“My goodness…” says the Doctor as yet more fine fare is brought to the Tharils already-laden table, “You live like kings.”
“We are kings,” says Biroc impassively. He merely states it as a fact. He is both part of this feast and an observer of it. He was at it, and now he returns later in his personal timeline. He can travel along his own trajectory. He sits at a table he once sat at long ago, in the same seat. He acknowledges this past life and does not disown it, yet he does not embrace it either. His tone is neutral. Truthful.
Meanwhile, at the same table many years later, after history has revolved, men – who make their living capturing, chaining and shipping creatures like Biroc for sale and industrial use – are sitting down for their lunch break. They pass round sandwiches, pickles, thermos flasks.
Their boss, Rorvik, regards them with the wary contempt that only a truly stupid person can feel for those slightly more stupid than he is. He has so little success trying to make them listen to his inanities that he has to wave his blaster pistol at them.
Back in the ‘past’, back at the other meal, the Doctor asks where all the Tharils’ luxury and variety comes from.
“The universe is our garden,” says Biroc simply. Again, the abrupt tone of factual statement.
“Ah. So this is what it was all like.”
“At the height of our empire, before the Tharils became the slaves of men.”
The mention of slaves turns the Doctor’s mind instantly to the servants moving around the table. He responds to Biroc’s barely-implied complaint by calling him out on his apparent hypocrisy.
“I notice you don’t do too badly for staff,” says the Doctor. “This garden of yours, the universe… how do you manage it”
“We use our power. For those who travel on the time winds, the vastness of space is no obstacle.” The Tharils have the power to travel where they will – the basic requirement of any imperial project. “Everything is ours.”
The serving girl by the Doctor makes a mistake, spilling the wine that she is pouring into a goblet. The Tharil whose goblet it is knocks her to the floor, as one swipes irritably at a fly. The Doctor glares at him and gets up to help the young woman.
“Including her?” he asks.
“They’re only people.” Again, Biroc’s tone is flat. He does not endorse or condemn… except in so far that simply saying such things is its own condemnation. He simply recites the truth of how this system operated. To the Tharils, their slaves were only people… just as, to Rorvik, his slaves are only Tharils. But there is no self-justification from Biroc. He makes no pleas, and gives no excuses. Rorvik is losing control of his present. Biroc owns his past.
“So you’re the masters the Gundan spoke of, hmm? The enslavers?”
“The weak enslave themselves, Doctor. You and I know that.” It would be a callous statement if it were intended straightforwardly… but how can it be intended that way by a former slaver who is now himself a slave?
All the same, the Doctor is disgusted by the aspect of the statement which reflects the ideas of a slaveocracy, the aspect that blames the slaves for their weakness.
“Yes,” he says, his voice dripping with sarcasm, “yes…”
And then he picks up the servant girl’s pitcher and fills the Tharil’s goblet to the brim and beyond until the red wine flows across the table like blood. Surfeit. Surplus. Gluttony. Greed. Waste. The fruit of the garden, guzzled by the masters. Haemoglobin spilt in torrents.
“This is no way to run an empire.”
Sadly, this implies that there is a good way to run an empire… but we know what he means.
But, as Rorvik says later: “Everything breaks eventually.” Biroc hasn’t brought the Doctor to the feast to gloat or boast. He’s showing him the moment when the Tharil Empire broke. The Gundan robots storm into the feasting hall. The Only People built them to face the time winds that they couldn’t traverse. They are History itself, coming for the Tharils.
The Tharils are feudal things. They are King’s Beasts. They dwell in castles, eat in feasting halls and are served by serfs. They are of the old world.
Rorvik is a thoroughly modern man. He’s a privateer in a “bulk freighter”. A pirate, but a businessman too. His world is a mercantile, technological world. The slavery he practices is one of shipping and trade. His ship carries a bulk cargo of living beings, wracked and stacked in storage bays in the hold.
The analogy isn’t perfect. In reality, the old kings didn’t become tomorrow’s chained commodities. But the trajectory of European history is right. The feudal world fell to revolution and crisis and the rise of new machines, and out of it arose the capitalist world with promises of freedom while building itself on different kinds of slavery. The warriors’ gate (which was bad enough) became the trader’s waystation, with the new system built on the ruins and wreckage of the old. And the new system, like all ‘progress’, creates only more and greater horror, more and worse wreckage.