This prolonged equilibrium was insecure. Sooner or later some more than usually widespread scourge would extinguish the species. The end came in a manner that I had not expected. The rat had accompanied man through all his adventures. Indeed, long before man appeared on the earth, the rat was well-established. And it was destined to survive him. A considerable part of the energy of the human race had always been devoted to defence against the rat. Even at the height of material civilization this ubiquitous rodent devoured much of manâ€™s food stores and infected him with plagues. With the decline of human intelligence the rat became a much more serious menace. It exacted a far heavier toll on his food stores. It multiplied extravagantly. In the last long phase of human degeneracy the rat-catcher was the most honoured profession. Only the most intelligent of men could cope with the limited but adequate native cunning of the inferior species. Century by century man held his own against this formidable enemy, but only by a narrow margin and at great cost.
Nevertheless it seems worth while to describe the main features of the new order, not only because it was characteristic of the human race for a very long time but also because of its novelty and its significance for our own age. At the outset the innate calibre of the average human being was not appreciably higher than our own. Men were on the whole no more intelligent, and had no more capacity for generosity than we have; but, owing to the world-wide victory of the will for the light and the founding of a new tradition of moral integrity and a more wholesome economy, average individuals behaved far better. They lived normally far nearer the upper limit of their capacity. Instead of being constantly degraded by their environment, they were constantly braced and humanized. The rulers of the new world were not content with this. The whole social organization was dominated by the aim of continuously raising the average human capacity far beyond its present level.
This knowledge did not seem to weigh heavily on men. Each generation faced it and accommodated themselves to it. But its presence in the background of every mind changed the temper of the race into something very different from that of the age before the forwards had made their strange discovery. Then, the prospect of limitless human advancement had bred a certain complacency; now, the expectation of endless progress was succeeded by the possibility of sudden destruction, and by the frail hope of utterly new horizons. The mental climate of the race therefore changed to an intenser appreciation of its ordinary mundane life, compact of personal joys and sorrows, and at the same time a more constant loyalty to the spirit. No doubt the ordinary man, intent on his private affairs, gave little conscious thought to the prospect of the race, which, he felt, would probably last out his time anyhow. But in his phases of contemplation the sense of fleetingness would enter deeply into his mind, so that at all times the physical features of the planet, the woods, the hills, the sea, affected him with an added poignancy. The customs of daily life, such as dressing and eating, the technique of his work, the little common acts of friendliness, the intonations of familiar voices, all these became more dear because more precarious, because balanced from day to day on the brink of the unknown. At the same time the standard of personal conduct was seemingly raised by the sense that the species as a whole had accepted the challenge to live beyond its normal nature.
For several decades the world remained divided between the Empire and the Federation. More than once in this period the Empire made ready to crush the Federation; but, as zero hour approached, unrest within the Empire itself strangely increased to such a pitch that at the critical moment serious rebellions, generally in Britain or America or China itself, made attack impossible. Throughout these decades the government of the Federation concentrated on defence and social development. For defence it relied partly on its mountains, but mainly on a great air force, built at heavy cost of luxury and comfort. Economic resources were meagre. A modest supply of oil was still produced in the western territory of the Federation. Water-power was developed to the utmost. Gold was assiduously sifted from the river-beds and mined in the mountains for the purchase of urgently needed foreign goods. Agriculture and pasture were the main occupations throughout the territory, apart from the manufacture of munitions and planes. The manner of life of the Free Peoples had perforce to be very simple, but it was adequate to health and fullness of mentality, and the standard was the same for all.
As for the rulers themselves, these sacred beings, these sacred animals, were not controlled. They were free to think and act according to their nature, which by now had degenerated into a mess of stupidity, selfishness, and malice. Their stupidity was the stupidity of beasts. Though they were free, they were powerless. Of degenerate stock, they were conditioned by upbringing to a life of fantastic luxury and desolating self-indulgence. So long as they behaved according to the orthodox pattern, they were preserved and reverenced. If any showed some sign of individuality he was at once declassed and operated upon for radio control. But this was very rare. Nearly all were content to live at ease on the fat of the land and the adulation of the masses. They were kept busy with the innumerable ceremonies and pageants without which, it was thought, the state would collapse, and in which the representative members of the ruling caste always played the central part. Those who obscurely felt the barrenness of their lives sought notoriety in the fields of sport or aeronautics. But, as the generations passed and their capacity deteriorated, they were forced to seek less exacting forms of self-display. Of these, one of the chief was the infliction of torture. The subject population, though conditioned to believe in the mystical virtue of cruelty, and though capable up to a point of relishing the spectacle of torture inflicted on strangers, were prone to lapse into squeamishness or even compassion. Not so the rulers. Unconsciously poisoned by their own futility and baseness, they were obsessed by hatred of the masses, the technicians, their own peers, and themselves. Without any radio control, therefore, they could inflict the most disgusting tortures with equanimity, and even unfeigned relish. When one of them had to perform the office of tearing out the eyes or bowels or genitals of the sacrificial victim, he did so without a qualm. To the fascinated and nauseated spectators this callousness appeared as aristocratic virtue. When humble people came to be subject to radio control of volition they often welcomed the artificial reinforcement to their ruthlessness. On the other hand when an erring member of the ruling caste had to be declassed and put to torture, he invariably showed less than the average fortitude. It never occurred to the public, while they howled with glee at his discomfiture, that the aristocrats, even before declassing, were after all no better than themselves; for the ceremony of declassing was supposed to have deprived the culprit of his native virtue.