his long hooked nose and examined the object. 'It's some sort of plastic.' Turning to Peteru; 'Biodegradable?'

Peteru shook his head. 'Designed to last a thousand years.'

'Bring it, Leo, and I'll dispose of it later.'

'That mat,' Fee asked peremptorily. 'Is it sending a code? Are you being traced?'

'No! It's like we said, we just decided to see for ourselves what the world was like. No one knows we're here—if they did we'd be killed.'

'You'd better be telling the truth,' Fee grunted, turning back to assist with cleaning away the remains of their fire. Uncooked fish were strung on fine vines, spears were shouldered and, humming a tune similar to the one that had drifted up to the watchers above the lake, they set off at a smart trot into the forest, leaving the beach as clean and natural as it had been on their arrival. After a few minutes the humming ceased and silence enveloped them.

There was no discernible track, merely a twisting line of slightly less dense growth. Uretep and Peteru lost all sense of direction. They seemed to be passing the same large trees and small clearings and leaping repeatedly across the same narrow creek. The men were silent, the forest wasn't. Noises were everywhere. A soft rustle of leaves they brushed past, occasional scurrying of unseen animals, bird calls in the canopy high above, sudden bursts of loud cackling laughter, a high whine and crack of a whip, were only a few of the strange sounds that begged to be investigated. But the pace was relentless, their hearts pounded, and questions would have to wait.

They paused for a few seconds in a glade while the fishermen cupped hands behind their ears and turned slowly, listening intently. A million tiny bells seemed to be tinkling. Then a pure, flute-like tone soared above all others, repeating a heart wrenchingly brief melody. A harsh cackle like a curse brought them back to earth.

'We haven't been followed,' Fee whispered, looking sideways at the captives. 'Perhaps they are telling the truth and really are alone.'

'And perhaps they aren't; they're sapiens, remember! Keep constantly on guard. There's too much at stake.'

The journey resumed at an even faster pace. Following the man in front became increasingly difficult as they practically sprinted along the almost invisible track. Soon, all Uretep and Peteru could do was concentrate on putting one foot safely in front of the other. Losing all sense of time, no longer able to appreciate the sounds, smells and wonders of the forest, they wound deeper and deeper into a gloom alleviated by occasional flashes of colour as birds, butterflies and raucous parrots flashed across their path.

Through this mysterious world the eight men padded on silent feet; the breathing of six too soft to hear; the panting of their captives loud enough to startle. Trees grew even larger—giant specimens tens of metres tall, and the undergrowth less dense, making running easier. The captives, too exhausted to feel cuts on the soles of their soft feet and grazes from rough branches, plodded gamely on, determined not to admit defeat. At least their lungs, used to the thick recycled atmosphere of Oasis, rejoiced at the ease with which they could breathe the clean, pure, slightly scented air.

Suddenly they stopped. Seb held up his finger and sniffed.

'Boar,' he whispered, turning to Uretep and Peteru. 'Get up that tree, now!'

They scrambled and the others split and dissolved silently into the forest in six different directions. All was still. The harsh screech of what they supposed was a bird, then silence. Without warning a large dark brown beast hurtled into view and stopped beneath their tree, sniffing the air while emitting short grunts. A wild pig fully a metre high. Two long curved tusks like scythes. Bristles erect along its back. Sensing danger but unsure from where.

A slight swish announced a spear that buried itself in its neck. The boar screamed, threw itself onto its back and thrashed around snapping off the handle. Blood oozing, he righted himself and charged at Leo who remained slightly crouched in full view as if challenging the monster, his insanely slender spear firmly horizontal. The slavering beast attacked. Leo rammed the almost invisible weapon deep into one nostril before leaping agilely aside as the boar charged past. Abruptly it stopped, wobbled, turned, swayed, regained balance. Before it could decide what to do, Jar appeared from behind and belted it across the head with a log of wood. It dropped. The others appeared as if by magic. Sash produced what looked like a small knife and slit the beast's throat.

By the time Uretep and Peteru's nerves had settled, the beast was skinned and eviscerated, and the men were plaiting vines and preparing a pole to which they tied it's legs. Seb and Bel hoisted the trophy onto powerful shoulders and, no one having uttered a word the entire time, set off at the same fast trot as before, this time up a long steep slope. At the top they halted at the edge of a vertical drop. The view was breathtaking. Forest-shrouded hills receding in criss-crossing diagonals. Deep greens of the nearest trees fading to pale misty blue in the distance. Horizontal shafts of golden sunlight illuminated one side of the vast valley, leaving the other in sombre shadow apart from the tallest trees whose tops shone burnished gold. Around the small clearing in which they rested, ancient forest giants dripped as the evening mist descended. Perspiration evaporated and the two visitors shivered.

'That's where we're headed,' Jar said softly, pointing down the almost vertical cliff towards the setting sun, which shone directly into a blind canyon a hundred metres below, setting ablaze a small waterfall leaping from rocks into a pool beside a clearing containing a number of large boulders.

'Someone's singing,' Uretep whispered. 'It's beautiful. All sorts of harmonies.'

'It's the rest of our mob,' Seb said carelessly. 'Watch your footing.'

In single file they descended a steep zigzag track into the shadows, arriving ten minutes later at the edge of the clearing where a group of similarly lean and fit men were relaxing on boulders arranged in a circle around a fire. The singing had given way to soft chatting and laughing. They greeted their six friends with easy good humour, admired the boar, congratulated the hunters, and eyed the strangers with suspicion.

With increasing alarm the two young men stood quietly as ten lean, fit, powerful and obviously tough men roused themselves and enclosed them in a ring of hard flesh.

'Uretep and Peteru have paid us a visit,' Jar announced without expression. 'From the underground city.'

As with Jar, Seb and the others, scars and other superficial evidence of active, natural and dangerous lives enhanced the aura of free spirited, animal power in their hosts.

'We wish you no harm,' Uretep said nervously, increasingly and embarrassingly aware of his physical, and possibly mental, inferiority. He turned to Peteru, who nodded and frowned in perplexity. What could have gone wrong? Seb, Jar and the others had seemed friendly. Perhaps it had been a trap! Perhaps they were destined to be enslaved... eaten!

No one spoke or introduced themselves, merely nodded and stared, leaving their visitors feeling increasingly nervous.

'Peteru and Uretep have agreed to tell us all they know about the underground city. But first, let's cook these fish and get the boar onto a spit—I'm hungry.' Leo turned to his guests and pointed to the perimeter of the circle. 'Go and sit over there.'

They huddled together on a smooth boulder and watched three men preparing a spit for the boar while others cooked the fish on hot, flat stones in the fire. Everyone was busy at something useful. No one spoke. It seemed as if they communicated wordlessly. An emptiness ached in their chests.

'I've always wanted to be part of a group like this—you know, accepted as an equal, no questions asked.'

'Yeah. It makes you realise what a solitary existence we've had. I can't even imagine what it would have been like without you.'

'Neither can I. Makes you wonder why isn't it like this in Oasis. Why aren't the other scientists friendly and easy with each other like these guys? We know why they don't like us, but even among themselves there's always fear and suspicion.'

The light was fading and the murmur of deep voices, harmonious atmosphere and balmy, scented air, set their minds adrift. They lay back on the rock, still warm from the sun, and let unwelcome images of Oasis slip from their consciousness. Taut muscles relaxed, stress dissipated and, gazing up for the first time in their lives at a black sky in which uncountable stars twinkled, they felt totally at peace. Also for the first time in their lives, and despite everything that had happened and their uncertainty about the future, they felt they were in the 'right place'.

Having only read about stars they never imagined there could be so many! More stars than dark space were casting a faint cool light on everything outside the glow of the fire. Why they should feel so comfortable in the middle of a strange forest with a group of naked wild men was a puzzle they felt no desire to solve. As they relaxed, a startlingly luminous gibbous moon slowly hoisted itself above the cliff they'd recently descended, its pale gold light revealing rocks and trees while deepening the shadows; adding yet another level of mystery.

Meal preparations complete, they accompanied everyone to the stony-bottomed pool below the waterfall where they swam, laughed and sported like playful seals before washing themselves thoroughly. Refreshed and clean, they shook off excess water and jogged back to the fire and food.

The visitors were handed a pad of leaves containing a whole cooked fish and a lump of roast pig, several mushrooms, a few edible green leaves and a red fruit. Following the example of their hosts they used their fingers, finding the food delicious beyond anything they could have imagined, even better than that provided for the Mages.

Having disposed of the 'plates' by tossing them onto a heap at the edge of the forest, the men returned to the fire, added more fuel, then took a handful of translucent greenish paste from a hollowed out stone and smeared it over their bodies.

'Help yourselves,' Jar offered.

'What is it?'

'Insect repellent made from the crushed leaves of a forest plant. It stinks a bit, but better than being sucked dry by mosquitoes and ticks, or chewed by beetles.'

Once everyone was protected and had arranged themselves comfortably in a semicircle, Seb took Peteru and Uretep to a flat stone in front, where they sat until their audience stopped chatting and gave them full attention.

'How many people live in your city; how is it organised; do you have leaders, and if so what are their plans for the new city that at present is lying empty?'

Taking it in turns, Peteru and Uretep related everything they knew about Oasis. Their audience totally silent, concentrating, occasional questions suggesting they understood everything. When they heard of the Mages' plans for expanding their empire an angry hum erupted.

The night was more than half gone, but they wanted to know about the enseemats; all the possible uses they could be put to and, most importantly, why Uretep and Peteru had come into the forest.

These questions were easily answered, but the next one sent confused emotions of duty and guilt coursing through their veins.

'So far,' a very tall fellow said clearly, 'you've given us facts. Are you also willing to tell us your true feelings about the place you call Oasis, and how do those compare with your impressions about what you've seen so far of us and the forest?'

Peteru and Uretep stared at each other and nodded nervously. 'We'll do our best,' Uretep said cautiously.

'Good. What is your honest opinion about life in Oasis, the Mages, their treatment of Vassals, Freemen and Aristocrats?

The young men filled their lungs with fresh, scented night air and smiled genuinely for the first time since their arrival. A great burden of which they'd been hitherto unaware seemed to lighten with the realisation that here they were free to tell these people about things that seemed to have troubled them since birth, but never dared admit to anyone except each other.

As if a vast reservoir of loathing had burst inside their chests, a torrent of fears, aversions, frustrations, difficulties and horrors that was life in Oasis poured forth. With a contempt they'd not realised they harboured, they condemned the slavery, vile punishments, genetic and mental manipulation, lies about the reality of the real world that kept everyone imprisoned in the city, and above all the empty lives of the repulsive, regenerating Mages.

'OK, that's a pretty good summary of your feelings about the organisation; now briefly summarise your feelings about the individuals in Oasis.'

'The individual Vassals and Freemen we met seemed pleasant, but they treat each other badly. They're quite beautiful although mentally dull and somewhat brutish. But they do think about things, albeit slowly. They fight among each other sometimes, but surely that's natural in the circumstances. We feel sorry for them—although they don't feel sorry for each other—but we can't dislike them. All Aristocrats, although intelligent, seem vile. The Mages we despise with no qualifications.'

'I gather you aren't very happy about the Mages proposal to build many more underground cities?'

'We didn't think much about it before discovering how wonderful it is outside Oasis. We thought it didn't matter if the forests were destroyed and replaced with cities.'

'And now?'

'Now we think it's evil—if there is such a thing.'

'And yet you're part of the ruling class, your lives will be easy and comfortable.'

Peteru frowned and looked ready to interrupt.

'OK, we get it. There are loads of things you dislike, but surely you'd prefer that to living hand to mouth like us in an uncaring, frequently dangerous environment?'

'Before we came to the forest and met Seb, Jar and the others, we had only an unfocussed idea that there's something very wrong with manipulating human genes to make slaves for a few wealthy people; treating them as if they're worthless, using and abusing, murdering, torturing them on a whim.' Peteru shook his head in despair and found he couldn't continue.

Uretep took up the thread. 'Remember, we didn't know until a few weeks ago that it was safe to live outside the city. Only fifteen people in the whole place know that! The Mages and us.'

'Come on,' someone interrupted, 'we've seen hundreds, if not thousands of workers building the new place, blasting the holes, drilling and carving the inside, so they all know.'

'That's the terrible thing, they don't! Their reward for all that hard work was death. To keep secret the truth about the outside world, the Mages disposed of them.'

'Disposed of them? How?'

'Back in the old Oasis they throw them to wild dogs to be mauled to death, or toss them down special chutes into algal vats in the deepest part of the city where they become the nutrient on which algae feed, that then feeds everyone else. The workers you saw have all been used to feed the algal beds in the new city, ready for the new population. Not one has survived.'

'What about the police who were guarding them; shooting those who tried to escape?'

'Police? Oh, you mean enforcers. We don't know anything about that, but they would have been disposed of when they returned. Enforcers are only Freemen, you see.'

A murmur of disgust ran through the listeners.

'You asked about our feelings. Well today is the first day I've realised I'm alive—that I've felt alive, that I honestly want to live,' Uretep said passionately. 'The trees, the birds, the clean air, the clean fresh water, the space the… the everything!' He placed his hands over his eyes to conceal tears that streamed at the realisation of all that he and everyone else in oasis had been denied.

'It's good to cry. It makes you worthy of respect. Not to cry at the fate of others, and the fate of those still living in such an environment would be callous indeed. Without imagination and empathy, a person is nothing.'

Murmurs of agreement.

'And that's why we don't want there to be any more Oases!' Peteru stood and shouted. 'If I could, I'd destroy both of them!' Years of repressed anguish and frustration erupted from the depths of his being, leaving him empty, exhausted. He slumped back onto the rock clasping his head in his hands. Uretep sat beside him, stroked his neck and whispered into his ear.

'If you're speaking the truth, then your sentiments do you credit and we have at least something in common,' Seb said softly.

'What do you think of us?' Sash demanded, breaking a short silence.

Uretep cleared his throat, but a huskiness remained. 'Although I know nothing about you, I feel as if I know you. I want to live with you, be part of your group or whatever you call it. I never ever want to return to Oasis.'

'And you, Peteru? Do you feel the same?'

'Yes,' was all Peteru could manage through tears that seemed to choke him.

After a short silence a deep voice said clearly, 'We need to think about this. I'm inclined to believe you both. However, we who live with the forest are individuals and all must agree on actions that affect us all. Day is breaking and if your Mages decide to visit, you will be in trouble. Return now. Tomorrow evening, visit us again and we will tell you about us. Then, if we believe you to be truthful, together we will consider the options.'

Peteru and Uretep nodded. Almost beyond exhaustion, Uretep placed the gold disc in his mouth, they stepped onto the enseemat, wrapped arms around each other, pressed their wrists and disappeared.

The Mages Remain True to Type

A raucous squabbling, grunting and thumping galvanised the young men awake. Imagining they'd left the door to the terrace open and wild animals had somehow found their way into the apartment, Peteru crept out of the tiny cupboard in which they'd slept, stealthily tip-toed down the passageway and peered into Ishbel's new reception room. He was almost right, but the beasts were human. Daylight streaming in through wide open doors illuminated a scene that a week earlier would have merely sickened him. This morning, after a day spent with Seb and his friends, his entire being was revolted. Naked Mages clawing at each other in a frenzy of noisy, stinking sexual lust were defiling not only the morning, but also Ishbel's pristine new salon. He crept back to Uretep and warned him to be careful. They dressed and managed to creep unnoticed to an alcove beside the nearest negrav chute. They had only just concealed themselves when…

'Where are those two black bastards!' Fabien shouted as he wandered down the corridor, stark naked and alarmingly aroused. 'I'm going to ream their cute little arseholes till they beg for mercy.'

'You'll split them open,' Augur snapped. 'We need them alive until they've finished setting up this thing. As soon as everything's fixed you can do what you like with them—and I'll watch,' he added with a slimy laugh, taking the Chief of Enforcement by the arm and leading him back to the lounge.

From their concealment Peteru and Uretep could scarcely breathe. Cold fingers clutched at entrails and spine. 'What'll we do?'

Uretep took a deep breath. 'Wait till they've calmed down then wander in breezily pretending we've come from the negrav chute.'

'What if the chutes aren't working?'

'They will be, because as we've just heard, these debauched creatures need us. Come on, we're smarter than them and as long as we have our computer and an enseemat they can't get us.'

'OK, but we must never let each other out of sight!'


After a very long half hour the cacophony subsided and, hoping everyone had dressed, they wandered noisily along the hallway into a room full of still naked Mages draped unappetisingly over the armchairs. The aura of bestiality had been replaced by loathsome self-satisfaction. Twenty-six predatory eyes fixed on the young men. Fabien licked his lips. Xanthippe scratched lewdly between her legs. Augur fondled himself and Agnes caressed her long nipples. No one smiled.

'Where've you been!' Ishbel presented an awesome figure. A pale mountain of flab literally quivering with rage. Sweating and stinking—as were all the Mages the young men discovered as they approached, relieved they'd put on their clothes.

Maintaining a realistic smile while trying not to retch was difficult. 'We've just been to take a look at the Arena and workshops. You were right as usual, Ishbel, everything's exactly the same here as at home so there'll be zero problems.'

Irritation unappeased by the flattery, Ishbel reached forward and slapped Peteru with all her considerable force on the side of his head, knocking him off his feet, rendering him temporarily deaf. 'You're needed,' she snarled, hands on hips, massive legs astride his startled, prone body.

He looked up in shock, having understood nothing.

'This'll teach you to be there when I need you!' she screamed, releasing a stream of urine. 'You have to check the latest enseemats and wireless terminal placements, then rehearse the Emperor and Empress in their role—they're as thick as a couple of mattresses, so if anything goes wrong you'll pay for it!'

Peteru was too busy shielding his face from the hot stinking liquid to hear or understand anything.

'Yes, your worship,' Uretep said humbly, 'we will make sure everything is to your satisfaction.'

'You'd better!' Giving a kick to the cringing body beneath, Ishbel stomped over to an armchair and flopped into it.

Peteru slithered away and sat against the wall, not daring to even wipe his face while Uretep kept trying to calm the Chief Mage down. 'Were there any problems with your NumbaCruncha trip here?'

'Does it look like it?' she snarled, heaving herself to her feet and raising a massive fist ready to strike.

Uretep stepped back in alarm.

'Never forget, you creepy black maggot, that Mages have superb self control.' Her voice was lethal. Low and sibilant. The hiss of a venomous serpent considering whether to strike. Deciding not to bother she dragged her fingers between her legs and flicked drops of urine at her genius inventor before turning to her smirking entourage. 'There's still only that bloody algal muck here and I'm starving. Everyone assemble in my apartment in one hour.' She stepped haughtily onto a mat, whispered a number into her tiny computer, popped it into her mouth, touched her wrist and disappeared, followed by the others. Only their stench remained.

It took several minutes before Peteru stopped dry retching and was able to join Uretep in a shower where they scrubbed themselves raw.

When at last they felt clean, Uretep took a deep breath, held it as long as he could then exhaled loudly. 'That was terrifying. After pissing on you she looked so furious when I asked if she'd had any problems with her NumbaCruncha trip I honestly thought she was going to kill me. That's the fear all her Freemen and Vassals live with night and day. I can't go back there! Let's just escape to the forest and if the Men don't want us, we'll try to live on our own.'

'You call that terrifying? You weren't nearly drowned in her stinking piss! It was so hot!'

'I'm so, so sorry Peteru, are you all right? Can I do anything?'

'How do I smell?'

'Like fresh air. Was it very terrible?'

'Hot and foul. I was too busy not letting it get into my mouth and eyes to think.'

'I couldn't help you.'

'You distracted her, that was plenty.'

'So, shall we go away now?'

'I thought you wanted to destroy Oasis?'

'Don't be ridiculous! How can we?'

'I'm certain Seb and the others want the same thing. He said we had that in common. Surely we have to return and give them more information? We can't just wimp out.'

Uretep sighed. 'Yes, of course you're right. Sorry. You're so brave. And she hit you too, are you OK?'

'I was deaf for a while, but I'm fine now. It's the first time I've been hit. I had no idea how demoralising it is. I was completely unmanned! It's nothing like verbal insults—those you can rationalise and dismiss, but being physically abused with impunity! No one has any mental defence against that. Suddenly I realised they have total power over my life and death. I have no rights, nothing. In their eyes I am nothing! No wonder everyone else including the Aristocrats is so pathetic—they've been brainwashed with the fear of Domino and Domina as well as the Mages. So we have to at least try to get rid of them.' He took a deep breath, shook himself and grinned bravely. 'Let battle begin.'

Back in their room they breakfasted on tasteless mush, wondering how to explain their scratches and scars.

'Ishbel's room isn't well illuminated, they probably won't notice.'

'But if they do?'

'We'll say we had a fight.'

Ishbel's room was darkened when they arrived. Several Mages, still naked, were loudly complaining of headaches. No one noticed the minor abrasions of a pair of very temporary honorary Mages. Xanthippe, who was wearing her wig and nothing else, told them what would be expected from the royal couple at the public demonstration, and gave them the text for the Emperor to learn.

'This is a very delicate and important propaganda exercise I hope you realise,' Melvyn announced pompously. 'The success of the enterprise depends on a convincing performance by the Emperor and Empress. They aren't the easiest people to get along with, and dumb as shit—which they even look like.' He waited successfully for a laugh.

'If it's so important, why are you entrusting it to us?'

'Because you're as black as them.' He yawned and lay back, caressing a potbelly that seemed to have grown overnight.

'You'll need your universal key,' yawned the teenage Nell who had recently been rejuvenated. 'It gives you entry everywhere, even the royal suites. But make no decisions outside your expertise! Use the vidcom to ask the appropriate Mage if you're even slightly unsure what to do!'

'You'd better wear these,' Xanthippe waved a hand and two Vassals appeared with tunics and cloaks similar to the ones the Mages wore in public. 'As Melvyn said, this is too important to get wrong. Wearing these you will be treated like gods.'

Before they could respond Ishbel interrupted irritably. 'Off you go, then. Inspect the engineers' work on mat and terminal placement, and tell them to hurry everything along. Things are more desperate than we realised, according to Ruby and Justinian. After that, go and teach their Royal Highnesses how to use NumbaCruncha, and then make him learn his lines by rote. Let me know when you've been successful.'

Relieved at their summary dismissal, the two inventors returned to Alger and Begum's office wearing their new cloaks. Both engineers welcomed them with cool but distinct respect, unable to conceal the gnawing irritant of their curiosity while holding out their wrists to show their silver implants.

'Everyone, including every Aristocrat, now has one of these things imbedded in their wrist,' Begum whined. 'They're all curious—some very angry, and threatened to kill the implanter until he threatened to call a Mage. There are mats everywhere, screens that show maps and numbers and those terminals to speak into. The whole city is going crazy with curiosity and,' her voice took on a hectoring tone, 'we think it is time you told us…'

'Freemen and Vassals are neither curious nor impatient,' Peteru interrupted curtly. 'They do as they're told without curiosity, just as Aristocrats must. I am certain Mage Fabien will be interested in the names of any Aristocrat who is being unnaturally curious and impatient.'

Begum reddened and Alger plucked nervously at the sleeve of her gown. Suddenly panicking, she gazed in horror at the Mage cloaks as if she'd just realised who they really were, and threw herself on the ground, whimpering apologies. The two novice Mages turned on their heels to hide grins, and went through to the main workshop, removing the hoods of their cloaks.

The assistants greeted them like old friends. They complimented everyone on the excellent protection provided for the public enseemats, the user-friendly maps and number lists, and the astonishing efficiency with which everyone had been implanted and an enseemat and terminal had been placed in every Aristocrat and Freemen apartment. The Vassal's mats would be completed within the day. With great pride the head technician informed them that the automated manufacturing process was so efficient that New Oasis too would be fully set up within the next two days, with everything controlled by the designated Mainframe computer in Computer Central.

Peteru could scarcely contain his delight. 'You guys are really fantastic!' he beamed, spreading his arms to include Alger and Begum, who had followed the Mages into the workshop. You all deserve medals. I'd no idea there was so much talent in Oasis.'

Furious at being included in praise given to Freemen, the Aristocrats asked to be excused.

'Certainly, you must have plenty to do,' Uretep said sweetly.

As the door closed behind them the atmosphere relaxed and Peteru and Uretep took the extraordinary step of shaking hands with each of the Freemen whose efforts had been so remarkable. At first shocked at being touched in friendship by someone so powerful, they nervously smiled and thanked and complimented the two inventors. Unfortunately, Alger returned and threatened everyone with extermination if they weren't back at work instantly.

Alone in their room, Uretep sighed. 'They could be redeemed, don't you think? The Freemen?'

'No. They responded to kindness, but once that stimulus was removed they reverted. Infant conditioning is permanent. No change is possible. Are you ready to meet the Emperor?

'Can't wait.'

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