I explained this scene to a friend a while back when discussing how characters have a life of their own. This scene originally was planned as Caston being the “big bad,” but Roald had his own plans…
“Just like that?”
Caston Hargrave, head down, hands running through his thick black hair, took a shallow breath as he lifted his head to look across his desk to the man standing there. Roald Vinsen was a spare individual, with a tidy appearance that hid well a roiling cauldron of emotional stew. Looking at him standing serenely, mantid-like, with his spine straight and chin tilted slightly upward in the universal posture of aristocracy, one couldn’t see the demons raging inside. But they are there, Caston thought. I am quite convinced of that.
“Yes, Roald. Just like that.” He eyed the man warily. Conspiracies were funny things. It took two or more to make a conspiracy, but a secret shared is no secret at all, really.
“Strange. I thought there would be more to it.”
“We’re on my estate, nearly a thousand miles away from 25… what were you expecting?”
“I don’t know,” Roald shrugged. “Something a little more… exciting, I guess.”
“Exciting? What is wrong with you? There are people dying out there!”
“Not real people, after all,” Roald said as he waved his hand casually, the platinum bracelet that he wore as an affectation jangling softly. “Just the eaters and breeders.” He lowered himself lazily into the ancient wingback chair next to him, crossing his legs so that the cream-colored cloth of his pants rode a bit up his bare ankles, one maroon loafer dangling carelessly from his left foot. The illumination from the desk lamp, the only light in the room, spilled over him like a blanket, deceitfully warming features as cold as ice. His smile, if placed on another face would be a grimace of pain; on him, however, it looked only natural.
“Roald, we did this because it was necessary. Not for fun, or excitement, or to satisfy any of your other… urges.” Caston looked hard across the expanse of his glossy wooden desk at his co-conspirator, trying to find the humanity there, and failing. The clear blue eyes just stared back blankly from under a smooth brow, topped by the shoulder-length blond hair pulled neatly back in a pony tail with a black silk ribbon.
“Really, Hargrave, you take things far too seriously.” He laughed lightly and leaned forward in the chair, “I was merely trying to get a rise out of you.”
“Well… it worked.”
“Indeed,” Roald said casually. Again, that smile, as he settled back into the embrace of the supple leather.
Caston shuddered inwardly and whispered, “We won’t get away with this, you know.”
“Of course we will, my boy! We’re performing a great service… or at least we will once the testing phase is complete.”
Testing phase, thought Caston. I guess that’s as good a name as any for mass murder. Enclave 25 was one of the first, and therefore, smallest of the planned communities for the overwhelming number of the world’s poor and unemployed. With a population of just over six million, it offered the two men a perfect opportunity to gauge the efficacy of their plan, while at the same time limiting any unanticipated effects. The deaths, of course, they anticipated. Caston calculated that roughly ten percent of the Enclave’s population would succumb due to rioting within the first five days, while up to another six percent from secondary or tertiary effects. The limiting factor, he deduced, would be the ability of the Sentry Robots to respond to the crisis. The tipping point, however, was a casualty rate of just under twenty percent; and once crossing that threshold, the entire Enclave would destroy itself in an unending conflagration of suffering. The margin for error, therefore, was incredibly slim as the simulations all agreed the Sentry Robots had no more than six days to get the situation under control.
“Roald… how well have you covered your tracks in Agriculture?”
“Don’t worry yourself over that,” he waved his hand again, dismissing the question without a thought. “I used the program you provided just as directed. Now is not the time to get squeamish, Hargrave.”
“You forget your place, sir!” Caston stood abruptly, placing one hand on the desk as he leaned toward the man on the far side, and taking aim with the other. “If you will remember, it was I who brought you into this endeavor.”
Roald, though reed-like, did not bend in the face of the storm before him, but merely steepled his hands in front of his face as if in prayer and said, “Of that you can be quite sure.”
Caston continued to stare at his companion for several seconds, willing himself to calm, before finally lowering his hand to the desk. At last he sat, as if gravity had overwhelmed his ability to stand. Still breathing heavily, he turned away from the sickly smile before him and again watched the data flow in the projections of the simulated events of 25. With every passing second, the Sentry Robots relayed information to the master computer, which dutifully forwarded the raw data to his simulation programs. By the end of the day–tomorrow at the latest–the simulations would be predictive enough to know if the two men were successful in this phase of the experiment. Not one hundred percent, but close enough. By the third day, the computer should be able to pinpoint the exact time the rioting would end. As he turned his head back toward Roald, he noticed an odd depression in the data out of the corner of his eye. He turned to check it again, but it was gone.
“No, Roald. I just thought I saw…” a light rapping on the large wooden door across the room interrupted him. Caston slashed his hand through the projection and it disappeared. “Come.”
A man dressed in a white suit opened the heavy door with seemingly little difficulty, carrying a tray with two small cups, a teapot, and a small pitcher. Other accoutrements were also visible, but the man’s competence in his duties allowed him to enter without noise. He appeared to be young and healthy, though a scattering of gray was sprinkled in his close-cropped dark hair. His skin, too, was dark–as were his eyes–though not so dark as most that Caston had rescued from the Enclaves. He stood straight and tall, holding the tray with one hand and the door with the other, half in and half out of the room.
“Sorry to interrupt, sir, but your afternoon tea is ready.”
“Thank you, Jeffers. We’ll take it on the balcony.”
“Very good, sir.” The servant set the tray down on a small stand, and then strode smartly across the room to the heavily curtained double doors on the opposite side. He lifted the manual lever, drawing them both open in a single pull, and turned to retrieve the tray. The afternoon sun spilled into the room, slicing it neatly in half, the wall of books on one side and the two men at the desk on the other. Once outside, he placed the tray on a small wrought-iron table and began pouring the tea.
Caston nodded at Roald, stood, and said, “Shall we?”
As they exited onto the balcony, Jeffers was just finishing preparing his master’s cup. “How does your guest take his tea, sir?”
Roald sneered, almost imperceptibly, and said, “I take three sugars. No cream.”
“Yes, sir.” As Jeffers prepared the cup, Roald sat in the small, straight-backed metal chair. Without comment, he reached across the servant to the tray and pulled at one of the linen napkins, snapped it open at his side and placed it across his lap. He lazily eyed the servant with obvious distaste as the man performed his duties. Jeffers, for his part, never looked up as he finished preparing the guest’s teacup.
When he had finished, he set the teapot back on the tray, looked at his master, and asked, “Will there be anything else, sir?”
“No, I believe that will do for now. I’ll chime if we need anything.”
“Thank you, sir.” Jeffers strode from the balcony without looking at Roald, stepped through the doorway leading to the balcony, turned, and closed the doors, leaving as quietly as he had entered.
Roald watched the man leave as he sipped his tea, only turning to his host after the doors were closed once again.
“Hargrave, of all the things I dislike about you, that has to be the worst.”
“Why do you insist on using those… people, when robots can do the job better and more efficiently? Don’t you get tired of feeding them?”
“I don’t understand your question…or your disdain, Roald. Food, like the energy to harvest and prepare it, is free. The servants require nothing that they cannot provide for themselves. As far as I can tell, there is no difference, in practical matters, between robots and human servants.”
“Still… it’s disgusting.”
“My family has owned this estate since before the Great Flood, and we have always had human servants. I see no need to change that to suit the likes of you, sir.” Caston took his own napkin and pointedly snapped it open before placing it in his lap just as Roald had done. “And, in point of fact, it was my father’s servants who saved us from the Purge following the Great Flood. They fought to protect this estate and its owners at great cost to their own lives!”
“Yes, of course. I remember reading about the Purge in school when I was a child. How many of your family survived?”
Caston relaxed slightly, took a sip of the warm brew from his cup, and placed it gently on the saucer before him. The china in the tea set was older than the home in which it resided, though some of it had been lost or broken during the Purge and the troubles that followed. As had everything, really.
He sighed softly and said, “Nearly all. Our family wasn’t greatly involved in the industries that attempted to deny climate change. Only my Uncle Forster, a Senator in the old government of the United States, did not escape the Purge. He spent most of his career holding up or killing legislation that might have prevented the devastation. You may recall his head was one of the original twenty-four that adorned the capitol dome that first year. Thankfully, his children were spared, but his wife committed suicide.”
“A terrible time, I’m sure. I know thousands of our kind around the world were murdered by the rabble.” Roald’s feigned sympathy was even worse than his smile, if such a thing were possible.
“It was terrible for everyone. Over a billion lives were lost in the floods, and nearly a billion more died of the disease and famine that followed.”
“But everything’s better now!”
“For us, maybe…”
“Of course! Who else is there?”
“Roald… You were just born too late. Most of your generation seems to have no real understanding of where we are, or how we arrived at this point.” Caston leaned forward in his chair and nearly spat, “You understand the cost of nothing.”
“Hargrave, I fail to see the rational difference between our ages. Yes, you are nearly fifty years my senior, but over the course of more than three hundred years that does not amount to much of a disparity.” He gazed across the small table and grinned sardonically, “Besides, neither of us look a day over thirty.”
Caston settled back and sighed heavily. Smiling for the first time he said, “Roald, your vanity may yet be your undoing.”
“Look around you, sir. I believe vanity is a trait we all share.”
“Yes, well, be that as it may…” His next words were interrupted when a light chime sounded.
Jeffers’ voice resonated in the air around the balcony, “Sir, there is an incoming call from Central. Should I put it through?”
Caston took a deep breath. This was expected, of course, but it was not something he was looking forward to.
“Go ahead.” He looked knowingly across the table at Roald, who was grinning maliciously. As both the head of security, and the government’s lead designer of robots and computer systems, Caston was, by default, the third person in the chain of command. All of which meant that he would be the first person called when things got out of hand in the Enclaves.
A window–not of glass, but millions of microscopic machines–formed in the air between Roald and himself. Staring out, from nearly three thousand miles away, was the face of Caston’s assistant, Rendell Pax. The man waited for his superior to speak, all the while restlessly adjusting his jacket.
“Yes, Ren, what is it?”
“Sir, there has been an… incident in one of the Enclaves.”
“What kind of incident?” The man looked positively ready to burst.
“Well, it appears the people there are, well… rioting, sir. We still haven’t found the precipitating event.” Nor would they, Caston thought, assuming Roald did his job correctly.
“Is it localized? Do the Sentry Robots have it under control?” Stick to the script.
“No, sir. The situation seems to be spreading from sector to sector. The Robots have not, as yet, been able to keep up. Sir… so far we have already recorded over a thousand deaths.” That’s going to get much worse, I’m afraid.
While the man was talking, Caston had the window transfer both the data from his assistant’s feed, and the simulation he had running, to a separate partition before him. The numbers looked close enough. Okay, time to look like we’re doing something about it.
“All right, Ren, calm down. The data you’re sending me shows this is 25, right?”
“Yes sir.” The man stopped fidgeting with his jacket, and took a slow breath.
“I can see there are two other Enclaves close by. Direct the Sentry Robots to send, oh, twenty percent of their complement from each to assist.” He smiled at the man as if he had just handed a child a new toy.
“But sir that could take hours.” Oh, it’s going to take longer than that, Caston thought. Just hours before, he released a worm into the system and triggered failsafe protocols in most of the Sentry Robots in the nearby Enclaves. Each affected robot then shut itself down for “routine maintenance” due to a problem found in their programming. The system would not allow the number of robots in any one Enclave to fall below a certain point, and the worm made sure that line was already crossed. It was going to take another five days for any Enclave to offer assistance.
“I’m afraid it is the only option we have, Ren. Be sure, though, to send out an emergency message on all the Informants in 25 telling people to stay in their apartments until the situation is under control. We don’t want this to get any worse.”
“I’m placing you in charge of this. It’s time for you to show some initiative… see if you’re ready for more responsibility. Don’t call me again until you have this cleaned up, understand?”
“Of course, sir.” He was practically tearing at his sleeves now. “I’ll take care of it.”
“Good man.” Caston angrily waved through the image and the window dispersed into a cloud of smoke that vanished as quickly as it had appeared.
Roald stared thoughtfully at the man across from him, a newfound respect in his eyes.
“That last part was just mean.” His blues twinkled as he laughed. “I believe there’s hope for you, yet.”