Peteru and Uretep stepped off the mat and blinked in astonishment at a glittering mountain of precious stones. Ishbel sparkled, twinkled and shimmered from the top of her wig to the tip of her perilously high-heeled sandals. In between, the billowing tent of shiny material that encased her massive bulk was studded with a myriad of diamonds, rubies and sapphires. Gold bracelets encircled chubby wrists, metres of gold chain encircled her neck, and gold thread and emeralds dragged down her earlobes.
‘Ishbel! You look beautiful!’ Peteru stated with commendable conviction. ‘Honestly, I never imagined anyone could look so...so magnificently noble and powerful.’
‘Yes. I know,’ she responded coolly. ‘Follow me.’
‘Will the others also be in their best clothes?’ Uretep asked politely.
‘Then aren’t we a little underdressed?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Shouldn’t we wear clothes?’
‘Of course not! You aren’t Mages yet! Come.’ She sailed out and along a wide hallway to the most extravagantly ornate room the two young men had seen. A giant crystal chandelier shed flattering amber light over a room bedecked with gold trimmings and intricately framed mirrors. Wall niches boasted detailed bronze sculptures of animals and humans in violent conflict, and ostentatious gilt-framed paintings of lakes, forests and mountains decorated the walls. Standing on a deep blue carpet in the centre of the chamber was a heavily carved oval table, replete with candelabra, silver, crystal goblets and bowls of flowers, surrounded by thirteen padded chairs with elaborately carved backs, and two plain chairs devoid of either padding or decoration.
The other Mages, dressed in similar opulence to their Chief, were standing in small groups, drinking from crystal bowls. They looked up and stopped talking.
Fabien stepped forward, eyeing them up and down with a patronising sneer. ‘I see you’ve dressed for the occasion.’
Everyone laughed. Their two guests joined in as if it was a brilliant joke.
Fabien clicked his fingers and two young Vassals appeared with goblets of wine, which they handed to the guests, then stood silently as if waiting.
‘Peteru, you’re a connoisseur of young men, which of these two Vassals is the healthiest?’
Both were good looking, perfectly proportioned, lean yet well muscled with excellent posture, so as it seemed unimportant, Peteru shrugged and pointed to the slightly shorter Vassal, whose face registered the faintest smile as if of relief.
‘An excellent choice, don’t you think?’ Fabien turned to the Mages who nodded as if it was of little consequence.
‘As you’ve chosen the meat for the main course, your boyfriend can have the pleasure of killing it. Come!’ He marched off through a doorway, dragging the unprotesting young man by his ear.
Peteru and Uretep, expressions blank to conceal their horror, waited for the Mages to laugh at the joke, but they were staring coldly, obviously waiting to see if Fabien’s suspicions were correct.
Peteru grabbed Uretep by the elbow and, forcing a laugh, said cheerfully, ‘Come on, this sounds like fun.’
As they passed through the doorway he pretended to stumble, dragging Uretep down with him. There was just time to whisper, ‘The guy wants out of this, you’re doing him a favour.’
The adjacent room was a large clean kitchen, with several chefs and assistants apparently too busily employed in preparing the meal to take any notice of distractions. An archway on the far side opened into a medium sized room tiled in white with a solid wooden table in the centre. Every possible type of knife, plus several saws and cleavers, were hung on a rack directly opposite the door. Several meat hooks dangled from a track attached to the ceiling. The floor sloped towards a hole under the table.
Fabien forced the young man to his knees in front of the table, then wandered casually to the wall where he carefully selected a long, narrow, double-edged knife with a very sharp point.
‘Ever done this before?’ he laughed. ‘Of course not. The only meat you’ve eaten was with us the other day. Didn’t realise what it was, did you? But you loved it—asked for second helpings. Well, now you know where it came from.’ Grasping the front of the Vassal’s overall he pressed the point of the knife into the coarse material and ripped upwards, nicking the fellow’s chin and bottom lip, from which blood began to flow freely. The fabric fell away exposing the young man’s smooth dark brown throat and chest.
‘This is where the knife goes in,’ he said, dragging the head back to expose the indent at the base of the throat. ‘A good strong thrust straight down and you’ll miss the ribs but slice through his larynx and possibly the aorta and then his heart. There are quicker ways, but they’re less fun. I like to see plenty of blood. Understood?’
‘I understand.’ The blood was leaving Uretep’s head and he felt cold.
‘When he gives the death jerk, pull the knife out and immediately hold him upside down so the blood pours into the drain. That’s to make sure the meat’s nice and pale.’ He placed the knife in Uretep’s hand and stood back. ‘Peteru, you hold him firmly. I don’t want him jerking about and spraying blood over my clothes. It won’t matter for you, we’ll hose it off.’
Peteru stood behind and took a firm grip on the young man’s arms. When Uretep looked down, the Vassal’s head gave an almost imperceptible nod as if to say, please make it quick, I am happy to go.
Fury filled Uretep’s head, body, heart and being. Rage against the people and system that could make death preferable to life surged into his arm and he thrust deep into the soft tissue, watched the Vassal’s eyes glaze, then pulled the knife out and wiped the blood over his own chest before taking one leg and, together with Peteru, holding the surprisingly light young man firmly upside down while dying nerves caused him to flail around wildly. After an eternity, the gush of blood became a trickle.
They lowered the dead body onto the table and stared at each other, astonished that neither looked different from usual.
‘OK,’ Peteru said with convincing ease, ‘where’s that hose before the blood dries.’
Fabien’s frown was proof enough of the trap they’d avoided.
‘He isn’t that big, Fabien. Do you think one’s enough for fifteen hungry Mages?’ Uretep asked as if keen to do it again.
‘Quite enough,’ Fabien snapped.
‘I hope the water’s warm,’ Uretep said to his departing back.
The Vassal who had been spared uncoiled a hose from a cupboard and sluiced them down with delicious warm water, then provided them with soft towels. Checking to see they were alone, he said softly, ‘Thank you for doing it quickly. That one,’ he pointed to the door, ‘always makes it very long and painful. Yesterday my friend took all morning to die.’ Tears were streaming and he turned away to begin carving his mate into slabs of meat ready for roasting, while apologising for his weakness.
Resisting the urge to take the young man in his arms to comfort him, Uretep touched his shoulder and said softly, ‘Things will change when we go to the new city.’
‘I thought all the Mages’ Vassals had their tongues ripped out,’ Peteru said thoughtfully as they left the room.
‘Only those who might have contact with other vassals from the rest of Oasis, it seems.' Uretep, swayed slightly and stared in fear at his lover. 'Peteru, I feel sick.’
‘And so you should. I do too, but we have a job to do so man up and come on.’
They both took a couple of deep breaths, then dry, clean and apparently relaxed, sauntered back into the dining room apparently laughing at a joke.’
‘You’re in good spirits,’ Ishbel observed, ‘what’s the joke?’
‘We were just imagining what you’d say if we’d not bothered to shower and had arrived covered in blood. But then we thought of the beautiful carpet and furniture.’ He rubbed his belly. ‘That made me hungry, when do we eat?’
By the time they had consumed an entree, soup, and vegetables, the delicious odour of roast meat was wafting from the kitchen. Taking the opportunity provided by a raucous response to one of Angie’s more salacious jokes, Peteru whispered, ‘Look on it as an honour. I’d rather starve than eat one of these fat carcasses, but the thought of that Vassal becoming part of me makes me happy.’
‘Thanks,’ Uretep smiled.
The meat was indeed delicious and the young men tucked in with gusto, determined the death would not be totally in vain. The energy provided by the young man would assist them in ridding the world of sapiens—as they now thought of the Mages.
As if annoyed, several of their hosts appeared to lose their appetites, complaining the meat was tough and should have been bled longer. The party broke up immediately after the final course, everyone pleading an early rise the next morning.
Back in their room Peteru and Uretep showered again to rid themselves of the odour of vileness. Using the splashing water as cover in case Fabien had installed more surveillance, they congratulated themselves on still being alive before tumbling into bed for a disturbed night of unpleasant dreams.
An hour before sunrise, Peteru and Uretep used their gold disc to enter the high security vault containing both the master computer that ran everything in Oasis, and NumbaCruncha. After making a careful circuit of the place, peering into every crevice, space, cupboard or drawer large enough to conceal a human, they relaxed. But just as Uretep was reaching into his pocket for the plug-in drive they’d programmed the previous afternoon, Ishbel’s face glowered from the vidcom directly above the console.
‘What are you doing?’ she shouted. ‘You triggered the alarm.’
Concealing his surprise, Uretep looked up and waved cheerfully. ‘Good morning, Ishbel. I couldn’t sleep worrying that something would go wrong. This is the most important day of our lives and if it goes well we’ll be Mages! So we’re making one last check to quieten our nerves.’
‘You’re lucky I was already up. If Fabien had discovered you he’d have had you thrown to the dogs.’ Her expression added emphasis to the words. ‘I enjoyed last night,’ she added casually. ‘Fabien wasn’t pleased when you proved me right.’ Her smile was not pleasant. ‘I like to be right. Remember that!’ The wall resumed its blank state, leaving the menace of her voice hanging in the air. A tremor of fear shot through the two young men.
Peteru’s hand shook. ‘Two seconds later and she’d have seen you insert the drive. Quick, get it over with and let’s get out before she decides to check again. She’s a mind reader. A minute later they were back in their apartment taking deep breaths, unable to concentrate on anything.
‘Do you reckon Seb was able to get everything organised?’
‘Of course. They’re as keen on this as we are.’
‘Damn the Mages for taking the transporter instead of NumbaCruncha.’
‘Stop fretting. Everything will be fine.’
During the next hour, Ruby made several public announcements regarding New Oasis, waxing enthusiastic about the wonders of the new apartments everyone was going to enjoy. Fabien then filled terrified ears with warnings of dire repercussions if anyone was absent from the Arena and failed to transfer at the appointed time. He was followed by Nell, reminding them how to find the NumbaCruncha number so they’d arrive on their correct seat in the Arena.
Ten minutes before nine o’clock, Peteru and Uretep arrived, donned their Mage cloaks, sat on the special balcony directly above and behind the Emperor’s stage, and turned on the surveillance screen that monitored the exact position of every citizen except Mages, in the Arena.
Seconds later Calisto, the Empress and their guards appeared below. Agnes and her guard immediately began copulating, unconcerned at their exposed position. Calisto and Philo waved up at the two Mages and contented themselves with kissing and petting.
A mind-numbing whistle sounded inside every building of Oasis, followed by a recording of Fabien’s threats of eternal perdition for anyone failing to move to the Arena immediately.
A slight breeze wafted towards them as bodies materialised, filling every seat, sitting in total silence, awed by the occasion, fearful of Fabien’s threats.
Peteru checked the screen. Every seat occupied.
Uretep stood, raised a hand in salutation, and then addressed the silent masses—his voice both sombre and compassionate.
‘Citizens of Oasis. Domino and Domina are very pleased with every one of you. They are fully aware of the difficulties of your daily lives, of the sorrows and pains you have all endured, and of the bravery you all show in continuing to serve them so well. As the Mage’s representatives here today, let me assure you that your sufferings will soon be over. You have been tested, and every one of you has passed triumphantly. Our heartfelt congratulations to you all, and may you all enjoy your future.’
A stunned silence lasted for a long minute before the full import of Uretep’s words hit them and a deep ululation filled the Arena. It was as if the misery of a millennium had finally found voice and poured forth in an anthem of sadness for tortured souls and lost lives. After several spine tingling minutes the keening slowly died to a whisper, then silence. All heads stared straight ahead, eyes streaming with tears too long repressed.
The Emperor and his entourage were no different. The stench of suffering, misery, injustice, cruelty, corruption and violence that had been thus expelled from the assembled men and women seemed to fill the Arena. Clearly, the Emperor was in no state to give his final speech, so Peteru raised both arms and said clearly. ‘Go now all of you, to a better place where pain and sadness will never touch you. Sit calmly, press the silver mark on your wrists three times, and be happy.
All eyes gazed in hope at their wrists. As if in a dream they pressed the implant thrice and, accompanied by a soft sigh as if a melancholy giant had drawn a last deep breath, the entire Arena emptied of humanity.
Peteru and Uretep sat, exhausted.
‘Stop that. It’s too late to hope. We’ve only a vague idea what’s happened to them, but it can only be better than what they’ve endured.’
‘You’re right. We have work to do.’
Back in the central communications suite they disabled the NumbaCruncha computer, used the Oasis Mainframe to instruct the duplicate system in New Oasis to wait one hour, then shut down all systems except for the energy generator, which they set to maximum output after disabling all the safety devices that would prevent catastrophic overheating. The Oasis computer was then instructed to begin the same self-destruction process immediately.
‘How long have we got?’
‘No idea. Half an hour?’
‘OK, let’s go.’
Placing their tiny, original transmitter on the ground beside them, they stood for the last time on an enseemat in Oasis, pressed their wrists, and seconds later materialised just inside the edge of the forest about a hundred metres from the Mage’s apartments in New Oasis.
A giant transporter was parked below the balconies, and scurrying Vassals could be seen running back and forth unloading stuff, overseen by corpulent figures on each balcony.
‘Welcome.’ Seb’s deep voice made them jump. ‘Has everything happened according to plan?’
‘So far. Everyone’s gone, only the Mages and their Vassals here are left. It’s odd; they don’t seem perturbed, yet it’s several minutes since they expected everyone to arrive. Where are the rest of the Men?’
‘Concealed in the shadows nearby. How did you manage the disappearance of so many?’
‘We instructed the New Oasis mats to accept all comers, but disabled their ability to reconstruct the signals. In other words, they received the neutron codes, but couldn’t do anything with them.’
‘So what are all those people now?’
‘The same as they were before they were born, stardust.’
‘Something’s happening.’ Jar appeared as if by magic from the shadows. Peteru glanced around and saw that all the Men were standing silently behind them.
‘They’re gathering on that balcony, waving their arms. Now they’ve gone inside. What do you think they’re doing?’ Fee asked.
They’ll be checking the surveillance system to see if anyone’s arrived. I imagine they’re getting very worried by now.’
‘Yes, Ishbel will be having a fit. We fooled her last night, so she stopped Fabien the enforcer from getting rid of us.’
‘How did you fool her?
After describing his role in the murder and subsequent eating of his victim, Uretep began to sob uncontrollably. Peteru took him in his arms while Leo held Uretep’s head in his large hands, tilting it to look deep into his eyes.
‘You are a brave and noble man, Uretep. We salute you.’ Growls of agreement from the Men, sick to the core at such abuse of power.
‘Ah, they’re back on the balcony, looking this way’ Bel whispered. I could race over and spear them.’
‘And they can shoot you. We know they have weapons. We wait.’ Seb paused to think. ‘Can they use the mats to return to Oasis?’
‘No, we’ve disabled them.’
So, I imagine you have a plan?’
‘Yes, sorry, I should have told you. We’ve disabled everything in both cities, except for the heat exchangers that are set to maximum with their overload switches disabled. At the moment they'll be getting worried because no one has arrived and nothing is working and I imagine the temperature is already rising. We've no idea what happens in such a situation, but both cities could blow up at any time. When the Mages realise things are going seriously wrong, they’ll leave, probably take off in that big transporter. That’s when we have to stop them—keep them inside. They’d probably die in the forest, but we can’t take the chance.’
‘They’re coming out now. There’s smoke. They’re gathered on the balcony wondering what to do. Can’t see any weapons.’
‘We have to take the chance, come on let’s prod them back inside.’
‘Take these.’ Sash handed Peteru and Uretep a spear each.
‘Before we go, do you want to confront them with their crimes? Make them realise what foul creatures they’ve been?’
Uretep shook his head in astonishment. ‘Of course not! You told us the other night what Homo sapiens are like, how they evolved, how they became the dominant species. The Mages were simply true to type. It would be as crazy to tell the wild dogs that tore the Vassals to pieces and ate them that they were being nasty. They were just being wild dogs, and the Mages were simply being…’ he shrugged in resignation, ‘…human.’
‘Do you agree with Uretep, Peteru?’
‘Excellent. OK Men. They’re down on the ground and heading for that transporter. Herd them inside till something happens. If they make a run for it, kill them.’
Ten seconds later thirteen panicking Mages and a score of apparently unperturbed Vassals were surrounded by a small but ferocious band of spear wielding Men. None of the prey recognised their erstwhile novice Mages, who deliberately avoided eye contact to avoid identification.
Ishbel began shouting that she was rich and would reward them if they left them alone. Fabien, of course, threatened. The others joined in with pleas for mercy, for assistance.
The Men, silently prodding with the points of their spears, forced the Mages and Vassals back towards the balcony.
Xanthippe and Fabien suddenly broke free and made a dash for the transporter, but hadn’t gone ten paces before both were felled with spears in their backs. The spear throwers walked over, pulled the spears out, ensured their prey was dead, and returned to guard duty. Little by little the Mages retreated, first onto the balcony, then into Ishbel’s reception room. Seb wandered nonchalantly forward as if about to speak, then slammed the doors and jammed his spear in such a way as to prevent it opening—at least for a while.
A rumbling from deep in the ground caused them to stare back at the old Oasis where a vast cloud of dust billowed into the still air. A deep boom was followed by another violent eruption of dust and smoke as if from a volcano. Then silence. A strong breeze sprang up and the thick brown cloud began to dissipate.
‘This one could go any time,’ Peteru warned. ‘Oasis’s energy pumps were on their last legs. These are new ones and, according to Ishbel, twice as effective. I reckon we ought to withdraw to the forest and watch from there.’
‘Should we put the transporter out of action?’
‘Too difficult. We can get there before they’ve crossed to it.’
They watched from the shade of the forest and prepared for the eruption, but when it came they still jumped. The ground heaved. The gigantic shallow dome lifted, smashed into a million pieces and fell back into what looked like a cauldron of boiling rocks. A second eruption threw colossal boulders out onto the surrounding grasses and shrubs. One flattened the transporter. Then just as they’d decided it was all over, a loud, long, low rumble announced the caving in of the entire structure.
Half an hour later there was nothing left but a circular depression nearly a kilometre in diameter, filled with rubble and dust.
‘If it holds water,’ someone said thoughtfully, ‘it’ll make an excellent lake after the rains.’
‘It’ll be toxic for years—centuries probably. Everything those sapiens did turned toxic. Thank goodness they’ve gone.’
‘Indeed. The natural world is safer today than yesterday. OK, let’s go.’
Without a backward glance the Men set off at a fast trot into the forest.
After about fifty metres Seb looked back to where Peteru and Uretep were standing, unsure what to do.
‘Come on you two, we’ve a nest to build for you before dark.’
‘Are you sure? You said come on Men and…’
‘And what? As far as we’re concerned, you’re both Men.’
The others returned to stand beside Seb as Peteru and Uretep jogged nervously up.
‘Seb’s right. Of course you’re Men! We’ve been trying to get shot of this Oasis cancer for hundreds of years with zero success. We’d still be standing around wringing our hands impotently without you two.’
‘You proved yourselves Men when you decided to blend with us and conceal your identities instead of confronting those people. If you’d wanted any sort of revenge, then we’d have left you behind to take care of yourselves, because there’s no room in a natural world for vendettas, revenge, retribution, reprisals, recriminations, petty quarrels and all the other insanities of Homo sapiens. They’re dead and gone. Extinct—at least in this part of the planet. And you are both honorary Men until you die. You can’t have children, and can’t breed with us, so you’re the end of the line. But what a noble end. Come.’
He turned and joined the others jogging easily through the trees, followed by the two happiest sapiens who ever lived.
Thanks for reading NumbaCruncha. It would be nice if Homo sapiens changed their ways before something similar to this prediction becomes the future, but I don't have much hope of that.
Meanwhile, we who can do nothing except make ourselves perfect, must get on with enjoying our lives while doing as little harm as possible.
I’ve another novel more or less ready to share with you in a couple of days – a fun read about [surprise surprise] a charming and independent young man who gets into all sorts of situations and…